I simply stared at the nuclear warning symbol in shocked silence like everyone else for a moment.
Jason was the first of us to recover. “So much for disarmament. That model warhead was supposed to have been retired and removed from the arsenal in the 1970’s”
Without any guidance from either Jason or I, Mouse struck with the snake, severing one wire, then the other. Jason and I both cringed, but nothing happened immediately.
“Mouse, ah, can you talk to us before doing something like that?” Jason asked.
“[Sorry Jason. Frank and I covered our options on this in about two seconds and chose a best path to survival option without consulting you. Apologies.]”
“Best path to survival? How do you know? I never worked with nukes, and Jason might have but Mouse never has.”
Frank spoke up “[It wasn’t about the nuke, it was about the control system. The chances of the system being designed to detonate on failure seems… remote. Very, very remote. Especially if they have seeded these things throughout areas in the US where they think it’s likely that symbiotes might visit during a campaign of asymmetric warfare. Even if there are no people nearby, if random lakes start sprouting nuclear fireballs, there would be a lot of answers required. Even from the current US government.]”
Mouse continued. “We haven’t seen them yet, but there are almost certainly passive sensors monitoring the perimeter of the lake. We never approached the lake, except with remote biologicals. It’s pretty much guaranteed that there is a live person somewhere at the other end of that satellite data feed who has to get an alarm from the passive sensors, review it, and then get approval to push a button if it is a human shape they saw enter the water.”
“Since neither you nor Frank has seen any wires or EM from the area around the lake, other than the lines from the house to the nuke and the infrared from the waste heat of the dish transmitter, it seems like the receivers for the passive sensors have to be in that house, as well as some sort of power source. Can we confirm the sensors? We don’t really need to confirm the power – the satellite is working.”
Frank and Jason started rapidly eating all the fruit without any prompting. Splitting it roughly as a percentage of body mass. Their hands moving in an almost choreographed motion at a speed just shy of what would require juice.
“You two are talking over the wire to each other as well, separately from our conversation, aren’t you?” I asked
Both of them answered “[Yes]” and “[Yes]” simultaneously. I couldn’t tell their voices apart. Jason startled a bit.
Mouse started feeding us images of the house with the warm satellite dish.
“That’s tight beam communications coming back from the house, right?”
The image changed, allowing us to see a representation of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, while changing focus. Another bird nearby showed an image of the bird closer to the house. There was a brilliant line between the two birds, nothing escaped past either.
Frank spoke up “[We’re good, Bob, Mouse and I are running this as securely as we can. Which is rather secure.]”
The image returned to a normal light version of the house. The bird circled the house and we saw the solar panels that I had expected to see. Then Mouse started a tight investigation of the house, looking for receivers. It didn’t take long. Starting at the top of the house, it was the first thing we looked at. There were half a dozen receivers mounted to the metal bird-stopper grill at the top of the fireplace, and a bundle of wires leading down into the house through the chimney. Mouse calculated where the receivers could receive signal from, and waited to see if there was some sort of a ready signal that he might detect. The second bird moved so that the signal between the two birds couldn’t possible bleed into the receivers that the bird at the house was looking at. After a few seconds, Mouse was rewarded by the flash of a signal.
“I don’t think we need to actually go find that device in the trees, Mouse, or any of the others for that matter. No doubt you can, but we won’t gain anything from it, I don’t think. Probably better to use the birds to collect fruit. Unless you can think of any pressing reason to investigate the passive sensors?”
“[Other than doing a flyby of one to see it closely, no pressing reason. Birds will start collecting fruit after a flyby so Frank and I can see the shape, size, construction of the device. It’s probably standardized, and knowing what one looks like will help us find them in the future.]” Mouse responded.
Jason nodded without saying anything. I didn’t have any objection to a flyby either.
“Good plan. Why did you two eat all the reserves so fast?”
“[There’s a little nuke over there, Bob, we’re taking measures to protect ourselves. Sufficient radiation can alter your DNA, which would make it extremely difficult to operate within your bodies, forcing us to repair DNA on the molecular level as much as repairing things at a macroscopic level, like burns and missing limbs. Mouse and I are also not quite sure how our own storage and processing structures would stand up to the EMP from even a small bomb.]”
