“Governor Albertson, while the FBI is certainly correct that Bob Benson is predictable and can be avoided with a large degree of success, it only takes a small degree of failure to give him an opportunity to attack. If you give him an opportunity to attack, people will die. It is not an exaggeration to say he’s literally never been recorded as missing a target that gets inside effective range of any weapon he’s wielding. We don’t know who he’s after for sure, but the list is short, and you’re almost certainly one of the ones on that list, as well as both our State Senators, three of our House Representatives, and our Consul Representative. There are a few high ranking military officers who might be on his list too”
“We have soldiers that good now, don’t we? All the old super soldier biological enhancement programs, the too-useful regeneration drugs big pharmaceutical companies shelved for twenty years, electromechanical enhancements, and AI software redesigning itself and the computer hardware it runs on for efficiency in cycles improving each generation. All of these things have been huge costs and reaped huge benefits. Are you saying we still fall short of being able to stop a single man, Jeff?”
“You know that we still have four active duty soldiers from the old Project Boomerang, right?”
“I thought there were six?”
“There were. We tried to infiltrate one into Australia and they captured him, freed his symbiote, gave him the choice to stay or leave, and he stayed. The other one ran into Bob a couple months ago when we cornered him and chased him back into the Gulf. He was the first to reach Bob, and died in about two seconds to a crushed skull. Our man had nearly eighty years of military experience and training, a whole lot of it doing things that neither of us will ever have the clearance to know about. He could take any two of our best augmented soldiers easily, and Bob probably didn’t consider him to be more than a speed bump.”
“How fast are our soldiers improving now?”
“Fast enough that our four remaining Project Boomerang soldiers are now liabilities, Governor. We can’t trust them after what Phillips did when we sent him to Australia, and Smith proved that they can’t stand up to Bob. They are all four marginally more effective than our best augmented soldiers right now – Smith was exceptional even compared to them. They have been incarcerated at the Middleton Biological Research Facility in Birmingham. The Middleton team is asking to be allowed to use them to test new enhancements – we have clearance from the appropriate federal agencies, but we need clearance from you too, since it’s a facility that receives some state funding.”
“Live testing, experimentation on living humans?”
“Live testing on human/symbiote bonded pairs, Governor, not humans.”
The governor looked at the bank of monitors that pretended to be a window looking out of his office, which was actually located fifty feet below the governor’s mansion. “So we’re going to betray four soldiers. Whether or not we want to call them humans now, they were once humans, and they have served this nation well for between seventy and eighty years. We’re betraying them on the off chance that we will learn something from them?”
“It’s not an off chance. Smith’s body provided several important finds, according to the Middleton staff. One that they were able to implement in test subjects within a week, giving them a three to five percent reaction speed improvement. That one’s already going out live to all soldiers as part of their monthly updates. Two other finds are undergoing more cautious testing, but look like they will both have significant impact on oxygen transport. That was from a dead body. With four live bodies, they are very confident they can produce even more impressive results, faster. Remember the software AI’s are getting significantly better every month, and the expert medical systems are getting a large share of the benefits from that.
“Jeff, is it really worth it to do this to ourselves? If we condemn these four soldiers to lives of torture as no more than lab animals, it’s just going to be one more nightmare to pile on top of the others, isn’t it?”
“Governor, I would do just about anything to keep my children from growing up in a world without free will.”
“Cut the religious/conservative bullshit Jeff, there aren’t any low information voters in this room. You and I both know that symbiotes don’t restrict free will, they just make it meaningless. You also know that I’m going to say yes to this because I fought long and hard to get near the top of the heap, and won’t stop fighting to stay at the top of the heap until I’m dead. The idea that I would be at best equal to, or perhaps less than, a bunch of people who did nothing to improve their lives other than accept a symbiote and live off the fruits of its labors is impossible to bear. I worked hard to get above all the mooks on the political food chain, I don’t want to try to figure out a way to do it all over again, with different rules, even if a symbiote makes me immortal. The drip already makes us immortal if we have enough food.”
Jeff simply waited. He knew the governor well enough to know when he was done talking, and he wasn’t done yet.
“That doesn’t mean that I have to like making sacrifices. Once the Space Rail is pushing thousands of tons of cargo per day into space, we’ll soon be able to get the people that matter into stable lunar colonies and keep all the rest of the sorry bastards that gave up their humanity on Earth by controlling the high orbitals. So, yes, do it. If the researchers can get the same results from the tests if the soldiers’ higher brain functions are burned out, then burn out the higher brain functions. No need in making it any more cruel and painful than we have to. Hand me the order and I’ll sign it.”
