I woke from a comfy rest, sitting up and stretching. Frank let me have one good stretch, then gave me a sharp bit of pain for my efforts, causing me to fold over.
“Ow, what did I do?” I asked out loud. Nobody really notices if apparently homeless people talk to themselves. In fact it was expected of the ones that are seen drinking kerosene or gasoline every now and then, which I had been doing in order to blend in as one of the least fortunate.
“I will let you look dirty. I will create bugs to infest you without really infesting you. I’ll even let you metabolize kerosene and wood alcohol. I won’t let you act like you just woke up from a long rest on a pillow top mattress when you just slept six hours on a concrete slab. I’m going to have to let you feel the effects this life should be having on your body, so I don’t have to constantly watch to keep you from being suspicious.” I started to feel a dull ache in my right hip and shoulder, and my lower back. Not enough to stop me, but enough to cause me to limp a bit, and hold my arm in a certain way to relieve the pressure of it hanging from my shoulder joint.
I groaned. Like usual, when Frank chose to criticize me, he was right. I put my left hand on the concrete pillar next to me and used it to help me stand up. I actually got a bit light headed for a second.
“Please no more of the spins.” I said.
Frank didn’t say anything, but the spins stopped.
“Been drinkin’ too much of that fine 96 octane vintage there, buddy?” I pretended not to hear the other bum huddled next to a pathetic fire of a couple charcoal briquettes in a metal coffee can. He wasn’t too terribly far from where I pretended I was. He was my meter stick really. I made myself seem significantly weaker than him, intentionally. I let him threaten and steal from me every now and then. The others wouldn’t let him do it too often though, a couple of the bigger healthier fellows actually tried to keep some sort of order in the camp. I had seen him drink a bit of “fine 96 octane” myself on a couple occasions, but to be fair, he drank far less gasoline and far more wine than I did. He was probably a year or two away from where I acted like I was, unless something turned him around.
I looked around under the bridge, there were about twenty of us here. Most of the rest were fairly healthy, as the homeless went. Which was one reason why I was trying not to be, or at least trying not to look healthy.
The number of homeless people found dead of exposure during the winter months in several northern cities around the US had been markedly lower for the last couple years, according to the news reports I had dug up after hearing a snippet about homeless death rates being unexpectedly low in a few colder cities in recent years. Less deaths for the homeless was a good thing, except for the fact that high risk individuals were disappearing. They weren’t surviving and staying healthy, they were simply gone. At first it hadn’t been remarked upon much. There were a lot of people who genuinely cared about the homeless, and the homeless had their own communities and groups amongst themselves – but in the absence of a corpse, people were more likely to hope for the best than to explore the darker options. Maybe Joe went back to spend the winter with the family that he talked about every now and then. Maybe Nathan really did own a house free and clear in Georgia, and decided to go back there. The elected officials and law enforcement and coroner’s offices were happy to have to deal with fewer dead homeless, and didn’t much care to look at the reasons too closely.
Most who knew the homeless community also knew they were probably fooling themselves. The homeless who were disappearing were the ones that were prime candidates for becoming corpses during the cold season. The very underweight. The injured. The ones who would drink literally anything that would alter their state of mind. The weak loners. These were the ones that had normally fallen too far, and very rarely were able to pick themselves back up. With enough help, maybe, but they rarely got enough help. Nobody really wanted to know where the corpses were going to, except for a very vocal yet tiny highly devoted minority who had finally made enough noise that some media outlets ran a couple stories on it.
When I started researching about it on a whim, Frank had humored me and helped me do research. It was pretty easy to draw him into just about anything interesting by poking him with statistical anomalies. Sometimes he would take something that looked interesting, dig around on the internet for a few minutes, then explain it in about fifteen seconds so that it made perfect sense, and was therefore no longer very interesting. Interesting to know anyway, not interesting to think about much.
