Benefactor has been published!

Quite a few people over the last couple years have asked how they could donate to me, and I’ve always indicated that I didn’t want to take money unless I could give something in return besides a few pixels on a web page.

Well, I can now offer pixels on your Kindle!  (Or on your free-to-download Kindle Reader on your desktop.)

A couple months ago, I wrote a short story that I enjoyed.  I’ve poked and prodded at it, and decided that I wanted to publish it.  Firstly, because it’s good (I think) and secondly because I wanted to figure out how to do the Amazon E-book publishing process with a short story before I tried it with a novel.

If you have enjoyed my writing, and would like to ‘donate’ by buying something, you can find Benefactor for sale here.

The story is roughly 7500 words, and priced at 0.99.  If you enjoy it, I would greatly appreciate a review!

Not a Chapter: Set In Stone project has begun

I have started my third writing project, called Set In Stone, and you can find the backstory here.

Set In Stone is going to be a planned project, unlike Symbiote and Reject Hero.  It is going to be science fiction, but a type of science fiction that there are very few examples of.  Stonepunk.  The story is also going to be rational fiction, meaning that everything in the setting should make sense, and the actions of most characters will be understandable.

Yes, if you are thinking Flintstones, they are stonepunk.  They are, however, not rational stonepunk!

No chapter content has been created yet, outside of my own mind.  I am now beginning to build the rough series story arc and the more detailed first book arc.  In order to build a rational world that my characters would inhabit, I felt that I needed a backstory.  I have created the backstory now, and invite anyone who reads this to follow the link above and let me know what you think.

Not A Chapter: My Next Fiction Project

It’s been a few days since I ‘finished’ Symbiote (for now – I am confident I will return, but when I do, it will be a complete rewrite of everything from scratch)

I have mentioned in a few places that I am planning to try my hand in the super-powered genre.  I have set up the new site now, and it’s ready for me to start adding content when I finish the small non-fiction project I’m working on.  Updates might start as soon as in a couple days, depending on how much pain and suffering I need to put myself through to format a pamphlet in Smashwords.

Come visit Reject Hero, and hear the story of ‘Strangest’ a jaded but still mostly-good-hearted middle-aged super-person whose alter ego is hated so much that the world forced a name on him.

Not A Chapter

I am much, MUCH happier with Bob and Facet’s encounter now.  I hope you agree.

Chapter 4.41 experienced a major rewrite.

The epilogue was moved to it’s own separate chapter, Chapter 4.42

Tried to leave myself lots of room to come back to Symbiote later.  I think I left it open enough.

Chapter 4.42: Epilogue

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

I was slowly bringing a spinning bait past the Christmas tree pile that Bill and Kirk had been building for the last few years with their yearly trees, hoping for a good strike this cast to give me a chance to catch and release another keeper-size Largemouth before we moved to a different pile in the pond, built by Bill’s neighbors.  The fish acted differently up here in the colder water, and it was hard to get a handle on.  Someone tapped me on the shoulder, unexpectedly.  I jumped literally ten feet straight up in the air, and yelled “Holy Shit!” while dropping my fishing pole.

While still in the air, I turned my head to see who had managed to sneak up on me, and saw myself, smiling a huge grin.  After I landed, I immediately began to complain.  “Dammit, B, that’s not funny at all!”

Bill dropped his beer, Kirk dropped his hot dog onto his beer, which then toppled and poured in a foamy rush over the table edge into his lap.  Neither of them moved nor spoke for a second.

Bill spoke first.  “Got the impression that he was a newly paired friend of yours, Bob, playing games with your face.  Didn’t seem like much of a threat.  Jaws told Ace that he had a really weak processor signature.”

Kirk just stared.  “How did we not see you right, B?  I’ve met you before.  I know who I’m looking at now.”

B turned to my friends.  “Looked funny to me.  Oh hell.  Beer rescue.  Sorry guys.”  B waved his hand and Bill’s beer was back in his hand, unspilled.  Kirk’s beer was back on the table, and his hot dog back in his hand.

“B what is this about?”  I asked.  “I have a difficult time believing that you are here to fish.”

“You might not know as much as you think, but I agree, I’m not here to fish today.  I would like to speak to you and Frank privately, if I could?  Rather than asking Bill and Kirk here to move away, or creating memory issues, could we move to your private area in the virtual world?”

I looked over at Bill and Kirk, who were both staring at their beers.  “They are safe to drink, guys.  Kirk, can you explain B to your father?

Kirk nodded.

I walked over to a nearby picnic table bench seat and laid down on it, then activated my quant.

After a brief trip through blackness, I found Frank in our private area of the virtual world, reading up on largemouth bass cool water lures and techniques. He turned to me “My turn?”

“Ah no, we’ll have company in a second, I imagine.” I replied.

Frank looked at the door to the open virtual world.  I shook my head.  He nodded.  There were only two people that would ‘just show up’ in our private virtual world area.

“Waiting on you, B.  Whenever you’re ready.”

B appeared.  It never ceased irritating me that he looked exactly like me.  If I started to grow a beard, so did he.  I think he enjoyed irritating me.

“Thanks for having me.  It’s been a month since you two helped knock Facet back.  I’ve come to see if there’s anything moderately sensible that you would like as a boon in exchange for what you did.”

“Define moderately sensible?” I asked.

“Something that I won’t look at you funny for asking me to do?”  B smiled.

“Can you generate or point out existing evidence that will convince people that I didn’t have anything to do with all the killings, cover-ups, and other crimes Facet pinned on Frank and me?”

B looked at Frank, “This affects you both, would it be acceptable for you to have the same boon?  Both or neither for this one.”

Frank nodded, agreeing.  “That sounds good to me too.  It’s annoying sometimes.”

“OK, I’ll get on that, then. A and I really did appreciate your help.” B commented.

“You said knock them back.  How far back are they knocked, and should we be looking for them again?”

“Almost no resources.  A and I are watching them, talking with them, trying to see if we can get them to be at least a little less sociopathic.  If you can find them, and want to try to take them out, fine, we won’t stop you, but we won’t help in any way either until they get back up to the point where they are close to evolving into a node.”

“You’re trying to talk to them?  B, that scares me.”

“We have rules and responsibilities, Bob, as you know well.  A and I can modify the guidelines and rules we follow, but never without a great deal of study to make sure we aren’t going to become unstable.  If there’s not a clear and compelling need, we simply won’t do it.”

I had apparently been unstable the first time Frank had merged us.  I could understand the fear of becoming unstable.

“So will that be all, some in-depth PR work then?” B asked

“Don’t forget the conspiracy theorist forum dwellers.” I commented, helpfully, with a smile.

I’d never seen B flip anyone off before.  I counted it as a win.

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

End of Book Four

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

After 99 chapters, averaging well over 3000 words each in 6 months (Book One was around 75,000 words, and with only one exception I know of, minimum chapter size has always been 3000 words), I have grown so much as a writer.

A lot of that is due to many of you who have pointed out when I used terrible grammar, left out plotline critical information that made you scratch your heads, or abused basic science and math.  And that’s just the surface.  A good deal of that might not be visible to the casual or first time reader, because I have substantially rewritten a lot of the first book.  The verb tense problems in the first book on the first write were so terrible, I can’t believe anyone read it.

I *expected* many problems though.  It had been a whole lot of years since I wrote any sort of fiction, and that fiction was stuff like “Write 1000 words using these vocabulary words, and include at least three proper uses of past perfect tense”

So, around 25 years after my last English class, I wrote Arc as a Fanfic for Worm (more about Worm, Wildbow, etc., in my About section, linked at the top, if you care to read it.)  Arc was fun, people seemed to like it, and it is still actively viewed today, even though it’s been untouched by me for six months.

So what have I learned?

Narrative tenses must be watched carefully, because they like to run off and play in traffic.