“I’m guessing you are using the reserves to work on something though, what is it?”
“[We’re mylar coating your skeletons. Aluminized mylar. It won’t take long. We’re pulling a bit of aluminum off the reflective armor, and protecting your marrow and our storage and processing structures with it, creating a porous EMP shielding at the armor level, and a less porous shielding around the bones. Every bone will be sealed in a Faraday cage. It won’t stop everything, especially if bones are broken, but it will certainly help if we get caught outside the vaporization radius. If we survive the fireball and shockwave after the EMP, we’ll have a chance.]”
I could feel heat in my limbs, and nodded. “OK, shielding our bones to protect your minds certainly makes sense. At the same time, if resources allow it, Frank, I want you and Mouse to work together to add footage about the nuke, and how it was wired with remote sensors and satellite uplink, to the satellite upload package. I think that the fact that the US is now willing to use remote detonated nukes on its own soil to fight symbiotes is nearly as important as the fact that they intentionally created and then provided training of sorts to berserkers.”
Jason spoke up. “Bob, I’m guessing that losing contact with a nuke is going to draw a reaction, and it should be a fast one. Even though their passive sensors didn’t ever show them anything, they can’t possibly be unconcerned, and this should set off alarms.”
“[We’ve added the additional footage to the transmission data, Bob.]” Frank advised.
“Jason, if you can put yourself in the operational headspace of these people, what would you do?”
“Hmmm,” He thought for a second. “Flyby with aerial drones, several of them. Ground assault aircraft in a holding pattern nearby. If no contact, drop a platoon of ground troops in to set up a perimeter. If the perimeter is secured, bring in a crew to repair or replace the nuke.”
“Replace the nuke? Do you believe they will bring a replacement?” That just didn’t seem right to me.
Jason frowned. “Sure, if they have one. If they feel that this program is important enough to plant nukes, they are going to be ready to replace them if they have spares. If they didn’t plan for needing spares and routine maintenance of the W54’s left in the field for extended timeframes, then they are ignorant and stupid. Typically the people actually put in charge of handling nukes are anything but ignorant and stupid, no matter how incompetent the politicians who give them orders might be.”
“That makes sense, even if it’s scary as hell to think of the military wandering around with nukes in helicopters. How many of those little nukes do we have? Do you have any idea?”
“Zero. On paper. Which means I have absolutely no idea. The number of black research projects going on right now in the US is absurd. Every state has some sort of big project. Alabama had the project to use symbiote soldiers as research aids for ways to improve non-symbiote soldiers. We both saw that one firsthand. We also both saw how it got twisted and warped.” He bowed his head for a few seconds, then shook his head and continued.
He wasn’t the only distracted one. I was still struggling with memories of having Frank consume the corpses of soldiers to allow us to escape, but brought myself forcibly back to attentiveness when Jason continued. “Some of them aren’t so secret. The government loves crowing about the biotechnology of regeneration drugs, new crops, and five-year maturity pine trees, but they most certainly don’t talk about most of the other stuff. Most of those compounds, like the ones we were in, are one-way facilities. Scientists and their families go in, and almost never leave. When they do leave, they go to another research facility of at least the same security rating as what they left. The security on the researchers and their data is absolutely insane from the outside looking in. Top tier scientists are almost prisoners, though great pains are taken to keep them entertained. They are also touted as celebrities, a lot like Einstein was. I met him once. He was… an odd duck for sure, though we didn’t interact past a handshake. I guarded him at a couple functions, before Project Boomerang.”
“So we’re looking at fifty or so Manhattan Projects, some of which are not for weapons and military technology, but a lot are?”
That made me queasy.
“Yes. Some are shared projects, like the Space Rail, which was a collaboration between all of the states whose borders it crossed. That one got federal assistance on a huge scale too, for the manual labor required to build the track foundations at first, then for the use of precision construction equipment to actually build the track.”
“How do you know so much about the projects?”
