Chapter 4.8: Homefront

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I looked out at all the people in front of me.  Nobody terribly powerful or important, but they all had their own bit of power.  They also all had access to lots of other people in law enforcement or the military.  Even though the impartiality of law enforcement and the military was still cautiously debated amongst some circles, they were the first group outside of people Ayva and I both knew and trusted who would be given this knowledge.

I considered Colonel Gantt outside the “trusted” group because I could only trust him to do what he saw as his duty, rather than what he saw as morally right.  He’d hate himself for it afterwards, but he’d do his “duty.”  To some degree I could respect that, but if I had known him as well in Shreveport as I knew him today, I probably would have killed him there.  The best way I could explain it would be to say he was a remorseful killer.  If you could come up with a justifiable explanation for an atrocity, you could hand the job to Colonel Gantt, and it would get done.  If he found out that you had fed him a line of bullshit, and made him do something that didn’t “need” to be done, I had a strong suspicion you’d have to watch your ass forever.  I had to acknowledge that doing that sort of thing hurt him.  I’d heard some of his nightmares while we were barracked near one another as I helped to rehabilitate the symbiotes of recovery members, while he was learning to live with his own symbiote.  I’d also seen some of the haunted looks when he was around the Agency child symbiote pairs that he had almost managed to kill in the diesel fuel warehouse trap.

Colonel Gantt watched me watching him.  I’d told him straight up what I thought of his morals and duty at one point during a heated argument, and he’d thrown an argument right back at me that I was maybe a bit more moral, but far less controlled.  Then he continued and claimed that uncontrolled morality was more dangerous than morality controlled by pragmatism.  It made me very angry at myself to do it, but I had to acknowledge that he was right, on the surface.  That argument of his had gained a lot of weight with me after I started comparing it to my actions in the US.  I prevented myself from shuddering after merely brushing up against some of those memories.

The general purposefully cleared his throat, and I turned my head to face him.  “Mr. Benson, I understand that you and Colonel Gantt have a bit of history, and the events at the jail recently stirred up a lot of old issues, but you called us here to speak to us, not to have a staring contest with him, correct?”

I could feel myself blushing a bit in embarrassment, and I nodded to him, then started to speak.

I looked at the six people in front of me, four men, two women, and started to talk.

“Many, if not most of you, either have children of your own, or have close friends or family with children.  It’s not necessary to have children to intellectually understand where I am coming from in my next few statements, but I think it will help you understand my point of view here.”

I passed my eyes over the people watching me, not making eye contact, just looking over their heads, making myself appear to be directly engaging each of them.  A sort of orator’s trick I learned years and years ago in high school when a teacher saw me struggling with presentations of papers in English class, and passed me a small pamphlet on public speaking.

“Years ago, Frank, my symbiote, modified his operating system.  We never tried to deny doing that, but even I wasn’t aware of how much of an advantage over normal symbiotes this new operating system gave Frank.  For years he never told me, while he was devoting huge chunks of his advanced processing capacity to two projects.  Firstly, self-improvement on his part, for himself, mostly centered on quantum mechanics studies.  Secondly, a study on myself and himself to be able to better understand me.”

They were all still listening politely, their symbiotes were all churning over the data but there was no sign of critical peaking of processing power, so the symbiotes were calm as well as their hosts.

“Eventually, what resulted was Frank being able to understand us well enough that, when we were nearly killed, he was able to use archived versions of my brain’s state data with his own archival data to merge our minds into a gestalt.  We were apparently premature in that attempt.  Somehow, we drew Argoen’s attention, and they came and reversed what we had done to ourselves, then left breadcrumbs down the path to actually doing it right at a later time.  Our prior self apparently expected this to occur, or assigned it a high probability, as they left two messages for us.  One clarified how bad it would be to try to merge again without learning enough, and the other which was simply designed to delay us with the promise of insightful knowledge which we needed to be ready for.”

All the symbiotes were now processing much more heavily, and their resources were devoted to fewer tasks.  The expressions on the faces of the humans had not changed.

“The ‘insightful knowledge’ provided by our prior self actually had two purposes.  It did delay us longer than we would have waited otherwise, and Frank used that study time well.  The other purpose was to enact a practical joke on Frank, but I’ll let him tell that story another day if he feels like it.”

Some small smiles on the faces of the humans.  Lots of processor activity in the symbiotes.

