It took nearly two weeks of experimentation during a return trip across the Pacific (this time in a small submersible) for Frank to figure out how to create a perfect seal around the entire hyper oxygenated artificial adrenaline storage and distribution system that he used for his power source of choice. If we used even the tiniest bit of juice (we called the artificial adrenaline juice), there would be a period of about two to four days before a scent tracking dog wouldn’t be able to detect it in our body. In order to scrub our system of a scent faster, Frank would have to use juice to power the nanites – which wouldn’t do so well for covering up the scent of juice.
That didn’t mean we were helpless, but it did mean that we were going to have to take at least a little bit of the beating that these four bored goons wanted to hand us. Even without using juice, Frank was easily capable of beating the four teens closing in on us to a pulp. With all the training I had been doing, I could probably even give them a run for their money by myself, without Frank helping at all, but that wasn’t the purpose of today’s little trip. If we showed off our abilities at all it might force us to abort a second mission.
“So pops, you got anything worth some cash in that bag, or maybe something to make a fella feel good?” the smallest one said, turning his head slightly to see how the others reacted, like as if he was worried he might not be taunting me right. He might have been sixteen, I’d be shocked if any of the other three were more than twenty. They all reeked of various chemicals that might ‘make a fella feel good.’ Most of their teeth were gone, their skin already unhealthy looking even at such a young age after the abuses of dozens if not hundreds of different chemicals to help them escape from the world.
“Anything you can detect that might make them dangerous to us Frank?” I said, internally, using the technique that the analog symbiotes had taught Frank and me before the Shreveport Plantation base was abandoned, then blown to pieces by the government.
“No combat drugs, Bob. None of them are combat enhanced based on how they sound. They aren’t too far up the ladder from where we’re pretending to be.” Frank was watching through my eyes and dozens of fiber optic filaments the size of hairs poking out from my own natural head of hair. Passively detecting pretty much every wavelength of light. His modifications to our nasal structures allowed us to scent nearly as well as a dog, and our hearing was better than a dog’s, both extremely high and low frequencies. If there were combat drugs or augments in these boys, Frank would smell or hear them unless they were playing some sort of deep cover game like we were, and the chances of that, with their teeth, was pretty damn low. Augments were too expensive to give to losers, and if any of these boys were winners, they were hiding it amazingly well.
“Got nothing yet. Just woke up. Goin’ to Mary’s Mission to get soup.”
“What’s in the bag then, pops?” The small one again. The bigger ones were hanging back and letting the smaller one control the show, which was abnormal. Usually the bigger ones in any group made sure they were right up front, in case there might be food or drugs.
“More bags.” I turned the big bag inside out and let dozens of small crumpled bags fall out to the ground. A few cockroaches fell out with them, the four boys didn’t even blink at the cockroaches as they flew off to a dumpster. I shook the bag while it was upside down. “See? Got nothing.”
“Empty your pockets pops.” The smallest said while the others watched him. I knew what was happening here now, I was going to be the ‘first test’ for the new kid. When I put my hands in my pockets, he was going to punch me as hard as he could.
Carefully avoiding giving any sign I knew what was going to happen, I spoke internally to Frank. “We’re going to get sucker punched in a bit Frank, let’s make it look good. The roaches find any press gangers yet?”
“Nope, just a couple curfew guards leaving their posts on the way home. Want me to widen the search a bit, or just deal with these guys without trying to get them conscripted?” Frank enjoyed leading press gangers to watch the younger men beat on us, because it generally meant that a few more young men got off the streets that way. Sure they went into the military, but if nothing else the US military was still a better place than the streets, and it’s not like the conventional US forces were anything like a threat to the rest of the world. The more resources the US put into conscript troops, the less they would be putting into orbital infrastructure, and that’s where the conflict was heading next.
I put my hands into my pockets, looking down and mumbling to myself. As expected, the pathetic kid took a wide swing, trying for a haymaker punch. Frank actually had to help the kid connect by slightly shifting our body to get our head into the way of his swing. Then he had to be careful to roll slightly with the blow, or our ‘assailant’ would probably have broken his hand against our carbon fiber skull. The kid had some decent shoulder and arm strength and our body was very underweight. He was able to transfer a good bit of power through his punch, enough to send our eighty pound body flying sideways along the alley for a couple feet, then Frank allowed us to hit on our back at just the right angle to slide about ten feet on top of some trash, flailing our arms like a dog trying to run in its sleep.
