There was a lot of thinking time between Recovery’s medical safe house and the Agency’s base. Plenty of time to try to piece together some of the things we didn’t know. And plenty of time to figure out more questions, but we were getting used to that. We rented a small cargo van, I bought some clothes, and changed into civvies for the first time in a few days, and it felt good. To me anyway. Frank likes being in armor. The armor, which Frank had repaired with the sensor node after some modifications, was bagged, and the bike strapped in. We stopped at a grocery store and I let Frank shop for whatever he thought we needed. We ended up walking out with a small cooler with ice, a bunch of meat, fruits, breads, and a few random utensils made of metals we were short of – and a fifty pound bag of charcoal for diamonds, as we had given away our entire supply to Recovery for Frank’s shopping list.
We could have easily restored all of our needs by reabsorbing some of the mass of the two halves of the biocomputer, but we had given those to Recovery after repurposing them to better serve their needs. They now had different settings, and could generate several different materials. They also had a setting for doing what they were originally designed to do, monitor code changes (to help isolate problem code for the Recovery people to repair) but Recovery would have to have access to a fully digital symbiote to do much with that configuration – which they would probably have in short order at their current expansion rate. The problem was lifespan. Without Frank to keep things in balance, lifespan for any biomachine or biocomputer he makes is fairly short. Another symbiote can’t repair Frank’s work, not on the biological components. Maintenance on the non-biological parts, and proper monitoring of the device’s needs, certainly, but every symbiote was keyed to the genetic signature of its host, so significant changes in Frank’s biocomputers by another would quickly lead to rejection in the biological systems. The devices were certainly capable of some natural self-healing but wouldn’t be functional for more than a year. In that year of time, it would be able to make a lot of gemstones, graphene, and carbon nanotube shapes. We did not give them the means to make armor, just basic shapes. Trying to make armor would require Frank’s near permanent attention. In fact, tending to the biofactories at the Agency would be one of the first things we did when we returned after a few days away.
The trip to the Agency was relaxing, even if it was spent in discussion about what we knew, didn’t know, and what we knew we didn’t know. Frank indicated that any effort on his part to ask Star about the origin of symbiotes was unanswered, Star indicating that her shard didn’t contain that data. He was able to get a bit more information about how he would mature – he was concerned about running out of memory space over a lifetime of centuries, but was calmly reassured by Star that as his core understanding of highest order data processing improved he would discover ways to drastically improve his memory storage. His data storage was almost exclusively higher order molecular storage right now, but he would modify it over time to take advantage of highest order technologies. Star’s shard was simply not capable of highest order data processing, it was intentionally limited by Argoen when it was placed.
Questions about reproduction were also rebuffed. Frank was bonded to a male, me, and in the human species, the male was not the biological nurturer of children, so Star wouldn’t talk to us about symbiote reproduction (at least that was the story). Doctor Meilin simply smiled at me – she wasn’t getting on Star’s bad side over this (she had already told us enough that Star was annoyed with her.) Star and Doctor Meilin agreed to speak with female Agency symbiote pairs in regards to symbiote reproduction, and provided us with several contact methods. She also advised me that the Agency females should have questions, because imprisoned female Agency symbiotes were certainly creating most of the symbiotes that the Agency found and monitored. This was a bit of a stunner for Frank and me, but it might be true, based on what I knew about Agency locations and the locations of newly detected symbiote pairs. I strongly suspected that this would not be a surprise to the Agency if it was true.
I suspected that the mechanics of symbiote reproduction were going to be very heavily exploited by Recovery in the short term, if possible, in an effort to dramatically increase their numbers and resources to further solidify their power base. With the cure to the berserker protocol in hand, nothing would stop them from expanding at a pretty massive pace, based on what I already knew about symbiote reproduction. I was fairly confident that Doctor Meilin was not interested in ruling the world based on what I had seen of her organization, so I didn’t challenge her on her plans. As far as I was concerned, a symbiote for every human sounded like a damn fine idea, and saving the lives of the aged, infirm, and terminally ill was just bonus. I could easily imagine others disagreeing with me – especially some religious organizations, the poorly educated, and, of course, politicians. Doctor Meilin would be in the right to try to expand her power base.
