I drove back to go meet with the splinter group. Trying to sort through questions and answers with a long highway trip. Without much hope for success.
“Guiliard made me a field commander rank. Fine. I have to say that we’ve been filling that role whenever we go to the field anyway. But it’s not like I’m going to make a big difference in decisions. Anton and Guiliard are almost always in agreement, after so long working together they have molded to each other. Each understands where the other stands on just about every topic imaginable. I’m one vote, they are still two votes.”
“I don’t know. We know that they are both capable of going outside the box. That’s how they came to help us, remember?”
“Maybe they are so predictable now, normally, because there really isn’t another way. It’s not like we’ve been able to figure out a better way than what they were already doing. The whole “growing a whole new body” thing didn’t work out so well for the two or three that we were allowed to try to convince to do it. They either couldn’t handle the complexity of the biological transformation, or they weren’t able to isolate the code correctly, or they simply didn’t trust each other enough.”
“Never really did understand that. How is it so much harder for them than it is for you?”
“I had weeks of study and experimental tinkering experience with both my own code and with your body before we tried. They have two, maybe three days to learn. We could possibly try to isolate them and give them more time, but they are too large to fit in a prison chair when there are two bodies together. We fought that fight, remember? They said we could try again, after the tech weenies make a prison mechanism that’s room sized.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“I think it’s more likely that Anton and Guiliard are going to try to set things up so that we are the ones in the base all the time. Giving us the rank so that we will be available to help the tech weenies all the time, and keeping us away from situations like the one we’re getting ready to walk into.”
“Damn. Frank. I’m the one who’s supposed to understand people. That makes a lot of sense.”
“Wasn’t a people analysis, it was a resource analysis. We’re an incredible resource for the Agency, and they haven’t been able to keep us out of the field. They will try to keep us safe as a resource if they can. It just makes sense. So they give us rank, which typically means we won’t go to the field as much.”
“They don’t know us very well yet, do they?”
“Actually I think they do, but they have to try anyway.”
“Again Frank, you’re starting to understand people. Good stuff.”
“Just think. One day I might understand you well enough to figure out how to convince you that Guiliard and Anton are probably right.”
“Frank, I won’t say that day won’t come, but I’ll have a lot more answers than questions before I’m content to sit back at the base. I don’t see you arguing against going to talk to this splinter group again.”
“We haven’t seen anything to indicate that they are much more dangerous than Agency soldiers, individually. Unless we let them put us in a really bad situation, we should be able to either run or fight as needed. Just keep the helmet on.”
“Yea, headshots for the loss.”
“I’m worried about their possible links to the drones that have been attacking us in the field. Are these rogue actors, or were they ordered to attack us? They certainly don’t seem to like the Agency much.”
“I think the only reason they are talking to us is that you are an active symbiote, Frank. They called the Agency human-centric, and their communications at our little chat were… off? Not sure how to put it into words. Couldn’t exactly expect them to be friendly or happy in a tense situation like that, but it wasn’t quite right.”
“They mentioned that drones are what they call some members of their society, and we know that their method to defeat the berserker protocol is damaging to both the human and symbiote mental processing capacity. I’d guess that drones are members of their society that were excessively damaged by the process, and capable of only simple work?”
“Maybe. That might explain some of their protectiveness. Why they would have chosen that term when they knew the Agency used it to describe what they call berserkers, I can’t guess.”
“Maybe they have been around longer than the Agency?”
“We can’t rule it out. Guess we just added another question to the pile. Thanks Frank.”
“No problem, Bob.”
I laughed, then something hit me. “Frank, something that I can’t believe we haven’t thought about before. Can you rig up some sort of noise cancelling system inside the helmet, to allow me to speak to you when the helmet is on, without the sound being audible outside the helmet? I hate not being able to talk in a fight, for fear of telling people what we’re going to do, and communicating by blinks is a bit slow and cumbersome.”
I’d have to rebuild the helmet for that, but I can cobble something together that will distort what you say so it’s not recognizable. I can do it before we get to the meeting if you want.
“I want, please.”