“In the beginning, when they were establishing the compounds, they used us to test the security. It’s a role our squad performed many times over the last few decades, testing security at government facilities. With all the experience we had, and the benefits of imprisoned symbiotes, we could push any security hard, and we did. We got into most of the compounds several times before they closed up the security holes we could find and exploit. There’s also soldier scuttlebutt, which we had a lot of access to, due to how much we travelled, and the number of soldiers we worked with.”
“Can you remember where these facilities were, all of them?” I asked.
“Sure. Ah, you want to add them to the transmission, Bob?”
“Not happening. Don’t ask for it again. There’s a line I’ll not cross, and that’s on the other side of it. I’ll happily give the world ammo to use against the US politically, and for people to use domestically for political resistance, but I’m not giving foreign powers the location of US technology centers.”
We stared at each other, and I now understood how uneasy it might be to have me staring at them, because the inhuman visage of the helmet that was staring at me was very disconcerting. A single raised spike in the center of where the face was, with radiating patterns of cooling tubes leading in straight lines directly away from the central spike.
“Understood.” I said. We were mostly on the same side here. Jason was probably a bit hypersensitive to the idea of his knowledge being used to kill more soldiers and innocents, after what was done to him and his squad.
Jason continued staring at me for a second then nodded. “Not sorry. Touchy subject. It’s going to stay a touchy subject for a very long time. Leave it alone.”
I just nodded. We all had our ghosts. His were nastier than mine, even though mine were bigger. I shook off the whole ‘I’m responsible for all of this’ crap before it could start me brooding again. The last thing we needed right now was for both of us to be wasting time in internal dialog. Plenty of time to wrestle with that later, if we lived.
“Back on target then. You expect drone overflight, then an aerial perimeter, followed by a ground perimeter, and then a team to work on fixing the trap, right?”
“Yes. The two ground teams might come in at the same time.”
“They are going to figure out that the damage was intentional. What do you think their reaction will be?”
“Don’t know. Could go several ways. I’ve found out that I’m no longer able to accurately guess what politicians and top brass might choose to do when all the cards are on the table.” Damn Jason was beating the hell out of himself over his squad.
“Jason, what do you think of this? I’m considering activating the outgoing data transmission, encrypted, when the soldiers hit the ground. It should add at least a bit of confusion if the source of the encrypted signal is close to an active ground operation, especially if they don’t know we’re here.”
Jason drummed his fingers on his thigh armor. “Maybe. Yes. It will give us more transmit time before a reaction, but the reaction will be faster. The aerial perimeter will almost certainly have anti-radiation missiles that will be able to pick up the transmission and ride the signal in. They will still have to pinpoint it first, and get into an approach vector to get a lock, but that will take time.” He clarified. “As soon as we start sending signal, US satellites will detect it, guaranteed – it’s not that tight of a beam. Within a minute the source will be triangulated to within a couple meters. The data will be reported, and within a minute there will be a command to the aerial perimeter here to engage. They won’t be worried about the soldiers on the ground, except how we might engage them.”
“How is that a yes then? Sounds like they will engage faster.”
“If we do it when they are on the ground, they aren’t likely to use Project Thor, and there won’t be a functional nuke up there for them to push a button on either. Even if they do use Project Thor, we should be long gone by the time a penetrator hits.”
I thought about it. There were holes in the logic, but there were holes in the logic of letting them have a functional nuke up here when we started transmitting. We couldn’t just wait for them to leave and cut the wires again. The cut in the wires would be too obvious. As soon as those were found, we’d probably have a couple battalions heading our way, not to mention we were far from any population centers. I had images of dozens of A-10’s with napalm bombs. Jason was right.
“OK. Frank and Mouse speak up if you see any logic holes. Jason you too.” I then tried to cleanly describe what we were going to do.
