Jason handed me the end of a wire, apparently he had kept a short length for secure communications too. I plugged it in, and we tried to figure out what we would do next while communicating silently across the wire.
“Bob, Based on what Mouse is telling me, it looks like this stuff has been up here, untouched, for at least a week. I’m not sure how that makes sense when we only escaped pursuit by water two days ago.”
“It’s been a lot longer than that. The military has known that symbiotes, especially me, are more than happy to use water as an attack or escape route for years. You ever hear about what I did to the Agency, first time I met them, or to Colonel Gantt’s containment forces after the attempt to kill off the Agency?”
“I was briefed on those two events, years after the fact, when they were planning on trying to use us, to infiltrate Australia.” Jason’s hands tightened up a bit. He was probably remembering Phillips’ betrayal. “Now that I think about it, they also figured out that you had used some sort of constructed life form to escape from the west coast after escaping from the Shreveport plantation.”
“Oh, how did they figure that out?” I asked.
Jason just stared at me for a second. “Bob, they found a house where you guys left seven hundred empty bags of dog food in one bedroom, a five hundred gallon tank which had been used for fry oil storage, rental records for a moving truck which was found abandoned in a coastal state park, and last but not least, over twelve thousand pounds of shit in a swimming pool where you grew several very large biological things. All they had to do was look at Agency records which showed you were capable of turning yourself into a six hundred pound gorilla, and it wasn’t really hard to figure out what happened, even if they couldn’t be sure exactly what you did.”
“Well, yeah, I guess if you look at it that way, it was pretty obvious after the fact.”
Jason snorted out loud then looked embarrassed to have made a noise out loud. We both listened for a minute, no change.
I spoke up over the wire. “Well, it’s getting later, and ambient temperature differential between us and the landscape is getting larger, we need to get under cover and stop moving.”
Jason nodded. “Mouse is pulling in the flickers, and roosting them around our perimeter. He’ll move them if we move, but flying them around in the dark is going to be very obvious if anyone is monitoring cameras and sees one, if they know anything at all about birds.”
“Good point. The stream here is a bit shallow, but there was a pool a few hundred feet back with a bit of an overhang. I think we could both fit there, and not be exposed to the sky. I also have a recon idea to discuss with Mouse. I want to see what’s in that lake, because if they did it up here, we’ll probably see something like it elsewhere. We may have even missed it at Lake Weiss.”
We moved downstream, found the pool, and settled in under the eroded embankment, sitting half submerged in the water.
“So how do you want to recon this, Bob?”
“Spiders and Pollywogs. Tactile communication over webs. Slow but almost impossible to detect.”
Mouse spoke up “[Spider webs over land, pollywogs in the water?]”
Frank commented “[Bandwidth is going to be terrible using tactile transmission. We would probably be better served by fiber optics, and keeping everything underwater. Crayfish to act as relay stations. Crayfish large enough to act as communications relays wouldn’t be very massive, and the energy cost of creating fiber optics isn’t large either. The crayfish actually have limbs that can do simple manipulative work as well, to help guide fiber optics. Pollywogs or minnows would work fine for recon, gathering information, then delivering it to the crayfish.]”
Jason was weighing the food bag. “What will that do to our energy reserves? We have about thirty pounds of fruit left, plus what is in our bodies.”
“We have at least ten hours before the terrain heats up enough tomorrow that we won’t be easily detectable against the terrain by passive thermal imaging. This gives us plenty of time for a slow exploration. Silicon is everywhere around here,” I held up a chunk of quartz to demonstrate, then continued “and reasonably easy to work with, if I remember right from when Frank has made electronics in the past.”
Frank spoke. “[It will reduce our reserves fairly significantly, but finding more food won’t be that hard.]”
“[So, you want us to create the fibers, and you create the crayfish? What length fibers?]” Mouse asked.
“[Ten foot fibers, single-mode, should be about right. Near infrared. Don’t want to try to deal with any really complicated transmission system. We will build several crayfish to drag and assemble the cable, and every join is going to require a small receive and transmit module. Every few joins, we’ll need a crayfish as a node for data collection. Mouse can make minnows or pollywogs for scouting.]”
