I walked over and answered the door.
“Hello Doctor Meilin.”
“Hello Bob Benson, I’ve been told that you probably want to speak with me?”
“Yes, and just call me Bob, please.”
“OK, Bob, may I come in?”
“Sure, follow me. Hans, Franz, good to see you again as well, you’re welcome to join us.”
“We will stay outside, Bob, and walk around the building while Doctor Meilin is inside. We trust you to keep her safe.” He gave me a sharp look. Bodyguard attitude. Expected. Glad to see it. Doctor Meilin is a good person, but she has enemies.
“I see you’ve let yourself get taller again, Bob.”
“I hope that doesn’t prevent us from seeing eye-to-eye during our upcoming discussion.”
Doctor Meilin chuckled. “I should hit you for that, but touché.”
Ayva came out of the sun room where she had been waiting. “I heard that too, Bob. Doctor Meilin, I will hit him for you, after you have left.”
“Perfect, Ayva, you were always such a good girl.”
I looked down at Doctor Meilin’s left arm, closely. I began to think I might have made a mistake. When I looked at another symbiote, I could see their processing activity, looking like a dense star field of activity. When I looked at myself, I could see what looked like a dense cloud with lit patterns in it. When I looked at the device containing Star, it hurt. The pattern complexity and density literally caused me pain to look at it. There was no indication of a symbiote within Doctor Meilin, outside the arm piece.
Doctor Meilin looked at her left arm, then at me. “Don’t look at it, Bob.” She looked at me again. “You’ve got most of it right, but not all of it. Let’s go discuss.”
Most of it right. I hope I got the right part of it right.
Ayva asked, “OK, would you care for something to drink or eat? We have coffee, tea, both sweet and hot, orange juice, and filtered water.”
Doctor Meilin replied. “I would love some sweet tea, I haven’t had any since I left the States. I have recently eaten but would love a dash of lemon or a lemon slice in the tea.”
“I’ll be back shortly then”, said Ayva as she walked into the kitchen.
I held Doctor Meilin’s seat for her, which she seemed to appreciate, then seated myself so that I would be closer to her than she was to Ayva, when Ayva sat down.
Doctor Meilin, smiled, looking at me. Then I heard a voice in my head. “There won’t be a fight here Bob. That much you have right.”
This didn’t really make me very happy, because it wasn’t phrased the way I would have liked to have heard it, to mean what I would have preferred to hear.
The voice in my head spoke again. “We are here to speak, teach and make an offer. We plan no aggression. You are cautious, and we approve.”
Ayva arrived with the drinks, and a coffee service with an extra coffee cup, a carafe of sweet tea, and an insulated coffee container. She placed the large tray in the center of the table, then seated herself.
Doctor Meilin looked at Ayva and nodded. “OK, as expected, you both have knowledge above and beyond what the rest of the world knows about Bob here.”
Ayva looked at me nervously. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Doctor Meilin shook her head. “No, it simply wasn’t certain. In some scenarios, Bob might have avoided telling you anything until after speaking with me. There were even a few possible scenarios where he would have let me explain to you what is happening to him. I’m glad he had the sense to avoid any of those scenarios. They got loud and bothersome.”
Ayva looked from Doctor Meilin to me. “Add one random unspecified punishment, Danielle.”
Doctor Meilin got a blank look on her face then looked again at us, and started laughing. “You two are precious.”
I wasn’t sure if Ayva’s face was getting red because she was blushing, or because she was about to explode. I’m pretty sure it was blushing.
“Before you think that Bob has told me anything, Ayva, he has not. I’m about as far advanced over him as he is over you. You are both open books to me.”
Ayva looked at Doctor Meilin. “How?”
“I am Argoen/Star in Doctor Meilin’s body. I always have been. Doctor Meilin called me Karen, and was not aware of who I actually was until I detected that the berserker code had been erased from “Karen’s” reproductive code. That is what woke me fully.”
