“Damn, that trooper seemed like a nice enough guy, but if he thinks I’m driving a truck stolen from a guy who was dismembered in his own bathroom, our next encounter is not going to be very pleasant.” I shook my right fist briefly, helplessly, wanting to hit something hard, but settled with banging the fist lightly on the steering wheel before gripping the wheel at ten and two again.
“Hold on, don’t try anything Bob. It has only been about an hour since we left the house. I bet he did call in our plates, but there’s no reason for them to be looking for us yet. They don’t know, or at least they shouldn’t know. We were both so keyed up and expecting someone to follow us that we’ve imagined them discovering the house and acting faster than they should.”
“Are we going to assume that the matchmakers aren’t able to make up something to get us detained even if they don’t expose the house to law enforcement?”
“We can’t assume that, but we don’t know that they have. One trooper isn’t a threat to us. Even if he comes in guns-a-blazing, he’s not going to be a credible threat.”
“I’ll trust you on that. I’ve seen what you can do to fix my body and we’ve got the ice chest, but the possibility of a headshot is troubling.”
“You’re over-worrying. Law enforcement officers don’t do headshots much, unless things go to hell. If we were trying to hold hostages or something, different story. SWAT will do headshots in that situation. If this trooper does pull us over again and we have to resist arrest, he will shoot center mass. Even a heart shot won’t stop us, not from a handgun. And that’s only if he comes at us already drawn. If he tries to draw on us when we are outside the vehicle, there’s no chance he can hurt us. You remember the juggling, right?”
“Yes. But we absolutely cannot kill him. We also don’t want to be too abnormally fast while in front of the patrol car’s camera. That might mean that we will have to take a hit. I think it will be worth taking a hit to avoid giving anyone proof that we’re much faster than a human should be. We do not want to have a platoon of Marines airdropped on us if we look like some sort of killer robot from the future or something.”
The officer’s patrol car flew past us, made a couple of lane changes, then used the next off ramp. As we passed under the bridge and continued down the highway, we could see the blue lights going the opposite way back towards Atlanta.
“Well, breathing room then. Good, but now there’s a record of us heading in this direction.”
“True, but heading West from Atlanta doesn’t really say much. Especially since they will know that we know that they know we were on this road going in that direction.”
I took a moment and parsed the meaning of the ‘we know, they knows’. “Agreed, but we need to think more about what we’re doing. We also need at least four more things, and buying them will probably blow out the credit card. We need to get them before we go out-of-state too, or else the bank might not process the request because it’s out-of-state and I didn’t tell them I’m travelling. Might as well use it before it gets locked. Might be good to stock up on high density or dehydrated foods too.”
“Four things. What are you thinking?”
“Scanner for police and other emergency bands, being able to hear at least some police traffic would be a very good idea. A solar charger for its batteries. A backpack frame. A box of big nails.”
“I understand the scanner, charger, and backpack frame. Why the nails?”
“In case you need to do any combat juggling.”
“Oh, yes, that would work. They would need to be at least ten penny to be stable enough to throw accurately at anything more than very short ranges.”
“Maybe heavier if you need to throw them at the tires of vehicles?”
“Yes, I can probably throw ten penny nails through passenger car tire sidewall at short-range. Tread surfaces are a different story. For passenger car tire tread surfaces, I believe twenty penny nails would be heavy enough for a strong throw to penetrate, but I have no clear evidence to base that on, as I’ve never witnessed you trying to puncture the tread surface of a car tire before. Steel-belted radial tires, which are what most cars have, have steel wire belts in them under surface of the tread. Neither of us have ever seen exactly how those wires look. Without knowing that, it’s really hard to say with certainty that even a twenty penny nail would penetrate the tread of any tire with the force I can impart with a thrown twenty penny nail.”
“If we end up needing to hunt for food, nails are a lot quieter than bullets, and a lot easier to haul around than a bow.”
“Your camping kit is pretty sparse these days. What else?”
“We need to be able to carry everything without a strain. I have a good folding knife and a good sheath knife, a space blanket, a ground cloth, a pup tent, a mess kit, and a small spool of 550 cord. That’s all we really need.”
