Mouse had a point. We were not in a critically time sensitive situation right now, and opening up another unknown set of variables would be foolish.
Jason and I left the hidden alcove by the same tunnel we entered, and I used one of Frank’s claws to clearly mark the entrance of the tunnel. Other tunnels led into the area, but we knew this one wasn’t obstructed or trapped.
We were each hauling our caught fish back to the dock. Frank was pretty sure that there was enough energy in the deer and two pigs we had caught for him to build a transmitter that he could use to passively detect satellites, and then actively send signals to them.
But Mouse’s observations had confused matters. Getting Jason squared away with carbon bones was top on the list of things we needed to do for several reasons. We needed maximum maneuverability and Jason needed to lose weight so he could react faster. The matter of the transmission created a bit of a problem though.
I spoke up on the communication wire to see if the others would agree.
“I think we should go to the mountains to make the transmission, then return here to see what’s under this old house. And both of those things come after Mouse finishes working with Jason’s bones.”
Mouse spoke up. “[Agreed. I withdraw my request to get carbon from the remains of the house. With what we know to be under it, what’s above it might not be as simple as a burned down building.]”
I replied. “Mouse, chances are pretty good that whatever burned down that house started nearby trees on fire at the time, it looks to have been quite a fire. I can check the nearby woods for burned tree remains, which should be a decently rich carbon source, if you want.”
Jason spoke up. “Even though we’ve seen no signs that our pursuit has caught up with us, I think that leaving the water when we don’t have to would be a mistake. There are plenty of resources down here, easily available, even if they aren’t optimal. The carbon in these rotted old pylons might be a bit harder to isolate for Mouse to make our new bones out of, but it is here, and we’ve got plenty of fish for Mouse to use to extract it.”
“Fair enough. You scouted all sides of the house, right? How many of the tunnels did you clear out by noodling the fish?”
Jason tilted his head a bit. “Mouse says we cleared about 20% of the holes, but we don’t know that they are all as well populated as these on this side.”
“Not really worried about conservation here. Survive first, worry about fish populations later. Catfish are fairly close to the bottom of my worries in any case, they are like water cockroaches.”
Another strange look from Jason. “I sometimes can’t understand you younger generation types. I was certainly not considering the fish population, nor was Mouse. We were talking purely resources.”
I laughed. “OK, in a worst case situation then, we’ve got whatever you call the dead animal and plant matter that you find at the bottom of a lake. Mulch? Detritus? I’d bet that in shallow water like this, it will be very rich with organics, and full of lots of small animals, bugs, microbes and bacteria, like leaf litter in an old growth forest. The fish will probably be better for energy, but the leaf litter will provide a good chunk of carbon as well as some energy, I’d think.”
Frank spoke up. “[Mouse, another thing to consider, which you have probably already thought of. Heat and chemical distribution. Try not to do too much heat generation in shallow water, the thermal bloom might be visible to IR sensors. Same thing with releasing chemicals into the water. Any waste products, encapsulate them, and bury them under the bottom of the lake.]”
Jason tilted his head again. I’m going to have to tell him about that one of these days.
Mouse spoke “[Good advice Frank. I had considered the thermal bloom, not the waste chemicals. As you could probably tell, based on water sampling.]”
Frank nodded our head.
“We’ll leave the fish in the tunnels to you two. Frank and I have enough energy in the animals I caught to build a transmitter out of the stuff we found. We’ll explore and sample the lakebed near the tunnels, close by.” I pushed my fish at Jason, floating it across the gap between us. He caught it and touched it to the side of Mouse’s biofactory, next to where his own fish was being consumed.
“We’ll need a longer length of that wire to remain in direct contact.”
“No problem. There’s a better way to do this anyway, if we’re going to be moving around with our biofactories in tow.” Mouse’s biofactory extended a pseudopod with the first roll of wire we had found towards Frank’s biofactory. Jason pulled the wire connected between us until he had about half of it, then Mouse dissolved or cut it, or something, I couldn’t see. He waved his end of the wire at me, then plugged it into his biofactory. After a second I realized what was happening and did the same with mine. Frank and Mouse were splitting the wire on the roll between themselves, moving the biofactories around and making sure the feed was drawing out and winding back evenly from each biofactory as they moved apart and back together.
“I hear you again.” I responded.
“This should work better. Let the biofactories and symbiotes worry about the long cable, we just need to worry about a short umbilical.”
“Nice. Shall we head over to the tunnel wall then?”
Jason looked around at the wreckage of the dock. “Sure. Can Frank’s biofactory grab a couple of the pylons? Mouse’s will as well, I’d like a pile of them by the wall so we don’t have to travel back and forth as much. Grab pylons that are fully submerged though. No need to change the way things above the water look any more than we already did while looking for a place to have the biofactories attach themselves.”
