I stretched and considered going downstairs for a glass of water. It was time to get a few minutes away from the algae studies. Sometimes it felt a bit unfair that Bob could study martial arts so much with Frank, but I get stuck with developing microorganisms to improve algae farms. Doing it the other way around though? I’m not so bad in a fight, and a fast study, but I’m not sure if humanity would survive Bob designing algae. I chuckled and filed that thought away for later.
Danielle spoke to me internally. “Ayva, quiet time. Turf pressure sensors are picking up intruders in the weight range of humans.”
I thought to myself that this was strange. Why the concern? We get deer through here all the time, as well as the occasional black bear. We even had the nearby sounder of wild boar come through the yard on a couple occasions, though they have mostly stayed away after Bob started helping to control their numbers. The boar knew his scent, and boar are smarter than deer.
“More deer Danielle? Probably not a black bear, you said there was more than one.”
“Too organized to be wild animals, they have surrounded the house.”
Surrounded the house. That explains it. Containment. “OK Danielle, based on the pressure sensor data, can you tell where the intruders should be?”
“Sure. Want the raw feed?”
“Yes, please,” I responded. My heartbeat picked up a fraction when the image displaying a ring of twenty blobs, each tagged with weights, showed up. The weight estimates ranged from one hundred fifty to three hundred pounds.
“We can’t see them on the fiber optics, in full daylight, Danielle?”
“Correct, though I can detect a fringe effect with visual sensors if I specifically look for it where I know there is a mass. They are using some sort of electromagnetic stealth system which operates in the visible, infrared, and ultraviolet ranges at least, perhaps beyond that. Based on fringe effects, I’m guessing it’s an advanced holographic surface coating.”
I very carefully stood from my desk and moved to a window, walking on my toes on parts of the floor that I knew wouldn’t squeak, and watching my shadows to be sure I did not clearly silhouette myself against the window. Approaching the side of the window, I placed myself in a position where I couldn’t see one of the intruders yet, but they would cross into my field of view if they continued approaching the house. They were moving very slowly and carefully. There was a pattern to their movement that I couldn’t quite figure out, better said, I could see the pattern, but I couldn’t figure out why they were moving like that.
“Danielle. See how they are moving, the pattern? The ones on the north side move, then the others move in a wave, like dominos falling almost, and the ones on the south side are the last to move. You’ve been watching them longer. Have they been moving like that since you first saw them?”
“Audio masking. They are covering their movement sounds with sounds of wind and blowing leaves. Winds are from the North now. There was a gust from the northwest a minute ago which also triggered a group movement event, passing northwest to southeast.”
Wow, wind walking. Been a while since I ran across anyone else that knew that trick, though it had been a long time since I spent much time around professional hunters. Never seen it done by a group. Not coordinated like this.
“Symbiotes then, Danielle?”
“The bigger ones are awful heavy for early development symbiotes. Even the Recovery drone types weren’t as heavy as some of these, and they were damaged and unable to replace bone mass with carbon.”
“Maybe they are carrying heavy equipment? Can you see their fringe effect well enough on any of the more massive ones to tell if their outline indicates a carried object?”
“No, but one of the heavier ones will be passing into your field of view shortly, if they don’t shift their approach vector. Might be able to see more when we get a clear view.”
I waited for the slowly advancing intruder to clear my line of sight. I was not expecting what I saw. There was no sign of processor activity. They were also a little clearer to me than they were to remote sensors, but it was still very good camouflage. The big intruder I saw crossing into my field of view appeared to be wearing a backpack and carrying a bulky carbine-style long weapon. He also appeared to be watching the window I was looking through. If I moved, he should see me. So I didn’t move, yet. I did carefully watch him for any sign he was raising his weapon. Then I’d move.
“Danielle. Can’t see quantum activity. Is it feasible that they might be masking fully, rather than masking activity patterns? Can a holographic image fully mask quantum activity?”
“Full masking? No. That would almost certainly require perfect knowledge of the future state of every processor you had, so you could counter the state changes as they occur. If you could do that, you would be predicting all future events around you in advance. Not even A or B could do that, I don’t think. They could make themselves invisible to us by simply making it so we couldn’t register their presence, but they can’t future predict with the perfection required to do full masking. I don’t think. There’s no way symbiotes at a lower stage of development than us could be adjusting our senses like A or B might be able to do.”
So, long story short, they aren’t symbiotes. Very interesting. In a bad way. What would all these highly trained humans be doing up here? If they were after Bob, sending humans would be crazy. Not only that, but Bob left a while ago on his bike, which any competent watchers should have seen. So they are either here after me, or something in the house. Maybe they are after B?