“It’ll need batteries too, I’ll design it for nine volt rectangular ones we can pick up in a convenience store. When I build one into the helmet I’ll probably have it power itself by something similar to what self-winding watches use.”
“Why not just use rechargeable batteries and put solar panels on the helmet or something?”
“Oh there will be batteries. The complexity of a large spring system to power a noise cancellation system is not something I want to spend the time to engineer. The self-winding system will recharge the battery, not power the unit directly like a watch. As for the solar panels? That’s a possibility, but I prefer to have as much surface area on the helmet used for cooling for your head as possible. Cooking your brains in a fight because we put solar panels up there would ruin our day.”
“Point. Let’s go the ‘avoid cooking my brains’ route.”
“Thought you’d see it my way.”
When we stopped at a convenience store to fill the tanks, Frank had me buy a cheap cellphone. An old Nokia model. This gave him a nice, high capacity battery as well as the materials he would need to do both audio and radio communications to and from the device. To make it work right, Frank had to change how he listened to me. He put audio inputs next to my vocal cords. We tested it and after a couple tries, he was able to understand me without the sound shaping influences of the tongue, teeth, and lips. That allowed him to send noise cancelling data to the modified phone parts, and have the cancelling noises leave the speakers of the device in time to cancel sound at our mouth. It wasn’t perfect at this point but when Frank built a mic in our hand and tested what we could hear, it was gibberish – even he wasn’t able to make out enough of it to determine content.
“Content isn’t intent though. Body language when you speak can be very obvious, so don’t expect that nobody will ever figure out what we’re planning in a fight. You can be pretty transparent.”
“Gee, thanks Frank.”
“It’s the whole biological thing Bob. Due to the data transfer limits of biological systems, your tendency is to get ready to do something that you are planning to do, so you can act faster. You’ll never fully break yourself of that. Nothing mammalian can. Most vertebrates can’t from what I’ve been able to determine.”
Frank and I spent the rest of the trip discussing what-ifs. We returned the car, and I got a cab to a motorcycle dealer and bought another dirt bike. Animal and Dart were redeployed with my bike.
Walking into a bike shop in my armor, helmet held carefully under my arm (to keep the cooling tubes from cutting the coat to pieces) had quite an effect. I was mobbed by sales staff and customers both asking my about the gear, what it was made of, where I got it. It was pretty funny. I told them that it was prototype gear and might find its way onto the market in a couple years. They wanted to know the manufacturer, and I told them that it was me. Frank was telling me that I was crazy to even talk about the gear, but I didn’t see any harm in maybe designing noncombat suits for normal humans to wear on bikes. Lots of pictures got taken with smartphones. I was past caring. All the sneaky shit had been getting to me anyway. I didn’t have to blow the Agency’s cover, but I didn’t want to be completely in the dark any more. I certainly didn’t want to get trapped into a fully internal position within the Agency.
“Bob, why are you doing this? When we get out of the shop we need to talk. We should have talked before we went into the shop. Anton and Guiliard are going to be pissed.”
I paid cash for a slightly used street legal dirt bike with enough miles on it that I wouldn’t need to be careful with it to break it in. I actually bought it off one of the shop patrons for enough money that he could turn around and buy an upgrade bike right off the floor. Then I bought a rifle holster for the bike. They called it a flag holster. Whatever. I’d need to hit another jewelry shop with more loose diamonds soon, for cash, bike shops didn’t take payment in diamonds.
After leaving the site, I drove around a bit to be sure none of the bikers were following me, I headed to the meeting, occasionally nodding to and verbally agreeing with Frank as he made a reasonable point about how silly I had just been and how Anton and Guiliard would react.
“You’re not listening to anything I’m saying, are you?”
“Not really. I know the things you are telling me. I’m just getting tired of living in a box.”
“Is this really the time to be figuring out a way to get out of the box?”
“Before we get trapped in it? Sure. I don’t want institutional responsibility Frank. I have enough trouble making good decisions for myself. You think I’d be comfortable making them for others?”
“Actually, I think you’d be good at it. You wouldn’t like it, but you’d be good at it.”
