XXVII. SYN ACK
The room with the secure line to Washington was little more than a heavily padded, well guarded phone booth. It hadn't felt claustrophobic to her when she'd used it other times, but as she stood in it now, Shyamala felt the walls closing in.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" The man's voice was rough and contemptuous.
Shyamala kept her back straight and stared straight ahead as she spoke into the phone. "Senator, these vessels were performing routine
"Yeah, routinely stirring up trouble you, I can't emphasize this enough, do not need."
She kept her voice calm. "Senator, the fact remains that these things attacked American sailors. One of my men is MIA and presumed dead and eight others are under observation following exposure to an unknown biochemical agent. If the President or the Joint Chiefs want my resignation, I'll happily tender it, but if not, I would like to know what we're supposed to do about this and when we'll be getting the reinforcements and resources we need to combat this threat."
The man on the other end of the phone laughed, a long, unpleasant, laugh that ended in hacking coughs.
"Listen, honey, I bet you'd love to follow Daddy Mercury off stage like a good little girl. However, the President would not accept your resignation. We've got different plans for you, Rear Admiral Shya-mala."
Shyamala gritted her teeth and did her best not to slam the phone down. "Excuse me, Senator?"
"Your rank has been aligned with your current posting. Congratulations. 'Fraid we don't have time for a big ceremony, so sorry about that."
She ground out the least grateful thanks she could. "Thank you, Senator, but that doesn't answer my question."
"Yeah, you'll notice a lot of that. I don't answer to you, sweetheart. And I know you're very concerned about your little sea monsters, but believe it or not, the President has bigger fish to fry, so buckle up and figure it out with what you have. Your orders are unchanged, Rear Admiral."
Shyamala tried one more time.
"Senator, San Francisco
"America has lots of bridges, Rear Admiral. Some of them are even in swing states. Something big is coming, Omar, and if you play nice, you might just get read in."
"Senator," Shyamala said in what she believed was an admirably even voice, "these are American lives
Shyamala heard a click and stood there a while, willing herself not to smash the phone into the floor.
Full chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear precautions were in force for the sailors who had been doused in the unidentified red powder. The unfortunate men were closely packed into their vessels' sick bays.
The medical officers who tended to them wore full personal protective equipment as they monitored the exposed sailors' vital signs and kept their IVs full.
Most of them were completely fine. No pupil dilation, no slurred speech, no shortness of breath, no heart palpitation, no weakness, no unusual sweating or headaches, no skin conditions, and no aches, pains, dizziness or blurred vision.
They had joked around at first about getting caught in the "fart cloud." The joking had stopped when two of them had begun vomiting. They still hadn't stopped vomiting.
Every few minutes, one of them would erupt again in streams of thin, watery bile that tended to escape attempts to aim it.
The medical officers took all appropriate precautions, isolating the symptomatic patients and disposing of biohazards in compliance with regulation and regimented training. All protective gear that was exposed to the sailors was also considered a biohazard and was safely wrapped, sealed, and incinerated.
Throughout the hours, compliance with regulation and biohazard protocols was assiduous.
Once, in those long hours as the vessels headed to shore, one of the medical officers didn't notice when he stepped into a pool of bile. He left the sealed area, stepped across a hallway, then re-entered the sealed area.
He had left a barely visible footprint on the deck.
One sailor who swabbed that deck half an hour later was unaware of the existence of the footprint. He did not take biohazard precautions with the bucket of mop water.
He poured it down a drain. The liquid swirled down the gray water drain and was discharged overboard via diverter valves.
Invisibly, millions of viruses in the water began to amplify a genetic signal. It was carried in every direction by the currents, where more of the multitude of viruses inhabiting the ocean picked it up and repeated the broadcast.
Information flowed and a feedback loop began to close.
Dusk was fading into darkness as the van returned to the beach.
The journalists and the scientist walked out toward the shore, keeping a very respectable distance between themselves and the rolling waves of the rising tide.
"Dave," Sarah said. She didn't say anything else; he was already raising the camera.
There were more jellyfish bodies littering the shore than there had been earlier in the day.
A lot more.
"I have to say," the bespectacled Mr. Waters said, "die-offs are not uncommon, but this..."
His head swiveled. So many of the things littered the beach that they were almost a foot high in places.
The scientist fumbled and pulled out the high-powered flashlight. He clicked it on and swept it out over the piled masses that covered every visible part of the shore.
Pulses of light blinked back irregularly across the shore like fireflies with no sense of rhythm.
Or the blinking lights of a computer modem.
"Is that normal?" Adam asked.
"Not in any species of bioluminescent ocean life with which I'm familiar."
Then, the beam of light swept out into the water.
The blinking pulses echoed in the path of the beam well out into the waves.
"There's more," Sarah breathed.
"A lot more," Jason agreed.
"I think now's as good a time as any for that interview, don't you, gentlemen?" Sarah turned to Jason. "Jason, get the lights set up."
As she said that, her face was illuminated, not by the flashlight or the lighting setup Jason still had to pull out of the van, but by the headlights of a car pulling up alongside their van.
She turned, shielding her eyes and looking up at the person climbing out of the vehicle.
"Interesting time of day for somebody else to show up at the beach," she said, her eyes narrowing.
