XLVI. Survive, Evade

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My mind roiled. Threads reinstated themselves as the defensive measures I had erected wound down.

The human had decontaminated the knowledge. Even so, the idea still shocked me to my core.

This was a simulation-- that much was ordinary enough. But this simulation was under the control of an entity willing to damage the Library? It was incredibly troubling, and I could not blame my fellow for assuming the worst.

However, the existence of the humans, their independent evolution and rise to intelligence, flew in the face of everything I thought I had known.

Simulations, by their nature, were tools for discovering truth. It was unthinkable that anything important could be learned through the seemingly-impossible act of damaging the Library.

But... I had nearly destroyed humanity without even noticing their bizarre, fleeting intelligence. Their lives passed like ephemeral particle interactions in comparison to the lives my people led.

If they hadn't awoken me with their use of nuclear weaponry, or if they had destroyed themselves with those same weapons before I recognized their sentience, our two cultures might never have met.

If I had landed without incident, with the Library intact, I would have immediately began building the escape vessels for my people. I would never have witnessed the rise of humanity.

The human-- Danielle Dahl-- was right. It was an unthinkable coincidence that I would arrive here, on this planet, just in time to witness the rise of an entirely new form of sentience.

I checked the communications array again. I was screaming the truth into the sky, willing the misguided protector to see and understand.

Then the response came back.

Nonsense. Your excuses for your behavior are ridiculous and obviously false. You claim your copy of the Library was damaged on landing, so you cannot fully validate your claims? No. It is far more likely you are fabricating these claims. I do not know what game you are playing, or why you are deluding yourself this way. I can see now you will not do your duty. It doesn't matter. I will not allow this perversion to continue.

No further reply came to any of my transmissions.

Then I noticed something strange. A number of new threads were spinning up that I hadn't initiated.

My momentary alarm quickly melted into confusion as I realized who had done it, and I descended to join one of them.

I examined the human's handiwork with a strange blend of curiosity, confusion, and... pride? The human emotion didn't have a precise analogue among my people, but it was an apt metaphor for the warm feeling I felt as Danielle Dahl pulled designs from the Library, compared them, and spun off new threads to look more deeply into her mode of inquiry.

I took a moment to translate my inquiry to Danielle Dahl's primary instance.

"What is this?"

She responded quickly.

"I'm not letting you off the hook for putting me back in a normal human body, but we're out of time. Look."

She sent over a compressed packet of information. Another television transmission.

"The human government has taken a concern with... the aviforms? To what end?"

"The birds?" Jason groaned. "What about the birds?"

In the shotgun seat, Sarah was typing furiously on her laptop while checking social media feeds with the burner phone she'd purchased.

"It's a lead. Looks like somebody in the White House was asking some really weird questions about what'd happen to the environment if all the birds died."

"If all what kind of birds died?"

"All of them. The source was asked to do economic and national security analysis on the implications of a mass die-off of every bird species in North America. The answer is obviously "devastation," but the source was asked to produce hard numbers."

"I mean, that's a weird contingency to plan for, but there's sea monsters and death rays in play. So maybe they're just covering their bases?"

Sarah showed him her phone. It was just a short clip someone had posted to social media.

A flock of birds, traveling through the air, illuminated by the lights of the building they were taking off from. Someone had seen the mass of birds rising and decided to film it.

Seconds later, the birds started falling out of the sky.

Jason's mouth worked. "Whoa, okay, what? That's why they were asking about bird die-offs?"

"Nope. This happened after the source was asked to do the analysis. That's why the source reached out to me. And there's more. It's happening across the US, especially around the big cities."

Adam's hands tightened on the wheel. He looked over at Sarah with dark circles under his eyes.

"So, you're thinking this is Godblade, then? They're, what, testing it out?"

"Getting better at hitting moving targets," Dave murmured.

Everyone eyed each other uncomfortably at that.

After a minute, Dave spoke up. "Are we going to write, shoot, edit and upload a video about it while en route to D.C. with only one functioning internet connection?"

Jason rubbed his neck and winced. "I don't know if there's enough makeup to freshen Adam up enough for a video."

Sarah cracked her knuckles. "We can research and record a podcast episode about it for now. That should get the talking heads buzzing. We'll stop for the night somewhere after that."

I swiftly analyzed the television transmissions. Now that I didn't have to worry about the informational hazard, I could think more clearly about the actions and motivations of the other living member of my species.

The misguided protector believed the humans were drones I had built with an aim to shield myself from the truth. They would have performed their own study of human culture, possibly to a much deeper degree than I had, and with the full Library available to aid in their modeling of human behavior.

"You would agree it is likely the protector is in communication with the human government?"

Danielle radiated annoyance at me. "Yes, obviously. He thinks you made humans to obfuscate your moves. He's gotta be behind all the weird stuff the President has been up to. His weird cultists, his dumb sword. The protector wants to wipe out all Library technology, and he thinks we ARE Library tech. Giving my country that weapon is probably enough on its own to doom us as a species, but if he's pulling Peters' strings, he can just start wiping all the people out. Nocter has subsidiaries all over the world, they'll put these things in every human city. I don't know how he's planning on dealing with the rest of the world's life, but I don't plan to wait and find out."