The older three laughed at me as I slid to a stop, still trying to run while laying down, pretending that the blow had stunned me so badly that I couldn’t tell I wasn’t standing. The youngest one was apparently stupider than I thought. He looked at the other three like they were laughing at him, then sent a murderous glare at me as if they were laughing at him, and it was my idea. Then he pulled a large folding knife out of his pocket. The other three saw the knife, looked at each other, and started laughing louder. Apparently the fact that the dummy kid was going to kill me because he was too stupid to realize that they were laughing at me and not him was even more hilarious.
“Frank, widen the search net or we’re going to have to break cover. This young idiot has blood in his eye and the older ones think it’s going to be funny when he kills us,” I spoke again to Frank, internally of course
“Yes, I see that. If it were just one or two we could probably manage to get away without raising too much suspicion if we were seen doing it, but with four there’s really no way we could make it look convincing to our other audience.” As our head moved back and forth, shaking as if we were trying to get our senses back, Frank flashed a big red dot over at least a dozen people behind broken windows and tattered curtains and blinds, just watching.
As the young idiot came closer, twirling his knife and tossing it from hand to hand, he cut himself and dropped the knife. It was all I could do to not laugh at him. He hadn’t cut himself badly enough to do more than just embarrass himself in front of the older three, but physical pain wasn’t what was driving him. His ‘friends’ howled in laughter when they realized he cut himself showing off. When he picked up the knife again, his eyes were literally bloodshot with rage, his face reddened, and he wasn’t playing with the knife any longer – he was holding it in a way that, at first glance, looked like he might know what he was doing with it. The way he moved his head, legs, and the fact that he had zero control of his center of balance proved he didn’t have a real clue what he was doing, but he, at least, thought he was getting deadly serious. He probably watched a real knife fighter once and asked a couple questions.
“Found one.” Frank said. Looks like he’s got a mark six hunter package. I’m identifying his audio hardware now, and should be able to manufacture a few interesting noises to get his attention in thirty seconds or so.”
“OK, I think I’ve got this if you need to concentrate. How far off is the press ganger?”
“He’s about three minutes out, including the time I need to decrypt his audio systems and start feeding him data.” Frank said.
“OK, I’ll see what I can do to keep from having to kill these guys or blow our cover some other way. Can you keep an overlay of the roads, my position, my heading, and the press ganger’s position on my cornea so I can try to guide them towards each other?”
“Sure Bob, I think I see where you’re going with this. I’ll let you have full body control, let me know if you want me to take over at any time.”
“Thanks Frank.” Time to see if I could fake bribe my way out of this.
“Got nothing, only bags, but saw something yesterday.”
“Yeah, right pops, I pull out my knife and then you know where something is, huh? You should’ve said something ‘fore I hit you maybe. It’s a bit late after you embarrassed me like this.”
I shook my head. “You asked for stuff, I was showing you I didn’t have stuff. Then you hit me and my head’s still spinnin’. I smelled food, tobacco, cat piss, and sex at the place. Think it’s a meth lab, maybe a flop house too. Got a good door, but didn’t hear many people. They might be new, or maybe hurting after a fight. Maybe they need muscle?”
“They let you see them go in when they didn’t know you?” One of the three older goons was listening.
“I’m small, I fit in places big people don’t fit, and big people don’t even look in little places where I can barely fit. Those are the best places to sleep.”
“I’ve got the press ganger hearing what sounds like a small mob forming in this direction, so he’s moved to the rooftops and is carefully heading this way.” Frank updated the images on my cornea. Still a lot of room between the press ganger and us, but shrinking.
The three older goons got a bit closer to me and were talking. They told the younger one to hold off the fun for a minute. They decided they wanted me to show them where the door was. They were probably hoping to rob it. Since it didn’t exist, that worked fine with me.
