Ayva, Danielle, Frank and I, otherwise known as Reverse Cowgirl, Code Talker, Dark Helmet, and Safety Dancer logged into the virtual world.
Danielle immediately started to encrypt our communications, just on general principles. She indicated that we could communicate in any way we wished with each other and it would be gibberish to anyone else unless she chose otherwise.
Frank spoke up. “Mind if I try to break the encryption?”
“Not at all, Frank. I’ll drop you out of the effect and see if you can understand us.”
“Thanks Danielle. If I can’t crack it I doubt others can.”
“Unless they have powers to allow it, like Danielle does.” I reminded him. He nodded.
Danielle cut Frank out of the loop, and I asked “Frank, can you understand me?”
Frank just stared, then said. “Based on circumstance, I’d bet you just said something like ‘Can you understand me.’ I couldn’t tell exactly what though. I couldn’t read your lips either. The encryption is shifting too rapidly for me to pin it down and decode it.”
Ayva stepped up next to me, and gave Frank a one finger salute, then pointed at Frank, then dragged her finger across her throat. She thought for a few seconds, and started moving her hands in what appeared to be sign language.
Frank smiled. “OK purely gestural communications are coming through. That’s a good thing. There’s a lot we can say with body language when we would rather nobody be able to understand what we are saying to one another. The sign language is not comprehensible. I guess you can’t really stop people from seeing the actions of others without having a much higher power rating of sensory manipulation, Danielle. But sign language is language, not simple gestures, so your power does work on it. Please let me back into the network.”
Danielle nodded and brought Frank back into the loop. “Even though it’s not much, it will still be a significant advantage to offset our relative lack of granted ability power compared to the rest of the virtual world.”
I nodded. “Ayva, Danielle, either of you need anything created before we leave my personal space?”
Ayva spoke. “I could use a capacitor top off.”
I felt silly. I had never considered topping off capacitor power this way. Physical repairs and equipment, even juice, but I’d never thought of using the personal area reality control to top off our superconducting capacitors. It took me a second or so to test the process on myself, then topped off capacitors for Danielle and Ayva. Frank was already topped off.
I happened to notice Frank making some adjustments in his helmet and armor, giving himself a black cape, and drastically increasing the size and shape of his helmet while making it transparent at the front. He concentrated briefly, and his staff changed color, to a fluorescent green along most of its length. The non-green part of the staff that was exposed changed subtly into a hand-and-a-half grip. I smiled.
Ayva said, in a normal speaking voice. “You will pay for all of his bad jokes and terrible puns, Bob. Just to let you know, in advance.”
Frank looked at us with a small smile.
I took a look at Ayva’s outfit. Brown leather riding boots with steel spurs. Faded blue jeans with a boot cut, almost bellbottoms. The jeans had a heavy leather belt holding them up, with a big silver buckle about the size of both of my fists put together. On the buckle there was a picture of a bull rider barely hanging onto the back of a bucking bull, and the phrase “Ride ‘em Cowboy” in a rainbow arch over the bull rider.
Ayva saw my eyes scanning her costume. When they stopped moving and my mouth twitched, she looked down at her belt buckle, grabbing it with both hands and twisting it up a little so she could see it.
She turned bright pink. “This had a pair of crossed pistols on it before, I know it! Bob, are A and B playing with us?”
“Pretty sure of it, yes. You saw the powers I got, right?” I replied with a smile.
Ayva let the belt buckle fall back into place, then sighed. “Bob, I blame you. Danielle, add two Unspecified Random Punishments please.”
“Done, Ayva.” Danielle replied.
I chuckled and shook my head, then continued to look at Ayva’s costume.
Two crossed gunfighter’s pistol belts sat on top of her jeans belt, crisscrossing her hips, with the pistol holsters tied into place on her thighs, the knots to the front. Each belt contained a bunch of pistol bullets. The bullets were not entirely decorative, even though her pistols never ran out of ammo. She could break them open and remove gunpowder and primers from them to use as explosives. The pistols were long barreled six shooters with rearing horses on the pistol grips. When we were first exploring the costumes, Frank identified them as Colt Single Action Army, Cavalry model pistols. Ayva had simply nodded at that after she measured the barrel length against her hand.
“I wonder why I got chaps and you didn’t?” I asked absently as I looked over her costume.
Ayva shrugged. “I don’t have a horse. Chaps were mainly used to protect the legs from brush when riding. Have you ever thought about how bad acacia bushes would be to a rider? We don’t have natural horsehide, and even horses hate the things. You wear them in your theme because chaps are used in a lot of metalworking facilities these days to protect the legs of workers from splashing liquid metal or other frontal leg hazards like flying metal pieces, etc.”
“So you’re not a range rider then. Fair enough.”
