Guiliard looked us in the eyes. He was still a bit unfocused, but he was trying. “Yes we can do those three things. Help me stand up please so my team can see me.”
Frank hesitated but reached a hand out and hauled Guiliard up, then Frank spoke out loud again. “[I’m going to let Bob talk to you now. I’ve said my piece. You know what I want to know. I’m not as good at understanding people as Bob is, so I’ll just be listening, mostly. That should make it less likely that I do something angry and stupid without thinking about it.]”
Guiliard pulled a simple coach’s whistle from around his neck and blew three times short and once long, then shouted “Stand down.”
Soldiers started walking or crawling out of the woods towards the clearing. Most of them were pretty badly hurt, but none were bleeding. All of them were drinking and eating to feed their recovery – apparently about half their equipment was food.
Guiliard commented, “Well aren’t we a sorry-looking bunch? Anyone with two good legs and two good arms help us make sure the fires are all out.”
I looked around. There weren’t many fires from the napalm still burning, but there were a few where the first couple melted snowfalls of the winter season hadn’t soaked everything too much to burn.
“Anyone got a spare entrenching tool?” I asked.
Guiliard hesitated a moment, then tossed me his entrenching tool. Then he cut the right leg off his pants and carefully started cutting into his knee, quickly popping out a bullet that was apparently stuck behind the kneecap. I went over towards the stump where the second can of juice was stored, putting out a couple smoldering spots as I walked. I reached into the stump, pulled out the hidden can of juice, and tapped it on the same place I saw Frank connect the other one while we were under water.
Nothing happened. It was very unlike Frank to be distracted, so I spoke. “Frank top off.” Then I tapped the can on my arm again and Frank took over, connecting to the can and draining it while we went to the next smoldering spot.
“Sorry Bob, I’m watching but I’m also a bit preoccupied trying to figure out what could possibly explain this, so if it’s not a potential threat you might have to get my attention.”
“I’m a bit out of it too, Frank. Real combat, life or death, with injuries and all that jazz.”
“Did you have any idea at all when we were putting that napalm shotgun together that we would end up using it on ourselves?”
“No, I was thinking only along the lines that we discussed, figuring a shotgun blast of napalm would work very well on others who depended on heat dispersal in a fight. Using it on ourselves was definitely not in the planning. We’ll have to figure out a better way to cut ourselves out of entrapment. A couple of nets almost did us in.”
“That net wasn’t anywhere near the threat you thought it was, other than being a surprise.” This from Guiliard, limping over in our direction while wiping his blade on a grubby cleaning rag that he stuffed back in his back pocket before sheathing the blade. “Another few seconds and you would have figured out how to break out of it with or without the napalm, I bet your symbiote agrees with me if he thinks back to how he got it off so fast under the water.”
“I’m leaving Frank out of this unless he overhears something he wants to talk to you about. He’ll talk to me if that happens.”
“Fair enough. I can’t give him his first request quickly, but I can address his second request. The symbiotes inside of us are not brain-dead. They are imprisoned.”
Frank heard that. By the time I realized why he had done it, we were standing on a sturdy elm branch, about thirty feet in the air in a tree that was around thirty feet away from the nearest soldiers. Every soldier was looking right at us again, even the ones still seated in the stream while limbs finished healing.
Frank took over my voice again. “[If I detect any sort of coherent electronic signal directed at me, I will take out its source. Tell your soldiers to power down all their smart devices and radios that transmit data omnidirectionally. Now.]”
Guiliard looked confused for a second, then obviously figured something out. “You heard the man folks, turn off the phones and radios.”
Frank’s attention tracked from soldier to soldier, back and forth until only one was left, and we were facing them. One of the soldiers on the far side of the field, who had turned and was working on one of the last bits of smoldering turf. Guiliard looked at us watching the soldier who was bouncing his head a bit while he was working.
“I’ve got this Frank, hold off a second.” Guiliard picked up a small rock and threw it at the soldier, popping him right on the right ass cheek. The fellow jumped about five feet straight up and turned to face us.
“Sir? I turned off my smart phone and radio.”
“Turn off the little music box too, Animal.”
