Chapter 4.10: Catch 22

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I had to carefully control the bike’s engine RPM as I ran it towards the house.  If I redlined its engine too long, it would fail.  The bike was a lot faster than I was, even when it wasn’t redlined to a potential failure point.  So I carefully listened to the motor and backed off at the slightest sound of cylinder binding, which allowed me to avoid blowing the engine as I travelled as quickly as possible to our house.  That careful restraint was one of the hardest things I have ever done.  The engine would still need to be rebuilt later after this abuse, but the engine was a thing.  Its only importance was that it was the fastest way for me to get to Ayva.  Ayva was no weakling, and if she had the opportunity to send me a message, that meant she had not been taken by surprise.  She had the gear in the laundry room to work with, which should be more than enough to take down twenty humans – unless they were incredibly well-trained, superbly prepared, and in possession of specialized equipment specifically designed to deal with symbiotes.

Ayva’s power assisted armor, unlike mine and Frank’s, was designed for a ranged combatant.  Carbon fiber muscles were not as accurate in their activation as symbiotes in control of natural muscle, so my armor didn’t use it.  Frank and I had carbon fiber muscles embedded in natural muscle in our body instead, in case massive strength and less finesse was needed.  Ayva, in her armor, was damn near unstoppable for as long as she had power in its capacitors.  I could hit her and control her actions to some degree in melee while she was in her armor because I could act and react more precisely than she could, but I could not contain her.  She could hold open range on me by simply leaping away.  If I tried to grapple her, allowing her to get a grip on me, she would trounce me and throw my ass on the ground in a heartbeat, then leap away, turning and firing those damn pistols of hers.  I typically ended our mock combats covered in the paintball color of the day, though Ayva would be liberally striped with smudged markings from my staff as well.  Ayva’s armor had been a joint effort between all four of us, and was certainly one of the best pieces of engineering on the planet.  None of this helped my worry at all.  Trying to imagine how competent someone is in a fight doesn’t do much when you know they might be in a fight.  Not when you care about them.

There were no reliable clear paths to get to our house any faster than the roads.  Too many fences and wooded areas.  I stayed on the roads.  As I passed a young guy on an aging street bike, I seriously considered trying to get them to pull over so I could take their bike.  I changed my mind almost immediately after I analyzed the sound of the other bike’s engine and determined it was low on oil. I’d fry its engine trying to go much faster than the dirt bike could go now.  Not to mention that I’d probably have to simply steal the bike and the driver would resist.  Despite what the TV shows and movies show us all the time, people generally don’t just step back and let you take their vehicles.  So, for a quarter second I considered it, then discarded the idea.  Not enough time saving for the risk.  I put designing a high speed off-road bike on my list of things to do.  With the materials Frank and I could work with, we should be able to build something far better than my current ride.

The EMP hadn’t impacted the bike at over ten miles, fortunately.  After I had been on the bike for ten seconds after reading the text and seeing the EMP, I realized that I had not brought my smartphone and was upset – before remembering I had specifically left it for Colonel Gantt to see.  There would be backup on the way.  There might even be a nearby officer there before I got there, if he hit 911 and called it in immediately and there was an officer close by.  Hopefully a symbiote officer, since a human would be of very little use other than as an observer if Ayva had to fight, and might even be a potential hostage, depending on the enemy.  The only thing keeping me from getting very upset with myself was that I would not have been able to make a call over the noise of the motor of my bike at full throttle, and that call needed to be made.  While I piloted the bike, I alternatively got upset with myself for not keeping the phone, and tried to convince myself that I had done the right thing leaving it there for Gantt.

It took me about eight minutes to make the ten mile trip to the house.  As I covered the last half mile, I started to hear sirens behind me.  Whether they were chasing me, or responding to the 911 call that I hoped Colonel Gantt had made, I was glad they were behind me.  I saw no evidence of police activity in front of me.

“You’ve been quiet Frank.  Got anything for me?” I asked internally.

“Nothing.  I’ve been trying to build scenarios for us to react to, but I had so little data to act on that it’s not very good.  It’s not even good enough to offer to you as a baseline for tactics.  As far as I’ve been able to tell there have been no weapons fired with an electronic signature, but we were ten miles away when we got the text.  I could not detect Ayva’s pistols at this range, unless she fired them directly at us.”