“When the repair team hits the ground, we start transmitting from the satellite. At that time there will be no functional nuke, and there will be some confusion as to whether or not the ground forces are the source of signal. Not much, but some. Additionally, we can’t wait and re-disable the nuke after they fix the trap and leave because the wire damage is clearly the result of sabotage. Wires don’t just cut themselves. I don’t think we have the time to try to reconfigure the snake to analyze and then damage the bomb controls themselves in such a way that will make it look like wear and tear, or some sort of leak or something, and then fix the wires after disabling the bomb itself. So we gain a few seconds transmission time, and that’s about the best we can hope for. If they discover the sabotage they are going to come after us hammer and tongs, with everything they have. Possibly even nukes, since they certainly seem ready to use them on US soil. When we leave here, we’re going to leave here at top speed, and Jason will need to disable their fliers with the coil gun to keep them from tracking us. If they can maintain tracking on us and get a substantial force of aircraft to us this far away from civilization where they can hit as hard as they want, they can probably take us out. This way we have the advantage of surprise, and we can use it to break contact. We absolutely must take out all the flyers that can track us though. What’s the range on that coil gun?”
Mouse spoke. “[Range is roughly six kilometers. Hypervelocity darts. Three km/second muzzle velocity. We can use the flickers to provide me with targeting data even if I don’t have line of sight on them from the ground. I’ll need direct line of sight to fire on them, but I can create prepared firing solutions, and calculate when I can fire based on my movement, their movement, and any obstacles between us. It will actually be easy if we’re going to be moving at maximum velocity from here.]”
Whenever a symbiote said something should be easy, I took their word at it. I would have asked more questions, but Frank interrupted. “[Incoming. Small internal combustion engines.]”
The small amount of fruit that the flickers had been able to gather since they found the sensors by the lake was split by the symbiotes before Jason and I could think to eat anything, our helmets unsealing at mouth level long enough for the symbiotes to have us eat the fruit, and then the helmets sealed up again. The flickers stopped carrying fruit so Mouse could use them for data gathering.
Jason was right on target. There were two drones and six Apaches approaching, based on what the Flickers could see. The drones led the Apaches. Far behind the Apaches, there were three cargo helicopters of a model I hadn’t seen before. They were about twice as large as the Apaches in cross section, and much longer, with two rotors each, some sort of sky crane variant.
Mouse spoke. “[Moving the snake to some heavy reeds along the lake’s edge, and configuring it for passive audio intercept.]”
“Good idea, Mouse.”
“[I know, that’s why I did it.]” Mouse replied, deadpan. Jason laughed over the connection.
“OK, OK. Any other good ideas, speak up now so we’re all on the same page.”
No more ideas came up. The drones circled the lake several times, then started spiraling outwards. The Apaches took up positions around the lake. They were apparently synchronizing their movements as well, a low speed, unpredictable pattern on all three axis, which would make it difficult to hit them accurately with small arms fire, even for a symbiote, unless they could predict what looked to my eye to be random movement patterns.
Jason spoke, probably thinking exactly what I was. “Mouse, will their movement patterns impact accuracy with the coil gun?”
“[Not at ranges of less than a kilometer or so, and barely any effect at over one and less than two kilometers. At ranges greater than two kilometers, yes, problems. I’m trying to calculate a pattern, but not coming up with anything yet.]”
The three cargo helicopters approached and landed simultaneously on three driveways of three different houses. The one in front of the house with the satellite dish was between the other two. Twenty soldiers jumped out of each helicopter as soon as they hit the ground. Forty of them running at high speed to set up a close perimeter, then on signal they started fanning out, increasing the perimeter. Ten soldiers were unloading equipment from the middle helicopter, rapidly. The last ten set up a close perimeter around the ones working on the cargo.
Jason muttered “Fuck Me” and I politely ignored him. Then he continued. “Something new for field recon units. They are carrying press gang drones. That’s damn smart actually. I wish I could kick the one who came up with that particular idea. They tie us up, we’re screwed, and those little drones are fast and agile. Only problem is target painting us, but a good soldier might manage to keep a painter on us long enough for a drone to get a lock, then multiple drones will share target and converge if they’ve been set up for intelligent networking – which I strongly suspect they will be.”
“Frank, send Mouse the dissolving solution chemical formula, and prepare some for ourselves.”
