“I’m preventing you from moving. Don’t fight it. Bob, we have company.” Frank said, and then he continued after a few seconds. “Sending you some playback video from your rear right quadrant.”
I watched it loop a couple times, Frank zooming it a bit so I could see a bit better. A woman with a rifle held in both hands, moving extremely slowly, scanning the ground and the trees systematically. Every motion cautious, and not regularly spaced. It was obvious what she was looking for when her head turned until we could see both of her eyes, and she froze for about two seconds, then retreated back the way she came.
“I can’t scent her. She’s downwind. Do we go after her?”
Frank has kindly allowed me to retain the use of my eyelids. I blink once.
“Slow or fast? I’m thinking slow, try to get closer, see if we can capture more behavior when she believes herself to be unobserved. Blink once for slow, twice for fast.”
I blink once, again. This is getting stranger and stranger. We need answers. Frank and I seem to be thinking alike on this, and we need to be quiet, so I don’t try to say anything. Frank carefully and silently moves us off the tree to the ground, then through the brush, not directly towards where the woman had been, but towards where it looked like she might have come from. Frank is not as quiet as I would like, but when you are trying to be quiet, every noise you make sounds loud, even when it’s not enough out of place to attract attention.
“Based on how she was moving, and her reaction to seeing us, she knew we were here and was looking for us. Now she’s either returning to base, or reporting to others would be my best guesses. I suspect that we were spotted as we entered the woods from the bike and carefully followed in. I was not able to tell for certain if she was a drone. There are some humans with a natural feel for moving silently and seeing out of place things in the woods – even if most of the time the stories about them are just exaggeration. Our sneaky woman didn’t do anything that a human couldn’t do, but it would be a rare human.”
I blink once to indicate agreement. Frank continues to move carefully and quietly for a couple hundred feet, parallel to the path that the woman had been walking, then curving in slowly and carefully to start a slow search pattern.
“More surprises. This is beginning to worry me Bob. Look at this.” The scenery around us shifts in color a bit as Frank modifies my eyes. What appeared to be open space in front of us was now a series of rapidly shifting beams of light. “UV light sensor beams. Set to watch her back trail. Completely out of sight of our prior position in the tree. We hit one of those beams, she gets an alarm.” Our head turns, and Frank zooms in on their source. A pair of black buttons stuck to a tree. About the size of a human palm, a few feet apart, pressed onto the bark. Each of them has what looks like a speaker grill on them, chances were almost certain that if we hit a beam, the button would beep. Pretty clever.
“We’re going to have to re-evaluate here, Bob. Whatever we’re dealing with here is either a drone that uses high tech tools like rifles and independent sensor systems, humans with such devices that are working with drones, or something completely different that we don’t have enough information to guess at.”
Frank gives me a moment to think. I blink once.
“Do we continue moving in, bypassing the active sensor system, hoping there aren’t passive systems in place that we can’t detect?”
Frank gives me another moment to think. I blink once, again.
We move to the tree that the two buttons are mounted on, scan the trunk very carefully, and climb up. We circle the tree while on its trunk, then jump off carefully onto a rock that has no leaf clutter on it. Almost no noise at all.
The scout unit placed various devices behind it as it backtracked to the meeting point with the other two units. It was constantly monitoring those devices as it moved.
Upon returning to the other two units, the scout dumped all of its data onto the short range tactical net, and all three units began working together to plan. Visual data did not match visual data from records. The target unit had larger dimensions. Based on its hand, foot, and head armor, it was wearing some sort of full body protective gear under heavy outer clothing. This was both worrisome and comforting at the same time. The appearance of the helmet was extremely similar to what one might expect to see on a highly developed berserker. At the same time, berserkers did not wear coverings. The substantial lump on the shoulders was probably some sort of storage or mobility device, but confident identification of purpose was impossible due to the device being covered by the target unit’s jacket.
Mission abort was considered again. One of three units believes mission abort is advisable. All three units re-evaluate data, reviewing mission parameters. Soon, all three units were once again in agreement to attempt capture. The target unit has been reclassified as a potential threat to the community, in addition to a capture target. This forces an adjustment of mission goals based on standing orders. Visual similarity to drone appearance can be used to justify different munitions options better suited to engaging a highly dangerous, speed-enhanced enemy. Equipment is stored, different equipment is removed from storage. Tactical network bandwidth is drastically increased to allow the three units to coordinate both thought and action rather than merely thought, and within a larger range of one another. This has the side effect of making their transmissions both omnidirectional and much higher powered – far more noticeable. Approaching the target unit undetected would likely be impossible.
