XXXV. Darkest Hour

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Dawn broke.

The news van had moved back three times, as had the makeshift barriers, emergency workers, and various military personnel trying in vain to separate the part of the city ravaged by the attacking creatures and the rest of it.

The uniforms had changed throughout the night. At first it was the simple, everyday blue and black of police and EMT uniforms. Then, the bustling line shifted to the reds and yellows of firefighters and the dark foliage colors of military camouflage.

Then, the only ones left wore white and black protective garments. The coast guard had arrived with full Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear protective gear. None of the soldiers in the moon suits looked like they could move or fight easily, but none of them were throwing themselves at the steadily advancing slug creatures, either.

They had continued the uphill battle all night of constructing and reinforcing barricades. Their work was complicated by the sheer number of people who continued the press, trying desperately to get to the creatures, and the creatures themselves, which by and large continued moving into the city, although apparently they returned to the water when they had eaten their fill.

Jason rubbed his eyes. He'd only slept a couple of hours. He was just glad somebody had picked up Waters sometime during the night. The van was cramped enough as it was.

He pulled out his phone to look for the latest updates. He glowered at the battery indicator-- it was almost dead.

Then, after the news failed to load, he looked at his signal bars and his heart began to beat faster.

"Hey, uh, Sarah, you-- you awake?"

"Hm? Huh? Wh- yeah. What's up. Jason." She rubbed her eyes, mumbling and straightening the reclined passenger's seat she'd slept in.

"Turn on the radio," he said urgently.

She blinked hard as she oriented herself, then her hand snapped out to the radio.

She turned the knobs, searching for a station. Any station.

It played only static. And then, it played a long trill, like a heartsick computer modem.

"Adam--" Sarah said, and then something slammed into the side of the van.

The van rolled, and Jason perceived only confusion and sound for an eternal instant.

The sounds kept coming, even after the van lost momentum and rolled to a stop. He blinked blood out of his eyes as he looked up at the van's side door.

Something had torn it partway open. The screeching he had heard was the screeching of the metal as the thing peeled the metal door off the van.

Too many eyes gazed in at them, and the creature tried to push its head into the van, opening jaws lined with black, needle-sharp teeth and reaching out toward the waiting humans with a dripping tongue that danced with bioluminescent patterns.

"It's-- it's one of those things like last time!" Sarah shouted, looking around frantically for anything they could use to defend themselves.

The sound of gunfire rang out, and the thing fell off the van.

Somebody shouted, and in a few moments men in moon suits helped the news crew out of the wreckage of their vehicle.

"Thank you so much," Adam said gratefully. Dave lunged back into the back of the van, rustling around in the upturned video equipment, before crawling back out.

"Time to start rolling again, boys," Sarah said, catching her breath.

Adam pulled a face. "But my hair!"

She raised an eye brow at him, then began chuckling. He started laughing too, and so did Jason.

Dave was looking really, really intently at something.

"Hey," Jason said slapping him lightly on the arm, "Everything okay?"

Dave shook his head. He pointed at the satellite-linked phone which had apparently been able to punch through the interference.

"No. San Francisco is lost." He pointed at the screen and Jason paled.

"Wh-- we're pulled back pretty far, but... lost?" He looked up at Sarah in horror.

Dave nodded, pointing again. "Look."

There were more of the crab-dog things throughout the city. There were a few tall, spindly things that resembled smaller versions of the thing that had attacked the North Beach.

The mats of what had originally seemed to be dead jellyfish now extended up onto the land, into the streets. It pushed into homes and businesses. It filled the sewers.

Everywhere the gelatinous substance went, it blinked with those same lights. Everyone who touched it embraced it and was pulled in.

"The mayor's called it. They're evacuating the city." A man wearing protective gear and a dark helmet that obscured his face shook his head. "Sorry you guys didn't get the scoop, but the whole seaboard is lost."

Sarah slapped herself and shook her head. "We need to get rolling. Adam, run a comb across your head if you have to, but we need to get back on the air."

The news station was broadcasting footage from the attacks again, but now they kept the live feed on a delay so they could blur out the lights.

The control room still got the raw feed, undelayed.

"As we enter day two of the attack, governors in four States are evacuating coastal areas in what appears to be the largest humanitarian disaster in United States history--"

Shyamala squinted at the video footage. The cameraman was off his game today. He kept sliding the camera's focus away from the real points of interest and back toward those damned lights.

She hadn't slept. She had watched the entire attack play out in what felt like slow motion. One after another, people had died. People serving under her command died.

Civilians she was supposed to protect died.

They did it with smiles on their faces. They approached death like an old friend, with open arms.

San Francisco was lost, and it wasn't the only one. The things marched on every major city and the military was caught flat-footed.

Shyamala wanted to scream. To curse. To pick up a chair and begin smashing everything in sight.

They should have been ready.

What could have motivated the President to tell America that the threat had passed? She was afraid she knew the answer.



But surely, he wouldn't have let millions of people die just for political advantage.


She gritted her teeth. He said he had a hard counter to ASTRAL LARK. So where was it? She'd called the White House and demanded to talk with him, and he'd actually taken her call.

