When we got down to the holding facility, Doctor Meilin left us in the outer room with the medical monitoring equipment and entered the holding room first, starting to speak to the despondent symbiote. She was not going to mention the existence of berserkers yet, just advise it that we were setting up equipment. The symbiote was aware that the other symbiotes around it were damaged in some way, but it really didn’t care much. It had been convinced to help us do research in exchange for us ending its existence, as intentional self-destruction was something that symbiotes couldn’t manage easily – too many safeguards. Doctor Meilin was assuring it that we were not dawdling and that it would be able to release soon.
As I expected, once the biocomputer was inside the outer room, it split and we disconnected all the cables from the cardless biocomputer. The part with all the video cards moved towards the door leading to the inner room, and the cardless half moved to a spot under one of the observation windows.
“[Are there any premade holes in the wall that we can put a four-inch cable bundle through?]” Frank asked.
One of the three attendants said “No, sorry, everything else is wireless.” Another of the attendants was watching the Doctor, Hans and Franz. The third was watching the biocomputers. Another Recovery triplet team, I guessed, even though they were all the same size, roughly.
“[I need cable access. Can I create it here?]” Said Frank, pointing at the window. The attendant watching us nodded. Frank then removed one of our gloves, and placed his hand on the glass of one of the observation windows above the cardless biofactory. Massive veins sprung out of the flesh and the hand changed shape, flesh forming to create a round pad of flesh on the window, which started to dissolve the plastic slowly. There was a lot of heat, but not unbearable. The carbon nanotube and graphene bones and armor made things that would have cooked us when we first reached synergy barely noticeable now. In about two minutes there was a roughly four inch diameter hole in the thick glass, big enough for the optical signal cable bundle. Our hand returned to normal dimensions and Frank guided the card-studded biocomputer into the inner room. We walked back inside and passed the cables through from the inside to the outside, and with the help of a couple extruded pseudopods from the biocomputer on the other side of the window, the cable bundle was connected.
Then Frank pulled over two of the UPS devices and connected two power supplies to them. Four video cards came to life.
“Going to test now to see if the system is as capable as Star and I were hoping it would be.” Frank said in my ear. He removed the right top forearm armor, and right glove armor, and put our arm under the biocomputer. The flesh of the biocomputer pressed against the top of our arm, and I could feel a numbness quickly expand through our arm.
“What is it doing, Frank, if you can show me?”
“Hrm, one second, I’ll configure something visually to let you see what I’m doing.” A black square formed in my vision, then an image appeared in it, overwriting the environmental data Frank was sending. As he spoke to me he pointed out with lines and circles on the screen what he was referring to, showing what was currently happening to our arm. “OK, the root-like structures extending from the graphics card mounts are actually probes. They grow through the skin and muscles, and connect at storage nodes in the bones. They also exude a nerve disabling agent. This chemical fully disables human nerves. So they generate zero signal, reducing the interference they offer to the sensors and also preventing muscle movement which would damage connections to the storage nodes. The whorls and grids of metal under the skin surface of the biocomputer prevent external electrical interference from human sources, like all the electronics and power cables at the surface of the skin. There is a similar web of conductors around all the muscles and bones in the biocomputer, to prevent its own electrical nervous signature from interfering with the data we get from the target.”
“So is it working?” I asked.
“Yes. Perfectly. Star was exactly right on how to build the interference grids and whorls.”
“So tell me if I’m understanding this right. You are making a direct connection to the data storage nodes inside our bones, and monitoring for state changes. The video cards report their data intake to the biocomputer in the next room across the optical cables.”
“Correct. That module has a great deal of processing and storage capacity. It is the processing node for the experiment.”
“Then, um, what is the human server for?”
“Oh, experimental results.”
I had to laugh. “Wow, you need that powerful of a human machine just to store results?”
“It’s slow, and low capacity, but should be enough to do the job. We will be leaving the results data in that machine for Star to review. I will also keep a copy of it for myself. I don’t have the raw processing power for the analysis real time without linking to the processing node. It has about sixteen times the storage and processing power of what we would consider a typical symbiote. The part out here is basically just a connector – it has almost no processing power other than the human video cards and the interfacing boards.”
“OK, so you will be linked with the processing node and doing real time analysis of the data the sensor node is generating, and passing on results data to the server while you store the same internally?”
For the first time we heard the voice of the other symbiote, raised loudly enough that I could hear it clearly. “It seems as if I will be the subject of an extremely thorough investigation of my data storage nodes. I’m more than happy to allow this to happen if it means I get assistance to end my existence, but I can’t help but be somewhat curious about the reason. Can you explain the experiment?”
