XXXI. Directive

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Danielle adjusted the keyboard synth and started over, playing at a tempo suitable for a dirge.

Agatha matched her tempo, playing the bass line's sing-song opening notes.

"Ma'am!" Lieutenant Cortes called out.

Shyamala strode over. "Report."

The young man typed quickly and his monitor changed to show the live feed from KXSF. It was that same reporter, outside late at night again.

Cortes hit another key and the live audio came from his workstation's speakers.

"--the KXSF Eye in the Sky now coming down for a low pass-- my producer has requested that they illuminate the water with their floodlights, and we believe-- ah."

The camera view zoomed past the reporter's shoulder and focused on a helicopter sweeping across the water in a low pass.

The helicopter's floodlight shone across the water, and everywhere the massive beam swept, a riot of multicolored lights blinked a frenzied reply.

"We're standing well back from the shoreline at this point; as you can see, this "jelly mat" effect has spread and is actually climbing up onto the shore at an alarming rate. KXSF wishes to urge our viewers, do not touch any of these unknown creatures and do not allow children or pets to play near them. While their colorful natural phosphorescence and unusual blinking patterns make them uniquely alluring, their stings may be deadly. I'm here with Mr. Geoffrey Waters, a researcher at--"

Shyamala spoke sharply. "Do you believe this is an extension of the effect your deep learning algorithm detected from the composite sonar streams?"

"Not only that, ma'am," he said, "according to this report, emergency rooms visits for jellyfish stings have been rising steadily over the last eight hours. The reported symptoms are consistent with those sailors with adverse reactions to the ASTRAL LARK exposure event. Fever, extreme thirst, bouts of irrational rage, and projectile vomiting."

She stared at the screen. "Only some of the affected sailors displayed symptoms."


She shook her head. "How many are getting stung but are asymptomatic? It's making its move. We have to respond."

He looked at his screen, where the camera was pushed in close on the things crawling up from the water. They were visibly moving now, the shapeless mass reaching up and snaring itself around seashells, driftwood, and bits of scrub.

"But ma'am... how do we respond to that?"

He turned, but she was already striding away.

The receiver organs were in place. My viral sense, though slow, sent back rich information that I constantly used to tune and adjust the rolling deployment.

In places, the retroviruses that acted as my sense receptors lost contact with the larger network and used the mechanisms I had designed into them to send back dumps of their status and their error reports.

Liquids seeped out of organisms and found their way to the parts of the ocean I could taste. I adapted my designs in response and sent them out to my growing minifactories.

Even minor experimentation with bioluminescence had yielded a plethora of new information about the symbiotes. I had rapidly improved my lures' designs; I could taste their spreading influence.

It was time to send in my new symbiote harvesters.

Danielle started to play faster, switching virtual instruments on the fly.

Agatha's bass line grew more complex as the notes came faster.

"Sarah," Dave called out.

Out in the dark water, beyond the still-flashing multicolored lights, something long and thin had arisen and swayed in the air.

Sarah looked out at the shape as another one lifted up into the air beside it, the shadowy shapes barely visible against the clouds illuminated by the city's lights.

"You want to call in the Coast Guard in over some jellyfish? Look--"

"Sir," Shyamala said, "I believe this threat may well warrant nuclear response."

The senator was uncharacteristically silent for a beat.

"Well then," he said finally, "I do believe it's finally time to read you in on ASTRAL DOVE."

Lieutenant Cortes's fingers flew across the keyboard, but he kept watching the newscaster's live video out of the corner of one eye.

He looked back and forth from the composite sonar readouts to the screen and saw the shapes begin to emerge.

It was difficult to see them. Whatever they were, they weren't coming out of the water yet.

He still shouted an order at a seaman to inform the rear admiral now.

"What is it doing?" Jason squinted out at the rising shapes.

Water rose in plumes around the fleshy stalks.

"Get in the van," Sarah said, interrupting Adam's broadcast. She raised her voice. "Get in the van. Everybody get in the van NOW!"

My harvesters began seeding the areas I'd designated.

"The lighting rig--" Jason started to protest, but Sarah gave him a look that propelled him bodily into the van.

The first projectile hit the beach just as Adam leapt into the driver's seat and slammed the door.

The reporter on the monitor kept reporting even as he threw the van in reverse and tore away from the beach. "It appears that the creature that attacked in late October has returned--"

He broke off, mumbling under his breath as he turned a corner so fast the van rocked a little. He glanced back at the cameraman in the back seat before continuing.

"It appears to be launching some kind of projectiles out of the water and onto the shore. They're--" he swerved as one hit the road in front of the van. It splashed messily, a thin green liquid that created a huge stain on the road and spattered droplets onto the van's windshield.

Sarah reached out and switched the air conditioner to 'recirculating air' mode.

Adam ran the windshield wipers.

Jason watched fearfully, half expecting the rubber on the windshield wipers to begin smoking.

They didn't, but more of the projectiles soared overhead and into populated areas.

Shyamala came back into the control room with a strange look on her face, but it was replaced by her usual look of impassivity after a few seconds.

"Lieutenant," she said, "scramble fighters and order the Nevada to plot a firing solution."

