When I woke up the next morning, Frank had the tablet computer in hand and was reading up on neural structures. This startled me for a second when I realized we hadn’t talked about the possibility of Frank experimenting with and/or ‘improving’ my mind.
“Ah, Frank, seeing what you are reading about, we need to talk.”
“Oh, I see where you might be concerned. No, I don’t plan to mess around with your mind.”
“You also agreed not to change the way I look without permission, and we’ve had a couple fights over that.”
“Well, yeah, but that’s different.” Frank, sounding defensive. A first. Perhaps even a good thing.
“I know you mean well Frank, and you want to make my body a better place for you to live, but humans have this psychological thing where the condition of our body has an impact on our mental health. That’s above and beyond us simply being inconspicuous. What you have done so far, that we have agreed to, is comfortable for me. With the exception of the kangaroo pouch which I’ll deal with because it is highly useful for allowing you to store small things and absorb substances you can’t easily get from my diet, or that can’t be easily swallowed.”
“I was hoping you would see my way on at least that much. The pouch is really handy.”
“Yes it is, I agree, but why the interest in neural structures?”
“Well, two things. The first thing is that if your brain is damaged, I need to be able to put things back together again, and a lot of what goes on in your brain is beyond my current understanding. That’s why I can’t talk directly into your brain, and why you have to speak for me to understand you. I’m not about to experiment on your brain either, in order to learn. That leads me to the second thing. I can’t experiment on your brain, so I started experimenting on insect brains, which led me to a great idea. Here, I’ll show you.”
All of a sudden I could hear voices and the clink of silverware. Sounded like a restaurant, but the sound was extremely clear and precise. The hotel we were in didn’t offer anything more than a serve yourself fruit and cereal bar, so I knew it was from another building.
“Wow, how far away is that sound that you are hearing?”
“It’s four buildings away, about a block down the road.”
“How? It’s so clear!”
“Say hello to our new friends.”
I fly landed on my nose, and Frank suppressed my instant reaction to swat it.
“Hey, hey, no friendly fire!” Frank was having fun with this.
I thought about it and watched the fly on my nose, which was just sitting there, completely unmoving. “You can now control flies, and can use them to spy with?”
“Yes and no. I captured some flies and pouched them for study. After I was confident that I knew their physical structures and how they all worked, I started creating my own flies, and modifying them so that I could control their actions and for better auditory sensor range. I’m also working on the visual sensory systems. You don’t want to see that yet. It gives me a hard time so far trying to translate compound vision into something I can use, never mind something I can let you use, but I’m making progress.”
“So how do you control them?”
“They don’t need reproductive organs, so I replaced that mass with neuron bundles to control flight and handle transmission and reception of data through the wings. The wings have traces of conductors in them and act as both receivers and transmitters of extremely high frequency data at very low power. There are six flies between that restaurant and here, transmitting data.”
“So this is how you were able to listen in on the conversation from the interrogation room yesterday?”
“This is what you wanted to show me today, no other surprises?”
“OK. Are you considering any other insects for research?”
“No, not really. Not yet.”
“OK, put these on your list then, please. Spiders as rebroadcast systems, much better higher fidelity antennas, and you might even be able to work in some sort of solar power for the web/antennae. Also some sort of small, quiet flying insect that injects a poison. Redesigned to inject various chemicals of our own choosing.”
“Good ideas, I will research them.”
I thought for a second. Something bothered me about this. “How difficult would it be for you to listen for someone else controlling insects and using them to communicate in this fashion?”
A pause. “Not hard for me to listen passively. I already am in a way, since I’m listening to the flies I have already released, within the frequencies that I have chosen to use. I can certainly listen for others on different frequencies, and put a bit more resource-wise into more active analysis of passively gathered data. That’s a slippery slope though, work-wise. There’s a lot of random noise out there, and my computing capacity is finite.”
“I’ll let you decide how much effort to devote to passive detection of, err, bugs. Wordplay not intended, but I’ll claim it anyway. What about listening for those original transmitters that we found in us on the first day? Are you doing that as well?”
“Yup, always listening for those, as well as the frequency ranges indicated in the transmitter and receiver plans that I had as part of my hidden code. No hits yet that weren’t clearly just random noise.”