“Well Fuck, Frank. I didn’t realize we had killed one of the original Project Boomerang soldiers. Put that in the bundle for the next report. Did you know?”
“No, since they actually managed to spring an ambush, I was just as busy saying “oh fuck” as you were at that point.” Frank paused a second. “Looking through the recordings I made of that, the first soldier we killed in that ambush does match up almost perfectly with a Staff Sergeant Smith in the Project Boomerang files. He wasn’t wearing any rank at all when we killed him, so yes, he was probably black ops. By the time he got close to us, we were burning juice, so I didn’t notice if he was using it.”
I thought about it. The government had locked up the last four Project Boomerang soldiers that didn’t have freed symbiotes, and was going to use them as experimental animals after burning out higher brain functions. The soldiers were already confined or under arrest or something now, just waiting on that executive order to get signed.
“Pull back the bugs Frank, I think we have a new target, and we’ll want all the recon assets we can manage. That place is going to be pretty tightly secure, and we’re going to have to go in fast or we’ll be too late.”
Frank pulled in all of our recon bugs, about 200 roaches and some other assorted wasps and beetles, coming from all directions. As the ones farther away got close, we started to move north, picking up speed as we collected more of the bugs, until we were at a strong walking pace. After about two hours walking we were able to dodge a couple slack patrolling guards and leave the city. Ten minutes after that, we were running at a steady clip of thirty miles per hour, our maximum pace that wouldn’t overheat us or force us to use juice. But it was burning a lot of our energy reserves quickly, so Frank was foraging as we went, blueberries, blackberries, and figs, surgically breaking off branches and bushes heavy with summer fruit and eating on the run. Every now and then requiring a short stop to get rid of a bit of extra weight and drink water from a stream or pond.
We managed to get from Montgomery to Birmingham near the Middleton research facility in about five hours, and during that time, Frank slowly made PFC John Jones disappear, and gave us the appearance of a young street kid. If we were seen as Jones here in Birmingham, we wouldn’t be able to use the disguise again. For him to make it from city to city would require either illegal movement from city to city, like we had just done, or an authorized transfer, which there would be no record of. This transformation was easy though, since Frank didn’t have anyone specific to make us look like, he just randomly put together some big feet, a bit of sunburn, a few freckles, some mixed baby and adult teeth with a couple gaps, and a bad buzz cut. We dropped the jacket in the woods – it wasn’t the sort of thing a kid would wear in the summer. Homeless people had to wear what they owned most of the time or they wouldn’t own it long. We weren’t going the homeless kid route.
The facility was at the outskirts of town but not at the edge of town. After I snuck into the city, it wasn’t anything remarkable for me to be seen wandering around the neighborhood of the facility – it was surrounded on three sides by parks with lots of green space. Young men were being drawn into outdoor entertainment again since there was no more internet and no more cable or satellite TV, and only very limited government news broadcasts on TV and radio. National Public Radio was still around, but there was no objective news, and BBC rebroadcasts were certainly not welcome on the NPR stations any longer.
There were actually quite a few kids wandering around, mostly in groups wearing similar colors. It was pretty strange watching pre-teens in gang colors playing games obviously modeled after squad combat tactics. Gang colors, sure, playing group combat games, sure, but both at the same time? I’d have to watch for that and see if it was a trend. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the government started encouraging gangs to form and started to recruit them as units. From what I heard about the addictiveness and highs of some of the military drugs, it wouldn’t be hard to erase anger in teenage soldiers with little education and no future doing anything else. Very few young US soldiers were unhappy with their lives as long as they got to use their combat drugs every now and then, and with all the training and contests, their combat drug implants got unlocked very regularly.
Not all the soldiers were entirely happy with the whole situation though. Every soldier alive today remembered the US from five years ago, and they talked about the differences a lot, but they were almost universally paranoid and scared of symbiotes. I recognized some of the clips in the anti-symbiote propaganda. They came from the video montage that the Agency had used to show me berserkers for the first time, what they at that time called drones. The worst of the worst videos showing raging berserkers killing everything human they got close to.
The soldiers tended to group together by generation. They were all the same biological age, roughly, due to the regeneration drip – but there were lots of different birth generations. The oldest generations were typically grouped together. A major city would typically only have a couple World War I vets, most of whom had lied about their ages to get into the service at as little as fourteen years old, but the number of vets of later wars increased rapidly. The older the soldiers, the more they disliked the lack of freedoms, but the more they hated symbiotes as well. The fear of symbiotes was strong enough that any soldier trying to be objective about symbiotes, challenging their dangerousness, risked being beaten by his fellow soldiers.
