I left the clearing where Frank and I had spoken with the others. All of us were intentionally making enough noise that the others knew where we were so there weren’t any embarrassing incidents.
When I got to the dirt bike and found the sliced tires, I was annoyed. It didn’t take Frank long to fix the tires and inflate them, but I wasn’t in a good mood. Frank wasn’t very talkative either. Rather than organize a meeting with Dart and Animal and from there start arranging for a meeting with Anton and Guiliard to find out about this Project Boomerang, I took the bike to the junkyard. The owner was still there, getting ready to go home. He worked twelve hours a day, seven days, from seven AM to seven PM.
I really wasn’t sure what I was going to say or do when I rolled up to the entrance. The guy didn’t know me, except as Bob – the homeless guy that was in bad shape.
“Frank release helmet straps please so I can take off the helmet.”
“OK.” The helmet became a bit looser, no longer anchored by dozens of straps attached to my skull.
I pulled the bike up next to the little office. The owner opened the window.
“Closed. Back tomorrow seven AM”
“I’m just here to talk a minute, if you don’t mind,” and I took off my helmet.
“Bob? Didn’t see you today. I was worried.” His eyes swept up and down, seeing the armor, the coat, the bike, and then back to my face. “You seem to be in better shape today.”
“It was a disguise, sorry. A lot of homeless have been disappearing in several cities recently. I was trying to find out what’s been happening.”
“You’re here now. Not disguised. Why?”
“I think I found answers. Now I only have more questions. I’ve seen what you do to help the homeless here. I want to talk to you about some of my new questions.”
“I’m no answer man, but we can talk a bit. Come in. Coffee?”
“Yes, coffee black please.” I paused. “Kind of embarrassing to ask this but in the whole time I’ve known you, I never heard your name, just Mr. Carder.”
“Name’s Elliot. Coming here to ask me questions with that look on your face – you want whiskey in that coffee?”
Frank would just metabolize it before it could affect my mind, but I could use the taste at least. “Please.”
A bottle of off label whiskey came out of the desk and a couple splashes of cheap whiskey were added to my coffee. Elliot handed the coffee to me over his desk. He didn’t put any whiskey in his own cup, just capped the bottle and put it back under his desk, then walked around out from behind the desk and leaned up against a wall near me.
“None for you?”
“That bottle’s not for me. I drank my fill years ago. AA.”
I nodded. “Well Elliot, I came here to try to figure out what was happening with the homeless. Tried to blend in with them, look really weak, hoping I’d get a chance to see firsthand what was happening.”
“Did a good job – had me fooled.” Elliot looked at me, waiting for more.
“Well, I found answers, but now I have more questions. I wanted to see what you think about the answers I found.”
“Tell me about ‘em.”
“The people who are taking the homeless are helping them, but hurting them at the same time. They live, but they aren’t entirely there in the head any more if you know what I mean.”
“Oh. So they are abducting the homeless people least likely to survive the winter, treating them, but the treatment damages them? Something like chemo for cancer?”
“Yeah, but it’s not their body, it’s their mind. They aren’t getting permission to do it either, I don’t think.”
“Oh, so after they get the body of the homeless person in good shape, they do some sort of cult thing?” Elliot pauses. “That would explain why we don’t see them again after they get taken.”
“Well, yeah. That’s pretty close, I think. The homeless are abducted, their bodies healed, and then they get a mental whammy put on them. They become part of an organization.”
“Well, I’m a father. I’ll tell you that alive is better than dead. I won’t fault people that keep homeless people from dying.”
“Even if they aren’t allowed to leave?”
“Religion aside, death’s a pretty permanent solution. It would take a whole lot of pain to outweigh a gift of life. You’ve never been a parent, have you?”
“No, you’re right, I haven’t.”
“Every one of those homeless that gets healed is one more son or daughter that gets to live another day. Even if they aren’t all there in the head, if they are content where they are, even in a cult, it’s better than being dead.”
“What if the homeless person didn’t want to live?”
Elliot raised his hand to me. “I need to think how to say this.” He chewed on his lip for a few seconds. “If they really want to die, they can find a way when they are healthy. Too many times the weak and helpless want to die because they are weak and helpless, so they don’t try to get stronger, they just wither away until the string breaks.” He paused. “You looked to be pretty close to that point yourself the other day, even if it was faking it.”
