When the whistle blew, we were immediately on the defensive. Jane and the other small fighter backed off, close enough to one another to offer support, and the four big fellows came at us. Two at high ready positions, two at low ready positions, close enough to support one another, but not trying to surround me.
The center two attacked simultaneously, one high, the other low, both with enhanced speed, and Frank started a counterattack on the right hand attacker, while preparing to dodge the two incoming blows. Then he aborted the attack and backed off, avoiding the attacks of the inner two opponents.
“Turn on the muffler if it’s not already on Frank, what’s going on?”
“These guys are good. Better than Agency agents in reaction time. They work together extremely well too. By the time they get 18 in here we’re probably looking at some time on the concrete. If we stay up that long.”
Frank showed me why he backed off. “See what happened when I started to engage the right-center attacker?” He showed an image of the leftmost goon beginning to strike, and the rightmost attacker beginning an action to defend the right center attacker. Marking up the images on my cornea like a sports coach would, with lines to demonstrate that we were stepping into a trap there.
“Whoah, a trap? Coordinated between four fighters at symbiote reaction speeds? Choreographed? Have they practiced well enough that these things are just automatic for certain types of attacks?”
“Not sure, but we can test the choreography idea by trying a whole bunch of different suboptimal attacks, showy attacks, things that they might never have practiced opposing if their training was solely for fighting berserkers.”
“OK, let’s see how that works.”
It didn’t work all that well. Thirty seconds into the fight we still hadn’t landed a hit on any of them. They, on the other hand had put a few dings on us. Frank let it happen as part of the cost of exploring what they could do. This was beginning to look less like choreographed maneuvers than really damn good training. These guys were synched. They all acted at almost precisely the same time to any action we made. After the first few seconds of the fight, they never attacked first. They always responded to every attack with both an attack and a defense.
“OK Frank, they always defend, until they are attacked, then they attack and defend simultaneously. They are using juice, but only very little of it, because they are letting us come to them. They have reaction close to ours, though they can’t move as fast. Anything else?”
“Yes. In twenty seconds there will be three more of them. We might see them behave differently then.”
“Yeah, if the next three can’t coordinate as well with these six, it might actually make things easier.”
“That’s what I’m thinking too. Let’s keep working on these fellows a bit, we’ll concentrate on one and see if we can tire him out.”
“That’s a plan.”
At the end of the first minute, a whistle blew and we all came back to the center. The other six came back grinning. They knew who had been in command of the first minute of the fight. Three more came in, another smaller fighter and two larger ones.
“Well we know the pattern now, but what does it mean? Why do they fight like this?”
“I’d guess that normally the smaller one stays back and engages with ranged weapons while the larger ones engage in melee, delaying the drone?”
“That makes a certain amount of sense. They certainly have the coordination to do that. Jane was carrying a rifle the other day in the woods too.”
“Well, we’ll find out shortly if the new three get in the way of the first six.”
They didn’t. They synched up perfectly with the rest and now they weren’t entirely defensive. They actually forced us out of the ring twice in the first thirty seconds, which stopped the clock and sent us all back to start, but didn’t put points against me.
“Frank, let’s see how they react to something completely different.”
“Completely different how?”
“We’ve got a thirty foot ceiling here, and open roof truss work, plenty of girders and supports up there to grab onto. There are two ceiling support beams inside the circle. Run to one beam, bounce off it into the truss work, and drop down by Jane and the other two smaller fighters and see if we can take them out?”
“Sounds like a plan, they are pushing us towards one beam now.”
Frank slowly retreated with some feints to keep the others honest, until we were about ten feet from one of the roof support beams, then he launched us, planting the staff and using all the power of his legs and arms simultaneously to backflip to the beam, then repeating the staff and leg plant again off of the beam to leap into the roof trusses, using legs and the staff to rapidly cross the line of six big guys like a spider across the roof supports. Then we again used all of the power in our arms and legs to propel ourselves off the roof supports towards the center of the group of three smaller fighters.
All three of the smaller fighters stared at us for a second, not reacting, as we crossed the ceiling above the line of larger fighters. Then they reacted. Each of the three started moving towards the line of the bigger guys, holding their staff at full extension towards them. Three of the big fighters pushed the other three towards Jane and the others, and the three being pushed towards the smaller fighters also used their staves, one handed, to push back against the others.