“All right then.  In another few seconds, it will be Go Time.  If you see a threat and I don’t seem aware of it, react as needed.  My attention’s mostly going to be on what’s in front of me.”

“I’ve got your back, Bob.  I’m not seeing any evidence of lookouts or activity on the roads, but I will keep watching.”

One thing about keeping our hair very short – because it stood straight out, it made it trivial for Frank to create sensors with reliable fields of view centered on our head, scanning in almost any direction.  Light speed weapons, or hypervelocity weapons at short range might be able to hit us, but even those generally provided some tiny bit of warning.  A capacitor discharging, the sound of a round chambering, the radio signal of a sniper getting permission to fire, even targeting lasers.  Frank would be on the lookout for all of that minutia with most of his formidable processing capability.  I would be the one making the call on what we did and how.

What we were doing now was a straight up the center charge directly at the house.  I ignored the driveway, taking a direct route across the yard.  I did not see Ayva.  There was less than zero chance she hadn’t heard the bike coming from a long way off, if she were here and able to respond.  Since she didn’t appear in my visible range as I hit the front yard, I decided that it was time to try out one of the plans Ayva and I had discussed.  I tended to operate best in the middle of chaos, and if she were not in control of a situation at the house, my entry would be intentionally designed to create as much chaos as possible, better to suit me than to suit her, since she was not in control of the situation.

So I redlined the bike hard to gain as much speed as possible, then stood on the seat as I laid the bike down and simultaneously jumped as hard as I could at the front door of my own house.  I hit the door at about one hundred miles per hour in a fetal position, with my knees and elbows nearly touching, my arms and hands protecting my neck and face, and my knees raised so my legs would protect my lower torso.  When the flats of my lower legs and lower arms hit the door simultaneously, there was a thunderous clap.  I felt the door deform around my arms and legs, but the walls around the door gave before the door itself did.  I exploded into the house in a shower of wood and sheet rock, riding a steel security door that was now shaped something like a hard shell taco.  The bottom of the door hit the floor, and not even Frank’s reflexes could keep us and the door from flipping out of control through the house, passing through one internal wall, which the door hit first, before finally hitting the fireplace.

Since the fireplace was the most unyielding part of the house, of course the door didn’t hit it first, I did.  Flat on my back, and upside down, right below the mantle.  Fortunately, after passing through the front door in a controlled fashion, and smashing through an internal wall that the door took the brunt of, when I hit the fireplace most of my inertia had been expended.  None of my important parts broke as I slid down the fireplace, upside down, until my head hit the hearth.  After I fell to the ground, I found myself on my knees, with the door under me.  I didn’t move at all at first.

I listened carefully for any reaction to my unconventional entry while carefully verifying that I wasn’t injured in any way that would interfere with my ability to fight.  Nothing.  I carefully raised my head.  Listening.  Perception effect maximized.  Nothing inside the house except bits and pieces of wreckage settling.

I heard Ayva’s voice.  “I’m OK Bob.  Back yard.”

I almost got angry.  If she’s OK, why did she let me crash the door like that?  If she were in the back yard, she must have heard my bike redlining from far enough away that she could easily have gotten to the front of the house.  Then I started thinking about Ayva and how much like me she could be in some ways.  ‘All right’ might mean she was missing her legs and couldn’t move, but wouldn’t die from her wounds.

I walked towards the back of the house, carefully watching for signs of collapse, since it was extremely obvious that I wasn’t the only one to run through walls today.  At least I had used a door.  I filed that comment away for a more appropriate time, but couldn’t keep my lips from twitching.  Ayva had definitely kitted out fully and activated the power assist in her armor, it looked like someone had driven a bulldozer from the laundry room to the outside wall of the house.  I could smell blood strongly enough that I knew there had been a lot of it spilled.

When I did see Ayva, the sight shocked me for a moment.  My wife was kneeling on the ground next to a toddler, gender unknown, holding its neck with one hand, with that hand’s arm braced on the chest of the child.  Her other hand held the child’s head.  The child was screaming and flailing its legs and arms.

