XL. Return On InvestmentPrevious Next
Jessica woke to screams.
She jerked awake, her heart pounding out of her chest, and thrashed in confusion for a few seconds before her alarm melted away into sympathy.
"Jules, honey, it's okay," she said. "It's okay, sweetie. It's just a nightmare."
"No it's not," Julia sniffled, and turned to cry into her sister's shoulder.
It had been two weeks, and despite sleeping in Jessica's bed more often than not, Julia was still having the nightmares almost every night.
"It's okay, sweetie. It's going to be okay." Jessica grimaced.
She wasn't sleeping very well either, but she was doing what she had to for her sister.
She spoke softly and stroked Julia's hair until the little girl fell asleep. Jessica quietly rolled out of bed, checked her phone, and slipped out of the room.
Down the hallway, she could see the door to her parents' room open and the light of a computer monitor glowing from within.
She padded softly down toward the open door, then knocked softly as she pushed it open. Her mother was sitting at her computer with her back to the door and headphones on.
"Mom?" She reached out and touched her mother on the shoulder.
She jerked and made a muted noise of surprise before looking up sheepishly, pulling the headphones off. She gave Jessica a weak smile. "Sorry. Didn't hear you."
"Yeah," Jessica said, reaching down for a hug. "Planning on sleeping at all?"
Mara rubbed at her face. The screen was dominated by a spreadsheet with a bunch of...
"Business records?" Jessica leaned on Mara's shoulder. "Those look like business names and addresses and dollar amounts. This isn't your thing, mom. You do science."
Mara laughed mirthlessly and unsteadily. She rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a packet of toothpicks, and started chewing on one.
"Yeah. Just. Following up on some stuff. You know it's been years since I did research personally, right? That most of what I do is management?"
Jessica squeezed Mara's arm hard, then pulled on it. "Come on. Drop it for now, whatever it is, okay? You need sleep. We all need sleep."
Mara nodded, distracted and exhausted. "Okay. Okay. I'll just... I'll just send one email. Real quick."
Jessica looked at her mom's back and blinked tears out of her eyes. Then she shook her mom's shoulders lightly.
"One email. One."
"Short one. It's... I think it could be important."
"Okay. I'm bringing Jules in here, so be done quick."
Mara nodded and typed quickly.
Sarah winced at the bad dialogue in the show she was watching.
"See, here! The bell jar-- its etheric matrix has been immobilized entirely! The phantasm has been caught within like a rabbit in a snare!"
She rolled her eyes, moving to mute the stupid thing.
"Professor Bleakly, watch out! The ph--"
She increased the speed, hunting for a specific scene. She found it and paused, then advanced a few frames at a time.
The actor on the screen, surrounded by a bunch of fake-looking steampunk laboratory equipment, was wielding a flaming sword.
She took a few screenshots then switched back to the clip of the President.
Sarah watched the clip again, pausing and advancing frame by frame at the critical moments.
She added notes to her file containing her personal annotations of the footage.
Sword prop tech identical to prop used in production of Phantasm Harvest television show?
Confirmed-- distortion from fuel fumes appears around sword prior to ignition
Coordinated misdirection? Connection with new air force chaplain corps?
She looked over at the binders still crowding her new but very tiny desk. They held the product of her handiwork from the last two weeks.
KXSF was gone. Lots of things were gone. Still, she'd been able to write her own ticket after their coverage of the destruction of San Francisco and their exclusive of the President's... "counterattack."
A seemingly endless flurry of phone calls and paperwork yielded a new company in her name. She'd been able to keep Dave, Jason, and Adam on payroll.
Payroll she now had to manage. For now. It meant they could keep reporting independently.
Except the story was no longer so straightforward as an attack by unknown entities on the west coast. Now the President was claiming that he used a holy weapon given to him by God to defeat the demonic adversaries.
And it had won him the election.
So what was the weapon, actually? Where had this new force of chaplains come from? The Peters administration was following the tried-and-true "never complain, never explain" tactic.
They'd stonewalled all questions about the mysterious counteroffensive. The entire thing was classified to the gills.
The usual conspiracist cesspits online were spinning various theories about what the weapon was and where it had come from. Theories ranged from technology recovered from a crashed alien vessel to a new Manhattan Project.
What concerned Sarah the most were the groups rallying behind the President on those same boards. The pro-Peters faction among the conspiracists had created dozens of cryptic slogans and meme formats overnight relating to the event.
Better watch out, losers. GODBLADE coming for you unless you fall in line.
Fear God or get the GODBLADE, idiats!!
Anyone notice how SOME """people""" dont seem thankful at all that Hierophant-Infinite Peters just uhhh SAVED THE WORLD??? COME ON!! #FGOGTGB!!
Sarah had done more searching for obscure memes in the last two weeks than she would have thought possible considering she'd spent most of that time building her own media company from the ground up.