The youngest one got the pleasure of guarding me, tightly holding my elbow as I led all four of them closer to the press ganger.
“Ready Frank?” I asked.
“Yes, got the chase audio ready to go, based on the voices of the goons here.”
I led the four young goons another hundred feet or so until we were very close to the press ganger, except he was about ten stories above us, then I violently and unexpectedly shook loose of the youngest goon and started running across the street. Not at anything near top speed, or even as fast as the goons could run, but at the same time that I started running, Frank made sure the press ganger heard the noise of shouts and pursuit coming from below him, and that’s all it took. Press gangers were paid very well to find and capture able bodied troublemakers of sound mind. The pay dropped off steeply, but was still worthwhile if they could find troublemakers who had enough mental presence to be taught to listen to orders, march in step, and shoot a rifle.
Frank showed me the image of the press ganger with his spotter rifle against the edge of the building at the roof, then several small drones popped out of the tube attached to his backpack and moved at blinding speed towards street level. As he pointed his spotter rifle at the young goons, the drones wrapped them up in a sticky spray foam netting that looked like yarn made of foam. Then he turned the spotter rifle on us, and we got firsthand treatment from the net drones too.
“Bob I really don’t like this.” Frank hated being confined, with good reason. I hated being confined too, but we’d done this before. Press gangers didn’t normally bother trying to haul in frail, crazy old men. Not even worth the cost of the spray foam netting to capture us. One down-on-their-luck press ganger had tried to haul us in once, and we had to kill them rather than risk a thorough medical scan. Press gangers were all trained snipers and spotters, well-trained skirmishers, augmented, with a couple types of combat drugs available to them, and their gear was excellent. Killing the one that tried to turn us in had required us to use juice. That in turn caused us to be chased by two companies of elite fast reaction troops and K-9 units for twenty miles overland to the ocean. Then we had to wait days underwater at sea until Frank could refill and reseal the juice organs and containers while our body naturally flushed free of detectable amounts of juice . We had to give up on that target for at least four months. If we had to do something like that again it would set us back several more months at least.
Another delay might even cost us a full year, or force us to be a lot more direct than was safe. This was partly because our current plans were based on actual, real insects and not ones Frank could grow in us. So we had to tailor our information gathering activities to what insects were available, and we had to gather information before doing anything else unless we wanted to die. The US government had picked up on the whole bugs, birds, and small critters made with human genetic organic material and powered by juice thing, so getting Franks bugs and small animals into anywhere secure was just about impossible due to K-9 units trained to detect juice. So we started using real bugs, just modified, with tiny sensor, transmitter, and receiver packages. They were a pain to use, especially since they also required secure communications that were extremely low powered, very short ranged, and tight beamed. They tended to wander a lot if Frank wasn’t controlling their synapses directly with control chips since they were real bugs, and got hungry like real bugs do, and even more frustratingly also occasionally got eaten like other bugs do.
When I was webbed, I had fallen on the other side of a parked car and couldn’t see what was happening to the four goons until Frank brought a few of our cockroaches to safe vantage points and watched the press ganger. He took a blood sample of each goon and forced them to open their mouths so he could look at their teeth. He was visibly unhappy with his catch after seeing those meth teeth, but meth was tame compared to some of the combat drugs that the US military had been working with recently, and forced regeneration drugs would regrow teeth.
From what I’d been able to pick up while spying and planning with Frank, between augment technology and drug cocktails, the US thought their soldiers might be roughly on par with adult symbiotes. If so, none of the half dozen that had managed to catch up to us while we fled to the gulf last month had been examples of such greatness. The fact that they could catch us was somewhat impressive, I gave them that. The better runners amongst the elite soldiers were able to catch us at that time because we didn’t have the armor or blood cooler. They caught up to us like ancient humans used to run down large game animals – their endurance was exceptional, and they could match my thirty mile per hour ground-eating pace, especially considering that they had access to vehicles, and we didn’t. We did try to use vehicles a couple times in the flight to the gulf, but when your enemies have heat seeking micro missiles, light vehicles suck. Every time we found a suitable vehicle, they managed to disable it, once even managing to trap us in an SUV for a few seconds. The heat seekers would have sucked worse if they had been able to lock onto us when we were running. I mentioned that to Frank and he got unhappily quiet for a while before saying that it would cost us weight, but he could probably install some sort of compressed gas rapid cooling system in the armor with a couple charges, but flares would probably work better.
