XLIII. Off The Grid

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...WHICH, AS YOU CAN SEE HERE, CLEARLY SHOWS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE STRONG NUCLEAR FORCE AND--

Danielle's head felt ready to burst.

"Stop! I can't take this anymore! None of this goes anywhere! It's all just layers and layers of meaningless facts! How can you stand this?"

Danielle screwed her eyes shut and tried to slow her rapidly-beating heart.

A rapidly-beating heart which, she knew, was not currently physically present.

"I'm just, I just... this is all... I can't do this! This is too much! There's too much to memorize, I can't begin to wrap my head around this. This... isn't how human brains are supposed to work! We've been doing this for days!"

The octopoid creature gave off a pensive aura.

IT IS TRUE THAT YOUR ANCESTRAL ENVIRONMENT DID NOT CONTAIN OBSTACLES SUCH AS THESE, DANIELLE DAHL. HOWEVER, YOU HAVE ADAPTED WELL TO NOVEL CIRCUMSTANCES, AS YOUR PEOPLE HAVE DONE BEFORE. YOU HAVE ALREADY BECOME THE MOST KNOWLEDGEABLE HUMAN IN EXISTENCE IN REGARDS TO THE CULTURE OF THE LIBRARY.

Danielle just felt her absent heart beating and shook her head violently.

"I feel sick. I'm-- I'm trapped here, and I want out. I need to get out. I need to hug my wife and my cat, I want to go home..."

Danielle cupped her face in her hands and wept.

Time passed.

IS YOUR EMOTIONAL REACTION COMPLETE?

Danielle blinked. "What?"

YOU WERE EXPERIENCING AN EXTREME EMOTIONAL REACTION. I THOUGHT IT BEST TO ALLOW THE EMOTIONAL RELEASE TO COMPLETE.

She shook her head. "Did you... just try to fast forward past my panic attack?"

DID I NOT FAST FORWARD FAR ENOUGH?

Danielle sighed. "I'm... I'll be okay. But is there any way we can get a picture of what's happening out in the world right now? I'm feeling weirdly claustrophobic."

YOU MAY SIMULATE A LARGER SPACE IF THIS IS INSUFFICIENT FOR YOUR NEEDS.

"No, no. I just... I just need to hear another human voice. Some normality. Can you pick up TV signals or something?"

AH-- THE OPTICAL REBROADCAST OF RADIO WAVES RECONSTITUTED INTO IMAGES... AH. YES.

A floating pane appeared. Within it, a familiar news reporter was speaking into the camera. He was speaking urgently.

Then he turned, saw something, paled, and the cameraman turned to point through the broken car window in the same direction.

"Wait," Danielle said, "what did he just say? Go back!"

The image on the floating screen rewound.




Adam adjusted his coat. "How did you find this guy again? What's his name again? Hendricks?"

"Henderson. Gustav Henderson. I acquired some more personnel records. Gustav Henderson worked in next-gen wireless design, and he's a pretty big name. His name's on a bunch of patents. He left right after Nocter got involved."

Jason looked at her askance. "Do I wanna know how you got those personnel records?"

"I'd answer that question, but it looks like somebody's gotta open the gate. Right back."

She opened the door, slid out of the shotgun seat, and stepped in front of their rental car to open the somewhat dilapidated gate.

"Man, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up," Jason said as Sarah got back in the car. "You're positive this is the place? I thought this guy was a big deal."

Sarah nodded. "Yep, this is definitely it. He didn't make as much as you'd think."

Dave grunted. "Maybe it's an old family place."

"All right," Jason said, "but why did we have to come out here to his creepy old house?"

Sarah replied, "He said he'd interview, but didn't want to say anything over the phone. He also asked we turn off our phones and not broadcast anything live."

"Paranoid much?"

Adam raised his eyebrows. "It's not paranoia if really are out to get you."

"Or, he's just a classic mad genius, and he left because his psychological condition was worsening, not any connection to the President's conspiracy cult."

"Guess we're going to find out," Sarah said. "All right, phones off. Leave 'em in the car. Let's go get some answers."

They piled out of the rental car and approached the house.

It was a big house, and there was a good amount of land around it, but neither the house nor the landscape were well-kept. The paint was peeling from the house, and the grass was tall and interspersed with weeds.

The garage door stood open, revealing a disorganized mess of tools and a muscle car that looked better kept than anything else on the property.

Dave was already grabbing B-roll of the house and the open garage. Sarah stopped for a moment, frowning, then knocked on the front door.

Wind blew, and a horn honked in the distance. There was no other reply.

"You're positive he was expecting us?"

Sarah knocked again, louder and more insistent.

Silence.

She looked at Dave.

"Lockpicks?"

Dave nodded and smoothly handed off the camera to Jason, who spluttered.

"Wait, really? We're jumping straight to breaking in?"

"He was supposed to be expecting us and he's paranoid, remember?" Sarah stepped out of Dave's way. "So why is his garage door open like that? He hasn't gone anywhere, his car is still there. There's other stuff. His mailbox is so full it won't close."

Jason shook his head. "It's going to be so embarrassing when it turns out he was just in the shower."

"Showering at two in the afternoon?"

He gave an exaggerated shrug. "He has a big interview coming up, maybe he just wants to be fresh?"

"Front door's no good," Dave said. "Trying the door in the garage."

"Meantime, Jason, Adam, let's get a quick intro. We're here to interview Dr. Gustav Henderson, well known inventor and engineer. He left Positron Mobile shortly after--"

"Gimme the camera," Dave called.

"Wh--" Jason blinked as Dave blurred across the garage, somehow stepping carefully around a rusty lawnmower and over several cans of paint, and took the camera from Jason.