The construction project was pretty surreal. Crayfish would grab a length of fiber cable and plug it into a module held under their tail, then carefully and slowly follow existing fiber cable until reaching the crayfish waiting at the end of the cable. The end-of-the-line crayfish would then latch onto the cable, measuring its passage. Once the travelling crayfish pulled itself far enough upstream that the loose end of the cable was detectable by the current end-of-the-line crayfish, the cable ends would be joined in the module, held by the current end-of-the-line, and the travelling crayfish would become the new end-of-the-line. What was the end-of-the-line crayfish would then follow the cable back downstream to Frank and me for a new module and length of cable as the once-travelling crayfish anchored itself under a rock and waited for the next travelling crayfish. Something like the kid’s game “leapfrog” except combined with fiber optic networking. Once we had about ten crayfish running cable, construction ran at a decent pace. We lost a couple crayfish to trout, and Frank had to make them bigger. The smaller trout in this shallow part of the stream, so close to where the lake was, would attack smaller crayfish now and then, but would back off from a full grown crayfish when it reared and threatened with both claws, making itself look much larger. When we got into the lake proper, that didn’t work any longer. The lake had apparently been stocked with largemouth bass, which had no problem at all eating full grown crayfish.
That stumped us for a while, until we just decided to stick to the shallows and build a ring around the shore to where we had seen the wires entering the lake and explore inward from there, rather than trying to build a grid across the whole lake. We were no longer trying to put the fiber cables in deep water where the largemouth bass would simply eat the crayfish. Every loss of a crayfish reduced our resources. Mouse helped a lot with food, carrying blackberries and muscadines back to us under the embankment with the flickers, which fed themselves from the same bushes and vines they brought food to us from. If we were likely to have humans see us, that would be a bit of a worry, because flickers were tree cavity nesting birds, not waterside cavity nesting birds. Satellites or aircraft wouldn’t see the birds though.
We ended up burning through almost all of the fruit after replacing losses to the predatory aquatic wildlife. We lost one of the flickers to a bobcat from ambush as well, but Mouse started being a bit more careful, and avoided any other terrestrial predator mishaps.
When we finally got to the point where the fiber optic cable was run up the stream and around the lake, buried in soft places, and the crayfish were hidden away in holes in the soft places as well, linked to the fiber cable, that’s when Mouse started producing pollywogs and minnows. The minnows were not implemented with any sort of communications enhancements. They did have a visual sensor package to track pollywogs and stay close to them, and were loaded with a drug that would put fish into a stupor. The minnows would run interference for the pollywogs, as bait, drugging any fish that ate them, and hopefully preventing too many pollywogs with recording packages from being eaten. The pollywogs had tracking packages to follow wires, as well as compasses and automated search patterns to help them find wires if they couldn’t see the wires because they had been buried. The plan was for them to go to the end of the fiber cable, then follow the other wires into the water until the wires ended, then start a search pattern recording all they could, and return to the fiber cable with their data, and transfer data to the crayfish, which would in turn transmit it back to Mouse.
We really wanted to know what was in that lake, because water was one of the safest places for us to hide from humans and knowing about any new developments that might allow humans to engage us underwater was fairly high up in the list of important things we needed to know about, but we also needed to transmit the data. After Mouse’s flickers managed to bring in a few extra pounds of fruit, it was warm enough for us to move around aboveground. I left all the fruit for Mouse, in case he had to build a bigger explorer. If those wires ran through sandy bottom in shallow water, and there were bream in the lake, the minnows and pollywogs would never make it through, because this time of year, bream would be breeding, and would eat anything small that came near their nests. Plan B was for Mouse to make a snake that looked like a water moccasin too large for fish to try to eat, but that would end up being several pounds, and we wanted to try the least energy intensive investigation first, since we were fairly sure a pound of minnows and pollywogs would tell us what we wanted to know.
