The officers were still fairly calm looking. The colonel, last name Gantt, was the first to speak up, sounding reasonably confident. “So you presume to be Judge, Jury, and Executioner then? You don’t see anything wrong with that? It doesn’t seem to match your psych profile, if you are Bob.”
“Gantt, I didn’t even have to lock you in a box and spray you down with diesel fuel to make you realize there was something wrong with the picture. Nothing wrong with your intelligence. If you choose to use it.”
“You’ve already killed about a hundred soldiers, why stop there?” One of the Captains, last name Lewis, who got a sharp look from Colonel Gantt.
“Lewis, they aren’t dead, they are unconscious. Making them dead wouldn’t have been any harder, but it wasn’t warranted.”
Colonel Gantt spoke again. “Talking with terrorists isn’t something I do every day. You had a position of authority inside of an organization that had a bioweapon capable of destroying all of humanity. Supposedly you were once human, a citizen of the US. Are you trying to say that we’re supposed to allow some terror group with an alien bioweapon to attack a US city and just be nice? We collected the bioweapons and burned them. They were made with flesh matching your DNA.”
“Someone’s been playing games with your head Colonel Gantt. I am human. My symbiote is not. He lives inside me, and in return for me giving him a place to live, interesting things to do, and someone to laugh at fairly regularly, he offers his support to most of the things that I ask for help with. Like this armor and this staff, for a small example. Like the biofactories and biocomputers that you burned for larger examples. Those factories created the armor of the Agency agents, and a few other things besides – none of them intended for anything other than Agency use in controlling the symbiote population, back when the symbiote population had to be kept in check with an iron fist.”
“Great. So the alien terrorists out to replace humanity on our comfy little dirtball have excellent manufacturing skills. Are we supposed to be impressed? Are we supposed to just roll over and die and give our world up to them, give up our identity, like you did, Mr. Benson?”
Not a surprise that he brought up my name. However, why was he even talking to me if he thought I was a terrorist? He certainly didn’t seem weak willed. Ah stalling for time. He expected help, soon, which matched the trap profile. I probably got here before the trap was fully ready.
“So, Gantt, what was the trap supposed to be? Guessing I’d come in by water was a good guess. The sonar and tripwires in the river were a nice combination of obvious and sneaky, and the low power radar linked to high powered lasers was a pretty neat trick, but they were both pretty pathetic to try to stop me with if your inside man at the Agency was giving you everything they had on me. Frank, are you detecting any encrypted communications in the area? Any radiation?”
“Nothing. Can’t detect painting lasers unless we are outside though, might be safer there.”
“Frank is my symbiote’s name, if you weren’t already aware. He’s suggested that it might be better to step outside so that we can watch the sky for aircraft, missiles, and painting lasers a bit easier. Yes, Frank can see the entire electromagnetic spectrum, but that shouldn’t be a real secret to you if you did your homework. None of you seem to be sweating too much so whatever the trap is, it apparently doesn’t include you sacrificing yourselves to blow me up with an absurdly large explosion or something. Let’s go outside and see what sort of excitement the good old US military is planning on impressing me with.”
I pushed open the flap with my staff. “After you gentlemen. Don’t try to run please, or I’ll be forced to relieve you of your dignity. I don’t want to injure you, I just want you to witness how truly impressed I am with the military might of the US. After whatever it is starts, feel free to run away though. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
They walked out of the tent. I pointed them to an open patch of ground with very few soldiers laying on the ground. “That looks like a good spot. On the off chance that the surprise for me includes small things moving at high speeds in the air, you three should start moving your soldiers nearby under cover please.”
They obediently started dragging soldiers out of the way while I scanned the horizon. “Frank, do you see anything in the sky that I can’t? These guys don’t seem worried for their own health but this really smelled like a trap to me.” I let them hear. I knew Frank would be watching for their reactions.
“I think we already sprung the trap Bob. The officers are just letting you waste time, hoping that they will get reinforcements sufficient to take us down when they arrive.”
“Frank seems to think that the sonar, laser systems, and soldiers here were the whole trap, so I guess we’ll be leaving. Your soldiers will start waking up again sometime soon.”
The three officers just looked at each other then back at me, saying nothing.