She was wearing a thin brown leather top with tassels all over it, which showed off her figure quite nicely, but not in an over-the-top way, thankfully. There was a white T-shirt visible at her neckline. She had a rifle over her shoulders in a sling. It had “Big Fifty” stamped onto it. Like her pistols, it never needed reloading, but experimenting with it had shown it would only fire about once every two seconds. She had a bandolier slung with rifle bullets the size of my index finger over one shoulder, and a canteen slung over the other. There was one red and white checkered bandana tied around her neck, and another around her forehead, with a wide-brimmed hat over that. The only silly part of the costume was the lasso – it was too thin and absurdly strong. The lasso was worn over the same shoulder as the bandolier when not in use, and wrapped around her torso four times. When she used it, it simply stretched to be as long as she needed it to be, up to around fifty feet. Ayva explained that a lasso was normally attached to the saddle. Carrying it on her body was weird.
Yes, Ayva’s costume was actually pretty good, as compared to my own. At least I thought so. The giant belt buckle with the suggestive image combined with her name provided some sense of the ridiculous, but overall, she looked serious as a heart attack. She also moved very naturally while carrying all the strapped on gear, and knew more about the gear in her costume than Frank or Danielle did. Not how the gear would have been engineered, but why the gear was designed the way it was. She knew the equipment like she had learned it from her own real world experience. I knew she grew up in Texas near the San Antonio area, but we had both agreed years ago that her age was off the table in discussions. I wanted to ask questions, but I wasn’t going to risk getting her upset about something meaningless to me that she didn’t want to talk about.
At the same time, curiosity kept my eyes and ears open. I did know she was one of the first symbiote pairs to develop outside of Project Boomerang. Some of those first few were almost completely undocumented, and had been very lucky to have been found by the Army and subjected to the prison chair before the berserker code activated. Ayva was one of the undocumented. Some of the words she used when she was emotional, combined with her ease of conversation with Doctor Meilin when the doctor came to visit, helped me understand that my wife was probably old enough to not have a serious generation gap with Doctor Meilin. It was possible that she was older.
Ayva looked at me, meeting my eyes. “Penny for your thoughts, Bob?”
I shook my head. “Nope. No deal.” I faked a need to adjust the position of my tool belt and jeans.
Ayva grinned right back. We each knew that the other wasn’t aroused – we could smell it on each other when we were, but she played along. “All right, we can save this discussion for later then.”
“You almost ready over there Danielle?”
Danielle shook her head. “Can I get some calories, juice, and a cooling system here?”
Out of all of us, Danielle had the most cumbersome costume, wearing a radioman’s gear from World War II, including the portable SCR-300 radio and M2 Carbine. The infantry boots, “frogskin” camouflage BDU’s, steel pot helm, radio, carbine, bayonet, and belt with canteen and ammo pouches weighed nearly sixty pounds, and the nearly forty pound weight of the radio on her back had a serious impact on her balance. Like Frank was smaller than me, Danielle was significantly smaller than Ayva. The problem was that weighing around eighty pounds and carrying sixty really didn’t work for her. As requested, I creating a lot of food, juice, and a rapid cooling system that allowed her to grow her body to about five and a half feet tall in a few minutes. When she weighed one hundred twenty pounds or so, the extra mass and muscle allowed her to move a bit better in her costume, and she was satisfied.
Frank and I created new staves for ourselves, and everyone was ready.
All four of us walked out of the studio into the main virtual world, and listened. Combat sounds everywhere around us again, but distant. A lot of explosions that sounded like conventional explosives. Frank and I had a bone to pick with Shocker and Chess if they were active, but we didn’t hear or see evidence of Shocker’s power. Either they were not fighting or they were not logged in right now. Maybe they ran into others who were too much for them.
Frank led us towards where we had fought Shocker and Chess. On the way, I saw movement inside one of the virtual shops that I happened to know was owned by a human with no symbiote. Like all unpaired humans, they were restricted to crude avatar interfaces, but the glimpse I got of whoever was in that shop did not look right. Frank heard me stop walking, and turned to face me. Ayva and Danielle were behind me, flanking me, so they watched too. I pointed at my eyes, then the shop, then to myself again, and back to the shop door, finally pointing down with my index finger and making a spinning motion with the finger.
All three of them nodded. Ayva and Danielle took up covering positions as I moved towards the entrance of the shop, and Frank backtracked to us, standing by the door as I walked up to it. I tried to listen and sense for anything out of the ordinary, but there was nothing abnormal that I could detect. I opened the door but I did not step inside, I just looked. There was an avatar inside, but it looked nothing like a typical human avatar. It was one of the black robed figures that had attacked me before.
“Drop the encoding Danielle, I want to be able to communicate with them.”
“Done.” Danielle responded.
It turned to face me as the door opened. “Hello, Bob, err… Safety Dancer, how can I help?” The voice was mechanical and I couldn’t even tell if it were male or female.