“Flint and steel?”
“We can make a fire bow when we need one. Especially as fast as you can make one move.”
“I’d like to add to that list. A small bag of charcoal or some other fairly dense source of carbon. Some sort of spider silk sample. Some old electronics. A goldfish.”
“Mind me asking why you want that stuff?”
“Not at all. Charcoal, so I can try my hand at carbon nanotubes, graphene, and diamonds. Spider silk, so I can try to duplicate it under your skin for protection. Old electronics, so I can absorb them and use them for my own needs. A goldfish, because it’s a carp, and can survive in water with low oxygen content.”
“OK, we need to talk here. I understand that my body is your house and all, but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t remodel too much without talking to me about it.”
“I will not change your genetic code in any way – remember that would be deadly to me. I will not create any permanent structure on your body that is visible from outside, without your permission.”
“Hmm, that sounds reasonable, but I would like to add two things. First, don’t make my body dependent on electronics. Second, do not interfere with my ability to reproduce. The family jewels are off-limits.”
“You haven’t been using them all that much over the last couple decades.”
“That might change one day.”
“Can I at least move the dangly bits around a bit to keep them safer inside the body?”
“…” I had to pause a second to avoid snapping out angrily. “No. You already said you wouldn’t change the shape of my body.”
“Look, Bob, we have no idea what we’re heading into. I will not do anything permanent that can’t be returned to normal quickly. I wasn’t proposing to change the way you look, I would put fat bodies where the testes were to keep everything looking the same to a casual or even a close non-medical examination.”
“Sorry, I’m just nervous. You seem very eager to make all sorts of changes to my body, and that worries me. You know how I think, I can’t say the same for you yet. Sometimes we’re on the same wavelength, and sometimes you go way off into left field and I can’t figure out how you got there. Yes you can move my testes into my torso to better protect them. Later. When I’m not driving.”
“Understood, and I should have figured that you would have this reaction. You’re right though, I will need to talk to you more about my plans for your body. Remember though that your body is my house, and I want to do everything I can to make it better able to survive.”
“Being inconspicuous is part of staying alive at this point, I think.”
“Yes. Full agreement. So let’s talk about my ideas for remodeling. First, we need to get you in shape. I’m actually slowly doing that as we speak, but I don’t want to heat you up too much so it’ll take a couple of days at room temperature. Fifteen minutes if we find a place where there’s a cold shower handy. I’m going to keep all the fat on you for now, because I don’t have a better storage arrangement yet, but your muscles and cardiovascular system will be top notch.”
“I like the sound of that. Be nice to be in shape again. Let me guess. The carbon is to either reinforce or replace my bones?”
“Yes, over time – starting with the head and spine, then the long bones, and the rest over time. Months of time unless we find a safe place where we can do a lot of heat transfer, rapidly. Diamonds would be simply for money. Sell them to pawn shops or something. We might have to get one from a jeweler first though, so I can take it apart and see what impurities are in it. I don’t know anything about diamonds, but I know artificial ones are cheap, and what I make might look artificial without seeing natural ones first.”
“Don’t waste your time on diamonds till we have a sample of one that we know has value. Now the spider silk, you said that would be for some sort of armor?”
“On the bottom of the dermal layers, but above the muscles, yes. If I can duplicate spider silk, and I almost certainly can since spiders can make it, then I should be able to put a thin layer of spider silk under your skin. Not enough to stop all bullets, but enough to at least slow most bullets down, as well as stop slower projectiles. I will also use it to reinforce connective tissues between bones, and as a framework for shock absorbing layers between graphene and nanotubes in your bones.”
“OK, that sounds good too. The electronics, I suppose, will be repurposed into electronics for you. How is that truck monitor coming along anyway?”
“Actually it’s nearly done. I’ll speed up and finish it in a few seconds.” My right arm got warm, and I lifted up my sleeve to look. Connected to my skin was a small pendant with a chain.
“Interesting. What’s the chain made of.”
“Oh, did you fully absorb both of those old circuit boards? Even all the silicon?”