Ayva saw me standing there, looking shocked.  “Bob, she has a broken neck.  I’ve injected her with regeneration chemicals from my drip, but it’s not mended enough for her to move yet, and the anesthetic they used to keep her unconscious has worn off.  I’m not giving her more drugs.  She’s heavily saturated with them to the point that she might already be slightly mentally damaged.  She’s certainly mentally compromised right now.  I need you to remove my helmet.  She thinks I’m a monster or something.  Seeing that I am a person might help calm her.”

I ran forward until I was about ten feet away then walked at a normal pace the rest of the way to avoid scaring the child with rapid movement.  I manipulated the external catches that held Ayva’s helmet in place.  She had apparently already released the internal ones.  The helmet came off in my hands, and the screaming little girl kept screaming, with Ayva trying to calm her while still holding her neck completely immobile.  I heard sirens.  Great.  This would make a wonderful scene for law enforcement.

“How long until she’s healed enough to release her, Ayva?”

She looked at me, then looked in the direction of the front of the house, hearing the sirens.  “Not before they get here and see this if you don’t keep them occupied.  Maybe another two minutes.  Touch my neck, Bob.  Accept direct data transfer and Danielle will send you the data from the whole episode, then go delay the officers until I get her neck healed.  They will still hear the yelling but if you can keep them from running around the house, we don’t need to worry about them seeing this.”

I took the download from Danielle, and asked Frank to analyze it first and give me the highlights as I walked to the front of the house.

I hadn’t even considered it, but the Highway Patrol officers at the park had arrived on motorcycles.  They were the first to arrive, and probably already knew about the text message since they had apparently followed me – unless they had simply been chasing me for being a hazard as I left the park.  With my luck it was the latter, but the many sirens I could hear argued that Gantt must have called for help, and these two would have been in the loop.  I wasn’t even sure if they had jurisdiction to do anything, but I’d bet they could be given jurisdiction under special circumstances by local law.

I realized that despite the fact that we really didn’t want anyone to see Ayva kneeling over a struggling child, lying or interfering with an investigation would create very large problems.  The child’s injuries and chemicals in their system would support Ayva’s story, I had no doubt.

I spoke internally.  “Frank.  Do I want to see the data?”

“No.  No you don’t.  Not without something handy to break that you don’t care about.”

“That bad?”

“You are not going to like it.  Not one bit.  Ayva saved one child but was forced to place symbiotes in nine other toddler girls.  That was what the humans were here for.  They were well equipped, incredibly devoted to their cause, superbly trained, and used the children themselves as a weapon against Ayva – she had no choice, the best possible scenario if she had resisted and not given them what they wanted was seven dead children.  Danielle is doing what she can but Ayva’s going to be a mental wreck for a while.”

“Humans wanted their children implanted with symbiotes, and they came here with weapons to do it?  Why not just fucking ask?”  I was building up a nice little rage.

“They called it ‘infecting’ the children.  The intruders were not symbiotes.  The children were carried, drugged, in hard frame backpacks.  One of the intruders set the child they were carrying on the ground and carefully broke the little girl’s neck.  That was to get Ayva out of the house.  She came out a bit faster than they expected, I think.  That’s what the blood pool behind her was from.  Ayva tried to both kill the guy who broke the girl’s neck, and use his body to slow herself down to get back and protect the little girl as well as she could.  She pulled his head off like the cap off a bottle of beer.  Didn’t slow her down much.”

I tried to imagine that scene from the point of view of a human.  Ayva in power assisted armor ripping the head off one of their team.  “They didn’t panic?”

“They didn’t even react.  There were eleven intruders with a sightline to see what Ayva did, and Danielle was recording from all helmet sensors.  Not even one of them flinched.”

“Is that even possible for a human to not react to such graphic violence, Frank?”

“Not normally.  With enough exposure to sufficiently terrible things, the human mind can be made numb to visual violence, but any human treated to sufficient real, visceral violence and death to develop that much of a tolerance to it is not likely to be a high functioning individual capable of coordinated teamwork, and these people were perfectly on the mark.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were symbiotes that trained together, but were limited to human strength and reflexes.  That’s how precise they were.”

“They sound something like the humans that attacked me in the virtual world that first day B implemented the empowered reality, Frank.  Does that seem possible to you based on my recordings of the event?  How does that compare to your experience that day?”

Frank spent almost a full second analyzing the data. “Very possible.  By no means certain, but possible.”