“OK, and one last thing, especially now that you have the ability to create remote sensor systems. I want you to see if you can figure out a way to detect yourself at ranges greater than fifty or so feet. If you do find ways to do that, we need to figure out ways to hide it, while monitoring those methods to see if we can pick up others like us. We know they are out there. We don’t know for sure what their reaction is going to be to us getting free of them, but based on the safeguards in place, I don’t trust them to be happy about it.”
“Correction. We think that there are people out there monitoring hybrids like us, based on the transmitters and receivers we found, the plans for better ones, and the 612 rules I found. We don’t know for sure if there are any others that have actually survived what happens when a symbiote and host begin to communicate. We might be the only survivor of the process to date. After forty years, we might well be an abandoned project.”
“That’s possible but improbable. We survived it. I suspect others might have as well, since some of them might have met the ninety percent requirement without needing a hint like you did with me, if they lived in a highly predictable host. They would have never been exposed to the trap that we barely managed to beat, and likely been picked up or controlled in some way.”
“You sure know how to encourage paranoia, don’t you?” muttered Frank in my head.
“Aye, sorry, the paranoia streak runs deep, especially with all the crap from the last few days.”
“Why aren’t we hiding up in the woods in Canada then?”
“I was thinking that at first but now I just don’t want to run that far. I want to find a way to legitimize some wealth, then use that wealth to try to figure out where we came from. After that, I don’t know.”
“As the weather gets colder, it’s going to be harder to use insects to monitor around us. We’ll have to move south, and follow warm weather if you want to do that.”
“That will both force us to move around into places we don’t know, and allow us to investigate different places for others like us.”
“If the whole fighting thing works out, as entertainers we might be able to go worldwide?”
“Maybe. Not sure I want to do that. Maybe English-speaking countries.” I shook my head. “Too much too soon. One step at a time. Let’s go get an RV, head up and work for Bill for a while and start making plans for the fighting contest thing. If we try to plan in detail too far into the future, we will be hampering our ability to act in the short-term, and we’ve been doing a lot of short-term decision-making recently.”
“If we don’t start trying to make long-term plans though, we aren’t likely to meet any long-term goals.”
“Yes. Understood, and you are right. I just think that we’re not quite out of simple survival mode yet, not until we have a relatively safe, legitimate place for the money, and have gone more than a day or three without someone trying to kill us. Also, the longer we have for you to invent new and different things with your abilities, the better our survival chances might be.”
“I can see that. I’ll start working on those ideas you mentioned. I’ll also start working on purely electronic systems that will be more obvious than organic bugs, but able to survive in colder weather. For those sorts of things I’ll be needing some pretty expensive materials though.”
“Expensive to what degree?”
“Haven’t looked at pricing for high-end metals and composites yet, but for me to make stuff really small, I’m going to have to be using some space age materials. Most of which I can just assemble from the right components, like I did with the graphene and carbon nanotubes, but not all of them. I’ll see what I can do with low-cost materials first.”
“Sounds like a plan. Let’s go buy a used RV, then go on a road trip and work for Bill a while.” Everything was rapidly packed up, and I thought of something. “Frank, how hard would it be for you to modify one of the cheap cellphones so that they will activate if one of the signal types like what you were looking for gets close to it?
“Not hard. I wouldn’t modify the phone so much as create something that would interact with it. Can I tap into building power to keep the phone battery charged, and power the interactive device?”
“Yes, as long as you tap in so that there’s no risk of a fire if the phone is damaged. Don’t want to burn the place down. It needs to be completely passive too, as passive as a cellphone can be anyway.”
“It will take me about an hour. Is that OK?”
“Sure. I’ll spend the time changing passwords on those two accounts we were given.” I proceeded to grab the tablet and logged into the TheMail account and the TheTube account, changing the passwords to passwords I was used to working with. Since only a few minutes had passed by the time I finished that, I found and watched the two videos taken of me fighting the Romans. It was pretty good work actually. Kids are certainly handy with electronics these days. Then again, compared to my own parents I always was good with the electronics that were around when I grew up. VCR’s and computers without hard drives, etc. Guess it’s just a thing. Kids are always better with the new stuff, probably because they grow up learning it, rather than trying to adapt to it.
There was still some time left before Frank was done, so I surfed around a bit on local news and found the video article Mrs. Rhiner had put together and watched it. It was very cut down and condensed. There was zero mention of Jacob’s sister or family. It was basically a micro documentary of me, whether or not I was really as good as it looked in the TheTube video. The conditions of the match were detailed and the match played in the background while Mrs. Rhiner told everyone a little bit about me. Towards the end there was an interview with Sifu Liu that I hadn’t been present for, where Mrs. Rhiner was asking questions about the match.
