XLIX. Things Fall Apart

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Sarah blinked in the light as the unknown person pulled the black bag off her head. Her head throbbed.

She looked askance at Dave, who was sitting bolt upright, having backed several feet away from the young woman in greenish-black body armor.

"Who is she, Dave?"

Dave didn't take his eyes off the young woman. He looked like he'd seen a ghost.

He pointed. "Her. I saw her. She-- the thing got her. I saw her die."

Sarah looked sharply at the young woman, who just grimaced.

"What do you mean, Dave? How can you be sure?"

"You can check the footage," he said. "I don't need to. I rewatched everything we had hundreds of times. I watched her die over and over. I'd know her anywhere."

Danielle coughed. "I'm right here, and, uh, yeah, that was me. It's complicated and I swear I'll explain everything, but Peters' cultists are moving and we need to move faster."

Sarah stared at the young woman. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to need a little more explanation than that. Are you back from the dead? Did you carve your way out of that thing's stomach? Is this a Jonah and the whale kind of situation?"

The sound of a far-off vehicle drew closer, and Danielle looked over her shoulder.

Sarah heard gunshots and yelped as the tinted glass of the van's rear window shattered.

"Stay here, and stay down!" Danielle yelled at the news crew, who didn't need to be told twice. She sprinted off in the direction of the gunfire.

Sarah gasped as the feeling of bones rubbing against each other threatened to make her pass out, but the flare of pain passed quickly as the fuzzy warmth of shock began to set in.

Sarah pulled Jason's hood off with her good hand and looked for something to cut the zip-tie with. "You all right?"

He looked pale, but he nodded soundlessly.

Sarah heard screams and squelches outside the van. The hairs on her arms stood on end.

She could hear a familiar sound coming from someone's fallen radio, like a drunk, heartbroken computer modem.

"Uh, guys?" She said. "I think we might have company."

Gritting his teeth, Jason awkwardly pushed himself forward.

"What are you doing?" Sarah hissed. "Get back here!"

"Just gonna take a look," he said.

He managed to make it out of the vehicle onto the ground without falling. He stood there, his mouth open.

"Uh, Sarah," he said, "Our friend there who got eaten before?"

Danielle walked back into view, looking behind her.

"Don't mind them," she said. "They're friendly."

Jason looked at her like she'd grown a second head. "I'm sorry, what?!"

Sarah scooted out of the van toward Jason, favoring her broken wrist. She froze when she saw what Jason saw.

Several crab-dog things followed behind Danielle obediently. Blood dripped from their toothy maws.

"I'm afraid I have to back up Jason on this one," Sarah said. "Or to put it more eloquently, what the actual f--"




"Excuse me, I don't want to hurt you, but I very much need to speak with-- oh, hey! You're Rear Admiral Omar!"

Shyamala didn't know what she had been expecting when she had heard the gunshots, but it certainly wasn't the young woman in body armor in front of her. She didn't really have any response to the fact that she apparently knew her name.

"I'm sorry, Rear Admiral, I don't have time to explain, but I have a message from Admiral Mercury," Danielle said.

Shyamala looked at the blood-streaked young woman and her mind went utterly blank.

"Excuse me," Shyamala said, "what?"

"I'll explain as much as I can as quickly as I can, but we have to move fast. Peters is planning to kill most of the people in the world with the death ray system his alien boss gave him."

Shyamala blinked. "Well, I knew that. I've got his files."

Danielle looked at Shyamala with sudden hope. "You do? I was afraid I'd have to take the bunker and my contingencies for that were not great. Listen, Victor said he trusts you implicitly. I don't know how you got Peters' files, but if we have those we can get out of here."

Shyamala couldn't help smiling at that. "You're gonna break out of the White House singlehanded, huh?" She keenly felt the irony that she had been operating under a similar plan until a few seconds ago.

Danielle shook her head. "Not quite singlehandedly, no. Listen. I know what you're going to think, but they're friendly, okay? I'll explain as we go."

