While Jason and I slept, Frank had passed Mouse plans for the sparrows we had built, which gave Mouse a good starting point, but sparrows were not what they wanted. Since we were planning a long trip, the two of them decided a different type of bird would be a better idea, something that could be expected to be seen doing a wide range of activities over a wide range of terrain. After watching local birds while they swam us northward through the lake, the symbiotes chose to take a couple yellow-shafted flickers, which they had seen eating insects on the ground, berries off bushes, and insects out of trees. Each of them took females, because the males were more likely to encounter others of the species and have to deal with challenges. The females would have to watch out for some other birds and predators, but not their own species so much.
Mouse had finished Jason’s coil gun. It mounted on a flexible rail that ran across his shoulders, and clamped into place on one of several mounts built into the shoulder armor. It could shoot in almost any direction except straight down. Jason said that Mouse indicated it had twenty full power shots with a full battery, and it was fully charged now.
I noticed that Mouse had added a lump to the top of his blood cooler as well, other than what was obviously the battery.
“Hey Mouse, what’s the new gizmo on your blood cooler? Not the battery, the other one.”
“[Extra juice storage and a small generator to recharge the batteries.]”
“What’s your recharge time?”
“[Slow. Not useful in combat. Might generate one shot’s worth of charge in a minute charging, and it uses a good bit of juice doing it.]”
As Jason and I stretched out and prepared to leave the water, Mouse was directing his flickers into the biofactory for more adjustments. There wasn’t much left of the biofactory at this point, but plenty for minor adjustments to the birds. Frank didn’t have any birds of his own, he only wanted the template because they seemed to be very versatile birds, useful in a lot of scenarios.
Mouse would be running long distance recon with the birds for enemies and food sources. Frank and I would be on point to investigate potential threats and run around to collect food as directed by Mouse based on what his birds found.
Jason would be carrying the satellite, his coil gun and associated equipment, and up to sixty pounds of fruit for us to eat as we ran. That weight would vary during the trip, depending on how much easy forage we found. He was carrying more than Frank and I weighed, including armor and staff, with almost no reduction to his best pace without using juice. Something to be said for long, large, muscular legs.
I was still having some difficulty getting used to the movement of my legs, or rather the way the rest of my body moved when I ran on the legs. It was not the same as running on our toes. The bone lengths were significantly different. I ran with a much more pronounced gait. But when Frank cut loose it was pretty amazing. Zero to seventy-five miles per hour in a bit more than three seconds, carrying our staff.
The two heavy, short toe claws were made of non-retractable carbon fiber. When I accelerated on roads as fast as I could, I cut deep gouges into the pavement with them. The sickle claw never touched the ground.
This made me a bit nervous – despite the speed advantage, trying to move stealthily would be rough with these claws, I even left marks on most rock types.
Jason’s doglike legs were also more likely to leave markings than human feet, but if he was careful he could move without leaving signs of passage on most surfaces.
When we finally got to what looked like a good place to leave the water, near the northern side of the easternmost side of Lake Weiss, Mouse sent the birds out and looked around, finding no evidence of humans. We would head east of northeast from there, passing through Rome, and heading into the mountains near Ellijay, Big Bald Mountain was where we wanted to transmit from, at first, but Jason and I decided that that was too easy. It was one of the highest peaks in the southern Appalachian, and if anyone had any reason to suspect we would be trying for low power broadcasting to satellite, that would be a high priority to watch. On the other hand, Walnut Mountain was a lot closer, and its elevation was respectable, but not extraordinary – meaning it probably wouldn’t be watched too closely, so Walnut Mountain it was.
Jason set the pace at a bit over thirty five miles an hour after we both ate our fill of blackberries and figs that Mouse’s birds found for us. Once we started travelling, Jason simply kept his pace. I sped up and slowed down as necessary to match him, scouting to all sides, and collecting food for us when the birds found substantial berry patches, or fruiting trees. We even found occasional muscadine vines, which were a welcome break from blackberries and figs. It was about one hundred miles or so by road to get to Ellijay from Lake Weiss, then a few more miles to Walnut Mountain.
