“OK Ladies and Gentlemen, I want you to listen closely and carefully. We’re about to be on the ground with what could easily be the most dangerous opponent any of you have ever faced. Potentially the most dangerous opponent anyone in the Agency has ever faced.”
The inside of the moving van got silent, except for road noises.
“You’ve all seen the footage of the fellow we’re going to talk to, and you all probably have a slightly different mental picture of the Objective due to collecting rumors in bits and pieces. I want you to all listen closely to me. We are not on a termination mission.”
Things got even quieter, as if the twenty-one men and women in the truck had stopped breathing for a moment.
“That’s right. You heard the first and second mission briefing point correctly. Absurdly dangerous, and we aren’t on a kill mission. Leadership wants us to test it” a pause “test them and see if they lose control and berserk. If they lose control, then we have kill orders. If they do not berserk, and are able to maintain calm through a several-minutes long skirmish, then we will try to recruit.”
“Sir. Permission to speak?” A very tall, thin woman, mostly hard angles and few curves, but still somehow clearly feminine.
“Guiliard, we fight the Objective to see if they berserk first, then try to recruit them? Isn’t that a bit backwards?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you right now. To explain what we’re doing. You will get your answer shortly, but let me do it in the order I’ve planned to tell it in, OK?”
Daredevil nodded, stepping back and leaning up against one of the equipment containers strapped to the sides of the truck.
“OK. Rather than ‘the Objective’ or some other impersonal words, we will call them ‘Bob’ from now on, to try to underscore that we are testing with the hope of recruiting here. We’re giving Bob every opportunity to prove he’s truly what he claims to be. Three will be going in on point, as required by Bob. The point team will be myself, Archer, and Daredevil. Everyone else will stay more than one hundred yards out. The remaining eighteen will form squads and approach from each cardinal direction around the field here.” Guiliard used his laser pointer on a map projected on the floor. “Bob has almost certainly prepared the area carefully, and we have absolutely zero sense of how deadly or debilitating they might have chosen to be while preparing defenses. So you will all carefully scout the perimeter while the three of us beard the dragon.”
“Bob has allowed three of us the opportunity to meet with him alone, at a range of about sixty feet. This tells us that he’s either extremely overconfident, or he’s learned a lot more about us than we have about him.”
Some nervous grumbling from the team. Guiliard let it pass then started speaking again.
“Some of you might be willing to take matters into your own hands and try to snipe Bob, orders or not. I am telling you right now, that if you do, you will be put down. Capital offense. No arguments. I will do it my fucking self, you all understand? Bob is that important.”
More nervous grumbling and a couple reproachful looks.
“OK, now that we’ve gotten the basics laid out, and the mission stakes made clear, let’s get down to the brass tacks and prepare. We’ve got forty-five minutes by road before we deploy. Prep while we talk.”
The phone rang. I woke up from my nap as Frank stored the leftover trail mix in the pack. Both sawed off shotguns were carefully placed back on the backpack so they would not fall off, but they were left in plain sight. The bulbous pieces of plastic on the ends of their barrels made them look almost comical. On the third ring, I picked up the phone and answered it.
“Yes Bob, as you required, we are calling before we deploy. We’re a few minutes out still.”
“Understood. There’s a logging road that intersects the north side of the state highway, near the clearing where my GPS signal is coming from. There’s a dirt bike chained to the tree there, visible from the road. Don’t touch my bike, or I will immediately assume you are hostile and act accordingly. That’s the way in. Three of you can follow my footprints in. I’ll be in the middle of a clearing that is a couple hundred yards from the road.”
“Nobody gets closer than one hundred yards other than you and two others with you. There are red cloth markers tied to tree branches starting at one hundred fifty yards. If I detect someone trying to be sneaky, and get closer than one hundred yards, besides the permitted three, I will immediately assume you are all are hostile. I expect you guys to surround me. I would if I were you. But I’m also pretty confident that without being able to communicate with your symbiotes, you’re a lot less dangerous individually than we thought you might be. You push me, I will break your perimeter and be gone. I will not allow you to engage me as a full team.”
