There were very few things in my quarters which were valuable enough to me to keep. A few photos of myself and Ayva. The rest could be replaced. I wouldn’t be collecting anything at reception, even if my belongings were brought there for me.
“Frank, please turn on the voice mask.” I paused, I knew I had forgotten something when we were trading data with the Recovery people. “Please remind me that I need to contact Doctor Meilin and arrange to be taught how to speak with you without vocalizing.”
“Done, and will do.”
“OK, one thing that I want you to remember in this meeting. It is absolutely guaranteed that it will be recorded, and perhaps even broadcast live to various places and people, so we have to stay calm. It appears that Jane was a lot more right than we gave her credit for when she said the Agency was human-centric.”
“Agency computer capacity is more than sufficient to generate on the fly video indistinguishable from real video. Why would they bother with real video if they suspect we are going to be giving them information that they don’t want to hear?”
“Point. Remember though, we’re dealing with Guiliard and Anton here. They are both very old school. They don’t instinctively trust technology. They have been buried in the Agency for decades. For better or worse, they are both fairly honest even if they aren’t always open. I believe the offer of rank was genuine on their part, but us going off and doing the ‘loose cannon’ thing scared the hell out of them. We weren’t some schmuck, we were someone who had been offered authority, and we didn’t change. Not that they should have expected us to change in the middle of an operation, but I can see where they are coming from. They are very much early twentieth century military, and they run this organization like it too.”
“We didn’t understand them well enough to see this coming. I’m uncomfortable with thinking we understand them now.”
“Point. I guess I was just trying to ask you to refrain from beating the hell out of Guiliard on camera. No matter how much we would both enjoy it right now.”
“OK, that much I can agree with, if they don’t attempt any other tricks.”
“Well, five minutes to the meeting. Let’s go. Please stop the voice mask.”
We walked through the halls towards Guiliard’s office, and even if people didn’t know exactly what was going on, it was pretty obvious that we were not happy, so nobody approached us. Wearing full armor, carrying our staff, and walking quickly towards Guiliard’s office not only got us some space, it got us a small crowd following a ways behind. Frank was listening to them for signs that it was more than just people being curious about what was happening. Some of the agents that knew us and had been in combat with us were clearly picking up that there might be a fight, and Frank heard them arranging for the lowest ranking agents in the group to go get the non-agents out of the area, and warn the tech weenies to stay away unless they had orders to go near Guiliard’s offices. Ayva, apparently, was not in the facility, which was a good thing. One less thing to worry about, for now.
I considered just barging into Guiliard’s office without knocking, but decided against it. There was an audience thirty feet down the hall, and I had no clue who was inside the office with him. If I was going to be kicked from the agency, I was damn well not going out without dignity. That decision was not easy. I wanted to kick down the fucking door and break Guiliard’s neck for what he tried to do to Frank. We rapped knuckles three times on the door, and after about two seconds received a response to enter.
Inside the room, barely beyond the door, there was a horseshoe of long tables with rank and file agents sitting in chairs along the outside edge. In the center of that horseshoe of tables was a straight backed folding metal chair. The chair faced the center of the horseshoe, and beyond the horseshoe were four people I expected to see, and one I didn’t know. Guiliard and Anton were there of course, and Alice and Advudt. The man in the center of them all was someone I had never seen before, but it was obvious that he was deferred to by both Guiliard and Anton simply by where he sat at the table and how he looked at me.
He spoke. “Good day Bob and Frank. My name is Ellis. I am one of the original symbiote enhanced soldiers from Project Boomerang. We have not been introduced in the past because I do not normally engage in day to day operations at the Agency. When asked to do so, I will come to meetings such as this where I can cast a tiebreaker vote if needed. Please be seated.” He gestured at the chair in the middle of the horseshoe.
I walked up to the chair, and stood behind it, and went to a parade rest. “Thank you for the offer of a seat, but since someone has already attempted to essentially kill Frank today, I would prefer to remain standing, as it puts me at something less of a disadvantage against ten agents who might be carrying any number of different types of equipment to attempt to capture or kill me. The only reason I am here right now is because I have information important enough that I feel I have an obligation to tell everyone about it – even people who tried to kill Frank.”