“Pass this on to your superior officers or whoever dumped this project in your laps. You came very close last night to creating something you really don’t want. If you continue trying to perpetrate genocide on symbiotes, you are going to have a very large problem. Us. You see what we did here today to your soldiers? We could do the same thing anywhere in the US, from Washington DC to Puerto Rico, and you would never see it coming. If we were to do those things, we might just choose to do them with nerve toxin rather than a sleep agent. Unlike your attack on unsuspecting innocents last night, some of whom were children, we will only attack the people who make important decisions. Officers of rank O3 and up, NCO’s of rank E-6 and up, and executive and legislative branch elected officials, of course.”
Colonel Gantt spoke up. “So you are threatening us with terrorism? Despite saying that the people last night weren’t part of a terrorist organization?”
“How many of your friends would I have to kill without any justice, Colonel Gantt, before you decided to try to take matters into your own hands? In my case, I’m watching the government that I expect to prevent such things actually trying to perform the deeds.”
“That’s a damn slippery slope, Mr. Benson.” Colonel Gantt again, trying to stare me down. Through my helmet? Idiot. Trying dominance games based on eye contact only works with eye contact.
“Then make sure people above you know they damn well better not take the first step onto that slope. I won’t start it, but I will damn well make sure that high ranking individuals responsible for unprovoked attacks pay for them. This won’t be some war that only enlisted grunts die in. I will take it straight to the ones making the decisions. You get one warning – this one. You get that one warning because you failed to kill anyone last night that I was able to tell. The only one from the Agency that died last night was the traitor, Ellis, who was killed by our own people after he doused them with diesel but before he could ignite it. If I find out otherwise, I’ll have to re-evaluate.”
I turned my back to them. “Frank, let’s do a quick scout of the area and make sure they don’t have any prisoners or corpses before I leave. Do whatever you want, fellows, I’ll be leaving shortly unless I find a corpse. If you have any prisoners in the camp you had best let me know, now.”
“No prisoners. No corpses. No corpses of your people at least, except Ellis. There were three of mine.” Colonel Gantt said, then continued. “Lewis, Dobson, go check on the soldiers and get the cleanup crew back working. I’ll escort our guest till he leaves.”
Colonel Gantt stayed about ten paces behind me as I went from vehicle to vehicle and tent to tent looking for evidence of any agency people, even the symbiotes that hadn’t reached synergy should have some smell of juice on them, and Frank wasn’t smelling any. The last place to check was the warehouse.
“The diesel fuel fumes in there are still too strong, you will die. Don’t you see all the people in there have air umbilical tubes?” Said a woman with ‘Smith’ on her fabric nametag, the obvious crew boss at the entrance of the building, trying to bar my way. I carefully pushed her arm down without damaging her suit.
“Sure, I see them. I don’t need an air supply. Frank says there’s plenty of oxygen in there for us.” Colonel Gantt didn’t follow me in. I checked out all the vehicles, careful to not create any sparks, and didn’t find any evidence of Agency members dead, dying, or being held captive. Except for Ellis, still in a pile where he had fallen. I briefly considered pissing on his corpse, or just spitting on him, but decided dead was good enough, no need to desecrate. After about five minutes of me searching and all the workers just staring at me (apparently expecting to have to run over and drag me out when I collapsed, based on their radio chatter) I walked out the other side and investigated where the firefight actually occurred. Colonel Gantt appeared around the side of the building when I was searching, and kept his distance, but watched me. The soldiers were starting to move now, some of them waking.
“Frank, release the helmet and give me my real face please.” After a few seconds of strange sensations the helmet straps were all detached and the warmth on my face passed. I removed the helmet.
I walked over towards Colonel Gantt, and stopped about three paces from him so he could clearly see my face, and gave him the eye contact he had tried to make before. “I want to make this real clear before I leave, Colonel. I’m sorry that some of your soldiers died last night. I’m glad that none of my people died other than a traitor who tried to kill them all in the trap you prepared. I’ll give you and your people the benefit of the doubt that your soldiers died doing what they thought was right. My people killed your people while fighting to get away from a death trap that your people were fooled into creating on false pretenses. The people that lied to you and told you that we were terrorists are the ones that killed your soldiers by creating that lie. Make absolutely certain that you give a very good accounting of how easily I walked over your defenses here, and my promises about going after high ranking persons and elected officials. I took out all your soldiers and left you standing. I could have easily done the reverse, with a different chemical.”
