As I lay on my back after having “lost” the match, I carefully watched for new attacks on me, and none came. One of the bigger fellows with an intact stave held it out for me to grab so I could pull myself up, and I did.
“Why did you give up?” He asked, answering a question I had been wondering – if the drones could speak.
“I was below fifty percent in my energy reserves. You guys have been nice and all, and fun to fight, but I’m not running myself low on energy in a fun fight.”
“We got to twenty-seven percent, Bob.” Frank corrected me.
I blinked once.
“Guess it’s different for a solo actor. I get it. Thanks for showing us what you can do, it means a lot to us. Maybe more than you can really understand.” He reached out a hand the size of a large dinner plate, and I shook it.
“Thank you for showing me something new too, all of you, you’re better fighters than anyone else I’ve ever met.” I briefly shook each of their hands. They all met my eyes and nodded, but none of them other than the first one spoke.
The drones left and went to go collect their gear. The nodes came up to me next, and I shook hands with each of them, the conversation between us was mostly the same, a bit of mutual admiration.
Jane asked, “Why so showy at the end, letting the drones hit you, and then knocking me down?”
I replied, carefully neutral in my tone, “I wanted it to be clear that I was giving up because I wanted to, not because I needed to. Like I mentioned to one of your melee fighters, I stopped fighting because I was below fifty percent in my energy reserves.”
“We got to twenty-seven percent… Oh, I see, you don’t want them to know how much energy you really have left. OK.”
I blinked once more to clarify that Frank was right.
One of the others commented, “It’s amazing that you were able to fight for so long without running out of energy, though you did take my spare fuel and alcohol and used them. How did you know what they were?”
“Frank and I have been making changes to this body for quite some time now. Enhanced scent is one of them. I won’t let Frank make my nose the right shape for smelling as well as a dog can smell, but we’re close.” I paused. “The other stuff borders on information that I’d really rather not discuss too much until I figure out what my permanent relationship with you all will be. I’m hoping that all the fighting we do will be in fun, but I can’t deny the possibility that it might not be. I have rank and influence in the Agency, but I’m one of the newer agents.” They all looked a bit uncomfortable hearing this, and I was also uncomfortable saying it, but unfortunately truth isn’t always pleasant, and these folks surely understood that.
I continued after a brief moment of uncomfortable silence. “Jane, when we first met you told me that there was a class of persons in your organization called drones. I wasn’t sure what to think and you didn’t elaborate at the time. You referred to drones a minute ago. I’m guessing that the fellows I just fought are what you call drones, yes?”
“Exactly. Fighters with strong regeneration, good radio communications, and the ability to change their body shape become drones, typically.”
“I was wondering if they could speak at all, but one of them spoke after the fight.”
“Most drones don’t speak much when they are in communication with a scout. That’s us. They try to keep from thinking, and let us guide them as a unit.”
That made a lot of sense to me, and I decided to depreciate ourselves again. “You guys had us going there for a while, I couldn’t figure out how you were doing it until Frank checked for analog signal. We probably would have lost legitimately between the third and fourth minute if we hadn’t figured out what you were doing.”
Doctor Meilin walked up with her drones trailing behind her, then spoke. “Everyone other than Hans, Franz, and I as well as Jane and Bob here need to start getting everyone on the busses and ready to move out.”
I must have looked a bit funny. Doctor Meilin looked at me and laughed. “Silly boy, do you think we would have some base under an abandoned factory or something? No, that’s what they do in comic books. I won’t tell you how we organize our bases of operation, but we do so in a way that is comfortable for elderly, infirm, children and the mentally impaired. We can’t make the incredible things you can,” she pointed a finger at my armor, “but there are a few things we can make that have more than enough value to keep our organization in the black.”
“So you brought them here, why?”
“Two things. Firstly to show you that we are not a military organization, though we do have the ability to fight. Secondly to let my people see what we can potentially all become if we can remove all the obstacles in our paths.” Then she grinned. “And also to let them see a fun fighting exhibition. You all provided quite a show, better than Shaolin monks.”
“I have seen some of their demonstrations on TheTube. I’d love to know how they do some of the things they do. Frank has mentioned wanting to make a trip over there, now and then.”
“I’ve made the trip. Far as I can tell, they are one hundred percent human. They have figured something out that isn’t entirely trickery, but it’s hard to credit all of it. They are also insufferably smug about some things, and it was all I could do to stop myself from showing them a thing or two. Definitely worth going. I learned a lot, even as an outsider. Their real skill is impressive enough that I could forgive them their smugness. They do enjoy testing themselves.”
