I did a double take, stunned, staring at the dead berserkers, and then spoke out loud to Jason, without facing him. “I’ll be damned. I never considered using the image on active berserkers. Keep that picture, Jason, Frank will make us another.”
It had never even crossed my mind that the cure would kill berserkers after they turned. Another example of how Star was trying to stack the deck in favor of her sane children once the cure was reverse engineered, I guessed.
“Umm, Bob. This would probably be a good time to pay a bit more attention to your surroundings. We’re not out of danger yet.”
“Understood. We need oxygen. If we still have power down here we can probably manage to put together an oxygen scrubber and/or a system to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen.”
“No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m going to let you keep control of the body because I’m not sure I want Jason and Mouse to be reading my body language in this situation. I would suggest moving slowly, and keeping your hands in full view.”
Frank displayed an image on my eye which made my blood turn cold. Jason had his coil gun pointed straight at my head. Too close to dodge a projectile that fast. Too far away to even think about an attack on Jason that wouldn’t get my brains spattered. The chances of a symbiote missing with a weapon like that were right at zero. If he pulled the trigger, I was dead. If I tried anything, I was dead.
“I see we’re not done talking yet, eh Jason.” I said out loud, then commented to Frank, internally. “Think he’s still got a full power shot in that thing?”
“Yes. Almost certainly. The cycle speed of the projectiles was almost as high at the end as it was in the beginning of the firing cycle. He’s using medical batteries from the equipment he was attached to, probably very deep cycle. There is almost certainly enough power left to fire more shots than he’s already fired, all of them faster than we can dodge at this range.”
“Well, Frank, I guess there are only two ways out of this then, let’s see if I can manage to keep us on the path that keeps us alive.” More silent commentary to Frank from my point of view. Jason was obviously listening to Mouse.
“Jason or Mouse. Mind if I move to a cross legged sitting position with my hands fully visible to you? Frank knows we can’t get out of this with speed or durability, he’s left it up to me to talk to you two. If you want Frank’s input you can ask.” I paused. “If I’m going to be trying to convince you not to kill me, I would prefer to be comfortable.”
A couple seconds later, Jason nodded. I slowly and carefully moved from a position of kneeling on one knee, to sitting on my butt, hands held flat against the tile floor.
“You know that you are the reason this happened, right?” Jason asked.
“Yes. I’m responsible for all of this in several different ways. Which way are you talking about?”
He cocked his head slightly. Obviously listening to Mouse. “They showed us the images of you killing Smith. He was always the best of us in melee, and you killed him in three strikes.”
“I’m sorry he had to die. The choices I had were limited. He was the fastest and strongest of the ones chasing me, so he got to me first every time I tried to slow my pace to cool down. I either had to burn out my reserves staying ahead of him, or take him out, and I was still about ten miles from the coast when I turned to face him. I didn’t know he was a symbiote at the time, I thought he was an exceptional augmented human. The only reason we knew at all was that Frank noticed signs of the beginning of regeneration as he died.”
“That’s not what I mean. I understand that. We all understood that. We saw the chase footage from the point of view of the uniform cameras. We all agreed that you didn’t have many choices. Smith was always aggressive, always pushed the boundaries of what he could do. It was pretty obvious that he was going to force you to melee with him. Smith probably thought that he could match you long enough for others to join him. Fool. He should have remembered how much better we were back then. The only reason he could keep up with you at all was his insane exercise schedule and the fact that he was more than a foot taller than you and not much heavier.”
Jason wiped his eye with his left hand, the right arm never even wavering, giving me a view right into the barrel. “Governor Albertson came to us a few weeks ago, and offered to free our symbiotes and provide the berserker code cure if we would help take you down. All four of us agreed. We all knew about the cure, everyone does. We just didn’t have access to the machines or code to free our symbiotes.”
“We tried to spread that around, but it was a lot harder to hide and transport than a simple photo.” I said with a quiet voice, not an apology, but sorrow.