While Mouse was finishing up the investigation of the lake, it was time to see about setting up the satellite tracker/transmitter dish. While being certain to keep under the cover of trees, but also out of sight of the lake and the houses around it, Frank and I scouted for south-facing sites where we could place the dish and allow it clear sightlines. Ideally it would be well hidden in low brush, as the dish had a forest camouflage pattern on it. Nothing would stop an anti-radiation missile from homing onto it when it activated, but a purely visual search by a drone or manned aircraft would have a good chance of missing it, if we found a good place to put it. We found a place where there had been a fire recently, which had then spread down the mountain, and it was a good place. The burn had apparently happened several years ago, as there were some fairly substantial small trees and bushes in the clearing, but there were plenty of places where the bushes were low, and would not interfere with sightlines. There was even a place which bordered forest, next to the burn, and which was on a downwards southern slope, which meant that I was able to carefully set up the dish without ever needing to leave cover, since the dish would be looking for satellites to the south. Frank and I stripped several blackberry bushes to fill up, then found a chunk of quartz, then started extruding a fiber optic cable. The dish would simply be passively tracking for now, looking for satellites it could transmit to, using shielded motors and faraday caging over the main body of the unit to prevent electronic signals from giving its position away. As he connected the fiber optic strand, Frank pulled out all the remaining capacitors we had ripped out of the anti-armor lasers the other day, except two, and fit them into the base of the dish’s hardware package. We didn’t know how long the dish would be allowed to transmit, but those capacitors would allow the satellite to operate for about an hour.
As we backed away from the dish, I looked at it. After assembly, it looked a lot like a small, camouflaged expanded metal trash can, with the dish about halfway down the barrel of the can. It was sitting in a place where the sun had already been shining that day, and there was shade now. Frank calculated that the dish would not be in direct sun for the rest of the day, so we didn’t have to worry about the dark metal parts of the camouflage overheating or becoming a thermal bloom significant enough to draw attention.
We carefully traced our way back to the embankment, trailing the satellite dish’s cable behind us, making sure that we once again stayed out of line of sight to the lake or homes.
Jason handed me the wire again. I connected it, and we began communicating over the wire.
“Dish is set up, cable strung, Frank’s communicating now with the dish, passively finding and trying to identify satellites based on position and signal. We should be ready to transmit come oh-dark-thirty”
Jason reported his discoveries as well. “Mouse was able to map out a decent chunk of the lake bottom, but the lake was apparently cultivated for both largemouth bass and bream. There’s a huge sandy part of the lake in shallow water, covered with bream that are on their spawning beds – and, of course, the wires led straight through it. After he lost about half the minnows and pollywogs, Mouse just started sending them to map the rest of the lake as much as possible, while creating the snake as we discussed. We just sent it out.”
Frank started sharing the data stream from the satellite with Mouse, and a couple minutes later, the snake connected into the network directly.
Frank whistled as the snake’s systems reported. “[Mouse, your birds must have been busy, if you had the energy to do all that, and build in a fiber optic plastic generator as well.]”
“[Not really, Frank, the birds have been busy, but they didn’t supply everything. The drugged minnows left quite a few lethargic bass and bream around the coast, and the snake had a lot more room for programming than anything else we’ve been using today. See the logs? It started out at a bit less than half a meter, but consumed about ten pounds of fish on its way to the end of the existing fiber. It’s now up to a bit less than a meter, and has energy stores sufficient to generate about two hundred feet of plastic fiber cable, rather than glass fiber. The whole side to side motion of snakes swimming would have made glass fiber a bit hard to deal with.]
“We probably should have just started with the snake, I guess.” I said.
“[Hindsight. Even symbiotes see better in hindsight.]” That came from Mouse, which seemed a bit odd, since he really hadn’t made much effort to be friendly with me. I would take that as a good sign.
The snake, with its direct connection to Mouse, started to swim towards the middle of the lake. Mouse had it following the visible wires along the lake bottom, passing through the sandy bottom breeding grounds of the bream. Bluegill bream, apparently, based on what the snake was seeing. Mouse had the snake eat several smaller bluegill that were at the edges of the spawning ground, floating above their nests, not active. They had probably eaten minnows and were drugged out.