“Agreed, Bob. We’ll be there shortly. Do you have any other requirements?”
“I’m going to be in easy sniping range of your people. I want to be absolutely certain that you understand that if I see one of your people pointing a rifle at me, that’s instant bug out. I’m going to be watching very closely.”
“Understood. Any other restrictions?”
“Nope. My territory, my rules, but you can bring any man portable weapons you want.”
“OK, we’ll be there in about five minutes. Guiliard Out.”
Guiliard clasped arms with each agent as they left the truck. All of them wearing light but highly protective armor, with lots of obvious electronics. The armor and uniforms were also festooned with small pouches, bags, and grenades. Each of them carrying a light melee weapon or two of choice, a long rifle of some sort, and two pistols. None of them carried heavy weapons.
“Any questions before I go recruiting?”
Nobody spoke up.
“OK, last reminder. Nobody engages with lethal force unless I say so. You carry that at the top of your minds. I don’t want to have to do what I promised earlier if someone gets carried away without orders from me.” Guiliard cleared his throat. “If I drop off the net, Archer is next in line, and Daredevil after him. If all three of us go off net, then you can go drone hunting. Now get moving, and if you favor a god, ask a favor of them, just in case we need it.”
“Three agents coming up the road now. Two teams of four and two teams of five splitting up along the perimeter of the marked one hundred fifty yard range. Nobody is trying to get close yet, except the three we are allowing in.”
“OK Frank. You got good visual on them yet?”
“Yes. Here’s our three incoming.”
A middle-aged looking man, not very impressive looking, muscular with a little grey above the ears but walking very confidently and scanning the road and nearby forest with eyes that weren’t missing much. Probably Guiliard, since he’s walking in front.
To his right and behind, a tall, angular woman, mid-thirties at first guess, very muscular like a triathlon enthusiast. If she wasn’t nearly seven feet tall, I’d eat my hat.
To his left, and behind, the woman’s near perfect opposite. He was a few inches short of six feet, but looked to have an arm span of nearly eight feet, as his wrists were roughly at a level with his knees. He had thick slabs of muscle everywhere. If he didn’t weigh over three hundred pounds, I’d eat my hat, again.
“I have a hard time believing that either of the men have symbiotes. All that extra weight. Maybe the woman. The man with greying hair and the woman also appear to be past their prime age, but that might simply be a disguise?”
“They have symbiotes. I’m picking up transmissions from organic transmitters, but they are encrypted. I’ll run a background process to see if I can crack the encryption, but it looks to be a dynamic encryption.”
The three of them walked into view, stopped, and a voice I recognized as Guiliard’s accompanied the older man’s right-handed wave as he called out. “Hello, can we approach?”
“Yes. Do you see the remains of a campfire between us? That’s how close you can get.”
“Yes, we see it.” They moved up and stood in a loose triangle, spread out enough to not get in each other’s way if they had to move.
“I have several questions for you, and I imagine you have several for me. Provided you three and the other eighteen of you aren’t just setting up some sort of trap, I’ll be happy to answer your questions if you answer mine.” I said while watching them for their reactions. “From what I’m seeing right now, unless you and your entire team are playing some sort of deep cover game with your symbiotes, or hiding some secret anti symbiote weapon, there is no threat to me here. Your symbiotes are apparently either being prevented from helping you, or they can’t help you. Which is it?”
Guiliard looked at me as closely as he chose his words carefully. “I want to let you view a video first. How close do you need to be to resolve the screen of this tablet to watch a high quality video?” He held up a standard-looking civilian tablet computer.
“Lean it up against a campfire rock there and activate the video. I can see it fine from here.”
