“How long have they been here, Frank?”
“Can’t tell immediately, but it looks like at least a year based on the remains of the clothes. The flesh has been completely stripped away, but the skeletons haven’t been chewed away by rodents looking for salt. There’s probably a substantial fire ant nest around here that entered from wherever the light is coming from, and found the corpses. There’s no sign of rodents gnawing the bones. The clothing has certainly been chewed over by moths and crickets.”
“I hate to disturb them, but I’d like to know more, and we might be staying here for a while.”
I froze up for a minute when I was about to ask Frank to use his biofactory to pick up the bones and move them out into the alcove outside the facility. There was enough flat ground there to lay them out above water. It felt too much like what I had asked Frank to do to the soldiers.
Jason and Mouse walked up behind us, Mouse’s biofactory was cleaning up the hydroponics room, consuming all the dead vegetation and collecting all the foul liquid out of the glass containers, cleaning the glass, and then refilling the glass containers with clean water. The biofactory wasn’t cleaning the dust though, just the organic mess, so Mouse was actually just feeding it, not making an effort to clean.
Jason walked through the door and saw what I was looking at. “Oh, I see we found the prior residents. How long they been dead, Frank?”
“[Over a year. Hard to tell without analysis. I’m not sure it’s terribly important, the answer probably has something to do with the visible natural light above us.]”
Jason looked at me, then looked at the skeletons, then back at me. “I’ve got this Bob. These people need to be put to rest, and we can maybe get a couple answers doing it. Do you have a problem with Mouse burying them underwater, by the pier?”
A burial. Putting them to rest. That I could agree to. I shook myself. “That sounds like a good idea, and I thank you for offering Jason. A bit of a bad moment there.”
“Bob, don’t worry about it. Mouse and I will gather them and prepare them for burial. It seems like they huddled together at the end, so I doubt there will be others, but you may want to check upstairs. Let us know if there are and we’ll come collect them as well.”
I turned away and walked up the stairs into a large area, with a kitchen at the far end, and the rest of the open area split up into a dining area with a table, an exercise area with mats, and an entertainment area with several computers set up next to one another. The light was coming from a crack in the ceiling, but I decided to look at that last, and checked out each of the other rooms first. Four of the six rooms were bedrooms. One larger than the others. There was a single restroom, carefully designed to be extremely easy to clean even with crude technology. There were no pipes out, they apparently hauled their waste out. Probably through the alcove, dumping it into the water? That didn’t really make much sense though. They would foul their own drinking water source that way.
I found out in the last room why I was wrong about them fouling their own water. Behind the kitchen was a small complex devoted to food storage. In it there was access for another tank of about ten thousand gallons, which contained water. Next to it were half a dozen well heads, and in a rack next to them, five water pumps and a rack of hundreds of feet of one inch PVC pipe. They would get their water from a well, and toss their waste into the lake at the alcove. Human waste would likely attract fish, and if it attracted anything else, the laser would handle it.
The fresh foods that they had apparently grown hydroponically were blackened and wizened, it wasn’t even possible to tell if they had been insect eaten. Frank used the biofactory to consume anything rotting or desiccated past a point where it would be much use, which left a surprising number of sealed containers of dry food and canned foods. There was a walk in freezer door too, which was definitely not cold any longer. Frank had us step back and created a seal over the entire door with the biofactory. He then opened the door, maintaining the seal, and slowly moved the biofactory into the freezer, thoroughly scouring every surface and consuming everything that was rotting. Which was everything.
Jason called out “Any more up there?”
I answered “No, these were the living quarters, but no signs of any other bodies. Bedroom count matches up to three children and a married couple in a master bedroom. Almost done with the once-over, I want to look at the breach before we go back out to bury them.”
“OK, no rush.”
I walked over to the crack which was right next to another unpowered door. Frank extended a pseudopod and did a careful examination of the crack, then through the crack. The crack was about forearm thick at its thickest, and ten feet wide, extending across a corner of the ceiling. There was a heavy dusting of dirt directly below the crack, covering a line of ash and charcoal directly under the crack.
“[Jason, I’m going to tone out some circuits, can you and Mouse check each of the door control panels and see if you detect the tone?]” Frank asked. “[Also, check the circuit breakers, please.]”
“Sure, on it now.” Jason came up stairs and Mouse extended a pseudopod onto the door control panel of the unopened door on the top floor. “Tone here. Six different frequencies. Do you need to know which ones?”
