When I woke, I was unable to move, which startled me for a moment before I remembered telling Frank to not let me move unless Ayva woke up. Shortly after that, I fell over on my left side as the shoulder I had been leaning against suddenly wasn’t there any longer.
Frank didn’t jar me with any sort of indication of danger, so, since I was not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, my comment on the situation was limited to a clever ‘Umph’ as I blinked my eyes and looked up to see Ayva turning around and looking down at me with a half grin on her face.
“OK sleepyhead, time to get up.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat back up. “Frank was supposed to wake me if you were awake.”
“No, you asked Frank and Danielle to keep us in contact so I would sleep. I asked something similar before I slept as well. We both needed to rest, after yesterday.” She turned away, and walked towards the kitchen to start making coffee.
We both needed rest? I wasn’t going to challenge her on something like that, but I certainly didn’t feel as if I needed any extra rest or comforting after yesterday. However if it helped Ayva put herself back together again to coddle me a little bit, I’d accept the coddling with a smile and an offer of thanks.
Then again, Ayva had an uncanny way of understanding me. Which is really weird, to me, as most people generally don’t understand me very well. Maybe she was right that I needed the rest as much as she had. I shrugged, and let it go. When I had commented on her ability to understand me in the past, Ayva simply commented that I reminded her of her first husband, long ago. Attempting to follow up on that topic, even tangentially, didn’t go anywhere. Her ex had been dead for decades, apparently, and she didn’t want to discuss her past.
So, as the sleep continued to drain out of my brain slowly, I stood and gathered the glasses and cups from last night and brought them to the kitchen, and with Frank’s help I cleaned them out, putting them back in the cupboard. I have always expected Frank to object in some way to washing dishes by absorbing the leftover food, but he never has. Not needing to use water to clean dishes, and being able to repair cracks and blemishes on cutlery and tableware is awful handy, but washing dishes was a job I did a lot of in college, and for a few years after that.
I guess in a way I was projecting my dislike of washing dishes onto Frank. Disliking doing dishes was irrelevant though, since Ayva was cooking, I was washing dishes. If I had been cooking, she would wash. This tended to mean that whichever of us was the most awake in the morning cooked. That meant I did dishes in the morning most mornings. I tended to prepare more lunch and dinner meals though, as she sometimes had a hard time pulling herself away from her research.
There weren’t many dishes, so after a minute or so I was done, and I moved behind Ayva as she was cooking breakfast and lightly touched her shoulders to let her know I was there, then started to give her a light shoulder rub, careful not to restrict her movements while she was cooking. “Thanks for letting me sleep in.”
Ayva backed up a bit to press against me, then said “No problem. Danielle said you were thinking for a long time after I went to sleep. After breakfast, I want to hear about it if you don’t mind sharing.”
“A lot of it was fruitless mental flailing, but there were a few potentially useful nuggets in there. After breakfast chat sounds good. I’ll go set the table.”
Scrambled eggs with cheese, plain bagels with cream cheese, a stack of pancakes with blueberries, and OJ. No meat with breakfast, which startled me for a brief moment. After the way Ayva killed someone yesterday, I damn sure wasn’t going to comment about a meatless breakfast. Firstly because I didn’t complain about food put in front of me, with few exceptions (boiled okra and oily dark meat fish), and secondly because I knew what it was like to have an aversion to cooking or eating meat after killing people. It hadn’t come up before, but I suspected that Ayva was having a meat aversion, even if she wasn’t consciously aware of why.
I spoke to Frank internally. “Remind me, Frank, lunch and dinner will be meatless.”
I felt Frank thinking briefly, then he agreed. “Understood. I’ll remind you if needed.”
I took a couple plates to the dining room and stopped. This wasn’t going to work. The table was undamaged, but only three of the six chairs were still intact, and the large hole in the wall where Ayva passed through it would be distracting. I sat the plates and dishes on the table, then carefully picked up the table and maneuvered it into the living room and put it in front of the fireplace. We had cleaned the mess of my catastrophic entry out of this room last night, including repairing the internal wall I had passed through with the biofactory, so there was no reminder of yesterday other than the table being in the wrong room. Then I went to get two chairs and sat them down next to one another at the table, facing away from the open bifold doors leading to the dining room.
I heard Ayva walking into the dining room from the kitchen and smiled when she just asked “Bob?” out loud.
“I figured we could eat in the living room today, but I know how much you dislike crumbs on the furniture in here, so I moved the table and a couple chairs.” I replied, as I walked through the bifold doors to take the pan of cooked eggs and the cloth to protect the table from the pan from her, walking them to the table in the living room, and setting them down carefully. “Eating in the dining room all the time gets boring.”