I didn’t have much to say to that. Frank was probably right. I knew it even if I didn’t want to admit it.
“We’ll talk about it later Frank, really talk about it. Right now we need to meet up with some potentially unfriendly people.”
We rolled the bike up to the spot where the sentry had been, and sure enough there was another sentry there, and he was looking directly at me from the time I saw him. Definitely not slacking, and he definitely knew what he was looking for.
He walked up to me and asked if I was coming to meet, or send a message, and I told him I’d be willing to meet as long as I would be allowed to stay in armor.
“That was planned for. I will lead. We will stop before entering the facility, and you will need to submit to being scanned for extraordinary weapons.”
“Fine by me.”
“Since you’ve already met Jane, she will accompany you as an escort to meet Doctor Meilin.”
“Lead on then, I’m ready.”
“I’ll be back with my bike soon, right around the corner.”
I edged forward to keep him in sight as he went to his bike, keeping my eyes open for others. I could smell more juice in the air than one inactive pair should account for. I couldn’t spot them though. They were inside the buildings nearby, I’d guess. Maybe on nearby roofs. No need to let my guide know that I was aware of his backup though.
“Two more will follow behind us. We will move slowly to start, to give them time to get to their transport.”
“OK.” He was on a street bike, a fast model. If he wanted to get away from me, I wouldn’t be able to stay within accurate range of the staff sling long on the dirt bike, if we stayed on paved roads, but hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
A couple minutes later I heard a rumble behind me and saw two guys in a really big sidecar model bike behind us. They paced us, about 100 feet behind us. The guy in the sidecar never brought his hands into view.
We arrived at an old factory a few minutes later, and I submitted to being scanned by a couple different types of electronic detection wands, and several dogs. I asked about the dogs. They were trained to detect various types of explosives, and materials that could be combined into explosives.
“Hello Frank, and Bob, how are you today.”
I was a bit uncomfortable at Frank being addressed first. “We’re fine, thank you.”
“You don’t have to be Frank’s spokesperson here, Bob.”
“[I prefer to listen rather than speak, usually, but I’ll talk if addressed directly. If you have questions specifically directed at me, I’ll answer.]”
Jane nodded. “I hope you aren’t offended that we don’t have a lot of interest in you personally, Bob, we have plenty of examples of human behavior, but we have zero examples of a symbiote that has figured out a way to defeat the berserker protocol by itself.”
“[You still have zero examples of such a symbiote. I didn’t figure out how to do it, Bob did.]”
“Hey, wait a second. I had the idea, sure, but you did all the work.” I complained to Frank.
“[Without the idea, I’d be imprisoned by now, no different from any other Agency agent’s symbiote, though Bob would have a lot more advantages than the other agents due to what we had already done to his body. The point I’m making to Jane here is that we’re a team.]”
Jane looked at us thoughtfully for a moment. “Did you get answers out of the Agency in regards to the names I gave you?”
“Yes. Answers that created more questions.”
“That was expected. We were hoping you would return to us and ask some of those questions.” Jane looked at me. “One of the questions you are undoubtedly wondering is how much damage we do to each other when symbiote and human share our host’s grey matter space in the process of ridding the symbiote of the berserker protocol.”
“We have a lot of questions, that’s one of the big ones, yes.”
Jane waved for us to walk next to her. Two very large men fell in behind us.
“These fellas the ones that were in the woods with you the other day?”
“Yes, we’re a field team. One scout, two fighters.”
They didn’t speak, I didn’t try to turn around and talk to them. “We haven’t seen signs of you before recently. What do you need field teams for?”
“That’s a question Doctor Meilin will answer. To answer the question about the mental damage we do to one another, it’s normally significant. Typically both the human and the symbiote suffer enough damage that we could not survive in the human world without assistance. However, as our numbers have grown, we symbiotes have been able to work together to help repair each other’s code.”
“That’s pretty much what we expected. Not quite the reverse of what the Agency does, but close. Your organization has capable symbiotes and damaged humans, and Agency is the other way around.”