“How did you know my other name?”
“We interact through a more advanced GUI now, and it shows us your names over your head, as well as some other statistics about you. I know your face though, so I called you that first.” The black cloaked figure answered. Even looking at them directly in the face, there were no discernable facial features.
“We? Who is we? Is this you, Tara?”
“What I mean by ‘we’, is humans with no symbiote. Yes, Bob, I am Tara. Did you need to arrange for a courier delivery of anything in the New York City area today?”
“No, no need for a delivery today, Tara. Why are you in the black robe thing?”
“I don’t have a choice. Our old crude avatars still work, but they have always been mostly useless in the world. The new generic human avatar can do things outside our personal areas, and we are both invulnerable to harm in them, and extremely difficult to identify, making us safer in the real world, should we create enemies here in the virtual world.”
Frank tapped my shoulder. I looked towards him and he nodded his head towards the street.
There were at least a hundred black robed figures slowly approaching from up and down the street. They were not sneaking, just calmly walking in our direction. Most of them were carrying weapons, some of them of strange design. All of them were also carrying satchels.
“There’s a neighborhood watch now, Bob. When we are using the black-robed avatar, humans are invulnerable in the virtual world, and all of us can create tools and weapons from an options menu at need, within our own personal area. Frank used to do a good job here keeping the young, bored, troublemaker symbiotes away, but a couple of us saw what happened to you two yesterday, and decided we needed to start protecting ourselves. We talked to others, and the ones of us with military experience made some calls to others we knew. Fifty of us jumped Shocker and Chess and took them out about two hours after they took you down.”
I was impressed. “Well done. How did you manage that, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Claymores. Lots of claymores. We can carry them and detonate them in melee range and not be harmed. Those two were short range combatants, though Chess does have his castling move. It wasn’t fast, but we eventually cornered Shocker and hit him with enough claymore blasts that his avatar died, and Chess left the world immediately after. Claymores won’t work against all symbiotes, but our people are working together with symbiotes and embedded virtual world owners to design different weapon systems to counter different power sets.”
“It doesn’t sound like you folks need Frank and me to protect you any longer. I’m glad to hear it, yesterday wasn’t a good first showing for us.”
A synthesized voice called out. “Tara, is everything OK in there?”
“Everything is OK, Safety Dancer and his team were looking for Shocker and Chess. I just got finished telling them that a group of the Watch took them out yesterday.”
Most of the black robed figures walked away after that, but a few stayed around, watching Tara’s shop and the area around it. Ayva, Danielle, and Frank all joined me in the shop, talking with Tara about what had happened in the last day, and how the virtual world community was dealing with it, as far as she knew.
After about fifteen minutes, Tara was out of information for us, and we excused ourselves, asking Tara to pass on our location to her leadership in charge of logistics, and I’d see what we could help them with.
All four of us walked back to my personal area, where we logged out.
“Sounds like everything’s ass over teakettle in there, but moving towards stability again.” Ayva commented as we disconnected our quants.
“Agreed. There’s another way we can help though, to stack the odds a bit more against the more troublesome symbiote pairs like Shocker and Chess. The inverse computing power rule. We really need to accelerate the distribution of the storage node processing upgrade to the rest of the symbiote community. It will strengthen other symbiotes in relation to us, in the real world, allowing them to at least understand better what A and B are. It will also reduce their extraordinary powers in the virtual worlds as well, so the delinquents like Shocker and Chess don’t have so much power there. I’m fairly confident that once storage node processing becomes common knowledge there will be very few symbiotes that can resist the knowledge. It will be a lot longer before the human halves of the pairs get the trickle down impact of the improvements, but at the very least, the symbiote half of each pair will be substantially weaker in their special abilities in the virtual world.”
“You could just record a documentary and distribute it through the net?”
“I’d rather get it to law enforcement and/or people I trust first. Can you reach out to Colonel Gantt and see if he will meet with me? I can trust him, I think. At least when he doesn’t have a specific reason to be aggressive against me. He has a pretty substantial network in law enforcement and military organizations.”
“You can trust him. I’m not sure if he’s going to trust you. I’ll call him and see if he’s willing to meet. I need to look at some sample data anyway.”
Ayva and I briefly kissed, then she walked up to her office. I heard her dialing on her phone and she started to speak. “Hello, Jim, do you have a minute?” I didn’t need to hear any more, for now. Eavesdropping on my wife’s conversations would not be wise.
I started trying to sort out the timelines of what had happened to Frank and me when we had been attacked. Somehow, humans, or what looked like humans, had attacked us in a coordinated fashion almost instantly after B had changed the rules of the virtual world. They had been able to change the environment in my studio or modify my operating system to blind me, and that ability had been manifested in some sort of hand held machine. They had done something similar to Frank, when he was not in our personal area, which indicated that they could control the main virtual world in patches, or get into Frank’s operating system, either of which indicated more ability than doing the same to me. What B had done didn’t, couldn’t explain what had happened to Frank and me.