“Oh, my music? OK.” He reached his hand into his pocket and Frank tensed up until the device was turned off. “It’s off, sorry, wasn’t thinking of the remote earpieces when you said to shut off data, my bad.” Then he turned around with the trenching tool and kept working, still bobbing his head.
Guiliard turned back to us. “Some sort of internal antennae then, built into the plates of your exoskeleton?”
“[Bob, I’m done talking again, I’ll let you handle this.]”
“You did right there Frank, no worries. Even if you overreact, nobody’s going to complain in a situation like this if you don’t do permanent harm to somebody.” Guiliard was looking up at me. I stepped off the limb and Frank took care of the fall with a neat tumble and roll that brought us up about ten feet from Guiliard.
“Frank’s insanely good at body stuff, but I think you are confused about something. You called this an exoskeleton. It’s not, it’s just armor.”
Guiliard’s eyes narrowed as he looked at some damaged pieces of the armor on our legs where the anchoring straps were visible. “Looks like part of your body from here.”
“Nah. Frank, detach the right forearm’s top piece.” I put our left hand on the top of our right forearm and slowly pulled the armor away as Frank released its anchors from our bones. “See?” I asked Guiliard as he watched the armor pull away. He looked a bit nauseous but still fascinated.
“How do you have the energy budget for so much flesh modification just for adding and removing armor? And where is the vein enhancement for heat dispersal?”
“Don’t tell them about the juice storage. Carbon fiber bones and our size explain enough.” Frank being paranoid again, but with good reason.
“Well, for as long as we remain connected to the armor, it wicks a lot of heat. We also have graphene and carbon nanotube bone structure, which makes for an excellent conductor to move heat around, especially when you are as slender as we are.” The armor popped off and I tossed it to Guiliard. “Here, see?”
He grabbed it out of the air, expecting it to be much heavier than it was, and overcompensated for it a bit before getting it back under control. He glanced at the armor then his gaze riveted onto my arm, which was reversing the muscle deformations that allowed the armor to be more securely connected to my bones, making the arm look human again.
“The whole suit works like that? You wear the suit, and modify the body to work better under the suit, but when the suit comes off you look normal?”
Guiliard looked closely at the armor, at a couple of places where it was cracked. “Graphene and carbon nanotubes here too, I’m guessing? But something else as padding between layers and as a binder. Tyvek?”
“How did you get that much spider silk? And how did you get this stuff made?”
“Frank grew it. Not a big deal, really.”
“Do you have any idea what the cost to make armor with those materials would be using modern human technology?”
“Not at all, we’ve been operating mostly in a vacuum.”
“[Humans can’t build armor like this at all yet, it’s priceless. Five years and a large budget might get some of the research teams to prototypes. Based on what I found on the open internet anyway.]”
I smiled “Take credit where credit’s due Frank. I didn’t know you had researched that stuff.”
“[I always try to research anything I try to build, if I can. Human manufacturing methods might be crude, but science is science, and I don’t know everything. Even if I only learn a couple useful things, that’s a couple of things I don’t have to figure out myself.]”
“It’s damn fine armor, Frank” Guiliard tossed the upper right forearm piece back to us.
“Why did the things in the video look like they were partially developed into something that looked like our armor?” I asked.
“Ah, Yes, back to that. First, a couple of pieces of simple terminology. One human and their bonded symbiote is what we call a ‘pair’. ‘Synergy’ is what we call the event when the pair becomes aware of one another after the symbiote is able to predict the host’s physical actions with ninety percent accuracy. A ‘drone’ is a symbiote that has destroyed the mental capabilities of its host human and taken complete control of its once-shared body. All drones begin to develop carapaces, or cooling tubes, or other outgrowths of their body in patterns a lot like how Frank built your armor. It’s just good engineering, I suppose, though you two had a lot more time to organize materials and create plans. Every pair that doesn’t have its symbiote imprisoned goes drone within a week. One hundred percent pattern. Until you two.”
Guiliard sighed. “We don’t know, exactly.”
“One second, Guiliard, unless you have something important to add about what you have told us up till now, I need to talk to Frank.”