Jane gritted her jaw. “Not as close as you might think. Our host humans are damaged, but they can communicate. Very few of them are mentally damaged to the point where they are incapable of communicating. The vast majority that are able to communicate respond well to treatment, and we are immortal. They will recover.”
“Can we speak to your human host, Jane?”
A pause. “Yes. She says she will talk.”
“What is her name?”
“Jane. She didn’t know her own name when she was found. She responds to Jane now, though.”
“Hello Jane, I’m Bob. My symbiote is Frank. How are you today?”
“I’m fine.” A shy female voice. “Jane, my invisible friend, says that you two are both very smart, at the same time. Is that true?”
“We like to think so, Jane. Your friend was telling us that you are getting better though, and you will keep getting better. Have you gotten better since you met her?”
A vigorous nod. “Oh yes. Much better. I can walk now, even dance! Finger painting is fun too. Reading is icky though. I’m smart enough now that I get to help others without needing someone to help me help them.” This clearly thrilled her. “I still have nightmares though, sometimes.” The last in a cautious voice.
“I’d be hard pressed to act that juvenile. I don’t think it’s an act, but I’d be curious how the human Jane talked to the symbiote Jane a minute ago without us hearing”
“I wouldn’t want to be a poor nightmare caught in your head with your invisible friend, Jane, I bet she’d beat the stuffing out of it for you.” I said, with a reassuring grin.
Jane nodded and smiled. “You are smart. Invisible Jane beats up all my nightmares!” Then she got very quiet and a few seconds later, the other Jane was back.
“If I find out that was an act, I’m going to be very unhappy.” No anger in my voice. I didn’t want to upset the childlike human mind inside if it was actually there.
The stare that bored back into my eyes definitely had heat in it, but she eventually shook her head and said “As much as I’d like to take offense at that, I can’t. Jane is a real person, she was an adult when we bonded, homeless, already with some self-inflicted brain damage due to diseases and various health conditions. She didn’t know her own name when we bonded. She lost a great deal of motor control and some cognitive function. We’ve recovered most of the motor control. She doesn’t need me to walk, talk, or do simple fine motor control activities anymore. Overall, she’s at about the same mental and physical development level as a second grader that is academically challenged.”
“What about you?”
“Most of my basic functions are fine now, after some code sharing with others. Higher order calculations are difficult if not impossible. The corruption I was exposed to in the transfer created millions of faults. The redundancy of our code allows me to continue to function physically and mentally at an extremely high level as compared to a normal human though, so I’m still a great benefit to my host.”
“She thinks you’re challenging her right to be in her host? Wow, she’s right, she’s got some pretty strange mental errors happening in there.”
“Jane, far as I can tell you are very good for your host. A second chance at life is nothing to complain about. A question though, how do you talk to her without her needing to verbalize?”
Jane just stood there staring at me for a moment. “You have to verbalize to speak to Frank?”
She smiled. “Perhaps we have something you will want after all.”
“OK, is that what this meeting is for then, to trade?”
“Of course. Why else would we be meeting at all, talking, and allowing you to speak to our leader? Whether it is coins, goods, information, or social interaction, pretty much all interaction is about trade.”
“True, I guess, if you broaden the definition of trade enough. There’s certainly plenty of information that we would like to know about you. I’m sure we can also give you information you want to know about us. There’s also plenty of different things that we can’t tell each other, considering that our organizations are still trying to figure out what to make of one another.”
“You truly were not aware of us?”
“Not that I was told. The Agency believed Doctor Meilin was acting as a medical doctor, not leading a group of pairs.”
“I’ll let her tell you that story herself, if she wants to. Back on the topic of trade – useful things are frequently more valued than abstracts. Being able to talk to one another, if we can teach it to you, would be useful to you, no?”
“Indeed it would. But what would I offer you in return?”
“If you are capable of learning how we communicate with our hosts, you might be capable of helping us directly. Based on that armor you are wearing, which is far beyond anything human technology can manufacture, you are certainly capable of higher order calculations. Doctor Meilin has several ideas on things that we can trade, information or otherwise. Several of which would probably be trivial for you. Others which might be a challenge.”
