Frank batted the perfectly-aimed drug dispenser Dominic had thrown at us to the side casually with one of the xisteras so it wouldn’t hit us in the head, then spoke. “[Dominic, you get one chance to say something if you’re in there, otherwise we assume you are a berserker and kill you.]”
Dominic said nothing. Two blades appeared from his wrists, extending out of his forearms over the backs of his hands as he finished running up to us and started to attack. Frank turned on the perception distortion effect for me so I could follow the fight.
Frank commented as we traded blows with the berserker. “Spectral analysis of the blades indicate a tungsten steel alloy, with carbon patterns. Looks like Dominic had blades built in before the berserker protocol took him, and the berserker is replacing the metals with carbon.”
At first Dominic seemed to be abnormally slow for a berserker, until Frank hit him a couple times and determined that his skeleton wasn’t a mass of bone or carbon, because Frank’s blows were not breaking bones, and Dominic’s momentum was wrong for carbon.
“Dominic apparently has a lot of metal in him, which really makes no sense at all. His body would have rejected metallic bones aggressively even when the symbiote was imprisoned. If they freed the symbiote, it would never have allowed this. And the berserker certainly isn’t happy with it.”
“Maybe he was just following orders, and his symbiote agreed? You could make our bones metal if you wanted to, right?”
Frank took a second to reply to us. “Yes, but the degree of convincing you’d have to do to make that happen would be pretty extreme.”
“I would imagine that if these people were experimenting on the Project Boomerang soldiers with less than benevolent intentions, they had extreme methods of convincing available to them. I think we’re seeing the end result of someone coercing a symbiote to make modifications to its host.”
“That’s painful to contemplate, but I think you are right.”
I left Frank alone as he fought. It would take a while, but there wasn’t really any doubt about the outcome. The berserker was several times stronger than us but slow in its movements due to the mass of its skeleton. It was remarkably adept at defense for a berserker though. Even though our opponent was slow, Frank’s blows rarely struck with significant effect.
We slowly pushed the berserker back down the hallway.
“This berserker’s behavior is different from anything I’ve ever seen Bob, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.”
“Well, Frank, Dominic was active for two months with a free symbiote before his symbiote was imprisoned. We were only active for a couple weeks before we ditched the berserker code in our original body. Dominic’s symbiote was exposed to sparring between itself and other symbiotes of similar age and advancement. We never had any of that and our drone self would give us a hard time even now, right? Maybe we can count ourselves lucky that someone was ignorant and forced Dominic’s symbiote to build a metal skeleton?”
Frank blocked a couple more blows with the xisteras. “Just the thought of a skeleton that heavy depresses me. You’re probably right about his skills though. The berserker is probably drawing from months of sparring experiences that no other berserker we’ve fought has had access to.” Frank feinted a strike then struck again, striking a solid blow to the left forearm, but with little effect. The xisteras worked well for defending, but not so well for wounding. Not against an enemy with metallic bones, not without a sharp edge. Seeing a berserker defend itself effectively was just weird.
Frank finally managed to get in a solid kick on the right leg of the berserker, bending it noticeably and putting it off balance. We started to push it faster down the hallway. It passed the disembodied hips and legs of a soldier with a pistol in a leg holster, and managed to pull the pistol out of the holster while only taking a glancing blow from Frank.
“Now that’s completely new, but again probably a residual of training.”
“Frank, does it really make sense for it to pick up a pistol, slowing itself, taking a wound, and adding mass to that arm in order to pick up a weapon that’s next to useless against us?”
“Good point. Training with or against other symbiotes should have discouraged trying to use a pistol in melee.” Frank punctuated that by forcing the berserker back several feet with a series of rapid strikes that targeted parts of the body that would normally be defended by the arm which was now burdened by the additional mass of the pistol. The berserker backed up into a four-way intersection of two hallways, and suddenly sprinted to its left.
Frank and I just stared. A berserker that would act in self-defense was odd, but we could deal with that. A berserker that intentionally retreated from combat? That was completely unexpected.
“Don’t ask, Bob, I have no idea. I would never have expected to see this. A short break to make some adjustments to the fingertip claws would be good though. Breaking and bending bones isn’t working well, I’m going to start trying to cut muscles and tendons to reduce its ability to defend.” I felt heat in the ends of our fingers.