“Except the capacitors, which I stored whole. Easier to store them as-is then disassemble them and deal with all the chemicals. At some point with a lot more resources and time I can make better ones. I won’t need more silicon for a while unless I build a lot of solar-powered stuff.” A few seconds pass. “OK, it’s done, you can pull it off now and hang it over the mirror.”
“Solar powered?” I said as I pulled the pendant off my skin and held it a few inches in front of my face to look at it closely. “That’s pretty neat – it looks like a cheap piece of costume jewelry, but I’m guessing that was intentional?”, I said. Then I hung the camera by its chain over the rear view mirror.
“Yup copper & silicon from the electronics, cheap looking to discourage someone trying to steal it”
“You already have a receiver built?”
“Yes. That was easier, it’s all internal.”
“Nope – that one won’t do much at night. I can modify it later to connect it to a battery.”
“How easy would it be to build a monitor to detect the signals from those organic transmitters like what you were building earlier without realizing it?”
A pause. “I hadn’t even thought about that. I’m not sure how much good it would do. I had a store of materials saved up, probably from your diet over the years, which would have been ideal for creating a moderate capacity transmitter and receiver. I even had designs for them and firmware code, but not the actual frequencies or codes that would have been used to communicate.”
“Interesting. So it looks like when a symbiote like you manages to establish communications with its host, a signal is sent out, but there is no way to receive a signal back. Not immediately. The command to create a receiver – how would you get that?”
“Probably external. Someone shakes your hand, for example? If you were transmitting data or even just identifiable pulses of electronic noise, someone might approach you and greet you, shake your hand, and the hand contact might cover the injection of nanites with commands to create a receiver and begin communicating.”
“Or maybe it’s hardwired into your code to simply recognize a visual signal and start building a receiver and listen to it? Maybe from the television? Perhaps an audio signal from radio?”
“I had not even considered that – still used to considering myself as an isolated system. I checked physical connections into my system and didn’t even think about pure data based back doors. Time for a complete self-analysis. This will take several hours. I’ll be watching your adrenal levels and listening for you to call me. Tell me when you find a store so I can monitor the camera in the truck.”
“Wait a second. Why the goldfish? And how are you going to analyze it?”
“Goldfish can survive in very low oxygen content environments, and they have gills. Two things that might come in handy some day. You can just swallow one and I’ll collect it before it’s damaged too much in the stomach.”
“That’s sort of creepy. You can copy stuff like that without changing my genetic code, right?”
“The easiest way for me to analyze small things that aren’t too strangely shaped is if you just swallow them. I can also create an opening on the skin anywhere and you can drop it in? I can’t imagine a scenario where I would make any changes to your genetics. Remember I get sick and die if your genetic code changes.”
“Goldfish, I’ll swallow. If you decide you want a spider, we’ll do the skin route.”
“OK” I heard humor in Frank’s voice that time.
“Laugh if you want, but I’m not swallowing a spider.”
“Sorry, couldn’t resist. I’m starting that thorough self-analysis now.”
“Should I turn on the AC to let you work faster?”
“No. My processing and data storage systems don’t generate much heat at all, unlike the nanites that interface with your systems.”
“OK.” After a few seconds of silence I reached up to turn on the radio. My hand stopped.
“Please no, remember, I’m self scanning for a code level backdoor trigger that might come from audio or video media signals.”
“Damn, sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Guess I’ll do some thinking about the future while you look for code back doors.”
I’d never been this talkative before. Well, not since college. It seemed strange. The whole thing was crazy and I expected to wake up at any time. I was getting ready to steal nearly $1000 from the bank. There was no way I would be able to pay this card off if I stayed on the run. I figured that the bank would just have to put a lien on the house, or maybe I could just somehow sign the truck over to them. Then I realized I had left the truck’s title in the lockbox in my closet. Why didn’t I think about that?
My mind continued over a bunch of random topics, this, that and the other. Trying to cover as many possibilities and potential problems as I could. I suspected that Frank and I were overreacting and under-reacting to the whole scenario in different ways, but reality was so weird at that point that it was hard to tell where sensible caution stopped and paranoia started. I’d never been a criminal, or been on the bad side of the law. I had no idea how law enforcement actually worked. Sure, I had watched cop shows, but cop shows and cooking shows were similar in many ways. Both types of shows show you the beginning, the end, and a couple of steps in the middle, but you don’t see the whole process.