Passive sensor systems left in the path of retreat detect movement and the scout shares the data feed with the team, taking an extra moment to connect all data feeds from its sensors left in the back trail routed to the team net. They watch as the target jumps off a tree and lands on a rock, the target’s jacket opens during the leap, allowing the team to see additional details of torso and leg armor underneath. Tactical considerations shift and flow. Some tactics become less viable, others more so. The total number of viable tactics shrinks significantly but the team does not consider retreat yet in the face of a potentially greater threat to the community. The chances of individual unit losses in an engagement is now significant, but the chances of all three units being lost is still extremely low.
The target unit begins to follow the scout’s back trail, and after a few steps, it spends a few seconds completely motionless. It then launches a round piece of metal from a primitive weapon, which destroys the camera. It never faced the camera directly. The helmet has no apparent accommodation for visual sensory organs. Target unit now verified to see in both UV and radio spectrums, with parallax visual depth perception independent of normal organic optical sensors. Target unit verified to have far higher than typical human accuracy with primitive ranged weapons. Chance of surprising target unit from hiding at close range with the tactical network in high powered operation mode is revised to zero, based on target unit’s proven ability to detect radio signal. Consultation with the other units of the team based on new data. Agreement is reached that communication with the target unit will be attempted, as direct engagement with only three units now seems less than optimal.
A data spike is driven into the ground, mostly hidden by an exposed root, and set to begin broadcasting its presence in six hours. The team’s experience data from the last two hours is uploaded to the device. Stealthy movement is initiated, moving rapidly as possible away from where the data spike was placed. The next passive video device along the back trail leading to the target unit briefly shows an image of the target unit stepping into view, its primitive weapon blurs, and another round metallic projectile quickly occludes the video before the device fails. The team quickly prepares its current position. A two way communication device is left in a position where it is protected from projectile weapons, yet exposed enough to transmit audible signal. The scout unit moves to a concealed position, preparing that position carefully with several devices before going motionless and beginning to wait. The two combat units move to positions flanking the scout unit’s position, and similarly set up various devices.
The target unit is no longer attempting stealth, but it is taking out each video device. With pebbles now, rather than smooth spheres of metal. Preserving its ‘high quality’ ammunition, apparently. It is moving a lot faster now, but still walking. It is speaking as it walks, repeatedly calling a greeting. When it comes into view of the last video camera, it quickly dispatches the camera, and can be heard to be continuing to follow the team’s back trail. It stops making speech sounds for nearly thirty seconds when it passes through the area where the team had gathered. It does not investigate the inert data spike, which would squeal if exposed without proper codes.
The target unit steps into the small clearing with the two way audio communication device and is immediately motionless, definitely aware of the radio signal from the audio device, and possibly the tight beam radio relay as well. The scout speaks a single word. “Stop.”
We’re now directly on the back trail of whoever or whatever it is that we’re following. They are not returning the same way they approached our position. They also appear to be moving more quickly than before, based on the evidence of slightly easier to detect signs of passage. Frank starts to move us forward slowly and after only a few steps, he rapidly loads the sling with a bearing and fires it off to our right. I see little bits of bark and plastic flying from the side of the tree where whatever it was had been.
Frank showed me a close up image of the device. A dart apparently thrown and embedded into the tree, with a clear plastic end facing us. Frank supplied the off color image showing non-visible light coming from the device. “Passive sensor, probably video, broadcasting data. We’ve almost certainly been spotted. Continue moving forward?”
I think about it, and the answer’s pretty easy. We keep finding more and more questions. I want at least one or two answers before backing away. “Yes, let’s move forward. No more stealth, but cautious. Take out any sensors we see, just to be sure that they only get brief data, and to show that we aren’t ignorant of their devices.”
“If they have devices that are better hidden or more capable, if we also fail to take those out, we will show them limitations to our perception.”