As we got deeper into the spawning grounds it was obvious that this lake wasn’t overpopulated, because some of the fish were huge – for bluegill anyway. Many of them were over a foot long. My hands twitched, and I wished we could go back a few years and let me loose on this lake with a fishing rod for a day of fishing. I knew that bluegill would aggressively defend their nests, but I had never seen them attack predators before. The big bluegill were doing just that. They couldn’t hurt the snake, but they were knocking it around pretty impressively, butting it with their heads at high speed. The bigger fish were even capable of pushing the snake through the water, away from their nests, and they did exactly that. Mouse just let them push him around as he moved forward, as long as he didn’t deviate too much from the wires, which were only showing up every couple feet in the sandy bottom, due to the fish excavating for their nests and covering the wires.
“You getting the urge to come out here with an ultralight spinning rod and a few small lures, Jason?”
“Yes, or a fly rod. Either would be incredible. These fish are prime. Won’t be for long though, another few years and the bigger fish will die of old age and the little fish will be under too much population pressure to grow to this size, unless there’s a massive die off. They will kill off the bass and catfish over time by eating all the eggs off the nests of the predator fish.”
“Agreed, looks like the balance for big fish is about at its best now, see that bass over there in the weeds? That fish is ten pounds if it’s one. Ah well. If the US gets back to something resembling sanity in the next few years, this lake is going to make someone incredibly happy.”
Jason nodded. “Definitely. Have you taken Frank fishing yet?”
Frank piped up “[Yes, it was interesting. So many variables. Figuring out what the fish would do and why was challenging. Fishing here would be too easy though, these fish would probably bite bare hooks if you put them in their nests. After spawning season they would definitely be challenging though.]”
Mouse seemed incredulous “[Are they really that challenging to catch, Frank? They seem primitive and weak.]”
“[If you follow the “rules” for fishing, sure. Humans use specific gear to fish for sport. Using electricity or explosives is frowned on. Nets are generally only used for subsistence fishing or commercial fishing, though small nets are commonly used to lift larger fish out of the water after they have been brought close, and are no longer struggling. Basically the object of sport fishing is to convince fish to bite a hook hidden inside a bait of some sort. You make the fish bite the bait by placing it in the environment around the fish, and moving it or suspending it in such a way that it attracts a fish which then takes the bait into its mouth. Different fish respond differently to different baits, times of day, water temperature, when they have recently eaten, what food is seasonal, and many, many other variables. Bob also limited me to using human senses, from above the water.]”
After he analyzed a little fishing data blurb Frank sent him, Mouse replied “[With all those limitations I can see that fish not defending their nests might be a challenge to catch. Jason, I want to try that someday.]”
“Done, Mouse. When we have all the crazy stuff behind us, I’ll take you out fishing.” Jason grinned at me.
I had really enjoyed teaching Frank about fishing. It had been a bit difficult to convince him to accept limitations until he was mostly limited to human abilities, but even after accepting the limitations, he was still an awesome fisherman. After I got him to understand that it was mostly a mental sport, he started enjoying it a lot more.
“[There aren’t many specifics in this data dump about how you find and catch the fish, Frank.]” Mouse complained.
“[Part of fishing is keeping secret the tricks that you use to catch the largest fish. Humans in peacetime have contests to see who the best fisherpersons are. The fishing contests occur within a set timeframe, with prizes based on largest fish, most adult fish, and sometimes other categories. There are some human fisherpersons who will beat you at this sport, if you limit yourself to their tools and senses.]”
“[This sounds challenging, Jason. I really need you to teach me this sport.]” Mouse actually sounded eager, almost excited.
“You hooked him Frank” I said internally.
Frank replied, for my ears only “Yes, yes I did. With the right limitations, fishing is definitely fun, I can’t count the number of times I had to put my full processing power into catching fish on an unfavorable outing. You’ve seen it. The fact that some humans can still find and catch bigger and more fish than me in a fair contest just makes it better.”
Mouse’s snake finally passed beyond the breeding area, and continued following the wires, into deeper water, with more weeds, but still well lit.
The wires led to a cylindrical package underwater, buried at least a few inches in the muck. The package was about two feet tall, and a foot and a half in diameter. Some weeds were in the way of a plastic data panel on the side of the package, and the snake had to move sideways a bit to get a clear view of the panel. When we got that clear image, all four of us were speechless.
On the side of the package was “W54” in large text with a lot of smaller text below it. Immediately below that, there was a triangular symbol: a black dot with three black triangles, each with one apex facing the black dot, equidistant from one another on a yellow background.