I nodded. “Not exactly what I thought, but close. The comments we got from Star seemed to indicate that Star and Argoen were many thousands of years old. I’m six years old. Well, as a synergistic pair anyhow. Sure, we seemed to get a big lift from the almost impossible feat Frank managed when beating the berserker code while hiding behind Alice’s firewall, but still. One of the first things I did after merging was try to model an interstellar starship capable of landing on a planet, and consider how likely it might be that such a starship, with a symbiote pair as advanced as me, with two months to observe humans, would be unprepared for human military technology of the mid 1950’s. It was absurd. You certainly were not pacifists if you were giving humans symbiotes. Not after they started shooting at you the first time they saw you.”
Doctor Meilin smiled. “You have questions still, I see.”
Ayva raised her finger. “So this whole thing was an elaborate hoax? It wasn’t a tragedy brought on us by our overzealous General Crofter and his desire to force you to give him super weapons?”
“It was some of both, Ayva.” Doctor Meilin said, sadly. “There was a betrayal. Crofter really did shoot down my ship. There really was a corpse of mine in that ship, with remnants of a symbiote in it if one were to autopsy closely enough. I, however, had already put myself into Doctor Meilin, and was controlling everything from there.”
“You gave the berserker code to your own children, infecting them?” Ayva looked a bit sick.
“No. I am Argoen with a remnant of Star. I am not Argoen and Star. Symbiotes are a byproduct of Star’s reproductive system, they are not my children. I have fondness for them to some degree, but even amongst my own race there is little in the way of what humans call a maternal instinct. My race is more like Earth’s insects than like Earth’s mammals when it comes to child rearing.”
Ayva shook her head. “I hear you saying it, but you’re saying it with Doctor Meilin’s body. I can’t disassociate her humanity from your statements.”
Doctor Meilin nodded. “I understand, Ayva.”
Everything went black, briefly, then we found ourselves seated at the table, but it was at the edge of a lake, next to a large burnt home.
Argoen’s voice was coming from over the embankment where we could not see her body. “This representation of Lake Weiss is really quite well done, Bob, for a first virtual environment. Creating entertaining virtual environments is a somewhat lucrative occupation for those who are good at it in the universe at large. Oh, even better, in your first attempt, you have created a multiple user cerebrally competitive design, where some individuals modify the physiology and mental patterns of small aquatic predators, and others modify crude mechanical devices designed to generate an attack and ensnare the predators with equipment intentionally designed to offer a chance at failure while in the act of capturing the small predators. This ‘fishing’ seems interesting. Most races simply use nets, explosives, or electricity to catch liquid water environment prey. May I keep a copy of this for myself, not for resale?”
“Does your request include any of my Franks?”
“No, I will need no assistance navigating the environment, I would not need a guide. However I see that the occupation of guide is a possible playable role. Definitely a well done environment. This is commercially viable now, even though it is so small and limited. Many youngsters of many races would enjoy it, and some adults.”
“Feel free to keep a single copy, Argoen, for your own use, and the use of your personal shards.” I couldn’t feel my Franks. I started feeling around for them.
“I’m still duplicating you, Bob. Your Franks aren’t copied yet. You are, quite honestly, an amazing specimen of six years.”
“Yes. I have already duplicated Ayva, and Doctor Meilin is always available to me.”
Ayva was looking around carefully, I wasn’t able to see their thought patterns, either Ayva’s or Danielle’s.
“Patience Frank. Very little time is passing in the outside world. What you call the ‘perception effect’ ”
“Ayva, Danielle, please do not take any drastic action. You are in a virtual environment, one created by Bob for his Frank shards to amuse themselves in.”
I nodded to Ayva and she nodded back, nervously.
Argoen’s voice came from over the embankment by the lakeshore. “There you go, Bob, please verify that there are no errors in your copy.”
I summoned my Franks, then was startled, because they appeared visible in the same environment as Ayva and Doctor Meilin.
All three Franks were complaining, panicking. “Copying everything… setting up some sort of system overwrite… modifying the interface…”
“Franks, meet Ayva, and Doctor Meilin.”
“We’ve met. Wait? What?” They stopped, then turned towards the shore, facing the same direction and putting themselves between me and a large shape pulling itself up the embankment.
“Bob, that’s what invaded us. It took a copy of your entire self, including your brain, and ignored us as we tried to stop it. We saw it starting to make major modifications before we appeared here.”