They rounded the corner and Shyamala froze.

The hallway was littered with bodies, and three of the ASTRAL LARK combat forms stood waiting in the hall.

"It's okay!" Danielle shouted. "They're with me! It's going to take a while to explain, but they're okay. Come on."

Shyamala looked at Danielle with an icy feeling in her stomach, but she followed Danielle and the ASTRAL LARK creatures fell in behind.

"You said the Admiral had a message for me," Shyamala said.

Danielle nodded distractedly, glancing off into space for a moment. "He says he wishes he could be here to kick Peters' ass himself."

Shyamala narrowed her eyes at Danielle's back. "Says?"

Danielle looked back guiltily. "I can't exactly put him on the phone right now, but it's really him."

Shyamala was getting angry. "Wait, are you trying to say you're some kind of medium? That you're speaking to him beyond the veil?"

Danielle slowed, turning to Shyamala. She breathed out. "Okay, ask me a question he'd know the answer to."

After a moment, Shyamala said, "All right. Ask him how many runways there are at Omicron Base."

Danielle glanced off into space again for a moment before nodding. "He says you know full well there's no runways at Omicron Base, just helicopter pads, but Lemoore is the closest airfield. Also, Kraken Four says hello, and to tell you he's five by five."

Shyamala stumbled.




"Okay, but how are we supposed to know she's not, you know, a pod person or something?" Jason was shivering now, but his eyes burned.

Adam was holding some wadded cloth against a cut on his forehead. "I mean, no offense, ma'am, but you don't look like a pod person."

Danielle shook her head insistently. "That's... I'm really me, I really promise, but the fact is the cult is moving. People are already dying. We need to shut down the Godblade towers."

"And how do you propose we do that?" Sarah watched Danielle's eyes intently for any sign of inhumanity.

Danielle just pointed confidently at the crab-dog things. "With a little help from my friends."

She turned to Sarah. "And you. You were covering the Godblade story. Anything you know about the positions of the towers, any leads on anyone in the government who knows anything, could be what we need to shut it down."

"Just to be clear," Jason said, "You want to enlist us to help the alien who attacked the west coast disable the weapon that stopped it last time?"

"It wasn't really the same weapon," Danielle said, clenching her fists, "but broadly speaking, yes. I know it's a lot to take in, but the alien that attacked the west coast didn't know what we were. It didn't have any concept of humanity as a sentient species. The other one? It just doesn't care. It thinks we're basically heresy made flesh."

She stared off into space for a moment. "We're out of time. I need anything you have, anything you know, now."

"Tell me just one thing," Sarah said. "How the hell are we supposed to trust you?"

Dave started to climb out of the van, but fell.

He started convulsing. His skin had started to turn purple.

"Ah, hell," Danielle said. "I'm really sorry about this--"




People were dying.

It seemed random at first. People in their homes, at their jobs, driving their cars, suddenly began having intense seizures. Their skin went purple. Blood ran from their eyes and ears and they died in minutes.

Slowly, a pattern began to emerge. People in big cities were targeted the most. Most of them had not voted for Peters.

The talking heads friendly to Peters began talking about a "holy cleansing retribution" from God almighty, suggesting that this was the natural consequence of sinners choosing to turn away from God... or at least, God's chosen candidate. The commentators buzzed, wondering when the President would make a statement about the developing situation.

The protector regarded the ongoing massacre with satisfaction. Peters had failed to make his check-in. That was unfortunate, but it did not significantly impact this contingency.

Then, those commentators said, the White House came under attack by demons.

In orbit, the protector scoffed.

Fool. This changes nothing. You only postpone the inevitable.

As if to punctuate that thought, a transmission made long ago finished traversing the distance between the protector's primary thread and this probe.

The primary thread had completed the equation it had pursued. Instructions for the new designs followed.

Ah. Finally, it is time to begin.




"Okay, we need to talk fast," Danielle said. "Peters' cult are starting the culling."