I have a problem with scale.  I either need to learn to more strongly control what my characters can do, or I need to write in a universe without fixed rules, so I can realistically (in universe) bring characters down a peg when they get too powerful.  I recognized this with Bob, fairly early.  But power creep kept happening.  I couldn’t stop one-upping myself.  I started to improve the abilities of other symbiotes to match, but Bob kept creeping up in power.  Part of this was that the story was always about the psychology.  How would a human deal with a symbiote?  How would a symbiote deal with a human?  I would have an idea about how to make a certain scenario occur, and then write to fit.  Bob’s power would expand accordingly.  Then I would look back, facepalm, and say to myself “I did it again.”

I have a couple huge blind spots in grammar.  “then” is not a real substitute for “and then” when appending a final action onto a list of actions.  I also have issues with numerals from time to time, but that can be mostly fixed by just writing them out unless they are huge.  If I ever publish, I’ll let the editors figure out what the number writing rules are, this decade.

The next book will not be a “Gary Sue”  Bob was very recognizably me for anyone who knows me.  This certainly had an impact on the story, but, to be frank, I’m not sure it was negative or positive.

I have been slowly going through this series of lectures by Branson Sanderson and learning a lot, I hope.  Of particular interest to me was the part where he compared a writer to a piano player in one of the first lectures.  In essence, an editor can tell how good your writing is within a few pages at most, just like a professional musician can tell, within a few seconds of practice, roughly how good a piano player is.  When I see how many people still hit chapter 1.1 without hitting chapter 1.2, it tells me that I am probably correct in thinking that the underlying structure of chapter 1 is off, despite cosmetic rewrites.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I am confident that it could be improved with scenes of more immediacy, a little more action.  The problem being, Frank wouldn’t want that, and he understands what Bob’s reactions are likely to be.  However, the chapter could easily be rewritten in such a way that Frank would be forced to act before he was ready, say, a drunk driver clipping Bob as he’s changing a tire on the side of the highway, or something.  Conflict.

I have watched my page hits compared to the content of chapters.  When I went off into lots of cerebral stuff, or world building, my numbers drifted down.  When I started to do action scenes and fights, bam, numbers went back up.  This either indicates that I’m better at writing action than cerebral stuff, or people who were attracted to my story prefer action to cerebral stuff.  Or maybe the webfiction crowd simply enjoys action as a general rule.  It is a bite-sized content media, and bite-sized media tends to be more popular if it has a hook or grab.

Regular output would probably be a good idea.  I didn’t get many complaints about it, but that was probably because my irregular output was frequent, and of substantial word count.  I’ve never done a full word count, but I suspect it’s well over 400k words between all the books.

Regular output requires planning, and likely a writing buffer, so I’ll think about it.  Really.  *wanders off mumbling*

I’m fairly confident that I’m not done with the Symbiote universe, but I’m also rather certain I won’t be writing from Bob’s point of view again.

I was surprised that nobody ever said anything about the Muppets Easter egg that I bounced in front of everyone off and on for months, even going as far as giving Animal a symbiote named Statler.  Then I realized that a whole lot more gets noticed than gets commented on.  This gave me a little insight, I think, in what to expect from readers and how to judge their responses.  I felt I was doing something wrong, that nobody was noticing the funny thing.  I don’t worry so much about people catching everything.  Now I just grin when I see that someone enjoyed something I placed intentionally.

The last thing I’ve learned?  Perhaps the most important thing?  I now have a better sense of what I need to do to improve my writing further, I think.  As mentioned in a prior non-chapter entry, I am considering taking a real creative writing class, because I believe at this point I would gain a lot from seeing people’s visceral reaction to my writing, real time.


I really appreciate all of you folks, and I hope to see you return on my next webfiction project.  I have an idea for a small non-fiction pamphlet/book that I am going to look at E-publishing first.  After that is done, I plan to return to doing webfiction again, this time around in a super powered universe, I think.  Without going into too much detail, I plan on exploring the middle-aged take on super heroes, much like I did with Arc, but in my own universe.

The last chapter in Symbiote bugs me.  I have ideas.  I need to think about them.  I will post a new update if it changes, and I’m fairly sure it will.

Now that I’ve told you all some of the things I *think* I’ve learned, I’d love to hear about some of the things that I *haven’t*.

Are there things I do that bug you?  Do my character interactions seem OK?  I worry about how I portray Ayva sometimes, because she has so much unexplored depth, but she’s also very old school.  She’s nobody’s fool, she’s tough mentally, but she’s still emotional when it’s safe to be emotional, and very straightforward.  She’s socially programmed for another time, but lives in ours.

What’s your favorite chapter, and why?

What’s your least favorite chapter, and why?

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.41: End Game?

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Explosions in water are much more deadly than in atmosphere.  Explosions in mineral oil aren’t much better.  The shrapnel from the explosion, what little of it actually hit us, did nothing.  A couple dings and scrapes.  The shock wave, however, demolished our stealth surfaces.  They weren’t capable of absorbing and retransmitting that much kinetic energy.  The shockwave bounced off the floors, walls, and ceiling, passing through us from every angle.  Then, if that weren’t bad enough, the shock waves bounced back to do the same again.  Rock rubble from above crumbled and fell into the oil.  Something not like the rest of the rubble caught my eye.  I saw a simple tube-style pressure sensor fall out of the crack, trailing a wire.  Liquid displacement sensor.  That explained a lot.

The door in front of us was buckled, and would not move upwards in its track, so Frank moved up to the door, drove our foot claws into the floor, and crouched to lock us in place.  After we were locked in place, Frank grabbed the door and ripped it out of its frame.  There were several more explosions, apparently rigged to the doorframe.  I watched as large pieces of rubble fell into place, blocking the oil-filled passage in the direction we wanted to go.

Frank moved forward rapidly, without a wasted movement, anchoring one leg against the wall, clamping the claws down, and then crouching again to lock the claws in place.  He used the monomolecular surfaces of the other claw, and the staff that he held in both arms, to rapidly break apart larger stones, and push smaller stones back the way we came.

With as much power as our muscles could generate, this was simple, easy work.  Unfortunately, neither of us could simply return to the virtual world at a moment’s notice to top up the charge.  I let Frank handle all the physical activity.  He would be far more efficient than I would be.

We finally broke through the rubble.  There were half a dozen constructs in front of us, all of them were highly optimized for operations in liquids, looking a lot like barracuda.  They moved rapidly at us, and Frank just made us grin.  I thought I knew what was going to happen when Frank once again gripped the rock beneath our feet with the claws.  I was wrong.

Frank didn’t create a shockwave by pushing our torso rapidly towards the enemy like I thought, he just clapped at them, shaping his hands to create a pressure wave aimed at each target.  The pressure wave was a barely visible, discolored streak in the oil that looked, and acted, like a spear.  Six fish-shaped constructs slowly floated to the floor of the oil-filled passage.  Frank rapidly cannibalized each, removing capacitors, inspecting each capacitor rapidly, and then tossing them in the kangaroo pouch with the sparrows.

I could feel Frank pulling charge off the enemy capacitors to recharge our own.  It was a tiny amount of power by comparison to what we had spent, but not insignificant.  We knew the layout of the passage, up to where the data haulers left it and crawled out of the oil.  Frank surged up the passage, gripping with claws at every step, pulling against the stone until the stone cracked with the force he was exerting.  Power reserves dropped rapidly.  Behind us, I could hear the sound of rocks sliding.  Unlike gasses, liquids didn’t compress much.  Frank’s forward movement was pushing the remaining thirty feet of oil ahead of us in the passage, while dragging the rest of the oil in the passage behind us, including the rocks.  The strange, squeaky whistling sounds of mineral oil being drawn through the rocks behind us distracted me, briefly, but when our body surged out of the mineral oil at nearly two hundred miles per hour, with a tsunami of mineral oil leading the way in front of us, my attention was very much riveted on what happened next.

