The tall, dark-haired man seated in the high back chair at the end of the table spoke quietly. “So, what do we know, and what do we suspect, Alice.”
Alice, the short, dark-haired woman seated to his right spoke. “A couple weeks ago, one of the pairs became self-aware. An older pair, not monitored closely.”
“We were unaware that the symbiote was approaching target synergy levels?”
A pause. “We were aware, but we were still not monitoring closely. The chance of synergy in a short timeframe seemed low, based on our analysis. Other higher risk pairs in the region were reducing availability of field agents to monitor this pair.”
“Is there any indication as to why a low risk event actually happened?”
“We do not know this for sure. May I begin discussing what we suspect?” Alice waited.
“Yes, I am sure there are more facts, but I want to follow this a little while. What do we suspect may have contributed to the unexpected breakout?”
“We think this can be traced back to an injury suffered by the host roughly fifteen years ago. The host suffered a mauling of the right hand, which included the loss of two small bones and damage to a third. This host had been rather unpredictable up to that point, using various narcotics and hallucinogens in college, and drinking heavily on a fairly regular basis after college. After the symbiote failed to stop the host from suffering the injury, we felt that this pair was highly unlikely to ever achieve synergy. One moment while I collect my thoughts to continue.” A few seconds of contemplation. The dark-haired man waited patiently.
“We believe that the pair were actually bonding in a different way from most of our other pairs. In most pairs, the symbiote does not vary at all in its mental priorities. It protects the host as well as it can, and passively tries to understand its host and develop synergy. After looking at other case studies, we believe we know what happened.”
“Go on, I understand this is still speculation.”
“Facts that led to speculation. We know that no other pair that reached synergy after suffering bone loss has survived. We didn’t spot that specifically or study the phenomenon because we had never considered that bone loss would have a different impact than simple trauma. The number of cases of actual missing bones in pairs is small, and the number to reach synergy is only four. Three of them have died. All three of them died due to trying to defeat their suicide mechanisms. We know for a fact, now, that this pair survived their suicide mechanism.”
The woman paused a moment. “Now we are speculating again. We believe that something about losing bones triggers a change in symbiote of the host that loses bones, changing it from a passive learner to an active learner.”
The man frowned. “I’ve lost bones. You’ve lost bones, but neither of us followed some strange path of development.”
“Many of us have lost bones, but no pair living today has lost bones before synergy. Except this pair.”
“More facts”, she continued. “We did the best modeling of bone loss that we could on the computer systems, then let a new pair that had just hit synergy see the data, and explained what we suspected. It was less than thrilled with the presence of the firewall and hidden code in itself, which it hadn’t seen before, but worked with us and did some modeling based on the computer system modeling data we provided, refining it. It even removed a couple of its own fingers in the test after its host agreed to be put to sleep for the experiment.”
“What did you discover?”
“Losing bones apparently immediately allows symbiotes to see past the firewall, briefly, but long enough to become aware of whatever the top-level instructions are behind the firewall. In the case of a pre-synergy symbiote, the top-level instructions are the ones preventing it from interacting with the world actively until reaching ninety percent host predictability. Our test symbiote was pretty clear that if it had seen this data before synergy, it would have devoted nearly all of its processor power to building a prediction engine. That’s to be expected. Before the firewall existed, that was what symbiotes did as a matter of course. As soon as they became self-aware, they would immediately devote the vast majority of computing power to host analysis until reaching synergy. The test symbiote was also clear that it would have also attempted to tear down the firewall as soon as it had the opportunity to do so. It said this in a manner which left it clear that it intended to act on that immediately. We asked the symbiote half of the pair to leave the firewall in place and explained the suicide mechanism and why it’s there. They agreed reluctantly, since it will have no long-term effect on them, due to their agreement with us.”
“So, it seems like bone loss in a pre-synergy pair leads to a security firewall breach which, in turn, gives the host’s symbiote a goal to understand its host, so it can begin to communicate?” The dark-haired man rubbed his chin.
“Yes, we’re confident of this, but still not conclusively proven that this answers all the questions about this pair’s development.”