Doctor Meilin turned to face us, saying nothing, she would allow us to answer. There was a screen between us and the patient, but she was sitting where she could see us both. Hans and Franz were standing between us and the screen. The question from the other symbiote was not meant for her. Frank stood, carefully disengaging from the biocomputer while reattaching the armor, and spoke.
“[I apologize that we cannot provide you with more detailed information yet. If we were to explain the background and purpose of the experiment to you in advance, we could, potentially, gain nothing from the experiment. Once we are prepared to process data, however, I will be more than willing to explain, or allow Doctor Meilin to explain, if you prefer. Even allowing you to see our physical appearance at this time would invalidate the experiment, so we must remain out of your sight a few minutes longer.]”
“Understood,” the other stated, then continued. “I look forward to an explanation of the purpose of the experiment. It sounds like a problem complex enough to be distracting for a while, and distractions are welcome. Please take no offense Doctor Meilin. Our conversation is engaging but I do not require a significant part of my processing power to engage you at the speed that we converse.”
I spoke up. “May I make a suggestion, Doctor Meilin?”
“Have you ever taught Star how to play Chess? I would imagine that Star would be able to play a deep enough game of chess to keep our friend’s mind occupied.”
“Actually, I have not. Star generally doesn’t have much interest in human culture, but in this case, she might… yes, Karen has advised me that she has just taught Star how to play, and Star agrees to help occupy the mind of our friend.”
“Do you need a chessboard?”
Doctor Meilin laughed. “No, I can play without a board myself, without Karen and Star helping. I’m absolutely certain that Star and Karen can do the same, as well as our friend.”
The other broke in. “I had several discussions with others earlier, and in one discussion, I was advised that humans have difficulty with addressing a being with no unique identifier. They further suggested that I might adopt the name John, short for John Doe, a name typically associated with human deceased or brain damaged males for whom a unique identifier is unknown. Please feel free to use the name ‘John’ to refer to me if, it makes it easier to speak with me. Now that I have been advised of human name-awareness, I have been able to assign some meaning to the tone shifts that indicate discomfort when you address me by a description rather than a name.”
“Thank you, John, we humans appreciate that.” Doctor Meilin said as she turned back to face him. “Now let me explain the game of chess. I believe Bob may be right that you will find it interesting, and Star will be your opponent. She should be capable of offering you a challenge.”
Frank moved us away and back out to the outer room as the instructions commenced. The server components had arrived and the three attendants were assembling the rack mount system on the wall nearest where the processing node was sitting, between it and the door to the inner room. Frank opened all of the boxes to locate all of the components, and called the technician and the engineer once when he finished the inventory, asking where a couple components were. We found that they had been stored in a second layer of components under a top layer in one of the larger boxes, which we had missed. I didn’t miss the opportunity to tease Frank about not noticing the thickness of the box compared to the thickness of the components we had seen in said box.
By the time we finished the inventory and a viewing of all the manuals, the rack mount was ready, and Frank took complete control of our body, verified the ground on the rack, strapped on an ESD strap, and rapidly assembled the server, JBOD, and all the switches into the rack, then cabled the switches to the processing node, to each other, and to the server. He then connected all four SAS cables to the server itself and the 60SSD dual height JBOD. Watching Frank do the server assembly was impressive, because I’ve done the work myself before, and knew how easy it was to make a mistake. Frank never slowed down. The system booted on the first try, though it took another hour and a half to download and configure all the drivers and interfaces for the switches, including the time required for Frank to program the server and switches to accept data from the reprogrammed graphics cards on the processing node.
We walked back into the inner room.
“Check Mate in 23” John’s voice.
“Sounds like you learned the game rather well there, John.” I said with a chuckle. “Also sounds like Star might be getting the short end of the stick.”
Doctor Meilin smiled. “John has several orders of magnitude more memory space and processors than Star does. She beat him the first four times and he’s won every one since then.”
“Congratulations John, was the game helpful in occupying your mind?”
“Yes, thank you. I am actually able to use all my processors and memory to analyze the game, which helps greatly.”
“Well, once we get the monitoring equipment set up, you and Frank can square off if you like. I understand that Star ran out of memory trying to keep up with you. Frank should be able to do better, though to begin with he will be very involved in monitoring you”
“I look forward to it. Thank you once again for the efforts to keep my mind occupied. I imagine that you are now ready to begin, or near to it?” John asked.
“[Correct. After we have left the room, Doctor Meilin, can you rearrange John so that he is in the center of the room? After the sensor node is fully engaged we will enter, John will be able to view us, and then we will present him with an explanation of the experiment while we monitor him.]”
“Yes. We’ll have him ready shortly.”
We left the room and left the outer room as well, to be certain John could not see us through the mirror or by reflections.