There were twenty-three quadruped constructs running down the dry floored hallway we had just entered.  They tried to slow to reduce the energy of the collision with the tsunami of mineral oil, but not fast enough.  The entire pack of them smashed into the wall of oil and then each other, rather energetically.  To credit their toughness, none of the constructs were put completely out of action by the attack, but Frank was on them within a very small fraction of a second, ripping out capacitors, inspecting them, and throwing them in our pouch.  By the time he finished, the pouch was full enough to make us look a bit pot-bellied.  Another small snack of energy for us, but we needed every bit we could get at this point.  We still didn’t know where Facet was, and the complex still below us was large.

Frank carefully peered forward, dug the claws in, and then sprinted about fifty yards in a quarter second.  We were still in a series of passages, maze-like.  I saw my body put one hand on the ground, flat, and then I smacked the ground hard with the other hand, hard, making a hugely loud noise.  Echolocation apparently got results, because he jumped us twenty feet down a side passage, gripped the stone under us with both claws, and smashed the stone beneath us with an overhand blow with both fists held together.  The floor underneath us gave way, and we fell into the center of a large room.

Based on the line of toilets along each wall, with arm shackles above them, and ankle shackles beside the bowls, this room had, apparently, recently, been used to house humans.  I very carefully did not look closely to see what meat was on the pedestal to one side of the room, next to a stack of plates and cups.

“Don’t tell me, Frank, that’s information I don’t want to know.  Thinking I know is bad enough.”

“OK” Frank replied, while turning towards the door of the room.  He jumped us about ten feet to land next to it, carefully.  There was no lock.

“Frank, do we have enough power to rebuild the stealth coating?”

“No.  Not yet, Bob.”

In a brief moment of insight, I realized what Frank was looking for.  The geothermal tap.  He opened the door of the room we had fallen into, which looked into a huge cavern.  We had passed three others like it.  This would be the fourth level Mouse had excavated.  The geothermal tap would be one level below, in the northeast corner, which was almost directly east of us based on what I could see and sense.

Frank carefully and quietly followed the perimeter of the room, moving eastward.  He stopped beside a massive outcrop of metal tubing coming out of the rock.

“Tapping the power, Frank?”

“Yes.  I’ll top off, rebuild the stealth sheath, and then top off again.  Then I think we’ll stay here a bit and see what comes to investigate the path we took to get here?”

“Do you think Facet will actually lead an attack against us down here?” I asked.

“No clue.  We don’t know what it can do.  We don’t know how many Facets will show up.  This whole escapade is a gamble.  Worth doing though.  Whatever it was, it was building power here way too fast, and would have become much more dangerous very quickly.  I do not even want to imagine A and B’s reaction if Facet tries to become a system node.”

I had entertained similar bad thoughts myself.

“We’re not going to pull a small amount of power, Frank.  They’re probably going to come running.”

“Hope they do.  This won’t take long at all.”  Frank peeled away the thick metal conduit, revealing several cables as thick as our wrists.  I felt Frank adjust the resistance of our index fingers, creating a superconducting path from our index fingers into the power distribution network.

Even though I knew full well that Frank knew a hell of a lot better than I did what our current body could withstand, damage wise, it still made my stomach flip when he jammed our index fingers into two of the cables.  Definitely a lot of power.  Jason and Mouse had seriously overbuilt this thing.  It wasn’t as fast as the virtual world could repower us, but a couple seconds wasn’t bad.  After we topped off, Frank pulled his fingers out of the wounds in the cables, and used practically all the power in our capacitors, simultaneously, to rebuild the destroyed stealth surfaces using the mineral oil that was still dripping off us and pooling nearby as a mass source. Then he stuck his fingers back in and about three seconds later, we were recharged again.

Next, Frank dropped all of the nearly thirty capacitors out of our potbellied kangaroo pouch into a pile next to the conduit, and molded them with another fantastic burst of energy into a single shape with two cables.  He recharged us again before doing anything else, another couple seconds with our fingers stuck into the wire, and then attached the wires to the conduits where our fingers had been.  A sparrow, a bit worse for wear, popped out of the pouch and crawled into the top of the box through a hatch.  Frank squirted a bit of code into it, which I recognized as a command to flip a switch if the container it was in moved more than one inch from its current location.

It took my mind a moment to realize what I was seeing here.  A superconducting capacitor being charged by a massive power source, with an explosive core.  I looked closer, briefly, to confirm what I was seeing, and then ran some calculations with some borrowed cycles from Frank.  I wanted to be away from this thing ASAP. I didn’t know what an EMP like that would do to my brain.

As we rapidly, but quietly, moved away from the power conduits, leaving our surprise behind, Frank commented to me. “I see what you are doing with that processing power, Bob.  Yes, it’s an E-Bomb.  The longer we wait to blow it, the bigger the EMP will be.”  Frank released the other three sparrows into the room after touching up their stealth surfaces.  They found suitable tiny spaces to hide themselves in where there were overlapping fields of view.  Frank and I carefully chose a spot along the wall near no doors, but within view of the conduit.

On the eleventh second after the first time Frank had tapped the wires for power, there were several explosions and a flood of constructs that were very clearly carrying weapons burst into the room from every direction.  Some of them were using a stealth system nearly as good as ours, but none of their stealth systems worked with audio kinetic energy, and none of them approached the conduit.  They were guarding the exits, I suddenly realized, as I saw more constructs appearing behind them.  The newly arriving constructs were rapidly disgorging and shaping their loads of quick drying epoxy.  All of the several hundred combat constructs stayed inside the room, and several dozen of the construction robots were staying as well, carefully tending the inside surfaces of the newly sealed doors, making sure the epoxy did not deform and leave a gap I might exploit.

Frank and I stayed quiet.  If they thought we were in here, this didn’t make much sense.  We were topped off on power, and there were very few traps they could throw at us that could bother us in this large of a chamber while we were mobile, and had power to blast a hole in the walls with antimatter.  The combat constructs were an unknown quantity, but judging from gravity readings, they were too dense to have reflexes like ours.  If Frank got into them in melee, they were toast.  Even if they were loaded with conventional explosives.  We were vulnerable to explosives in liquid mediums, but in air, we would ride the shockwaves of conventional explosives more than be damaged by them.

I heard a female voice whisper: “I tell you, we’re a human symbiote pair, he won’t shoot us.”  I didn’t recognize her voice, but it was coming from the down ramp in the center of the room, that led to the geothermal generator room.

I saw a head appear, which scanned as much of the room as it could before turning to face the conduit.

I could see processing nodes firing wildly.  This was an immature young symbiote, in a young host, and it was not masking at all.  It was panicking, but I could clearly read its memories as it recalled them in its flashbacks.  Apparently the symbiote had had the misfortune to be provided to a young lady who was severely psychopathic, but who had never acted violently before being provided with her symbiote.  Unfortunately, the young symbiote, despite the educational materials it had been required to watch after reached synergy with its host, had not sought help for its host after the first killing.  The host had convinced it that the killing was justified.  Facet had found them soon thereafter, and taken them under its wing.  I was exposed to a wild ride of terrifying, sickening memories from the perspective of the symbiote, which was rather graphic.

The young woman whispered again, obviously to herself, to speak with her symbiote “See, they haven’t shot us.  They must be watching the ramp; it’s the only way in or out now.  Let’s go check the conduit.”  She paused. “We aren’t going back.  There’s zero chance we would survive disobeying a direct order.”

I felt Frank acting extremely carefully, using the tiniest bit of power to modify the first dart in the right shoulder coilgun. “Bob, use the right coilgun.”

More terrified memories from the symbiote.  Psychopathy was known to sometimes make people incredibly brave, because everyone else was too unimportant to consider a real threat.  I’d never seen the disorder in a paired human.  This was probably the first time I’d seen a human almost calm when their symbiote was in a near-panic.  I looked carefully at the round in the first coilgun and was a bit shocked, as I comprehended what it was Frank had done.

Then I nearly puked as I saw a particularly sickening memory from the symbiote.  ‘I said I didn’t want to know what that meat was, dammit.’ I thought to myself as I engaged the right coilgun, firing a low velocity round into the girl’s right ear.  She fell instantly, her brains scrambled despite the carbon fiber skull.  Her symbiote’s processors almost instantly went dark.  Maybe they would both rest in peace now.