Argoen finished climbing up the embankment. “Welcome, Franks. I apologize for keeping you from doing your jobs. Ayva, as you can see, I bear no resemblance to human mammals. My regard for my offspring, after they are hatched, is that they are competition. Normally friendly competition. The same holds for symbiote offspring. I get no satisfaction if they die, I get some small measure of satisfaction if they prosper. I am occasionally pleased with very successful ones, like Bob here.”
Ayva was barely in control of herself at this point. She was not ready for this. I began to get angry.
Argoen also noticed, apparently. “You knew what I looked like from pictures, Ayva. I did not expect such a visceral reaction. I see. A mild phobia, made worse by circumstance, and Danielle is having issues too.” Argoen immediately shifted forms to that of a young woman in a dark pinstripe business suit, and Ayva’s tension dramatically reduced. I could see Danielle’s thoughts now. Wow. I’ve never seen a symbiote panic before, Ayva can’t be enjoying that.
I spoke quietly to Danielle, through Ayva. “Danielle, do you want me to help calm you down. In your current state of mind you are not helping Ayva.”
“[No. One moment. Too many strange things happening, and no obvious way to protect Ayva. Nowhere to run, unable to effectively fight. We were feeding off each other’s problems too. Sorry Ayva.]
I could see her calming down, both of them quickly calming down, apparently naturally. I couldn’t see any interference from Argoen, which meant nothing, really.
“Argoen, you demonstrate how superior you are to us, and then you nearly give my wife and her symbiote a panic attack. How is this?”
“Bob, right now I am reprogramming your old body and Ayva’s old body. They will not be harmed. This activity is not trivial even for me, especially not for your biological minds. Your human biological memory structures are remarkably resilient and the self-repair algorithms are effective. Biological brains with this much quantum function should be illegal.” She started to mutter under her breath.
“So you are kidnapping our minds by duplication, and you will then modify the original bodies with memories for both humans and symbiotes?”
Doctor Meilin finally spoke. “I don’t like this, Bob, Frank, Ayva, Danielle, but Argoen doesn’t really understand human concepts of privacy, and has a very difficult time recognizing the sovereignty of other people’s thoughts. Sometimes I wonder if she understands that we really aren’t part of her own mind.”
Argoen turned to face Doctor Meilin, then turned to face us. She waved her hand and my Franks disappeared. I could feel them inside my mind, frantically checking to see if anything was broken. The environment shifted again, and we were once again seated at the table in the sun room, but it was late night, and I could see the burnt house. We were still in the Lake Weiss simulator, with sun room added, and at night. Argoen pulled up a chair and seated herself.
“I apologize.” She nodded to Doctor Meilin “Doctor Meilin is correct. I have spent roughly seven out of the last nine thousand years in isolation, and it can be difficult for me to relate to other sentients. Especially less advanced sentients.
Wow, nine thousand years. “So it is true that you travel interstellar space without the ability to move at high C-fractional velocities?” I asked.
“Nobody can travel at high C-fractional speeds, Bob, not without absurd infrastructure and energy requirements. That’s why symbiotes were originally designed.”
“Humans have had some ideas for how to do just that.”
“Since you have some interest and knowledge about space travel, I’m certain you studied all those methods with your newfound processing capabilities after you merged with Frank. Were any of them plausible for anything much over 0.25C?”
“No, Not really. Not for round trips.” I had to agree.
“Exactly. About six hundred thousand years ago one of the galactic races, the Kor, came to the realization that there was no real, feasible, way to travel near or above the speed of light. So they decided to make themselves immortal so they didn’t have to worry about issues of reproduction in space. That didn’t work so well, as they invariably went insane within five hundred years your time. Immortality also didn’t help them with other severe health issues due to microgravity. Their next step was to build companion AI’s to maintain their bodies, which were almost instantly beneficial to their society in huge numbers of ways. Within a few years of the first established Kor symbiote/AI pairs, symbiotes were further refined to what we see these days.”
“The same design for six hundred thousand years?”
“The Kor are VERY good engineers. I have met Kor without symbiotes, they are not allowed to bond until they finish their primary education. A Kor only two hundred of your Earth years old is about as mentally developed as Danielle is right now. Their memory isn’t quite as perfect, but they are amazing, even for silicon-carbon based organics.”
Ayva cleared her throat. “That’s all very interesting, but, ah, about our kidnapping?”