“No complaints or blame.” He paused. Listened to Mouse again. “Mouse is telling me to hurry up and make up my damn mind while we still have oxygen. He’s got a point, but I’m not done. Anyway, all four of us agreed to undergo the process. They didn’t hide the risk from us. Because of how long we had been active pairs before our symbiotes had been imprisoned, we might go berserk almost instantly after being freed. We knew this, so we agreed to arm and leg dismembering as part of the process of freeing us. The pain would only last as long as it took for our symbiotes to regain consciousness, which was only a few seconds. After sixty years of fighting enemies of Uncle Sam, none of us were strangers to pain.”
He listened to Mouse again. “I AM hurrying, Mouse. I’m not going to just shoot the guy.” “Sorry, Mouse is just as hyper as his namesake at times.”
I couldn’t help but smile, imagining which hyperactive mouse from the 50’s Jason had tagged his symbiote with, but I didn’t say anything. Mouse could pull that trigger too, I didn’t want to interrupt and waste more time. Jason was obviously working through something, and it didn’t seem like it was likely to be bad for me. Yet.
“In any case we were dismembered, and our symbiotes were freed. But the cure wasn’t given to us. The scientists connected our limbs with tubes for circulation, but our symbiotes were not allowed to join any of our body parts together. If we tried, the automated systems simply cut them apart again before they were finished building. Within fifteen minutes, the scientists were promising to cure our symbiotes and free us if we would implement the metal skeletons and blades that they wanted us to have in our bodies. Of course our symbiotes agreed. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t be able to reverse the process if we were ever freed.
We were provided with the metal bones and blades already made, and sized close to correctly. It didn’t take long for our symbiotes to integrate them. And as you can tell by now, the cure wasn’t delivered. Eight hours after our symbiotes were freed, Dominic turned. The scientists were able to prevent him from rejoining body parts but he killed twenty of the security team with nerve gas, and another half dozen with projectiles fashioned directly out of his torso. They eventually managed to flash freeze him solid. They were happy to report to us that even though he was frozen solid there was still electrical activity, and strong nervous responses to stimuli. So they wheeled him, frozen, into his room. Then they wheeled us, unfrozen, into our own rooms. Governor Albertson, over a video monitor, explained to us that all of us would get a constant video feed of all known footage of you, and every other symbiote fighting video, so we would be better prepared for you when you arrived. He apologized for deceiving us and thanked us for our service to humanity, and for the future service we would provide as berserkers. Then they started playing the damn videos. Mouse disconnected our vision completely. He figured if visual stimuli could keep us from becoming a berserker, it might also speed up the process of becoming one. So for nearly two full days we were in complete darkness as Mouse worked to try to display images of Argoen and Steamboat Willie in a picture, which was all I could remember about the image.”
He paused, listening, then continuing. “Well, the long and short of it was that all of our medical chambers were also flash freeze chambers. All three of the others turned within a day. After being frozen, they were kept completely frozen, but fed lots of information about you, other symbiotes, and this floor of the facility. At least, that’s what I was told by attendants.”
“So, um, how does this have anything to do with me? Other than the Governor using you as throwaway tools to try to kill me off?”
“I’m trying to decide whether or not the other three would rather me finish the mission then get revenge on the governor, or abandon the mission then get revenge.”
“I think it’s pretty obvious where I stand on this debate, but I see it’s not a Democracy. If either one of us is going to get out of here to take out Governor Albertson, you need to make up your mind, so do what you have to do, and then go kill the governor, with or without me.”
Jason listened to Mouse again. It was pretty obvious when he did it. Was I ever that obvious? Probably.
Jason gave me an apologetic look. “Sorry to do that to you, but, well, I had been working with these guys for sixty years. Phillips is the only one left now, and he and I are going to have a little talk the next time I see him.” He lowered the weapon. I didn’t move.
I figured it might be a good idea to tell him about some of the other original Project Boomerang soldiers who were still around. “Last I heard, a few months ago, Anton and Guilliard were still active, and Doctor Meilin as well. That was several months ago, but…” He was staring at me without blinking and his right arm was twitching.