I reattached the quant and tried to reach out to B.
I got a brief one way flicker of data from B. “No. Figure it out yourself.”
Then I was dumped back into the real world again. No easy answers there.
I walked back into the kitchen and made coffee, thinking. Ayva was talking in conciliatory tones, presumably with Colonel Gantt, but I purposefully avoided listening in.
I poured my own coffee, and waited until I heard Ayva say goodbye and hang up her phone before I poured her coffee and brought it upstairs to her, prepared the way she liked it.
“He’ll meet you tonight. I explained that you wanted to disseminate one of the techniques that you have been holding as an advantage, and that you would not object to what you taught being recorded.”
I nodded, then handed her the coffee on its little saucer, with the extra package of sugar that she sometimes wanted in addition to her normal. “Did he say where he wanted to meet?”
“He didn’t trust you to not destroy wherever they met, so he asked to meet at the state park, picnic shelter number eleven at sixteen hundred hours today. He’s going to bring a recording crew, as well as five other symbiote pairs in the military and law enforcement with him.”
“Sounds good. Thanks, Ayva.”
“Thank me after you two meet and then get away from each other without you hurting him. He is a friend of mine, even if you two tend to disagree a lot.”
“Ayva, I’ve never hurt him, other than his feelings and his pride. He’s a bit sensitive there, though.”
“Like some other people I know, right?” She grinned.
“I suppose one might make that accusation, with some legitimacy.” I put the coffee cup to my mouth to hide my smile, which I’m sure didn’t actually hide it. “I’m going there with full faith and confidence that the meeting will be peaceful, Ayva. Promise.”
“That’s all I ask. Thanks, Bob.” She set her coffee down at her desk next to the tablet that she had been reviewing notes on, then stood up and gave me a hug and a nice kiss. “Have fun with the boys.” Then she sat down and started scanning her notes.
I debated just running to the park, but decided against it. I wanted to save the charge on my capacitors, and didn’t feel like jogging there at thirty miles per hour. Since going there on foot wasn’t going to happen, I went to the garage and pulled out my bike. A four cycle street legal dirt bike. I cranked it, then when I realized that I was going to a meeting where there would be police officers present, I checked that all the lights were still working.
I arrived at the park at about fifteen hundred and found picnic shelter number eleven. I didn’t have long to wait before people started showing up. Colonel Gantt and the recording crew arrived first. I checked and verified that both members of the recording crew were symbiote pairs. If they actually understood and could utilize what I told them, they would know how important it was. Their arrival was followed shortly after by four military personnel in a HMMWV staff car. The Army driver stayed in the vehicle – he had no processor activity, so he was not a symbiote pair. He was also a Private First Class, so this discussion was a bit above his pay grade. Three officers got out. A Brigadier General and two Lieutenant Colonels. One outranking Colonel Gantt and two lower rank than him. I hoped the General wouldn’t try to push himself into leading the discussion, but I’d deal with whatever I needed to as long as they didn’t start fighting. There didn’t seem to be any issues. They shook hands and the three officers sat at the table I had asked Colonel Gantt to use.
The recording crew had nearly set up when the police officers showed up. For some reason they were Highway Patrol, and both of them were Lieutenants. I made sure they were both symbiote pairs, and they were.
I looked at Colonel Gantt and asked, “Why Highway Patrol?”
“The local police really don’t like you right now, Bob. Whatever the hell that alternate you was, it humiliated them badly. They want to hear what you have to say if it’s legitimate, but they didn’t feel that they could send anyone who would listen impartially.”
“I see.” I knuckled my forehead. Worse reaction than I thought. “How about you. Can you be impartial?”
Colonel Gantt looked at me coldly. “No, but I’m not really your target audience here, and you specifically asked for me to arrange this. What in the fuck were you thinking when you made that… thing… whatever it is?”
I sighed. “What? You know how much energy and food resources it saves us by virtualizing almost all symbiote research and experimentation.”
“At what cost, Bob? Can you stop that thing if it ever gets mad at us? Can any of us? Could it just erase us tomorrow? Did you see what it did?”
“I’m pretty sure we’d be on our way to wiping ourselves out by now if not for B and the virtual world. Remember what things were starting to look like last year?”
Colonel Gantt just stared at me. He didn’t want to admit I was right, but he damn well knew I was. I could tell Samwise was practically yelling at him. I didn’t try for a deeper reading.
Since he wasn’t responding, I spoke again. “You will be in a far better position to understand after I finish this presentation, I think.”
I was introduced to the Military officers, the two State Patrol officers, and the recording crews as well, then started to explain how to unlock the processing capacity of storage nodes.