A notification pinged and her eyes widened. She opened the email.
She opened an attachment and her eyes scanned through spreadsheet rows.
"All... owned by Nocter? This is a lot of shell companies."
There were electrical contractors, defense contractors, and religious charities in the bizarrely interconnected web of finances.
She picked up her phone and dialed a number.
"You doing okay? You sound hoarse."
"It is two in the morning. Not that I won't get over it and start shooting at your command, boss."
She cradled the phone between her head and shoulder and typed to find something in the spreadsheet then switched back to the original email.
"Yeah, I'm here. Just a sec. Just reading something from an email."
"By all means, I wouldn't want to interrupt."
"For one thing, I know where Peters got the sword."
"Strange woman lying in a pond was distributing them?"
She scowled even though he couldn't see it. "Too soon, Adam. Look. It's a special effects company from New Zealand, worked on that Phantasm Harvest show. And it looks like the President's company bought a controlling interest in that company recently."
"The President's-- what, the pill company?"
She shook her head. "Looks like he has tentacles in lots of pies."
"So do I call Jason and wake him up now, or?"
Sarah's mouth twisted. "No, I'm sorry for waking you up. I'll call you tomorrow. Do you think you can maybe try talking to Dave later, see if you can bring him around?"
She shrugged before she caught herself. "I don't want a different camera guy, and Jason's great but he's not Dave. I know he went through a lot but this is important."
"Preaching to the choir, boss."
"Stop calling me boss."
"Yes, boss. Talk in the morning?"
Danielle didn't have a headache, but she was starting to feel like she should have a headache.
"I can tell you understand what I'm saying and you understand what I mean. So just say hello! Just HEL then LO."
She smiled encouragingly at the now only vaguely unsettling shape of the alien that had ravaged the west coast and killed who knew how many people.
Or... were they all dead? How many of them were here, like Danielle?
She rubbed her temples. "You're so close. You keep trying to overlap all these concepts, but at least it's a little more coherent now."
"I LIKE YOUR MUSIC."
Danielle blinked. Why did that make her skin crawl more than the scratchy alien loudspeaker thing?
"Wow, uh, okay. Woo. You... sure said an English sentence. Um. Thank you. I practiced a lot."
The alien blinked back with almost-human eyes. "WHY DO YOU PRACTICE MUSIC?"
She wanted to laugh. "To get good at it. Because it's fun. It makes me feel good. It's pretty."
She pushed herself to her feet with a sigh. How long had she been here? It was hard to keep track of time here.
"Okay, have you, like, actually figured out how to talk now? Is this going to keep being a thing?"
The being nodded reasonably. "SUFFICIENT TRIALS HAVE BEEN COMPLETED FOR RUDIMENTARY COMMUNICATION. LARGE CONCEPTUAL GAPS STILL EXIST."
"Right," she said, and started walking in a random direction, beckoning for the creature to follow. "I'm getting restless, let's walk and talk."
She chuckled. "Call it a conceptual gap for now. We'll come back to it."
She shook her head. "Let's start over, okay? I'm Danielle Dahl. Hello. Who are you?"
The being walking beside her looked over with a facial expression that wasn't really one.
"I AM A LIBRARIAN."
She frowned. "Okay, that's getting less bad when you do it, but woof. So you're like, a caretaker at an alien museum kind of?"
"YES." There was a sad note in the synthetic-sounding voice. "BUT...
"Ah. That sucks. Can you fix it? Your... Library?"
"I AM TRYING.
She blinked. "Okay, huh. They're... suspended? And you can't wake them up until you fix it?"
"Cool. Well, sounds like with everything the Library has in it, you basically have what you need to, uh, do whatever you did to me to... the rest of the humans. Are you going to, uh, wipe us out? Make room for your people, or something?"
Danielle felt strange.
"That's... good? 'Cause, I'm doing pretty excellent at not freaking out, here, but I think most people would freak the hell out."
"YES. THEY DO."
Danielle focused on breathing and not thinking about that for a minute. She especially focused on not thinking about how she wasn't technically breathing.
"Okay, uh. Why are you holding off on taking over the world, then? Is it 'cause you liked my music?"
Her heart sank. "Okay, jeez. I'm the first person you've talked to, though, right?"
She smiled a little. First contact! Take that, Cochrane. "Speaking of, how long have you been on this planet? Since a couple of weeks ago, or?"
"I ARRIVED NINE TENTHS OF A SPIN AGO."
Danielle blinked a little as the unit of time converted itself in her mind. It was as convenient as it was disconcerting.
"How many mill-- you were here before humans evolved?!"
"Gah. You just... woke up? After sleeping underwater for a gazillion years?"
"THERE WERE UNNATURAL SEISMIC DISTURBANCES."
Danielle decided to let that one slide for now. "So, if it's not talking to me that changed your mind... what did?"
