XXVIII. Born Every Minute

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For all it was a makeshift laboratory, it was far from the worst-equipped or smallest Lashawna had ever worked in. Indeed, two large rooms had been swiftly converted for her use and now held enormous banks of tools for automated analysis, reinforced biohazard containment measures, dissection bays, and various ASTRAL LARK specimens-- or what remained of them.

Lashawna's best three specimens were currently frozen in liquid nitrogen. Freezing them was the only way to prevent their breakdown, but even that mainly preserved only large structures. Cells throughout the things' bodies had all ruptured simultaneously.

Sitting in one dish were the remains of a different animal. It wasn't readily apparent to look at the thin, gray liquid, but it had once been a jellyfish.

They were all specimens that seemed to resist attempts to study them.

Lashawna leaned over an open laptop and scrolled through video files before selecting one.

It was from the hours of raw footage KXSF had provided Commodore Omar. Much of what they had recorded hadn't made it onto TV, but the cameraman was apparently recording more often than not, and he had a good eye.

Lashawna watched on the screen as Sarah impressed upon the men around her the importance of recording the attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. The woman on the screen acted decisively, positioned her people, and provided footage at a level of detail that was simply in a different class from the grainy cell phone videos or security camera footage.

Lashawna had very complicated feelings about the footage. She was grateful to have the footage for study. She was exasperated that it was almost everything she had to study. She was grateful to Sarah Landsburg for producing it. She admired Sarah's dedication to telling important stories with a news camera.

And she resented Sarah just a tiny bit for being able to publicly disclose anything she discovered.

Commodore Omar entered the room and Lashawna sighed deeply, folding her hands in front of her mouth before pulling up a stool and lowering herself onto it wearily.

"Doctor Carruth," Omar said, "You wanted to see me?"

Lashawna's heart pounded, but she nodded. "Yes, Commodore--"

"Rear Admiral, now." The ghost of a grimace flickered over the serious woman's expression. "It seems they're keeping me in charge."

"Congratulations, Rear Admiral," Lashawna said slowly. She tried to get back on track. "Listen. Not that this isn't a nice lab, but I need more people. I need to be able to follow up on stuff like this jellyfish thing--"

Rear Admiral Omar was shaking her head. "Doctor, I'm sorry, but it has been made... abundantly clear to me that we are getting no additional resources, I am to read no one else in on ASTRAL LARK."

Lashawna carefully folded her hands in front of her and looked Omar in the eye. "Rear Admiral. These jellyfish, at least. They're clearly dangerous. Every hospital in the region--"

"Doctor," Omar interrupted, "I have specifically been ordered not to interfere with civilian affairs in regards to ASTRAL LARK. I'm doing everything I can in my position, but my hands are tied."

The doctor breathed in slowly, closed her eyes, and exhaled. "Rear Admiral, I believe I should tell you that, earlier tonight, I performed the only ethical action I believed I could take, and anonymously--"

"Stop," Omar said, interrupting more forcefully this time. Lashawna was a little taken aback by the fierceness in the woman's eyes.

"Listen to me, Doctor. I am doing everything in my power to fight this thing and save as many American lives as I can. Right now, that means drawing on the resources I have. That means the scientists and experts at hand, and that means you."

"This isn't even my specialty," Carruth protested. "I primarily deal with bioinformatics. I'm not a marine biologist. I'm not..." She trailed off, gesturing helplessly.

"This is no one's specialty. We are pioneers, Doctor, facing down the unknown. We can deal with it like humanity has countless times before. But as a leader, I can only do that if I have people I can trust."

Lashawna scoffed, but Omar held up a finger.

"If you were to admit to me right now that you had taken it upon yourself to act as a whistleblower and leak classified information to the press, I would be obligated to revoke your secret clearance and place you under arrest. That would leave me in rather an unfortunate situation, since you are my subject matter expert for this foe's biology, biochemical makeup, and behaviors. I need you, Doctor. Your country needs you. So with that in mind, Doctor-- and please, think before you answer-- what was it you were about to tell me?"

Lashawna's mouth tasted bitter.

"Aside from the fact that we witnessed today the first ever apparently fully biological rocket-powered drone and I'm not allowed to talk to a soul about it?" She threw up her arms.

Rear Admiral Omar's jaw moved almost imperceptibly before she answered. "I'm more concerned with what's wrong with my eighteen men exposed to an unknown agent. And what happened to the nineteenth."

Lashawna stared at her hands, then shrugged helplessly. "Get me those specimens and I'll tell you what I can."

Just outside the hospital, Sarah was speaking to her crew in a low voice. Dave, for once, wasn't carrying his usual forty thousand dollars worth of camera, but he had a cell phone in the breast pocket of his shirt.

"You're sure the communications director actually signed off on this?" Jason sounded dubious. "We're allowed to come in, talk to the doctors and film interviews, but he wants us to play undercover?"

"We can't film anybody without their permission, but he's actually pretty much giving us the run of the place for some reason. Here, look." Sarah extended her phone, and Jason skimmed through the email from the hospital communications director.

"Huh," he said after a minute. "That's... some plausible deniability he's setting himself up, there, but he's basically telling us to get digging. Who ticked this guy off? It looks like he's implying there are doctors who want to talk to us?"

"I mean, we're basically household names now," Adam said humbly.

"Or they've got something important to say and are having trouble getting it out there. Either way, we've got a story." She turned as Mr. Waters caught up carefully holding the bagged specimen containers.

"How are the jellyfish holding up?"

"Better than the last sample you took, but I think we'd better get this to the medical professionals quickly."