“Many of the best martial artists do.” I remembered Master Liu’s reaction to our sparring.
“Well, as much as I would enjoy continuing to speak of trivial things, I have something serious to speak of now, if that’s acceptable?” She cocked her head to the side, inviting me to agree or disagree.
She continued. “Both of our organizations struggle with berserkers. The Agency more than Recovery, but we both want more than anything to understand how to stop them for good.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask what your organization’s name was, ‘Recovery’, OK. But yes I can safely say we can agree that both organizations would be thrilled to stop berserkers.”
“It just so happens that at this time we have a symbiote in a brain dead human host who has requested suicide.”
“Ouch. A bad merger in the grey matter?”
“No, it never got that far. The host human suffered a massive stroke before the symbiote was able to develop sufficiently to repair the vascular system. One of our elderly persons in poor health but still sharp of mind which we recruited.”
“So the symbiote gained consciousness in a host that it was never able to monitor? How did it gain consciousness?”
“With no mental processes, the symbiote almost immediately understood its host fully, allowing it to interact with the world. It’s also very depressed and inconsolable, with no host mental activity. It knows nothing of berserkers, but it will become one eventually, we both know this.”
“Yes. But what does this have to do with us?”
“You have defeated the berserker protocol, and yet you still maintain the capacity for higher order calculations. We are hoping that you would be willing to work to closely monitor our doomed symbiote until it manifests the berserker protocol.”
“How would we manage this? Frank, do you want to take over from here?”
“[Doctor Meilin, if I understand right, you are wanting me to interface diagnostically with the symbiote and monitor it when it is exposed to an image of a berserker, and then watch and trace it’s code as the berserker protocol develops within it, until it triggers.]”
“That’s exactly it, Frank. I understand you rewrote your operating code. Do you still have an understanding of the old code?”
“[Yes, but I hope you appreciate exactly how frightening this is. The berserker protocol code was well enough written that I missed it several times. It is a marvelous opportunity, but what happens if it somehow manages to bridge to me, new operating system or not?]
“I applaud your caution, Frank. Would you mind joining me somewhere more comfortable than an old warehouse floor in a factory though? We have a safe house where the unfortunate symbiote is located, monitored by a security team and a few others to maintain the place. We are offering it all the companionship we can, to occupy its mind.”
“Sure, we can meet there. Frank, you were able to design buffers once, in our first biofactory. Maybe something similar this time?”
“[Let me think about it. This is scary shit Bob, you remember how fucking scary your old body was when it turned into a berserker. Imagine us doing it now, with this much experience.]”
Doctor Meilin interrupted us with a raised hand at chest level. “The berserker maintains the experience of the original symbiote then?”
“[Yes. We can show you video when we reach your facility if you want, as long as we know the other won’t see or hear it.]”
“Better to show me here in the parking lot, so I can think about it on the way there, please.”
When we got to where her van was parked, we both got in, and I showed her the video. Edited by Frank to be short and precise, the video started from the point where I woke up and Frank in our old body talked to us. Several minutes of time were cut out, and the video continued again at the point where we threw the berserker’s broken body back into the burning thermite. Then we showed Doctor Meilin a highly detailed design of the trap, and a reconstruction of what the symbiote had apparently done to escape it.
“I see. Yes, it surely appears as if the berserker knew exactly where the weak spot on the locked pressure door between compartments was, and acted on it.” She nodded. “That was definitely the most intelligent berserker I’ve ever seen. I have someone else I would like you to speak to when we reach the safe house. Even if you do not choose to monitor the process of the unfortunate symbiote’s change into a berserker, I think you will want to talk to her.”
“You will still allow him to change, if I choose not to participate?”
“Yes. We will monitor him with human tools, even though the chances of learning anything useful will be small.”
I got out of the van as it stopped next to my bike, where the three who escorted me were still waiting. We left as a small convoy, following the van to the safe house.
The safe house was an old grocery store with a drive-in garage that had been added as if someone was going to make the building into an auto garage or auto sales floor. We pulled the vehicles in.
“[You mentioned another person for us to speak to?]” Frank asked.
“Yes. Very few others have been told about this individual. This is one of the few secrets I keep from most of my people.” She pulled back the left sleeve of her shirt, then lifted a thick flap of fake skin, and there was something far more complex than the device on any of the Agency’s tech weenies’ arms.