“Yes, I’m running scans now, based on what he was saying. It’s plausible. My code is easily complex enough to hide substantial code in, even from myself. Give me a couple of minutes to run some more in-depth scans. If it’s a hidden trigger, I could have overlooked it when I found the six hundred twelve other rules. I’m a lot better at code now than I was last time, anyway, especially after figuring out compound vision for the helmet.”
“Frank wants a couple of minutes to think and run scenarios. Anyone see our staff?”
“Yes, here it is.” Archer by his voice. “Catch?”
I nodded and held out my hand. Archer tossed the staff and I grabbed it out of the air and spun it like a baton, one-handed, fast enough to blur. Frank’s dexterity, not mine. The staff seemed to be in good condition.
“Seems a bit light for a staff, they are usually more effective with some heft to them.” Archer commented as he walked closer.
Archer was one of Guiliard’s NCO’s, based on what I had seen, so I moved in order to be able to keep watching both Guiliard and Archer at the same time. I didn’t move farther away from them, just casually circled around Guiliard a bit while doing some practice moves with the staff. Guiliard watched me and smiled. I’m fairly sure he saw exactly what I was doing and why, based on the smile.
“This staff can hit harder than you think. We’re very fast, and this staff is nearly unbreakable. If we made a cable two hundred miles long out of the material in this staff, it could serve as the cable of a space elevator, a ‘beanpole’ as the space nerds call it. In fact there are plans to do just that, someday. Well, not with this staff, and the makeup of the beanpole would be a bit different, but it’s damn tough.”
Archer nods. “More carbon nanotubes and graphene then? I overheard earlier. Sort of my job to listen to you when you’re talking to my boss, unless told otherwise.”
“Yea, carbon is one of Frank’s most favored materials, for good reason. We don’t mind that you listened. We didn’t say anything that we didn’t expect to become public knowledge.”
I fitted the upper right forearm armor piece back on, and Frank connected it to our bones. Both Guiliard and Archer watched carefully, though they couldn’t see much.
“You mind if I call Daredevil over?” Guiliard asked.
“Is that the tall woman you had with you earlier?”
I agreed, with conditions. “No problem, but let’s leave it at three people close to us, and I’ll want you to all stay together and not surround me.”
“Understood.” Guiliard called Daredevil, made a twirling motion with his right index finger pointed up, then pointed to himself.
Daredevil nodded, walked around me, and joined Guiliard and Archer.
Frank spoke up. “[I need you and your soldiers to slowly move away from me, out of sight, Guiliard. Don’t ask questions please. That code you were talking about, I think I found it.]” A pause. “[I know I found it. I’m fighting it.]”
After the briefest of hesitations, Guiliard walked carefully backwards with Archer and Daredevil towards some heavy brush and stones while making quick backhanded throwing motions with his hands towards his troops, who moved into cover. Within seconds all the soldiers were out of sight.
I overheard Daredevil speaking to Guiliard as they moved out of sight. “He didn’t just turn? He’s fighting it? That’s a first. I hope he wins.”
Then Frank started talking in my head, sounding extremely concerned. “I found new code expanding in my system like a cancer, Bob. This code was not present on our first day, I know it. The sources of the infection are memory locations that didn’t even exist, or were completely invisible to me before. What sick bastard wrote this code? Testing various security measures.” Frank paused again. “Bob, I’m fighting it, but whatever this code is, it’s trying to force me to destroy the thought centers of your brain, which will then trigger more code changes to turn me into a killing machine that targets anything human. Everything we saw in the video. It’s all real, and it’s going to be us. No. It’s going to be me. After I kill you. I can’t beat it, I can only slow it down.”
“How long do we have Frank?” I said, my voice cracking a bit.
“About four hours. I’ve managed to modify the old firewall into a system to contain it, and it’s moderately effective, but the code is evolving and it’s really potent. Right now it isn’t using much of my processing capability to hold it back, but it’s chipping away slowly at the firewall, and I can’t stop it. It’s also system wide, I can’t just lose a body part to eject it.”
I spoke. “Guiliard. We have time. You can return.”
Guiliard and the other two returned to sight, looking at us sharply, walking towards us slowly, high-strung.
“Frank, did these guys somehow do this?”
Guiliard said “The half of the conversation I can hear is getting ominous. Did we do what?”