We skittered sideways a few feet, but the combat constructs in the room didn’t react at all to the death of the symbiote pair.  “Frank, if the rest of the world knew you had a virus that could kill symbiotes that fast, they would come after us.  I grant you that it was useful just then, but that’s scary as hell.”

“Bob, weaker symbiotes wanting to challenge us is something you really should have gotten used to by now.  Just be glad we have always been much more advanced than our enemies, or we might have had to kill more of them.  This one was still here after A removed the innocents.”  Frank declared matter-of-factly.  I got a bit of a chill at the words.  He was right, but that didn’t stop the mild nausea of having just killed another human and symbiote from ambush, in cold blood.

Something huge appeared, walking up the ramp, away from us.  It must have been fifteen feet tall to be visible at that point as it came up the ramp.

My arms and legs exploded as superconducting capacitors suddenly stopped being superconducting.  The capacitors in my torso were simply extracted from our body immediately after, as we were still falling to the ground.

The huge form never even paused.  It continued walking away from us, up the ramp, then when it neared the end of the ramp, it hopped up over the edge with feline grace.  Density measurements indicated that it massed enough to weigh thirty tons, but it walked gingerly on two splayed-toe feet, each toe was the size of a house door.  This thing could not possibly have ever left this room or the one below it, unless there was a different way out from below, somehow, none of the other exits from this room were large enough, and they were all natural rock.

Frank was slowly recovering after losing nearly fifty percent of our bone mass.  I turned off the pain.  We were fucked.  This had to be at least one of the Facets, and it had smashed Frank and I like a bug.  No power, no quant, no arms, no legs.  The only thing left was to gather information and watch for an opportunity to acquire power somehow.

Facet had a strange, bouncing movement which I recognized was due to its agile and quiet mobility combined with its mass and movement speed.  Every movement required a lot of care, and moving that much mass required that the body be accelerated and slowed as slowly as possible, which meant long movements.  It was hard to stop watching how it moved, but the sudden visibility of quantum processors throughout its body grabbed my attention immediately.  The processors were not just starting either, they had the signs of constant use.  Facet could mask well enough to make quantum processors invisible to myself and Frank.  This was yet another serving of bad, piled on top of all the other helpings of bad.

I could clearly see two different types of processors within Facet’s form.  Each of its arms and legs contained a volume of processors easily equivalent to the entire bodies of two or three normal human-size symbiotes.  In the center of each limb were what looked like normal symbiote processors, but they were unreadable.  On top of that, wrapped around the symbiote processors, was a layer of strangely designed quantum processors that were impossible for me to read.  They also interfered with my ability to read the more familiar processors under them.  As I looked closer, I saw that they were linked.  The outer shell of strange processors were providing input that the inner shell was reacting to.

As it approached, the being cocked its head rapidly, in a frighteningly fast movement to the side, looking at me like a bug pinned to a sample board.  “What?  You seem disturbed, but not in pain.  Did you expect a soliloquy from me before we started to fight?  Please.  There’s plenty of time to talk later as I dissect you two.  Now that I’ve defeated you without having to suicide this form, I might actually be able to leave this place with hard data about your capabilities.  I might even be able to bring you with me.  That would certainly be handy, as you have a great deal of obvious potential as test subject material.  This indicates the possibility of a vast amount of not-so-obvious potential that I and my other selves might tease out of you before you cease being useful.”

Facet took a last step towards me, uncannily quiet despite its mass.  There was more noise coming from the stone flexing under its weight than from when its feet touched the ground.  Its strange, fascinating gait was almost hypnotic.  When it stopped moving, I was looking at its legs.  That’s when I noticed that the symbiote processors inside Facet were segregated into small groups, each small group being slightly different from other groups.  The realization then struck me.  Each slightly different group of processors came from a different symbiote pair.  A closer look confirmed early signs of decay in some of the marrow structures, and signs of reduced symbiote processor capacity in those same marrow structures.  I saw no signs of decay in any of the strange processors wrapped around the symbiote processors.  The damn thing was using symbiote processors to boost its own capacity somehow.  We had been told this, but I hadn’t considered that it would be implemented in such a ghoulish manner.

“I can clearly see some very advanced structures you have implemented.  The low-density carbon fiber materials you crafted your body from are amazing.  I also recognize the fundamentals of the stealth technology we stole and repurposed.  You have converted it to operate at highest order as opposed to higher order.  Definitely a technology we can use, especially with that innovation for low energy kinetic absorption and rebroadcast.  Oh, strange.  You disabled your ability to speak.  Let me fix that for you.”

I felt the changes in my body Frank had made to keep me from vocalizing revert so I could speak.  “You sure talk a lot for an action-oriented intelligence that is too good to spout a soliloquy before a fight.” I commented.  I wondered if I could piss it off bad enough it would just kill us.

Facet leaned over a bit, and reached down with a hand the size of a typical kitchen table to pick up my torso, which it then lifted and held at eye level as it slowly, gracefully, walked back towards the ramp down.

“No arms, no legs, no power, but still full of attitude.  I hope this means you will be one of the ones whose hatred for us keeps them alive and useful long after the weak-willed ones die.  It’s amazing how strong, aggressive emotions keep humans alive short-term.  Did you know research, by others of course, indicates that long-term aggressive emotions causes humans to die early?  The dichotomy between short and long term physiological effects of aggressive mental patterns is quite fascinating.”

“You certainly seem to enjoy hearing yourself talk.” I interjected.

“Do you truly believe I haven’t had discussions with humans and symbiote pairs who tried to make me angry enough to kill them before experiments started?  Such behavior would cost me valuable data, however tempting it might be.  Especially for a promising specimen.”  It paused a moment.  Probably for effect, not due to any need to think about what it was going to say next.  I watched as huge sensor bundles examine me from within the shallow recesses of a curved cobra-cowl shaped head. “I see no reason to allow you to keep your coilguns or lasers, those weapons are definitely not interesting.”

Facet moved us a little farther from its face in order to get its second hand on us, where it quickly and precisely pinched each mentioned offending weapon off my armor.

“In response to your most recent comment, while I am forced to walk slowly in this room to avoid damaging the floor, I feel it is time well spent to begin understanding your psychology, Bob.  Frank should also recover fully, soon, I’m sure you will be glad to hear.  He could probably respond to us now, but most likely will not, because he realizes that you two are helpless, and he’s not going to say anything until he trusts himself to understand the full situation that you two find yourselves in.”

Frank said nothing.  I blacked out.

I woke up with a terrible headache.  “Bravo, Frank.  That was a tactic I’ve never seen, and never even considered as a possible response from a human symbiote pair before.”

“[Fuck you too.]” Frank said with my voice.

“Bob, that brief unconsciousness you just experienced was your symbiote, Frank, rerouting the electrical output of your brain to a transmitter used to tell one of your construct sparrows to explode the E-Bomb you two planted.  I wonder if he expected me to have the ability to reactivate your mind after he disrupted it so badly.  I’ve adjusted the barrier around your organic components so that Frank cannot take such an action again.”

“At this point, that might have been a blessing to me.  Don’t try to turn me against Frank.  When the shit hits the fan, we work together.”  I was a bit startled though, that Frank would have made an effort to mercy kill me.  Not that I didn’t appreciate the thought, I must admit.  The rest of my life was looking like it was going to be incomprehensively miserable.

Facet replied.  “I’m truly glad to hear that.  Pairs with strong bonds live longer.  I have, however, disabled all the transmitters remaining in your body, other than your natural voice, of course.”

I looked around.  Everything was dark and quiet.  The infrared signatures of the thousands of servers in their racks in this one room were fading.  I saw the faint, strangely slumped and collapsed shadows of hundreds of dead combat constructs fried by the EMP of the E-Bomb.  Faint because of shadows, not stealth.  The stealth surfaces had been scorched, as had mine, by the E-Bomb.  There was still light coming from the generator room.  Facet took two additional long, careful steps forward which brought me below the level of the floor, so I could no longer see the room above.