The Agency would need to do the same, or risk becoming the targets of ignorant human aggression as Doctor Meilin’s group stirred the pot. Argoen’s death was a really good way to drive this home. I would need to speak to Guiliard and Anton on this, and see if there was any sort of contingency plan in place. Hell, I didn’t even really understand where Guiliard and Anton got their marching orders from. Were they independent?
By the time we pulled into the Agency parking garage, Frank and I had figured out that all those questions we had answered about the history and function of symbiotes were now replaced by questions about the Agency and its history.
“Frank, does it bother you as much as it bothers me that I know almost nothing about how the Agency formed?”
“Yes, it does. I’m doing contingency planning now, because we really have no idea at all how they are going to react to our debrief of what we just did over the last couple days.”
“That was my thought too. Sure they gave us a leadership position, maybe a token one. Individually, I’m certain that most members would love the opportunity to free their symbiotes from the berserker code and be able to interact with them again. Institutionally? I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of fear and anger bound up in the suppression of berserkers, which I could easily see getting turned against symbiotes even by some well-meaning people.”
“Humans seem to get upset about some of the most ridiculous things. Even you sometimes.”
“I agree. Humans are very illogical. I can be a prime example from time to time. We have to go back though, and figure out where the Agency stands on the emergence of a symbiote-human society, and where they plan on going from where they are standing right now. So let’s go in with the maximum paranoia that we can manage without a pre-emptive strike.”
“Should we wear the armor then?”
“I’d like to, but no. I don’t want to be too obvious that we don’t fully trust them. I’m sure they must expect it, but let’s not escalate in advance. First priority is escape if crazy things happen.”
“Juice is full, we’re as good to go as we can be right now.”
We parked the van, then untied the bike and rolled it out, started it and drove it to bike parking near the entrance. After that, we went back to the van and carried the armor in its duffle on our back, the cooler in our left hand, and nothing in our right hand as we entered the facility on the way to our quarters.
The entry area looked typical. The normal humans on duty at the reception desks there recognized me and greeted me. A genetic scan cleared me for entry. I was advised that there were standing orders for me to report to Guiliard within thirty minutes of my arrival at the facility, no matter what time it was, so I quickly moved to my room to drop my gear. At least I arrived at a decent hour so I wouldn’t start off on the wrong foot by waking him.
I watched closely for any signs of abnormal security or behavior as I walked to my quarters. Nothing blatant. People I passed in the hall greeted me as “Magilla” in passing. If I were actually being promoted to the same Agency rank as Guiliard and Anton, that would change to calling me by my given first name.
When I stepped into my quarters, I put the cooler in the sink and opened the drain, then I went to the message center and pressed play and listened to messages while moving leftovers from the cooler to the fridge. Several messages from Dart, getting more concerned over time. I drafted a reply, standing in front of the pickup. “I’m back Dart. Sorry for being out of touch. It’s a long story with an interesting ending. I’ll tell you about as much of it as I’m allowed to, after I debrief, when we can get together again. I can’t call you live right now, pressed for time. I missed you!” Then I gave a flourishing bow, blew her a kiss, and sent the message.
The message queue only had messages from a couple other people that I had set to priority. Most of it was short, routine, “call me” messages, or reminders of obligations to help with X or Y research. The most recent one was from Guiliard.
“Bob, Anton was back in the area to collect a couple new recruits that were ready for the field, and would like to join us for the meeting. In order to coordinate everything between us, it will take time. Please meet with us at 1600 in my office rather than 1530. Take a long relaxing shower and think about your debrief. Since you didn’t message me directly on entering the base, I will assume that you don’t have any critical information for us.”
“Well, Frank, looks like we have a few minutes – that shower does sound good.”
“Enjoy the shower Bob. I’ll think about the research questions we were asked, though some of them have been made obsolete by what we learned. I should be able to have answers for two of them within a few minutes if I understood their questions properly, and if they were asking the right questions.”