Which was complete bullshit, of course. I’m a creature of habit. I’ll eat the same meal in the same room at the same time every day for years and it wouldn’t bother me at all. Ayva likes some variety, but she certainly has her comfort groove for day to day things too.
Ayva’s wifely bullshit detector was certainly not malfunctioning. She picked up immediately on what I was doing, and as soon as she put down the tray with the rest of the food on it, she simply said “Thanks, Bob.” Then gave me a peck on the cheek before sitting and starting to prepare her coffee.
Ayva and I ate slowly, in near silence, both of us thinking about the conversation we would have after the meal. Over the years, we had discovered that neither of us really liked talking while we ate. For a long time, we had both felt obligated to speak to one another over meals because it seemed like the married thing to do. Eventually, we both realized that neither of us really wanted to talk when eating, other than to comment on the food itself, or other meal-related conversation like asking to pass condiments or napkins. That having been said, when company visited and there was a meal, we would keep conversation going because most of our friends did seem to like to talk when they ate, and hosts have an obligation to the guests to make their visit comfortable.
After we were done eating, we started talking.
Ayva started out. “Bob, you don’t have to fix the house, I will. Danielle has already created control interfaces to allow us to talk to your household biofactory, so it can help us. We’ll use a couple of the trees and some of the food stores for B’s use to rebuild, rather than try to reassemble lumber from scraps.”
“What about your research?” I asked, fairly confident I already knew the answer.
“Not going to be able to work on it effectively for the next couple days, at least, I’d rather keep my hands busy.” She replied, looking at her hands. “Danielle can monitor the ongoing experiments and models. Hell, we all know she could do the work better than me to begin with, but until more people understand what we can actually do, we didn’t want to create a big fuss by developing things too quickly. So I actually did research and study at a “normal” pace, which was enough to keep my mind busy, while Danielle did her own research into quarks and muons and whatnot.”
I could understand the desire to be constructive when stressed out. I’d leave her to it. I couldn’t help but tease her a bit though. “Let me know if you need help figuring out which end of the hammer to use.”
“Hammers haven’t changed that much since I helped my neighbors build houses. I’ve seen the fancy round nails people use these days, I think I can adapt. I know Danielle can help if needed.”
“You know, eventually you’re going to give me enough hints that I’m going to figure it out.” Round nails were ‘fancy’ nails? I added a few decades onto my earlier estimates of Ayva’s age. Square nails were the norm until sometime around 1900, and common until World War I. I had gone on a dig with an archeology class in college and got a brief history on nails when we found both square and round nails.
She smiled. “Maybe. A girl has to have her secrets. She also needs to tease her man.”
I just chuckled. “OK” Then a thought struck me. B hadn’t been using much in the way of food stores recently. I needed to see if he would talk to me about why. If his needs were significantly reduced, we would need to start donating some of the incoming syrups and oils that we had purchased with the payments for his virtual world services, or they would go bad. We would also need to reduce what we bought in the future. A’s situation was completely different. I still wasn’t sure exactly how she got her food needs. I suspected there were B and A shenanigans involved, moving matter around in some way, but A wasn’t a real concern of mine unless Ayva asked me something.
“First thing I’m going to do is head into the virtual world and view the imagery you gave us yesterday. Frank hasn’t let me see it yet. He said I needed to be somewhere that I can break things before I view it, and there’s already enough broken in the house. At the same time, I need to work on a new design for a bike, which I think I’ll farm off to Frank. Finally, I need to try to figure out if there are connections between what happened to me the other day, and what happened to you. Related to the last bit, I also have ideas on setting up a network within the virtual world to see about getting help from others to find the scents I detected, and the ones you detected.”
“I want to be part of this, Bob, if you find a lead to someone involved with those kids. No excuses.” She stared at me, no nonsense.
“I know.” I did know. At the same time I didn’t want to commit to saying I would definitely bring her along, because I didn’t want to commit to bringing her somewhere if I found something to indicate that the kids were probably already dead.
She started to speak again. “Bob, I want a promise.”
She would back me into a corner for that promise too, if I couldn’t redirect her. “Can I get the option to make a judgment call based on how painful what I find might be to you?” I asked. If I could get at least that much leeway I’d be happy.
I saw Danielle’s processor activity spike. Definitely some discussion going on in there. Frank was also processing heavily, but keeping silent.
“Bob, I appreciate you wanting to protect me, but I want in on this. I’ve seen a lot worse than a few dead kids. I’ve seen things as bad as, or worse than, anything you have seen, and have lived with those memories for a very long time. A few of those memories are still extremely vivid. Don’t try to protect me from myself here, because if you do, it’s going to severely damage my trust in you.”
