Frank rapidly restored my equilibrium, though I was still not quite thinking clearly. I asked Frank, internally, “Am I concussed?”
“Yes, slightly. Jason appears to be in the same state, but functional. I’m not going to do any more than repair damage to brain tissues, you should recover from this with few or no negative effects. It doesn’t impact my ability to control our body, if need be. Judging from your reactions you are not significantly impaired mentally.”
“Jason, are you and Mouse ready to go? How about your biofactory?”
“Biofactory is hurting pretty bad, it took some shrapnel shielding us, but it can do its job, and there’s some material from Frank’s old biofactory to feed it for quick repairs.”
Looking around, Jason was certainly correct. There were a few pieces of Frank’s biofactory mixed up with metal shards, rocks, and lots of electrical wiring. Mouse’s biofactory was rapidly rolling over the ground and wherever it rolled, electrical wiring was collected, and biological materials were absorbed.
“Mouse says most of the breakers tripped, but there’s some power, and he’s combining wiring from lines with tripped breakers to lines with active breakers, so the biofactory can operate up to fifty feet outside the hole up top. We’ll use it as a decoy, at least some rapid reaction forces will be present near the hole, for certain.”
“We need to move now, I think.”
Mouse’s biofactory ripped a few more wires out of the ceiling and started towards the excavation. When it reached the entrance to the room where Frank’s biofactory created the tunnel, Jason pulled me to the side. “Careful Bob, there’s going to be a lot of flying debris.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. Mouse’s biofactory was several hundred pounds of insane digging machine, like a giant hyperactive ant lion. The outer door of the room was buckled and light was leaking through at the top of the door, but most of the passage between the door and the room was filled with the inorganics that Frank had collected in the biofactory while also collecting organics. Mouse’s biofactory ripped off the door and started throwing debris behind it at a fantastic pace, aiming it all carefully into a far corner of the room. Less like an ant lion than a snow blower, really. But either analogy worked. In about ten seconds, a couple thousand pounds of blocking materials were thrown out of the hallway, and there was a lot more natural light.
Mouse spoke. “[Mouse here. Biofactory indicates path to surface is easily passable.]” Jason moved rapidly to the entrance to the hallway leading to the tunnel. He threw the coil gun and his battery pack to the biofactory.
I spoke. “OK, Mouse’s biofactory emerges and provides us with information on what’s on the surface, fires on rapid response with intent to incapacitate or destroy equipment. Then I’ll take point and we’ll both move?”
“Roger that, point man, biofactory is moving up the tunnel now.”
Mouse’s biofactory was much larger now. It had apparently consumed a lot of Frank’s biofactory biologicals, as there were not many organic remnants visible. It started climbing, looking almost like a starfish. It was extruding the carbon fiber bones that I remembered Frank’s biofactory making for it like claws from the end of each pseudopod, helping it rapidly move its bulk up the tunnel. Jason was feeding the power cables through the hallway over the debris, some of which was fairly sharp. I started helping, since I couldn’t safely follow the biofactory through all the falling chunks of rock. Dodging the chunks of rock or slapping them out of the way was no big deal while I was at the bottom of the shaft, but I’d have a lot less flexibility of movement when climbing.
“How did your biofactory absorb that much flesh mass so quickly, Mouse?” I asked.
Mouse replied. “[I didn’t integrate it. I collected it. Using it as ablative surface armor, saving energy for movement and offense. It was also the fastest way to get about a thousand pounds of flesh out of the escape tunnel.]”
Mouse’s biofactory reached the end of the rock, and reshaped itself, continuing to pull up more of the power cable. After a few seconds it had collected all the slack cable. Then it leaped, but not quite straight up. It landed on the southwest edge of the tunnel entrance. Immediately the coil gun went into rapid fire, and lasers began firing back.
I thought about using the power cable like a climbing rope, but Frank vetoed that as soon as I touched it – we didn’t want to accidentally depower Mouse’s biofactory. Frank took over the body, and we practically flew up the side of the tunnel. Raptor claws were very handy for climbing, apparently. When I got to the end of the rock, I found a shelf of stable rock and waited, my feet at the level of the boundary between rock and dirt, about fifteen feet of dirt, clay, gravel, and sand above me. A couple seconds later, Jason joined me.