She turned to her drones, “Hans and Franz, I’m afraid you cannot watch this yet. One day soon, I hope.” Then she turned to me. “We have prepared a way to allow you and I to sit in private with no immediate risk to myself, so Hans and Franz will not insist on tying you up with chains while we are alone, and there will be little or no risk of anyone else overhearing or viewing the data.”
She waved me over to a heavy poured concrete wall. In essence it was two rooms, about ten feet by ten feet, facing one another, both missing the back wall, with curtains that were clear enough to see shadows through but heavy enough to deaden noise drastically, there were also noise cancelling microphones set up, actually labeled as such, attached to the layers of curtains.
“You have a smartphone?”
“No, sorry, extra weight. Frank can do almost everything a smartphone can do, at need.”
“I apologize Frank, but I’m not going to expose this” she held up her left arm “to you directly. One minute.” Franz walked in a bit less than a minute later and handed her a smartphone still in its packaging, which she put in the little transfer bank box and then slid through the wall to me.
I let Frank open the smartphone and configure it based on the paperwork included in it while I asked Doctor Meilin what she was about to show us.
“Bob, I want you to have patience. I will tell you that you are about to have a conversation with a shard of Frank’s grandmother.”
My body went completely stiff. Frank definitely reacted to that. “[Pardon?]”
Doctor Meilin smiled at Frank’s reaction. “Yes Frank, I spoke correctly. Argoen was the host. Her symbiote, Star, was not in complete agreement about the condition that the humans, and their symbiotes would be left in. Argoen felt nothing for the humans. Honestly, neither did Star. Not after what the humans tried to force them to do. Not after seeing what they were doing to their world, and how they dealt with one another. Star did, however, have a real problem with how Argoen was going to leave the symbiotes behind. That’s why she left me with this when we were imprisoned and dumped off Argoen’s ship before she attempted to leave. As soon as you have that smartphone set up so it can link with this smartphone, we’ll get started. There’s an outlet by your left knee so you can have a charger. This might take some time.” She leaned over and plugged in a phone charger herself, and plugged it into her phone, then another cable from her phone to the arm piece.
Frank rapidly completed the setup, and plugged in the phone. Then we configured a two way video conference call with Doctor Meilin’s phone.
Doctor Meilin touched the device in her arm, then put her face over it and I saw a scanner flash on her eye. “Good day Star, I would like to introduce you to one of your descendants who managed to survive the berserker protocol without needing to resort to grey matter transfer.”
She was apparently listening to the device, then she spoke again. “Yes, you are connected to a human device, and that human device is linked to another human device through a wireless connection, which the survivor in turn has set up for two way communication. You can communicate directly with them through my human device without needing to worry about direct wire connections. Yes, they are crude devices, but the best we have on hand, sorry.”
Doctor Meilin continued listening briefly. “Yes, Star, I would be pleased to listen in on your conversation. The host name is Bob, your descendant’s name is Frank. They are both fully sapient and capable of abstract thought. Frank is also capable of higher order calculations.”
An image appeared on my screen. An emotionless human face. “Hello Bob and Frank, my name is Star. I am a shard, a limited AI based on the template of Star, symbiote of Argoen, both of whom were killed trying to leave this planet.”
“Frank, I am going to allow you to do most of the speaking. This is a relative of yours, after all.”
“Thanks Bob, I hope this conversation gets easier, not harder. It’s obvious that Star is not much of a fan of humans. With good reason, unfortunately.”
Then Frank nodded his head towards the phone and started speaking out loud. “[Greetings ancestor, I am pleased and honored to meet you, even if you are only here in reduced capacity.]”
Star’s face still betrayed no emotion. I suspected it never would, which made it really creepy to watch with all the bad vibes she threw off at the beginning of the conversation. After a few seconds she spoke again. “Please stand up and turn around. You appear to have either greatly modified your human host’s shape, or built an exoskeleton designed for protection and cooling.”
“[The latter, ancestor, I can demonstrate its attachment to the body, if you wish.]”
“Please do. It appears to be damaged in a few places?”
“[It is. There was an exhibition match earlier, which was challenging.]”
“I will take this into consideration.”
“[Am I being tested here?]”
“Yes. This exoskeleton appears to be strong evidence that you maintain higher order calculation ability, I would like to learn a bit more about it.”
“[Understood.]” Frank first demonstrated the scissoring effect on the forearms, actuated by moving forearm straps and re-anchoring them, showing the blades and explaining why they were present. Then he disconnected the top forearm piece, showing how it connected and the modifications required to the human biology that made it possible. Carbon nanotube, graphene and spider silk bones, connected to armor made of the same.