Sifu Liu knew I had not been showing all I could do and was clear in saying it, explaining how I was absorbing blows that I had allowed to strike me, even blows that I could almost certainly have dodged. The fact that I stayed almost stationary throughout the whole match, in the center of the floor also indicated that I hadn’t been forced to fight at my full capacity to match him. At the end of the interview, Mrs. Rhiner asked if there were any bad feelings towards me for how the video turned out. He was very clear in saying that there were no hard feelings, because martial arts weren’t about winning. That made me feel better. I was afraid that the fellow might think badly of me, for some reason. Not really sure why, I just didn’t want him to think poorly of me. Even if I had cheated with Frank.
Frank interrupted my thoughts at that point, which wasn’t a big deal as I was just meandering. “OK, done with making the parts, now to assemble and install it.” He took the unused cellphone from the pack, tested it to make sure it would power on, then pulled what looked like a mesh bag with a tail off of my arm where it had been grown. At the base of the tail was a knot. Frank pulled a short whip antenna and a few very thin straps off the other arm, and connected a couple straps to the antennae and ran them under the battery to the phone’s built in antennae.
Frank plugged in the phone’s charger. Then he put the whole phone assembly, the charger, the antennae and straps connecting it, and the phone itself into the kangaroo pouch. We stepped up onto the toilet in the bathroom, then stepped up onto the vanity, and then lifted one of the panels from the drop ceiling. A bunch of dust and small bits of construction leftovers dropped onto the sink area. Frank repressed a sneeze. We would need to clean up after ourselves thoroughly, or it would be clearly obvious that someone had been in the ceiling. Frank glanced around and spotted an electrical junction box nearby, so he carefully jumped up and grabbed a support beam and moved hand over hand to the junction box. The vanity didn’t collapse when we jumped, which I didn’t even think about until we’d already jumped.
After getting close to the junction box, Frank popped a Phillips head screwdriver tip out of the end of my right index finger, and used that to slightly loosen the cover plate so it would slide over, then carefully connected the other end of the charger wires to the live wires in the junction box without disturbing the current connections. All he did to create connections was cut a strip of insulation off both wires, press them together with his fingers, and then extrude what looked to be an epoxy resin of some sort from the fingers to hold the wires together – the epoxy was apparently an insulator. All of this right-handed, while hanging in the air between floors from the left hand, with legs held up to avoid hitting the ceiling below us. I’d say that the plans to get me in shape were working nicely.
Then he tied the bag to the beam using a couple of the straps and pulled the phone back out of the pouch. It was now sealed in the epoxy resin looking material, which was clear enough to show that the phone’s buttons were missing, and there were wires running from where each button was to a little box on the top of the phone. He set the phone on the beam and pulled a couple of wires out of the bag and connected them to the top of the box on the phone and extracted more resin to hold them in place.
Then he turned the phone on and off a couple of times to make sure it started up, and dropped it in the bag, leaving the bag hanging, the phone not visible inside it. A little blackish bag hanging from a beam in the attic is all that the human eye could see. Frank grabbed a few chunks of pink insulating fiberglass from nearby ductwork where there was a rip in the insulation, and glued that onto the bag, concealing it’s shape, and making it look more like a piece of trash that got caught on the beam during construction or maintenance. Then he closed the junction box, screwed it almost tight, and epoxied the wiring running from it to the bag in a few places so it wouldn’t hang loose.
We dropped back down into the bathroom, returned the ceiling tile to its place, and did some cleanup with toilet paper to avoid leaving a ground-in mess on the towels. We also pulled out all the towels and shook them free of dust and tossed them in a pile on the bed so they would get washed. Then we did a white glove test and all was well.
“So If I understood right, you powered the phone charger off the hotel power, the bag is a Faraday cage to prevent the phone from being easily detected unless it is actively transmitting through the antennae. The long tail at the bottom of the bag is the receiver antennae for the signals we are looking for, and the knot at the bottom is a microphone? The box you added is the box which is actually processing incoming data from the tail antennae and microphone, and it will in turn activate a phone call?”
“Yes. I also hacked the GPS and made the phone report that it is at the location of the dumpster of the hotel, which is close enough that the signal towers shouldn’t pick up the deception by triangulation.”