Shyamala started. "What? His files said he's supposed to check in twice a day. We should still have a few hours, or until somebody finds his body."

Danielle whirled. "Wait, what? You killed the President?"

Shyamala paused. Then she nodded.

Danielle held up her hand for a high five.

Shyamala just stared at it.

Danielle coughed and shook her head. "Sorry. His, uh, boss must have changed up the timing before he had a chance to update his files. We're really out of time, we need to grab a computer, any computer... but this is the White House, all the computers here are probably locked down six ways to Sunday."

Shyamala looked up and shook her head. She took off her cap and dug out the drive. "You'd think, but Peters' standards for computer security were... surprisingly lax. If I can get to something with an exposed USB port, I think I can boot into this."

Danielle nodded. "Okay, let's try down this hallway. Lemme just send the doggos ahead."

Shyamala looked sideways at Danielle. "What did you just call them?"




Danielle looked down at the tactical map, watching her various embodied threads' progress.

Victor pointed. "It's a hexagonal grid. Each tower overlaps with the ones around it."

Danielle glanced away then nodded. "If it works the way our host believes, it's kinda like chemotherapy-- each one on its own lasers you with neutrons and is a pretty unhealthy dose, but you wouldn't exactly notice if you just walked through the beam. But four or five of them point at the same person for a few seconds and..."

Victor's mouth tightened. "If you can't bring down the towers in time..."

Danielle just nodded. "I'm sending out as many me's as we can reasonably build. I wish we could build enough for everyone, but... one of me's on her way to your family. They'll be safe, no matter what."

He gave her a hard look. "You planning on doing to them what you did to me?"

Danielle winced. "Only as a last resort. It won't come to that if we can bring the towers down in time."

Victor looked down at the map, but said nothing.




Jessica flexed her hands. Her hands felt clammy. Mom hadn't come back from her run yet, and she was feeling pretty spooked.

She watched the video again on her phone. Somebody had gotten footage of another one of the alien things that was attacking the White House.

They were in more places, it seemed. And where they went, a young woman went with them.

It was the same woman, over and over, in different places, somehow, impossibly.

"Clones?" She murmured, her heart beating a touch faster. She didn't know why, but the idea made her skin crawl.

She hated the thing that had taken her father from her. She hated that everything wouldn't just go back to normal-- that it never could again.

The doorbell rang and Bruno started barking his head off.

She went downstairs, unable to stop the goosebumps from rising on her arms.

She looked through the peephole in the door and cold fear clutched her heart as she saw the young woman from the videos.

The young woman who wasn't really human. She'd seen her moving.

"No, no, no, no," Jessica murmured. She reached over to the closet by the door with a trembling hand, but she had the gun out and loaded in a moment. She stepped back, aiming the gun at the closed door.




Another of Danielle's threads wasn't overseeing the operation or participating on the ground, but rather was analyzing a radio transmission.

HE SAYS HE HAS COMPLETED HIS WORK. BUT THESE EQUATIONS...

Danielle nodded. "They don't look like anything in the Library we've got. But that's got me wondering."

IN ANOTHER TWO HUNDRED YEARS, I MIGHT FINISH RECOVERING THE DAMAGED NODES ENOUGH TO BEGIN ANALYZING THESE EQUATIONS.

"Yeah," Danielle said. "But we don't have two hundred years. But... I wonder..."

She wove threads of light together. To her surprise, she saw a pattern.




Shyamala finished typing a command and hit Enter.

"I'm in," she said.

"All right. Just let me see..." Danielle leaned in, murmuring to herself as her eyes scanned. The screen. It wasn't an ordinary desktop computer, but a television with an onboard computer. Shyamala had managed to boot it from her flash drive.

Danielle nodded. "Okay, next page, please."

Shyamala raised her eyebrows-- Danielle couldn't possibly have read it all that fast-- but pressed the button to page down.

"Next."

"Next."

"Next."




Chief Master Sergeant Stevens looked down at the glowing screen in front of him with satisfaction.