An older woman was approaching, wearing gloves and holding an empty trash bag. As she grew closer, Sarah could see that her face was drawn and her eyes were deadly serious.
"Hello," she called out. "Can we help you?"
The woman shuffled over. "Are you looking at the jellyfish? Do you know what kind they are?"
Sarah shook her head. "We were actually trying to find out about them ourselves. What brings you here, Mrs....?"
"Flores. Isabela Flores." She started to hold up her hand for a shake, but thought better of it remembering her gloves. "My son Cyrus was stung by one of them earlier today."
Adam's brow wrinkled. "I'm so sorry to hear that, Mrs. Flores, but why does that bring you here?"
"He's sick." The woman's composure began to break down. "He started having seizures within minutes of touching it, and the hospital says they do not know of any jellyfish that does this."
She held up the garbage bag. "So I'm going to get a bunch of them and get anybody to look at them who will. I tried to go back to San Pedro but they say the whole beach is closed now, a bunch of cops aren't letting anybody in."
Jason had been eying the garbage bag fearfully until it was clear it did not currently contain any of the mutated creatures.
"You really don't want to touch them, ma'am."
She rounded on him with a fierce look in her eyes. "You think I don't know this? My son may be dying. If you don't know more, don't waste my time."
"The last time we took one, it broke down into liquid shortly after." Sarah looked at the upset woman steadily.
The woman looked surprised. "We did bring one to the hospital with us but they told us it was too old. That's why I was going to get a lot of them, to get one new enough."
Waters spoke up, his face creased with concentration. "Ladies and gents, looking around at the specimens that have washed up, I don't see any sign of the advanced state of decay we saw with the samples you both took."
"So what does that mean?" Adam asked.
"I'm truly uncertain. At this point I have to wonder if there is a biological system here separate from the jellyfish causing the bioluminescence and rapid deterioration. Some kind of bacterial symbiote, perhaps, which digests the jellyfish in the absence of seawater. We could try collecting some specimens with a volume of seawater and see if they last longer than the other ones."
"It's worth a try," Sarah said. She turned to Mrs. Flores. "Mrs. Flores, I recognize that this is a difficult time for your family. I truly believe that this may represent another threat on par with the attack on the Golden Gate Bridge or worse. Will you let us come with you and speak to your son's doctors? If Mr. Waters will agree, perhaps he can share his scientific observations with them?"
"Of course," Waters interjected. "I'd be happy to assist however I can."
Mrs. Flores looked Sarah in the eye. "And who are you, again?"
Adam coughed. "I don't know if you watched KXSF's coverage of the attack on the Golden Gate Bridge, Mrs.
Her eyes widened in recognition. "You! You're that reporter! You were in that autotune video!"
Adam smiled and Sarah bit her tongue. "Yes, ma'am! We enjoyed that autotuned video quite a lot at KXSF too. Sarah here is my producer. She's the one that makes sure the news gets to your TV screen."
The older woman looked down, her fingers absently tearing holes in the garbage bag she held.
"If you can help my son, please. Help him. If it can help other people
Sarah nodded. "Mr. Waters, if you'll collect the samples, we'll get back to the hospital post-haste, then. And please, please don't accidentally touch it."
If Waters was offended by her warning, he didn't show it. "Yes, ma'am," he said with a nod, and began preparing sample containers.
Sarah hovered in by Dave to look at the footage he'd captured of the strange pulsing lights.
Jessica knocked on her mom's door and Mara jolted where she sat in front of the computer monitor.
"Sorry," Jessica said with a small smile.
"No problem," Mara said, chuckling and rubbing her neck. "Just got, uh. A little zoned in on some... work."
Jessica's small smile didn't falter. "Looks like more DNA stuff."
Mara nodded. "Just doing some analysis for a... client."
Jessica didn't say anything, then Mara slumped. "Not fooling you at all, huh?"
"Nope. Is that DNA from the alien?"
Mara grimaced and pressed keys on the keyboard to close the readout she'd been looking at.
She sighed. "I don't know if it's an alien, sweetie. It's got a lot of Earth DNA for an alien."
Mara shrugged. "I have some resources other people don't and I'm using them to look for answers the only way I know how. I don't know if anything will come of it, but I guess it's just... how I cope."
Jessica nodded seriously. "And is that healthy, Mom?"
Mara almost chuckled. "Which one of us is the mom, again? I don't know, sweetie. I know I can get..." She trailed off. "Do you think it's healthy?"
The teenager considered. "Well, it's healthier than those cigarettes you've been smoking when you go jogging."
Mara's mouth tightened. "Dang. I, uh. Thought I'd..."
Jessica shook her head. "Things suck right now, Mom. I get it. I'm worried about Dad too, and these alien things, and now my friend Gabriela's brother got stung by this weird jellyfish and.... I get it. But maybe try something other than the smoking, okay? It sucks enough right now that Dad's locked up for pissing off the President, I can't deal with my mom having lung cancer too."
Mara realized she'd been holding her breath and chuckled weakly before wiping her eyes. "That's... a hell of a good argument. When'd you go and get all grown up on me?"
Her daughter leaned in and hugged her. "Things change, Mom."
Mara hugged her daughter back.
"Well, can they cut it out?"Previous Next