Jason nodded. “Mouse thanks you, Frank, that is handy data, though hopefully we won’t need it. We still need to be ready to take them out. They are short ranged, less than twenty feet. I don’t want to use the coil gun on them though. We can’t take down helicopters with rocks at any sort of decent range.”
I nodded. “Yes, I’ve fought a press ganger before, the first time I ran into one that was having a hard time meeting their quota. The webbing is very strong, but we can break it. It will be a spectacular crash and burn if they wrap up our legs while we are running though. Been there. Done that. It hurt.”
Frank spoke up. “[Mouse I’m seeing some minor predictability in the movement patterns of the Apaches. Take this data. Whenever they drop in altitude more than one foot, there’s a half second period that they move the same, every time. Probably due to engine limitations. Also, link me into your threat network and assign me close targets. With the sling staff and ball bearings, I can hit drone-sized targets at two hundred yards, and I should be able to hit an Apache tail rotor hard enough to cause the pilot to have to bring it down at up to five hundred yards, based on the patterns I see, if I get a chance to make a shot during one of the predictable phases of movement.]”
“[I had noticed the fall pattern too, Frank, but thank you. Adding you into the threat network. Please concentrate mostly on drones, but if I see a shot for you on an Apache and no drones are in range, I’ll pass a signal to you, we need to preserve coil gun battery power as much as we can.]”
“We’re going to be moving very fast through broken terrain, will you be able to keep tight beam transmissions on target?” I asked.
“[Yes]” “[Yes]” “Yes” Answered Frank, Mouse, and Jason all at once.
I raised my arms “OK, OK, sorry. Just being a worrywart. Now I’m going to be more of a worrywart. Time to lighten up. If you don’t need it, drop it. Drink some water, drop some waste.”
I knew they might not like it, but I thought we needed to change plans. “Frank, I want you to start transmitting ten seconds after the first of the technicians out there behind the satellite dish house leaves the area under the helicopter, rather than when they hit the ground. I want them to be more dispersed and less able to take off when we start transmitting. Transmit to friendly satellites twice, first, unknown satellites once second, and US satellites once third. If you go through everything you can detect, repeat the pattern.”
“[I’ve set up the transmission pattern. There are five satellites up there that I can detect, two are known friendly, one unknown, two US. The dish probably won’t make it through the first seventy-seven second sequence, ten seconds per transmission cycle, and one second per aiming movement. I will give a ten second countdown before starting transmission. Mouse is your snake in a position to monitor the technicians?]”
“[Yes. I’ve spotted the ranking member of the technician group, a captain. Monitoring him, he’s in charge of the whole operation. When you start transmitting, he should be the one that gets queried first. I’ll say when he indicates it’s not his people. That will be when we break cover?]”
“Frank will start a countdown, when we see the captain start talking to someone about communications security, or mention unknown signals. Three second countdown from that point, Frank?”
“That’s it from me then, I think. If we get separated, meet in the alcove under the burned house at Lake Weiss.”
Frank and Mouse disconnected the cable from between us, and tested the tight beam communicators mounted on our helmets while they took care of biological needs.
Mouse and Frank both dropped several pieces of randomly stored items that they had collected when us humans weren’t watching. Jason noticed something drop, picked up a guitar pick and got a puzzled look on his face. Frank pulled several pieces of wire out of the pouch, but we kept the two capacitors. Frank also loosened the leg armor a bit and pulled out several fishing lures and a black throwing knife from each leg, dropping them in a pile next to us, then he tightened the leg armor, loosened the arm armor, and pulled two very thin foot-long black blades from each forearm, adding them to the pile.
Jason was looking at our pile and smiling, then he reached over and picked up one of the fishing lures to look at it closer, raising his eyebrows. “Custom lures Frank? Very nice! Mouse thanks you for the design.”
Frank grumbled in my head about fishing secrets, and grabbed the other lures, burying them. Jason laughed, and dropped the lure he had picked up back on Frank’s pile of stuff.
Frank and I had a little internal conversation at that point.
“Frank those blades mount at the wrist, and are retractable, right?”
“They might. Why?” I had him on the defensive again. He was so much like a child sometimes.