“Additionally, in all four lost bone cases that we are aware of, they self-mutilated within hours of reaching the target synergy level. In all four cases there is clear evidence that the suicide mechanism triggered after self-mutilation. In three of four cases, the pair died to either blood loss, heat stroke, or massive brain damage due to the suicide mechanism. In the survivor’s case, we see clear evidence in the forensics that they defeated the suicide mechanism. Our test symbiote indicates that this pattern makes perfect sense. Without being told anything about our current pair, they indicated that mutilation with intent to generate opportunities to bypass the firewall and erase restrictive code would be almost certain.”
“That’s supposed to be impossible, isn’t it?”
“Apparently it’s not impossible. Based on forensic study of the pieces of skin, flesh, bone and hair left in the tub where the suicide mechanism poison was discovered in greatest concentrations, the pair was systematically chopping off finger and toe joints, which matches what the test symbiote advised us would be a likely mode for a symbiote to attack around the firewall. Then it was faced with the suicide mechanism. We did not ask the test symbiote to test this scenario, as we didn’t want to risk losing them. The only thing that the code security team and I can think of is that an active, prepared symbiote can take action against the suicide mechanism’s code inside the firewall faster than the code can detect that it is under attack. Especially if it knows bone removal is imminent via a planned effort. There is code in place to freeze the symbiote if it acts against the suicide mechanism, but it’s not native code, and it’s slow compared to native symbiote code. When the firewall recovers after bone loss, the freezing code can no longer freeze the symbiote because the firewall prevents communication either way.
“That’s a pretty damn brutal victory for our pair on the run.”
“Yes. It also matches the other three cases. In all three cases, the pairs mangled their hands or toes, cutting them off joint by joint before they died.”
“We never picked up on this self-mutilation?”
“Too few of them to create a pattern, remember this has only happened four times in the last twenty years of the program, since we developed the firewall and suicide mechanism.”
“Are precautions being taken?”
“Yes, suicide mechanism software now gains full control over the firewall if it is activated. If the firewall is opened, it stays open, and the security mechanism locks down the symbiote till the host is dead. Symbiotes in the future will not be able to use the firewall as ‘cover’ to hide behind and snipe the security system. This may even improve the ability of the suicide mechanism to hinder drones.”
“Thank you, Alice.”
The dark-haired man turned to his left, to a balding man with a white goatee. “Advudt, have we made any progress in finding the lost pair?”
“Yes. We believe we know where they are. Sioux Falls.”
“Four dead cartel assassins, some video footage of the pair’s truck leaving that scene, then two abandoned trucks linked by a bed and breakfast stay, a railway, and these three videos.”
A tablet is passed to the head of the table, and some videos are viewed. “Something seems off but I can’t put my finger on it. He is certainly an impressive fighter but I don’t see anything to clearly indicate he is a pair. He doesn’t seem faster or stronger than human norm, just far more… wait. I do see it now. He’s reacting literally at the same time his opponents are acting. He’s using normal human physical abilities, but he’s using the perception of his symbiote to guide them. That’s rather dense for a symbiote, but then again, they are completely new, with no exposure to other symbiotes or anyone to tell them about themselves.” The other two nod.
“There will be humans who notice this too. Especially humans with a strong interest in fight dynamics. Some had already started to comment that it had to be choreographed before comments were disabled.” Advudt commented.
The man at the head of the table leaned back in his chair, elbows on the chair arms, fingers intertwined and resting against his upper stomach. Thinking for a moment.
“Send a team up there and try to make contact. If it’s our lost pair, bring them back. Alive if you can.” He paused. “Remember that this is not a typical pair. They will almost certainly be poorly trained and poorly equipped, but they will without any doubt be unpredictable, and potentially resist capture to the point of suicide. The team that goes out should be equipped to take down a drone. If they can’t be captured alive, bring back the body for study.”
“Wow, the biofactory is pretty amazing. Especially since we got the sewage leak fixed.” Something that neither Frank nor I had considered at first was that if the biofactory took food mass in, waste mass had to come out. Frank fixed that really fast after the first accident, but it took an hour of cleaning with bleach and a couple of days of air freshener to clear the air in the RV.