I was barely able to keep from laughing as I imagined a score of humans trying to take action against the office-building sized biocomputer that housed B’s intelligence.
“They are either after me, or something in the house, Danielle. Do you think they might be thinking to take me hostage against Bob? We don’t have anything of much interest in the house that I’m aware of, unless Bob’s been putting data aside, which would be absurd. Not outside the realm of possibility because he does tend to be, umm, unconventional at times, but if I don’t know he’s doing it, I find it highly unlikely anyone else does.”
“Hostage taking seems the most likely.”
The enemy I was watching passed behind a tree, and I used their moment of inability to watch my window to move myself back six inches. Now to prepare. I mapped the positions of the enemies against window locations through the house in three dimensions and plotted a path to the laundry room. As I moved, I watched their ability to spot me in real time, dodging through the house, walking on my toes, low crawling across the floor in a couple places, and avoiding squeaky spots in the floor.
As I prepared to cross the dining room floor in a low crawl, I found that Bob had not pushed the chair he usually sat in back under the table. I’ve told him before to push his chair in. It’s almost as bad as leaving the toilet seat up. Which I happened to know he did intentionally. Another excuse Bob cultivated to allow himself a regular and predictable way to generate unspecified random punishments. My mouth twitched in a grin. This chair, however, was going to be a problem.
“Danielle, please remind me to hit Bob when I next see him. How’s a girl supposed to low crawl across the dining room floor to avoid enemy sightlines, while avoiding moving the chairs that the enemies can see, if her husband leaves his chair in the middle of the floor?”
I started low crawling the long way around the table. The other chairs were pushed in, but going the long way around the table added ten seconds to my path. The enemies were slowly getting closer, and I wanted to be ready before they got to the point where they initiated their attack. They were halfway across the yard now, and apparently unaware they had been spotted. They would have to take some sort of action soon, unless they were just planning on standing around outside the house till Bob got home. Wait. No. That would be exceedingly stupid of them. I considered sending a message to Bob with my phone, but if they were even moderately competent, I’d only get one very brief outgoing cell connection before they jammed it. They couldn’t jam it without alerting me though, because the phone would make complaining beepy noises like any other phone, if it lost connection. So one call, and only if I started the call before they initiated jamming.
I finally managed to make it to the laundry alcove where Bob and I stored our armor. Not like we needed a washer and dryer for clothing when we had Frank and Danielle to maintain our clothing, or make new clothing for that matter. I double checked sightlines, and the laundry alcove was clear. So I stood and quickly put on my armor. Still no sign that the enemies were aware of my activity. Against normal humans, I would have taken twenty of them without blinking, but these had at least some advanced technology. Fortunately, Bob was creepy paranoid about some things, and had built an EMP pulse generator into the house.
“Danielle, is there any data on the tablet or any other electronics in the house that you don’t have a backup for?”
“Some minor stuff. Bob’s grocery list, some notes he put together for the meeting today. I’m pulling them from the house network now. Done. Anchovies? Oh Caesar salad dressing makings.” Danielle muttered.
My lips twitched as Danielle commented on anchovies on Bob’s grocery list. They were one of a very few things Bob would not eat, normally, but we had eaten out last week and the restaurant had an excellent Caesar salad made with dressing that contained anchovy oil, which we both had before the meal. As loud as Bob tended to get about “tiny stinky fish” I was amazed that he didn’t say anything, and just ate the salad, apparently enjoying it. Apparently, somehow, managing to avoid making a fuss. I had planned to make fun of him about it, but he hadn’t given me the opportunity. Apparently he was going to take a shot at making some Caesar dressing himself. As long as Frank helped, it would probably be edible.
The armor was all attached. I started pulling my kit off the walls. Bob didn’t do firearms. Frank was absurd in hand to hand, and Bob himself was very good at close quarters. Frank said he wasn’t even helping Bob when I sparred with him, and I could barely lay a hand on him. Different story if Danielle helped me, but even then, Bob was good enough to keep Danielle cautious. I still think Frank’s cheating and helping Bob when he spars Danielle, but until we have proof, I’ll not challenge him.
Bob and I had experimented with Metal Storm style firearms for me, but they were absurd and bulky. Eventually we just went with a superconducting capacitor fed coil gun design based loosely after what Mouse had built for Jason on the day Bob and Frank rescued them. I checked the flechette magazines on both pistols. Full. Capacitor charge full. Same with the spares on my belt. Everything checked out for me. My tonfas were secure in their tear-away holders on my outer thighs.
“Danielle. Equipment test seems good here. You see anything that needs attention?”