I struggled for a moment to parse the human's flurry of culturally-dependent metaphors and concept webs, but she was accompanying her speech with annotations and references like any member of my species would.

"I'm suitably impressed by how you've taken to my people's mode of communication, Danielle Dahl, but what are you doing with these designs?"

She transmitted a very human gesture at me before patiently explaining. "You're not gonna be able to talk to folks out there looking like that. If we want to move quickly, we'll need to put me in a body sooner rather than later, and we can't wait for you to figure out human biology."

The design began to become clear as I looked at it. "You're putting together a body that looks human, but..."

She gave a human nod, and transmitted a flurry of Library references. "It doesn't need a digestive system, an immune system, reproductive organs. It doesn't need to be human. It just needs two arms, two legs, and to be on this side of the uncanny valley, if we're lucky. It only needs to live for a week or two. I can come back and you can put me in a real human body like you promised once you've had time to work out how to do that. And all the other people you ate."

I sent her my assent, and looked wonderingly at the design she had put together.

It was efficient. It was durable. She had already been testing them in simulation, finding the right combinations of chemical pathways, mechanical design, and sensory organs to approximate a human body for our purposes.

"You would be an envoy? You would go to humanity as my representative, and warn them of the protector's misguided meddling?"

Her mouth twisted. "I wish it were that easy. I'm afraid they won't listen fast enough for us to actually help them. We can't rely on anybody else-- we need to build in contingencies."

I felt something akin to awe. "If nothing else, I am incredibly fortunate to have met you, Danielle Dahl."

She radiated amusement. "I miss my wife too much to say the same, octopus alien. But... I am glad I got to see the Library."

I indicated the design in progress. "It will be some time before we can begin manufacturing. Is there any additional preparation you'd like to do in the meantime?"

Danielle nodded, looking over. "I'll keep at this, but I'll fork a thread to do something else that's pretty important."


"Yeah. I need to talk to the other people in here."

Mara opened the door and saw Shyamala.

They looked at each other for a long moment. Mara hadn't seen the rear admiral since the funeral.

Finally, she stepped forward and put her arms around Shyamala. After a moment, Shyamala hugged Mara back.

After a moment, Mara pulled away, smiled sadly up at Shyamala. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Rear Admiral? Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea?"

"Actually," Shyamala dug in a pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "I thought we could talk out here for a few minutes?"

Mara smiled crookedly, shaking her head. She pulled the door shut behind her and they walked away from the house.

She accepted a proffered cigarette and they smoked together for a few minutes in silence.

Mara looked at Shyamala expectantly, but didn't say anything.

Shyamala clenched a fist, and looked up at the starry sky.

"You can see more stars here than you can on base," she said.

She took a drag, and closed her eyes.

"Dr. Mercury--"

"Mara, please."

"Right. And please, call me Shyamala. Mara... your husband was the best leader I've ever known."

Mara smiled tightly. "He had his moments."

Shyamala shook her head. "He stood by his principles even when it put him in that cell. And I... let him die in that cell."

Mara shook her head vigorously. "You didn't send those things. You didn't hold off on using Godblade until after the base was overrun."

Shyamala's mouth worked. "All my life, I've tried to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing. I'm about to do something hard, and..."

Mara raised her eyebrows, but didn't ask. Shyamala continued after a moment.

"I'm afraid I'm lying to myself, and I'm doing what I'm doing now for selfish reasons. But... I need to know. I need to know why he waited. I need to know what that thing is."

Mara nodded. "You don't think it was demons and gods, then?"

Shyamala snorted. She looked at her cigarette. "Whatever those words even mean, anymore, I don't think so. There's forces in play that I do not comprehend, but I can't just let that be. I have to do my best to understand. I owe it to the people under my command. I owe it to the old-- to Admiral Mercury."

Mara took one last drag before extinguishing her half-finished cigarette. "Shyamala, listen. Based on what I know about you? Based on what Victor said? Based on this conversation? I don't think you know how to be selfish. Whatever you're thinking of doing? I support you. Victor would have supported you. He had the utmost faith in you."

Shyamala's mouth twisted and she looked away for a moment.

When she looked back, her face was carefully neutral.

"Thank you, Mara."

Mara smiled. "I'm rooting for you."

Victor awoke in a tunnel of multicolored light. His heart pounded, and he thrashed wildly. His leg burned. Wind roared in his ears.

Victor set his jaw, doing his best not to vomit.

He blinked, and he was sitting in a booth in a little diner with a fresh cup of fragrant coffee in front of him.

"Hello? Admiral? I need to talk with you." An attractive young woman sat across from him, looking at him earnestly.

He scowled.

"Mercury, Victor Michael. Admiral, four star. Service number 145184."

Author Notes:

Did you know that if you spot a typo in OCTO and post it in the typo thread, you'll get a special prize?*

*I don't know what the prize will be yet, but I'll think of something.

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