I made damn sure he was looking me in the eyes as I started the next part. “Today is the only warning. You want to engage us on laws and regulations and whatnot for integrating into society, sure, that’s fine. We’ll welcome that, but symbiote hunting season is over unless you want to be hunted right back.” I stared hard into his eyes, not blinking until he averted his gaze.
“I’ll tell them what you said, it’s all been recorded in any case.” He tapped a package on his harness.
I put the helmet back on. Frank cinched it into place while I turned my back on Colonel Gantt. Frank and I entered the water wading towards deeper water, carefully watching for tripwires.
“Frank, let’s move one mile downstream and see what we find there.” I said, before I submerged and Frank turned our lungs into gills.
“Roger that. Do you think they will listen?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t speak to Frank underwater. To myself, I thought “I hope they will. If they don’t, they are going to force me do things that I really don’t want to do.”
“We need to be able to talk underwater, Bob, I’m making a change real quick.”
Frank extruded a small part of us out of each arm, and connected the constructs to either side of our helmet, over the grillwork that allowed us to hear with our ears, then surfaced and drained the water out of our helmet. Frank shifted me back into air breathing mode, and then we went back under water. “The constructs on the helmet, one pushes oxygen in that it gets from the water, the other pulls carbon dioxide out. We can’t be highly active for long with only them for air handling, but we can talk and swim with the current.”
Talking underwater was certainly handy.
“The TheTube stuff was gone in about an hour, before we even left the river. Most of the peer-to-peer data is still out there because it gets shared into lots of different countries. Mrs. Rhiner has apparently taken herself off to Australia. Several nations and the UN are talking about symbiotes right now, whether they are even real. The ones that believe symbiotes are real are arguing about if they are a threat or a boon to human society, based on too little information. Recovery has been attacked as well, and were clearly expecting it. They smashed several assaults on their safe houses flat, without killing any soldiers. The videos released by Recovery clearly showed attempted stealthy approaches with no warning before attacks and no law enforcement present, just military. Apparently they liked the staff sling idea, because they were all using them. With flash-bang grenades, beanbags, and teargas canisters.” Frank briefly showed an image of several soldiers in combat armor being blasted from a dead run flat onto their back by fist sized beanbags to the chest. Commentary indicated the soldiers in that video all survived with between two and six broken ribs, despite their armor. Based on the movements of the beanbags and the soldiers, the beanbags must have been moving at well over three hundred miles per hour.
I laughed briefly then got serious. “I wish it hadn’t come to this, but I’ll have to poke Doctor Meilin and Jane about the staves if we have a moment to laugh about anything in the next few days. Australia? Seems a pretty strange place for Mrs. Rhiner to go to. The rest of it I was expecting but those two things stand out.”
“Not so strange as it seems. Australia has already offered political asylum to any symbiote pair that can make it there, provided they can prove their body is manufacturing hyper oxygenated artificial adrenaline. They are also offering both a cure for the berserker protocol, and offering to free imprisoned symbiotes. Apparently Doctor Meilin really was ready for this, and was already in touch with the Australian government.”
“That’s pretty amazing. I’ve always been fascinated by Australia – sometimes it seems more like America than America has been for decades. Most Aussies I know seem to have their heads in the right place, and their government is at least trying to stay fiscally sane. Getting there will be risky though.”
“Mrs. Rhiner has made her first broadcast as an Australian news anchor already, breaking the story that the TheTube Video of the fight with the gang members and the Sifu Liu fight were us, one of the symbiotes. She also wasn’t shy about publicly asking for us to contact her for that exclusive we promised her, at the end of the broadcast.”
“We’ll honor that, but I really want to catch up with the Agency people first. They had what looked to be at least twenty pairs with them who hadn’t hit synergy. I bet they have lost all their equipment to imprison, and perhaps all their copies of the berserker protocol cure image. We really need to get to them ASAP to be sure they have the image. I might not give them the ability to imprison symbiotes again, now that they have lost it, depending on if the attitude of leadership has changed.”
Frank carefully brought us up at a bit less than a mile downstream. The first thing he did after making sure we seemed to be alone was re-absorb the air handling constructs. After that, we started scanning the shore for evidence of people coming out of the water. We found it in several places, and there was the stink of juice and blood. This far downstream from the attack, if anyone was still bleeding, they were one of the pre-synergy symbiotes who could not regenerate. Or perhaps someone cutting out a bullet caught in a joint. We didn’t find evidence of heavy bleeding, which was a relief.