“How are we doing on Juice, Frank?”
“77% capacity. I’ve had to use very little fighting this berserker, it’s not fast enough to require much muscle boosting.”
Frank extended the claws again from our fingertips. They were no longer parallel to the fingernails and half an inch long with a shark’s tooth shape, they were perpendicular to them, and about an inch long, with the same general shape as a cat’s claws, but with a bit less curvature. They were just short enough that they didn’t impact our ability to grip the xisteras.
We followed the berserker. The fresh footprints in the congealing blood on the floor made the direction of its travel rather easy to determine. That, in turn, reminded me that our shoes were both tattered after Frank’s show of strength using the 100% carbon fiber muscles. I shook off that thought, just randomness, and tried to make sense of everything around us.
“Frank, we’ve seen strong defense, and retreat. Have you considered ambush tactics?”
“I am. If they wanted to hide their path, it would have been easy to absorb the blood off their skin when they left the part of the hallway where they killed the human soldiers. As you can see though, there are bloody footprints all the way to the door at the end of the hall, passing two doors on either side of the hallway. There’s almost certainly a trap here somewhere.”
Frank kicked off our bloody, tattered shoes, and claws like the ones on our fingers extended from our big toes, significantly larger than the ones on our fingers, but angled up to keep them off the ground when we walked. They articulated slightly – apparently there was a new joint there to control the toe claws. There was a lot of heat, but it dispersed fairly quickly.
“Decided you wanted a little bit of velociraptor as well, Frank?”
Frank chuckled. “Sort of. Yes. If I get the option of a good kick, I want it to count, and bludgeoning damage doesn’t do much to this enemy. 75% juice. The toes needed a chunk of juice.”
“You grew those awful quickly, even still.”
“I have an idea how long it should have taken you to make those claws from scratch, Frank. You had them stashed somewhere. If I looked at an x-ray of myself, how many extra Frank-made pieces would I find inside me?”
“Why would you need an x-ray, Bob? No need for a doctor, and I can tell you what’s in us at any time.”
“Fine, fine, I know, we agreed to my external appearance. I would like to know the stuff you carry around though, helps me have an idea about what we can do.”
A pause before Frank responded. “OK. When we get to a safer place we can discuss it. There’s not a lot.”
We slowly and cautiously moved down the hallway. Next to each doorway along the hall, Frank used a tiny pseudopod from our right hand to carefully create an acid-etched hole through the wall next to the door, then modified the end of the pseudopod into various sensory organs to investigate the rooms from outside the doors. They were all small offices, with decorations and furniture which clearly indicated they belonged to people engaged in technical or medical research. Large bookcases, multiple data terminals, whiteboards with half-erased diagrams and equations. Each of the four rooms were separate from one another, with no obvious connecting rooms. We still hadn’t seen bathrooms yet, which seemed odd, but they might be down another hallway.
Then we reached the end of the hallway, and etched a hole in the wall and looked inside that room like the others, and saw the berserker. It was bending its leg back into its normal shape, and had apparently already shortened the blades of its forearms significantly.
Frank muttered “Damn, those shortened blades will make it more dangerous, especially with its bones straightened out. Still, we’re better prepared to fight it now, now that we have blades.”
“This is just too surreal Frank. No signs of a trap?”
“Nope, and the berserker has seen the hole we drilled, and moved to cover. There’s almost definitely a trap, but I don’t see it. A berserker capable of tactical decisions is scary as hell Bob, I’ll feel a lot better when it’s dead. No telling what this thing might manage if it gets out of this facility.”
“They have three more, Frank. At least three more. We’re going to have to abort everything else and get this information out of the US. If someone here has figured out how to program berserkers, they might know how to program regular symbiotes too.”
“That… is a frightening thought. I agree. We kill this berserker and check for evidence of the others in this complex, gather any data we can, and get the data clear.”
Frank cracked the security code on the door and we entered the laboratory.
“Either the berserker knew the code, or it cracked it. Can you tell, Frank?”
“It cracked the code the same way I did it, I could see signs of its intrusion. It didn’t disable the door either. Definitely a trap of some sort in here, or it thinks it can take us after making some changes to itself.”