“Ayva, do you know how much it hurts me when I see you hurting? You want me to bring you with me even if I suspect that what we find is going to be something that is going to hurt you badly? I don’t want to challenge you, but I’ve never heard you talk about what you might have seen or done in World War I or World War II. I’ve seen some pretty terrible things and…”
Ayva slapped her hand on the table with an open palm, creating an absurdly loud noise without breaking the table, then she spoke in a quiet, angry voice. “Bob, I was a fucking tub girl in the Civil War. I emptied the wooden tubs that the field hospital doctors filled with amputated limbs, taking the limbs out of the surgery tents and dumping them in holes that we dug before the battles. After the battles, I helped tend the wounded. Not all of those who got operated on were adults. You’ve seen a bunch of terrible shit, and you’ve shared it with me, but I’ve seen suffering and pain on a scale at least as bad as anything you’ve seen, from a time before medicine was anything resembling a science. More than half of all amputees in the field hospitals died. By the time Danielle and I reached synergy, I had forgotten a lot of it, but I remember enough. I remember too much.” She paused and looked me straight in the eyes without blinking. “That doesn’t stop me from wanting to be there, no matter what, if you find out what’s going on with those kids.”
I was a bit shocked, but ignored the unimportant parts. She knew what it might cost her, and she was willing to pay that price. I just looked her in the eye and agreed. “OK, I promise I will tell you when I have anything actionable.” She relaxed some, but was still watching me, but watching me for a different reaction now, and it didn’t take me long to realize what she was looking for.
“What? Do you think I care how old you are, Ayva? I’ll keep your secret, if you want it kept.”
“I want it kept, Bob. I have no desire to be known as the oldest living human.”
I reached over and put my hand over the hand she had slapped the table with. “Done. Secret kept. Frank, I want you to help me enforce that even when I’m asleep or in any way incapacitated.”
Frank spoke out loud. “[Agreed, Bob. Ayva, it’s your secret to keep or tell.]”
“Thanks, Bob, Frank.” Ayva said, quietly, before standing up and starting to collect dishes.
“Uh Uh. You cooked. I got the dishes. You go figure out how to fix the house. After I finish the dishes I’ll check with you and see if you have everything under control, then I’m going to go into my studio in the virtual world and break things as I watch what happened to you.”
Ayva’s mouth twitched, and she put down the dishes she had picked up, then walked behind my chair and pulled it out, turning it to the side, while I was still sitting in it, then drawing me up from my seat to give me a very long kiss. “Thanks Bob. Danielle, time to erase the list of punishments.”
I laughed. “All of them? You do realize this means I’ll have to be a very bad boy in order to build up more punishments to pay off. Expect to find the toilet seat up in both bathrooms, every time I go by them, even if I don’t actually use the toilets.”
“As long as you start pushing in your chair, we’ll be fine.” She replied with a bit of seriousness. “That’s double punishment now, leaving your chair out. You will understand when you see the recording. As for the bad boy part, I expect it. Don’t disappoint me, but it’ll have to be later, after things get straightened up a bit.”
While I was doing dishes (after carefully pushing in my chair) I put the math together and realized that Ayva would have had to have been at least around ten years old, in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, to have been mobile enough and strong enough to move limbs around in a field hospital. Probably a bit older, though she might have been a big kid as young as seven or eight, but in that case her father had probably been one of the surgeons, or perhaps a military officer with no wife or family to care for his child. Unlikely. Camp followers existed back then, but the youngest of them rarely did more than collect firewood, cook, and do laundry when possible. She had probably been in her early teens at least, and pretending to be older. That would have made her at least around a hundred years old in the mid 1950’s. She had been a founding member of the Agency, and there were references before that to a long career working for the US government in the Cold War. Wow. Now I understood a lot better why she was so cautious about talking about her past. I also understood why it wasn’t so obvious that she was as old as she was. She had lived to a ripe age before a symbiote had been introduced to her, probably as an accident by Doctor Meilin before Doctor Meilin really understood how symbiote reproduction worked. Her memories of her life before being a symbiote were faded by the long life she had lived. She really started again as a woman in peak condition in the mid 1950’s, with faded memories going back to the 1860’s, maybe even as far back as the 1850’s.
I couldn’t tell anyone about it either. Which was fine. I wasn’t one to be sharing secrets in any case.