Frank’s biofactory sucked in the Duffel bag and started to sort through components while a couple thick pseudopods grabbed nearby large timbers and wriggled them out of the mud. One of them looked different from the rest, and was much heavier.
“Your lucky day, Mouse. I bet this dock was actually on the original outcrop of land here, before it was built up for the house. There was a creosote timber dock here before this pressure treated wood. Might poke around and see if there are any more pieces left behind.”
There weren’t any large pieces left, but we did find a bunch of smaller ones, which Mouse was more than happy to collect. The carbon content of the creosote in and on the wood was very dense and relatively easy to work with compared to waterlogged wood.
The biofactories collected several timbers each and slowly started undulating across the bottom of the lake towards the wall of tunnels. We found a place to drop the timbers about fifty feet past the tunnel we had used to enter the cave under the house.
That’s when I noticed Jason’s legs. They were moving wrong. He had also removed his leg armor.
“Jason, something wrong with your legs?”
“Nope. We’re going to be running a lot, but I don’t want to be as small as you, so Mouse is redesigning our legs. We should be able to keep up, might even be able to outpace you in a long run, though you will still be able to sprint far better.” He swam a bit closer and showed what Mouse had done to his legs.
His legs’ bone proportions were completely changed. His toes were elongated and much more powerful looking. They had small gripping claws on them, a lot like dog claws. The bones that normally ran from toe to heel were much longer and stronger. The other leg bones had shortened somewhat. If you have ever seen a picture of a well-drawn satyr, imagine those legs. Except with the foot pads of a dog, not hooves, and normal human skin, not fur.
I scratched my head. “How much extra running speed do you think you can get out of those legs, Mouse?”
“[Plan is to let Jason stay at about 140 lbs at a bit less than six feet in height, so he has better sight lines and can better handle recoil from heavier weapons. These legs should allow him to pace you at that weight. If not, we can reduce weight a bit. If more successful, he’ll be able to carry more and still keep up.]”
“Sounds like a plan. No Frank. Don’t even ask, I know you want to. We still need to talk about the toe claws.”
Frank argued with me internally this time. “We seem to be in armor, I thought I was free to modify as I see fit when we were armored.”
“If you want to, that’s fine Frank. I won’t back down from an earlier promise, but I’m still irritated about the hidden claws thing.”
“They were hidden. You did not appear any less human when I had them stored. We favor high maneuverability and melee fighting. The toe claws gave us both an exceptional traction capacity on most surfaces, and a very potent ‘natural’ attack. I am using about half of my computing capacity at any one given time analyzing for the best ways to keep us alive in the combat roles we typically find ourselves in. Legs like what Mouse and Jason are putting together could potentially make a big difference.” Frank was letting me have it with both barrels.
Jason was looking at me. Silent. I noticed and smiled. “I guess you aren’t the only one that has a habit or something that lets others know that there’s internal dialogue happening.”
He looked puzzled for a second. “You scratch behind your ear. With the helmet on, you rub the helmet over your ear. What do I do?”
“You tilt your head a bit. Sorry. Frank and I need to continue this private conversation. Meet back here in one hour?”
Jason looked at me. “Sure thing.” Then he swam off, Mouse’s biofactory, following him with one of the timbers.
“Sorry about the interruption, Frank. Look. I’m kind of stressing out here. We both know I’ve got a high stress tolerance but we also know that the more stressed I am, the greater risks I’m likely to take. Being pretty much single-handedly responsible for all the symbiote-related drama and bullshit happening in the world today is stressful enough. Add to that the fact that I had you eat a bunch of human bodies for raw materials, we’re being hunted, the US military is getting better and better at dealing with us, and that we were somehow fed false information to lead us into a trap. Whether or not it’s rational, I don’t want inhuman legs. If you think it’s really beneficial, I’ll not object though.”
Frank paused. “OK, I have a message for you, Bob. Ayva found a time when you were asleep to speak to me, and wanted me to give it to you if you needed it. This seems like a good time. Hop onto the biofactory. I’m going to have it dig around in the lakebed to see how much energy and materials potential there is, while I do this playback for you.”
“A message from Ayva?”
“Yes. No more details till you sit. She insisted that you had to sit for this message, without doing anything else, the first time you watched it.”
I climbed onto the biofactory which molded itself into something like a chair. Images of practical jokes as a teen where we put pool furniture in the pool came to mind randomly, and I shook my head with a quick grin. Sometimes the things Frank could do were just surreal, even after years living with him.
Frank started to play back the video message. Ayva walked into my field of view and started to talk. I could see the sun room with our plants framed behind her, Frank was apparently sitting in my chair. I had probably fallen asleep in the sun. “Bob, I love you very much, but if you are hearing this, Frank thinks you are stressing out, trying to take the world’s weight onto your shoulders again. Stop it. We have talked about this before. You only accelerated what happened, you didn’t cause it.”