We walked carefully into the room. The berserker popped up, pistol in hand, and fired three times, hitting three plates of metal attached next to three large, heavy doors. As the bullets hit the plates, the doors opened. A fourth door, next to the other three, had a button on a panel which clearly indicated that the metal plates were there to allow the berserker to activate the buttons with the pistol, from a distance.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Frank.”
“What Would Admiral Ackbar Say”
“That about covers it. I guess we already knew though, right?”
“Yes. Three closed doors. Three missing Project Boomerang soldiers. Three human scents which were traces are now much stronger in the room. Not much of a surprise now.”
“Help!” An unknown voice. Either the berserkers have started talking or someone over there wasn’t a berserker yet. Frank didn’t even hesitate, charging the rightmost door, pulling out the berserker cure image from the kangaroo pouch.
“This fight is going to hurt, Bob. Sorry in advance, but if I can keep this from being four on one, even if the guy can’t help us he hopefully won’t be against us, at least during this fight.”
“Right. We’ve seen berserkers fight each other in the old documentation when multiple Project Boomerang soldiers turned at the same time and encountered each other. Let’s hope.”
“I doubt it. Not counting on it anyway. I can’t see one of them releasing others if it wasn’t confident of their reaction. He couldn’t possibly have worked with the one that hasn’t turned yet, I would hope. It apparently either knows what the other berserkers will do, or it can control them.”
“Let’s hope. Berserkers actually cooperating with humans would be… dangerous. The US still has an absurd industrial and research complex it could devote to improving berserkers, if they don’t just kill each other off.”
“That has lots of logic holes in it, but I can see ways that the US government might think they can make it work. I’m not going to think about that right now, need to concentrate on getting our asses kicked for a little while.”
“That bad, Frank?”
“Probably. If they work together. Remember what the Recovery scouts and drones could do? If these can do the same, we’ll be lucky to live. If we’re lucky, this fellow in here might be able to help us.”
We walked in the door. It was PFC Brown. He wouldn’t be helping us any time soon. However that didn’t stop us from showing him the image.
I spoke “Berserker Protocol cure. Look at this image. Now.”
His eyes snapped from our face and body to the image. He visibly relaxed. It can be hard to tell when a body cut into nine pieces and connected by large tubes relaxes, but it looked like his face relaxed.
“Quick. What can we destroy quickly that will let you escape on your own.”
“Power cables should do it.” Brown’s eyes directed us to a large panel of power cords feeding the equipment connected to him. Frank’s right foot lashed out and the sickle toe ripped through the cables.
Frank’s foot burned with pain, jerking a bit, but was fully under control again within a second. Brown’s head and torso arched. Then he said “Thank you. It will take us two minutes to break free. We will be ready to fight in four.” Pseudopods began to extend away from his torso towards his other limbs.
“We’ll do what we can, Brown.” Frank grabbed everything out of the pouch and threw it in a pile, then removed the gloves with the diamonds. He cut off all our clothing. All of this in a blur. We could see two berserkers, Donaldson and Slade, at the end of the short hallway, looking at us, and looking at each other. Their blades were extended, but not shortened like the first berserker’s were. They didn’t appear to trust one another, but looked more interested in fighting us than fighting each other.
“Sorry Bob, packing up the family jewels and getting rid of every bit of weight I can, we’ll need all our speed for this, and clothing has null protection value.”
“Do what you have to do, Frank, I’m not complaining.”
The berserkers standing about twenty feet from the door end of the short hallway we were in started throwing things, small and large. We moved forward to the end of the hallway. The first berserker was actively working with a lab terminal. Frank used one of the xisteras to grab one of the smaller thrown objects out of the air and throw it at the first berserker, hitting it and knocking it into the terminal. It simply pushed the equipment on its cart into cover behind a wall, and followed it. The wall was sturdy enough to block direct shots, and with reflective sonar, Frank was able to tell ricochets weren’t fast enough to get past the berserker’s reflexes. They were slow, yes, but not slow enough to hit with ricochets.
The two berserkers throwing things looked at one another. One of them went to work with tools, starting to shorten its arm blades. The other stepped forward to keep us busy, not pressing a strong attack, but engaging us with blades, carefully.
I heard a weight hit the floor behind us. Frank showed me an image of Brown, with his body held together but moving limply, hitting the floor and rolling out of line of sight. Reflective sonar showed him connecting himself to a power outlet while at the same time extending pseudopods towards several nearby machines. Brown’s voice called out. “Two minutes!”