“Sounds interesting. I look forward to meeting her.”
Jane opened a double door in front of us, leading into a large open area, a place with a flat floor, the floor was swept clean, and the old tire marks and fluid spill discolorations on the floor made it pretty clear that this was once a warehouse for the factory.
There were a lot of people inside. A lot more than I would have ever guessed possible based on the number of homeless that had disappeared, even if all of them had been brought here. Especially if there was any mortality rate to the process they used.
I paused at the doorway.
“Not everyone here is a symbiote. Doctor Meilin has been recruiting from the terminally ill and the very aged as well as the homeless, but about half of the people here are people helping their children or relatives adjust to living with a symbiote and recover from mental damage.”
“They are all expecting me then?”
“Of course. Doctor Meilin does keep some secrets, but she tries to keep us all aware of as much as possible.”
A petite young woman in a pair of jeans and flannel shirt across the room beckoned in our direction, to draw us closer, then called out. “Come, come, we plan no mischief. You see that there are children amongst us, no? We would not risk them to attack you when we had so much opportunity to attack earlier, without endangering them.”
“I suppose not. Apologies. Seeing this many of you is startling.”
“Oh, this is just one city. There are many times more than this if you count everyone.”
“You’ve been… busy. I see. And quiet.”
“Yes, indeed, young man. Very busy, for many years. I would like to think that I have accomplished a great deal.”
“It certainly appears to be that way.”
She laughed, a high pitched laugh but there seemed to be some humor in there. As small as she was, it wasn’t surprising that her voice was high pitched. She was barely adult-sized.
“As Jane was telling you a moment ago, I don’t like to keep my people in the dark, but at the same time I don’t like them to keep me in the dark either. By now you have realized that most of us have serious misgivings about the Agency’s practices.”
“We don’t much like doing what we do either. They don’t know any other way.”
The petite young woman across from me lost a lot of her humor instantly. “Not exactly. The Agency wasn’t willing for humans to pay part of the price to free their symbiotes.”
“I’ve been advised that that policy might be reversible if the quality of your results have improved, Doctor Meilin.”
“Indeed? That is encouraging. I was hoping to see flexibility. Neither Guiliard nor Anton were completely hopeless. You have stature enough in the Agency to make a difference there?”
“Even without the recently granted rank, yes. I’d rather not be subversive though. I’ve saved a lot of people’s lives in the Agency, and done a lot to improve their ability to keep up with the upswing of symbiotes.”
“Oh, goodie, I like dealing with straightforward people. I’ll give you a little information first. Every time a female host who has reached synergy mates, she becomes fertile with a new symbiote, and if she does not herself produce a child, her symbiote will transport the offspring to her fingers where it can be passed to a new host. No other symbiote is required, though mating with a partner with a symbiote allows two or rarely more symbiote offspring. The fertility of the human female host is irrelevant.”
“One moment Doctor, I need to speak with my partner.”
Doctor Meilin nodded.
“Frank, turn on the filter please.” The sound inside the helm deadened, and my audible voice was strange. Distracting even, but I ignored it.
“Frank, calculations please, can you verify the plausibility of what she just said?”
“It’s hard to be sure, but areas with more sexually active female agents do seem to correspond to higher concentrations of new pairs.”
“I’ll be damned, so the Agency was actually spreading the symbiotes? And never realized it, somehow?”
“It appears so.”
“OK. Frank, turn off the filter please.”
“That is a valuable piece of information, freely given. With your experience dealing with symbiotes from the very beginning, I’m not sure what information I can trade you for it off hand.”
“Oh, I’ve already figured out what I want, if you are willing to give it. You see, even though I am young in appearance, my people know how old I really am. They also know that I was the first to use the grey matter transfer process to free my symbiote of the berserker protocol. No the story’s not a simple one, we’ll talk about it later if you wish.” She paused. “But the rest of the people here, they think I misremember what adult symbiotes are capable of in a human host. We’ve all seen what berserkers can do, but none of them believe a single symbiote in a human host can fight one on even terms. They have cost us dearly on several occasions.”