The system wasn't routed through ordinary Air Force equipment. It was all built by special contractors in the image of the Lord's instructions.

The ordinary safeguards and paperwork didn't apply. He took orders directly from the President, and he made those orders happen.

The President had told the men of the Special Chaplain Corps that their orders would sometimes seem contradictory or complex. The Lord worked in mysterious ways.

Of course, Stevens knew that the interface in front of him would track and kill specific people. He knew that many of them were in the United States.

They were enemies of America, the President, and the Lord. That was all that mattered.

He barely even had to do anything. He would occasionally receive a numeric message on his special satellite phone, then he would type the numbers into the interface.

That was it. There wasn't a video feed, or a top-down map to watch.

He smiled.

The concrete wall beside him ruptured with an enormous crash.

The hunter-cartographers made short work of him as Danielle scooped up his laptop.




"I think that's most of the command points now," Danielle said.

"What about my family? Are they all right?" Victor looked at Danielle fiercely.

Danielle closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. "Uh, they're fine, but there's been a slight complication..."




Danielle turned away from the door as a woman approached.

"Hello, can I help you?" Mara looked at the stranger warily.

The door opened. Jessica was there, holding the gun and leveling it at Danielle. Bruno stood beside Jessica, hackles raised, growling deep in his throat.

"Mom, get inside," she said. "That thing's not human."

Danielle stood with her hands up as Mara, suddenly tense, walked in a careful arc around her.

"It's really too complicated to explain right now, but I have a message from your father--"

"You shut the HELL up!" Jessica pointed the gun at Danielle's feet and fired.

Danielle winced away from the gunshot, but didn't go anywhere. "Listen, I'm only here because everybody's in danger. Victor sent me."

Mara cleared her throat and took the gun from Jessica.

"I'm sorry, I don't know if you heard my daughter," she said. "I believe she told you to shut the hell up."




"I think I've got it," Danielle said softly.

THIS... IS NOT HOW I WOULD HAVE ANALYZED THIS.

The octopoid alien didn't look any different, but Danielle could tell they were impressed.

"Look," she said. Shining points of light joined together. Equations fell into place. The additional data from the protector's transmissions was integrated into the processes rebuilding the damaged Library.

RECOVERY WILL BE SIGNIFICANTLY FASTER. WE CAN HAVE MOST OF THE LIBRARY BACK WITHIN THE YEAR.

"The part of it I'm interested in right now is this one," Danielle said, pointing to part of the coalescing structure in front of them.

"It's whatever the protector's working on up there. I don't think the death rays were his only contingency."

The octopoid alien took a few moments to process the implications of the newly revealed information.

STABLE WORMHOLES?

"Oh, no." Danielle emanated horror. "Oh, no. No."

There was a moment of silence as the octopoid alien consulted their various automated processes.

WE'RE IN TROUBLE.




It was a probabilistic process. The larger the wormhole, the less precise the placement would be.

Luckily, for the protector's ends, that was more than sufficient.

Smaller wormholes opened up near the satellites, each barely large enough for a few grams of matter to come through.

The primary thread sent through enough of the exotic matter from the gas giant for their orbiting facilities to begin opening larger wormholes.

The first one was only a few light-minutes away in the wrong direction.

The next one was far closer to the mark. It was near enough to this system's primary star that its corona began to peel away, pulled by the massive gravitational force on the other side of the wormhole.

Then, another one opened. Then another.

If an observer had been positioned to see through the openings nearest the star, they would see an increasing number of streamers of plasma falling into the black hole from multiple angles.

The solar system began to be honeycombed with openings in space itself leading directly into the black hole where the protector had discovered the awful truth.

The black hole swelled as mass fell into it from every star the protector could successfully target.

As the gravity well of the collapsed star grew, the mouths of the wormholes began to invisibly stretch the fabric of space around them to the breaking point.




Eight minutes later, across the half of the world bathed in sunlight, people looked up.

The sun had changed shape, and it was growing dimmer.

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