“[I’m generating six, so you have one of each.]” Frank replied.
“OK, we’ll check the next doors.” Jason said as he walked down to the next door.
To make a long story short, the doors had six separate power circuits running to each of them, but the alcove door was powered directly from the fuel cell on different circuits. Frank determined that all six upper level door circuits had been run in the same conduit, which was moderately foolish considering that someone was obviously trying to create redundancy in power to the doors. That foolishness had apparently been the cause of death for the family. Somehow the house above had caught on fire, and it was a very well built house. When it eventually collapsed, one of the structural supports had apparently hit the concrete hard enough to crack it. The conduit running through the concrete, being flex conduit, was torn when the concrete cracked, exposing the wiring directly to the heat of the coals falling through the crack. Within seconds of exposure to the heat of a bed of coals from a house fire, the insulation on the wires caught fire. A few seconds later, the wires themselves shorted out, depowering all the doors leading from the one under the house, down to the room closest to the alcove.
Based on what everyone had been wearing, the fire started when they were asleep. They were probably wakened by the cracking of the concrete. There was a carbon dioxide detector in the big room, which might have woken them if the cracking concrete hadn’t.
By the time the adults had gathered the kids it was already too late. Even if they woke immediately when the concrete cracked, the wires would have shorted within thirty seconds. Once they were trapped in the upper room, it was over. The fire above them was sucking the oxygen out of their living area, and the bed of coals from the house fire above was dropping a substantial number of coals into the room, which also consumed oxygen and released carbon dioxide.
The man of the house obviously understood the design of the doors, because the mangled knife we found had apparently been used to try to punch a hole through the door directly above the latching mechanism, in much the same way that Frank and I had broken in from the other direction. He had actually managed to put a hole in the metal door, but his blade was the wrong shape to pry the latch through the small hole he had been able to make.
Mouse’s autopsy, based on scratches to neck bones, revealed that the children and the wife had been killed by a blade to the jugular, with no struggle, then the man had apparently done the same for himself while all of them huddled under the stairwell where the air quality would have been the best at the very end. They had apparently died last year, which meant that they had likely been here around two years before that.
After determining what had happened to them, we took them out and buried them under the old pier. Both parents had been wearing crosses, but we didn’t know what denomination, so Jason said a few nondenominational words over them as Mouse’s biofactory excavated a hole for each of them, and buried them side by side. Frank created a thin metal cross etched with vital statistics of the victims, but no names. The cross was then sealed with a clear coat that would protect the metal for decades. If either of us survived the upcoming years, we would arrange for the skeletons to be moved, perhaps by someone who shared their faith. There were bound to be people who could identify them and knew their religion. For that matter, the computers in the facility would likely tell us, which might allow us to add names to the crosses.
We returned to the facility, repaired the wiring, sealed the concrete crack, and did a thorough inventory of the place. We found several other interesting features like a huge mass of steel that apparently was a part of an aboveground sculpture, painted black. The underground part was a massive heat sink, which was used to heat both bathing water and the facility itself with water pipes in the floors. All in all, someone had spent lavish amounts of money to create a very well designed facility. If it hadn’t been for the house above catching on fire, and the poor choice of putting all the door power circuits in one conduit, we probably would have found them alive.
We found out why the freezer and other lights in the facility were out. The system was on a smart power network. If no power use changes were detected in a day, the lights would dim. After two days with no usage changes, all computers except the control node would power down, after three days the generator would charge the fuel cell completely, and everything but the hydroponics and freezer would depower. After a week, everything except the doors, laser, control node, fuel cell, generator, and emergency lighting for the utility sections would be without power. The generator would turn itself on every time the fuel cell reached half capacity. Why anyone would put this much effort into preserving the facility for people after they were gone seemed a puzzle, but I wrote it off to the same mentality as folks in the days of pioneers who would keep trail cabins stocked with firewood, bedding, salt, and maybe even a bit of food.