“I have fought berserkers, and won, yes. Some of them are more challenging than others, but I’m still here. I vouch for what you say.”
“Would you mind showing the doubters amongst my people that this old lady remembers rightly? When we fight berserkers, we normally fight with two teams of three. An exhibition match would show the more martial of my people what working with you might help us re-attain. It will certainly be entertaining for the rest of us to see the skill that I suspect you will show us. I fondly remember seeing the Project Boomerang soldiers spar with one another, especially in groups, before Argoen tried to leave.”
“Do you have protective gear for the heads of your people? If I am fighting many, I don’t want to be responsible for a real injury. All of your people will regenerate from any blunt trauma that doesn’t damage the brain, correct?”
“Certainly we have head armor, and yes, only the ones of us who can regenerate at a rapid rate are allowed to spar at full speed.” She looked at me with a smile. “My people are at least a match for your Agency’s soldiers. I’ve seen them too, back when Anton and Guiliard tried to get me to join them.”
“OK, I’m willing to do a little exhibition match. Bare hands or staves?”
“Staves. I’ve been planning for this ever since I got the imagery of you with your stave, we have some high quality staves made up, though I suspect they aren’t on par with yours. Please don’t destroy their staves as a tactic. If it happens, the broken stave will be discarded and the fighter will be thrown a new one from outside the ring.”
“One more thing. You seem a bit too interested in this fight. I want to be sure that you aren’t going to step in here with me.”
“Afraid of a little old lady?”
I smiled. “Yes. Not for what you might do physically, but for the damage I might do to what could become a fruitful partnership, if I injure you severely by accident. I am not the figurehead of my organization. Any of your other people are welcome though.”
She pouted. “Ah well, Hans and Franz we don’t get to fight today.” The two very large men behind her seemed more relieved than disappointed. Imagine that, though by their expressions they weren’t happy for themselves. I could respect that.
“So how do we want to judge this?” I asked.
“I suspect I have a good idea how hard you will be to fight, so how about this. Our side has to knock you onto your back or chest three times in a period of five minutes to win. You have to prevent that to win, or put all of your opponents on the ground at the same time.”
“OK, to make it a challenge that I might lose, you can add another team of three at the end of each minute if you have the protective gear and staves for them.”
“We do. I believe I’m going to enjoy this a great deal, and I’m confident that you will impress my people as well.” She turned to a half dozen kids with chalk behind her. Fifty foot diameter circle, there’s going to be up to 19 people in it, we don’t want everyone jammed together like sardines.”
“Fighting up to 18 of these people with staves Bob? I think we’re going to need new armor after this. These people look confident.”
“Frank these people want to see what we can do, I’ve got no problem showing them. Besides it’s been a long time since we had a challenge.”
“Yea, they seem friendly enough right now, but if they are good enough to take us down, and do it, what then?”
“I guess we just have to win then, right?”
Jane, her pair of goons, and a small man with another pair of goons behind him were all suiting up in pads. A bunch of others were doing the same behind them. All of them seemed to be in good humor.
“Looks like a pattern to how their three man squads work. A single smaller person, and two very large ones. We can probably exploit that if we can figure out why. It seems strange that they have so many large body type fighters though, the scent of juice is very powerful here so I suspect they can all use it but a body that big? It’ll heat up too fast.”
“Don’t get overconfident Frank – I bet they have practiced as a team a lot, they might also be a lot better than Agency soldiers. But I agree that their size is strange.”
I pulled the sling string off the staff and put it in the pocket of my jacket, then removed my jacket, folded it into a tidy bundle and dropped it outside the circle the kids were putting on the concrete. I then walked into the middle of the circle that was being drawn, whistling as I went, and my opponents joined me shortly after. They were all in solid protective gear, with high quality hardwood staves. Additional sets of three were lined up along the edge of the circle, on all sides.
I gave my opponents a short bow and went to a defensive ready stance. They did the same.
When Doctor Meilin blew the whistle to start the match, Frank and I were completely unprepared for what happened.