“Carbon fiber bones, right? There was a rumor. Watching you climb pretty much proved it to be fact. Pretty amazing. Mouse has a list about thirty bullet points long of things that he wants to do now.” He shook his head. “Yes, I’m talking about you, Mouse. We’ll talk about renovations later, OK? Survive first, replace the carpet later.”
I laughed. “Been there done that. Nowadays Frank is usually pretty good about discussing changes with me before implementing them. Let’s move though. What does the biofactory see to the northeast?”
Jason tilted his head a bit. “Nothing visible to the northeast. All the laser weapons that were brought to bear on the biofactory were disabled. Minimal damage. There are half a dozen soldiers nearby reporting by radio, but based on the outgoing and incoming communications, they were completely unprepared for a tunneling breakout. The officers in charge had put all their efforts into turning the path they thought we would use into a deathtrap. The rapid reaction force was an afterthought. That’s changing rapidly though. We need to move. There are a couple light armor vehicles with anti-armor laser clusters heading this way. The biofactory can probably disable them, but it’ll get trashed in the process, almost certainly. Our reflectors won’t do much against nine-laser clusters. Not fast enough if we get caught out of cover. If we can get into cover in rough terrain, even though they are fast and nimble for armored vehicles, no light armor will be fast and nimble enough to engage us.”
“OK. Moving.” I jumped up to the lip of the tunnel, on the northeast side with a single strained leap. Jason just looked at me, then turned to the southwest and jumped about two thirds as high. A pseudopod reached down from the biofactory and grabbed him, then threw him to our side of the tunnel entrance.
With our helmets covering our faces, I couldn’t see what Jason looked like but I imagine he was irritated, and Mouse was probably telling him he was too heavy.
“I’m going to match your pace. Mouse, we want to run at the best pace you can manage without using too much of your juice reserves. Every time your juice reserves fill completely, expend ten percent in a sprint.”
“[Ah ok. Understood. Ten percent juice burn, followed by normal metabolism running until juice reserves are full, then another burn.]”
“Show us your paces, northeast, we’ll match you.”
Jason and Mouse could only run at about forty miles per hour using juice, due to the heavy metal bones Mouse had been forced to replace Jason’s natural bones with. The muscle and connective tissues just couldn’t stand the repeated stress of running over rough terrain with his skeletal mass at any more than that speed, not without burning a lot of juice to regenerate damage. We needed to get into a safe area and let Mouse spend some time getting rid of the metal bones before he’d be able to run any faster. His pace without juice was almost as good as mine though. He had much longer legs and Mouse had already made some significant modifications to body chemistry and musculature. We set a pace of a bit less than thirty miles per hour.
During the first couple hours as we moved northeast, there were a lot of minor skirmishes. It was still daylight, and there were drones overhead pacing us, letting the military try to set up ahead of us even though we made radical shifts in our direction of travel fairly regularly. Fortunately, we weren’t forced to kill anyone, though we sniped a bunch of drones with stolen assault rifles and drove off several different types of planes and helicopters, either using the rifles to blow turbines, or the diamonds to reflect lasers. We did have a couple close calls to larger munitions, some of the artillery fire was troublesome. Missiles were funny, almost like skeet, but easier because they traveled in a mostly straight line. We just shot them with the rifles, destroying their seeking mechanisms, and frequently triggering their detonation in midair. We only had one very brief exposure to a light armored vehicle, its nine-emitter anti-armor laser cluster taught Frank and I a lesson, blackening a large chunk of the silver surface along the right side of my armor before Frank was able to blow all the incoming lasers with reflections. Jason and Mouse carried us for about two miles before we were regenerated sufficiently to run faster than they could run carrying us. As Jason had warned me earlier, light armored vehicles with anti-armor laser clusters were definitely to be respected and avoided.
Once night fell, they simply had no chance of catching us. We made sure of that when we entered Guntersville Lake. Two stolen garbage bags and some epoxy let us carry the rifles stolen from soldiers into the water without needing to worry about cleaning them later. Mouse rapidly figured out gills for Jason with Frank’s help (very little help was needed, but Mouse was more interested in results than figuring it out for himself.) We swam northeast a few miles before climbing out the east side of the lake, following a tributary as far as possible to hopefully avoid tracking dogs, and moving east of southeast from landfall.