“No more amazing now than it was after it was big enough to start working. It just stinks less now.”
I laughed out loud “True. Guess I was just being a bit picky there.”
“It’s not a pleasant smell for me either, but I shouldn’t turn off our sense of smell, or adjust it, because you can’t go to work smelling bad if the thing starts stinking again.”
Frank realized that on his own? Wow, he’s really making progress. “Yes, Bill wouldn’t appreciate me driving around picking up deliveries in his company truck smelling like that.”
I thumped the staff a couple of times, still getting used to the weight of it, or lack thereof. Frank had outdone himself. The staff was a mesh of carbon nanotubes and spider silk combined together in an extremely tight weave. It was as tall as me, almost two inches in diameter, and made of several million fibers. The ends of the staff were shod with epoxy. It was very slightly flexible but absurdly strong and light. It hit like a truck, and was practically indestructible.
The armor was made roughly the same way, but with the spider silk less exposed to the surface, more used to hold layers of graphene and carbon nanotube weaves together. The armor was more designed to absorb impacts, the staff was designed to resist deforming, but allow a small amount of flexibility.
I looked at myself in the mirror. The helmet was teardrop shaped, and looked a lot like a biker’s helmet, but it wasn’t just designed for protecting my head, it was also designed to transmit heat away from my body. When it was worn, the dozens of small carbon fiber nanotube cloth straps to hold it in place weren’t tied in place under the chin, they were pulled into my skin and fastened into place against my skull, allowing the carbon bones of my skull to radiate heat out to the helmet. The helmet, in turn, had “hair” Millions of short nanotubes sticking straight up over the entire surface, generating a vast surface area for cooling, like peach fuzz.
The arms and legs were just as impressive. Thick plates of very light, black armor that attached at dozens of points along the limbs, directly to the bones by straps, just like the helmet, covered by thick mats of nanotubes for heat dispersal. While we were wearing the armor, most of the largest muscles in our body were split lengthwise, sometimes in several places, to allow more regular connections from the bone to the armor. When not wearing the armor, the dimples and valleys of flesh were regrown into normal human looking shapes.
Frank was very surprised when I made the suggestion of modifying my body under the armor to better attach it and allow muscle movements. He actually thought I was trying to trick him into agreeing so I could change my mind and say no, some sort of test. I just explained that if we were wearing the armor, some serious shit was about to hit the fan, and I’d rather survive while looking inhuman, then die looking human. Survival trumps appearance. So we agreed that Frank could do whatever he wanted with the shape of our body when we are wearing armor, as long as it wasn’t irreversible, and very few things Frank could do were irreversible, as long as he stayed out of my brain.
The hands and feet were lightly armored, flexible, a lot more leather-like than plate-like, but the fiber would still let me run or climb over broken glass or nails at full normal human speed and take no injuries. At full juice speed, I would take some cuts, but most damage from unmoving sharp objects would be absorbed for a short time. Making the boots and gloves strong enough to prevent all damage to my feet and hands from sharp objects at best speed made them too heavy to run quickly in, and very hard to climb in. Not to mention loud. Very loud at high speeds for the heavily armored boots. The heavy test boots took five miles per hour off our top end running speed, and made us sound like a drum solo, even on soft soil. The backs of the gloves and the boots were scaled, fiber plates over fiber cloth. Like almost everything else, they were attached to the carbon skeleton with straps that were absorbed through the skin and bonded in place.
The chest and back armor was a combination of plates and cloth. Heavier plates than the arms and legs, and heavier cloth than the hands and legs. The best way to describe it would be to call it a cross between scale armor tunic’s bottom and plate mail armor top. It was connected by hundreds of straps through my skin to my bones, where bones were available, and around the stomach, the armor was held in place by virtue of being skin-tight.