She turned around, took a step, then turned again and took a step back, and started to talk again. “Doctor Meilin, Karen, and Star’s shard were getting closer to being able to do what you could do, using human technology. I’ve talked about this with her, but haven’t mentioned the specifics to you before now. Star estimated that in another four years they would have been ready, without you. That’s why Doctor Meilin was building the numbers of Recovery so aggressively – not just in the US either, though that’s where most of her efforts were. She was preparing for a civil war. Change of this magnitude doesn’t happen without casualties. Not when humans are involved.”
She paced back and forth again. “Even though we haven’t spoken about exactly what you plan to do, I know you are going back to the US to try to kill off some of the keystone politicians there who were responsible for some of the anti-symbiote attacks around the world in the past few years. Frank didn’t betray any confidences. You made that threat years ago, publicly, that you would take the fight directly back to the politicians who enacted war against symbiotes. You made that threat after Colonel Gantt and Ellis nearly killed the entire Agency in the diesel warehouse trap. You wouldn’t be the man I love if you weren’t protective, stubborn to a fault, and rather pointed about keeping your promises. A long trip on a mission without telling me any details, considering the sabre rattling the US has been doing again recently, tells me all I need to know to connect the dots. Frankly, (she smiled at that), I’m surprised you didn’t go sooner.”
Again, she paced back and forth, this time when she faced me again, she was crying. “This is something that I know you have to do, or it will break something important inside you, but I’m afraid that the things you will be forced to do over there are going to break you in a different way. I’m not sure that the Bob that comes back will be the same Bob that is going to wake up here in a couple hours and tease me about having some coffee with my milk and sugar. You don’t have to stay the same person forever for me to keep loving you, but even if we don’t really need to worry about your body being crippled when fighting, symbiotes can’t heal your mind.”
She had stopped pacing, just looking at me, tears untouched, ignored as they dripped down her face. “I know you have to do it. I know it’s going to hurt you to do it. I don’t know how hard it is going to be to kill off some of the worst of the politicians responsible for anti-symbiote attacks, and the terrible things they are doing to America and the American Dream, but I suspect it’s going to be harder than you think. I want you to trust Frank to keep you alive. I want you to trust yourself and your own judgment when it comes down to doing what you have to do. I trust you. I love you. Be strong. Come back.”
Then she walked forward and kissed me on the nose. “Thank You, Frank. Let him see this if he needs help dealing with what he’s done, or what he has to do. Once he’s seen it once, let him see it all he wants.”
I watched it six more times.
“Thank you, Frank”
“I was only the messenger. You’ve been beating yourself up pretty bad today. Figured you needed that.”
“I did, Frank, I surely did. How’s the lake bottom for nutrients and energy?”
“Not bad, but not terribly good. There’s a lot of it though, so it works.”
“Do what you need to do to the legs, Frank. If you think Mouse’s leg idea will work, run with it.” I grinned.
Frank groaned. “What will the rest of the symbiotes think of me when I try to be funny after learning humor from you?”
“Open a channel to Jason please. I need to talk to him.”
“Jason here. Problems?”
“No, no problems. Just trying to work through some things. I think I’m pretty close. My wife used Frank as her message machine to send me a pick-me-up message that triggered when Frank saw me feeling down. I wanted to thank you for what you had done before that to help keep me in one piece long enough for Frank to get me in a quiet place to get the message.”
“Well,” Jason paused a couple seconds “it’s the least I could do in exchange for my threat to kill you after you saved Mouse and me. You weren’t the only one to be in a bad headspace recently. I’m pretty sure my headspace was a lot worse, actually, but I’ve got a lot more years of dealing with crap dropping in my lap than you do. You’re pretty scrappy in a fight, but you haven’t seen the ends of enough fights to be numbed. I wish I hadn’t.” He paused again. “Sorry, I’m rambling. Once I got past the whole adrenaline rush of being saved, then killing what used to be my friends of sixty years, I was able to push everything into the mental box marked ‘I’ll think about it later.’ and I will think about it later, but if you need to talk about it now, I’ll talk with you for a little while about it.”
“The biggest thing I’m having a problem with right now is using the bodies of those troops as food for the biofactory.”
“That’s painful for me too. The ones I had Mouse’s biofactory consume were my friends once.” He paused. “Like I said before. We were not the source of their misfortune. All of those soldiers, my squad included, were betrayed. Mouse and Frank have shared Frank’s data capture from all the networked machines, which included a bunch of emails and recordings of planning sessions. Frank’s probably delayed letting you see them until after you stabilized a bit. Those soldiers the berserker killed were, in fact, completely unsuspecting. They weren’t volunteers, bravely leading you into a trap, knowing they were going to die. They thought that they were going to join up with us and fight you. They were betrayed, pure and simple. What you did to their corpses is nothing. In fact, it gave them a hell of a lot more dignity in death than they would have had otherwise. Why do you think I brought my squad to join them in the protected alcove Frank built? It wasn’t just to protect the remains. You gave them dignity, and protected that dignity. You gave them a hell of a lot more respect than their leaders did.”