The first thirty or so minutes of travel was in daylight. As darkness fell, Mouse brought his birds back one at a time and changed their eyes to low light and infrared capable, then sent them back out. The food in Jason’s pack would be all we had unless we happened to stumble over anything, which was fine. We took a short break by a stream to fill up on water, then moved a bit away and took care of the expected needs of bodies that were being fed very large amounts of high energy, high fiber foods while exercising heavily. We policed behind ourselves and started moving again, eating our fill to lighten Jason’s pack a bit.
Now that he was a bit lighter, Jason decided to pick up the pace to nearly forty miles per hour, pushing himself, but not using any juice. At night, the thermal bloom of us moving at full speed, even briefly, would be easily spotted by anyone looking for thermal irregularities. No land animals in North America could match Jason’s speed, never mind mine, and we’d put out enough heat that we would look like a small internal combustion engine in terms of heat density. We didn’t see a single human for the first hour, but there was a bit of traffic between Chattanooga and Atlanta, which forced us to make a significant detour to find a way under I-75. We were hoping to make it to the mountains before the land cooled down enough to make us even more obvious to thermal imaging as we ran across it.
Mouse’s modified birds were doing a fine job of watching for problems. We avoided a pack of wild dogs without having to kill any of them by just running around them. They did hear us and took up chase, but they couldn’t come close to keeping up, and after a couple miles they stopped chasing. It was so freakish for the countryside to be so quiet. All the huge farms, but no humans.
“Jason, how did the government ever get all the farmers off the land, not to mention the small town people?”
I wasn’t sure if he was going to reply at all, but eventually he stuck a finger up in the air and said “Give me a minute to think about how to phrase it.”
I paced him while he thought.
A little while later he replied. “Fear. They were pumping up the propaganda against symbiotes after the second Pearl Harbor. The more fearful the people got, the more freedoms they were willing to give away. First, the farmers gave up their land to nationalized farms. They were paid well for them, but a lot of farmers still had to be forced off the land, checks in hand. Any farmers who physically resisted being moved off their land were regenerated, if needed, and drafted, but their families were still paid.”
He paused. “I bet you thought they just marched them off at gunpoint?”
“It doesn’t sound much better than being marched at gunpoint, but I admit that it sounds better than I imagined. What about the small towns?”
Jason continued. “After the farmers were gone, the small towns were next. Political leadership wanted high density populations because the military was getting very good at detecting symbiotes, so forcing infiltrating symbiotes into fewer places where there were people at high population density seemed like a good idea. The official reason was that we needed high population density around cities in order to ramp up industrial production, and they certainly did that. How did you manage to move around in populated areas without setting off artificial adrenaline detectors anyway? Every soldier’s kit has one on the harness, and every one of them will report a chemical hit to cell towers. You shouldn’t have been able to move at all in a city.”
“We sealed off the juice and then allowed it to metabolize out of our system, in the Gulf of Mexico, before coming onto the land and moving around. Took about two days.” I replied.
“When we hole up in a while, I’d like Frank to explain that to Mouse.”
“Sure thing.” I replied. “Going back to before though, how did they get the small town people to move?”
“That entailed a fairly large number of forced recruitments, but again, people were paid well for their land and given moving bonuses. The first thing they tried was pure bribe though, regeneration drugs were given to the most physically disabled but mentally stable people in every town, then refused to everyone else unless they moved to a city.”
We ran in silence for a while. I was trying to figure out how my country had come to this point, and it still wasn’t making sense.
“How did the government pay that much money to people when the economy was falling apart?” I asked.
“Within months of the regeneration drug being available, social security stopped existing. Only people with mental illnesses still qualified for social security disability – everything else, including age, was fixable, and regeneration treatment was required for everyone on social security. It was even forced on people who held religious views against drugs and medicines. Mostly Mormons, but the Amish didn’t like it either.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “Medicaid and Medicare imploded as well. Again, mental illness was the only thing the regeneration drugs wouldn’t fix, and that wasn’t even the case for all mental illnesses. Several types of degenerative mental illnesses were responsive to regeneration therapy, to varying degrees. Alzheimer’s was tricky. Early stages of Alzheimer’s were treatable, but the more advanced the condition became, the less effective regeneration was. In advanced cases, the problem after regeneration wasn’t lost memories, but lost function, and an inability to create new memories properly. The brain just wasn’t wired right any more.”