Frank zoomed in for me, then showed me images of all four teams at the perimeter. All ready to move, but no weapons in hand. One member of each team was pointing some binoculars at us, talking to another person beside them. Frank read their lips, they were discussing our behavior and the armor they could see under the coat. Specifically they were looking for ranged weapons but saw none other than the shotguns on the backpack, which caused some confusion as they tried to figure out what the cartoonish pieces at the ends of the barrels were for.
Guiliard finished laying the tablet against a rock, looked at me to see that I had my head directed at the tablet, and activated an icon on-screen. A video opened up full screen. Within a second of the video starting, a monster jumped straight at me. Frank cranked everything up to eleven, juice screaming through our veins while we grabbed the staff jammed in the ground next to us and jumped back twenty feet in a single leap into prepared cover before realizing that the thing we saw was just the beginning of the video. The coat was torn badly in three places due to our midair contortions The cooling nanotubes on the surface of our armor tended to tear up pretty much anything wearable in short order if we exerted ourselves. With the juice turned way up, we were warming up a bit as well. The coat was both damaged, and a hindrance. I tore off the coat as I walked back towards where we had jumped from.
Before returning to line of sight with them, I spoke. “That was not the best way to start off a tense negotiation. You just caused me to destroy a perfectly good coat. Stop the video until I can get in view of it again.” I walked around the brush and tall grass while stripping off the rest of the jacket. Frank dialed down the juice. When I stepped back out into full view the three facing me turned white as sheets, and the two behind Guiliard started to reach for weapons. Guiliard muttered something that sounded like “Just like Argoen.” I stepped back into the cover I had just left. “That’s even less friendly. Apparently something about my appearance without a jacket set your people off, Guiliard. Control them. Your people at the perimeter are agitated and a couple are chambering rounds. They start pointing rifles at me, and I’m gone.”
Guiliard snapped into action, speaking into a collar mounted microphone. “You will damn well stand down. Right. Now. People. Remember my promise. Do not test me. I just pissed my britches too, but you will NOT engage unless the mission parameters for engagement are met.” All of his people slowly calmed down, rounds were removed from firing chambers, and long rifles went back on straps on shoulders. Good enough. I walked out of cover again, and Guiliard had stopped the video. His escorts were looking at me really hard now, very tense. All four of the binocular wielders in the perimeter were similarly stiff, and talking at a rapid pace.
As I got back to where I was standing before, Guiliard said “The video is what we fear. What we hope you won’t become.”
“What? What do they mean by that?”
“We’ll see, Frank. Play it again, Guiliard.”
Frank turned on the perception enhancement and we watched the video in slow motion, it was about three minutes of horror from cameras attached to the rifles and equipment harness of troops like the ones surrounding me. All of the different pieces of footage featured vaguely human-like beings, bipedal, two arms, two legs, torso, and head, but not human. Not even close to human. They spared nothing human that they encountered. Children, elderly, soldiers, fleeing or charging, it didn’t matter. Any time a human got within fifty feet or so, the beasts would throw a rock and pulverize a skull, or simply charge and kill them with a single blow made with surgical precision. Other animals were ignored. Cats, dogs, even cattle and horses. Even if the other animals attacked the beings, they were avoided or ignored as the killing of humans continued. Other than thrown objects, some used improvised melee weapons, others just used reshaped limbs in melee. The soldiers were normally able to dodge the thrown items, but they were not much more fortunate than the normal humans if they got into melee range.
Several of those things had body parts that looked a lot like parts of my armor. Shells of various materials over limbs, cooling tubes apparent on armor, heads shaped like our helmet. Obvious blood cooling systems. Some different proportions, twisted caricatures of humans. None of them had their whole body done up like Frank and I, but the more their body looked like our armor, the more dangerous and difficult to fight they seemed to get. Frank was apparently building our armor in a way that generated a lot of similarities with whatever these things used for their body development. This explained their reaction to us when we lost the coat.
Frank kept me from puking as the last thirty seconds of video replayed images of mutilated children.