“So, a year ago, Frank and I merged again, in a much more careful and controlled environment, and we were successful in doing what we wanted to do.  The entity known as B is the gestalt of myself and Frank, but it has been edited.  A lot of instinctual behaviors have been removed.  Fight or Flight reflexes mostly, but some other atavistic biological throwback behaviors too.  Not all of them though.  Mammalian child rearing instincts to preserve and protect children were definitely maintained.  A predilection for inward thinking was nursed, and a natural caution was strongly enhanced.  B is much, much more thoughtful and calculating than I ever will be.”

Extreme levels of symbiote activity.  Definite communication between hosts and symbiotes.  I noticed the general passing wires to his two Lieutenant Colonels, and saw that they were communicating by wire like Mouse and I had done underwater at Lake Weiss.  I gave them a few moments to think to themselves, then continued.

“B’s primary purpose is to protect us from ourselves, to ensure the survival of humanity, and not just human and symbiote pairs, but unpaired humans as well.  He does that mostly by giving symbiotes a virtual reality where experiments can use virtual resources, but he’s definitely not limited to that, as we all saw the other day.  I was unaware that he had reached such a level of capability until he demonstrated it.”

More high levels of symbiote activity.

“So B is a gestalt of myself and Frank, with careful edits to atavistic biological instincts and an enhanced tendency to plan and think in advance, rather than charging in headfirst like I tend to do.  I know that you are a bit confused though – where does this body come from, if B was Frank and I merged?”

Big spike in mental and processing activity, human and symbiote.  Being able to watch your crowd and see how busy their minds are is pretty nice, even if you can’t tell exactly what they are thinking.

“This body was created by B and mine and Frank’s minds reconstituted into it in such a way that Frank and I are a little bit more separate in our thoughts than we had been when we created B.  Our natural convergence was arrested.  At the same time, I was provided with a crude ability to interface directly with the processing capacity of Frank’s processing nodes.  I can essentially borrow processing capacity from him, if he agrees.  He generally leaves me a few percentage points of his processor power for my own use, but it’s a tool, not a part of me, so I don’t feel as if I must always keep it actively processing.  I can also see what he’s doing internally.  He can still hide things from me, but it’s much harder for him.”

I paused.  And watched.  The human interaction with the symbiotes at this point was pretty amusing.  Some of them were unchanged, but in a couple of them, the symbiotes were clearly a bit on the defensive.

“In essence, Frank and I merged, and then the merged being created a new entity to replace my human self.  I am mostly myself, including the mental bits and pieces, but my interaction with Frank has a limiter on it that will keep me from ever being able to merge into another being like B.  I’m also not given free reign of system resources.  I have to actively request them.  I can try to take them, but Frank and I have experimented, and it’s very easy for him to block my attempts if I try to take resources from him without asking.  When I am in the virtual worlds, this means that I have access to the resources in my body, since we manifest in separate bodies.  Any questions so far?”

No.  Apparently not.  Either no reaction, or a negating indication from each of them.

“A couple months after B was created, while the three of us were still communicating regularly, we all three worked to help prepare Ayva make the same conversion we did.  With B’s assistance to educate Ayva’s symbiote Danielle, and provide her with an embedded virtual world to model in, everything went extremely well.  A second gestalt entity was created, named ‘A’.  Shortly after A was created, a version of Ayva, altered in much the same way as I was modified, was created to return to interact with the rest of the world.  A’s purpose is much like B’s purpose, but more dedicated towards the future.

I paused to watch their reactions to the existence of a second being like B.  More chaotic interactivity.  Some frowns.  No reaching for pistols.

“Right now, A is starting the process of terraforming Mars.  It’s not very visible yet, but a close inspection of the surface will start to see the networks of terraforming devices that she is preparing.  Soon, she will be bringing materials from the asteroid belts and from gas giant moons to provide more materials required for a thicker atmosphere.  The whole gravity and atmosphere issue will also be addressed.  I’ve seen the brief outline of the plans, and it’s not that complex, except for the part about reprogramming a lot of mass at the core of Mars to give the planet an Earth normal gravity so its atmosphere will mostly stay put.  Everything else we can understand, but have simply never had the engineering or space industry capabilities to manage before.  In a few years, Mars will be inhabitable.  In twenty years, it will be Earthlike.  Then A will move to Venus, which will take a lot more time to terraform, but it will be complete within fifty years after Mars is finished.  After that, A will assess space industry needs and determine what role will best suit her, either active massive project construction, or simply as a mostly sessile virtual world generator like B.”

