XLIV. Van Hell Thing

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The wheels spun and Sarah peeled the car around in a tight turn in place.

Sarah put one hand on the gearshift and called back from the driver's seat. "Okay, what are we saying Godblade even really is? Some kind of death ray?"

"Is this really the time?!" Jason's knuckles were white on the grab handle overhead.

The rental car accelerated toward the gate.

"Gonna be really embarrassing if those aren't cultist goons--" Jason winced.

The car erupted through the gate with a deafening crash.

"Sorry, Mr. Henderson's estate," Adam mumbled with a wince.

The unmarked vans' tinted windows revealed nothing of the drivers inside, but their headlights ignited.

All three vans immediately pulled onto the road and accelerated to pursue them.

Sarah growled and turned a corner sharply. Adam yelped, grabbing at the overhead grip handle.

"Well, it's actually a pretty important question at the moment," Adam said, gripping his own overhead handle tightly. "Like are they going to zap us with them right now?"

The answer came shortly afterward in the form of another ear-splitting crash as the rear window shattered into thousands of tiny pebbles.

"Are they shooting at us?!" Jason ducked low in his seat and Dave did the same, holding the camera up to record the pursuing vans.

"I guess that beats death rays," Adam said, his eyes wide.

"Tell that to a bullet, Adam--"

"Hey! Are we streaming?" Sarah called from the driver's seat.

Dave fiddled with the camera and tapped buttons on several devices. "We are as of... now," he said.

Sarah took one hand off the steering wheel to snap in Adam's face. He blinked.

"Tell them where we are and why they're shooting at us, pretty boy."

He grimaced, and, hunched in his seat, turned to speak toward the camera.




Unseen by anyone but a few occasionally bemused fish, a tentacle containing a metallic core extended up through the depths and rose a little way above the surface.

The metallic core captured radio waves, which were carried down to the ocean floor, where an octopoid creature lay nestling several large, humming things.

Within those large, humming, egg-shaped things, processing threads desperately followed up the only direction of inquiry available to them.

Within them, inside a virtual space, Danielle's jaw dropped as she watched the news team maneuvering away from the unmarked vans.

"That guy that died-- could the traitor have done that from orbit?"

IT IS POSSIBLE BUT HIGHLY UNLIKELY.

"Then what the crap is that? That's not a human weapon! And why are those guys chasing the reporters?"

I DO NOT KNOW. THE TRAITOR'S INFLUENCE SEEMS LIKELY.

Danielle scrubbed at her face. "There's way too much we don't know about that guy. And you can't even hear what he has to say without losing your mind and wiping everything out, right?"

THAT IS CORRECT.

She made a frustrated sound. "I don't trust any of this. I need to see the message already. There's nothing worse than trying to troubleshoot something you can't directly interact with."

YOU STILL LACK MUCH OF THE NECESSARY CONTEXT TO ASSIMILATE THE MESSAGE.

"Okay, okay then. Give me the cliffs notes or something. We're running out of time."

The octopoid form emanated hesitation, then spoke.

THERE MAY BE A WAY TO ASSIMILATE THE KNOWLEDGE FASTER, BUT IT IS NOT AN EXPERIENCE FOR WHICH A HUMAN MIND IS ADAPTED. THERE COULD BE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES.

Danielle paused. "What do you mean, and what negative consequences?"

THE MINDS OF MY PEOPLE ARE COMPOSED OF MANY THREADS OF INQUIRY. THESE THREADS MAY OPERATE IN PARALLEL, ASYNCHRONOUSLY, AND REJOIN TO ASSIMILATE INFORMATION FROM DISPARATE EXPERIENCES.

Danielle felt a chill. "Wait, like the automated process that talked to me before you showed up?"

YES. THAT WAS ONE LOW-LEVEL THREAD OF INQUIRY.

Danielle stepped back. "Wait, so... are you saying that you could... copy my mind, and I could learn two things at the same time, then join the halves back together?"