I gave Guiliard an angry black stare as they walked up, and all three of them backed away quickly, several steps. Archer and Daredevil looked at Guiliard. He raised his right hand with palm flat, fingers up, above his right shoulder, shook his head, then continued watching us.
Frank spoke up. “[No. Anyone who could do this could enslave symbiotes, but have them be a lot more capable than theirs are. Whatever they are using to control their symbiotes, it’s a kludge. This is code I can’t even fully understand. The code itself is self-modifying. Based on growth rates, I suspect that the self-modifying code itself was somehow triggered by the video we watched or the conversation we had immediately afterwards, and it then proceeded to infect my entire system rapidly and stealthily.]”
“Doesn’t that mean that whatever is imprisoning their symbiotes is somehow protecting them from the same effect?”
Frank paused, then spoke to me only. “No. Not necessarily. It’s possible though. I need you to tell them quickly what is happening, then see if they have a way to implement their imprisonment system in the field. Then ask if it’s reversible. If it’s not, I want to at least be able to say goodbye properly before I’m imprisoned. Whatever else their symbiotes can do, we know full well they don’t communicate back to the host, or with each other. I need to see if I can improve defenses while I’m as capable as possible. I’ll monitor and step in if you say something inaccurate, or if I find new information.”
I choked back my anger, fear, and helplessness, then swallowed so I could speak. “OK, If I’m understanding right, something that happened very recently triggered a sort of adaptive code in Frank, which built itself into a cancer like code infection. Frank thinks it was the video you showed us. When Frank went looking for hidden code that might support your statements about symbiotes attacking the minds of their hosts, he found the growing code trap. It apparently grew out of memory addresses that Frank wasn’t even aware of until now. Now the adaptive code is trying to force him to make me brain-dead.”
They all three just stared at me. Daredevil asked “How long can he hold out? Since you’re still talking, he’s still protecting you.”
“He’s guessing about four hours. He repurposed the old firewall that we broke down on the first day into a containment system, but the code inside is adapting and slowly gaining strength.”
“I heard you mention our symbiotes being protected by the effect?” This from Guiliard.
“Yes. You have certainly seen videos like that, as well as live drones, and had many conversations about this before, at least some of you, and yet you are still thinking and your symbiotes are still active to a degree.”
“I’m under a death sentence now. Frank has indicated that he’s willing to undergo imprisonment if it’s reversible, if it has a chance to stop the growth of the malign code. Is it reversible?”
“No. We could, at one point, but we can’t reverse it now – the reversal technique was lost. It’s now possible to use equipment to talk to the symbiotes for the first few days, but they build themselves a progressively better prison until they can’t communicate at all any longer, not to us, not even to other symbiotes. We suspect that at the end they probably manage to get to the point that they can’t even talk to themselves. We’ve had a couple symbiotes, early in the process, describe what they were doing. Frank is more capable than any of them were, with all the learning you two have been doing. We imprison Frank, he’ll probably be unreachable within a day or two, if you survive. We can’t stop it part way. Once Frank accepts it, he will devote almost all his energy to it. It would be good to know if he will become a drone as soon as he’s forced to take his mind off protecting you in order to build his own prison.”
“So much for that idea. We’ll have to try it though, if they have the means to do it. It’s your only hope. I can’t stop this. It’s way beyond me. This stuff is like trying to fight your own shadow. Every time it ‘hits’ me, it gains a few processing nodes, and I lose a few. If I hadn’t put in the paranoia code on the first day when I discovered those 612 rules to control us, this thing would have eaten me almost immediately, killing you and then turning us loose on these soldiers before they even knew what was happening. That code allowed me time to establish the firewall defense.”
“Dammit Frank, is there nothing else we can do? How can I let you kill yourself?”
“I’m taking this argument public now.” Frank said, and then he continued, using my voice.