In this case he spent a couple hours digging and researching, occasionally checking with me to see if I thought this or that article might be related. Normally I can’t help Frank much when he’s refining data, but if he’s digging into something that refuses to be easily solvable, he starts widening the search net. When he starts really widening the net a great deal, he starts bringing me truly bizarre things, some of which are brilliant and make sense, and some of which make absolutely no sense at all. He recognizes that when it comes to higher order statistics that are based in human activities, he needs help connecting dots and making sure unconnected dots stay unconnected. When he asked me if there was any potential for a connection between sales prices at Victoria’s Secret stores, voting habits of octogenarians, and the disappearing homeless I told him he was way off track, and asked him to tell me what he thought based on what he had found.
“Almost 100% chance that there is something here. Oh. Wait. One of the family genealogy webpages I wanted to look at just came back online. One second. Lots of images. Slow connection to that machine. Ah, Bob. Scratch that I found something even better. 100% chance that there is something you want to look at here, and it’s pictures! Not those nasty numbers.”
“Hrm. Pictures good.” I scratched under my armpit in an exaggerated manner, making “ook ook” noises. “Enough joking. What did you find Frank?”
“Recognize this?” A picture of a poorly inked Celtic knot tattoo on the upper right forearm of a man, whose fingernails were apparently being painted pink as a prank. Above the pink fingernails was a very young child’s head, grinning. In the bottom white section of an old photo there was writing which read “Joe drank too much that night, so I let the kids have a bit of fun. James was thrilled to help daddy with his nails.”
“Um, no. Not offhand.”
“Har, Har. Punny. Now look at this.” He then showed another image of an upper right forearm with a Celtic knot image. This one had visible cooling tubes coming out of the skin in several places on the arm, randomly. The picture was only of an arm, by itself, laying on the pavement. A drone arm.
“Undamaged components of the knot on the drone arm are a near perfect match to the knot on the sleeping drunk’s arm. There are some very minor differences, but they are differences easily explained by the passage of around fifteen years. The Celtic knot design itself is extremely complex, and every knot is unique, especially badly done ones. In this case, the drunk was probably drunk when getting the tattoo and pulling his arm away from the tattoo gun.” He drew several circles on each arm’s knot showing short streaks of ink, none of which seemed legitimately to be a part of the knot. The length and direction of each streak matched from arm to arm.
I racked my brain to remember which drone had that tattoo. “Hartford, three months ago? The one that found us while we were monitoring another pair?”
“That’s the one. The second one we know of that actually bypassed humans to attack a team.”
That particular drone had not been anything terribly difficult to take down after it made itself known, but only the armor I had built for the team allowed the first team member it attacked to survive. It caught them completely off guard because they would never expect a drone to sneak up on them. It caught me off guard too, because it was not only sneaky, but it was casually sneaky. It walked up to the van as it was parked along the sidewalk in a long heavy jacket, boots and a ski mask. When it came even with the passenger side door, the drone yanked it open hard enough to pop the lock, and hit Mako about eight times before he was even aware he was under attack. Mako jumped out of the van, shouldering the thing away from him long enough for him to start defending while I got clear of the vehicle. It was a very weak drone, and I took it out with only a few cuts of the long blade. Mako’s armor was badly torn up and he had a bunch of broken bones and damaged organs, but his regeneration patched that up. Without the armor, the thing would have probably either pulled his heart and lungs out of his chest cavity before he realized he was under attack, destroyed his brain with blows to the head, or just decapitated him; any of the three would take out a normal soldier.
At the time we thought the surprise attack from a drone was a freak occurrence. We should have known better, since that was the second attack like it, and the first attack on another team had killed a soldier. Drones just weren’t supposed to do the sneaky thing. Or rather, they never had before. That had changed, and it was costing us.
We lost three Agency soldiers in five attacks in a period of four months, which was not a sustainable loss rate for combat trained agency soldiers. We almost lost one of the tech weenies that had gone to go talk with a fellow engineer who had reached synergy with his symbiote. The recruiting effort was a success but the tech weenies now traveled with me when they went to the field, and heavily armored, or not at all. Annoying for both them and us. Frank and I enjoyed their company, but we all knew that I really wanted to be doing other things. Priorities suck sometimes.