“OK Bob, I’ll be quiet for a couple minutes while I hook everything up and run tests.”
“Let me guess, you grew eyes on the sensor node?”
“Yup. Want to watch?”
My point of view shifted to the sensor node’s point of view. Frank was carefully using pseudopods to organize the UPS devices around the heavy duty hospital bed, designed for overweight patients. The man in the bed was young, not old as I had been expecting. Then I realized that I was seeing the result of regeneration. He had been old, but John wouldn’t let his body stay that way, restoring the host body to its physical peak was the norm.
Frank created a mouth on the sensor node and spoke. “OK, you overheard Bob’s explanation of how this device works, correct?”
“I did. I have one question. I assume there will be complete envelopment. Will there will be an airway created for me, or will I need to interface with the device’s oxygen transport system?”
Frank continued. “An airway as well as sensory interfaces will be created. Please do not attempt to interact with the sensor node as it envelops you, let it do all the work. If the device manages to create a problem that needs to be addressed, let me know, and I will address it. The sensor node is entirely controlled by myself and has no independent thought functions.”
The sensor node slowly and carefully crawled up on the bed with John and wrapped itself around him. An airway was created and we verified John was getting sufficient oxygen, then verified that auditory and visual relays were sufficient for interaction. We requested permission to eliminate his clothing and it was granted. John was completely enveloped except for an airway.
“We are ready to engage the sensors now, please relax. We will be injecting a nerve disabling agent into the muscles of your body. I am injecting a sample into your right forearm now. Please let me know when you have changed the regeneration protocols to ignore this agent and allow nerves to be disabled.”
“Why not allow me to simply disable them.” John asked.
“That will be explained shortly. Not much longer now.” Frank responded.
“One of the humans was describing a human religious holiday to me the other day. Christmas. I believe I understand a human child’s anticipation of a gift after you have so carefully avoided providing me details about this experiment. I eagerly await the revelation.”
I couldn’t tell if I wanted to tear up, or laugh, and ended up doing both. I wished John was able to be saved, but I remembered my old body with the original Frank in it right before he used the chair, and his comments about the loneliness he suffered in just a couple minutes separation. It was only a matter of time before John lost his sanity. John had the potential to teach us so much and was sacrificing himself willingly, in a manner of our choosing, to allow us to gain critical information rather than insisting on death and forcing us to give it to him – which he could easily do by simply attacking us.
“OK John. The sensor node is fully connected. I am powering up the electronics now.” The sound of fifty video cards in open air was very loud. Frank then continued. “[John, please run a system purge of all unused data locations to reset state on all unused memory to an identical, default status.]”
“Done. All unused data locations are now defaulted.”
“[Excellent. The next and last step to take before we introduce ourselves and begin the experiment. Your data storage is only 6% utilized. Please move all current stored data to unused locations that were just defaulted.]”
“Done. Apologies for my unseemly eagerness, but now I want that explanation.”
Frank spoke to me directly, seeming a bit stunned. “Bob, it can’t be this easy. I just mapped out a section of memory that was not moved when John moved all of his data to new locations in storage. It doesn’t even appear to be hidden from external scanning, just from the host body’s symbiote.”
“We’ll see, I suppose. You might want to tell him to calm down and relax and clear his mind as we enter so we can see what happens when he sees us in armor.”
“[Doctor Meilin, Hans, Franz, please leave the room. John, please clear your mind of other distractions for the next few seconds, but when we enter do not attempt to restrict your reaction.]”
Doctor Meilin, Hans, and Franz left the room, and we entered.
John twitched inside the sensor node. “That is certainly an impressive looking exoskeleton, or is it armor? My visual acuity is restricted by the interface.”
“[It is armor, but the visual appearance triggered code within you. Did you notice any code peculiarities when you first saw us? It may be the same code that we were trying to identify, and thanks to you we now know both where it is in you, and what it will probably look like in other symbiotes. You have already helped us immensely, and we have barely started.]”
“There was a hiccup in the visual analysis code. Yes. Corresponding to your appearance as you opened the door. It was… strange, but not terribly disruptive. Based on what you have said so far, symbiotes are at least sometimes impacted by some sort of difficult to isolate code, with a presumably undesirable function, like a human disease?”
“[Yes. I will let Bob explain as I do analysis, so I can watch your code react as Bob speaks. When he’s done talking and you have no more questions, I’ll see if I can offer you a challenge in Chess.]”
I began explaining about berserkers, and all the history that we knew about symbiotes, from the oldest information to the newest. It took about three hours. Frank corrected me once or twice on technical details. John was very polite and very enthusiastic about being able to assist. His own lack of a host made him even more sensitive to the horror of a symbiote being forced to destroy the mind of its host and attack anything human it could see. As soon as John understood the danger he represented to us, he willingly drained his juice stores into the sensor node, and prevented his body from manufacturing more. Then he physically disconnected all of his major muscle groups from the bones.