Jason, Mouse, Frank, and I spent the next two days agreeing to a course of action, then the next two weeks after that designing, scavenging, and building the vehicles we would use to take the fight to Governor Albertson, who we all agreed would be a good target. I tried to make the case to destroy the Space Rail, but Jason wouldn’t go for that. National infrastructure was out. It was his opinion that if we could cut down enough of the weeds, we might get some good people in charge of things, who would make peace with symbiotes and use the Space Rail for the benefit of the world. I chose not to try to disabuse him of this idea, despite the last century or so of governance in the US proving that politicians were only getting worse on average, not better. Trying to pop that bubble would probably start a fight, which would be a waste of a lot of resources, and might leave one of us dead. Since we could agree on the governor as a target, there was no need to go down that path.
Since it was obvious by how we had been led into a trap that Frank and I were not exactly superspies, we didn’t even consider that route to gather information and figure out when and where we would attack. This time around we didn’t use ourselves to gather information, we’d do it all remotely. We wouldn’t use animal-looking constructs made with human DNA, which could be tracked by human scent. We also wouldn’t use free flying insects with circuit boards which, we discovered, were actually fairly easy to spot using thermal imaging when they transmitted. Facepalm.
What we ended up deciding to do was use fully artificial spiders and birds to run fiber optic cables and operate passive sensors. False owls ran cable at night, almost exclusively above the ground on trees, bushes, fences, or telephone poles. False spiders hitched rides on the false owls, jumping off periodically and creating artificial webs out of real spider silk carried with them. The spiders had no transmitter other than a simple data connection. They monitored various small passive sensor modules hidden around their webs, and every now and then would deliver the sensor take to the solar powered fiber optic transmitter near their web, which would transmit back to the Lake Weiss network.
Out of all the roads in the old road network, only interstate highways were still active outside city areas. We put sensors along them. All of them. We also put sensor nets at the outskirts of every city, monitoring in, and out. None of it was biological, so it was actually a fairly simple task for Frank. He just created a small biocomputer to handle the input from about half a million different sensor nodes, and we started figuring out the governor’s patterns. The data was encrypted, but the usage of encrypted data was itself a signal. They were smart enough to use multiple decoy security teams in different places, and rotate encryption, but there were patterns to those behaviors as well. It really didn’t take long for Frank and Mouse to be able to track the governor with a high degree of accuracy, based on patterns of deployment, the number of communications from decoy and non-decoy groups, and the number of communications to and from local law enforcement by the decoy and non-decoy groups. Average volume and speed of speaking voices over the radio was probably the most telling clues. The teams with the governor almost always spoke louder and faster, even if their crypto was good enough to keep us from understanding what they were actually saying.
While Frank was building the network, Mouse, Jason, and I were working on our own version of a light armored vehicle. We were sick and tired of being chased. This time around, we were going to do the chasing. Rather than biological muscles and organs, with carbon fiber and graphene bones, the vehicles were double-hulled carbon fiber exoskeletons, with carbon fiber muscles both inside and outside the inner exoskeleton. Between the layers of exoskeleton, there was a tight grid of carbon nanotubes, the space between filled with water. The water was connected to an electric power generation system.
Jason and I rebuilt the security laser and tested it on the vehicle armor, and all it did was heat up the water, spin the generator, and charge the batteries. We then compared the performance of the security laser to the lasers we had actually seen in action, and the security laser was a good bit weaker than a standard anti-personnel laser. We eventually upgraded the laser and the vehicle armor so that we were firing anti-armor lasers at the vehicle, and it was absorbing or deflecting almost all of it. Not perfect, but what we had was good enough.
We had not built small. We couldn’t. Not and have a chance of survival in a straight up fight . We had to carry a lot of power with us, we had to be able to haul around a lot of water, a generator, and a biocomputer, plus the drivers, of course. The governor travelled in armored vehicles that Mouse doubted his railgun could penetrate. They were essentially heavy armored vehicles, without heavy armament. We were fortunate that the government hadn’t been able to perfect molecular construction to the point that they could build coil guns as compact and powerful as symbiotes. The smallest coil guns we knew of that the government had which could hurt our vehicles were mounted in heavy armor. We both agreed that unless the governor was hiding behind them, if we saw anything with heavy armor and a coil gun, we would run the other way. If we could lure heavy armored vehicles into any sort of usable cover for us, our vehicles should be able to destroy them in close combat.
As a side effect of our vehicles’ limited ranged weapon power, when we caught up with the governor, we were going to have to tear his vehicle apart with the legs of our vehicles. There wasn’t enough room inside or outside to build a secondary power source capable of powering a laser or coil gun that could punch through the governor’s armored vehicle quickly. The power required to move our vehicles rapidly enough to be viable against what we expected to fight, however, was more than sufficient to cut through battleship armor, if it were redirected to that purpose, and if there were any battleships left.