“Elliot I want to thank you. You’re one hell of a man, and you’ve helped me tonight. You do a great job here.”
“Thank you. I try to give back. I wasn’t too far off from where you were pretending to be, once. A few years back. Drinking lost me my wife, my kids, my job, and almost my life before I hit rock bottom under the bridge. I got some help from a mission, did the AA thing, and busted my ass to put together what I’ve got here. I never did get my wife back, she found another guy who treats her far better than I ever did. This job ain’t so good as the one I had before, but I did get the respect of my kids back.”
“I see. Thank you. I was hoping that you would be able to help me. As you said, I was faking it. I never got a sense of it. Even living in the middle of it I didn’t quite get it because I could just get up at any time and go.”
I reached over to shake his hand. He accepted. “Well I’ve got some bookkeeping to do here before I go for the day, or I’d walk you out of the lot.”
Frank put a few images up on my optic nerve. A foreclosure notice on the desk, and a bunch of utility bills marked past due.
“Want to help him out a bit early?” Frank asks in my head.
I blink. “Before I go, can I hit the restroom?”
“Sure, can have another coffee before you go too, if you want, but no whiskey for you this time around.”
I went into the restroom and made the appropriate noises while Frank loosened up the armor enough to get to the kangaroo pouch and pull out a few loose rough diamonds. Nothing terribly valuable, but enough to get Elliot caught back up on his bills, if he got a fair price on them.
“Elliot, one more thing before I go. What you are doing here is important. I don’t want to see it end. Hope you don’t mind too much but I couldn’t help seeing what was on your desk.”
I poured a half dozen rough diamonds onto his desk, and he just stared at them, not touching them.
“I can’t take that.” He whispered.
“You can’t do what you do here if the bank takes this place away from you.”
“Yeah. I know.” A defeated sigh.
“Do you want to keep it? The place, I mean? There are other ways to help and maybe you were wanting to do those things, something different?”
“Rather keep the place.”
“Let me help you like you help the homeless then. I’m not going to give you so much that you don’t need to work. I’m not going to make life easy for you. I’m going to give you what you need to get through next month, get caught up on your bills, and maybe figure out a better way to run your business. You take these to a reputable diamond buyer and you should get enough to pay your bills up to date and take a couple online basic business or accounting classes.”
“Bit of a difference between me handing out coffee, donuts, and fruit, and you handing me diamonds.”
“Sure there is. But I can’t be here day in, day out, helping these homeless folks like you do. If you don’t pay those bills, you can’t either. It’s amazing what you can find in a junkyard, isn’t it?”
Elliot smiled. “Thank you, I’ll put it to good use.”
This time the handshake was a lot more energetic, and I left the place with a lot fewer questions than I went in with.
I pulled up to the hotel room, Dart and Animal were there. “I need to make arrangements to meet with Guiliard. We have an active link back to base?”
“What happened? You still have the coat and it’s in decent condition, so there wasn’t a fight.” Dart was looking me over. Animal was just watching, letting Dart ask the questions.
“We aren’t the only organized group of pairs. I talked with one of them today after playing a bit of hide and seek in the woods. There were two others working with them that didn’t talk.”
Silence for several seconds. Animal’s head stopped bobbing.
“You sure they were pairs, if they didn’t fight?” Animal asking this time.
“Yes. Can’t be really sure, but they knew about the Agency and were not very happy with the methods it uses.” I replied.
Dart pursed her lips. “None of us are very happy with the methods the Agency uses. That doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.”
“They said it’s not. They described a different way to erase the ‘berserker protocol’ code that we use the chair to prevent, and that I created a new body and new operating system to circumvent. Frank thinks it sounds plausible.”
“How?” This from Animal again. Two questions in less than an hour. A new record for Animal.
“They write a kernel of the symbiote into the human brain, then completely remove all the symbiote memory storage and processors from the body, and rebuild new memory storage and processing capacity from scratch. This supposedly erases the ‘berserker protocol’ and the symbiote can then move back into its normal architecture.”
“I thought that writing symbiote code to human grey matter was destructive to the host.” Dart said.