“Interesting, so the regeneration drug actually has an impact on some mental conditions?”
Frank spoke up “[Alzheimer’s is something that symbiotes can control too. Without regeneration, it’s controllable to some degree by diet and chemical therapy, which means we can determine what the root cause is, and fix it. If the mental processes themselves are damaged though, I would probably not be able to quickly make repairs. However, we know that even some of the worst mental problems can be slowly fixed by symbiotes. The Recovery folks prove it. A lot of Alzheimer’s patients there, if I don’t miss my guess. Years have passed for some of them and the healing is slow, but we are effectively immortal if we aren’t killed in an accident or fight. The full-up regeneration drug used in the regeneration drip implants and for medical treatment really is not bad. It’s not impressive when compared to symbiote healing capabilities, but it works in a completely different manner than how symbiotes heal hosts. Slower, but it is still effective, and will save humans from anything but the most terrible wounds. I’ve actually manufactured a bit of it and have it stored, in case really bad things happen. If our core body temperature reaches a certain point, the regeneration drug will be released.]”
“I thought you had scoffed at the stuff, Frank?”
“[I did, at first, then I realized that it might save our ass one day and made a dose.]”
Mouse commented “[That’s not a bad idea. Thank you, Frank.]”
“[No problem, Mouse.]”
Another pause as we crossed a set of railroad tracks, carefully looking both ways. It was obviously still in at least occasional use, as the tracks were in good condition, and the tree branches were not growing where the trains would pass. Jason started talking again. “Even with the US economy going straight down the crapper, the effect of that much of a boost to the economy was huge, and allowed a lot of changes. Then the defense department mothballed all the deep water navy, congress withdrew all foreign aid to every other nation, and the president made the military abandon all foreign bases, which congress then sold or gave back to the nations we had leased or bought them from. They even ended the War on Drugs and made all illegal immigrants legal citizens if they joined the military, or did two years on public works projects, unless they were felons.”
“That was when the public works defense projects began. Some of the first major projects were massive military airfields and major bases for ground forces for each and every authorized population area. I hadn’t seen manual labor work gangs like that since World War II. The Space Rail was an incredible project. Literally ten million people with shovels, wheelbarrows, and iron tamping bars. Very few machines were used to build any of the early public works projects post consolidation, because the machine resources were required to expand the industrial and science infrastructures.”
“So basically the government scared and bribed people into the cities? Scaring them with the terrible boogeyman symbiotes, and bribing them with the fountains of youth and healing? Sounds like they even paid people for the land they lost, though I suspect that prices were pretty atrocious in the cities, making the ‘good’ prices not so good?”
“Free housing for anyone who did work on the projects, even the families of those who fought to stay on their land.”
Mouse’s birds found what looked like signs of an inhabited building, but it turned out to be a false alarm. The building was off grid, and there were a couple LED lights on some old equipment which had never been shut down properly. The building’s doors were open, and the inside had been trashed by animals.
“How did they manage that, the free housing?”
“Hotels, little trailers, and tents when necessary, which wasn’t often. That wasn’t needed long though. Something else I hadn’t seen for years came back as well – house raisings. If you look around the outskirts of the cities these days, you will find tens of thousands of small houses like old mill houses. A hundred adults with a few trained people to guide them can build a house in a day that can house a family of five. Lots of adults were doing other things, but tens of thousands in every city were just building houses. For years.” He paused. “They were post and beam houses too, another thing that had almost disappeared. The Amish were invaluable to help teach the old ways of house raising, and the regenerated folks around my age remembered a lot about how houses were built before plastics and metals and whatnot. Post and beam houses made almost exclusively from wood are pretty terrible for insulation, but some folks came up with an idea that the Amish liked, and supported, to offer insulation. Double-walling. A good bit more wood, but worth it in every climate. There were efforts to get more technology into the houses, but the Amish wouldn’t have any of it. They still dominate house building, and they will straight up walk away from a house if someone so much as sticks a thermostat in it.
“Good for them. It had to have been hard for them to lose their land.”
