XXXIII. The Bells

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The big screens in the control room showed the trickle of people stumbling down the streets toward the things, dodging around emergency workers or in some cases even attacking them to get past.

It wasn't just the one news crew anymore. The views on the screens were from three different major metropolitan areas on the west coast.

On all of them, dozens of people stumbled, walked, or ran toward their deaths. Somehow, that wasn't the worst part.

The worst part was their faces in the last moments, when they were visible.

Every one looked blissful.

More of them emerged onto the streets as Shyamala watched. She stood straight, hands behind her back.

"Have there been any urgent calls from the Joint Chiefs, the White House or the Air Force?"

Cortes had the information at his fingertips. "No, ma'am."

Shyamala's mouth tightened. "Then when?"

The things were still advancing toward the barricades. Sarah started the engine and threw the van into reverse. With one hand on the wheel, she turned to look out the back window.

"Cut us off," she said into the camera. "Dave, keep rolling, but Mr. Godinez, take us off the air. Now."

Adam looked at her like she'd grown a second head. Or-- he looked at her like Sarah Landsburg had just told the station to cut them off. "This-- what are you doing?"

She pointed. "Look. Look how the people are acting."

It was visible in every one of the people flocking to their deaths. There was a moment for each when their entire affect changed.

When they saw the lights, they stiffened, then began running toward it.

"I think the people who got exposed to that stuff... when they see those lights, it's setting them off. It's causing... that."

Adam paled. "Then-- our broadcast--"

"Yeah," Sarah said heavily. "Some of these people might be here because of us."

She turned to the graduate student wedged between the two newsmen. "What do you say, science man?"

Waters stuttered. "I-- as far as sea life goes, it's not an unknown hunting strategy. Anglerfish and other predators use bioluminescent lures. But... this? Humans? How would something like that have evolved?"

"What if it didn't?" Sarah fixed Waters with her gaze. "Could this be some kind of engineered bioweapon?"

He shook his head wryly. "That sounds like science fiction to me, but I don't have a good explanation. I need more data."

"Thank you," Lashawna said. KXSF was still making the live feed available to them, although they had taken it off the air as the producer had requested.

She chewed at a fingernail, her brow furrowed. Then she looked up at Rear Admiral Omar sharply.

"The producer has the right idea. Everybody needs to stop broadcasting images of these things."

The rear admiral nodded to the lieutenant seated in front of her. "Inform the news stations, social media outlets, and the governor's offices of the affected States."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied smartly.

Agatha held Danielle as they sat together, watching a video of a merrily burning fire in a nice fireplace.

She bit her tongue, afraid to give her worries voice.

I don't want to lose you.

I don't know what's happening.

I want to turn on the news to see what the hell is happening but I can't deal with it right now.

Is there a sea monster crashing toward us right now?

She held her silence and kissed Danielle on the forehead. She was warm.

Danielle jerked suddenly and writhed under the blanket. Agatha sat up, alarmed.

"What is it?"

Danielle fell off the couch, rolled, and staggered over to the light switch. She flicked it several times.

The lights turned on, then off, then on, then off, the way light switches normally behave.

Danielle's face crumpled and she sank down to the ground.

"What? What is it?" Agatha rushed over to put her arms around Danielle as she started sobbing softly.

"I-- I just-- with all the nightmares, I just-- I was just hoping it was all a nightmare." She hiccuped.

"So you turned the lights on and off?"

"Light switches... don't work in dreams," Danielle said between sobs.







I was quite pleased with the progress my harvesters were making with this initial deployment. I committed additional resources to the harvest program.

If their harvest continued at this rate, the problem of the symbiotes would be resolved far more quickly and easily than I had originally feared.

The hypersonic missile that had attacked my excavator was the most dangerous defense the symbiotes had used against me; there was no sign of the weapon-- or whatever it was-- which had interrupted my recovery of the Library with its noisy reverberations in my seismic sense.

Thus far, none of my harvesters had drawn any of the hypersonic missiles.

I was intensely curious what flukes of evolution had created these marvelous, diverse, unpredictable creatures, but it was still not my real top priority. Much as I would like to continue studying them, understanding them took secondary priority to completing my repairs of the Library so I could begin launching the craft that would bear my people to the stars and salvation.

If I could subvert the symbiotes' instinctive mechanisms, I could use them as the basis for a new sensor network on the land.

I could build new drones based on their body plans. I could redirect their copious resources toward my own ends.

Much as it would be a shame to end such a fascinating biological era, it was simply too important to get back to cracking the payload.

One species' distinctiveness would be lost, but that was a small cost to pay. I was rescuing an entire civilization, after all.

I reviewed the automated processes that continued to struggle to provide inputs that would allow meaningful study of the symbiotes' ghosts.

Some were tantalizingly close. Simulated autonomic reactions no longer showed immediate panic-- usually.



Hello? Is anyone there? Hello? I can't see. Please, I can't see. Hello? Hello!?

The process reset the ghost's simulated brain state.


Wh-- huh? What is that thing, some kind of dog? Lady, you have a real weird-- lady?

Uh... is your face--

That process reset too.

I considered the entire enterprise with some resignation. I had a solid enough grasp of those basic instinctive behaviors that were shared by the symbiotes I had processed thus far.