After finishing the dishes, I checked with Ayva who was already working with the household biofactory through the interface Danielle had created to allow direct neural connection to a biofactory with my genetic base. It would be a bit clunky to work with, but would keep Danielle from needing to create an entirely new biofactory just for the work on the house. The biofactory was collecting sheet rock, nails, and lumber, plus glass, etc. Ayva had my carpenter’s belt on, and was taking measurements.
“Any questions, Ayva?”
“Nope, we’ve got it. Danielle’s digging through the internet for stuff I don’t know. It will be most of the day for us to finish if I do the framing without the biofactory, but that’s what I want to do.”
“Be sure to accelerate callous formation on your hands as you start to use the hammer, or you will blister.” I warned.
“I’m going to throw something at you, Bob, Danielle and I know manual labor, even if we’ve never framed a house together.” She replied with a half-smile.
I grinned without responding to that point, then continued. “OK, in that case, I’m going to go to the virtual world and break things, then work on a couple problems and see about starting to gather data.”
Ayva’s smile faded. She nodded and turned away, looking towards the spot on the lawn where she had restrained and healed the child with the broken neck. I waited to see if she would say anything, but she didn’t, so I just set my hand on her shoulder, briefly. She put her hand over mine, briefly, then took her hand away. I gave her shoulder a light squeeze then let go, and turned towards my workshop.
I settled into a comfortable seat, and connected the quant, attempting to make a connection to B, before entering the virtual world. Nothing. I suspended myself in perfect blackness, carefully listening for anything for several minutes. I’d have to ask him about his food requirements later, but for now I made a note to myself not buy any more food for him until he had used half of what was stocked. At the current consumption rate that would last nearly a month.
I disconnected fully before reconnecting and logging into my personal space. Last time I went directly to the virtual world from an attempted connection with B, Frank and I had bypassed some critical information about changes to the virtual world, getting Frank and I killed in there, which kept us out of the virtual world for a full real world day.
No new updates. Good.
The first thing I did on connecting to the virtual world was go to the job network, and put a job in the miscellaneous section. I advised that I was looking for people in the real world with the following scents, who might be the victims of identity theft, and I would like anyone who knew anyone with a scent that matched any of the ones listed to contact our local police department, whose switchboard contact information I supplied. I didn’t give Detective Connolly’s contact information. No need painting that bright of a link to the search, not directly. I attached the scents from Ayva’s attack as well as the attacks on Frank and me. I then created a message for Detective Connolly, and provided him link data so he could see what I had done, to allow him to prepare the police department for potential incoming calls. He’d probably give me trouble about it later. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Then after a few seconds of thought, I sent the scent data to Kirk as well, and asked him if he could circulate this through the law community. I told him what the real deal was, but asked him to tell the other lawyers he spoke to only what I had in the job listing.
I was in my ‘Safety Dancer’ outfit, which did not suit my needs. I waved away the costume and waved again to create a set of combat armor, which I put on, and my staff sling. Frank, in his separate avatar, was already in full armor, tinkering with a dirt bike made mostly of carbon fiber with an electric motor powered by superconducting capacitors. He was making rapid changes every few seconds as the design evolved while he experimented with it.
“Frank, let me access that video now, please.”
He just looked at me, saying nothing, then nodded. I braced for a really bad experience if Frank was giving me that sober of a look, and not being a smartass.
I was right to brace myself. Watching what those soldiers had done to the children and my wife unhinged me a bit for a while. I normally didn’t go for embedded worlds, but in this case I needed one. There wasn’t enough room to fully model the scenario in my private area. So I arranged for, then opened a temporary embedded world of the smallest size in my personal area. It would disappear when I logged out. Personal areas could not house permanent embedded worlds, all permanent embedded worlds had to be connected directly to the public virtual world.
I created the temporary embedded world, and then spent the next two hours in the scenario as described by Danielle’s recording, watching everything for clues, and finding nothing of note. I don’t care to remember how many times I waved my hands to make the children disappear from the hands of the soldiers, then beat the crap out of them. Just because.
In the end, watching the soldiers jog into the woods carrying the children and the coldly sectioned body of their teammate was so frustrating. I activated carbon fiber muscles and broke trees for a while after the first time I watched my wife implant nine symbiotes into nine children, then watched as they cut the one Ayva killed into easily carried pieces. The impassiveness as they cut their partner apart was almost scarier than what they might be doing with the children. Their expressions as they performed the grisly work were about what one would expect from a person cutting vegetables at the kitchen counter while preparing a meal.
Ayva was right. These people were seriously messed up in the head, psychopathic to a degree that was shocking. And there were nineteen of them working together. At least. Double that and more if you count the ones that attacked Frank and me, if those people were connected to Ayva’s event.