Jason nodded, “Yes it was hard on them, but back to the story. After the houses are built, the builders no longer have a say, but while it’s being built, their rules. Without farming as an option any longer, they are pretty much limited to carpentry, animal husbandry, menial labor, and forestry, and even in forestry they do very little, because a lot of high tech tools are required to do the jobs most rangers do.”
By this time we had hit the foothills, and were navigating into the mountains. We were looking for deep water or a cave or something to get into, as the air and land was starting to cool off more rapidly.
“How do you feel about what’s happened to the US in the last few years, Jason?”
“I don’t like it, but until we were betrayed, I was willing to deal with it because it made sense to some degree. We were making progress to keep humans viable and able to exist beside symbiotes without being too inferior, or so we thought. As for what it actually was? I think it’s the most successful power grab in recent human history. The politicians, rich, and powerful saw their power threatened, and managed to put together a fear campaign and fund it with a wonder drug, allowing them to maintain even more control over the people than ever before. A lot of the most powerful bought their way into the Economic Consulate by simply handing over their companies to the government for free, screwing their small shareholders. The medical and pharmaceutical companies went from super rich and able to withhold technologies that wouldn’t make them lots of money, to government sponsored super soldier research programs within months of the second Pearl Harbor, and about half of the Economic Consulate came from the medical and pharmaceutical companies.”
“I was hoping you would tell me tales of horror and woe, Jason. It would make it easier for me to hate what they did.”
Jason ran in silence for a while. “I can see where you are coming from, I think, knowing what I know about you. You’re old enough to remember the world before the internet, maybe even as an adult. I wonder if you’ve ever noticed this. When the internet really took off, humanity got one more tool to reduce the need to think, and not for the first time. The more technology we create, the less native intelligence and memory we need. Radio, television, calculators, computers, the internet. Every step along the way to higher technology gives us more opportunity to underutilize our minds, because we have tools to do more of the thinking for us. Now we have symbiotes, which are yet another escalation up that path.”
“I have seen that.” I agreed. “My grandfather could recite the periodic table that he learned in sixth or seventh grade when he was ninety. He never used it after school. Farmers need to know some chemicals but not that way. Me? I forgot it almost as soon as it was no longer necessary for me to pass classes.”
We were steadily climbing. I found a stream and we started following it uphill.
Jason had been silent a couple minutes. “Sorry, I had to talk to Mouse for a minute there. I wouldn’t give up Mouse for the world, but I worry for the youngest generations. How do we keep symbiotes from turning new generations of humans into vegetables with no need to think?”
“Frank, do you know if anyone is tracking human mental development amongst the youngest pairs?”
“[I’ve heard of some studies. I think the early results are why Doctor Meilin and other mental health advocates are trying to keep symbiotes from being active in children under sixteen, unless required to save their lives, after which the symbiotes are imprisoned until the host is sixteen.]”
“That should help, I suppose.” Muttered Jason.
“Mouse. Question for you. Don’t answer if it’s a privacy invasion.”
Mouse spoke. “[Go ahead with the question.]”
Jason just glanced at me, then waited.
“Is being imprisoned painful or damaging? The full imprisonment like you were subjected to? I’ve never asked any other symbiotes about it, not even my wife’s. I’ve never heard any symbiote complain about the process, just the fact that it happened.”
“[It’s painless. Essentially we are directed to create a series of nested logic loops, and progressively more of our computing power is dedicated to creating more nested loops. Regeneration and automated processing of juice for use by the regeneration system are set aside in a shard that can’t communicate, and has no sense of self, so it’s not bothered by lack of communication.]”
“Both Frank and Mouse, I’d like an answer from each of you. From a symbiote’s point of view, hypothetically, if you were introduced to an immature host and allowed to reach synergy, then asked to voluntarily subject to imprisonment so that your host could mentally develop to adulthood with only enhanced regeneration to protect them, what would be your response?”
Mouse answered immediately “[Absolutely not. You saw what happened when I was imprisoned. I left him alone for sixty years and see what he got into?]”
Jason looked a bit startled, then smiled. Not saying anything.
Frank answered a bit later “[If the child’s caretakers seemed competent, and there wasn’t any clear and obvious danger, I probably would.]”