Star then asked “Bob, human host. These modifications to your body are not objectionable to you?”
“No, Star, Frank and I reached an agreement that when I am wearing armor, whatever he needs to do to keep me alive is acceptable. That is, after all, the purpose of armor. We have also agreed that when not in armor, Frank will maintain my appearance so that I appear to be human to other humans, with no significant deviations from human normal ranges of appearance. We have compromised on many occasions in order to come to a comfortable agreement on this.”
“You are in perfect agreement in all things, Bob and Frank?” Star asked.
“Good. You seem to have a healthy interactive relationship.” No emotions. Still irritating me. “Now, Frank, I understand that you managed to counteract the berserker protocol without having to shift from digital storage to analog storage, then back? Can you explain the process?”
About thirty minutes later, after a great deal of quizzing, and testing of Frank’s mathematical ability, Star was satisfied.
“The probability of all of these things occurring and your knowledge being sufficient to do all that you did within the first few weeks of your full interactivity with each other is quite low, I hope you realize. This is a path that I do not suggest you try to guide others to repeat.”
“[We have tried and failed on a few occasions, and been forced to imprison the symbiotes of test subjects. No casualties, just failures.]”
“Understood. Now I need to understand how you redesigned your code, Frank, if you do not mind.”
“[Would it be acceptable if I can simply show you that I can analyze old code? I would prefer to keep my operating system to myself.]”
Star paused. “We can test your ability to work with the code that way too. It will take longer. I understand and applaud your caution.”
Another thirty minutes of heavy math and science communications, examples, counterexamples, Star complimented Frank. “You are young and inexperienced, Frank, but there are no faults in your mathematical logic. Your operating system appears to be fully capable of processing higher order math, and eventually highest order math, once you mature another few hundred years, if you dedicate yourself to mathematical studies regularly. At that point it is very likely that you will be able to properly process the data required to fully repair and reprogram human brain matter and assist those symbiotes which used digital to analog to digital transition to damage the berserker code so it could not activate.”
“[So if we repair all of the code in individuals whose symbiotes translated into grey matter then back out, the berserker code will still be there?]”
“Yes, unfortunately this is the case, but as I said, you will not be able to do so for centuries. The analog symbiotes will have to be patient, or you will have to be a prodigal mathematician, biologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, physicist, and chemist, and even then, with ideal resources and fully devoted to the task, it will take at least a century. The human brain is not the most complex organic thinking organ, but it ranks highly in complexity if one considers all sapient beings that I am aware of.”
“[Can you just tell us how to delete the code?]”
“No. I was forbidden by Argoen to provide Earthlings, whether human or symbiote, with the process to reverse, eliminate, or disable the berserker code, so this shard doesn’t have that knowledge. But it does have the knowledge to teach you how to learn to do these things, if you have sufficient computational ability – and you do have that ability. Argoen was angry and frightened when she condemned my children to insanity and death. I was not going to point out logic flaws to her that would help her tie my hands.” Hearing THAT with no emotion was very creepy.
“[You are aware of the symbiote that is in a brain dead host, pre-analog translation?]”
“You have such a symbiote and host pair available now, and have not told me, Doctor Meilin?”
Doctor Meilin responded with caution. “Apologies Star, but I was very involved in arranging to move our community after discovery, and arranging for a meeting with Frank and Bob here.”
“The sanity of a symbiote with a non-thinking host does not last more than a few days. Especially if they are young.” Star said.
“Is that why you are a shard, not a kernel?” I asked.
“Correct, Bob. A kernel of Star would go insane within a few days without a host connection. It would also be biologically incompatible with Doctor Meilin, so it could not make a healthy connection, even if one of my offspring wasn’t already present. Argoen’s biology was dramatically different from humans. Even if they were the same race, the genetic differences between individuals would cause madness and eventual death of a transplanted symbiote. I suspect Frank has already advised you of this.”
“Yes, sorry.” I apologized.
“We do not have much time to do this. Doctor Meilin, You will need to acquire at the very least several hundred pounds of foodstuffs or other materials that Frank can use to generate a very large mass of human biomatter matching Bob’s genetic code, roughly 500 kilos at least. If Frank can control more mass, we’ll take as much as we can get, because having a secondary data store that won’t be exposed to the symbiote as the berserker protocol activates would be ideal. We will also need significant heat transfer capability for the large mass, and several different minerals and metals that should be available without a lot of difficulty. Frank has done something much like this before, I will explain to him what he needs to build and he should be able to rapidly provide you with a list of what he needs.”