To each their own relaxation, I suppose. I grabbed an apple as I headed to the restroom and turned on the water, then undressed and finished eating the apple while I waited for the water to heat up. One thing about the whole symbiote thing. I didn’t have to throw away apple cores any longer. I did have to watch out for my eating habits in public though. There are very few people who eat apples core and all. I had actually developed a taste for it. I suspect Frank was playing something of a joke on me by making apple seeds taste so good. I’d call him on it someday soon, maybe. Or maybe I’d just pretend to never notice it, and wait for Frank to try to bring the conversation around to it.
The water finally got hot, and I stepped into the shower. Frank liked cold water when we were doing things, but nothing gets dirt out better than hot water. Sure, Frank could keep us as clean as showering, but there’s just something about a hot shower, and it’s more than just getting clean in body. I soaped up, rinsed off, and then just started enjoying the heat and pressure of the water.
Frank broke in. “I’m controlling your reactions for the next few seconds Bob. We have the beginning of an answer about how the Agency wants to deal with us. Apparently while we were away, they figured out how to make a prison room, because they just activated a prison system in this bathroom.”
I blinked once to indicate I heard him, but Frank was turning off the water. We immediately walked straight to the duffel bag of armor and started putting it on.
I kept quiet while we prepared. The room was probably bugged. I wasn’t sure how long they expected it to be before I would have noticed that Frank wasn’t talking to me, but they surely wouldn’t give us more than a few minutes before either trying to make a physical grab, or a phone call. It’s even possible that they were intending to try to keep me in the room, but they were in for a surprise if they tried that with Frank still in operation.
After several minutes, there was no call, and no knock at the door. Time to push things.
I called Guiliard on the message center, audio only. He answered. “Fifteen minutes to the meeting Bob, do you need more time?”
“Guiliard, either you are playing a deep game, or someone’s acting without your knowledge. Someone just activated a prison system in my bathroom while I was showering.”
Silence. I waited a few seconds.
“Are you there, Guiliard?”
“Yes. I’m thinking. Your reaction is not what I was expecting, meaning that something didn’t happen as planned.”
“I am having fond memories of when I shot that man in the knee.” Frank commented.
“Since it will become clear very soon anyway, I’ll let you know that Frank was unaffected, other than getting angry. This will be the second meeting that I attend with you, where I am wearing full armor. Frank’s been quiet and letting me handle this so far, but I strongly suggest that you think carefully as we move forward.”
“I was aware of the attempt to imprison Frank. In charge of the effort, even. I’ve done practically nothing but think of where you fit in since you joined us. Quite simply, you don’t fit. I was hoping that without Frank, you might fit.” Guiliard sounding exasperated but not overtly angry or defensive, just matter of fact, and tired. Not exactly what I was expecting.
I could feel Frank’s anger. “I’m an inconvenience to him? After all I’ve done? I’m beginning to understand Star better.”
“At least we’re not lying to each other then. I believe we have a meeting scheduled in ten minutes. Are you still planning on being there? The information I have for the agency is important enough that I’m still willing to tell you about it, and see your reaction, before I leave. There is no other option. I am leaving after this. Next time you guys might try something that actually works. You might even be thinking about trying to come up with something at the meeting. I strongly suggest you abandon such thoughts if you are having them. The events of the last two days have provided Frank and I with a great deal of reason to be concerned about our safety, and a lot of thought went into how we would prepare for returning. You don’t want to push us.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why was Frank unaffected by the prison code?” Guiliard asked.
“[Guiliard, I had access to the prison code, the chair components, and their firmware when I was rebuilding parts for the chair when we first met. When the original Frank wrote a new operating system and copied himself into it to create me, he used his knowledge of the prison code to make me immune to the prison code unless I choose to allow it.]”
“It was a risk we had to take. You have been a loose cannon, Bob and Frank, and I’m honestly quite worried about the news that you are bringing to us now. I suspect that I’m going to want to suppress it, which is why I had the prison code system in your bathroom activated. We can’t afford to lose the agents that it would cost us to imprison you by other means, and I’m not sure they would try to do it even if we asked. We could kill you, I think, but I’m certain that any attempt to do that would result in a mutiny at worst, a civil war at best. Especially if we succeeded.” He sounded defeated. “Come tell us what you want to tell us, and then leave. Your personal belongings will be collected for you, and will be held for you at reception. Anton and I will be waiting to meet you in my office.”