After we found the tattoo match, and Frank verified the tattoo didn’t belong to any pair that had been tracked (and any pair his age would have been tracked) it was time to go to leadership. At this point, leadership had swung back to Guiliard. Bringing me in had gotten him major brownie points with just about everyone in the Agency, including me. If he and his team had actually tried to kill me, I think it would have ended very differently for them – and me, but thinking about past “what ifs” is silly. I prefer thinking about future “what ifs.”
“So what have you got for me, Magilla?” He said. Even when I wasn’t in the field, unless we were doing something formal, he called me that. That’s OK, I have some pretty funny footage of him and most of the other soldiers in the team from the event that got me that name. Except Animal, of course, who I later discovered was the “Giver of Names.” He just stood there bobbing his head, gun pointed at the ground a few feet in front of me while everyone else reacted. “Everyone, meet Magilla,” he said, and it stuck.
“Guiliard, I figure the tech weenies and the forensics and medical folks will want to look at this themselves and draw their own conclusions, so we’ll give you two images and related documents in one file, and Frank’s analysis in the other. They are clearly labeled. I figure the two images by themselves will be enough to get some immediate reaction though.” I handed the two hardcopy sheets to Guiliard and his eyes tracked between them for a couple seconds.
“Definitely interesting, but how interesting? What are the images, other than matching tattoos?”
“Well the first arm is obviously a drone’s because of the cooling tubes starting to form. To be precise it was one of the first sneaky drones, the one my team took out in Hartford three months ago.” I took a breath and continued. “The other one belongs to one of the homeless people who have been disappearing. This image was taken about fifteen years ago. He became homeless shortly after that image, and last winter, he just disappeared off the streets. Frank is almost certain that they are a match.”
“Frank, anything to add?” Guiliard asked.
Frank took control of my voice briefly, changing things a bit to be polite and not potentially confuse people about who was speaking. “[No, Bob’s pretty much covered everything for now, provided that you want us to allow you to independently analyze the data.]”
“Even with this little bit of information you’ve given me so far, it looks good. Let me rephrase that. It looks like it’s important. I’ll bring people together. After a preliminary meeting I’ll reach back out to you if anyone has questions.” Then he looked at the capacity of the flash drives, and inserted them into his laptop. “Six terabytes Frank? Please tell me you sorted it by relevance and subject matter, with a decent index?”
“He did. I asked. We learned the first time you chewed him out.”
“He’s never going to let me live that down, is he?” Frank commented in my head. I just blinked twice to indicate ‘no’ and Frank responded with a sigh in my head.
The next day, we were brought back into the meeting room and planning started. It took four days for me to convince them that it was worth risking me to infiltrate the homeless community, because none of the other soldiers could go undercover as a weakling, nor would they survive if attacked by a drones if they were solo and unarmored. Some of our people were pretty good, especially with the new gear Frank had started producing, but not good enough to stand up to a drone, not solo. They wouldn’t even have the advantage of the gear, if they were undercover as a homeless person. Frank and I were the only ones who could escape from, or potentially kill, a drone without armor and combat gear.
In the end, the argument boiled down to one fact. As an organization, we absolutely had to make an effort to find out what was going on, because no matter how good we were, Frank and I couldn’t do everything. The Agency was losing good people faster than they could be recruited and trained from the ranks of symbiote pairs reaching synergy.
That’s why I was wearing all the clothes I owned, hauling a rusted out Red Ryder wagon behind me into the recycling station. The handy little wagon had a couple plastic grocery bags of my personal things, but was otherwise full of deposit return bottles, clumsily crushed aluminum cans, and even a few lengths of copper wiring I had found in a dumpster at a construction site. Enough recyclables and return deposits to buy a bottle of cheap wine and a pint or two of whatever was cheapest at the pumps.
“Ow, that hurt.” I wobbled and the wagon nearly toppled as my knee almost gave out on me. Frank. Playing with my body. Helping me fit the role. Learning the fine art of schadenfreude.
“You’re enjoying this too much. You don’t really look miserable enough. Yet.”