There was a sheerly implausible preponderance of the complex learned behaviors. I itched to research them more deeply, but elected not to increase the resources committed to untangling the symbiote ghosts.

If I could clear the species off the landmasses, it wouldn't matter whether I immediately understood every one of their behaviors.

I sent out biochemical and radio signals, and began my campaign above water in earnest.

"Mollusk Five, lost the bubble there. I'm hit and losing altitude."

"Roger that. Pull the loud handle, Mollusk Five."

The man's voice was strained. "Count me in the Martin-Baker Fan Club. Mollusk Five, punching out."

On one of the screens showing footage from a fighter nose camera, the distressed jet fighter's canopy popped explosively. In moments, the ejector seat's parachute and flashing lights popped into view.

"Cover his descent," Shyamala said. "I don't want this thing taking any more of our people."

"Aye, ma'am," the Lieutenant said, relaying the order.

On another screen, the smoking jet fighter descended toward an empty beach.

"There goes a hundred thirty million dollars worth of hardware," Doctor Carruth murmured. "If I had--"

Shyamala ignored her, watching the ejector seat intently.

Not again.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jason said, reaching across Waters to tap Dave. "One of the jet fighters is going down. I think the pilot ejected."

"Absolutely no angle from in here," Dave complained.

"Nobody's getting out of the van," Sarah said. "Adam, report it for the microphones. Dave, keep getting footage of the people."

"Okay. Uh." Adam cleared his throat. "We're currently witnessing multiple events-- there is an ongoing aerial battle between the Navy jet fighters and the, uh jet fighters of unknown design in addition to the ongoing influx of people who seem to be somehow hypnotically controlled. Ah-- it, it appears that several of the attacking craft have congregated in the air around the ejection seat--"

Overhead, the things had swooped in and were moving in to ensnare the falling ejector seat. Craning his neck to see up through the windshield, Adam narrowed his eyes to see. It was dark, but the clouds overhead were illuminated by the lights of the city, and he could see the flying things in silhouette.

"It-- yes! The Navy jets are coming in-- it looks like they've shot down one of the things attacking the ejected pilot! The others are moving off! He's okay!"

Sarah craned her neck too. She chewed her lip as she watched the slow descent of the ejector seat. "Did you see all that smoke when they hit that thing?"

Adam looked over and shook his head. "Not sure, it's really dark. But-- he's coming this way!"

"Bravo Zulu, Mollusk Squadron," Shyamala spoke into the hand receiver. She felt relief but made an effort not to let her guard down.

"Let's not go through too many more spares. Stay frosty."

"Roger that, Omicron Actual," a voice crackled back.

"Ma'am," Lieutenant Cortes said, and pointed at the screen showing the KXSF feed.

The ejector seat had made a safe landing a few dozen meters from the news crew's van. The pilot unstrapped himself and stumbled away from the ejector seat, looking around.

His eyes locked on the creature undulating slowly up the hill.

He saw the lights emanating from within its head. He watched for long moments.

He started walking toward it.

"What are you doing, Mollusk Five?" Shyamala breathed the words.

"What is he doing?" Adam balled his hands into fists on the dashboard.

"He must have been exposed. While he was in the air," Sarah said. "This-- they need to stop this. I don't know how, but they need to stop this. Somehow."

Shyamala heard Sarah's words over the live feed and shook her head. She knew the president wouldn't order a nuclear strike. He wouldn't authorize cruise missiles, or even conventional bombing of the land-based forms.

He had actually joined the call with the senator and told her on the phone that he had a new weapons capability developed by the Air Force.

He told her that the weapons system code named ASTRAL DOVE would present a true hard counter that would decisively end the threat of ASTRAL LARK.

He also told her that it was critical to wait for the right moment.

Her fists clenched. She didn't have any idea what would be a true hard counter to that.

And she desperately wanted to know how many more had to die before it was the right moment.

"Ma'am... Mollusk Five appears to have--"

"I see it, Lieutenant." Shyamala's voice was flat.

She felt a pang as another person serving under her command died before her eyes.

"Can-- can we just watch some videos, or something? Just... anything?" Danielle was shivering under the blanket. There was a sheen of sweat on her forehead.

"Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. Anything you want. Anything at all, okay?" Agatha spoke a little too quickly, belying her forced calm and reassurance. She clicked controls to switch to a video site, and typed something inane into the search bar.

In moments, tiny kittens chirped on the screen. "Aw," Danielle said, involuntarily. Alan's head rose a fraction at the sounds from the screen, then he settled in again with his head resting on Danielle's arm. She started to adjust to pet him, but he reached out and held her arm in place with his paws and started determinedly cleaning the back of her hand with his tongue.

Agatha suppressed a pang of unease at the sight. All that stuff was off Danielle. She was going to be fine. Alan was going to be fine.

She adjusted so she could pet the cat with one hand, and kept one eye on Danielle.

Danielle returned her look with a small smile. A little color had returned to her cheeks. Maybe she really was getting better.

The video of the kittens ended, and the view on the screen was replaced with a grid of animated clips for suggested videos.

One of the videos in the grid was a clip from a very recent news broadcast. It was only a few pixels in size, but in that tiny space, multicolored lights flashed.

Danielle stiffened. "Pretty," she breathed.

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