“Bob there’s a very strong scent of juice over here by this rock, like someone poured a bunch right on the ground.”
“OK, that’s odd, an Agency agent would have to stab themselves in the liver to do something like that. Is there a heavy blood scent there too?”
“OK, definitely weird then.”
“Well, yes, that’s why I mentioned it.”
“OK, you win, I was being dense. Let’s take a close look.”
The scent was coming from under the rock, which was quite substantial, but easy to move with the staff and another rock as a lever. In a scooped out depression under the rock was a rag soaked with juice, a powered off cellphone, and a note in a sealed bag.
“Whose scent is on the bag and rag, Frank?”
“Wait a second. Replay the ambush last night, the point where the truck had broken through the wall, and Animal was guiding people out.” Frank played it back, and I was shocked.
“I can’t believe we missed this last night, Frank. Look at Animal, Dante, and Mako there, working together.”
“I see it. They aren’t fighting, but all three of them are facing in different directions, reacting to everything around them like they can each see from every direction. Just like a scout and two drones would.”
“Add to that the ability to discharge juice without cutting themselves. Yes, looks like Doctor Meilin knew a lot more about what was going on in the Agency than she was letting us in on.”
We opened the bag and read the note.
“Don’t activate the phone for any calls. Just read the text message – Animal.”
“Magilla, if you find this phone then you have probably put two and two together and figured out something that Guiliard and Anton won’t like, but I’ll deal with that some other time. I’ve been in contact with a certain Doctor and made arrangements for the Agency to move into a safe house, which I’ve claimed is something I’ve set up with my personal finances over the years. Our plan is to rent a dozen large moving trucks from different companies and move people that way. I am not leaving that address data here to be picked up if you miss it. We’ve lost all capacity for controlling symbiotes other than the image to disable the berserker code. We will have no way to verify that the images work until several days after one of our new symbiotes has reached synergy. Alice is about to explode in frustration that she lost the data you gave her. Anton and Guiliard are… thinking some really dark thoughts after what Ellis tried to do. I don’t know what the end solution will be, but I think we could use you back for a while – at least until the Agency is back on its feet, or perhaps talking with the Doctor.”
“Yup, we were right about Animal, Frank – that’s going to make some waves, I think. Since it seems as if Animal saved the entire Agency by killing Ellis when he did, I hope they don’t try to do more than kick him, Dante, and Mako out. We need to contact the Doctor again and get that address. Can you try her numbers and emails and see if any are still up? If not it might get tricky to get back in touch with her or the Agency.”
“On it now.”
It took a while but we managed to reach Doctor Meilin, convince her that we were really us, and arrange for a secure data transfer negotiated between Star and Frank through the phone system.
Two days later I arrived at where the Agency was staying, driving a beat up old pickup truck, the armor in the locked toolbox in the bed, the staff in a rifle bag behind the bench seat. I had a random face, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt with a fedora and hiking boots. Texas license and tags, even though we were in upstate Louisiana. Frank was able to make a perfect duplicate of any state’s license now, and put whatever image that we wanted on it, but that wasn’t good enough for a traffic stop. We had a plan for that, using wasps, but hadn’t had to use it yet.
I didn’t recognize the person at the gate by sight, but Frank recognized them by smell. It was Dante.
“Seems like things worked out between you three and the rest, eh Dante?” I asked.
He sniffed the air when he got close to the open window of the truck. “Magilla? Good to see you. We can talk about that later, let me pass word you are on the way in. One minute.”
He spoke into his radio, without using any code names, just mentioning me as an expected guest who had some things we lost during the move. Then he slapped the hood of the truck lightly, gave me a thumbs up, and stepped back into the little hut by the side of the road. As I passed by the open door, I noticed the tiny little building had foot-thick concrete reinforcement below the windows.
I drove up the long drive lined with live oaks and there was a huge old plantation house at the end of the road, and several smaller, more modern buildings to the sides of it that looked to be garages and barns.
“Frank give me my face again please.”
“Sure thing Bob.” My face got uncomfortably warm but the heat faded quickly.