“No. Everything seems to be tip top.”
“OK, now that we’re geared up, let’s see if we can get a reaction to indicate exactly how aggressive these folks are, without exposing ourselves directly first.”
I reached into the birdcage where Bob and I each stored a couple of our sparrows. We tended them every morning. Bob’s paranoia again. Looks like he was right to be paranoid, though it was yet to be established exactly how dangerous these folks were. I was right about the chair being left out in the middle of the dining room floor though. If we are going to continue maintaining our sparrows, Bob was going to start pushing in his chair.
Rather than send a data burst which might be detectable, Danielle extended a pseudopod and tested to be sure the sparrow was in top shape. It was.
I programmed the sparrow to exit by the dryer vent, find the nearest fringe effect, sit on it, and start pecking. Danielle adjusted its vision to be better able to isolate the fringe effect. Then we sent the sparrow into the dryer vent tube.
The sparrow hopped to the end of the dryer vent, and pushed open the little vent door, then fell out into the bushes and arranged itself after hitting the ground. I put my smartphone in the faraday cage with a few other disposable smartphones.
The sparrow became visible to the video sensors around the house as it approached the closest fringe effect, which ignored it. Until it landed and started pecking. All of the advancing enemies immediately stopped moving. I detected encrypted communications. Very heavily encrypted communications.
“Danielle grab what samples of that commo that you can for later analysis if you can’t crack it now.” I wasn’t making much sense of it with the couple percentage points of processor capacity Danielle let me keep for myself, I doubted Danielle would crack it short term.
The sparrow detected an incoming hand, and, since I had programmed it to be aggressive, it escalated. Bob and I had lost too many sparrows to local predators while we tested our birds against each other, so they had been… improved. Carbon fiber beaks, bones and muscles, and a capacitor to power the muscles. The sparrow attacked the hand attacking it. Pecking it a few times, then flying to the ground between the enemy and the house. The sparrow had easily dodged the attacks. If the invaders did not have reflexes enhanced enough to deal with my sparrow, they were not going to enjoy the experience if they were here for a fight with either myself or Bob.
More commo, encrypted, but he was trying to speak to the sparrow, so I opened a house network connection for the sparrow after making sure the firewalls were set to maximum security.
“… come out with your hands up Ayva. We don’t want to fight you, but you have something we want, and you will give it to us before we leave.”
I opened the faraday cage and pulled out a very small two way radio, then reached into the sparrow box and pulled out another of my sparrows, leaving only two of Bob’s, which I could barely control at all. I gave my sparrow the radio, which it held in its beak. The tongue of the sparrow stuck into the radio and it did a function check while I connected it to the house network. Then I sent it through the dryer vent as well. A few seconds later, it settled to the ground next to the first, and I spoke.
“Do you speak for all of the enemies on my lawn?”
“So, five percent chance of me picking the right person, and I get it right the first time? I have doubts that you are being entirely truthful with me, but let’s see where this goes. What do you want?” I could have gotten that lucky, he was the source of signal.
“We require that you infect ten small children with symbiotes. We have brought the children.” Ten of the heaviest signatures dropped stealth.
My sparrow without a radio flew around the closest one of them as they removed a poncho-like covering to expose a backpack. There was what appeared to be a child in the backpack. Clear surfaces at the back of the backpack allowed me to see the head and shoulders of an apparently sleeping toddler. I could see vents for air. The pack was rigid and would offer protection to the child.
“What? You want me to give you ten guinea pig symbiotes in child bodies? Even if those are real children, do you expect me to do that? Symbiotes in very young children is generally not a good idea in the best of circumstances unless the child’s life is at risk.” These people couldn’t possibly be serious. Danielle was raging about them using the verb infect. I took a second to think and calm Danielle down.
They wanted symbiotes implanted in children that were too young to even fully develop a thinking symbiote. Children tended to need to be around three years old before there was bone mass sufficient for a symbiote to establish a presence in the body large enough to become capable of conscious thought. These people were also very well developed technologically, in at least two fields, holographic stealth and communications encryption. The weapons they carried were also strange looking, with very large barrels. No way were they designed to fire projectiles. Some sort of energy weapons. They had cabling leading to large battery assemblies on their belts.
More encrypted commo and the rest of the enemies removed the cloaking effect. Why? Power saving? Then the one who had uncovered his backpack removed the pack and set it on the ground. He opened the pack and removed the child, who definitely moved like a drugged, sleeping child, not some sort of construct, though these guys might be technologically savvy enough to make a child simulacrum that could fool me at a distance. He cradled the child in his arms competently.