Running faster than the elite soldiers could in the gulf states in August for more than a very brief time without supplemental cooling systems would have cooked me. I took advantage of every sprinkler, stream, and swimming pool that I could, (even a car wash once) just to get a bit of a speed edge for a minute or so. We weren’t in any real danger during the pursuit. The problem that the soldiers chasing us discovered rather quickly was that if you were fast with good endurance, but fragile and weak, it becomes a real problem when you catch what you are hunting. Any one of the soldiers that did catch up to us might have been a match for an agency symbiote soldier with imprisoned symbiote, or six to ten normal human soldiers, but the US military never really seemed to be able to fully understand what adult symbiotes could do, while the symbiote community pretty much always knew almost exactly what we could get away with against human soldiers, or even human “super” soldiers. The soldiers were widely varied in capability, and I was pushing them too hard in pursuit of me to allow them to effectively work in teams. Even when they got ahead of me to try to lay in ambush, it was easy to detect them. They reeked of chemicals.
That having been said, Frank was curious enough about the chemicals the soldiers were using that we ambushed one of the soldiers when we got close to the gulf and dragged the corpse into the Gulf of Mexico with us so Frank could analyze the chemicals and chemical injector systems. He wasn’t impressed by any of it, but he was surprised that US research had managed so much so soon. Some of these chemical enhancement programs must have been going on for a very long time before the whole war on symbiotes started.
I was upset, because the soldier we ambushed ended up being female, and I didn’t notice until she was dead and being dragged behind us into the Gulf. She was the first woman Frank and I had killed, and it really bothered me. This was despite knowing full well that she wouldn’t be the last, since one of my planned targets was female. It wasn’t until later that first night in the Gulf after we had returned the body to shore at a pier where it would be found that I realized that I had casually chosen to kill a human soldier just so we could take them apart and see how their augments and chemicals worked. That realization of how callous I had been gave me several sleepless nights soul searching.
My little unpleasant reverie into the recent past was cut off when the press ganger walked around the car and looked down at his fifth catch, us. Frank had already chewed through half a dozen of the gooey strands and had one arm free by the time our captor came to look at us, which certainly surprised him. Then he took a closer look at us and saw Frank imitating wild-eyed irrational fear while chewing on the strands and ignoring the unimaginably foul taste of the webbing (Frank turned off our taste buds). This pretty much instantly disqualified us as a capture. Insanity as a pre-existing condition even before combat augments and drugs would lead to places even the US wasn’t prepared to go yet for their soldiers.
Frank and I had prepared for this after the first press ganger we had to kill. It made me feel a bit wrong usurping a man’s identity, but there were a lot of things I’d been doing that were a lot more wrong than pretending to be an ex-POW, like killing people. The dead female soldier’s face popped into my mind’s eye at that point. Fuck. I didn’t need to have real mental issues while trying to fake different mental issues. The press ganger pulled out the blood sample kit, then looked at it, at us, and put it back in its case. They stopped, squatted in front of us and grabbed our jaw to make us look them in the eyes. I looked back at him. “Jones, John. Private First Class. 467-23-6862.” The name, rank, and social security number belonged to an MIA ‘tunnel rat’ US soldier from the Vietnam war that we had dug out of old military records. Frank made us look like PFC Jones as much as he was able to then aged him appropriately, based on a couple bad old black and white photos. Genetic testing certainly wouldn’t hold up against his relatives, but if it got to that point we were screwed anyway, because my genetic material was certainly on file from when I was in the service.
After staring at the press ganger until they let go of my jaw and averted their eyes, we started chewing on the webs again. He looked at the old, faded tattoos and scars on my freed arm with a bit of curiosity, then just sprayed me with the solvent solution and told me “Scram, soldier, you’re a free man.” I slowly got up, and as soon as he turned his back to me, I shuffled off at a respectable pace while he called in his van by remote to load his four bounties who would soon become new US soldiers.