Guiliard’s voice. “We have to know if you are human enough, in control enough, to not perform atrocities like you just saw. We cannot allow you to live if you can’t control yourself. Forgive us.”
I could feel Frank’s mind racing like mine was. It was obvious that what we had seen in the video were symbiotes in human bodies.
“How? How could that happen?” I said out loud, to Guiliard.
“We don’t know, exactly.” He responded. Then twenty rifles started firing at me as Guiliard watched.
Frank surged into action, juice cranking up. He took over our vocal cords and started dodging bullets, or brushing them with armor plates to redirect them on harmless paths. “[IT WASN’T US. WE DIDN’T DO ANY OF THOSE THINGS!]” No answer. We heard the sound of different types of munitions now. Four nets. Too large and fast to dodge all of them at once. Frank dodged two and nearly dodged a third, but the two remaining nets that we couldn’t dodge entrapped us The soldiers were now hidden in the trees, firing down at us so they wouldn’t hit each other. Frank couldn’t dodge properly any longer, bullets were striking the armor. They were mostly doing nothing as Frank made minor corrections to angles as he could, but some of them struck in just the right way to crack or degrade the plates. The nets were made of a very strong, sticky material that Frank was having problems with, but I had an idea.
“Frank the shotguns and the stream.” I yelled, not caring if the others heard. Not realizing they might hear, for that matter, as I was in a wee bit of a panic.
Frank didn’t say anything to me but we started rolling across the ground towards the backpack. When we got there, we grabbed one shotgun through the net, pointed it at our lower body, and fired. The blank round was more than sufficient to burst the napalm canister on the end of the barrel, and ignite the spray of napalm as it covered our entire lower body. The net wrapped around our legs degraded within a second but we were covered from the waist down with burning napalm, and the armor was rapidly transmitting heat back into our body. I could feel Frank making drastic changes to arteries and veins to move blood to and from the lower body for oxygen and cooling as he flipped us onto our feet and raced for the water. While making that dash to the water, Frank didn’t even bother to dodge bullets. He simply ran us in a straight line at the water. The soldiers did not miss often when we weren’t dodging, and the armor took more of a beating because Frank wasn’t angling the plates to prevent solid hits. It took us about two seconds to cross fifty yards, followed by a leap of another ten yards and a landing in the stream. The water didn’t stop the napalm from burning instantly, but it did make a huge difference in the amount of heat the rest of the body’s armor could wick away from us. The napalm quickly guttered out on our armor as we went underwater, but it continued burning on the surface of the water. Frank was not talking. I could feel sensation come back into my legs, and all of a sudden I was trying to breathe underwater.
“We need oxygen. Breathe. Don’t fight it. Remember the goldfish.”
I continued trying to hold my breath.
“I’ve changed your lungs Bob, water passes into them, then out through your back under the armor. Breathe. Now. We can’t surface into the fire to breathe and we don’t have the oxygen to swim out from under the burning pool on the surface.
I breathed. The water in my lungs was cold as hell. I could feel the heat shifting in my body as Frank performed repairs, changing how blood vessels were arranged to help disperse the heat better. We swam a couple of feet and Frank grabbed the can of juice we threw in the stream, holding it next to our arm while a small pseudopod grew from the arm and attached to the can. Frank then started examining the armor’s condition. We would start losing large pieces of armor soon if we kept getting hit. The intensity of the heat followed by immersion in water created a lot of cracking in the leg armor.
I could feel Frank’s anger. Then he spoke and I was very afraid.
“Bob, if you cannot explain why they started shooting at us I am going to kill every one of them when we leave the water.”
I frantically pointed at my mouth and throat.
“Oh, you can’t talk under water.” I feel him thinking again. “The soldiers are spreading out and coming in our direction, staying near the trees. If I take us out of the water and change us back to air-breathing, then try to get away from them and allow you time to talk, it’s going to give them time to prepare.”
I started trying to swim upstream, to where the napalm wasn’t burning on the surface.