By this time, the two Highway Patrol officers from the park meeting had pulled their bikes to the end of the driveway and parked them.  One of them stayed on his bike and reported by the long range bike radio that they were at the site, and that I was waving at them to get them to follow me.  Then they reported that they could hear what sounded like a child crying loudly.  Ayva had not gagged the child.  I hoped that meant she had come to the same realization that I had; the evidence would support her story.  She would be doing everything in her power not to traumatize the child any more than she absolutely had to, while the regeneration drug did its thing.

The other Highway Patrol officer ran up to me, and I led her around the house while explaining that Ayva was tending to a child with a broken neck, had injected regeneration drug from her drip, but didn’t dare sedate the child due to all the drugs in her system.  The officer nodded but her eyes still widened at the sight of Ayva kneeling over the child forcefully holding the spinal column from moving, with her hands.  The little girl was still screaming and flailing.  Ayva looked up at us, her hair a mess.  Danielle wasn’t allowing Ayva’s tear ducts to vent as she cried, but she still had a haunted look on her face.

I could tell that it was all the officer could do to keep from telling Ayva to take her hands off the child, but I could also see that her symbiote, which was still in transition to massively parallel state, was devoting a great deal of processing capacity to a problem.  Probably watching how Ayva was holding the child and comparing it against how one would support a broken neck injury in a child that was being treated in the field with injected regeneration drug.  I did the same calculation and it came up a match, but the officer’s symbiote took a couple more seconds to reach the same conclusion.

“How long till you can release the child?” The officer asked.

Ayva responded. “Thirty seconds minimum.  I’d prefer another minute.  When I release her, she will try to get away from me.  Can you be ready to hold her, or catch her if she’s able to crawl quickly or even run?  I don’t think she’s able to run yet, her leg muscles aren’t developed for it, but she’s in a panic state right now and might manage it.  I can’t bear what seeing me chase her might do to her after I’ve been holding her down like this to heal her.  She hasn’t been speaking at all, just crying loudly.  Either her language center isn’t working right, or she doesn’t know any language.  I would suggest a cordon around the entire house, the intruders were detected already surrounding the house at two hundred yards by pressure sensors in the turf.  I know you will want the best data you can get.  Bob has a recording of the events, but I’ll be happy to give you mine directly as well, after the child can move”

The officer nodded, and stayed out of line of sight from the child.  I could smell her starting to produce more pheromones.  Smart.  She must have had children within the last few years, and learned what pheromones helped to calm them subconsciously when she became a symbiote.  While she was adjusting her body chemistry to help calm the child, she was no nonsense on her short range radio, telling her fellow Highway Patrol officer that the situation was under control and we needed to keep people away from the house to preserve evidence.  Other sirens were audible in the distance, but soon the air was silent as the emergency responders were given word that there was no longer any emergency at the crime scene.  Except one siren.  Probably an ambulance.

After a minute was up, Ayva spoke.  “Letting her go now.”  The officer nodded, and moved into position about twenty feet away from the child, in a path directly away from Ayva, putting her almost twenty feet from the hole in the wall of the house.

When Ayva let the little girl loose, she immediately started rolling away from Ayva, then crawling as fast as she could.  Ayva didn’t move at all, and I very carefully moved slowly, and avoided the direct field of view of the child as I circled in order to get to my wife, where I fell to my knees in front of her , grabbing both of her hands.  Each hand was still gauntleted in her armor, but both gauntlets had small holes in them where Danielle had cut through the armor to extend pseudopods to diagnose and inject the child with regeneration drug.

At the same time as I was kneeling in front of my wife, the officer slowly and carefully approached the little girl, murmuring random mommy-like noises which seemed to be the same across all human languages.  Even though the girl had yet to use language, she seemed to be attracted to those noises, though she was still very hesitant.  She looked behind her at Ayva and then quickly turned her head towards the officer.  Being that her head was still a very large percentage of her body mass at that age, and she was still under the effect of some drugs, the movement unbalanced her.  She toppled onto her side and squawked plaintively, reaching her arms up towards the officer who was within a couple feet of her now.

The officer picked up the girl, who apparently had changed her mind about the whole ‘pick me up’ thing, stiffened and cried, and tried to twist away.  The officer just held the girl against her shoulder with a little pressure, and patted her back.  I could see the fabric of the officer’s uniform under the child change, her symbiote rearranging the tight uniform weave into something less scratchy, while also removing pockets and buttons.