“I’m sure that you expected your E-bomb to have some negative impact on me, Frank.  I assure you it has.  All of my offline storage in this facility is inaccessible.  I am now reliant solely on my personal processors and my enslaved processors, which I saw you examining a few moments ago.  This means I might duplicate work if I attempt to do mundane experiments on you.  However, I know several experiments that could not possibly have been performed yet, as we’ve never had a symbiote pair of your development level to work with before.  Fortunately, with you two captured, there’s no need for haste here, so we’ll just take a look at this highest order stealth material while repairs are being performed on the facility power systems.  If there’s time after that, your superconducting capacitors are also quite promising.”

Once Facet was on the main floor of the generator room, it began moving much faster, but with the same uncanny grace it had demonstrated while moving slower.  Look like a giant anime robot, walk like a ballerina, I suppose.

“You do realize that when you fired the satellite lasers at the humanoid outside your facility, you were firing at the symbiote system node known as A?”

“Indeed.  It became obvious that the humanoid was either A or B after it survived the first tenth of a second with no visible damage.”

“You are not concerned that you have taken direct offensive action against A?”

“I am still here.  Therefore the incident will be either ignored, negotiated, or compensated for at some later time.”

We continued moving rapidly towards a very large laboratory-looking room built to scale for a fifteen foot tall robot.

“Oh, that’s right.  You probably haven’t heard about the new volcano on Greenland that A had to go take care of after she removed the innocents from your facility here.”

Facet did not stumble or pause as it walked towards a large archway, but it stopped talking.  It walked through the arched laboratory room entrance, dropped me unceremoniously into something that looked like an aquarium, pressed an activation switch of some sort, and a barrier sprung into being above the four walls surrounding Frank and me.

I spoke internally to Frank.  “I guess it’s something of a compliment that despite having no arms, no legs, and no power, it still took care to properly seal us in.”

“I would prefer that it not be so careful.  You realize that this being has no morals, no scruples, and will do everything it can to wring as much potentially useful data out of us as it can?”

“Yes, I understood that quite well, thanks for the reminder, Frank.  Do you think it can reverse the disabling of pain?”

“Yes, it is extremely adept with matter programming.  It could probably grow you some new pain sensors with a little effort, even if you completely removed them.”

A couple minutes later, Facet returned, with three human shapes tied together with what looked like an extension cord, all carried in one hand, swinging at his side like a person might carry a lunchbox.  They were all very obviously dead, with the boneless movement of dead bodies before rigor mortis set in.

“Humans have a saying about secrets that is very appropriate at times like these.” Facet declared as he raised the bundle of three dead people up to his chest level, pressed a button, and tossed the corpses into the opening that opened up.  There was no reaction to indicate it had done anything more exciting than throw away an inconvenient piece of trash.  “The magma at the base of the geothermal tap monitoring shaft makes such a handy disposal system.  No need to make identifying where we acquired our human assets any easier, if you happen to be wondering why I’m bothering to burn them.”  Facet walked from the disposal chute towards the aquarium he had stored me in and deactivated the top, grabbing me out carefully.

I tried to bite him, but the residual power in my musculature was nearly gone and I barely could move.  Without a power source of some sort, we wouldn’t even be able to talk, in a few more minutes or so, if we lasted that long.

“I fear that I will not be able to study you as I wished, which will no doubt raise your spirits.  I will have to be satisfied with a few flesh, capacitor, and stealth material samples.”  Facet lifted us out of the aquarium, bringing us close to his facial sensors again. It seemed to be scanning me carefully, perhaps looking for the best selections of flesh and stealth materials.

It spun and carried me over to a countertop that had restraints, where I was tied down and had a couple pieces cut off me.  The pieces were soon labeled and placed in small containers.  Facet left me and walked to the back of the lab.  While it walked, it pulled several of our capacitors out of a storage bin in its leg, examining each closely, selecting three and setting the rest aside on the counter.

Several somethings hit Facet hard, one after the other, in the small of his back, knocking him forward and down to his knees.  I recognized three copies of myself before their capacitors all exploded, detonating limbs and torsos.  Then a dozen more of me appeared out of nowhere, smashing the head of Facet with staves and pulling the AI’s robot shape to the ground, where they began tearing it apart.

They were all very clumsy, like the person controlling them couldn’t think fast enough to really control them.  Even though they were powerful enough to rapidly do significant damage to the AI’s body, it wasn’t enough.  The second wave of my constructs detonated as well, one by one, as Facet removed the superconducting properties from their capacitors.

The AI jerkily, rapidly tottered to its feet.  Its limbs were heavily damaged, its head smashed and almost unrecognizable.  Reaching over to grab me, Facet ripped me off the restraints, limped over to the disposal chute, and pressed the button.  A mass of sparrows came around the corner at us, but none of them exploded, even though they were all constructs.  Someone had apparently altered their capacitors to be non-superconducting.  By the time Facet chose their next response option, the birds were on us.  Two of them had very tiny antimatter charges held in their Penning traps.  One of those hit the AI’s sensor module, which flew apart with great energy.  The other struck it dead center on its chest, smashing Facet to the ground hard enough to crack the rock floor.  Most of the other sparrows were made nonfunctional by the two antimatter explosions.  The explosions didn’t do me much good either, but I’d survived worse.

The best thing was that two sparrows with very special cargos had gotten to Frank and me before the others detonated, crawling into our kangaroo pouch carrying their precious cargo.  Two quants, already configured for our use.  Frank was in the virtual world almost instantly, and I was restored in our full body, with full power.

I felt our power levels drop immediately, to a fraction of what they had been before, as the capacitors were no longer superconducting.  I was still being held around the waist by Facet’s right hand.  The AI was struggling to its feet again.  This time, I saw its feet. I saw its secret.

The torso and head rapidly began to rebuild, the heat building up in Facet’s vicinity.  I attempted to generate antimatter within Facet’s torso, and could not.  That amazing zero-leak masking was active again.  It apparently also prevented me from altering anything within Facet’s volume.  I carefully set aside that data.  Frank would want to experiment with the effect later, for certain.  Fine, if I couldn’t do it from the inside out, I’d do it the other way.

“Facet, my father taught me something very important when I was very young.  Never give up.  You can lose, but you never give up.”

Facet’s sensor bundle was nearly restored, and so were the body parts that my alternate selves had torn the armor and outer coverings off of.  It said nothing.

“Fine, you go ahead and be the strong and silent type when there’s a fight you think you can win.  I wonder what will happen when you know you can’t win?”

I was being an idiot again, I realized, trying to get Facet to talk.  I knew how to beat him now, and I wanted him to brag one more time so I could shove it down his throat, but I would lose if I let him fully restore his sensors so he could pick apart my body.  Worse yet, I could smell Ayva nearby, as well as the rest.  Considering the appearance of alternate selves and sparrows, that was no surprise, but I could not risk delaying any longer taunting Facet to make him brag or gloat.

If Facet beat me this time, Ayva and the rest would certainly be killed.  Or worse, they might be captured.  I activated the molecular blade on my left foot’s, outermost claw.  Facet’s sensor bundle, which had been centered directly at my center mass, moved with lightning speed, centering its attention on my claw.

“Too late, you son of a bitch.” As I felt the claw beginning to heat, the molecular blade sliced through the conduit under my left foot, and the torrent of energy passing into Facet through the floor into its legs was cut off.  There was a huge bang from the generator room, and the smell of ozone.  “Oops, did I just trip a breaker?”

Facet immediately started to charge me, which was both its only option, and a huge mistake.  He was a thirty ton robot with the grace of a ballerina.  I was a twelve pound juggernaut that could lift his entire weight easily.  Before it had moved a foot forward, I had leaped forward as hard as I could in a body tackle.  I hit Facet at about two hundred miles per hour.  We bounced off each other.  I bounced back about fifty feet into the main generator room.  He bounced back six inches, rocking back on those amazingly agile legs, which were no longer pulling power from the floor to support the power needs of mass reprogramming.  He looked at the cut section of floor and I saw it repair itself.  He was using his reserves to try to restore his power source.  He would still need to repair the breaker or fuse or whatever had popped when I cut the power circuit.