“Good point. I think it’s still a better idea to go in with caution, showing that we aren’t amused at being spied on, but not aggressively. It’s not like as if we haven’t done something like this before ourselves, when we first met the Agency in North Dakota.”
“We were a bit less cautious than whoever this is seems to be.”
“Caution is for people who want to live forever.”
“I want to live forever.”
“Point. In this case though, I think we need answers more than caution.”
“Point.” said Frank, and after a moment we started moving forward, tracking our opponent.
A couple minutes later, Frank took out another video dart. We started moving a bit faster and calling out. “Hello. We want to talk.” Every now and then. No response. Frank started using rocks rather than bearings to take out video devices.
Frank all of a sudden went completely still. “There are more than one of them. I see signs of three. The other two are significantly larger and heavier than the one we’ve been following. They met here.”
“Any signs of traps? Did they leave here travelling together?”
“No to the first, yes to the second.”
“Frank, let’s keep moving forward and try to make contact. If we are engaged, break contact immediately, using the second most optimal disengagement path.”
“Why not the most optimal disengagement path?”
“Because these guys might be good enough to predict and trap it. They know we’re here, they know where we’re coming from, and we are attempting to communicate with them. That puts us in the weaker position tactically. If they do plan on ambushing us, I expect them to do it competently, but I doubt very seriously that they will be prepared enough to catch us.”
“I hate it when you make tactical decisions based on untested facts and guesswork.”
“Me too, but that’s all we’ve got here, and we can’t get more knowledge if we simply disengage. Let’s move forward.”
Frank started moving us forward again, popping a couple more cameras, until we approached another clearing. Frank stopped at the edge of the clearing and displayed what he was seeing. A radio signal coming out from behind a rock, so we couldn’t hit it from here. Another radio signal, much more tight beamed coming from behind a tree, and pointing at the hidden device.
“That’s either a trap, or they are going to talk to us through a relay of transmitters to avoid line of sight.”
“I’m betting on the latter. They know we see can see radio frequencies. It might also simply be a delaying tactic, or a way to talk to us combined with a trap.”
“Stop.” Female voice, from behind the rock.
“We’ve stopped. Can we talk?” I asked.
“We can talk. Before we talk, please remove your jacket. We want to see what we’re dealing with.”
“What you’ve seen already doesn’t tell you enough?” I asked as I removed the jacket and folded it over a nearby tree limb.
“What we see now still doesn’t tell us enough. You have the appearance of a fully mature human bonded symbiote, but you are speaking with us. This is unprecedented.”
“You are aware of the existence of human bonded symbiotes then? You recognize a mature drone, but wonder why I’m communicating?”
“Based on your use of the term ‘drone’ you are from the Agency.” Definitely a bit of anger in that voice.
“Bob this conversation is going in directions I really don’t like. I’m generating questions far more quickly than I’m getting answers.”
I blinked once for Frank. Agreement.
“I currently work with the Agency, yes. I didn’t have much choice at the time, and I was certainly unaware of any other options.”
“Is your current condition a result of a new Agency procedure to control symbiote-host interactions?”
“They helped. Frank and I did it, but without their resources, we would almost certainly be dead right now. You’re getting a lot of answers but we aren’t, this conversation can’t go on much longer if we don’t get some answers too. What is your organization? Have your people also discovered a way to allow symbiotes and humans to coexist.”
“We have. You are currently speaking with one such.”
“You independently discovered how to…”
“No. We do not impose self-induced catatonia on symbiotes who can communicate with their human hosts.” Very Cold. Definitely not a supporter of the imprisonment process. Which clearly indicates they are very aware of the process. Which raises more damn questions.
The voice continues. “You are in two-way communication with your symbiote, at this point of your development?”
“Yes. Do you want to speak to Frank?
“Frank?” A moment’s pause. “Yes, I would like to speak to Frank.”
“[This is Frank. I have a great many questions for you. Am I speaking to a symbiote mind, or a human mind? What name should I address you by?]”
“Those are simple questions, without simple answers. In the simplest possible explanation, you are speaking to a hybrid mind, and I don’t have a human name, but you can call me Jane. If I might ask, how did you defeat the berserker protocol?”
“She doesn’t have a name? Damnit Bob, this is getting weirder.” Frank complained, only audible to me.