“Thanks Jason, I know you said most of that before. I was less ready to hear it then, when we were sitting in the middle of it.”
“Yeah kid, I know.” He paused. “Sorry, you’re not a kid, but you’re dealing with some ugly shit right now. I can tell you aren’t a stranger to fighting, but I can also tell that you haven’t been exposed to that much in-your-face death before, or put in a position where you had to do something that seemed terrible to survive. It’s not something I had to do a lot of either. Most of the fighting I did was clean, but some of the trips into Vietnam and Iraq were pretty insane. No, I’m not dragging that baggage out to compare it to yours, Bob, there won’t be any details today. Ask me when we get drunk together someday in fifty years or so. Frank or Mouse will remind us.”
“That’s OK. You’re right that I’m dealing with new things right now. I will deal with it. Just being touched by something this sickening makes me feel dirty. Ayva was right. I won’t come back the same man, but if it weren’t for you and her, I think the change would have been a lot worse.”
“Sounds like you have a good match at home.” Jason said, then he went silent.
I wanted to say something but had no clue what.
“My wife is in DC, and she’s the daughter of a lieutenant general. I strongly doubt anyone is going to try anything against her to get at me, because of her father, but I’m still worried because Governor Albertson has just had a black op bite him in the ass. Giving governors so much power after the federal government spent so long chipping away at states’ rights seemed like a good idea at the time, like so many other things.” He went silent.
“One thing at a time. Frank’s going to copy Mouse’s leg design for me. I like the idea of you being faster than you are now, but if I’m going to be on point, the faster I can be, the better. How long until your skeleton and armor changes are finished?”
Mouse replied “[About 20 minutes. We’re back at the pile of pylons now. No more fish needed.]”
Frank added “[We’ll also be done with Bob’s legs and revised armor by then, and the transmitter as well. The lake bed wasn’t great for energy but it’s enough, and the carbon requirements for modification are pretty minimal, I’m mostly just moving it around, not needing more]”
“[When you are done, Frank, mind if I absorb your biofactory? I’d like to build another coil gun for Jason. A smaller one, and I think I can manage that from pieces and parts from the motors in the shed at the dock. A power source might be a problem, but I bet we can find some old wireless phones in these houses, and some old drill bits. A couple high capacity lithium-titanate batteries will give us a few shots from a full charge. It’s not xenon difluoride, but it’ll work, if I can find enough old drill bits and phone batteries.]”
“Did you also duplicate the juice reservoir system? Frank and I have found that invaluable.”
“[Working on that too, as I replace bones. The biofactory is making juice to fill the reservoir with when we’re done.]”
After Jason and Mouse were done with their changes, and Frank with ours, we gave Mouse our biofactory for his biofactory to consume, and Frank gave them a couple of the capacitors we had ripped out of the laser during the assault yesterday. Anti-armor grade capacitors made Mouse a very happy mad scientist. We found all the bits and pieces necessary for building Jason’s new coil gun, and Mouse collected the bits into the remaining biofactory.
Frank surprised me with a new staff sling that he had built while rebuilding my legs, and we disconnected the wheels off the DUCKDOC truck to get the ball bearings out, and stored them for ammo.
My new feet were irritating. Highly effective but irritating. Two extremely powerful clawed toes, each made from two toe bones fused together, and a third with the large slashing claw on it. Frank had literally taken the design straight from images of velociraptor skeletons, then modified that design slightly to support our weight.
My new top speed was fairly close to seventy-five miles per hour, but in late summer heat, I could not maintain that speed for long, even with the blood cooler. I could maintain forty miles per hour without using juice at all though, but I had to eat a lot. Jason could manage close to the same speed without juice as well, for his cruising speed, but he would need even more food and his top speed was lower, he topped out at about sixty-five miles per hour and could maintain that only briefly. We would each be carrying about thirty pounds of figs to start the trip, since we had found a couple fig trees growing around people’s abandoned lake houses, and they were ripe.
Mouse and Frank were swimming us to the northeastern parts of the lake while Jason and I slept. Mouse’s biofactory assembled the coil gun system for Jason during the trip, assembling it turned out to be a very difficult process due to the lack of high end medical batteries. Making the batteries was difficult and time consuming, even for a symbiote.
The plan was that we would run up into the mountains, send the message via satellite, then run back down to the lake, and see what was under the burned out house. We didn’t want to draw attention to the house or its immediate surroundings, just in case we decided to use the place for a while.