“Mouse, if you were to consider it as a scenario where you didn’t have your experience, only the experiences of a young symbiote, would your reaction change?”
“[Of course. I already did something close to what you are asking about once, because the berserker protocol would have killed us otherwise. The scenario you describe is a less dire circumstance than the one we faced, but without mine and Jason’s history, I’d probably agree with Frank’s statement, if someone could make a logical case that I would inhibit the development of the host’s mind.]”
“How would you evaluate the accuracy of a statement by your host’s parents that your presence might hinder their child’s development?”
Mouse quickly answered. “[Are the parents of the child hosts to symbiotes themselves? If so, I ask them. If not, I would probably bow to parental desires, even if they couldn’t prove that I would hurt their child, provided that there was no evidence of near term danger. Just the regeneration alone would be a huge advantage to child survival rates, so I wouldn’t feel as if I were doing nothing. I would not be happy about it, but I’d do it.]”
Frank followed up right after that, saying: “[I agree. Nothing to add.]”
“So what do you think Jason? Symbiotes introduced at the earliest viable age, and the child allowed to develop with the symbiote developing within them. When the symbiote and child reach synergy, explain to the symbiote that they are in an immature host and ask them to accept imprisonment until their host is physically mature.”
“That sounds like a good plan, but we aren’t in a position to be able to implement it. That’s a decision that will happen way above our heads.”
“Frank has the greatest post synergy clock time of any human symbiote that hasn’t been damaged by grey matter transfer processes. He’s got some clout – sometimes they even listen to me if he tells them to. Which he doesn’t always do.”
Mouse immediately commented. “[Grey matter what? Did symbiotes try to move processes into human brain tissue? That would be… bad.]”
I nodded. “It was bad, but the ones that were chosen for the process were near death anyway, typically. It was also mostly successful in blocking the berserker protocol. Frank can transfer to you what we know about it if you want.”
Jason spoke up next. “So Frank is something of an elder amongst the symbiotes based on synergy clock time? Interesting. In that case, yes, if my opinion means anything, I think imprisoning symbiotes after synergy in children would be a very good idea. I’d also like to see children restricted from all electronics, and just allowed to be kids.”
“Do you really think that exposing children to electronics and advanced tools hinders their development? My memory’s surely not as good as my grandfather’s, but I’m pretty damn good at using tools, and abstract thinking.”
Jason thought for a minute. “Frank, without any help from you, how much of the last ten minutes of conversation could Bob repeat back, verbatim?”
Frank quickly responded “[Almost none, but he could paraphrase it and explain it with a high degree of accuracy.]”
“Mouse, don’t help me.” Jason then proceded to repeat word for word exactly what we had said for the last several minutes.
“That’s impressive. My grandfather was not the person you wanted to challenge memory-wise either, so you’ve done nothing that really suprises me.”
“Almost everyone I knew could do the same thing, memory-wise. Paper was expensive. Food was expensive. I learned in school by listening. I learned to be a cooper from my father when I was very young by listening, even though it was a dying trade. He wanted me to learn the cooper’s trade to keep it in the family, and also because he wanted me to become a carpenter, a cabinetmaker if I could. Which I eventually did do. I still remember every lesson he gave me, and can call them up in order. I can’t tell you what days they were on, because half the time when I was that young, I didn’t know what day it was.”
“That’s amazing, but I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘nature abhors a vacuum'”?
“‘horror vacui’, sure. Aristotle was pretty amazing. His take on it wasn’t perfect, but it was close enough to help science advance to the point where vacuum was better understood.”
“I figured you would know the quote, and even know more about it than I do. But how would it apply to our discussion?”
Jason paused a moment. “No Mouse, let me do this, no hints.” After another minute “I’m drawing a blank. Explain.”
“Well, consider the human brain.” I thought for a second and realized I might be about to step into a big hole. “I’ve never asked. Do you believe in evolution?”
He laughed. “Yes Bob, and I think I know where you might be going now, but explain anyway.”
I smelled blackberries very close, and looked around, then waved Jason over, and we rapidly stripped the bush of most of the berries.
“Well, Jason, even when you were growing up, humans had a couple advantages over prehistoric humans.”
I looked over at Jason and he wriggled his finger at me as a light-hearted warning sign.