He growled out, in a deep, quiet, strained voice. “With the whole regeneration drip thing, there are actually quite a few people my age still around that I can talk to, but these three were my squad. Go look for data or something and give me a minute here to say goodbye to these guys, without making me look at you while I do it.”
“Right.” I slowly stood, keeping my hands clearly visible. Then I walked around Jason, giving him plenty of space, and moved into the room he had been in. After I was out of his line of sight, I started looking for the video feeds he had been talking about. Maybe Frank could access the data if the machines with the data were remote. Jason had done a pretty thorough job cannibalizing equipment in here, but the monitors were still playing video. Frank grabbed a cable off the floor and a few pieces of plastic and metal and put them in the kangaroo pouch. While waiting for whatever Frank was making to finish being built, we grabbed our pile of stuff, put the gloves back on, and Frank quickly tack glued the cut up clothing together so it covered us reasonably well.
Frank chose that moment to speak again. “We’re going to have to be very careful around Jason. He’s definitely dealing with some severe mental issues right now.”
“Your talent for understatement is impressive, Frank. Is that cable you are making done yet?”
“Yes. Sorry. Hard to judge human emotions in others sometimes, especially when there’s a strong possibility of mental illness. I can see all of your metabolic processes for a really good idea of what you are feeling. I can only see a few of those reliably in other humans. Fewer still in other humans with symbiotes, because other symbiotes might be sending false signals.”
“No problem Frank. We managed to get through that little bit without a hole in our head, so I’m happy for now.”
Frank took control of our body and played with monitor cables, generating a connection with one end of the cable, and the other end of the cable attached to the back of our left hand.
“Aha, there it is. Pulling the facility data off the training server. Also initiating investigation of all other nodes still active and connected to the training server.”
“Frank, make a goldfish for Jason. Well, for Mouse.”
“Unless there is some sort of human meaning for one man to give another a goldfish, I don’t understand why I shouldn’t just give him a chip with the data.”
I laughed out loud, quietly. Then listened. Didn’t sound like Jason was coming to take objection to the noise. Good. “No meaning Frank, sorry, just human thought association. You mentioned the oxygen thing earlier, Mouse seemed interested.”
“True. I’ll put together information on some handy body modifications for them. Oxygen scavenging, lung-gills, enhanced scent, kangaroo pouch, sub-dermal spider silk armor, bones and blood cooler and armor stuff. Won’t be much use to them yet, not in here, but they will probably find it handy if we get out of here.”
“You mentioned other nodes – anything interesting?”
“One of these days I’ll run into a computer with a real security system. I’m sure of it. But not today. Pulling a lot of data on what they did to control the berserkers. Its information I hope we never have a use for, but I want to analyze it anyway.”
“Why not? Do you ever wonder why you were made?”
“Well, mommy and daddy Benson got together one night and…”
Frank sighed in my head. (He was getting good at that.) “I know you aren’t that dense. You are almost certainly the product of natural evolution, discounting religious possibilities that are currently untestable. I am, as we have discussed, not natural. Why was my race made? Even more, why do highly developed breeding members of my race have the ability to redesign their offspring to interface with other races?”
“Good questions. For later? We need to get to work on some sort of carbon dioxide scrubber or water cracker, I think. Unless you found a way out?”
“Only obvious way out is through the elevator shaft. I strongly suspect we’ll find people waiting for us there.”
“I’m surprised they aren’t just pumping napalm into the lab.”
“Bob, how many times have you told me not to tempt Murphy?”
“Yeah, sorry.” I grinned. I always found it amusing that Frank, supra-genius symbiote, at least pretended to acknowledge Murphy.
“OK, I’ve emptied all the servers on this local network of all the useful data I could find. The berserkers had overridden all the protective measures in the medical storage chambers. I re-enabled them, the fires have been extinguished. There’s a cistern below the generator room that we can use as the water source for electrolysis to generate oxygen, so that’s not an issue. We’ll have to do something with the hydrogen though. We have fuel for the generator for about twelve hours.”
“Any security systems down here that transmit outside?”
“Not according to plans, or what I saw on the network. If there are security cams, we’ll find them with ultrasound testing in the walls.”