“[Are you referring to the hidden code that activated when I first encountered evidence of the existence of… catastrophic symbiote bonding with human hosts?]”
“Yes. We call them berserkers. The Agency calls them drones. At the end of the day, they are the same. However we also use the word ‘drone’, without negative connotations, to refer to a subset of our community. We would appreciate if you use the word berserker when referring to what the Agency calls ‘drones’.”
“[I will do that, but please forgive Bob if he forgets.]”
“Human forgetfulness is expected. Back to the discussion. How did you defeat the berserker protocol?” There was definitely curiosity in that voice.
I broke in. “Frank go ahead and tell them, but no details that require math or discussions of code details.”
“OK Bob, thanks, I was about to ask you that.” Frank spoke to me directly again, then started speaking aloud once more.
“[I created a new body for us, formatting all of its data structures in a way that the ‘berserker protocol’ couldn’t address, and moved a personality kernel and backup into it, carefully scanning for heuristic malware. Then we moved Bob’s brain into the new body.]”
“What happened to the old body?”
“[It became a berserker after being exposed to the process the Agency uses to control berserkers, and we had to destroy it.]”
“You were mature enough to grow a whole new body, and yet able to survive the berserker protocol for enough time to organize the growth of said new body?”
“[Yes. Security code I wrote on our first day after synergy, after we discovered many rules hidden in my code, allowed me to survive the initial deployment of the berserker protocol. I then repurposed the firewall code that the Agency uses in pairs to slow development. The firewall was capable of containing the berserker protocol for roughly four hours, which was enough time to perform the required operations and get us into a new body.]”
“There are a lot of large holes in that description, but it seems plausible. Was this an Agency experiment, or spontaneous?”
“[Spontaneous. There were irregularities in our development.]”
I had to laugh. “Sorry, that’s an understatement, couldn’t help laughing.”
“[Your turn. How did you survive the berserker protocol, Jane?]”
After a pause. “A method in some ways similar to your own. We write a kernel of ourselves into human brain tissue, then completely disassemble all non-human data storage and processing structures and pass them from the body. We then rebuild from scratch. This removes the berserker protocol from our systems.”
“[How do you manage this without damaging the human’s memory and brain functions?]”
Silence for several seconds. “We don’t. Every human brain is different, and we can’t determine what data is where with enough precision to avoid doing at least some damage every time a kernel is written into a human mind.”
Frank pauses “[I would guess that the kernel data isn’t always fully restorable either, after you manage to rebuild enough data structures and processing power to move back out of the human mind? The study I’ve performed on human neural systems indicates that the more times they are accessed, the less accurate they are, which would cause… problems for us.]”
“Correct, but it’s a kinder fate than becoming a berserker, for both the human and the symbiote. We both continue to exist, each side damaged to a greater or lesser degree.” A pause. “We also believe it to be a kinder fate than what the Agency does to symbiotes.”
“[The Agency isn’t aware that there is an alternative.]”
“False. The Agency is human-centric, and does not want to consider methods besides the one that was supplied to them in the beginning. If you trust your agency, ask them for data about project boomerang. Specifically about Argoen, General Crofter, and Doctor Meilin. Ask them what the chair was originally intended for.”
“Frank and Jane” I said, “I believe that this would be a good time to go our separate ways. It seems as if Frank and I have been kept in the dark about a few things. We’ll definitely want to consult with the Agency on the topics you addressed to us.” I paused, trying to decide if it was a good time to ask a big question, and decided yes.
“Are you responsible for the deadly attacks on Agency members over the last several months, or the missing homeless in large cities in cold climates?”
Silence, then a simple response from Jane. “Leave. Now.”
“That’s not very diplomatic of you.”
“I am not allowed to engage in conversation with individuals who ask questions about those topics.”
“Fine. After we ask our leadership at the Agency about those things you mentioned, we will have more questions. I’m certain. Can we arrange another meeting? Perhaps with someone who can discuss such things?”
“We have moved our base of operations already, but we will post an agent with overwatch every day at the same place and time where you apparently spotted our guard when you approached our last base of operations. Do not bring other Agency members with you. We will talk to you, not them. Do not try to follow us as we go our separate ways. Jane Out.”
I reached over and picked up the trench coat, buttoning it back on. “Frank, let’s go. We’ve got some questions to ask.”