I landed the radio-less sparrow on the child. It could feel a pulse, and breathing. I had the sparrow move the child’s fingers with its beak, checking to make sure they were anatomically correct. The bird checked for skin blanching and recoloring after pressure was placed on the fingers as well. This was a real child, or it was a fake as good as an adult symbiote could make.
I prepared a text message for Bob, then flew the sparrow with no radio off the child, as fast as it could go towards the forest. Four of the smaller enemies turned their weapons on the flying bird and fired, killing the bird instantly. Microwave bursts. Its brain simply stopped functioning as it boiled. The energy level wasn’t sufficient to kill me that quickly, but it would make me very, very unhappy.
The enemy closest to the sparrow with the speaker cleared his throat. “We didn’t expect that you would simply give us what we wanted without having to demonstrate our seriousness. These children’s lives are at risk. We wanted ten, but nine will be enough.” He nodded to the enemy holding the child, who set the child on the ground. While standing back up, the enemy used one hand to twist the child’s head sharply. My sparrow’s radio heard the snap of its neck.
Fortunately Danielle knew the plan, because I forgot it when I recognized that they had really just broken the child’s neck. As soon as the message was away, Danielle hit the EMP pulse generator.
My smartphone died. All the enemies around the house became visible. All the appliances in the house went silent, and the lights went out. The house network was down, I couldn’t speak to the sparrow. None of that mattered, my equipment was hardened against EMP. I ran in a straight line directly towards where the child lay on the ground, activating the power assisted armor with enough capacitor power to blow through walls like they weren’t there. As I hit the outside wall of the house, I spun, raking through the wall studs, throwing them away from where the child was laying. Some small amount of debris still was on a trajectory to the child, moving so slowly. I had plenty of time to pull the flechette pistols and do a forward roll as I exited the house. While I started coming out of the forward roll, preparing to leap, I fired at a few pieces of debris that would hit the child, deflecting them.
I came out of my forward roll with a leap at the one who had broken the child’s neck. As I leapt, I holstered my pistols and checked the child’s condition visually, as best I could. I could see the child’s chest moving. Faster. Had to do this faster. The killer wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to think about fighting me in melee. I broke both of their arms by accident while reaching for their head. As the momentum of my leap carried me past them, I felt their armor buckle then their neck break. I kept my grip on their head, using it to continue to slow me, but their armor was crap, and the head came off in my hands as my body flipped over and my momentum carried me past him by about ten feet. I avoided the jet of arterial blood. I could not allow myself to become contaminated with his blood. No telling what combat drugs he might have in him, and I needed to tend a badly injured child. I put up a rooster tail of sod as I ran back to the child and put my hand on their neck, rapidly extruding tendrils that entered the body to determine how bad the damage was. I started pumping in some of the reservoir of regeneration drug from my own regeneration drip Danielle had constructed in me after Bob explained how one had saved his ass once. Looked like the little girl would live if she wasn’t moved for at least five minutes while the neck bones knitted. I considered using matter reprogramming to generate a neck brace inside the vertebrae, but there were nine more children I needed to be worried about.
Despite my display of fighting ability and power, the enemies I faced were simply watching me, and every one with a backpack was removing a child from their pack. I didn’t even smell fear on them. The dead one had definitely been human, and by the scent that I could detect now that his armor was broken open, male. The rest, I could not tell gender individually, but pheromones seemed to indicate at least a few females. I started collecting scents as I kneeled over the child and spoke.
“I have all your scents now. If this child dies, you all die. If any other child is injured, you will also all die. This ends here.”
The spokesman facing me simply shrugged. “We know your reputation, Ayva. As you can see, however, we are not impressed. As proof, you can probably smell that we aren’t afraid. If you want to kill nineteen of us, you probably can. But the first thing we will do is kill the other children, not with a careful neck breaking, but by head separation, like you did with our ex-partner there. Our microwave emitters are area effect, and hardened. They still work, and between the nineteen of us, we might even be able to take you out with them. That’s doubtful though, so we won’t try, all nineteen of us will fire at the child you are trying to save. You can’t move them fast enough to protect them without killing them due to the neck injury, and we will not panic and miss our aim.”
The enemies from the far side of the house emerged into sight, all of them carrying weapons and half of them carrying children. The leader pointed his weapon at me, as did the rest, nine of them holding their weapons with one hand and a child on their shoulder with another.
“Your choice, Ayva. Twenty dead adults and ten dead children,” he paused “or one dead adult, one injured child, and nine children infected with symbiotes, with the rest of us carrying away the infected children. You can keep the injured child and try to save her. You have three seconds to decide.”