Each vehicle was roughly eight tons. About five hundred pounds of it were the biocomputers and the pilot. About one ton of it was carbon fiber armor and muscles. Another ton was the generator system. About three quarters of a ton were chaff dispensers, sensors, and four coil guns with their own battery system, which could also recharge off the generator. One ton of the machine was devoted to large diamond and carbon fiber armor shields and the hundreds of small waldos that carried them, mounted around the body to reflect or deflect high power energy or physical attacks. Roughly three tons of the vehicle was water, and one ton was juice.
Carbon fiber muscles were less precise than organic symbiote-controlled muscle, but for a vehicle they were just fine, especially a vehicle with twenty long legs. We had not taken the vehicles out of the water yet, because they were too large and generated too much heat to hide in atmosphere. Even underwater we carefully restricted testing in order to prevent ourselves from heating the water noticeably. About a week after the sensor network had been laid down, and a couple days after finishing touches were put on the vehicles, Frank advised us that the governor was moving, rapidly, headed North, and his decoy teams were not deployed.
Either this was a decoy, a different method than the governor had used before, or he had a reason to be moving extremely rapidly. Perhaps the network had somehow been compromised or detected? Neither Frank nor Mouse could find any sign of our surveillance network being compromised, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t found and recognized, but not interfered with.
The governor rarely did anything without a lot of planning. The security team chatter was full of confusion. Some of them were even transmitting in the clear, using cellphones to call one another to try to figure out what was going on.
Jason and I looked at each other, trying to see if maybe the other had some clever insight that would make the decision easy. We were both drawing blanks and shook our heads at each other. Our symbiotes weren’t willing to commit either. This was too far outside established patterns, but we hadn’t been watching patterns long enough to be sure how far. For all we knew, the governor’s security staff enacted something like this once a month just to flush out people like us. They also knew that Jason and I were near this area as recently as about two weeks ago at Walnut Mountain. No telling. Too many variables.
I decided to play aggressively and see if Jason was up for it. “I don’t know about you, Jason, but I’ve had enough sitting on my ass for the last couple weeks. I need something to do, and I think this fits the bill.”
Jason grinned back. “Sounds like a plan to me, I’ve never been partial to collecting ass-callouses myself.”
We both jumped up and put on our armor, while our symbiotes stuffed us full of high energy foods, expanding our stomachs to allow for the excess. No telling what this future might bring.
I hit the water first, but Jason’s more powerful legs with more swimming surface area let him beat me to the depression in the lake bottom that our symbiotes had used their factories to build. We worked together to pull the weighted netting off the top of the hole, which stirred up a lot of muck, making it difficult to see, but our symbiotes didn’t care.
I carefully bypassed all the very sharp edges and located the pilot entrance, which was in a different place from where I thought it would be. Wave action from the storm last night, probably.
I settled into the fourteen-point harness system. Frank started checklists while using pseudopods to tighten the straps at ankles, knees, wrists, elbows, head, and the five point standard crash harness at our chest, leaving us in a fetal position in the middle of the gyroscopic pilot contraption. We were not attached to any wiring or devices other than being strapped in. Our symbiotes would be driving these things with help from several substantial biocomputers. No human could hope to begin to pilot a vehicle this complex into combat, effectively, though even a human child could drive it well enough to move around, if one got the chance.
Frank and Mouse had taken the plans that Jason and I had cobbled together on printer paper and built the vehicles with degrees of complexity so extreme that they required additional computers to manage. When the symbiotes had mentioned the need for several biocomputers per vehicles, I had challenged them on it, and Frank gave me a virtual reality tour of the design as it was at that point. I had seen something a lot like it before, but never even considered the shape for a combat vehicle. The plans Jason and I drew had morphed. Drastically. What had once been crab-like now wasn’t.
With such incredible degrees of complexity, I tried to convince Frank and Mouse to let us do more test runs, but they refused, due to the possibility of creating detectable heat or sediment patterns in the lake. Frank summed up his opinion of my request by stating simply: “Testing is for sentients who make mistakes. Trust us on engineering.”
Jason’s voice came up on the communications channel. “I know you’re over there trying to think of something clever or silly to say right before we move out. Don’t bother. Let’s just go kill the bastard.”