Before we could get into attacking range of the smaller fighters, their extended staves had been gripped by the large fighters and with a massive effort, the bigger fighters pulled the smaller fighters out of my engagement range, while simultaneously bringing themselves into my range as I hit the ground. This time they weren’t well prepared. There were only three of them, they had used a lot of juice, and they were still moving with a lot of momentum. We put all three of them on the floor within a second with broken legs. They would heal. Then we charged the three remaining larger fighters, hoping to catch them off guard as well. The three smaller fighters stepped up into melee for the first time at the last second as the larger fighters stepped back and we ran into a hedge of six prepared fighters, instead of three. We weren’t expecting that, and they promptly put us flat on our back.
Jane gave me a grin as she reached down to help me stand, I accepted the hand up and looked back over at the three with broken legs. They were sitting, holding their bones in position as the regeneration took place, marked by the typical heavy tracework of visible veins and arteries to move heat.
“You guys are pretty good.”
“We like to think so.”
All three of the injured were now standing, retrieving their staves, and then slowly hobbling over to their teammates, picking up the pace as they walked. Nothing wrong with their regeneration, but they were visibly overheated, and wouldn’t be using much juice in the near future, if they even had any in reserve after that expenditure.
“That was an impressive maneuver there.” I complimented Jane.
“Same to you, you completely surprised us going across the ceiling.”
I looked at her and the others for a second. “Thanks.”
We walked back to the line for the next ten seconds of the fight, before they brought in number ten, eleven, and twelve.
I muttered quietly to myself, inside the helmet. “Frank, she said we surprised them, and when we first started the maneuver that seemed accurate, but they still reacted absurdly fast, and it looked choreographed. Are they communicating between each other with their transmitters?”
“I can’t detect any coherent signal. They are all putting out a lot of noise though.”
“Is there any pattern to the noise? They reacted too fast, play it back, see how quickly they reacted? She said we surprised them. Did their reaction look surprised?”
“You’re right. Let me do a playback in the radio signal range and look for patterns.” Frank was silent for a second. “Damn, Bob, you’re right. They are communicating – with analog signal. I was not monitoring for analog, only digital.”
“Can you jam it?”
“I can’t jam it using the internal skeletal antennae, not enough power for transmission to really jam, but I can corrupt it, by matching broadcast frequencies and causing constructive and destructive interference. That should either cause them to lose connection entirely, reduce the complexity of their communications, or devote more processing power to signal analysis, and less to action. All potentially good things for us.”
“OK, watch their signals for the last few seconds of this round then and see if you can figure out the best way to interfere with them.”
“I’ll record it, of course, but I’ll have to analyze between the matches. There’s no way I can analyze while fighting all of them. I’ll feel out the big guys that just healed first, see if they are still as capable as the others. There might be a weakness there that will force them to communicate more.”
The three bigger guys that were hurt were slower than the rest but not enough of a weakness to exploit. All of them stayed in full defensive for the remainder of the match, and we couldn’t break them. The second minute ended.
Three more opponents walked onto the floor, a total of four smaller ones and eight big fighters now. The three whose legs we had broken before were now moving without sign of injury, though Frank could see their body temperatures were still elevated. Not enough to prevent them from using juice though.
“Frank if you don’t have something for us here, this is going to start to hurt, I think.”
“Seems as if the smaller ones are the nodes. Based on analysis, not only do they communicate with the bigger fighters, they communicate with each other.”
“That makes a lot of sense. They aren’t choreographed, they are actually fighting as a single unit, and the smaller ones are the ones that maintain the connection at a distance. That’s damn impressive, and effective.”
“I’m going to start out next match trying to interfere with signal from Jane and the other nodes. We blitz through the line of… Bob, I bet these big guys are what they call drones.”
“That would make a whole lot of sense.”
“As I was saying, let’s see if we can blitz the four nodes, take them down, and then go for the drones?”
“They are still pretty damn good individually, but if we can keep them from fighting together, maybe.”
“It’s a plan then.”