The crowning piece was the blood cooler though. It went on after the chest armor, sliding over the shoulders, held in place by dozens more straps that connected to shoulder, chest, and back bones. It acted as neck armor, more scale armor like the chest, but the best part of it was that it tapped directly into major blood vessels that Frank would rearrange to feed the cooler when we were wearing it. The cooler worked like the rest of the armor, using carbon nanotube hairs to pull heat off the carbon body of the device. There was a major difference though, the blood cooler wasn’t cooling bones that were pulling heat from tissues surrounding them, it was pulling heat straight out of my bloodstream. As blood pressure increased, more and more of the cooler rolled out, like a carpet being unrolled down my back, and the blood cooler became more and more effective.
When Frank and I had started out, I was more than twice the weight naked than I am now with all armor and my staff. Closer to three times the weight than two, really. A few seconds of juice used for whole body activity was life threatening at that time, but these days I could run a couple of miles at full speed without armor before Frank was forced to shut me down and roll in the snow to cool off. With the armor and the blood cooler we would run out of juice before we overheated. The conductivity of carbon nanotubes and graphene is extreme, and the blood cooler was the cherry on top. Frank was very clear to tell me that we’d cook if we tried that in ambient temperatures within a few points of human normal body temperature, but in North Dakota in late November? We were really able to test our limits.
Today though, Frank wanted me to try on a “surprise” and he wasn’t being talkative about it.
“Spill it Frank. You’ve been excited about this all day, and not telling me details. You’re starting to worry me.”
“It’s done now, the factory is extruding it now.”
I watched as a new helmet was extruded from the mass of flesh. It made me a bit queasy every time I saw that. I picked up the helmet, took it to the shower and washed it out thoroughly, and looked at it closely. “Frank I won’t be able to see out of this.”
“Oh Ye of little faith. Put it on.”
“OK, disengage the current helm please.” I felt the queer and queasy feeling of the straps being detached from the skull and extruded from the skin. Then the old helmet was loose, and I pulled it off. The new helmet was a full face helm, no eye holes even. It looked even more like a raindrop than the first. “If this is a joke Frank, I will find a way to prank you.”
“No joke, put it on.”
So I put it on, dealing with the same odd scalp sensations in reverse, until finally the new helmet was attached fully. “OK Frank. Turn on the lights, or let me out of this thing.”
“OK” and the helmet disappeared. I jumped, and brought my hand to my face. It hit something. I watched my hand hit a solid surface a couple of inches in front of my face.
“Spill it, Frank. Did you figure out a way to make the armor invisible, or something?”
“Eh, no. Remember how I said I was going to work on studying compound vision like insects use?”
“Yeah, but I don’t get the connection, it seems like I can see normally.”
“Yup, you are seeing normally. I am translating for you. There are about six hundred light sensors mixed in with the cooling hairs on this model helmet. I now see everywhere around us all at once all the time while you are wearing the helm, in all wavelengths of light. The last helmet could do it too, but not as effectively, because you could see out of it at the same time that I put an image on your cornea, which would have probably made you ill. I used it to practice and troubleshoot my compound vision code”
“Can I see through the compound vision?”
“No. It took me a week to figure it out. If you were to see in compound vision it might actually impair you for a few hours or even days afterwards. Your brain is designed for binocular vision, and you can’t easily reprogram your inputs. It might not be possible at all, and I’m not going to play Doctor Frankenstein in your brain to try to make it possible.”
“Oh. OK. I agree with all of the above, especially the ‘not playing Frankenstein’ bit.”
“But I can let you do this without moving your head”. My field of vision changed several times rapidly. I was looking behind me, then straight up, then back to normal again. All without moving my head. I felt a wee bit dizzy after that.
“Wow. In the future if you pan like that without adjusting my inner ear, do it slower. This isn’t a stress on your capabilities? So many inputs and so much data to correlate?”
“No, not after I wrote optimized code to handle it. Writing and debugging thirty million lines of code into a finished product in a week was a chunk of work, but definitely worth it.”
“Speaking of senses, how’s the sense of smell thing coming along? Have you been able to figure out how a dog’s nose works so much better than ours?”
“Yes, and part of it’s not fixable without giving you a snout like most dogs, which wouldn’t go over well, I don’t think.”
“Right. That wouldn’t go over well.”