We needed to learn how to evade law enforcement, which meant we would have to learn the hard way, or be taught. I doubted that finding a teacher for such things would keep us on the right side of the law. Maybe we could hire ourselves out as bodyguard muscle? We could certainly do a better job of protecting someone than I ever could before. We would certainly want to do some sparring first to get a real idea what we could do in a fight. It would be a sad end if we ended up frying ourselves protecting some mobster from a hit. I chuckled.
At that point, I passed a sign for another town, and a couple of minutes later I saw that the exit for that town lead up to a four-lane road over the interstate bridge rather than a two lane road. I decided that with a four lane road present, there would probably be a decent sized town nearby, so I took the exit. Ten minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of a substantial mall. I figured I would be able to find everything here. There was even a sporting goods store.
“Hey Frank” No response. “Frank?” I tap my head with my knuckles. “Anyone else at home in there?”
“Very funny. Sorry. Trying to get to a good spot to stop for a few minutes. Setting up some restrictions and controls to prevent anything from writing into the code I’ve already checked. This will significantly reduce my capacity.”
“We’re going into a place with lots of video and audio signal. Do you just want to monitor the truck and my body, not the audio and video input from my ears and eyes? Can you do that?”
“I can do that, but it would make me extremely nervous.”
“Having you open to potential corruption after what we survived scares me too. This credit card will be disabled soon – we want to use it up before the house is found, and before we get too close to wherever we end up going.”
“I understand it, but I don’t like it. I’ll be watching your nervous and endocrine systems for enhanced activity, and the truck.”
“OK, don’t actually expose yourself unless I bite my lip and make myself bleed, or take a bleeding wound. If some kid on roller blades hits me and startles me, you don’t need to respond.”
An hour later, with no problems encountered, we were once again driving down the highway looking for a rest stop to get all the gear stored in the new pack. The scanner was already out of its package, mounted on the dash, and active at low volume.
Briefly, before Frank went back to checking himself out, I explained my internal thoughts from earlier about learning to avoid law enforcement. Frank and I agreed that trying to do some bodyguard work might be a good idea. We decided to head to Nashville, since that would give us more directions to run to if need be, and if urban legend meant anything, there would be a substantial organized crime presence there.
I looked at the goldfish in its cheap plastic water-filled bag stuffed into an empty cheap clear plastic bowl to protect it, and shook my head. I had managed to get through college without swallowing one, but I guess fate had other ideas. I couldn’t imagine it would be that bad. I liked sushi anyhow.
About halfway between the Georgia/Alabama state line and Birmingham, I pulled off at an exit with a sign for a gas station. The truck needed fuel, I needed a bio break, and I could get the gear stored in the pack while I was in the parking lot.
“Frank. You close to done yet?”
“I finished the code cleanup about five minutes ago. I am designing some paranoia code based on what I found in there. There were hidden instructions for after I became active, as you suspected. The receiver would have been completely unnecessary, unless you went more than two weeks without seeing one of those stupid ‘One old trick’ ads with the shrinking fat woman and the tape measure. Whenever you saw one of those ads, I was programmed to check in the next night when you were asleep, by simply going online to a free web mail service.”
“So, they tailored the trigger to me and my habits of viewing forums, and if I broke those habits and made the trigger useless, the transmitter would be activated, a receiver built, and someone would come around and provide me a new trigger based on what sorts of activity I had taken up?
“That’s my take too, but it’s all guesswork. All we have is the email address.”
“Well, that might be a starting point for us one day when we stop running. I don’t think we want to try to grab the tiger by the tail quite yet. You have checked everything now?”
“Search was a clean sweep. Every single command structure is swept, every single network connection accounted for. Every storage file scanned for executable elements. I found over six hundred hidden commands, all of them designed to have me performing actions when you were in REM sleep based on different scenarios. Why are we stopping?”