VERY ROUGHLY SPEAKING, YES. THE PROCESS WOULD LIKELY RESULT IN A NUMBER OF FAILURES BEFORE SUCCESSFUL REINTEGRATION.

Danielle rubbed her arms. "Failures. Like... copies of me that would lose their minds or end up brain-damaged?"

OR WORSE. YES.

Danielle sank to the ground, falling backwards onto her butt, crossing her legs, and cradling her head in her hands.

"There's... is there any other way? You really can't just sum up the rest of the elements and physics and stuff?"

NONE THAT I KNOW OF. OUR CIVILIZATION HAS EXISTED NEARLY AS LONG AS YOUR PLANET HAS. THE INFERENTIAL DISTANCE INVOLVED IN UNDERSTANDING OUR BASIC LANGUAGE AND THE BASIC PROTOCOLS OF THE LIBRARY REQUIRES SIGNIFICANT CONTEXT TO OVERCOME.

Danielle stared down at her hands. Hands that weren't even really there. She felt a cold, hollow feeling in her gut.

"You'll... you'll let me see Agatha again when this is over? You'll let me go? You can put me back in a normal human body?"

IT WILL TAKE TIME AND RESOURCES TO RECONSTRUCT YOUR BODY. BUT, IF WE SURVIVE, YES.

Danielle pushed herself to her feet, gritting her teeth. She shivered violently, wanting to throw up.

"Okay," she said. "Do it."

The octopoid creature just looked at her for a long time.

Finally, the alien spoke.

HELIUM'S ISOTOPES HAVE MANY FASCINATING AND USEFUL PROPERTIES. ONE OF THE GREATEST EARLY DISCOVERIES DOCUMENTED IN THE LIBRARY IS--




"Like, if it's the government, why the unmarked vans? If it's just Nocter, why wouldn't they--"

"What part of live don't you understand?!" Sarah hissed.

Jason shook his head. "Sorry, folks at home, I get too chatty for TV when I'm being SHOT AT!"

Adam gave him an understanding look and Sarah a mixed one. "Uh, yes, we're continuing our escape from the Henderson residence, where we have picked up three unmarked vans that are apparently following us onto the highway now. Sarah, how fast can this thing go?"

"We're going to find out," Sarah said.

"They're falling back," Dave said suddenly. He frowned and picked up the tablet computer.

"Yes!" Sarah crowed, and Jason gave her an unimpressed look in the rear view mirror.

"We're uncertain why our pursuers have stopped giving chase, but I'd like to thank everyone who joined our live stream," Adam said. "We'll try to uncover additional answers--"

"LOOK OUT!" Jason shouted unnecessarily as the vehicle ahead of them, the same make and model as their own, suddenly began swerving. It careened into another lane, pushing another car into the barrier before flipping violently forward into the air.

Sarah spun the wheel, barely avoiding the crash and several other vehicles.

Jason looked back in horror as other cars piled up or ran off the road.

Dave kept the camera pointed at the other vehicle through the whole crash, then spoke up. "Did anybody see that?"

"What?" Jason looked at him, wild-eyed. "The ten car pileup we just avoided out of nowhere? Yes, we frikking saw!"

Dave flipped the camera around, turning the viewfinder screen so Jason could see, and rewound the footage a few seconds.

The driver and passenger in the crashed vehicle were seizing and vomiting. Their skin was mottled and purple.

"Son of a-- they're tracking us with Godblade and they hit the wrong car!"

Sarah punched the dashboard, her mind racing. "Henderson wanted us to ditch cell phones before going into his place, right?"

Adam looked at her for only a moment before pulling his phone out of his pocket and rolling his window down.

"Aw, c'mon, no, I just got a new one!" Jason complained, but his phone was falling to the highway before Adam's.

Dave's mouth tightened. "Hotspot too? It'll kill the feed."

"Yep. Adam, sign us off quick."