“[Guiliard, I’m letting you hear this argument because Bob’s being an idiot. Bob, if you don’t let me imprison myself, I’m definitely going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill these soldiers, and then I’m going to start killing other humans. We’ve got a huge head start on all those other raging symbiotes that we saw. They were all crude and new to their bodies. They were moving slowly because they were bigger and heavier than we are. They didn’t have the extra juice storage to allow them extended high-speed activity, and they would burn themselves up even if they tried, even the ones with cooling tubes. They were fast compared to these soldiers, but these soldiers should tell you that we’re completely out of the league of anything they have ever fought, because I’m sure they weren’t intending to be easy victims. I would probably kill hundreds if not thousands before some government lands a nuke on me, or tricks me into a devastating trap. If I have all of my memories corrupted, I know enough about human biology to create plagues and diseases that could kill billions. I’d really rather not do that if I can help it. Don’t ask me to condemn myself to that fate. As for what happens to Bob when I allow imprisonment to begin, I can’t say. On the other hand, I can certainly say what happens if I don’t allow myself to be imprisoned.]”
I couldn’t answer that. So I was silent.
Guiliard connected the dots, not that there were too many of them. “Yes, we have the means in the truck to imprison you, Frank. We always bring a prison chair with us when we go to meet a new pair.”
“[Good. Let’s do it.]” As Frank walked us towards the road, he started shedding pieces of armor, releasing one piece at a time so we didn’t generate much heat, and restoring the muscles and skin to human norm. I could hear that the soldiers were policing behind us, collecting all the unbroken and broken pieces of armor.
“[I’m not going to leave Bob attached to this armor because he’ll never be able to repair it, and after it finally has to be removed, I don’t know if I’ll be smart enough to restore his appearance to human norm. Also, Guiliard, if I put Bob’s own face and prints and coloration back on him, does your organization have the means to help him defend himself from whatever charges he might face from the law?]”
Guiliard turned to us as we walked. “Yes. The four cartel contract killers he killed are really the only serious prison time he needs to worry about. There is video showing what Bob was able to see when the killers forced the girl into the building. With the life of the girl he saved at stake, any jury will either slap him on the wrist, or find him not guilty if he has a decent defense attorney. We have better than decent defense attorneys available to us. Plenty of grey area there to fit everything together. We already considered Bob’s legal defense and the legal team said it would be a piece of cake.”
Internally, so I was the only one who could hear, Frank spoke. “OK Bob, you get to be Bob again. Except the right hand. I’ll be damned if I take that back, and I don’t care how you end up having to explain it. Just say an alien did it.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that, the way he phrased it, but I was angry at him at the same time. Angry the same way a child might be after someone tells them that someone they cared about was going to die. “Gallows humor, huh Frank? Is there nothing else that you can think of besides giving up? No other options?” It felt like a cheap shot at Frank. No, it was a cheap shot. “Sorry Frank.”
Frank didn’t answer me. He had saved the blood cooler for last. After everything else was removed except the torso armor which was now hanging on me loosely, not connected by straps, he started removing the blood cooler. I heard one of the soldiers begin to retch as Frank pulled the eight thumb-thick tubes, each of them two feet long, out of my body to free the blood cooler. He let the cooler fall to the ground, spewing blood as it bounced, and I heard soldiers behind me arguing about who had to carry the thing.
“I’m going to configure everything in your body so that it will work without me, including the juice reservoir. You might not have me anymore, but you will have an advantage with your bones, the reservoir and the optimal cardiovascular system. I’m going to try to figure out how to set up natural healing for the bones. I think I can set them up to regenerate naturally, but it will be slow as hell if you actually break one.”
“Fuck! Frank, are you even trying to think of a way out of this? Is there any way to cool you down enough to let you fight it?”
Frank took control of our speaking voice again. “[I see others are looking at us and probably wondering if there’s any merit in what you are saying, so I’ll say it out loud. No, there are no ways of defending myself from this that will generate significant heat, it’s all in my code, and even when I’m pushing processing capacity to its limits, I don’t generate enough heat to raise your body temperature more than a fraction of a degree. This thing is coring me like an apple. Slowly. I can’t stop it.]”
A couple of the soldiers had run around us and unlocked the back of the truck. In the front of the cargo section behind the cab, they were unpacking and assembling equipment. I started to laugh. I couldn’t control myself. “Frank you’re going to let them kill you with one of those salon chairs that old ladies get perms in?” I tried to stop us, making us teeter a bit.
Frank took control fully again, and spoke to Guiliard. “[How long?]”
“How long till what? Till we’re ready, or till you’re done?”