The general spoke up.  “This is very interesting and answers a great deal of questions, presuming it’s all accurate.  Which is speculative considering the power levels of the beings that you and your wife generated.  How does this little history lesson have anything to do with teaching us something?  How does any of this have anything to do with children as you mentioned before?”

“It’s background data, but related.  Ayva and I are tired of being the only two people in the world who know about A and B.  They are more than capable of taking care of themselves now, even if we allow every person on the planet to be as knowledgeable and capable as myself and Ayva.  Don’t take offense, please, but with the exception of psychological status, you are all children to me and Ayva, even the people who we know as friends.  Everyone’s been kept in the dark because we needed to protect A and B at first, but that stage was over a long time ago, since then it’s just been inertia keeping us from doing this.  It’s time to let you all grow up.”

That created a massive reaction in the symbiotes, and a bit of the same with the humans.

Colonel Gantt spoke up, despite a glare from the general, who was preparing to ask another question. “Bob, we’ve always known you were a lot more capable than you gave yourself credit for, but it sounds like you are telling us that we were very wrong about how capable you are.  Can you clarify how much of a difference we’re talking about here?”

The general stopped looking annoyed, and looked thoughtful, watching me as I answered.

“First things first.  A message to your symbiotes: I know what your reaction to this will be – control it.”  The humans and symbiotes of my guests conversed for a bit then I continued.  “On the day that Frank and I managed to cure ourselves of the berserker protocol, the operating system changes he made gave Frank the ability to utilize all storage and processor nodes as both storage and processing nodes, simultaneously.  Since that point, starting with nearly six hundred times the processing power of a normal symbiote of that age, Frank has put vast amounts of study into self-improvement.  Your symbiotes can do the math from there.  Try to convince them not to try to kill me, it would be embarrassing, and it won’t work.”

I was actually surprised by their physical calmness.  One of the two Highway Patrol officers put a hand to their side, reaching for their pistol, but that’s as far as that went.

The other Highway Patrol officer cleared their throat.  “So why give up this advantage you have?  Are you really planning on giving us this operating system enhancement, or are you going to tell us about it, then give us something else?”

I nodded to them “This is where the child comparison comes in.  Children, especially once they get to the age where they can converse intelligently, can be interesting companions for a while, but they tend to wear on the patience of adults, even if they are very socially adroit children.  I had a very difficult time maintaining my relationship with Ayva while I was advanced so highly above her, and it’s difficult to spend more than a little time amongst others now, who can’t see things the way I do.  That problem is nowhere near as bad now, after the modifications B made to me and A duplicated in Ayva.  B informed me the other day that he and A had made these changes in how symbiote and human hosts interact part of the development cycle of all symbiotes, it will not be necessary for everyone to get a rebuild like Ayva and I did.”

The general spoke up again.  “So this distribution of knowledge is simply to allow us to ‘grow up’ faster now that B is capable of defending itself against us and meeting human symbiote pair virtual world needs for research and experimentation.  Alto is very much interested in learning what you have to teach.  At the same time, I am curious.  Colonel Gantt, what’s your take on this.  You’re the ‘Bob expert’ here.”

Colonel Gantt just stared at me for a minute.  “Bob’s never been one to hoard personal power, but Frank certainly has been in the past.  Hiding it even from Bob himself, if our information is correct.  If they have reached a state where Bob and Frank have merged, everything I understand about them is suspect.  If he’s telling the truth about his processing power and the duration of that period of advantage is real, anything I think about him might be completely false.  He would have the capacity to fool me easily.”

I replied.  “You have a point, I can’t prove my integrity to you in any other way than simply showing you.  So let’s get started, shall we?”

I started to explain to them what their symbiotes would need to do in order to self-modify.  Frank also helped.  When it was all said and done, there were six very self-involved symbiotes trying to reorganize themselves while their human hosts asked me questions about A and B.

None of them were happy about beings with the power of A and B being uncontrolled, or uncontrollable, but everyone understood why I had done what I had done.  Intellectually at least.  Symbiotes could use hundreds or even thousands of times more biomass and energy than a human in a year, depending on their activity level and what they did with themselves.  They could also use far less, down to about half of what a normal human would need, but that was a rarity.  On average, symbiote pairs used seventy times the food and energy resources of a human with no symbiote.  The virtual world allowed symbiotes to simulate their experiments using what was, for all intents and purposes, nearly unlimited power and energy resources.