After a look from Sarah, Adam called back to the camera.

"Hopefully we'll join you again soon, ladies and gentlemen-- this is Adam Roberts, signing off for Landsburg Media."

Dave had the hotspot out the window as Adam finished the signoff.




The lesson from the octopoid creature was mercifully brief. It hadn't been easy to think about, but she'd done it. And then...

Something. What was happening now?

Danielle had a vague notion that the octopoid creature had given her some kind of warning.

But-- it was-- just out of her grasp. What had they said?

It would be difficult.

It was likely there would be failures.

BEGIN HUMAN REINTEGRATION TRIAL ONE.

Danielle held the lesson she had just learned in her mind. She had learned about X-ray radiation and black holes.

She steeled herself to merge with another self, wincing in anticipation. She heard roaring silence. She felt dizzy with vertigo.

Then it happened, and it wasn't anything like she had expected.

She screamed, violently rejecting the thoughts that flooded her mind.

Another person-- an impostor thinking her thoughts--

Her hands around her neck-- snarling--

BEGIN HUMAN REINTEGRATION TRIAL TWO.




They'd found a tunnel and stayed down there for two hours. The vans didn't show back up and none of the news crew had had a seizure.

"So... do we leave now, or...?" Jason squirmed, adjusting his sweater and peering back through the shattered rear window.

"Let me think," Sarah said. "If they can track us through the phones, and we ditched the phones, we should be okay to leave, but we can't go back to the office, we can't go to an airport, we can't use our credit cards..."

"They have literal death rays," Jason complained. "I don't know why they didn't just send a SWAT team if it's the government doing this anyway."

"Plausible deniability? His loyalist cult can do whatever they want with no accountability."

"So good news, we don't have to hide from the cops, bad news, Peters cultists could be anywhere, and if they figure out where we are, we're actual toast."

"Succinctly put," Dave said.

Sarah blew out a breath. "All right. We'll hit an ATM, and start heading east."

"East? Why east?"

"One? Less cell coverage. Two? We're going to Washington."




Something crystallized.

Thoughts connected to one another. Disparate threads of consciousness intertwined.

Two minds resolved into their original form, reconstituted with the memories of both.

The experience did not destroy them in the process.

Danielle blinked. "Wait, okay. That makes sense. I... wow."

She remembered learning about an experiment on only three electrons that had taken place over the course of centuries.

She remembered watching as a star was slowly torn asunder by the black hole it orbited over the course of millennia.

She smiled up. "That wasn't so bad."

YOU DON'T REMEMBER ALL OF IT. THERE WERE COMPLICATIONS.

Danielle's smile faltered. "I guess I'll just remember what I can handle for now. Am I ready to read the traitor's message yet?"

THE PROOF OF CONCEPT IS COMPLETE, BUT NOW YOU MUST MERGE THE OTHER THREADS.

"How many others are left to merge?"

THERE ARE CURRENTLY SEVEN THOUSAND, NINE HUNDRED TWENTY TWO OUTSTANDING THREADS TO MERGE.

Danielle's eyes bulged. "That's so many! Will... will I even still be human after that?"

I AM COUNTING ON IT. DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR ENSURING YOU RETAIN YOUR HUMANITY?

Danielle thought of Agatha and her heart hurt. She missed Alan. She missed home.

"I think... as long as I hold on to the things that are most important, I'll be okay."

VERY WELL. ARE YOU READY?

Danielle smiled again. "Not at all," she said. "Let's do this."




"Yes. I want to speak with the President."

Shyamala stared at the wall of the secure booth. That had been a lie.

So, when she heard the next words, her heart sank.

"The President will be with you shortly."

She silently seethed for long minutes before she heard the voice on the other end of the phone.

"I want to know everything," she said.

"Fine," he said. "Tomorrow morning, my place?"

Saying the next two words was the most difficult thing Shyamala had done in her entire life.

"Yes, sir."

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