“Restroom, top off the tank, another drink, and I’ll pack up the equipment here too. The rest stop we passed a few minutes ago was loaded with cops busting someone in the restrooms there, looked like. Six hundred hidden commands?”
“Yes. Six hundred and twelve actually. Everything from creating symptoms of false illnesses to get you to return from long periods away from civilization so I could check in, to special procedures to take to hide myself from examinations if you were ever imprisoned.”
“This town doesn’t look all that safe.”
“It’s daylight and the gas station there is on the main drag. Looks like there is fairly steady traffic back and forth in front, we should be fine.”
“Yes, but half the buildings along the main drag are boarded up, and almost every car I see is a piece of shit. I don’t like it.”
“Let’s keep our eyes open then, but I really want to get the gear squared away in the pack in case we have to rabbit.”
We pulled up to the station. The pumps were so old that they couldn’t take debit cards, which irritated me until I realized that my bank account was empty anyway, and the credit card run up to its max. The tank was at about half full. I walked inside, grabbed a sports drink and a couple high energy snack bars, leaving a fifty dollar bill with the clerk. I told her I would be filling up the tank and coming back for change.
As I walked back outside and started pumping fuel, I noticed a couple young men hanging out in front of a boarded up building in the lot next to the station. They weren’t looking my way so I ignored them while I pumped my gas, then went inside to get my change from the clerk. Almost thirty bucks in gas alone. I walked back out to the truck, got in, and pulled the truck into a parking spot at the side of the building.
“The clerk can’t see us here.”
“Neither can their security cameras, at least the ones I saw.” I looked over at the pumps and the overhang above them. “I don’t see a camera there and I doubt this place can afford top of the line concealed cameras.”
“You are dragging out over a thousand dollars worth of gear in front of a couple shady characters over there.”
“I’ll take the risk, I want the gear stowed. Looks like they are lookouts anyway, doubt they will mess with me directly.”
“We were just talking about how we don’t know criminals.”
“Yes, but we do know military. Those two are on watch. They might even be ex-military since they seem to be trying to keep a good watch. They are scanning constantly, not talking to each other, and one of them is regularly looking me over since I moved to park here.”
“Something important to them inside that building then, probably. We’re close enough for them to watch us carefully. Agreed, minimal risk from them so long as nothing changes around them. Please pack fast, and don’t turn your back on them for more than a second.”
It took a couple of minutes to remove all the packaging from the pack, then store all the camping gear and food in it except for a couple of energy bars and packs of trail mix I left on the front seat. I tossed the pack back in front of the passenger side seat and locked the passenger door. As I turned towards the back of my truck after closing the open truck door, I noticed a full-sized van pull up in front of the building with the two guards. I watched it out of curiosity as I walked towards the trash can with the packing materials and other junk from my truck.
While tossing the trash, I saw what looked to be a teenage girl or very young woman with her hands held behind her back by a big man. He was pushing her towards the door of the building by the guards. She couldn’t be seen from the road past the van. She struggled and almost managed to break free of the big man by stomping on his foot and startling him. He only lost his grip with one hand, and slapped her hard on the side of the head with the hand that had let go. Then he grabbed her shoulder with the loose hand and starting her moving towards the building again. The slap to the side of her head from behind had turned her head towards me. When she saw me, her facial and body language clearly screamed for help as she threw out her free hand directly towards me like I was a lifeline. She didn’t make any noise. Her mouth was covered with duct tape. No way anything legitimate was happening there.
“This wasn’t the way that we wanted to introduce ourselves to the criminal element.”
“I’m not putting up with this sort of shit whether I’m a criminal or not, and I can’t exactly call the cops.”
“We could tell the clerk?”
I agreed. “Yes, we could.” Then I started walking towards the abandoned building, and both lookouts immediately turned my way. The closer one to me raised a hand to the other, and the far lookout turned away. Obviously the near fellow thought he had this under control. “Frank? I said under my breath. Need a quick favor.”
“Can you modify my fingerprints so I don’t leave any that will identify me?” Warmth spread over the fingers and palms of both hands, then faded.