“Apparently it is, and it’s destructive to the symbiote as well, but they feel it’s better than imprisoning the symbiote.”
“Oh. So the human and the symbiote each get some brain damage but they both survive?” Dart again. Animal is just chewing his lip, nodding his head.
“Yes, but I would expect that a community of symbiotes, working together, would be able to share code and repair most damage to symbiote code. Human brain damage is another matter. Humans probably come out on the short end of the stick in their organization, similar to how symbiotes are marginalized on the Agency side.”
“Wow. Wait. Are they using the homeless to experiment on?” Dart was starting to get upset.
“I didn’t get all the answers Dart. It sounds like they are collecting homeless who are near death, placing a symbiote into them, and then when the time is right, doing the brain thing. I don’t know if the homeless get any choice in the matter, but the ones that have been disappearing are the ones that typically would end up as corpses anyway. We don’t know the process. We don’t know the level of damage to the human host brains on average. We really don’t know much.”
“That’s just creepy. What do you think about it, Frank?”
“[Conflicted. The potential for a damaged human brain or symbiote kernel code is worrisome. We don’t know their success rates or the levels of damage that accompany the procedures on average. We’ve only communicated with one of them. The other two with her might not have been able to speak at all, for all we know. If there’s a viable alternative to imprisoning the symbiote which doesn’t damage the human brains too terribly, I’d say that their method, if it works, would be superior.]”
“Even if both you and Bob had been damaged mentally, you would prefer that to one of you being fully intact mentally?” Dart, poking at the question, trying to understand Frank’s position. I’m glad she was doing it, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“[Depends on the degree of mental damage. That’s what I would be conflicted about. If Bob were to develop a learning disability, or some other mental illness that I could control chemically, then yes, definitely worth it. If he lost his capacity for higher thought and needed diapers, no, it wouldn’t be worth it, because I’d have to live with it, and I am attuned to my host. It would eventually impact my sanity as well.]”
“If you had to gamble? If you didn’t know how it would turn out?” Animal this time.
“[If the opportunity to survive and remain active within a reasonably intact human mind was significant, I would risk my own sanity in a gamble. At fifty percent chance and below it becomes less attractive quickly.]”
“This conversation is a bit painful for me to consider, but I’ve got to go with Frank on this one. For all that he did for me, even within minutes of synergy, I’d risk my sanity for him if it would give him a chance to stay free, provided that the chances were good.”
“Yes, definitely above our pay grade.” Dart mumbles.
“Either of you ever hear of Argoen, General Crofter, Doctor Meilin, or Project Boomerang?”
They both shook their heads. I called in and spoke to Guiliard, who cut me off short as soon as I mentioned symbiotes storing data in human grey matter.
“Yes, we need to speak. Securely. Return to base. Dart and Animal, get with Anton and figure out where he wants you to redeploy to. Magilla, however you want to get here, just do it fast. I need to show you some things that we probably should have shown you before. We’ve been intending to make you a field commander anyway, I guess we fast track this.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow, midday.”
“As soon as you can please. Call me with an ETA when you are within two hours and I’ll set aside a time block to meet with you.”
We packed up, and I was dropped off at a car rental facility. Dart and Animal waited until I successfully rented a car before they left. I love kiosks. The clerks behind the counter were looking at me pretty oddly in my trench coat with black armor underneath, even with the helmet under my arm, but the kiosk didn’t care. I drove overnight to get to the base. As he requested, I called Guiliard about two hours before I arrived.
“All right Magilla, glad you could make it early enough today that we can get this all taken care of,” Guiliard said while shaking my hand.
“Before we get all carried away with the whole promotion thing, we really need to talk.”
“Yes, the whole ‘walking into my office wearing full body armor except the helmet’ thing was a bit of a hint that we need to talk.” He paused. “You ran into one of the splinter groups, and they talked to you rather than shot at you?”
“Were you expecting them to shoot at me? Did you know what you were sending me out to find?” I leaned forward. “This whole thing smells pretty bad Guiliard.”