As I was parking in a small lot in the front of the main building, someone walked out from behind one of the outlying buildings and approached the truck. By her height, hair, and size it looked like Ayva, but I didn’t have Frank verify that for me, I was pretty sure I knew. When she saw me get out of the truck, she started walking faster towards the truck. When I pulled the duffle bag of armor and clothing out of the toolbox and the rifle case out from behind the seat, I turned around just in time to drop the bag and case, and be crushed in a bear hug, which I gladly returned.
“My ribs are carbon fiber, not unobtanium woman! Let me breathe!” Then I laughed and kissed her. It was a good, long kiss.
“I missed you so much Bob.”
“I missed you too, Ayva. I was frightened out of my mind for you during the video you sent.”
“I was frightened out of my mind for me too.” She shivered. “One spark and all of us would have been dead.”
“Enough of that talk, the spark didn’t happen, you’re not dead, and I think my ribs are broken.”
She let go and grabbed my duffel bag. “Fine, since you’re nursing a chest injury I’ll carry the heavy bag.”
I picked up the gun case and closed the door of the truck with my other hand. “Which building are Anton and Guiliard going to be in? I need to speak to them soonest to make sure I know where we all stand in this.”
I held the case in my right hand, she held the duffel in her left, and our other hands found each other and fingers wove together while we walked.
“Main building. Almost everything important is underground, or will be when we have more important things. There’s not a lot yet, as you probably expect, but more than Animal led us to believe with his first description of the place. Did you know about Animal, Mako, and Dante?”
“Not until I found the cellphone message he left, then Frank and I reviewed the video you sent us and we saw it. I’m still confused about why he didn’t just write the whole note he left for me on paper, since he had paper for a note to tell us to check the cellphone.”
“He’s told us a little. When he’s not very close to Mako and Dante, he doesn’t think logically very well, but when they are close to each other they establish some sort of shared mind and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Alice’s right eyebrow hit her widow’s peak when she heard that!”
I laughed at the image of that in my mind’s eye. “I bet Alice is raging for computer equipment at this point. Animal’s mental issues and the other two being so quiet now makes a lot of sense. They will probably want to synch up with some others in Recovery soon, because I bet the Recovery people are way ahead of those three in doing code repairs.”
Ayva nodded “That’s been mentioned. We’re expecting a visit from some Recovery members with human computer equipment for the tech weenies and to share code repairs for Animal, Mako and Dante.”
“I’m glad to hear that the Agency is working with Recovery.”
“Anton and Guiliard grumbled a bit about working together, but after what Ellis did, they have been angry at the world in general, and the government specifically. Doctor Meilin understands them. She’s older than them for that matter, and she saw a lot more than they did at the end of World War Two, since she was working as a nurse. That helped calm them a bit. Her being a bit knowledgeable on how to handle mental therapy with all her PHD’s probably helped too, I imagine. Anton and Guiliard really couldn’t reach out to any of us to de-stress because we ‘hadn’t been there.’ I remember, years ago, I watched a bunch of old films taken at the end of World War II when I found out those two had actually seen the aftermath of the Holocaust, and it was numbing. I only saw it in really poor quality black and white. I didn’t hear it, or smell it, or have to walk through it. I still had nightmares for weeks.”
“Yeah, my grandfather told me about what he saw in the camps after I joined the military for a couple years, for my own safety in the service. He really didn’t want to talk about it, but he felt he had to make sure I knew that other people, including entire governments, could do things that I might believe to be unthinkable. I couldn’t believe it had been that bad, until I watched a few old documentary films. He made his point.”
Daredevil commented, “He’s walking. You didn’t hug him hard enough.” She paused, standing at the door, looking down at us ‘dwarves’ from her seven foot height. Grinning ear to ear.
“Not for lack of trying. Don’t encourage her. I’m thinking about asking Animal to change her name to Python.” I looked over and saw the glint of revenge in Ayva’s eye as she gave me a look. “Yes dear, I know I’ll pay for that later.” All three of us laughed as we stepped into the building.
“I’ll be thinking about a way to get even with someone else who called and told me I had a ‘package’ at the main building, rather than a visitor.” Ayva said, looking at Daredevil with yet another glint in her eye.
Daredevil just laughed. “You won’t have the energy for the next couple days to be creative enough to worry me, I don’t think.”