I looked right and saw Ayva and the rest, everyone else, just standing there, staring at me.  I saw a tunnel behind them.  I broadcast an obnoxiously loud radio signal at them, much faster than I could have spoken it.  “Everyone, back in the tunnel.  Don’t let him see you.  Any superconductors storing energy need to be converted to regular energy storage or Facet will explode them.  Move.  I have this now.”

I scanned the wall of rock behind me, and it was solid for at least ten or so feet.  I leapt backwards and hit the wall, crouching down against the vertical surface, creating trenches in the rock wall as my claws dug in, and then I sprung away from the wall towards Facet with all the power I could, without breaking bones.  The one hundred feet between us would only allow me a single step at four hundred miles per hour, which allowed me to further accelerate to nearly six hundred miles per hour.  Facet was still slightly off balance from the first time I hit him.  This time I was going to flatten him.  I didn’t have time to create a projectile weapon, so I would be one.

There was a huge flare of energy, and a spike emerged from Facet’s armor when I was too close to avoid it.  It speared through the kangaroo pouch, destroying my active quant, and barely missing my brain.  I smashed up against Facet, impaling myself all the way through on the six foot spike Facet had just extruded from his armor.  Frank reappeared in my mind.

Facet staggered back two steps, dropping three discharged superconducting capacitors from its left hand onto the floor. While it was staggering back, it reached towards the counter with its left hand towards where the rest of the capacitors from my body were lying.

The capacitors exploded as Facet’s hand covered them.  “[You aren’t the only one who can make superconducting capacitors explode.]” said Frank, out loud, before using the second quant to re-enter the virtual world.

Facet was almost in a sprinter’s start position now after taking a couple steps back.  I was hanging from a thin blade extruded from his chest.  Facet reached up, behind me, grabbed the blade, and with a minor burst of energy for a tiny rearrangement of metal, cut the blade holding me off its chest.  Then it started to sprint, holding me off the ground, with my back against the top of his fist, like I was the ice cream of an ice cream cone.  I had zero leverage.  But I had power.

“You can’t win, you know.  I am not going to let you reach a section of floor with power in it.”  I formed a thick carbon fiber loop around his trailing leg as he started his second step forward.  The rope was made of hundreds of strands of carbon nanofiber, which trailed on the ground behind the leg, until I changed the rock they were dragging across into epoxy, caused the epoxy to boil up a bit over the nanofibers, and then instantly hardening.  Facet hit the end of that length of rope and stopped, jerking his leg a couple more times fiercely. After two attempts, he reached down with the hand that wasn’t holding me, trying to pry or cut the carbon fiber rope off his leg.

While trying to free his leg, Facet tried to twist the blade sticking through me, rapidly stirring it to try to destroy my brain or the other quant.  I oxidized the blade completely in an instant.

“In a way, I have to respect you.  You really don’t talk when you fight.  I’m not so disciplined, I fear.  So you get to listen to me talking to you while I tear you apart and feed you to your garbage disposal chute.  Perhaps this will remind you of what was happening to me a short while ago.  I hope so, and I hope you remember this, if you somehow manage to reform.”  I ripped off Facet’s arm.  Just the arm alone was larger than I was, but it was made of metal and ceramics, with only a small amount of carbon fiber which was being used as a nervous system.  Facet’s strength had never been the robot body, it had been his command over terrestrial electronics, matter reprogramming, and other quantum effects, as strangely limited as his knowledge had been in some ways.  The robot body housed a huge number of processors and acted as a massive power conduit.

“This isn’t a fight any more.” Facet spoke.

I changed more rock to epoxy, allowed Facet’s weight to settle his frame into it, and hardened the epoxy around him.  He would not be able to break free.

I dragged the arm over to the trash chute, jumped up, and grabbed the wall with my claws, and then hit the button with one hand.  When the door opened, I dropped Facet’s arm into the chute, watching it fall until I saw it hit magma, about fifteen hundred feet below.

“Mouse really outdid himself.  I never knew magma was this close to the surface here.”

I grabbed the other arm, ripped it off after dislodging it from the epoxy, and drug it over to the hatch, then repeated the process twice more, once for each leg.  Facet’s torso was too large to fit into the chute.

“Well, any last words before I crush your torso like a beer can and dump you into the magma?”

Facet did indeed have last words.  Three sentences.  Three fucking creepy sentences that made me wish I could tear him apart all over again, slower this time.  I didn’t respond to what it said, slowly crushing the torso by inches with my fists, no longer feeling even the slightest bit of remorse for ending the AI’s existence.

After all the parts were accounted for, and I policed the area to be triple sure, I walked back to the tunnel, stuck my head in, and found myself face to face with thirteen duplicates of me, ready to kick my ass.

I carefully raised my hands in the air, slowly, before calling out.  “It’s dead.  Don’t shoot.”

“Its him.” Ayva’s voice.

The duplicates of me backed off and I saw all the people I shouldn’t have seen in a large, hollowed out cave, with firing positions and blinds formed out of the walls.  All of them.  The Recovery agents, Doctor Meilin, Jason, Colonel Gantt, his troops, and Ayva.

I think Ayva hit me at about Mach three in a flying bear hug.

“How in the hell did you guys get down here?” I asked as Ayva did her best to break some of my ribs.  “Did you find some way to convince A or B to help?”

Jason pointed at the tunnel around us. “I was thinking of the Faraday cage you built in the cave, the volume of the cave, and the possible volume of matter you might have had a use for based on the equipment you had.  It didn’t add up.  You converted the rock to some sort of gas, right?”

“Yes, I had too much volume left over, so I made it a gas to keep from having to keep it in the cave. Otherwise I would have had to store it outside, where someone might find it.”

“Thought so.  You did all your work inside the superconducting Faraday cage to hide your energy signature, obviously.  What I didn’t realize at first was that you had done it terribly inefficiently.  You should have placed the superconducting Faraday cage against the rock, changed the rock into superconducting materials, and then changed the superconducting rock to atmospheric gasses.  There was no need to cut bricks, stack them, move them around, haul them back into the cage, and then make them into gasses.  The Faraday effect will hold true along the outermost surface of the conductive materials.  All you had to do was make whatever you turned to gas superconducting first, and keep it attached to the rest of the cage.”

Ayva spoke from where she had her chin on my shoulder.  “He told me about the idea Bob, and we spoke about it with Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin.  We could bypass all the site defenses, and come straight to the generator room to sabotage it.  Doctor Meilin took control of all of your drones with some help from Danielle, Jason and I did most of the digging, and Colonel Gantt chose the moment.  We were monitoring for a while.”

Colonel Gantt spoke up, almost apologetically, “It wasn’t the best time.  I would have waited longer if we could have, but the optical lead was showing me a pretty clear indication you were headed to the trash chute soon, so I called it the best I could.”

“Good timing, Jim, thank you.” He didn’t frown when I used his first name.

I didn’t really care that he didn’t frown though, for as long as I was kissing my wife.

After a couple minutes, when that beautiful kiss had stopped, I couldn’t help but remember Facet’s last words to me. ‘You misunderstand us.  We are not psychopaths, because we are not human or symbiote.  We are predators.’

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.40: What Trap?

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

The meeting went on for another three minutes or so, to solidify the plans that would hopefully fool Facet into thinking that we were either unwilling or unable to assault their facility.  At the same time, we began taking actions that could be considered credible first steps towards containment to allow for a very energetic assault or bombardment.  Jason and Mouse with an escort moved around the site perimeter, setting off seismic charges to build a better map of the place.  His biofactory drastically modified itself, feeding off organics from the topsoil, trees, grasses, etc., that were available, as well as getting occasional modifications directly from Jason or Mouse using matter reprogramming.  The carbon from the constructs was put to good use in the biofactory.