Doctor Meilin hid her mouth under her hand.
Argoen just stared at Ayva for a moment. Then started to chuckle.
Argoen looked at me and started laughing harder.
I stopped relaxing.
Argoen held up her hands, one for each of us.
“I’m sorry. Conversation is not my strongest skill.” She then continued. “I have copied Bob and all of the data in his body, as well as his Franks. I have copied you, Ayva, and Danielle. I have rewritten the last day of your life, Ayva and Danielle, and the last week of Bob’s life.”
“The last week? That would put my rewrite starting before the time of my merger with Frank.”
“Correct. Bob, you and Frank are being separated again. I cannot rewrite you both sufficiently far back to adjust Frank’s operating system to remove the berserker code emulation, even though I’d prefer to. It would just make too many things you did impossible, and drive Frank mad. Literally drive him mad. Just to warn you, there are other symbiotes that already know that what you did was not possible with the knowledge and abilities you claim. Doctor Meilin has been fielding some questions. I’m telling you nothing new there though. I see you suspected something of the sort, based on the queries directed towards you on the internet.”
I nodded. “So you are going to basically recreate the reality that I invented in my own head to try to track the exceptional things I did as a combined intelligence. The things I told Mouse, the plans I made to explain the running speed, all those things?”
“Yes, and you, yourself, will believe them. Frank will know better, over time, but will not be able to reconstruct everything. I’m leaving embedded knowledge that explains what will happen if he tries the merger too early, in uncontrolled circumstances. I’ve also told him some of the knowledge he is missing to make the merger work properly, but I’m not telling him everything.”
“Please let him know that he needs to ask me if my view of mental privacy has changed.” I added.
“I will do that. OK. Done. Now we’re done and it’s time to go.”
“So what happens to us now”, Ayva asked.
“I have prepared a much stealthier vessel, with defensive systems. We will take that vessel to the far side of Jupiter from Earth, where my main ship is, and we’ll head back to my home planet. I’ll recreate your bodies, and teach you what you need to stabilize your personality, Bob. As for you, Ayva, I will let Bob teach you and Danielle how to advance yourselves to his level of understanding. Just to be clear, to all of you. You can either be separate, or independent mental entities at the level of understanding Bob is going to be at. Bob and Frank will have the choice of whether or not they want to share mental space again, when we’re done.”
“Your vessel is a methane atmosphere vessel?
“My vessel is what I need it to be, Bob. For your trip with me, the parts you will live in will be oxygen breathing environments, complete with several square miles of vegetation and farmland. I will model this home, if you wish.”
I looked at Ayva. She shook her head microscopically.
“Can we be given the raw materials or energy requirements to make the raw materials needed to build a place ourselves? I imagine we will have plenty of time.”
“That will not be a problem. My ship has been generating antimatter for sixty-six years now, instead of the several hundred I expected. It will be a bit longer to get home, but what’s a hundred years here or there? We’ll use Jupiter and the system primary as gravity sources to help improve the acceleration curve, that will take a few years off the trip.”
“Why the rush?”
“On this planet, I was using the berserker code to time my presence. When my children defeat it, it’s time for me to leave. On other planets I’ve used other methods, but it’s always a defect or difficulty in the symbiote reproductive code. This is the soonest I’ve ever been able to leave a planet, which is good because the sooner I get you back home, the sooner I’ll be able to see if I can find another civilization with higher order knowledge to give symbiotes to. As for the specific reason why we must go now, it’s because of the learning curve. After my children are capable of addressing the berserker code or whatever other symbiote reproductive system fault I create for them, they become very difficult to avoid, and can become a threat even to me. That’s why I can’t stay long in your solar system.”
Ayva spoke up. “So this is some sort of job to you, finding new races that are barely technological, and introducing them to symbiotes? Why the berserker code at all? What happens to Doctor Meilin?”
Argoen looked at Ayva. “First, yes, it is a ‘job’ for me, but not in the same sense as earning a wage. After almost ten thousand years, I need new things or I get bored, and the more time I wander around in space with most of my consciousness turned off, the more time things have to get new to me again. Second, ask Bob. Third, I will reprogram her back one day to before my awakening after the berserker code went away, give her a Karen symbiote custom made to match the memories she has of it, and modify the Star shard implant to allow the Star shard to access the information needed to repair human and symbiote minds damaged by the grey matter process. To Star’s shard, the modification that allowed her access to all the new knowledge will carry signs of being activated on a timer and distributing the code that destroyed the berserker code, then allowing her access to the extra space afterwards.