“I’ve been wondering when you would spring them on me.”
“What? How long have you known about them, and how?”
“Ever since you gave us the armor. I noticed the change in the armor to allow the blades to extend and retract, and also noticed there were no tungsten blades in the arms or legs in this armor version. Jason’s armor didn’t have the same forearm armor shape at the wrist end, and he does have blades. Steel blades I’d guess, probably wasn’t any tungsten available.”
“And you didn’t say anything? Yes, the blades are steel on his armor, tungsten steel alloy, a bit lighter than our old design.”
“Frank, it’s your body too, I’ve come to realize that. I’ve known it in my head a long time but it’s hard to really understand. I would still ask that you start telling me what you are doing though, so I know what we can do. You built these after we fought the berserkers, and were having problems with blunt weapons, right?”
“Yea, in the lake, when you wouldn’t notice the heat, and we had plenty of carbon from the leaf litter we were feeding the biofactory.”
“Well, what are you waiting for, hook them up! We’ll need something to cut ourselves loose from webbing with, if we get unlucky or the press ganger drones are extremely well handled.”
That ended our private conversation. I smiled as Frank reached over and picked up the four blades and inserted them into our arms, two per forearm. The blades were double edged and extremely thin, like flattened spikes. Frank rotated them in their housings as he attached, retracted, and extended them, then finally retracted them.
Jason spoke. “Mouse wants the plans for those please.”
“[First my secret weed shedding design, then my forearm sheath blades, eh?]” Frank commented. “[Sure, sorry, I had to tease you about the lure. Sending the info now.]”
“You carried all those lures from Lake Weiss to here?” Jason asked.
“[Sure, you have to know what’s important and keep your priorities straight, right?]” Frank. Frank said this. Wow.
Jason just stared for a second. “Frank, please excuse the question, but are you intentionally mimicking Bob, or is it unintentional?”
“[It’s unavoidable for me. As far as I can tell, it’s a result of the operating system the original Frank designed.]” Frank controlled my body and made us shrug our shoulders.
“Wait. What?” I said out loud.
Jason just stared blankly, obviously communicating with Mouse.
“[Not right now, Bob. Things are about to kick off. One of the techs left the landing site. Ten seconds to transmission start.]”
Mouse and Frank both took control of our respective bodies. Mouse’s coil gun zipped back and forth on its track, testing range of motion, and clamping onto each of its mounts in turn, while the lower leg and forearm armor splayed out, exposing blades, then returned to normal configuration. Frank grabbed up our staff sling and inspected the sling string and the cup, then extended, rotated, and retracted the arm blades, and clenched our two clawed toes. We both got to all fours like sprinters, hidden under the overhang. No soldiers were in our limited field of view, but Mouse showed us where four soldiers were going to be when we emerged, and when they would have sightlines on us. Frank and Mouse both grabbed two palm-sized rocks each, they would throw the rocks before the soldiers even had line of sight on us, hopefully knocking them down long enough for us to get away before they realized where we were.
Frank updated us “[Transmission started]”
Jason lowered his head and I heard him mutter a very short prayer. If that’s what gave him strength, it seemed to be working well enough. I envied him for a moment; he had an extra shoulder to lean on. It didn’t matter if the shoulder was real or not, it seemed to help him anyway.
Mouse spoke. “[The officer in charge is telling someone that he doesn’t have people that far from his position, and he’s pulling out a tablet PC, saying he’s checking people’s positions now, just to be certain.]”
Frank started counting down. “[On one. Three… Two… Go!]”
Frank and Mouse exploded out from under the embankment. As soon as we pushed off, Mouse launched a rock right-handed, and before it was halfway to its unsuspecting target, he had launched another left-handed, and turned directly downhill.
Frank had the two longer shots, and used our staff sling. Our first shot was off by the time Mouse’s second throw was in the air, and our second shot was off before Jason had taken two more steps. We turned to follow Mouse and Jason.
Jason was leaping some ridiculous distance into the air, and I didn’t see any reason why. That’s when I realized that we were going to be running at full speed. Downhill.