"Yes, ma'am," the younger officer acknowledged.

"The Nevada is to stand by. Order fighters not to engage. They will maintain a minimum distance of two klicks."

She gritted her teeth.

Dave swiveled the camera around. Some of the things were moving up onto shore, emerging from the water.

They were the size of tractor trailers. Their bodies had the same formlessness to them as the other ASTRAL LARK forms, but all in all, this one was reminiscent in shape to--

"Some kind of giant sea slug?" Jason couldn't take his eyes off the things.

"It closely resembles the nudibranch, actually, except for color and size," Waters said beside him.

They were beautiful, in a horrible way. Their enormous bodies were covered in almost floral elaborations. Every few feet along their exteriors, there were bulbs like the ones they had launched, or depressions where they had previously been.

Their movements were undulating and irregular as they made their way up out of the water.

Long feelers swept out, touching and tasting the surface ahead before its form moved ahead in smooth waves.

Engrossed in capturing the shot, Dave called out, "Is there any way we can get a better angle?"

As he said it, Sarah reached back from the shotgun seat to tap his knee. "Is that a good enough angle?"

Ahead of the van, more of the things were pulling themselves up onto the road.

Adam slammed on the brakes, looking ahead, then looking back.

Waters, crammed between Dave and Jason, started mumbling excitedly. "--another entirely undiscovered species of marine megafauna--"

"I apologize to our viewers-- Sarah, are we still live?-- uh, we're seeing what appears to be a massive invasion by giant sea creatures similar to the one that attacked San Francisco at the end of last month--"

A car alarm began going off outside just as Danielle finished the song. On its own, that wasn't unusual, but it happened again a few seconds later.

"Huh. Probably some kids messing with parked cars or something." Agatha unconvincingly tried to sound casual.

Then, one after another, both their phones received an emergency notification.

Cars had stopped in the road ahead of the van. Some people had gotten out of their cars to stare at the enormous things crawling up onto the land.

These creatures were much smaller than the one that had attacked the bridge, and seemed to move much more slowly. The gawkers held up cell phones and spoke excitedly to one another.

The things were far enough away that they didn't seem to be a threat.

Adam honked the van's horn repeatedly, loud and long. All it earned him was a few dirty looks.

"GET OUT OF TH-- Ladies and gentlemen, we at KXSF cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your distance from these creatures. They are unknown to science and may be capable of anything."

"Not literally anything," mumbled the graduate student. Jason gave him a withering look.

"Oh, God. Look." Sarah pointed.

One of the projectiles had landed within a few feet of two of the people rubbernecking and they had been splattered with the green substance.

After a few seconds of fearful disgust, the two spoke to each other then seemed to brighten and laugh as they realized all that had happened was that they had been slimed.

Overhead, something small and dark, unadorned by electrical lights, screamed through the air.

It was quickly followed by several others.

One after another, the phones in the vehicle buzzed and wailed with emergency alerts.

"It's not just launching projectiles, ma'am-- it appears to be launching the flying drones as well."

Shyamala spoke quickly and decisively. "All squadrons will engage with aerial hostiles at will. Do not extend beyond the range of the rest of the squadron. If somebody picks up a tail, I want it shot down. Do not engage over the water. I don't want any more repeats of last time."

The van pulled up alongside the goo-spattered people and Sarah rolled her window down an inch.

"Excuse me! You should really be indoors!

"What?" The young man was grinning goofily. Sarah held up her phone.

"This is serious! This is like the things that took out the bridge! You should get indoors and get that stuff off your skin!"

The young man laughed again, a little more wildly. "You're funny, lady. Hey, are you on the news? What are you, a weather girl? Tell me when it's gonna rain!"

He and his partner laughed. Sarah narrowed her eyes and turned to Adam, speaking in a low voice. "See, I don't know if they're always like this, or if that stuff is making them act weird."

"Excuse me," Adam called out. He waved across Sarah at them and gave them a mirthless smile. "You really should--"

"HEY!" The young man was agitated now, and pounded a fist on the side of the van. "Y-- you got any water? God. It's so hot. I just... I think I need to cool off..."

He stumbled off the road in the direction of the water.

"I'm leaning toward that stuff is affecting him," Jason volunteered.

Sarah gave him a scathing look, mouthing WE'RE STILL LIVE.

The sound of gunfire rang out in the skies above and a jet fighter swooped past, firing at one of the invisibly dark and fast things that tore through the sky.

Sarah made some rapid hand motions and Adam did his best under the circumstances.

"It appears that the Navy is once again engaging with the attacking creatures; my producer is informing me that we're going to seek out a better angle before returning to you live. In the meantime I'll reiterate, stay in your homes and stay away from the beaches. Do not touch, pick up, or allow yourself to be exposed to any unknown creature or excretion. It appears the liquid from the projectiles may have dangerous psychoactive properties. This is Adam Roberts, reporting for KXSF news."

Danielle opened the door and peeked outside. She didn't see anything.

She heard something overhead, though. It rocketed past before she could see what it was.

She looked up, searching the sky, and blinked as something got on her face and in her eyes.

She wiped her face with her hand, and saw traces of rust-colored dust.

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