“Determining where the water in the cistern comes from would be a good idea too, I think.”
“Yes. Added to the list. Good idea.”
I heard something from the other room. Jason moving around. He was walking towards us. I kept my hands clear of my body while he entered the room. He looked at me, and spoke quietly. “Thanks for giving me some space. Find anything useful?”
“Sure thing. Generator and cistern, next to each other. Electrolysis will give us a lot more time, and will be really simple to set up.”
“We’ll need to deal with the hydrogen too. Haber process?”
“Haber process – it’s used to make ammonia from gaseous hydrogen and nitrogen. Our symbiotes don’t care about ammonia, but we can store it in liquid form. We might even be able to use it to make explosives, depending on what’s left of the medical stores, or even use it directly against humans if we make enough of it.
“Is that Jason or Mouse speaking?”
“Jason. I’m a chemical engineer. Mechanical engineer too, but I only have a Master’s degree in that. I didn’t spend all of the last sixty years fighting. Just most of it.”
“I see.” I revised my estimation of Jason in a couple ways. “Frank, you got that data chip?”
“Yes. Data in default symbiote code structures, so Mouse won’t have to decrypt it.” We handed over a small bone chip. Warm. Creepy to transfer data that way, but it was the only sane way for symbiotes to transfer data quickly and securely without any sort of established data transfer device like a biocomputer handy.
“[Mouse here. What other structures would you use?]”
“Frank wrote himself a new operating system to save us from the berserker protocol.”
“[Impressive. I’ll have to ask you more about that later, if you will talk about it.]” Mouse asked.
“[Sorry Mouse, I won’t talk specifics about that. Far as I know, nobody else uses anything like my operating system, and I like the security that gives me, after actually fighting the berserker protocol for nearly four hours.]” Frank sounded genuinely sorry that he wouldn’t share.
Jason stopped. “You fought the berserker protocol? For four hours? Donaldson, Slade, and Dominic didn’t even have time to speak.”
“[Three hours fifty-two minutes. It’s a long story. Several unlikely events and some intrusive code designed by a human named Alice. You will meet her soon, since she leads several different research teams, and you have two advanced degrees.]”
Jason paused, weighed what he was about to say. “Six advanced degrees, actually. I abused the GI bill several times in the last sixty years. I’ll definitely want to hear the story of you dealing with the berserker protocol though – as much as you are willing to tell of it. Mouse agrees with me on that, loudly. Too loudly, actually.” He winced. “I’d heard rumors, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth would be good.” He sniffled. “What the?” Then he sneezed. “Mouse what the hell are you doing to my nose, I feel you playing around in there.”
I laughed. “Sounds like you and Mouse haven’t had ‘The Talk’ yet. Frank and I still have little discussions about body modifications from time to time. Toe claws, for example.” I clacked the raptor claws on the tile a couple times for emphasis. Frank was strangely silent.
“We probably need to get to work. It’s been several minutes since Frank told me seventeen minutes. Before I would go unconscious.”
“[Twenty minutes now. Jason released all the oxygen from the bones of the others, I think.]” Frank spoke aloud for some reason. I looked over at Jason.
Jason just nodded, saying nothing.
“Heading to the generator room now to see what we have to work with, using Mark I eyeball.” Frank led the way.
“[Mouse here. Sorry to go back to an old conversation. How did you even think to change operating systems, Frank?]”
“[Well, we were making a new body anyway, for the brain transplant.]” Frank replied
“Wait, what?” Jason blurted out.
“[Bob’s idea, actually.]” Frank again.
I opened the door to the generator room, and we entered, both of us looking over the tools and equipment present. Not a lot, but it gave us options.
Jason was distracted a bit, and after a couple seconds, asked me “What degrees do you have?”
I struck a proud pose. “Associate’s degree, liberal arts.”
After a couple seconds, Jason smiled. “OK, genius, let’s electrolyze some oxygen, set up a carbon dioxide scrubber, then start an ammonia drip distillery, and see what we can scrape together to help us get out of here. They won’t leave us alone forever.”