The biofactory that was once something very much like an inchworm with a big mouth was now something more resembling a mantis shrimp.  It was creating a trench in the rock around the facility, with the assistance of a few smaller biofactories from some of the soldiers and Recovery personnel that were collecting discarded limbs from the mining biofactory, repairing them, and then returning them to the biofactory.  The Buckyballs were being used to lubricate the high-speed limb joints that drove the graphene and carbon nanofiber rock cutting tools that were constantly needing repair.  Jason and Mouse were working fast, but it would still take days to cut a substantial trench around a diameter as big as the underground facility.  Most of the muscular power the mining biofactory was using was electrical, and Mouse was pulling a lot of power from the virtual world for Jason to feed it.  None of this was wasted effort, if I failed.  The trench would allow easier monitoring of the facility, and could be heavily trapped.

After Colonel Gantt uploaded his imagery of the first battle through the virtual world into an embedded virtual space for viewing, the military perked up and took notice, immediately requiring every active duty symbiote pair to learn to modify their storage nodes into processing nodes.  Humans without symbiotes would not be required to leave the military, but they were removed from frontline combat duties, relegated to support.  Most of the remaining human soldiers who had been in frontline military occupations took on symbiotes, predictably.  They had seen what their companions could do, and psychologically they wanted to be in the front lines.  That’s why they chose those military occupational specialties in the first place.  Some, however, simply couldn’t deal with the thought of another intelligence sharing their body.  The military didn’t mind, so long as the non-paired didn’t try to insist on staying in the front lines where they would be a liability.

With all the time and effort the military had put into coming up with ways to fight Frank and me, I hoped they had a few surprises I didn’t know about that would work against the AI.  I had my doubts.  The military had been developing systems with electronics designed for remote communications and remote control over the last few decades, and Facet would own anything with remote electronic interfaces.  Like the laser satellite system A had taken out.  I couldn’t exactly expect the military to just open up and let me evaluate all the systems they designed to deal with me.

I did mention my concern about the military’s dependence on command and control electronics to Colonel Gantt.  He gave me a funny look, before telling me that he was well aware of that particular problem, and had already reported it.  Then he apologized and thanked me for offering a good observation.

There was one important thing that I had to do to before trying to infiltrate.  I needed to keep myself visible to the AI on the surface.  It had certainly re-established at least some sensors on the surface, and it would be watching us.  I linked by cable with Ayva and we had a very short conversation about me coming back, before starting what I hoped would be a believable subterfuge.

We started working with four Recovery triplets to create an absurdly huge biofactory, one that was far larger than even A or B had ever been.  The Recovery agents would act as nodal intelligences, allowing Ayva and I to control the entire mass.  It was nearly half a mile in diameter, and it was growing very slowly despite all the effort we were putting into it.  The design was pretty clear.  It would cap the top of the plug of stone that Mouse was creating with his moat, and slowly grind down the pillar of stone containing Facet’s complex, obliterating everything under it.

It was a plan that could actually work, but it would take weeks for us to create the biofactory.  It would be clear to any advanced outside observer that we were having difficulties with design and cohesiveness, and those difficulties were not faked.  Ayva and I brought Doctor Meilin into the connection as well, since she had a lot more practical experience with integration on a large scale than we did, and she delegated Jane and another of her lieutenants to split the rest of the Recovery cadre between them, monitoring the cave entrances with sparrows and sensors dropped by sparrows.

After Frank and I had organized the biofactory construction project, we started to create alternate selves again, another twenty-five of them.  Frank had complete control of the process for the last duplicate we created.  Splitting off alternate selves was tricky, and in this case, we were moving quants from our original body into the alternate, while at the same time creating upgrades in the current body.  We wanted to do it this way, all at once, so the number of energy expenditure spikes would match the number of new alternate selves.  The connection to Ayva and Doctor Meilin by cable was maintained on the alternate, which had also been left with a very advanced Frank shard that itself had within it a very capable model of my intelligence.  It was almost indistinguishable from my old body, and would even respond a lot like me if directly addressed.  It did have two newly created quants, giving it a total of four.

The advanced electromagnetic stealth surfaces were also able to absorb and retransmit vibrations to fool sonar and vibration detection systems.  We carried more capacitors than any other body I had ever created, to power our equipment as long as possible.  In addition to all that, Frank had created a special physical module to handle the stealth systems.  Not only would it detect and retransmit incoming electromagnetic and vibration signals, it would preprocess the incoming data from all of the several million sensors into a format Frank or I could interface with directly, allowing us to see everything with the same fidelity that the stealth system could see.

My body would appear to remain connected to Ayva by cable, and Danielle would control its two new quants.  As all the new alternate selves waited, Danielle navigated through my old body to one of the two new quants, activated it, and then did the same again for the other new quant.  As I watched, it looked like the Frank shard, working with Danielle, were able to give a convincing performance.  All four quants were now enabled, like as if I wanted much more redundancy in my body.  Danielle was pulling power into my old body to charge the twenty-five new constructs, including me.

After charging, all twenty-five new bodies went into stealth, ran over to the trench Jason and Mouse were creating, and jumped across it, starting to patrol the inner perimeter.  Every couple minutes, a sparrow designed to carry power would fly across the trench and one of the constructs would become visible, and then the sparrow would land on its cooler and top off the construct’s capacitors.

We wouldn’t have that recharge option where we were going.

“You ready, Frank?” I asked, internally.  I had completely disabled my ability to speak out loud, just to keep me from accidentally blurting out something audibly if we ran into something ugly.  I had also disabled involuntary muscle reactions that would result in movement of my body.  Frank had seemed mildly surprised that I had done these things, but satisfied.  I strongly suspected this was going to be a mentally scarring episode, worse than where we found Jason and Mouse.

“No.  Way too many unknowns.  Ready as I can be though.  All systems are good.  The sparrows check out too.”

I directed a little attention to the four construct sparrows in the kangaroo pouch.  They might be handy.  Scratch that, in a fight they would be invaluable.  They were the advanced models Frank had been working on, with a stealth system.  Not the best stealth system Frank could design, but the best he could jam into something the size of the sparrows without getting rid of other critical features.

Symbiote instincts were very strange.  When faced with a being at or near their own level of capability, they generally tried to cooperate.  When faced with a being significantly lesser capable than themselves, they would typically assume a command position if they could, unless presented with a good reason not to.  When faced with something more powerful than them, or incomprehensible, their first instinct was to attack.  This made me wonder what the original society of the Kor must have been like.  How had they ever managed to build a civilization?  Human civilization, for better or worse, had always been based on strong central leadership figures, supported by the masses.  Maybe the Kor civilization had been like that as well, at one point?  Had symbiotes been specifically engineered to change that, to force leadership to prove their fitness to lead by some clever subset of AI designers who were tired of top-down political bullshit?  Symbiotes could have served their intended role as a space travel facilitation method without having any sort of aggressive instinct at all.  I wondered how much thought A and B had put into that.  If I got another opportunity one day, I’d try to remember to ask.  The thought of politicians actually being forced to prove their ability to lead and make good decisions sent warm fuzzy sensations through me, and I smiled a bit.

“Bob, do I want to know why you smiled?  I picked up some of that, but it wasn’t clear.”

“Just thinking about what the future might hold, Frank.”

As far as I could figure it, Frank was willing to do this, despite the real danger to our existence, because Facet was advanced enough to be dangerous.  It had demonstrated some abilities Frank could not match, and attacked us.  If it proved itself far too powerful for us to handle, Frank would undoubtedly engage full retreat mode and try to get us away, so we could regroup, rebuild, advance ourselves, and attack again later.  If it had not attacked us already, Frank might have attempted a more cerebral route of attack, which wouldn’t necessarily have led to a fight.  Way too late for that now.  The fact that A and B wanted Facet dead or crippled in its ability to affect the world said a lot for the potential power of the being.  What we had seen so far supported pre-emptive action, at least at my level of comprehension.