Ellis looked at me for a couple seconds, then nodded. “Very well then, remain standing. My understanding was that we were to attempt to imprison your symbiote, not kill it?” He turned towards Alice.
I broke in, getting an irritated look from Alice and Ellis both. “That’s semantics, Ellis. The Agency has no code to release symbiotes from imprisonment, or that was what I was advised. Once imprisoned, a symbiote is essentially gone forever, dead to the host.”
“Bob, we are essentially immortal. When the agency is able to figure out how to prevent pairs from going drone, then we can work on reverse engineering the code to free symbiotes from the effects of prison code. Saying we tried to kill Frank is a bit extreme.”
My steadily building anger almost got the best of me but I managed to stay at parade rest. The helmet hid my face from them, so they couldn’t see the anger that was on my face, but Anton, Guiliard, and Ellis saw it in my body language, I’m certain. Anton and Guiliard tensed up a bit, but Ellis just tilted his head a bit and started the smallest of smiles.
I reined in the anger, and replied. “I’m not going to debate semantics here. Whether it was for five minutes, or forever, the reality is that you attempted to imprison Frank simply because, together, we were not as tractable as you wanted us to be.”
“We wanted your motivations to be entirely human, Bob.”
“Ellis, I’m not just human any more. Nor are the rest of us with symbiotes – though with your symbiotes safely locked away in their prison cages, you can reap some small measure of the benefits of their presence in your body without actually needing to consider that they are also intelligent beings.”
“They must stay imprisoned, or they go drone and kill us. Bob, you of all of us should know this is true, since you actually spent time inside a body sharing space with an exceptional symbiote that was able to fight off the drone transformation long enough to create a new body.”
“We show him that it is possible to prevent my race from killing people, by becoming the first symbiote to survive the berserker protocol, and he wants to keep enslaving us? Bob, please, can we just rip one arm off? I’ll hold it in place and let it grow back. I know you want to. We rip his arm off, tell him that we could have simply beaten him to death with it, then let it reattach. We could demonstrate restraint and reason with that approach. Comparatively, at least.” I blinked twice. Emphatically.
“An exceptional symbiote, yes, the same one you just tried to imprison just because you wanted me to be limited to only a human point of view in my decisions. It would be foolish to argue against the need to imprison symbiotes that are susceptible to becoming a drone, if there is no way to stop them from doing so other than imprisoning them.” I agreed.
“With the symbiotes imprisoned, we are mentally human, Bob. This is a human world. Yes we have benefits from the symbiosis, but when there is no longer an alien mind within us, there is only humanity left.”
Guiliard, Anton, Alice, and Advudt all gained status in my mind as they reacted, all of them looking at Ellis with some degree of confusion and concern.
“And you wanted to punish me with that? Take away my lifelong companion, my protector and friend? The person who best understands me in the world, and enjoys making fun of me while proving it? I provide Frank with a body to live in. He provides me with an absurd number of advantages. Don’t get me wrong. We argue and fight with one another, it’s not a perfect relationship. Even now, so many months after we reached synergy, we do not agree on all things. Even now, I have my strengths and Frank has his strengths. Frank will allow me to speak to humans most of the time, because I understand other humans better than he does, even though he understands me better than I myself do. Right now, Frank is letting me do the talking, and I promise you that’s for the best, because he’s almost as angry as I am.”
I paused, to gather my thoughts. “Most of you remember your symbiotes as somewhere between one and three days of wonder mixed with confusion and fear. You had someone else talking to you, wanting to do different things, showing you amazing capabilities. Fixing your bodies and probably trying to convince you to let them modify your body to make it healthier or more efficient. A couple of you remember living for a couple months with a child symbiote that was allowed to wake within you long before it had any understanding of humanity or human culture. Neither of these is a good example to compare the relationship Frank and I have. Frank is an adult symbiote that is now a part of me. I feel for him in some ways like a cross between a best friend and a child. If you removed his presence from my mind now, I would probably be a mental basket case for years, perhaps forever. None of you ever experienced what I have experienced with Frank.” I paused. “You tried to take Frank away from me. I’ve already been told that we no longer have a place within the Agency. That’s more than acceptable in light of your betrayal of Frank and myself, so I think we should move past this sham of a courts-martial-like meeting and move on to important things. Do you agree?”