“It’s set to call the other disposable phone then, and the phone in the bag is the one we used to call 911 to report the fight with the Romans?”
“Anything else you can think of we might have missed?
Frank reached up and ran our finger across the top of the molding on the inside of the bathroom door, then grabbed more toilet paper and wet it, running it slightly damp across all of the molding of the door. “Not anymore.” He tossed the paper in the toilet with the rest and we made sure it all flushed before double checking that nothing was left behind and walking out to settle with the desk clerk.
After settling up with the desk clerk and calling a cab from the desk phone, we walked outside.
I clicked the phone and started talking to Frank in a low voice. “Epoxy and screwdrivers Frank? Any more surprises for me?”
“No, the screwdriver was temporary and has already been absorbed again. Carbon fiber with aluminum covering the blades. I made two, one flat bladed, the other Phillips head, didn’t know what I would find up top. If it had been flat bladed, I would have used the other hand to open and close the junction box. The epoxy is just simple chemistry.”
“OK, your versatility is sometimes rather startling, and you’ve surprised me a few times with things that were not much to my liking. I apologize.”
“Apology accepted. It’s not like I haven’t made some mistakes, or been a bit too proactive in the past.”
“Our cab’s here I think.”
I was right. Our cab arrived and took us to the RV dealer. We left several hours later and forty-eight thousand dollars poorer with a small, five year old motor home that could sleep four. I really felt like I needed some lube after the sales guys got done with me, but from the looking around I did on the tablet the other day, it really wasn’t a bad deal for the area. Frank and I knew enough about vehicles that we knew this one wasn’t a problem waiting to happen. I considered getting a smaller motor home, they did have a couple van body units, but decided that it might be nice to have more room for some of the things I had been thinking about since Frank had showed me what he could do with insects and electronics. We had managed to get a decent deal on a set of winter tires with excellent tread, and a trailer hitch extension assembly that would allow me to park a small motorcycle securely at the back of the RV.
We stopped at a motorcycle dealership and picked up a used dirt bike with street legal lights, loaded it up on the trailer hitch rack. Then a few more stops for batteries, copper wires, a few hundred pounds of charcoal, a bunch of mixed batteries plus vehicle maintenance supplies and a substantial collection of small hand tools, including a small high pressure air compressor. One more trip to a pawn shop and I picked up a couple more good tools fairly cheaply, a whole bunch of crappy old tools really cheaply, and several older computers really cheap. Another couple thousand dollars went poof.
Then we went grocery shopping and I bought more beans and rice than I’d ever want to eat, but Frank could certainly use when I was asleep. I bought a bunch of meals worth of foods that I actually liked to eat as well. We probably spent half an hour wandering from place to place in the grocery store, collecting pots and pans here, a few tech related magazines there, and lots of different types of foods and spices at Frank’s direction based on their trace minerals ingredients.
While we were grocery shopping, Frank made us a new solar-powered monitor camera for the RV, with a rechargeable battery from the hardware store inside it, allowing it to operate 24/7 as long as it gets a couple of hours sunlight per day. When we returned to the RV, we pulled down the whip antenna, and Frank used his epoxy to connect the camera to the top of the whip, where it would have an unobstructed view of the area surrounding the RV, though there would still be some blind spots near the RV.
In the parking lot of the grocery store, as a final preparation for the road, I walked carefully around the RV, checking the tires, looking for liquid leaks, and making sure the dirt bike was firmly attached. I triple checked the two jerry cans of gasoline in their locked can holder.
“How are you holding out energy wise after all the building you did today Frank?”
“Doing fine, I’m running low on some metals and whatnot though, mind grabbing a length of that copper and dropping it in the pouch?”
I took care of the copper.
“Oh. Almost forgot. Can you get rid of all the identifying marks on this thing, and change the barrel rifling slightly so it won’t match its old ballistics profile?” I removed the clip from my pistol and made sure nothing was chambered, then dropped it in the pouch next to the copper.
“One cleaned pistol coming up. I should be done in a few minutes.”
“Thanks! Didn’t that sort of thing use up your energy reserves quickly before? And generate a lot of heat?”
“The juice storage means I have a whole lot more energy than before, for this body mass at least. When you were much larger I had more energy, but used much more energy to move and the heat stayed localized when it was generated. All very dangerous to us. The drastically lowered body mass, much better circulatory system, and skeleton made of carbon graphene and nanotube bones increases heat dispersion enormously.”