Our destination was Weiss Lake. Chances were pretty good that we would be expected to keep moving northeast from where we entered Guntersville Lake. The mountains would seem like a natural place for us to go hide – I had been thinking that myself, to start with, before Jason brought up a really good point. He had really enjoyed the freedom under water, and when we left Guntersville Lake he simply asked “Why don’t we just stay in Weiss Lake when we get there, let Mouse build my bones. There would be plenty of organics in the water to work with, fish for food and submerged lumber for carbon – not to mention plenty of water for cooling. Humans wouldn’t really consider a lake as a place where we might hide for an extended time. The whole ‘able to live underwater’ thing isn’t going to be on the top of their list of considerations. They still think of us as humans, with human restrictions, rather than pairs with far fewer limitations.”
“There’s a fairly substantial issue with living underwater though – we need air to communicate.” I said.
“No, no we don’t. Not if you can teach me how to talk to Mouse the same way you speak to Frank, without having to speak out loud. Then our symbiotes could communicate our words to each other through some sort of secure connection.”
“Point. OK, here’s how to do it.” Frank and I then taught Jason how to speak to Mouse without speaking out loud, and let them practice doing it while we paced them.
“All of these things that took us days, weeks, or even months to learn, we can teach others in minutes to hours. Doesn’t that just seem a bit wrong, Frank?” I said internally, a bit irritated at how quickly Jason and Mouse were learning how to speak silently.
“No. Doesn’t seem wrong at all. We aren’t the oldest Symbiote pair on the planet by any means, but we are the eldest undamaged symbiote if you don’t count imprisoned time for Agency or Project Boomerang symbiotes, or the Recovery symbiotes who weren’t fully functional, but knew some handy tricks. We’ve also spent time between groups learning what either side has to offer.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Sure it does. I’ve read up on enough human psychology to know what you are describing. You never had kids, so you don’t realize that you’re describing exactly the same thing adult humans feel as their children learn. The better a teacher you are, the faster people you teach will learn. We’re pretty good at teaching, so Jason and Mouse are learning fast. When we first learned the silent speaking trick, we had to learn it from the Recovery symbiotes, which meant a lot of trial and error. Now that we know how to do it, we can teach it rapidly. Same thing with a lot of the other tricks and abilities.”
“Is this really what parents feel like as their kids grow up?”
“I’d say probably yes. I’m sure Doctor Meilin would be happy to discuss it with you when we see her next. Ayva hasn’t exactly been very subtle about hinting that it was about time for you to be learning about being a parent yourself.”
I chuckled and shook my head. That was true enough. I was expecting Ayva to throw things when I took this mission. We had been smart enough to take precautions so she could have children of mine if I didn’t make it back, thanks to the wonders of cryogenic sperm storage, but I was still surprised when she didn’t object more strongly.
Jason heard the chuckle. “Something funny?”
“Not really, sorry, just remembering the conversation the wife and I had before I left to do this mission. Hard to let go when you know you might not come back, but still good memories.”
“Yea, leaving the family behind is hard. Been married three times, got the kids to twenty-five years old, and left hefty life insurance policies behind each time with Uncle Sam’s help faking my death. Loved them all, but I wasn’t aging, and they were.”
“Ouch. You get back in touch with them now that regeneration drips and therapy can keep them alive and young?”
“It was painful, but yes. My first wife had passed, and my eldest son, but my middle wife was well, and she remarried to a solid fellow. The kids, grandkids, great grandkids, great, great grandkids, and great, great, great grandkids were mostly understanding when I explained. Well, the ones born in the last few years didn’t really understand it I suppose. A couple of my eldest children were mentally incompetent and were not allowed to regenerate. I raged over that for a while, until Donaldson took me to an assisted living center for twenty-five year olds with Alzheimer’s and other age related mental conditions. The brain regenerates fine. The mind, not so much. Seeing that firsthand, I didn’t want to subject my kids to it.”
Jason paused a bit, probably picking through memories of Donaldson who was now dead. Then we picked up the pace, Mouse burning off some juice, “My current wife was probably the hardest hit, realizing she was married to a guy that was a bit over 90 years old, who had been having kids since 1945. My kids by her are young adults now. My surviving kids from my first wife were at least twenty years older than her. She felt threatened by my middle wife until they talked. My middle wife doesn’t want anything to do with me as a husband, which is a good thing. I can’t even imagine what all those conversations might have sounded like if they hadn’t been able to regenerate most of my family.”