Ayva and I had just handed out a process to improve processing capacity within symbiotes dramatically to nine people, and requested they share it.  We had plans for a public release within a couple days.

Colonel Gantt was thoughtful as he looked at me when the lesson was over.  “It’s been a long time since your psych profile was reliable, it seems, Bob.”

“I know my own psych profile.  It’s mostly still accurate based on Frank’s studies.  I know you can’t fully believe that in the face of what I’m capable of, but you know that I really don’t like change for change’s sake.  If there’s a reason for it, I’ll change, but I’ve never encountered anything that would make me change away from what I am at my core.”

“That’s part of the problem, Bob.  If you do stick to your psych profile still, you are likely to avoid change that might be required, unless it’s pushed at you in a way that can’t be avoided.  I’m hoping that the part of you that is Frank helps you deal with this.  Knowing how much more capable you are than what you have pretended to be makes me more hopeful, not less, that you can be trusted to stay sane until the rest of us can keep up with you, or at least close the gap.  Creating this much change is good, I think.”

“Part of the reason Ayva and I are teaching this now is for the exact reasons you mention.  We’re both very solid people psychologically, but we need more people we can relate to as equals or near equals.”

“I still think you’re a nutcase, Bob, but I also think you’re trying to be on the level.  Looking back at history and comparing  what you did do to what you were capable of doing, I can’t help but agree that you’ve been a lot less of a loose cannon than you could have been.  Knowing that, I can respect you more now than I could before.”

He held out his hand.  I shook it.

“Call me Jim, unless we’re somewhere formal and I’m in uniform.”

I wasn’t sure how well this new first name basis thing might work, considering that we tended to grate on each other about how we chose solutions to just about everything, but I wasn’t going to rebuff him, or give him the cold shoulder.  That would cause me problems with Ayva and make any future reconciliation with him more difficult.

“OK, Jim it is then.”

My phone beeped, indicating an incoming text.  It was Ayva.  I opened the message and dropped my phone, taking four steps out of the picnic shelter and jumping on my bike, cranking it and redlining the engine as I drove off while Jim and the rest of the pairs I had just spoken to stared at me.

Jim picked up the phone where I had dropped it and saw Ayva’s text to me.

“House under attack.  At least twenty.  No symbiotes.  Strange weapons.”

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17 comments

  1. underwhelmingforce

    So if Gantt was the guy who pulled the “murder hundreds of children” stunt, WHY HASN’T HE BEEN MURDERED BY SOMEONE YET?

    Also, I think one thing you could do at some point is backfill. You like to move really fast through the plot, with only one arc for each level of societal progression, and I think there are some missed opportunities. I’d really like to see more from back when Bob was a fugitive, some more from before symbiotes went global, some more with Recovery and the Agency, etc. Your rapid writing pace I think leads to a rapid plot pace, which isn’t always good. Status Quo is not god, which is good, but there’s rarely a status around long enough to become quo, if that makes any sense at all.

    Also, we already know what happened. This arc has had a lot of Bob recapping the story so far to everyone who’ll listen, and it’s getting old. We don’t need to hear it again.

    That said, this is still all good stuff, but this chapter was all exposition of stuff we watched happen; unnecessary.

    • farmerbob1

      No, Gantt has not yet been responsible for anything that heinous, but if someone were to make the case for it to be his duty, he’d do it. Like Ellis having people get the word to the military that the biocomputers the Agency was transporting were WMD’s. There were kids in there, only a couple, who had symbiotes but had not reached Synergy.

    • farmerbob1

      Fixed!

      I remember leaving that word out because I was trying to figure out whether to use a ‘couple’ or a ‘few.’

      Now that you made me look at it again (I forgot I never decided) – couple works better.

  2. Kunama

    “you are telling us that were very wrong in exactly how much more powerful you were”
    that we severely underestimated how much more

    More punctuation errors in and around quotes.

  3. murray

    I gave them a few moment to think to themselves… moments.

    it sounds like you are telling us that were very wrong about… we were is probably best here.

  4. Jesp

    “I can respect you a lot more now than I can before, I think.”

    The 2nd “can” should be “could”?

    Thanks for the chapter!

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