When the next whistle blew, we got some of our own back. Frank put out a burst of radio signal on the frequencies they were using to communicate and blitzed through the line of stunned drones, breaking the right leg of one and the left leg of the other as we passed between them, charging into the center of the nodes as they were still blinking in confusion, breaking one leg on each of them. The remaining six drones were right behind us though, and one of them managed to get enough of a grip on us to allow him to throw us out of the ring. He paid for it with a broken arm, and the rest of the six standing all took a hit or two, including one hitting another in the head, but the gear prevented any serious injury.
As we moved back to the center of the circle, Frank showed me a brief panoramic image of all the people around us at the time he used the countermeasures burst. A whole lot of people winced, including Doctor Meilin and her two drones.
As Jane and her three companions stood back up, Doctor Meilin called out. “Told you he’d figure it out Jane.”
Jane called back “You didn’t mention that you thought he’d be able to degrade the network though.”
Doctor Meilin just laughed and smiled.
Frank showed me that most of the rest of the people present had dropped radiating radio signal, except the twelve fighters in the ring with me.
The rest of that round went pretty quickly. With the injuries we put on them, half of them were slow, but they were all acting fully defensively. The nodes were trying to vary the frequencies they used, but Frank was countering them as soon as they changed. We couldn’t stop all the signal, but we definitely degraded things. By the end of the third minute, we had knocked eight more to the ground, and two of the drones were heavily overheated, and apparently out of juice.
As the next three walked onto the match I saw the four nodes walk over to the two juiceless drones and hand them small containers which, when opened and consumed, smelled of juice. They also sprayed the overheated drones with another container, isopropyl alcohol by the smell of it. The two weakest drones were still overheated, but not as badly. They stayed next to the nodes. Five nodes and two drones in one group now, and eight drones in another, in varying degrees of freshness.
The nodes tried to be clever at the beginning of the next match. Scratch that, they were clever. Immediately at the start of the match, they were all broadcasting on two channels simultaneously. Eight drones on full offense hit us like a truck and Frank and I found ourselves on our back again, Jane grinning and offering a hand up.
From that point on the fight was more about electronic warfare than fighting. Without their ability to coordinate perfectly, fifteen of them were a challenge but not a threat. Problem was that they were channel hopping and using multiple frequencies simultaneously. We couldn’t keep them from communicating at least some of the time. Even though they could never fully coordinate, they were able to successfully fake a greater lack of coordination than they had, or pretend a greater than actual weakness in injured drones at times to try to lure us into traps.
This was easily the most challenging fight Frank and I had ever been in, and without the armor it would have been over in the fourth minute. I didn’t realize what we looked like until we were thrown out of the ring, again, towards the crowd. I carefully used my staff to hurdle over the crowd, even though it looked like two or three of the non-fighters at the edge of the ring were quite ready to catch me and keep me from hitting the crowd behind them. I didn’t know if they could regenerate or not, and I was moving fast, didn’t want to hurt someone.
As I walked through the crowd back to the ring, I heard one of the children say “Mommy that man is smoking. You said smoking is bad. Is he a bad man?”
“No honey, I didn’t mean smoking like that.” Came the reply, apparently from ‘Mommy.’
I looked at our arms and sure enough there were heat ripples.
“Are we OK Frank? How’s heat and juice stocks?”
“Heat is fine. We’re dropping heat rapidly as we walk. I haven’t even turned on the blood cooler’s active fans. Juice capacity is at about half.”
“If we get to one quarter juice capacity, we throw the match. I’d rather lose then be completely helpless. Turn on the active fans of the blood cooler at the end of this minute though, I think, these guys will probably heat us up more, and there are three more fresh ones on the way after this.”
“That was the plan. The blood cooler uses a bit of juice though, I was wanting to save it.”
“OK time to get back in there and see if we can make it through this.”
The tactics of the nodes and drones shifted. They had apparently noted the heat signature of the armor as well, so instead of trying to throw me out of the ring where I would have cooling off time, they tried to keep me inside the ring and keep me moving. They paid for it with a lot of broken bones, but they had fifteen bodies, and even without consistent communications, it was hard to keep more than a few down at a time. They fought well together even when not in communication.
“Frank, did you see where the other four nodes got their juice and alcohol from?”
“Number five hasn’t used hers yet.”
“It starts here. Our life of crime. Mugging a node for her drone’s spare juice and cooling spray.”
I laughed. Frank really was developing a sense of humor. The drones and nodes all looked at me, they could tell I was laughing, even though the mask was making my voice unrecognizable. The drones all reacted to that, about half of them looking confused the rest angry.