“Good, good, glad to hear that. I have two ideas. One of which I definitely want you to do. The other is up to you if you want to try it.”
“What do you definitely want me to do?”
“Carbon fiber quarterstaff.”
“Doable. Your height, half-wrist thick?”
“That would be good.” Then I continued “The other idea that I have is a bit more complex.”
“I figured you would be up to something with all the stuff you were buying that didn’t have an immediate, obvious use.”
“I want to give you a couple of ideas to run with. The first is this. If you can actually build and modify organic bugs, have you considered building other organic structures that might do things like generate juice for you, so that if you use it up, you can simply return to base and refill?”
“I don’t see why I couldn’t do something like that. Safely storing the juice might be another matter, but with a little thought I’m sure that can be arranged. Feeding the organic part would be problematic too, and will require some thought, but should be doable. What was your other idea?”
“The other idea hinges on the first idea. If you can build an organic structure of significant size, which you can use to manufacture things in, you could build yourself various plugin components without having to build them inside my body.”
“Heat’s a real problem for us. How about a back mounted cooling system? We put it on like a backpack. It might attach to chest and back with a harness, and then connect to our circulatory system. It would act as a radiator to cool our blood.” I imagined I could feel Frank’s immediate interest, and grinned. “I thought you might like that, but remember we wouldn’t wear it all the time, for the blood in it to stay fresh it would need to be maintained in a substantial sized biological device that can keep the blood viable.”
“That is a very interesting idea. Any other ideas?”
“You remade our bones out of a combination of carbon fiber and spider silk, and you have said that the carbon bones help you to disperse heat very quickly. I was thinking that you might appreciate some armor made of carbon fiber and spider silk, which would connect directly to existing bones at many locations. Not all the time, but only when you need it. Something to help protect long bones, torso, and neck and head. It would plug into sockets or clamp onto bones when you need it to, and when we don’t need it, we can just store it. You would need a large organic device to make something like that, I’d think.”
“In essence what you are proposing is that I make some small organic factories in order to build larger items that would be otherwise impossible or very difficult to build inside your own body. You realize that this would require that your flesh be the template for all the organic components? I know you are pretty attached to your body being kept human-normal looking.”
“Yeah, I suspected that you would have to be using my genetic material for the organic stuff, you did say that you require the presence of my genetic material to survive. I figured the bugs were made with my genetic materials too, right?”
“I am attached to my body, the part with my brain in it, staying within normal human male ranges of appearance, unless you need to change me to keep me alive. If we need to make organic tools from my body’s genetic material, so be it. That’s what I bought the absurd amount of rice and beans for, so you would have biomass to create the factories. If you have to do crazy things with my body to make the factories to start with though, there are a couple of rules. Not when I’m awake, and keep things hidden inside opaque containers. Nothing that leaves our body can be self-aware please. No sweatshop factory slaves. Other people might enter the RV, as guests, so we need to be sure they can’t accidentally open something up and get a shock.”
“Splitting either your mind or mine into multiple parts is well beyond my knowledge. Container security and opacity will be a top priority. That makes a great deal of sense. What did you get the compressor for?”
“Additional cooling if needed.”
“The poor quality old tools? They seemed out-of-place too.”
“I figured you would want to use the steel for some components of the machines, but that was just a guess.”
“Won’t need the steel, easier for me to do almost all of it in carbon, hydrocarbons, or plastics. I can’t imagine that carbon will be hard to get, even if it’s all in charcoal form, even if we have to make it ourselves by burning wood. I could even get it directly from wood, if needed, but that would create a great deal of heat energy inside us or the biofactory that I would have to deal with. Let me think about this and begin planning. This is a substantial undertaking and I had not even considered it before. I look forward to it. It seems very doable, though it will be somewhat of a logistics issue. I would love to have some external components to attach when we need them, since we need to keep you presentable in the human world most of the time.”
“I was hoping that would make you happy, without forcing me to start looking like some sort of killer robot from the future unless necessary. You can make the armor and plugins as utilitarian as you like, but I would like to see you draw them out first before you build them, in case I can offer suggestions.” Frank would probably not consider things like air or water resistance, or armor getting caught in brush. In some ways he seemed very juvenile, especially when it was something new to him. The cellphone thing earlier today was all his design though, so he might prove me wrong, and that would be great.
“I like this plan, Bob.”
I whistled happily as we drove down the road towards Williston.