“Ayva, you and Bob walk in front of me.  I will be behind.  It would be best if she can’t see you.”  Then she nodded her head at the girl as she tapped the girl’s back lightly and bounced her torso slightly every now and then to help adjust the position of the child.  The little girl took that moment to look towards Ayva and I again, and then grabbed the neck of the officer with both hands.  The officer just kept patting the girl’s back.

Ayva dislocated two bones in my right hand and four in my left with her power assisted gauntlets as she clenched my hands when the girl grabbed the officer’s neck in fright.

I ignored the pain and spoke internally.  “Frank, ask Danielle to please disable power assist on Ayva’s armor.  I’m about to pull her to her feet and hug her.  I don’t want broken bones.”

Frank spoke to Danielle through our bodily contact.  “Done.  Danielle apologizes that she didn’t catch that the reflex action of Ayva’s hands was power assisted.”

I tugged lightly upwards on Ayva’s hands to see if she was ready to stand yet.  She nodded and sighed.  I rose from my knees with her, and when we were both standing, I gave Ayva a strong hug, and she returned it.  To be sure she would feel some pressure through her armor, I carefully squeezed hard enough to slightly compress her armor, bruising myself heavily across my chest and arms.  Bruises are nothing.

The officer was crooning to the little girl and nodded her head to us, indicating we should start walking.  We walked in front of her around the front of the house as the first responders started stringing up crime scene tape.

By the time we got to the road where the ambulance was waiting, the child was asleep, and handing her off to the ambulance team went without a hitch.  The officer asked for a large gauze pad, and rubbed it between her hands, explaining that she was putting pheromones in it that would help calm the child.  One of the EMT’s was a symbiote, and carefully smelled the gauze, then nodded, and tucked it into the blanket.  The child’s parents were unknown so she would be treated as a ward of the state until parents could be identified.

I hugged Ayva as the ambulance left and the detectives started to pull out their tablets and recording equipment and look at us expectantly.

I could barely hear Ayva as she subvocalized while under so much stress, and had to reconstruct her speech three times.  “I’m afraid, Bob.  I’m afraid that it might have been better to let them kill the children.  The intruders looked human.  They smelled human.  They didn’t act human.”

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12 comments

  1. underwhelmingforce

    “Child she” missing punctuation.

    This arc definitely has some potential. I’m glad it’s not all playing around in B’s virtual world- I was worried that’s what this would become. These last two chapters have been really good.

    • farmerbob1

      Fixed the punctuation bug and a couple other low hanging fruit errors I spotted on a quick read through.

      B’s virtual world is critical to peace in the real world, and some extremely important things will happen there, but that’s not what the story revolves around. Bob is more of a real world guy, though he will more than happily train in an environment that he can break things in, then wave his hands and fix them. It’s also a really handy place to design equipment and evaluate it, whether mechanical or biological. Embedded worlds though, they can be used to test things like terraforming, extreme high energy experiments, or even space architecture.

      I’ll be perfectly honest that I added in the superhero twist in the public virtual world just because I wanted to write about different powers and abilities now and then. However, B could change his mind at any time and decide to make the world into a fantasy swords and sorcery simulator, or a My Little Pony world simulator, or any number of different things. This type of change would only impact the public places. The embedded worlds would remain untouched, as would the individual private areas, though Bob’s studio might look like an adobe hut in a fantasy setting.

  2. Mandragons

    “…even the best trained humans in the world, unless they were incredibly well trained and prepared, and had some mighty esoteric …” You have some awkward wording here with the two trained.

  3. murray

    As I passed a guy on an aging street bike, I strongly considered trying to get a guy to pull over so I could take his bike… the guy?

    power not to traumatize the child any more than she absolutely had to keep her alive while the regeneration drug did its thing… had to to keep? It’s not great, there are other ways that would be lesd awkward but would require a little more rearranging.

  4. Mian

    Funny to think that DARPA could still take out FrankNBob… Current Darpa tech, that is.

    Pretty implausible that they’d go for Ayva, when they could choose any female symbionte. Why not choose one not combat trained?

  5. Jesp

    –“How long till you can release the child.” She asked.–

    “.. child?”, she asked.

    Thanks for the chapter! ^_^

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