We took a couple hits getting to her, but knocked the node who still had supplies down fairly easily and took the juice and alcohol containers off her belt. Then Frank pushed the acceleration limit and zipped away from the group to the far side of the circle at max speed. The whole group of fifteen just stared at that, briefly, before starting to advance on us again. We hadn’t shown them our max running acceleration yet. None of those big drones were going to accelerate like that, so we had a second or so to drink the juice and spray down the armor’s cooling tubes with the alcohol. The juice wasn’t much, maybe five percent of our capacity, but the alcohol was an instant relief.
“Should we consider carrying alcohol, Frank? That worked very nicely, I could feel it immediately.”
“No, too much extra weight. Remember we haven’t even turned on the blood cooler yet.”
“The alcohol was handy though, we’ll start carrying some in the bike, I think.”
“That is a definite yes. I’ll remember to remind you later.”
The last few seconds of the fourth minute came to an end. Two more drones, one more node, and the node immediately brought its juice and alcohol to the weakest drone and tended to it.
“Darn, I was hoping to grab that alcohol and juice.” Muttered Frank.
While the new node walked across the circle to the drone it was going to tend, Frank turned on the blood cooler. As we walked back to the center of the circle with the fans beginning to spin up, all heads turned to us. The cooler fans were very loud and powerful for their small size. One of the things Frank and I agreed on with the blood cooler was that we wouldn’t even consider trying to make it quiet when it operated. If we really needed it in active mode, we were not going to be well served by stealth. If you’ve ever heard the fans on a high end server start up, one with fans designed to move air at the expense of being very loud, you know what the blood cooler sounded like.
After the fans started to get loud enough to be irritating, I could feel the heat starting to bleed out of our torso. The sensation reminded me of the feeling of drinking a big glass of ice water on a hot, muggy summer day after mowing the lawn. The cooling sensation quickly spread to my limbs as much cooler blood passed out of the torso, pushing hot blood from our limbs back into the torso. Frank raised our heart rate to some absurd speed that startled me, and the cooling sensation became dramatically more noticeable, I shivered a couple times, and got goosebumps from the magnitude of the temperature change. The triphammer heartbeats only lasted a few seconds, then dropped back down to about thirty beats per minute again, like normal. Shortly after that, the cooler fan noises peaked, and Frank turned the fans off. We were still warm, but there were no heat waves coming off the armor any longer. Anyone who was watching us in thermal when the blood cooler went off would have probably seen an impressive plume of hot air coming off our back, from behind both sides of our neck, like some sort of big truck blowing smoke from exhaust pipes.
The last minute was a real challenge. With eighteen people in the circle with me, it was chaos, and they were being very aggressive now. Frank was having to strobe interference across many channels simultaneously, and he was having to burn juice to power the skeletal transmitter. We were constantly being forced on the defensive, but managed to keep at least four opponents on the ground at any one given time. The nodes actually stepped up as well, and with six fresh new fighters, even with their lesser reach and strength, it was a real nightmare keeping off the ground. About thirty seconds into the fifth minute, Frank had to turn on the blood cooler again for a few seconds.
“We’re at thirty percent juice now, still want to end at twenty five percent?”
“Yes, I want to be able to run if need be. But let’s throw the match in style if we have to.”
“Open the blades and chop up their staves?”
“No, they would almost certainly see that as an escalation. They know the blades are there, they had us show them in the search, remember? Jane seems to be in a leadership position…” And we discussed, briefly.
Then we stopped avoiding blows that wouldn’t knock us down, and started walking towards Jane. The armor started taking some serious blows. Now that they were able to hit us solidly instead of only the glancing blows at best that were the norm, half of the drones immediately broke their staves in a shower of wood splinters. A couple cracks in the armor as well, but no real degradation of function. Cooling tube damage was more significant, but not severe. We did dodge any blows that would knock us down, and after a couple steps, leapt at Jane, fast as we could, smacking her in the chest with the end of our staff at full extension, knocking her on her ass.
At that point we were fully surrounded, about half of the drones had no staves and were moving ahead of the others, ready to grapple, they weren’t waiting for new staves to be thrown in to them. Frank had us fall over onto our back. “You win. Good match.”