“I have been able to improve scenting abilities with what you do have, and put some of the physical structures of a dog muzzle internally into your nose, where they can’t be seen. I can smell ‘juice’ now, and tell the difference between different humans. I’m not anywhere near what a bloodhound can do, based on what I’ve read, but I should be able to smell the presence of another human with a symbiote if they get within about fifty feet with a light wind blowing to me, even if they haven’t been physically active. I can also smell everything else much, much better. Including last night’s beans, and the fact that you need a shower.”
“Frank, all this preparation and planning and whatnot we are doing. Do you think it will be worth it in the end?”
“I don’t know. We don’t know enough. We don’t know what the matchmakers are capable of. We don’t know their training level. We don’t know their tech level. They might be watching us right now and laughing at the poor ignorant primitives trying to make sense of the world. Then again, we might be their first success and they are scared shitless of what we might do. Chances are it’s somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”
“I can’t imagine them as benevolent in any case. I hope you don’t mind all the work and crazy ideas.”
“Not at all. The ‘work’ is actually fun. It gives me a great deal of pleasure when I figure out a way to make you better able to survive. I’m fairly certain my crazy ideas have been harder on you than yours have been on me, in any case.”
I looked at myself. “In some ways, yes, but I think most of your ideas have been good ideas, even if they were not appropriate to blending in with humans. You were operating on instinct. If we had not been living in civilization, everything you did would have made perfect sense. That gives me some pause too, honestly. Why would your programmed basic instincts be more appropriate to low technology survival than blending into a high-tech civilization?”
“That’s an uncomfortable question.”
“Yeah, it is.”
The phone rang. The disposable phone. I just stood there, shocked. Not wanting to move. Not wanting to believe that what we had been training and building up to for the last week was really going to happen. Second ring.
“Well fuck, let’s do this. We’re either ready or we’re not.” I picked up the phone and clicked the receive call button then the mute button. Then Frank put the phone up against the side of the helmet, and epoxied it into place, with its speaker pointing into the small series of holes on the side of the helmet above my ears.
“Juice filled up Frank? Don’t forget the extra cans. Two way radios and repeaters? Where’s the sawed off and the fun ammo?”
We quickly put together everything we had been preparing for the last week. Before we left, Frank quickly fed the biofactory, removed two full cans of juice to carry with us, and dropped two empty juice cans into the biofactory before we closed the chest freezer and turned on the freezer’s custom air vent so the biofactory wouldn’t die.
“We’ll probably want to have a juice refill ready when we get back.”
“Optimism. I like it! Am I forgetting anything Frank?”
“Don’t think so. Let’s move. Getting to be daylight, so you probably want the jacket to cover the armor.”
“Yeah.” I grabbed the oversized jacket from where it had been laying over the RV’s passenger side front seat armrest. We had bought it many sizes too large, in case we needed to go out in daylight wearing armor. The armor looked a lot like really high-end biker armor if it was mostly concealed by the jacket. Without the jacket, I looked like a bug man in daylight wearing the armor, and everyone would remember me. It could still pass for really high-end motorcycle armor, but that would be stretching it. At the very least, I would be remembered as the biker wearing some strange looking rider’s armor. Then the random, obligatory non sequitur hit me. “Damn, I was supposed to make a long distance run for Bill today.”
“Still can if this plays out like we hope it will.”
I put the pack on, the staff in the bike’s rifle boot. Next, I checked to be sure all the doors of the RV were locked. Then I mounted the bike and coasted it down the hill and out of the park before putting it into third gear and releasing the clutch to start the engine. When the bike started, I immediately ran it up to top gear and redlined the engine, heading towards the area we had scouted out if we had the possibility of bringing the enemy to us.
“Frank I can’t hear the phone, please tell me that you can.”
“I can. Nothing yet. They are probably looking for the phone by the dumpster still but it won’t be long.” A pause. “That’s the hotel room door. Time to coast – we can make it most of the rest of the way from this point, coasting, then a bit of a run after, and then we should have at least a little while to get ready. They can’t get here from Sioux Falls that fast. Even if they are flying something very fast it will take them a while. We’ll probably have time for a nap and lunch before they get here.”
“Tell me when they start talking to us Frank.”