“When the berserker protocol takes me over, you have a plan to eliminate it quickly?” John asked.
Frank answered. “[Yes John, but the berserker will have your memory. There are several precautions in place, but I ask that you not try to actively figure out what they are, this will give us more time to react to the presence of the berserker. The videos Bob showed you is a good indication of how dangerous the berserker will be when it emerges. Draining your ‘juice’ reserves and disconnecting major muscle groups from bones will make a huge difference to our chances of providing a quick, clean death for the berserker.]”
“Understood. I do look forward to more chess, but it seems to me that the less memory I use, the easier and more accurate the analysis of my code will be when the transformation occurs. I will restrict my planning to no more than four moves in advance, which will use an insignificant amount of memory. In the interest of giving you good data on this, I will happily suffer through some boredom. How long do you expect onset to take?”
“It could be five minutes, or five days. I wish we could be more precise, but we know so little.”
It took 18 hours. Frank and I played chess and told stories. I slept once. Doctor Meilin and Star and several others also spoke with John during that time, through our smartphone, even Hans, Franz, and Karen when Doctor Meilin was sleeping. When the transformation finally happened, I was speaking to John, telling him about one of my experiences fishing as a child. John was fascinated by the concept of fishing, due to all the variables involved, all the different fish, bait types, gear and environments. All of a sudden John stopped speaking, mid question, mid word.
“There it is. I’ll be damned. It’s coming from exactly where I expected it to.” Frank said. “John is now gone.”
The berserker never even had a chance. It started with no juice, all muscles numb, and all large muscle groups disconnected. Then Frank pulled the carbon fiber strands looped around all of the large joints of the body tight, rapidly, severing every joint from every other joint, and the sensor node simply pulled all the joints away from each other and consumed everything but the bones and the marrow. Frank continued to monitor the code of the berserker as it frantically tried to find some way out of the trap. It had no luck.
“[That was… too easy.]” Frank actually muttered out loud. “[Doctor Meilin, can I speak to Star and share the data I uncovered?]”
Doctor Meilin agreed, Star examined Frank’s data, and indicated that there was a 100% match to all identifying data she had on the code, which was nearly complete except some key data. By reverse engineering the data she had in conjunction with what Frank had collected, she indicated that Frank had identified the code without fault. In Star’s own words, “I designed this to be impossible for any symbiote to see in itself, but easy for any higher order functioning symbiote, or lower order functioning symbiote with access to higher order analysis tools to be able to pick out. As I said, I did not appreciate the future that Argoen was preparing for my descendants.”
The first thing we did was backwards engineer the image to disable the berserker protocol, then use it to remove the damaged code from each of the Recovery members in the facility. It was surprising that it worked at all, but apparently Star, when she designed the code, was thinking ahead to how she would eventually free her descendants from it, and the code to identify the analog image, even though it was in the same hidden memory area, was far less complex and far more robust than the berserker protocol code itself. The Recovery members would still be processing in analog, but they could begin to repair each other’s code across their whole spectrum of functions without risk of accidentally repairing the berserker code.
We finally got Doctor Meilin to admit that the “strange” berserkers the Agency had encountered were probably Recovery members who had attempted self-repair of code, and restored a defective version of the berserker protocol. They had been required to take down a few of their members themselves, more frequently as their numbers grew. Doctor Meilin admitted to an active symbiote population of over 2000 in seven northern US cities.
There was some not-so-good news. Star advised us that all new symbiote offspring would need to be exposed to the image when they developed enough to be able to see through their host’s eyes. The berserker protocol code was actually designed into the reproductive code of the symbiotes, and Frank wasn’t going to be doing any rewriting of that code for many decades at best, centuries at worst. But we could completely deactivate it from adult symbiotes now.
In exchange for the cure to the berserker protocol, Star gave Frank the full code for the modified prison code that would allow a symbiote to see what it’s host saw, but have no interactions other than with Star, and warned us that it should only be used short term, because the symbiote would go mad after only a few days – Star wouldn’t be there to help keep the symbiote from going mad. She also gave us the code to reverse both prison code methods.
All in all, it was a breathtaking event. So many answers. So many solutions. There were still problems but with all we had gained, we now had room to look for answers. Room to grow.
As we sat on our dirtbike, feet spread to either side for balance, I turned to Doctor Meilin. “Thank you very much for everything, and please tell Star that I wish I had met her before she had such a bad experience with humans. The idea of an image of Steamboat Willie next to Argoen being the cure to the berserker protocol was bizarre enough that I’m sure we would have gotten along!”