"I WAS UNAWARE OF YOUR SENTIENCE AT THE TIME I WOUND DOWN SURFACE OPERATIONS."
Danielle blinked. "You were? Then why did you stop?"
"MY PEOPLE ARE DRIVEN BY KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING. IT IS ALL WE HAVE STRIVEN FOR. BUT ONE OF MY PEOPLE DISCOVERED KNOWLEDGE THAT DESTROYED US. I HAVE KEPT MY MIND CLEAN OF ITS TAINT. MOSTLY. BUT NOW THE TRAITOR FOUND ME SOMEHOW.
"THEY HAVE BEGUN TO SPREAD THE MESSAGE ON THIS WORLD. SOON THERE WILL BE NO PART OF ME THAT DOES NOT KNOW THE KILLING TRUTH.
"AND THEN MY PEOPLE WILL BE LOST FOREVER."
Danielle's jaw dropped. "But that's horrible! That's... all your people?"
"WE DO NOT DIFFER SO MUCH FROM INDIVIDUAL TO INDIVIDUAL AS YOUR PEOPLE. WE LIVE MUCH LONGER AND WE TRUST THE LIBRARY IN ALL THINGS. I ONLY SURVIVED BECAUSE OF AN ACCIDENT."
As the being spoke, the picture entered Danielle's mind. She saw the vessels around the black hole fling themselves into oblivion.
"Why would they do that?!" She blinked at the foreign memory. "That's.. just because this traitor person said something?"
"I CANNOT KNOW OR I WILL DIE AND MY PEOPLE WILL DIE WITH ME."
Danielle shook her head. "There has to be something you can do!"
She gestured around at their surroundings, which were increasingly decorated with examples they had both conjured as they built up a shared conceptual space.
"The Library can do-- this. And... I'm hopeful it can maybe, I don't know, put me back in a body later, if you're feeling generous?"
"THE EXPENDITURE WOULD BE SIGNIFICANT, BUT IT COULD BE DONE. BUT WE WILL BE DEAD FIRST."
Danielle shook her hands in frustration. "Come on, don't be so defeatist! You built... monsters! Huge monsters that tore down bridges and buildings and stuff! You survived millions of years here! Hey, here. If you can't hear whatever the traitor has to say, why don't you let me give it a listen? Maybe I can figure out a way to talk to you about it without you going all, you know." She made clawlike hand motions.
"IT IS NOT A CONCEPT CREATED BY A HUMAN MIND IN A HUMAN LANGUAGE. YOU WOULD NOT BEGIN TO COMPREHEND IT OR ITS IMPLICATIONS."
She waved her arms excitedly. "Hey, yeah! Exactly! No need to worry that I'll bug out on you. I can just get the broad strokes and we can figure out a way to deal with it together. What do you say?"
The inhuman humanoid looked at her blankly for a moment before disappearing with a blip.
"Whoa, what? What did I say?" Danielle looked around.
The sand under her toes became realer. The smell of the sea and the warmth of the breeze hit her like she'd just stepped out of an air conditioned car.
"Whoa, okay, suddenly very awake, everything looks even realer than before. Still no alien buddy guy WHOA HEY HI."
She stumbled backward.
The humanoid was gone, replaced by an octopus creature with too many eyes and extra tendrils.
HELLO, DANIELLE DAHL.
"Uh, hi again? Is that... what you really look like?"
FOR NOW, YES. DANIELLE DAHL, YOU BUILT A COMMUNICATION PROTOCOL AND SUCCESSFULLY COMMUNICATED WITH ONE OF MY AUTOMATED PROCESSES. YOU ARE SENTIENT AND HAVE YOUR OWN INDEPENDENT THREAD OF INQUIRY. CORRECT?
"Um. Thread of inquiry? I just asked the other... the automated process if I could help with the traitor's message. If I could read it or something? Maybe run it through a translator and let me have a go?"
The creature radiated... approval?
THIS WILL NOT BE AN EASY TASK, DANIELLE DAHL. THIS ENVIRONMENT WAS NEVER MEANT FOR HUMAN MINDS. THE THINGS YOU WILL NEED TO LEARN ARE NOT ROOTED IN HUMAN CONCEPTS.
Danielle took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm willing to give it a shot. Especially if you, um, don't kill any more humans? And maybe let those of us you have in here... have our bodies back?"
The creature radiated caution.
I WILL PROTECT AND PROMOTE YOUR THREAD OF INQUIRY WHILE I AM ALIVE. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE TRAITOR WILL DO TO YOUR PEOPLE WHEN I AM GONE.
THE FATES OF TWO CIVILIZATIONS HANG IN THE BALANCE.
"All right," she said. "No pressure."
I'm lonely over in the /r/OCTO subreddit. Come say hi!
Thank you for reading forty chapters of OCTO!Previous Next