Sarah nodded, seeing Mrs. Flores approaching quickly. She called out to the woman. "Mrs. Flores, we've got the jellyfish sample here, but we're afraid it'll melt like the others. Can we speak to your doctors as quickly as possible?"

The shorter, older woman nodded rapidly. "I called on the way over. One of them will come and meet us in a few minutes. Follow me."

So saying, she led them into the lobby, up an elevator, and through several hallways to a part of the hospital where the rooms had observation windows and prominent plastic sheeting.

"There he is," she said, pointing through a window. The young man lying on the bed, a boy barely beginning his teen years, was sweating profusely. For a moment Sarah thought he was asleep, then he writhed and called out.

"I'm here," she said, pressing her hand to the glass. "Oh, my baby. He's so thirsty. He drinks so much water, and they are giving him an IV, but he's still so thirsty all the time."

"Mrs. Flores," a voice called out. Sarah turned to see a young-looking man with bushy eyebrows and a lab coat approaching. "These must be the people you mentioned on the phone."

Mrs. Flores made introductions all around. Sarah explained how they'd followed up on a tip about the jellyfish. Waters jumped in when she explained about the specimens they had collected.

"We just collected these minutes ago, Doctor. Since the other samples seemed to deteriorate rapidly once taken from the beach, I thought I'd try suspending the sample in sea water."

"You might have also tried putting it on some ice," the doctor said, narrowing his eyes at a sample container, "but I think you're right. If those other samples really decomposed that quickly, they're not decomposing on the beach, and this one's deterioration has been arrested... but what does that?"

The young-looking man had a phone out and was snapping pictures of the shriveled gelatinous shape. The flash went off as he took the picture, and the jellyfish barely-visibly flickered in response.

"We've got high-def footage of them piled up on the shore, too," Dave graveled.

"They react to light with bioluminescence of their own, unlike every species of bioluminescent sea life with which I am familiar," Waters put in.

The doctor grimaced. "After what happened the other week, having this many people affected by some unknown new sea creature doesn't exactly give me the warm and fuzzies."

"Doctor," Sarah jumped in, "how many other people have been affected?"

He drummed his fingers on the wall. "I can't tell you exact details about other patients, but I can tell you Cyrus here is not the first to come in, nor is he the tenth."

Mrs. Flores interrupted. "When can I go in and see him?"

The doctor shook his head sadly. "Until we know for certain what's causing this, I'd really like to take the utmost precautions, Mrs. Flores."

She gave him a long look then sat down so she could see her son.

"You go on and do your science. I'm staying with my son."

The doctor seemed amenable. "Of course, Mrs. Flores. Just flag down a nurse if you need anything at all. As for the rest of you, if you'd come with me, we can talk while I examine this?"

"Thank you, Mrs. Flores," Sarah said to the woman as they began to follow the doctor down the hallway. She nodded back, but didn't say anything.

Adam raised his eyebrows as they walked. "You said he wasn't the first, but this seems like a pretty unusual situation. When did this start?"

"Today," the doctor said. "We have three more in the ER as we speak."

Sarah, Adam, Jason, and Dave all raised their eyebrows at one another.

"That seems like cause for concern,"

Adam said.

"And yet I have been instructed that it is not, and I'm afraid I won't go too much more into that." The doctor opened a key-badge-locked door and beckoned them through.

"While I set up this sample for some tests, I'll tell you some of what I've discovered today. Millions of people are affected by jellyfish stings every year, but only a few dozen die. There are only four research groups that study jellyfish venom in the entire world. I've now spoken with all of them."

Dave was casually standing with his shoulders pointed toward the doctor. Adam stepped toward the man and asked in a clear voice, "What did they have to say, Doctor?"

The man frowned as he adjusted a microscope. "They say this isn't what jellyfish venom does. Box jellyfish can stop your heart in five minutes. They don't give you fever, chills, projectile vomiting, and persistent, all-consuming thirst."

Adam glanced at Sarah, who gave him a nod that was more of a go on! jerk of the head.

"Doctor," Adam said, "what would you say is the probability that these mutated jellyfish are in some way connected with the cataclysmic attack on San Francisco at the end of October?"

"Well, Mr. Roberts, I'm afraid I have specifically been forbidden by the administration of this hospital from answering that question."

Sarah spoke up. "Off the record?"

The man sighed, and didn't turn around when he spoke.

"Off the record? I think this is going to get a whole lot worse very quickly. Frankly, it doesn't make any sense for this many people to get stung. Over half of the people stung went out of their way to touch or pick up the jellyfish."

Sarah's eyebrows drew together. "Why? Because of the blinking effect?"

The doctor turned around then. "Young Cyrus insists that the blinking pattern reminded him of a toy or a game. He said he felt compelled to reach out and touch the thing."

"What, like some kind of mind control?" Jason spoke incredulously.

"Is a fast food commercial mind control? Are movie previews mind control? Is religion? Are video games mind control? I don't have enough information to form a hypothesis, but, off the record, my sense from the people I've talked to is that these things have adapted to make people want to pick them up."

"Wait," Jason said, "I have never once wanted to pick one of these things up, even a little bit."

"It doesn't have to work on all of the people all of the time," the doctor said. "It's the Barnum effect. It just has to work on some of the people some of the time."

Sarah's skin crawled. "Why, though? Where did this adaptation come from?"

The doctor raised his palms upward. "Your guess is as good as mine. But, I think, your guess is likely the same as mine."

"I'm supposing you don't think they were sent from the depths of Gehenna to punish the wicked."

The doctor's mouth made a wry shape, but he said nothing in response.

"They're piling up on the shore in droves," Adam said.

"It's only going to get worse," Sarah said.

Several rooms away, Cyrus vomited an enormous amount of thin, watery bile.

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