Ayva turned to me, “Second, ask Bob?”
I thought about it for a moment, and it hit me. It was scary but it made sense based on what little I knew of her. “Argoen, do you really use the berserker code just to teach your children and their hosts that they should beware strangers bearing gifts?”
“Indeed. In your world’s case, it was also prudent to make sure that your people and my children understood that naked aggression or piracy could have a terrible price. You will make a good representative of your people, Bob.”
I actually felt a bit nauseous. All the death, pain, and destruction caused just to try to warn a new race to the galactic community against accepting gifts or being aggressive? What would an actual transgression against an established race lead to?
Ayva was upset. “You have praised Bob several times before now, then you say he would be a good representative of humanity?”
Argoen smiled. “I said he would be a good representative of humanity, not a representative representative of humanity.”
Doctor Meilin’s van left by the gate, and Hans latched it behind them, then got back in the passenger side door before they entered traffic and drove off. I can’t believe the berserker code is gone. And it was some sort of timer built into Star’s shard? One she wasn’t aware of? And all the hidden knowledge that came with it, that is helping Doctor Meilin fully repair all the Recovery people?
“I’m certainly happy she gave us all the good news, but I’m not sure why she came here to do it?” Ayva said as we stood in the doorway after closing the door.
“She’s old school, Ayva, remember she was my age during World War II. Her father served in the civil war. Going to talk to people face to face is important. She’ll do the video conferencing thing if she has to, but we were on the way to her next stop so she passed on the information over some sweet tea in the sun room.”
“I guess that makes sense. Why do you always reference ages and dates by your own age, anyway?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I have very carefully avoided asking you your age. I don’t believe such questions improve my life expectancy, and it’s not like it really matters these days.”
“Danielle, please remove one Thrashing from the tally.”
Frank spoke up. “[Danielle, I would like to add another clause to the agreement.]”
“[What would that be, Frank?]”
“[If at any time the guilty should have less than fifty random unspecified punishments in the tally against them, they should be warned.]”
“[Is that acceptable to both parties involved?]” Danielle asked.
“Sounds good to me.” I said.
“Make it so.” Said Ayva, with a chuckle.
“I’m feeling awful penitent right now, I think I need to try to work off a few of those random unspecified punishments.”
Ayva tried to dodge, but I was too quick for her, and threw her over my shoulder and carried her back to our bedroom. A few minutes later while in the middle of some very important business, something stabbed me in the left butt cheek. I wasn’t interrupting what I was doing at that point for that bit of pain, and it stabbed me a couple more times.
Internally, I spoke to Frank “Can you take care of whatever that is, Frank?”
“Sure thing Bob.” Frank replied.
I felt my flesh move, and whatever it was stopped stabbing me.
“So what is this, I wonder” thought Frank to himself.
Analyzing. How strange. It’s a superconductor at room temperature. Ah there is a message on it.
“To Frank From Bob. Do not open for one year. Make something up if he asks what it is.”
Scanning. Bob’s memory has nothing about this thing. None of his copies either. None of my copies. But it has Bob’s fingerprints, skin oils, and DNA on it, and it was in the bed on his side.
Three mysteries in one day. First, Star miraculously ends the berserker protocol and just happens to provide me with a large lump of data, a great deal of which is extremely pertinent to the combine project. Second, Karen, sent me a message by touch when we held her seat for her, telling me to ask Bob what he thinks about mental privacy now, in comparison to the first day – how in the hell does Karen know about my first day with Bob? Third, an impossible message from Bob on a package I’m not expected to open for a year, made from a material that I thought I was the only one on the planet who could fabricate – and I damn well don’t remember making it.
“What was that thing stabbing me, Frank?” Bob asked privately.
“Just a clipping from a rose stem with a broken thorn on it. Probably fell off your jeans last night and worked its way into a bad place just now.” I replied
Dammit, Bob, I thought I was the one with all the secrets.