Ellis looked at the other four. None of them looked happy, but none of them disagreed. “Very well, we agree that there is no point in discussing our institutional arrangement with you. What information do you have for us that is so critical that you would deign to provide it to those that you appear to feel are little better than criminals?”
I almost snapped. Frank was ready too, I could feel it. Guiliard was ready too, I could tell from his body language, but he looked more ready to jump away from Ellis than try to protect him from me. I saw Anton’s fingers flash. Some sort of sign language. Guiliard adjusted his seat a bit, and so did Anton. I smiled when I noticed that they were not getting ready to fight me, they were getting ready to protect Alice and Advudt. I didn’t have to like them to respect them. That was unfair too, because I did like and respect them both. Ellis was reverting to that infuriating half smile whenever he stopped talking. That’s when I realized that this entire scenario was designed to make me attack Ellis, and I was pretty sure nobody else was in on it. He’d almost managed it too. What could he possibly hope to gain? The only thing I could think of was that he was willing to take a severe beating, or even die in order to try to make a point that Frank and I were unpredictable and dangerous. Death by Bob. I actually chuckled at that, which startled a few people.
I took a moment to collect my thoughts. “After two days working with a symbiote group called ‘Recovery’ run by Doctor Meilin, Frank was able to do several things. Firstly the berserker protocol, the code that creates what the Agency calls drones, has been isolated. Frank knows where it is, and we will provide the image data that will disable it. Secondly, two levels of imprisoning are possible. The one you do not know about is a short term imprisonment where the symbiote is still aware of its environment. When in minimum security imprisonment the symbiote cannot communicate with the host or actively control the host body. Minimum security imprisonment will drive a symbiote mad if it is left in place for an extended timeframe without special preparations. Thirdly, we have the code to reverse imprisonment.”
Alice’s eyes started out big when I mentioned the cure to the berserker code, but when I got to the part about reversing imprisonment, her eyes got about as big around as teacups. Everyone else in the room was speechless, even Ellis, thankfully. I continued. “It’s a long story, but Doctor Meilin was able to successfully protect symbiotes from the berserker protocol by having symbiotes perform a transfer of themselves into human grey matter, then a physical eradication of all memory storage in the body, followed by rebuilding memory storage and migrating the symbiote code back into the new storage banks. This process caused damage to the human brain and the symbiote’s code, but rarely so much damage to either that the resulting pair was helpless. The symbiotes were able to help one another do code repairs, and the humans recover over time. The symbiotes themselves operate with an analog adaptation rather than digital, but are high functioning. The humans range from near-vegetables to high functioning. They established an organization capable of supporting itself comfortably, and worked with me for a couple days of research. Their goal was to end the need for grey matter transfers because they were damaging to the host, even if the host was a human who was close to death.”
I paused to give them time to think through what I had said.
“It’s a whole lot to take in all at once. Here’s the part that isn’t so nice. The berserker code is passed during reproduction, even if the symbiote no longer has it stored in accessible memory, so we cannot fully eradicate it any time soon. In addition, Frank has determined that there is about a one in ten chance that symbiotes brought out of high security prison might activate the berserker code before they can either be shown the image to disable the berserker code, or be placed into low security prison and exposed to the image that will disable the berserker code. Extreme caution will need to be taken to be sure that a berserker manifesting can be killed if that is the cure route that you wish to pursue.” I paused. “Or, if desired, Frank can actually damage the berserker code so that it cannot activate, then remove the prison code, and expose the symbiote to the image, curing the berserker code without any risk at all.”
“The problem here is that Frank and I no longer trust the Agency, after you tried to imprison Frank. The Agency will doubtlessly want to perform any initial tests in a very secure environment, capable of quickly disposing of any berserker, which is exactly the type of environment which I absolutely will not allow myself and Frank to be in, under Agency control.”