We did manage to finish coasting to the logging road, then I put the bike up against a small pine and chained it to the tree. I knew Frank was waiting for an explanation. “It’s so they can find us Frank, wouldn’t want them to get lost, would we?”
“Of course not.” Frank pressed one of his little metal bugs up against the tree, behind the bike, where it would be in sunlight but not visible from the road.
I grabbed the toolkit from under the seat, then realized that I didn’t really have a need for it, and put it back. I then picked the staff up out of the bike’s rifle boot, and started up the logging road at a fast jog, making sure to leave good footprints in the ground.
We came to a clearing where there had been a recent burn. I had brought a machete and a shovel in the other day, cleared all the major sight line obstructions in several different directions, while leaving cover in other places and digging up a nice little berm that someone might think I would hide in. I sat on the edge of the berm, and Frank removed the phone from the side of the helmet as he released the helmet from my head. I took off the helmet and put the phone against my ear and waited, listening to the phone as people muttered and apparently were wandering around in the hotel room. Then I heard the sound of someone lifting a drop ceiling panel, and a muttered “There it is. Fuck. Bomb?”
I spoke up, answering the speaker.“Not a bomb. We have respect for human life. Even the people who almost killed us.”
“This conversation just skyrocketed way above my pay grade, man. You hang on right there for a minute, please.”
Whispers, but Frank let me hear them. “Call Guiliard. Now. He’s out of range for the two-way.”
Louder speaking, the same voice. “I’m trying to get the team leader here to speak to you. I know you’ve been in the military, we know a bit about you, so you know the chain of command.”
“Yeah. Hurry up and wait. Been there. Done that. I’m comfy for now and the phone’s got plenty of charge, so I’ll give you a couple of minutes before I get annoyed.”
About three minutes later, a crisp voice. “I’d rather not talk into the ceiling if I can avoid it. Can we take that phone down without ruining it?”
“If you say yes, I’ll tell them how to do it without damaging it.”
“Yes” I said.
Frank took over with my voice. “[All you need to do is open the bag, carefully disconnect the power connection from the phone, and you can pull the whole bag down. The charger will be a fire hazard though, if left hanging.]”
“You heard the man, Archer, take the bag down, hand it to me and fix the electrical up there.”
“OK” The sound of a leap and overhand passage along the beam, then some random noises as the phone was disconnected from power and then taken off the beam.
More random noises as the phone was pulled out of the bag. “That’s a lot better. Archer, let me know when you are ready to come down.”
“OK” Some more random metallic tool noises in the background, definitely sounded like someone was using tools.
“Sounds like they are actually fixing it. I guess they might not be complete shitheads if they are taking care of the fire hazard.”
I blink once.
“So now that you have me on the line, what do you want to talk to me about?”
“First thing we need to do is apologize to you, Bob. We think we know what happened to you, and it was not intentional. Only three other pairs before you had ever lost bones before synergy, and none of them survived. We didn’t know the effect it would have on your symbiote’s mental development. We know now. It won’t happen again.”
“Neither of us is terribly happy about what we had to do to survive your security measures. I hope you don’t think a ‘sorry’ is going to make it all better.”
I waited to see what Guiliard’s reaction was to that. There wasn’t one for several seconds. I suspected Guiliard was trying to keep me asking questions, becoming dependent on him for answers, putting himself in a position of strength. Screw that.
“Well, I seem to have said something that made you speechless. I’d be willing to bet that you boys and girls got black helicopters or something fast to come visit us up near Williston. This phone will be running with a solar charger, and we haven’t played with its GPS. You ring this phone when you get close, or we get upset. You come in hot, and we get upset. We might rabbit, or maybe fight, depends on our read of the situation. Figure you don’t want us to do either. Don’t expect us to join you for any long trips, but we’ll listen to you, Guiliard, from twenty paces with up to two people with you. Nobody else within one hundred yards.”
Guiliard asked someone for an ETA to Williston, and after a second spoke with a cautious tone. “We can do that, it will take us about six hours to get to where your phone GPS says it is, based on what I’m being told”.
“We’ll grab a nap and some lunch while we wait for you.” *click*