The oldest soldiers tended to be both the most vocal complainers about the lack of freedoms, but when pressed, the most grateful too. The World War I vets were at a minimum 110 years old, and when they received regeneration treatment they were extremely grateful for it. They hated symbiotes just as much as the rest of the soldiers though.
I suspected the combat drugs were also designed to make their users more suggestible, which Frank wasn’t 100% sure on, since we were talking about brain functions. Based on the similarities of some of the chemicals to drugs known to increase suggestive tendencies, Frank’s refusal to commit was really just him hedging – he wasn’t sure, but when pressed said I was almost certainly right.
While I was exploring the park and trails around the facility, I released bugs, a few at a time, first allowing them to feed whenever I found a small dead animal, ripe fruit, or scraps of human food and then guiding them into the compound.
“Step into the cage, governor, sterilization is complete.” Said Jeff.
Governor Albertson stepped into the cage which was still hot from the sterilization process, carefully closing the airtight triple-mirrored glass door with music playing between the panes, to complete the seal on the faraday cage, the governor and his aide watched a few minutes of recorded video. “Is that him?”
“Almost certainly. He was first spotted about an hour ago heading towards the facility.”
“He ran from here to Birmingham in five hours?”
“Closer to three, we saw him walking out of Montgomery, I almost took the risk of having a heavy weapons squad try to snipe him with lasers, but decided to stay with the plan.”
“He maintained a pace of thirty miles per hour for three hours?”
“Yes, remember he weighs about eighty pounds, and has been documented to lift in the range of a thousand pounds over his head with significant effort. With that much of a strength to mass ratio his ability to run is absurd. Some of our smaller troops with the right augments can come close to matching that pace, but not many, and not for hours. He won’t be low on energy either, we found evidence that he was constantly foraging for fruits and berries while he was running.”
“How were you able to find him? He changed so much.”
“Not as much as you might think. His bones are carbon. He can change their shape and size, but it takes a huge amount of energy. Most of the changes he makes are cosmetic. He’s also very good at altering his pace and giving himself what appears to be poorly healed injuries, which throws off most pattern identification systems that watch for leg and hip movements. He’s not a really good spy though, and neither is his symbiote. Watch this.”
Two videos right next to one another on the screen, one image of a ten year old kid, the other a 70+ year old man, both of them use their middle finger on their right hand to scratch their eyebrow six times, then they drop their hand to their side and rub their thumb against the side of their index finger four times. Red lines and text boxes pop up with data that means nothing to either of them, but Jeff points it out as analysis software.
“Ah, I see. So he has peculiar habits.”
“Almost everyone does, but almost none of us know all our odd little habits. Most people use their index fingers to scratch themselves when they are trying to puzzle something out, if they have the “puzzled head-scratching” habit at all. Bob uses his middle finger because he spent fifteen years without an index finger. The thumb rub is just something odd, but it makes it a lot easier to identify him. The number of scratches and thumb rubs is also important. He does six scratches and four rubs almost every time, and holds his hands in the same way almost every time too, as he’s moving them from the scratching motion to the rubbing motion.”
The governor tapped his chin with his left index finger slowly a couple times while staring intently at the screen, then suddenly stopped and looked at his finger, then smiled. “Yes, I suppose we all do have our little habits.”
Jeff smiled. “Exactly right. But there’s more. We can look at his comparative bone lengths. Both skeletons match exactly in their comparative bone lengths based on arcs of movement. He can change his bone sizes, but we haven’t seen him do it since we started tracking him. This is certainly Bob.” He paused. “There’s also the whole ‘carrying hundreds of bugs with electronic gizmos on them around in a bag’ thing, which he hides pretty well, but we’re looking for it.” A couple images of bugs being released onto the ground from a small bag with a shoulder strap are put on screen. “It’s almost funny. He even knows he’s predictable and constantly commented on it during his time in the Agency, but I don’t think he really understands how predictable he is even when he tries not to be. He’s definitely not consulting his symbiote on remaining unpredictable. ”
“Well, it looks like he took the bait then.”
“Yes Governor, but there was really no question about whether or not he would take the bait. As we discussed when we knew he was listening, Bob is very predictable in what he will do – given the right stimulus. The question wasn’t whether or not he’d take this bait, it’s whether or not the trap’s good enough to catch him.”