“Can you explain why they did it?”
I desperately nodded my head.
“Fine. They are pathetic anyway. We’ll run, you explain, then we decide what to do. I won’t kill any of them on the way out, but if any of them get in my way, I’m not going to be nice about moving them.”
That I could sympathize with. I nodded. Frank disconnected the juice can. When we burst out of the water this time, the soldiers were ready, immediately opening fire. Water was draining out of my lungs and I couldn’t breathe or talk. I could feel things shifting around inside, and every time I tried to breathe it got easier until I was finally feeling normal, and able to croak out single syllables. The process of trying to breathe and talk had taken my attention off what Frank was doing. He might have said he was going to run us away, but he apparently changed his mind. He was playing with the soldiers like a cat in a room full of mice. Taking the soldiers’ weapons from them, and then shooting or assaulting them with their own weapons. Chasing them up trees when they try to get away that way. I felt a great deal of satisfaction coming from Frank as he threw Guiliard out of a tree into the clearing, then shot him in both knees with his own pistol.
“They all have symbiotes?” I choked out as I tried to talk past the rest of the water. “None of them will die from wounds like that?”
Frank’s voice was furious. “They all have symbiotes. Brain dead symbiotes. The ‘encryption’ I heard before isn’t coded. It’s random noise.”
I thought frantically. That didn’t quite make sense. “How do you know it’s random noise? Couldn’t it be really good encryption?”
“There have been several thousand transmissions, and there is absolutely no correspondence I can see between the extreme short-range symbiote transmission activities, and either the activities of the soldiers or their human signal transmissions. Even perfect encryption leaves metadata hints when one sees it in action. If these people had an incredible encryption system to hide their tactical data, they would be using it. Even if they were as incapable as they seem to be, they would be trying to use a heavily encrypted combat tactical network to prevent me from stomping all over them like this, and I’d see evidence of it. I am not seeing the evidence. Therefore the transmissions are random noise, or the symbiotes are talking amongst themselves and ignoring their human hosts, but not talking to me, which seems extremely unlikely.”
Frank was about to lose it. I didn’t think I was going to get him to leave so I could explain somewhere else. I had to explain right then, or he might do exactly what the soldiers were apparently afraid he would do.
“Frank. The reason why they attacked us without provocation when we were stunned mentally was to see if we would turn into some sort of berserk killing machine, like what we saw in those videos. Remember what Guiliard told us. ‘We cannot allow you to live if you can’t control yourself. ’ ”
Frank stopped the knife blow that was about to hamstring the tall woman from ambush, as she stood next to a tree gasping in exhaustion. He slammed her blade back into it’s sheath instead, knocking her to her knees and breaking one of the straps of her harness with the force of it, then he marched us over to Guiliard.
In my voice, out loud, but with a different inflection. “[Guiliard, this is Bob’s symbiote. You can call me Frank. Are you able to fully understand me Guiliard?]” Two of the soldiers rushed us with long knives held in each hand, one of them was the hugely muscular one, Archer. Frank shattered all four of their arms with four blows using the edges of the armor on his forearms. The two men fell back, eyes wide open in shock, dropping their knives from barely functional hands, backing off while their arms developed huge vein structures and started to heal.
“I hear you.” One pupil was more dilated than the other, and his visible skin was an irregular tracing of huge veins, but he seemed lucid.
“[You are going to call off your soldiers, and then you are going to do three things for me.]”
“What three things. Tell me. Then I call off my soldiers.” He was apparently unaware that his soldiers were mostly incapacitated, or desperately trying to figure out a way to stop Frank. Frank hesitated, then continued.
“[First, you will need to show me that those killers in the video actually exist.]”
Frank’s voice got cold.
“[Second, you will explain why the symbiotes inside of you are brain-dead.]”
Frank’s voice became cold enough that it made me shiver.
“[Third, you will need to convince me that the first is not due to my kind trying to resist the second.]”