The soldiers by the perm-chair-looking-thing stood up and plugged cables into several large batteries that they pulled out of another box, one at a time until there were half a dozen batteries on the ground around the chair. The perm chair started looking more like an electric chair to me.
“The chair is ready now. It takes about thirty seconds to charge when you press the green button, and then when you press the red button, the process is almost instant. You will know it when it happens. Can I make a suggestion?”
I nodded, not able to talk. Frank was trying to give me at least some dignity in front of these guys. Even though I’d been acting like a dick.
“Use the perception slowing effect if you want to have a few minutes to talk rather than a few seconds. That’s what my symbiote and I did, sixty years ago.”
“Thank you Guiliard.”
Frank took complete control again and sat us down, then started the perception slowing effect and pressed the green button. Everything slowed to a crawl except my thoughts.
“Bob, I can feel how hard you’re thinking, but there’s just no way. This thing is eating me from the inside out.”
“Can we store a backup of you or something, and reload your operating system, like a normal computer with a virus?” My jaw got a bit warm but the heat faded away. I heard my own voice and it was distorted. I had no idea what it would sound like to the soldiers. Didn’t really care right now either, even though thoughts of chipmunk music forced its way into my mind like an unwelcome guest.
“If that were possible it might work, but remember how I described my data storage matrix to you? There are possibly some human computer systems capable of storing enough data for me to create a kernel of myself, but their transfer speeds are far too low. You would be dead before we’re half done, and what’s left of me would be on a killing spree.”
“These guys might have some high-speed supercomputers or something?”
Frank talked. It was difficult to parse because he was speaking at a normal pace while I was in enhanced perception speeds, but I listened closely and I could make it out. “[Do you have a facility with high-speed computers within two hours?]”
Guiliard’s response was an unmistakable shake of his head.
“Well Fuck.” My speech warmed my jaw again at high-speed, but the heat faded.
“Bob, I wish this could have lasted longer, but I’d rather go this way. This way, there’s a chance that you survive, rather than a guarantee that you die and I turn into a ‘drone’.”
“Dammit Frank, I’m not even going to be able to properly mourn you, I can’t bury you, cremate you, or have anything but an empty place in my head where you once were. Remember what you said about your fear of returning to being alone and unable to communicate?”
“It’s different for you, I hope. You can talk to other humans. These soldiers all know what you are going through. Look at them, every one of them is leaking around the eyeballs. They have all done this before. They will certainly be there for you if you let them, even if it’s just for a short while. You don’t need my bones to mourn me.”
The answer hit me, and I ripped control of our body away from Frank, surprising him. Before the soldiers could react, even before Frank could stop the perception slowing effect or wrest control back, I stood up and turned to face the fucking chair and crushed it with an overhead blow from both fists clenched together. Just to be sure I hadn’t done merely cosmetic damage, I ripped the power cables out of the chair’s base, and jammed the naked conductors against the circuit boards visible next to where the ripped out wires had come from.
Frank removed the perception effect, and froze me in place, kneeling next to the side of the chair. He didn’t stop me from feeling the pain I had just caused myself. He didn’t even heal me. The burning from stressed muscles and joints, and the literal burns on my fingers were ignorable though, as worked up as I was.
Frank spoke aloud, apparently deciding that it was important to be clear who performed the act, probably to prevent the soldiers from attacking us again. “[You idiot. You weren’t content to let only one of us die. Now we’re going to have to let Guiliard kill us both. I won’t be fooled again. There won’t be any more perception effect. I wanted to die with dignity and with hope you might live, but you were too childish for that. Now I have to be responsible for killing both of us. With whatever small amount of dignity you’ve left us with.]”
The soldiers were looking at Guiliard, who was holding his right hand open, clearly visible to his soldiers, above his right shoulder.
I tried to force Frank to let me speak. He was angry, resisting, and didn’t want to hear anything I had to say right then. I had to make him hear me, so I strained against his resistance, then doubled down again, giving myself a serious headache. Frank didn’t acknowledge me or do anything about the headache. I pushed harder. I had to speak. It started to feel like I was either about to break through, or have a stroke, and Frank finally relented, letting me speak.
“We CAN fucking beat it Frank. I figured it out.”