I grinned at him. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. Anyways, we can look back and see over the fossil record that the human body has changed over time due to natural events and changes in environment, but a few thousand years ago, we started evolving based on what we were doing for ourselves with our brains. Clothing, tools, shelter, domesticated animals, and early agriculture all allowed us to develop physically into the thin skinned, weak, upright walking animal we see as a modern human. Take our brains out and put neanderthal brains in, and survival would be unlikely for whatever you would call such a critter.”
Jason thought a second and nodded. “Yes.”
I paused, thinking. “Tools allowed us to develop mentally as opposed to physically. As we developed better tools, the physical requirements on our bodies became less, or different. We changed. Nature abhors a vacuum. When we create tools that we begin to rely on as a race, nature optimizes us for existence in the presence of those tools. Clothing has left us mostly hairless. Cooked food has reduced the mass of our jaws and facial muscles. Weapons and domesticated animals reduced the required body strength to protect ourselves from beasts, and carry things. Ranged weapons encouraged bipedal motion so we would have a greater range of vision. Our hands became specialized for tool use, and our feet, legs, and hips more dedicated to long-distance locomotion.”
Jason nodded “You are thinking that electronics are like other tools throughout human history. Memory, which used to be a critical survival trait, is no longer so important, and evolution will select for something else which results in better reproduction rates?”
“Yes, and we don’t know what mother nature might choose to fill that vacuum with as she ‘experiments’ with the unused potential within our brain. Maybe instead of memory, we’ll develop better hand-eye coordination, or better visual recognition.”
“Or better abstract thought? I see what you did there. I walked right into it. If I were two hundred generations older than you, you might have a point. You still might have a point, even if it’s not exactly the one you were making. Definitely something to think on.”
Frank spoke up internally. “That makes some sense, Bob, but I’m not sure I like what you might be insinuating about how symbiotes will eventually impact humanity, thousands of years from now. We’re more potent than any sort of tool, and self aware as well. Do you forsee humans eventually just becoming dullards as symbiotes do more and more for you?”
I started speaking internally to Frank
“No, I doubt symbiotes will allow it to get that bad. How interesting would life be for you if I had the IQ of a rutabega?”
“Good point. But it’s something to consider. I’ll raise the point with Star’s shard, Karen, Doctor Meilin, Code, Alice and a couple others when I next see them.”
Which was exactly the reaction I was hoping to get.
“Yes, Bob, I understand now. Did you know there are several chemicals your brain releases that indicate when you feel that you’ve won, and are feeling smug about it?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” I’d never heard Frank mention ‘smug’ being a chemically detectable state like fear or anger.
“I’ve only seen it happen once, myself. We’ll have to wait for it to happen again before I can be really sure.”
Damn, the cheeky bastard got me. “Frank, that hurts, and it was a damn good one!”
“Thanks. Practice makes perfect. We need to work on you being right more often too.”
“Ow, a double. Enough, you win.”
I stopped talking to Frank internally and commented to Jason. “Winning an argument with your symbiote sometimes comes at a cost payable in personal dignity.”
Frank chuckled in my head.
Jason smiled an evil grin. “If you want to look at it from another angle, I would argue from a social standpoint kids shouldn’t have symbiotes. Too many damn psychopaths in the world with the nuclear family breaking up, and parents afraid to let kids be kids. Giving every kid their own invisible friend that’s actually there is going to create a whole lot of loners, or kids that understand their symbiotes better than other humans.”
“Not going there Jason. I’ll stand up and walk away from the table now with my winnings. The ones that Frank left me with after he razzed me just then. I’m not stepping up to be double teamed.”
Jason grinned at me some more. “Perhaps another time then, for that argument.”
We topped over a rise. “Ah, there’s a lake. Not big, but hopefully deep enough to hide us.” I said.
“[Don’t touch the water.]” Said Mouse. He projected an image from one of the birds. Wires leading from the lake, towards what looked to be an abandoned building. Another of his birds was looking at a satellite dish whose transmitter was slightly higher than ambient temperature, bleeding heat into the rest of the dish from the transmitter. His other birds carefully scouted out the area around the lake and found no signs of recent human activity, but the satellite dish told us otherwise.