"Soon," he'd said.

It had been more than twenty-four hours since she had slept. She had been through worse during SEAL training, physically. Psychologically, even.

But on a different level entirely, she still didn't know how she was dealing with the moment to moment. Every time she witnessed another death, she felt the anger wash over her.

She permitted it to move over her and through her. When it had passed, she turned her inner eye to see its path. Where the anger had gone, there was something.

"Soon," she whispered to herself.

"Ma'am," Cortes said in front of her, typing rapidly.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

He looked up at her. "Ma'am, we have a perimeter breach. They've made it into this installation."

Dave took a deep breath and tried not to show his discomfort.

The thing had touched him with its tongue, just for a second.

He did his best to keep his mind on the task at hand. He did his best to listen as Adam reported on the ongoing attack.

It took everything he had not to throw himself into the rising jelly mat effect when they'd realized it was rising from the water on the east side of San Francisco too.

It was more alluring than he had known anything could be.

He was a newsman at heart, though, and there was a reason he worked with Sarah Landsburg.

It was later that afternoon, after they'd interviewed a dozen emergency workers and people fleeing the things, that KXSF stopped broadcasting entirely.

They'd gotten to the station. Dave didn't know if they'd knocked down the tower, or if they had just evacuated the building.

He fiddled with his handheld radio, trying to raise the station's emergency response coordinator on the HAM radio frequencies they were supposed to use for emergencies.

Unfortunately, the emergency frequencies were all jammed too.

He was barely listening to anything the others were saying at that point. He mumbled something about needing to take a break, and went to find a corner where he could be by himself.

"Sure, Dave. Let me know if you need anything." Sarah gave him a grateful smile and he almost stopped.

But she turned away and he knew he had to do it this way. He was a newsman, after all.

In the alley a few feet away from the other news crew, ostensibly to empty his bladder, he pulled out the handheld camera he had recovered from the van with the satellite phone.

He set it on top of a garbage can, then situated himself so that his face was in perfect focus.

"My name is David Sellers," he said, "and I've been affected by the psychoactive substance the attacking creatures release. I'm not sure if I'm just resistant, or if maybe I just got a small dose, or if maybe those crab dogs just have a different formulation from the faster-acting versions we saw," he said.

"I'm-- I have to see them. I'm going to do my best to explain it, I want you to understand, I know this is-- I know this is all because I got affected. I know. And I still have to go. That's how powerful it is. It just overrides everything else. I'm sorry."

He exhaled. "But if it's going to end like this, I'm going to make it count for something. I'm going to do my best to show you the best shot we have of these things in action. Don't let them touch you. Don't breathe their stuff. Don't look at the lights, like I'm about to do. Heh."

"Hey, everything all right over there?" Adam called over.

"Yep! Just another minute!" Dave breathed hard, closing his eyes and centering himself. He grabbed the camera and strapped it to his head. He stretched his legs for a minute.

Then he ran.

The video feeds were dwindling on the screen. Shyamala heard gunfire elsewhere in the installation.

The western seaboard was lost. Creatures marched on America from its shores scarcely impeded by the abysmal military response.

Americans marched to their deaths, lured by the creature's alien manipulation.

She couldn't take it anymore.

"Lieutenant," she said, "All squadrons, weapons free. Inform the Nevada to prepare C-HGPs, maximum volley.

"Tell them to prepare conventional and nuclear payloads to fire at my order." She was ready.

If the President wouldn't act, she would. If all that was left was to cleanse the darkness in nuclear fire? She would.

"Ma'am," a voice came behind her. "It's the White House."

She almost yelled at the poor seaman.

Instead, she strode off for one last conversation with that fool.

If he tells me to wait--

She lifted the receiver to her ear and simply said, "Yes?"

"You should be there for this, Rear Admiral. The Air Force is sending your people rendezvous coordinates now. Be there."

Then he hung up.

She didn't smash the phone down, but she did notice that she'd cracked the plastic as she hung up.

"Wh-- DAVE!" Sarah called out as their cameraman set out at a sprint.

Her legs pumped as she ran after him. The pudgy, bearded man was faster than he looked, though.

He managed to stay ahead of her all the way to the chain link fence the Coast Guard had erected.

There, she got her hands on him and they struggled.

"DAVE! You're sick, you've got to--"

"I KNOW!" He yelled back, knocking her hands away desperately. "I KNOW, okay? I've been watching the same thing you have. But it got me, okay? So-- so I-- I might as well get a good angle of it, right? I can-- maybe it can help--" His face contorted and his eyes filled with tears.

"I just-- I just have to--"

She just held him, shaking her head. "No, Dave. No. No, please, no. Come on, Dave. Let's go back to the v-- let's go back to Adam and Jason. We can still stream what we're seeing even if KXSF isn't rebroadcasting it. We have a responsibility, yeah?"

He was starting to breathe a little more normally, but his eyes still held that wild light.

"Okay," he said. "Okay."

She snorted. "You can't get away from me that easy."

Behind her, the sound of a descending chopper began to compete with the din of the ongoing disaster.

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