"What do we got?" Sarah strode after Dave and the others followed into the house.

"Whoa," Adam said as he stepped through the door.

"Okay, point in the 'disturbed genius' column," Sarah said.

It had once been a living room of a comfortable size. Now, it was stacked high with newspapers and the walls were filled with clippings, notes, printouts, and connections denoted with red string.

"This is a lot," Jason said.

"Yeah, is this guy gonna jump out at us and start yelling about lizard people?" Adam looked around nervously.

"C'mon," Sarah said. "Let Dave cover the, ah... evidence board. Let's see if we can find-- oh."

She stopped short. Through the door to the kitchen, two feet were visible on the ground.

"Dr. Henderson?" Sarah called out, stepping cautiously into the kitchen.

"Sarah." Adam's voice was tinged with caution.

She stepped forward and looked down at the man.

He was very dead.

His skin was mottled and purple. Vomit covered the front of his old-fashioned vest.

Sarah's skin crawled. She saw something clutched in the dead man's hand-- a note. She bent and took it, squinting at the shaky handwriting.

She stiffened, turned, and called to the others.

"Jason, Adam, get out of here now. Dave, come get a shot of this guy then we're bugging out."

The newsmen moved obediently.

"Hm," Dave said, as the others made for the garage door.

"I just want the shot so we can confirm this is what I think it is," she said. "You might not want to get any X-rays this year."

"Wasn't planning on having kids anyway," he muttered. "Sorry to intrude, Doctor."

As Sarah and Dave exited the garage, Jason looked up at her, covering his mouth. "Wh-- what happened to him? What is it?"

"What do you think it is?" Sarah growled. She held up the note.

Adam closed his eyes. "It's Godblade. Of course it is. They're using it on people now. Tying up loose ends."

"And they recently targeted this location. Let's be elsewhere, yes? I'm driving."

They piled into the car, quickly reclaiming their phones.

Sarah looked at Dave sharply. "We need more eyes, but we can't go public with everything yet. How fast can you have people you trust reviewing that footage?"

Dave fiddled with his phone for a moment. "Looks like there's a couple dozen people online on my server. I can have some of the better ones helping us out shortly."

"Only people you trust implicitly," Sarah said. "This isn't just about the exclusive, we have no idea wh--"

"Look!" Jason pointed.

Three unmarked vans had pulled up along the road, stopping just short of Henderson's gated driveway.

"Okay, new plan," Sarah said. "Dave, how fast can you start livestreaming?"

Dave punched two buttons and muttered something to Jason before nodding to her.

"Ready on your signal."

"All right," she breathed. "Here's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take us through the gate."

"If I'm understanding you correctly, we're not opening the gate first this time."

"You got me."

"Good thing it's a rental," Adam said.

Sarah started the car. "Dave, whatever happens, don't stop shooting. Stand by to go live."




Shyamala clenched her fists as she watched the footage.

Adam Roberts and his team had found someone murdered. They hadn't broadcast the grisly scene, but it was available in the dump of information the reporters had released after the fact.

Dr. Carruth entered the office. Shyamala quickly suppressed a surge of guilt, some part of her feeling like she'd get in trouble for sitting at the old man's desk.

"Doctor," she said, spinning her monitor around, "In your opinion, what was the cause of this man's death?"

The doctor raised her eyebrows as she looked at the graphic image. "Well, while I have been spending a lot of time in a morgue, I'll re-emphasize that this is not my field of expertise--"

"Your best guess, Doctor. Once again, there's no one else I can ask."

Carruth sighed, sinking back into her chair. "At a glance? Acute radiation poisoning. He's got the mottling, he's clearly been vomiting."

"And tremors," Shyamala said. "He wrote a note before he died, and the handwriting was markedly less legible than other examples of his handwriting."

Carruth frowned. "Okay, so if I'm just telling you something you already knew..."

"Where would someone get severe radiation poisoning of this kind, Doctor?"

"I don't know. A nuclear reactor? Some other radiation source? Rear Admiral, is this--"

"I take it you haven't seen the latest from Adam Roberts' new independent reporting channel."

The doctor shook her head, her mouth compressing to a line. "No, Rear Admiral. I'm... trying to cut back on my news consumption."

Shyamala nodded slowly. "Understandable. It seems the dead man had connections to Positron Mobile's new next-gen antenna design."

"Uh... wait, is this about that conspiracy about the new antenna towers?"

Shyamala steepled her fingers.

"Are you saying that's not just a conspiracy theory?"

"I'm not saying anything, Doctor," Shyamala said tiredly.

"But-- that's a whole crackpot thing, right? Lizard people and... and..."

Shyamala pressed two keys on her keyboard and the view on the screen changed.

"It appears that narrative is being heavily pushed. The online community springing up around this team's reporting have identified several networks of paid trolls and bots designed to create the appearance of an unhinged conspiracy theory surrounding the new antenna towers. However, it seems they've identified the financial backers behind at least some of those efforts."

Carruth raised an eyebrow. "Rhymes with 'shocked her'?"

Shyamala said nothing and folded her hands in front of her mouth.

The doctor sighed. "I don't know what you want me to do about this."

"I don't know what I want to do about this," Shyamala said. "But I'm beginning to get an idea of what I don't want to do."

"Oh?"

"I don't want to be in the same room with the person responsible for these events. I don't want to look him in the eye, and I don't want to ask him for the answers to the questions this raises."

"So... don't do that, then?"

It was a well-meaning suggestion, but it showed that Dr. Carruth didn't really know Shyamala Omar at all.

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