“Well, Hell, here I thought I had a complicated situation dealing with thoughts of my wife. I forget how long some of you Project Boomerang folks have been around. Doctor Meilin mentioned similar issues. If I remember right she said she had somewhere around six hundred living descendants. She won’t say exactly how old she is, but she said she was in her mid-twenties during the great depression, which would put her at being born around the turn of the last century.”
Jason looked at me with a smile. “She might not be hiding her age. She might actually not know for sure. My father didn’t know what year he was born, it was either 1902 or 1903. Census records and other records indicate both, over the decades. My father was about the same age as Doctor Meilin. You youngsters don’t realize how much things have changed in the last century or so. Most of my generation grew up without indoor plumbing. A pretty large number of us didn’t have electricity in our houses growing up. Being able to read was not necessary to live a fairly comfortable life, as we saw it, if you were smart and worked hard.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll stay off your lawn, sir.”
He chuckled and we kept running. If we were going to be uploading some sort of a report, we would need to generate it, and I’d rather have Frank doing that than Mouse. Mouse was probably trying to figure out how to adjust Jason’s body.
“Frank, have you combined Mouse’s report with our report into a condensed report for uploading yet?”
“Yes. Do you want to view it?”
“Do I want to view it? No. Do I have to? Yes. I’ll wait till we’re at Lake Weiss though.”
There was no sign that we were seen. Guntersville Lake was populated on its west side, near Huntsville, but the east side of the lake was unpopulated, we didn’t see or smell sign of more than an occasional human between the two lakes, except when we crossed under the interstate through a drainage tunnel, and heard a few vehicles moving.
Farms of various crops covered most of the flat land. Orchards dominated hilly land. Staggered growth forests of fast growing pine which was obviously being harvested for lumber dominated the steepest parts of the landscape. Swampy land and land close to streams, rivers, and ponds were allowed to grow wild, creating small areas where hardwoods dominated. White tailed deer, turkey, and wild pig sign were common as well, especially where cropland and orchards bordered the wild land near water. This pattern did not change.
We frequently passed barns which smelled richly of metals, plastics, and electronics. The automated systems that tended the farms, tended by small repair bots, which were supplied with spare parts from 3D printers. At least that was what I figured was in the barns based on what I had heard and read about how the US was providing agricultural products these days.
When we finally made it to Lake Weiss, there was no sign of humans. This was a good thing and a bad thing. We were not likely to be spotted, but at the same time, if our trail out of Guntersville Lake was picked up by dogs, and they had a full day to track us without rain, they would come straight to the Lake Weiss with no real chance of getting confused by the scents of other humans. That would still give us a lot of time to get Jason and Mouse squared away, but I was hoping for at least two, maybe three days to plan and see what materials we could gather from the lake and the surrounding abandoned homes.
Jason and I found an area with an old boat dock, so we could walk down to the water and leave no visible prints. There were a few ancient and decrepit old boats laying on the ground in a fenced in area next to the dock, all of them with severe damage. This was apparently some sort of small boat junkyard. It would be a reasonably good source of metals and other useful materials, based on first impressions of the states of the boats – they were not stripped down to hulls, and there was a rack of old outboard motors in a shed as well. Frank found a partial roll of wire in the shed, maybe two hundred feet or so. It would work well for a communication line, since Jason was probably going to be spending most of the next 24 hours submerged while Mouse worked on getting his bones replaced.
The carbon for Jason’s bone rebuilding would be no problem, even if it was more wasteful than mine had been, because I had charcoal, and he would be using trees. We could see half a dozen pine trees floating in the water, a couple recent falls from an eroded section of the land next to the water, as they still had green leaves. There was plenty of deer and boar sign as well. I would take either, but boar would be best, as they typically had much more body fat in them than deer by body weight. The organs of either would provide plenty of fat. Jason was going to see what the shallow water fish population looked like here as well. It should be good, and that might supply some energy at need as well.
“This looks like a good place Jason. You head down into the water and see what’s nearby. I’ll see about scaring up a deer or wild pig. You will need a lot of energy for skeleton replacing. That will be a ton of fish if we can’t find a couple bigger animals.”
Jason waded out into the water. “Meet back at the dock in one hour, in ten feet of water, straight out?” He pointed down the boat dock. “Alternate point at the house across the inlet from us, under the dock?” He then turned and pointed to a burned down house with a ramshackle dock across the inlet.
“Good plan. See you in an hour.”