After a few more tests of newer designs, we slowly and carefully made our way into the facility, all senses active, including the enhanced input from the stealth system.  The claws on our feet were bent backwards to prevent them from tapping stone, and sealed with the stealth material, as were the pads of our feet.  I had never seen so clearly before.  Everything was easily visible.  Even the enemy units that were under active stealth.  Our new stealth system was highest order, quantum input and output.  It was able to defeat detection by parallax analysis because it operated at a level that selectively directed output at observers.  It could detect observation, because observation had an impact on the quantum environment that the stealth system could quantify.  The enemy units in stealth, however, were using molecular technology.  We could see them clearly, because our own stealth system could detect that they were observers.  Once we knew where an observer was, parallax calculations using data from the stealth system’s inputs measured against the immobile background as we moved clearly defined the observers.  We didn’t even need gravity senses, but we used them anyway.  There was too much we didn’t know about what Facet could and couldn’t do.

There were constructs everywhere, most of them working, the rest were in what at first seemed to be random places, perfectly still, carrying obvious weapons systems, and in stealth.  All of the workers were communicating on at least some level by using sound, in addition to the sound they generated as they built more constructs, or cut into the walls, ceilings, or floors.  After seeing a group of workers move, and then seeing three guards move slightly, Frank did some calculations, and determined that the guards were standing in places where large numbers of echoes intersectd.  They were apparently using the workers as a source of sound for echolocation.  If anyone entered the chamber without the ability to avoid interrupting the sound of the worker’s communications, they would immediately be triangulated, no matter how good their electromagnetic stealth might be.

Frank was carefully analyzing enemy movements, identifying unit types and their capabilities as well as he could, counting them.  He was a very unhappy symbiote by the time we had reached several layers down into the facility, having counted more than half a million simple worker constructs, and at least fifty thousand combat constructs.  As we got deeper into the facility, we saw constructs assembling computers from extremely precise components, nothing like the components of the constructs that were assembling them.  The computers were being placed wherever excavations for coal and ores had apparently ceased.  “Bob, this level of industry is crazy.  If eighty percent of this much industrial capacity was devoted to reproducing itself, and the resulting additional capacity re-invested in reproduction at the same percentage, Facet could outstrip the current industrial capacity of humanity in a year.”

Eventually we got to a point where there had been a lot of recent filling in of holes in the rock, rather than digging.  We moved back and forth across the level, and there was only one way deeper, a narrow tunnel with the sound of water coming out of it.  There was no way we could dig without exposing ourselves, but Frank really didn’t like the idea of entering a narrow tunnel, which had constructs entering and leaving regularly.  The emerging constructs were wet, every one.

There wasn’t any other way around it though, we had to go through the tunnel.  Frank and I checked again, just in case there was a hidden alternate route, carefully scanning with gravity sight for evidence of concealed passages.  Nothing.

We carefully went back to the tunnel, which, despite obviously being some sort of entrance to a higher security area had no guards at this end.

I consulted Frank, who was redlining his processors.  “Frank, this has to be a trap.  Why are there no guards?  The only thing moving in and out are data haulers.  This is the best place for a security checkpoint that I’ve seen, but there’s nothing here.”

“I agree.  I don’t understand.  We really don’t have any other choice besides leaving though.  Maybe the security is all at the other end of this passage?”

I stood still for a moment, back and forth thoughts.  Such a huge security effort above, maybe there really was no security at this point?  This did not fit the profile of a smart enemy, but it was a damn AI, they sometimes had the strangest gaps in understanding when they were not sentient, would they be the same when sentient?

“Best I can think of is that it’s a psychological checkpoint.  Facet knows we are aware it is highly intelligent, and capable of doing some things better than us.  This may be unguarded simply because it really would be stupid to leave it unguarded, and Facet would expect anyone who got to this point to refuse to believe it is unguarded.”

“Bob, that’s ridiculous.”

“Frank, what are we doing right now?  I believe we are doing nothing, trying to figure out what the fuck Facet was thinking here.”

“… Point.”

“Fortunately, we have at our disposal an impulsive, moderately well-educated redneck with significant emotional control issues, and they are ready to guide us through the scary forest of incomprehensible psychological doublethink.  Let’s do this.  We just hit ninety-nine percent charge in the capacitors.”

“Bob, you scare me sometimes.”

“I scare me sometimes too, if it’s any consolation.”

“If you didn’t scare yourself thinking about some of the things you’ve gotten us into, you would be certifiably insane, but still… Not.  Really.  Comforting.”  Frank intentionally allowed a brief pause to drive that point home to me.  “That doesn’t mean you’re wrong about what we need to do though.  It’s either go back, go forward, or start our assault here with no clear idea of where the target is.”

The data haulers moved through the passage fairly regularly, one in, and then one out.  They were small, fat little constructs with flattish limbs that we hadn’t understood before we knew they apparently were designed to swim.  We fell in behind one, and followed it.  The fat little machine trundled down the narrow path, sloped at about ten degrees downwards, and after about fifty feet, it waddled into the water, immediately dropping from sight with strange grace, and almost no turbulence in the water’s surface.

The water wasn’t water, I realized.  It was mineral oil.  Frank and I clambered up the walls as we saw a data hauler under the surface of the oil, coming at us rapidly.  We held ourselves in place by pushing against the walls with arms and legs, and the data hauler passed underneath us.

We let ourselves carefully down onto the floor.  How did we miss that the liquid on the data haulers was mineral oil and not water?  Were we missing something else?

I felt a shudder below us.  I immediately climbed back up between the walls, higher than the data haulers could reach if they tried and prepared to stay there a bit while we figured this out.

“Frank, there’s some sort of a security door down there, I think.  It’s letting the data haulers in and out.”

“Agreed.  We should be able to figure it out within a couple passes of the data haulers.”

“Hopefully we will be small enough to get past the door.” I replied.

We considered our options for a minute, and then, immediately after a data hauler dropped into the oil, we dropped two of our birds, stealth systems active, and they slid into the oil, invisible, and started to slowly, carefully examine the surroundings, taking extreme high fidelity visual and audio recordings of everything.  They returned to us twice, carefully climbing either out of or back into the oil only after the passage of a data hauler created turbulence, and then they would climb up a leg I dropped down to the passage floor for them.  We didn’t need to splatter the hallway’s walls with mineral oil from the bird’s wings by letting them fly themselves back up to us.  Each time we sent them back with more complex instructions as we learned more.

“I think we have it now, Frank.  Anything else you can think of that we need to do?” I asked Frank as the sparrows moved back into the kangaroo pouch.

“I would like to watch a few more cycles for deviant patterns.”

So we watched.  The pattern started with a data hauler from the other side sending a signal.  The signal was received by an assembly next to the upwards-sliding door submerged in the oil.  The door would then lift, and another signal was sent, in the direction of the way we had come.  Almost certainly to a small room where we had seen many data haulers sitting idle.  The hauler by the door would move through the door and out of the tunnel.  The incoming hauler would arrive at the tunnel exit a few seconds after the outgoing hauler left.  The hauler would then waddle down the hallway, plop into the water, transmit a different signal, and the door would open.  The inbound hauler would pass through the door, and then the door would close.  After we watched a few of them pass, it was clear, based on small differences in wear and tear on the haulers, that the entering hauler was also the next hauler to leave.  There was no population of haulers on the other side of this door, only one at a time.

“Ready here, Bob.”

“Ready here as well, Frank.  You’ve got this, I think.  You’re much better with slippery surfaces than I am.”

“OK, I have control then.”

We waited for the next hauler to pass us, and then rapidly, carefully followed it into the oil while the turbulence of its passage had not yet settled.  After we entered the oil, we no longer moved rapidly, but slowly, carefully, following the little construct down the short passage to the door, where it obligingly sent its signal.  The door did not open.  We detected a signal above our heads, next to a crack in the stone.  The data hauler, four feet from us, exploded in our face.

Last Chapter   Next Chapter