“We were not aware that any of the splinter groups were still active. There have been several small groups of symbiotes out there. A few were older groups though, older than the agency itself. Some of them even helped us get established. Most of them were eventually killed off by drones, we thought, as they kept trying to experiment with ways to preserve the mind of the symbiote and the mind of the human without using the prison chair.” Guiliard paused, thinking. “Anton and I are two of the oldest. We’re both nearly a hundred years old. We were about your age when we were given a symbiote. Both of us had severe wounds from service in world war two. I was missing both legs and Anton had lost an eye and an arm.”
“So you were part of the first group to be given symbiotes?”
“Yes. For about two months everything was incredible. There were about sixty of us first generation out there who had months to get to know our symbiotes before we had to imprison them. About a dozen are still alive today. First generation symbiotes in adult human bodies only took a few days until they were capable of speaking with their hosts and begin to improve host health. My legs were restored fully within eight days of the symbiote being introduced into my system.” Guiliard stared off into the distance a bit, lost in memory, but then shook his head and returned his attention to me.
“Let me give you some names and I’ll let you tell me how they fit into your story. Argoen, General Crofter, Doctor Meilin, and the origin of the prison chairs.”
“Yes, we got a debriefing from Dart and Animal so I knew you would be asking about them. They are still painful memories.”
“Argoen was the source. He was an alien, a methane breather whose vessel failed. He was able to make it to Earth, but his ship had suffered extreme damage, losing not only function, but huge masses of components. His symbiote was more than capable of generating everything he needed to do the repairs, or survive within the ship, but he could not leave his ship for long to go get raw materials. Since he was a methane breather, every trip outside the ship was like you or I going walking on the moon. His ship landed at the site people call Area 51 these days.”
“When the US military found his ship, Argoen met them, easily rebuffed their attempts to capture him, but did so while being very careful not to kill any of them. The soldiers were tool users, even if they were primitives. His symbiote was easily able to communicate visually through television signals, and soon language classes were arranged. Again, Argoen’s symbiote was the catalyst. Ask Frank how many languages he knows well enough to talk in at a basic level. It will surprise you, I bet. They learn everything on the first pass.”
“Nine. I can get by in nine languages. Not technical vocabulary, but enough to communicate most things.”
“Nice Frank, we’ll have to talk about which ones later. Go on Guiliard.”
“To make a long story short, Argoen agreed to trade for the supplies required to repair his ship. The Army wanted weapons and technology. Argoen offered offspring from his symbiote. When he explained what his symbiote could do, the Army was more than happy to accept potential super soldiers as payment for raw materials. Part of the claim Argoen made when describing the abilities of his symbiote was that the new soldiers would be able to regenerate entire limbs, and survive wounds up to massive head trauma, or loss of the oxygen transport system, or in his case, the methane transport system. So that’s where we came in. The first group was a mix of active duty Green Berets and disabled veterans with excellent service records. We all received the offspring of Argoen’s symbiote. Within days we were interacting with our symbiotes and we were all fully restored to perfect health within a few days after that, even with the symbiotes being underpowered and undeveloped.”
Guiliard took a drink of water then continued.
“After a few incidents involving immature symbiotes trying to defend their hosts, and using excessive force, we were able to convince Argoen to implement an incubation period where the symbiote would have to watch and learn the host before being allowed to communicate and act, that way the host would teach the symbiote how to act. Argoen’s race was born with most of this knowledge, and each of their race, when implanted with a symbiote, would also undergo extensive training for the symbiote, but humanity couldn’t guarantee that sort of thing with our tech base, so the synergy limit was designed. Alice simply hid it from the symbiotes so they couldn’t see it.”
“Is Alice aware of all this?” I asked.
“Most of it, probably all of it by now, she’s one of the most well informed that were not first generation.” Guiliard then continued.
“In the meantime, one of the young symbiotes had committed a murder in its host’s body. We complained to Argoen again and his symbiote provided us with the plans for the prison chair. That’s what it was originally for, literally putting a symbiote into imprisonment for a crime, while allowing the host regeneration and enhanced reflexes. Symbiotes are machine intelligences, but they aren’t angels. They can and will commit crimes if they feel it’s in the best interest of their host. A second chair design was generated to reverse the procedure, but it was lost.”