Everyone else in the room was either excited or uneasy, but Ellis stared at me coldly. “So essentially, you have the cure to everything, but will not share it, because we tried to imprison Frank. How convenient. Who should we send to you first, when you set up your laboratory away from the Agency, Doctor Frankenstein?”
I suppressed the urge to leap over the agents in front of me and throttle him. It would have been so easy. Too easy. Remember, it seems like that’s what he wants us to do. Suicide wish and all. Maybe he hates his symbiote so much he’d rather be dead? There were people in the world who were afraid of their own shadows, I guess there were probably people afraid of having a symbiote inside of them.
“I said this information would be shared. We will provide the information to you, and to any other splinter group I hear about. I will send it to Alice and her team with no questions asked or favors owed, but the full data set will require several petabytes of storage. I will arrange for it to be delivered to this facility in a few days, after I get settled into an apartment somewhere and buy a server capable of storing the data.” I glanced along the length of the horseshoe table at the agents there. “I am NOT forming a splinter group. Frank and I will not turn anyone away that wants us to free their symbiote, but I’m not going to form any sort of group, and you must recognize that freeing your symbiote may make the Agency force you out, based on today’s attempt to imprison Frank and this meeting’s conversation.”
I paused to speak to Frank. “Frank please generate the email as we planned, except add a transcript of this meeting.”
“[Done.]” Frank spoke out loud, almost growling the word.
“Frank and I might choose to align ourselves with Recovery, or choose to go our own way. I have sent an email to every Agency member with a copy of the image that will cure the berserker protocol, a transcript of what occurred here today in this meeting, and a lot more details about what I discovered while working with Recovery. Included in that email are several civilian emails that can be used to reach me. Frank has taken the precaution of disabling administrative function on the email system to prevent the emails from being recalled by admin function for two hours. That is also noted on the top line of the email with a note that it might be best to make a hardcopy and/or forward to personal email.”
“So you drop a bomb into the middle of the Agency as you leave. We’re either in agreement with you or you will destroy us as an organization?” Ellis asked.
“Ellis, I’m sure that there will be quite a few Agency members that will choose to remain as part of your little humans-with-symbiote-benefits club here. However, if I find out that pairs are being prevented from leaving or coming to me for help, or if I find out that you are not using the image to cure new pairs of the berserker protocol without needing to subject them to imprisonment, we’ll be back, and you won’t like it much. I’m not asking for the Agency to start acting on today’s news immediately. I’ll be happy to talk Alice through whatever testing she wants to do. I’ll give you a month before I start acting if I hear about the use of permanent imprisonment on symbiotes that have committed no crime. I do have enough contacts here that you won’t be able to keep word from getting to me.”
Alice tapped on her tablet a couple times then spoke up. Ellis glared at her but she ignored him. “I’m having one of your biofactories moved to reception now, Bob. If Frank can reconfigure it for storage with a human machine interface and load the full data onto it before you leave, I will be more than happy to begin looking over your data.”
Ellis looked at Guiliard who simply shook his head. I guessed that they had at least considered trying to attack me, it seemed, but Guiliard was telling Ellis that it wasn’t a good idea. I was glad I hadn’t sat us down, or they might have thought they could take us and started a fight. Ellis spoke. “Bob, at this point, there’s no point arguing with you. You are convinced you are right, that free symbiotes are better for humanity than imprisoned ones. I don’t share that belief with you because I remember what the first symbiote did to us, and I’ve been living with it for sixty years. We can’t stop you.” He paused. “Leave. Now.”
As I turned and slowly walked the two steps towards the door, then stopped and spoke without turning around. “Ellis, I’m more convinced that you are wrong than that I am right. Everything you say makes it clearer to me that you have zero respect for symbiotes, unlike most of the rest of the Agency. You know what Star, Argoen’s symbiote, did to human symbiotes at Argoen’s command – but humans were the ones to break the agreement. Humans were the liars. Humans were the betrayers. We proved we could betray aliens just as well as we can betray each other, just as well as you tried to betray me by imprisoning Frank. Don’t try to use what humans, Argoen, and Star did to each other back then to justify continuing to do what the Agency does now. Not with what I’ve given you. In one month, today’s policies will be inexcusable.”