The two berserkers closest to us swapped places, the one with shortened blades starting to actively attack me at the end of the hallway, the other going to shorten it’s blades.
This looked like it was going to be a standoff, with three of them outside the hallway, and two of us inside the hallway.
“You have the same equipment they have, Brown?”
“I think so. That’s what it sounded like. Tungsten steel bones. Arm blades. Nothing else.”
“Why the metal bones?”
“Oxygen reservoir. Self-sealing.”
“Oxygen? Why oxygen? Why not the artificial adrenaline. Why metal?”
“Mouse isn’t sure. By the way, he is offering a whole lot of thanks for the cure. We knew it existed, and I had seen it, but he was never able to see it when he was imprisoned. He was ignoring all the video feed they were sending us while trying to recreate the image based on my descriptions of it. It was a brute force process for trying to duplicate the cure. He’d been at it for two days before the door opened.”
“No problem. Two days? You were damn lucky.” Frank dodged a blow, and sliced the left leg of the berserker with his right foot claw. It wasn’t a debilitating wound, so we didn’t follow up. We couldn’t leave Brown unprotected to follow up anyway.
The last berserker to shorten its blades came towards us slowly. I heard Brown moving behind me. He had about six power cables running into a lump on his right hip. His right forearm had a long, thin tube-like structure with hundreds of wires connected to it, all leading to a larger braided cable running along his arm and into the lump on his right hip.
Red lights began to flash in the lab. The third berserker came out from behind the wall where it had been working on the terminal, and joined the other two. They all seemed content to just delay us.
“Frank what’s happening? Any idea?”
“There’s a fire in the facility.” Then I heard a pop, a few more pops, and a couple loud explosions. Frank continued. “Medical stores are on fire, based on what I’m smelling. Oxygen content in the facility is dropping rapidly. Now we have a good idea why the berserkers had oxygen reservoirs.”
I spoke out loud so Brown could hear me. “We’ve known this was a trap for a while now, but it looks like a really good one.”
Brown spoke. “Call me Jason. I’ll survive for about thirty minutes. You’re a lot smaller than me, how long does your symbiote say you have?”
Frank spoke out loud. “[This is Frank, Bob’s symbiote. Seventeen minutes awake and functional, two after that.]”
“[This is Mouse, Jason’s symbiote. Seventeen minutes? Do you also have an oxygen reservoir?]”
“[No, I modified Bob’s body chemistry. He only uses about half the oxygen of a normal human of the same mass.]”
The berserkers were in an arc outside the door, content to contain us while we asphyxiated. Once Jason was alone, they would probably rush him, then after we were both dead, get oxygen from somewhere. They seemed too smart to have not considered what would happen after all the oxygen was used up by the combustion of the facility’s medical stores. Then again, maybe it was enough for them that we would be dead before they were.
“[Handy that, you’ll need to teach me sometime. Can you do something else for me, Frank?]”
“[What’s that, Mouse?]”
We ducked at the same time Mouse rapidly raised Jason’s right and left arms, the left arm bracing the right. He split his legs a bit, and each foot jammed into the crease where the narrow hallway’s walls met its floor. Then Frank and I learned what the tube was as their coil gun went into rapid fire, blowing large chunks of flesh and limbs off the berserkers, knocking all three to the ground in less than a second, in many pieces. Several compressed gas leaks were visible in the mess on the floor. All of the pieces were moving.
Frank covered twenty feet in two rapid leaps to the closest berserker and used his hand and sickle toe blades to cut each arm and leg joint apart. “[Not enough oxygen in the air to burn them, Mouse, and we’ll want all the oxygen in their tanks to help us breathe in a while. Come here and help me joint them. We might be able to find a way to store them.]”
Jason quickly walked up to where the three berserkers could all see him, trailing disconnected wires from his hip. All three berserkers’ heads were tracking him like lasers, and the two Frank wasn’t keeping from coming together were rapidly reassembling themselves. One was even beginning to stand.
Jason reached behind his back, and pulled out the berserker cure image and held it in full view of the berserkers. All three of them immediately went limp. The one that was nearly standing fell over like a marionette with its strings cut. “Well, looks like the cure works after conversion too.”