“Argoen was clear that over time the symbiote population would spread to the entire population of Earth. He never told us the mechanism by which they naturally spread. We were told it would take centuries due to the delays in place to allow the symbiotes to learn the host before becoming active in more than very simple non interactive ways. Being that we were at the start of the Cold War, the base commander, General Crofter, was not happy with the idea of the Soviets or Chinese having symbiotes and asked for Argoen to design biological limiters to prevent Russian or Chinese genomes from bonding symbiotes. We were told that such a precise definition of a valid host was apparently impossible. Symbiotes don’t look at racial markers when bonding. They look at neural activity and overall genetic structure. They could be limited to humans, but not to humans of specific races. Looking back this was probably a lie, in the short term at least. Racial populations at that point in time were relatively homogenous. By that point Argoen knew about the Cold War very well, and did his best to avoid talking to us about weapons systems, which the army guys were still trying to pry out of him. Not only did he claim to have no weapons, he refused to discuss technologies that could be weaponized.”
“It finally came to a head when Argoen announced that his repairs were complete and he would be taking off the next day. This caught everyone by surprise, because the ship didn’t look ready, and there were still lots of raw materials around. He didn’t understand us well enough. He should not have warned us. The symbiote troops were ordered to subdue him and prevent him from leaving. We still hadn’t gotten any super weapons to arm the super troops with. Argoen humiliated us as we tried to catch him in his ship, he caught us one at a time, put us in a prison chair that he had cobbled together, and kicked us off his ship. All of us would later use the freedom chair to recover our symbiotes.”
“Then he left. Knowing that he might be threatened and prevented from leaving, Argoen told General Crofter that when he was past the orbit of the moon safely, he would broadcast a video image that would need to be shown to each of the symbiote soldiers in order to prevent them from killing their host and then killing humans – starting in twenty-four hours. General Crofter threatened to shoot Argoen down if he didn’t return to Earth. Argoen refused, repeating his warning about the programming of the symbiotes. Finally, General Crofter ordered Argoen’s ship engaged. Argoen’s claims that his ship was unarmed seemed to be reality, because he never shot back, his ship never left atmosphere, crashing and burning in the desert.”
“Argoen’s claims about what would happen to symbiotes was also not a bluster. After twenty four hours, the first one of us went drone, and the rest were unable to subdue him, we had to kill him. He killed three of us first. Before another hour was up four more had gone drone, killing fourteen more of us. General Crofter was one of the casualties of the second drone. There is some justice in the world. Out of sixty of us, 38 survived the first day due to the prison chair. After the fifth man went drone, our symbiotes agreed to be imprisoned – hoping one day for an answer or cure to be found. We’re immortal as long as we aren’t killed by trauma. Drones have taken a heavy toll on the first generation. We were not prepared when they started to show up again, but they were very rare at first. Symbiotes are not so rare now, however.”
“What about Doctor Meilin?” I asked.
“She was the only surviving female first generation, she had been in the war as a nurse and suffered severe spinal damage due to an artillery shell. She and one other woman were included at Argoen’s insistence that there be at least a representation of both sexes present. After the war she spent an absurd amount of time in various graduate schools learning psychology, psychiatry, and last I heard she was a brain surgeon.”
“Sounds like she would fit right in with Alice.”
“No, she wanted nothing to do with the Agency. We asked. Long before Alice was around, and a couple times after that.” Guiliard countered.
“Whatever happened to the freedom chair?”
“We don’t know. It might be in some unmarked box in a giant government warehouse somewhere, or it might have been destroyed. We’ve been searching for it for nearly sixty years now, even a trace of it could tell us a lot.”
“I’m going to go back and talk to those other pairs again.” Every time I talk to someone I have more new questions in my head than new answers.”
Guiliard looked away from me then turned back. “Talk to them. It would be incredible f they have something new, different, and effective. Especially if it doesn’t turn the host human into a brain dead vegetable. I have seen some of the results of Doctor Meilin’s earlier work. We, Anton and I, thought she had been killed years ago. Your rank in the Agency is now the same as mine and Anton’s. We trust you enough that we’re willing to give you a very strong say in what happens here. We’re not going to sugar coat this. We’re giving this to you for two reasons. First, you deserve it based on what you have contributed to us. Second, we want you to stay with us, even if that means two old dogs might have to learn some new tricks.”