Frank could make me look like that. Berserkers, for that matter, acted almost exactly like that. Berserkers, however, couldn’t exist any longer. Not only that, Berserkers were symbiotes, and these things weren’t symbiote pairs or Berserkers. Not a chance. The one died way too easily.
I waved to reset the scenario, and watched it again half a dozen times, looking for anything I might have missed. Nothing.
Frank popped up, and looked around at the most recent iteration of demolished forest. “You have a visitor, Bob.”
I looked at Frank. “Someone related to all this? Or someone random?”
“It’s Kirk, he says he personally knows one of the scents. Not one of his clients, so he can talk about it with you.”
I waved a hand to clean myself up, then exited the embedded world and walked to the door of my private area, to find myself facing a massive being apparently composed of many different trees standing outside the door of my private area, and a much smaller being who just looked human holding the door open. ‘Tangler’ and ‘Lifelike’ were their tags.
“Kirk and Jaws?” I asked.
The larger one, Tangler, spoke in a voice so deep it was hard to understand. “Yes. May we enter?”
“Please do. Did you have any problem getting here?” I asked, as they started to move forward.
Kirk stopped looking like a giant tree-person as he approached my door, so he could fit in. Jaws held the door open, watching carefully around them while Kirk entered my personal space. “Some no-skill dorks named Shocker and Chess tried to jump us. They’ll be locked out of the world for a day.”
I nodded, refraining from mentioning that those no-skill dorks had beaten Frank and me the other day. Those two were a problem. Might have to look into figuring out who they were in real life. They might even be related to this mess. Probably not, Frank knew them from before.
“You know one of the scents I sent you?”
“Yes, I knew one of them. It’s not going to do you much good though. They are dead. One of my father’s workers, Charlie, who died in a car wreck after he went drinking and driving. He was one of the ones that wouldn’t take either a symbiote or a drip.”
Kirk shared the scent with me. It was one of the bigger ones that had been involved in the attack on Ayva.
“Fuck. It’s still good information though, even if it’s a dead end. Sorry, pun not intended.”
Kirk smiled. “Understood. I wasn’t close to the guy. Barely knew him. The only reason I had a scent on him at all was because he happened to be around while I was visiting dad at the job site one day when Jaws was modifying our ability to smell.”
“How long has he been dead, Kirk?”
He thought briefly. “Six months and three days. Why is this important?”
I thought about it. “Better to show you than tell you. You will want to break things after you see it, I think. I have already been modeling things in a temporary embedded world. It’ll take just a second to set it back up again. There was an attack on Ayva, but not to hurt her.”
Kirk looked at me for a second, confused, then said “OK, show me.”
I was wrong. Kirk was scary when he was mad. The longer he watched, the more impassive he got. In the end, he looked and acted a lot like the soldiers as they chopped up their partner. Stone fucking cold.
When the recording ended, Kirk turned to me. “There’s no way any of dad’s people could ever be a part of something like this. You worked with his people for a while.”
“You said this Charlie was already dead though, so I don’t think we need to worry about that scenario. Someone’s masking scents somehow, or making clones, or something.” I replied.
Kirk nodded. “Or something. I’m drawing a blank though. Has anyone actually managed to clone humans? Can A or B do it? I bet they can, but can other people yet?”
“A and B can certainly do it. That’s exactly what B did when he literally recreated people in the real world from their entity files at the time of their deaths in the virtual world. Frank and I can do it for ourselves fairly easily. Ayva and Danielle can do it for themselves pretty easily as well, but for other people? Frank and I might be able to do it in the real world, but it would be iffy at best, with dozens if not hundreds of failures per each success for true genetic clones. Working with my own brain matter in a clone would be hard, other people’s DNA is much harder.”
“Didn’t you clone yourself on the day the Agency finally met you?”
“Not my brain or eyes. Everything else, sure, but that’s the easy stuff.” I had practiced that answer, it let me answer the question of cloning without lying. I still didn’t want people realizing that the new operating system allowing parallel processing came from Berserkers, stolen by Frank, then modified. As far as I was concerned, Frank and I would take that knowledge with us to the grave. In reality, Frank had created a body clone without ever moving my brain and eyes. He had duplicated himself in the body, and the berserker code kernel, and then pretended that body was the original body. Since I was unconscious the whole time, I had no clue what was going on. For the next five years, Frank kept me in the dark with everyone else. I was still angry with Frank every time I thought about it, and that was no secret to Frank. I continued speaking. “Even the most tiny errors in artificial methods ends up generating nonfunctioning or malfunctioning grey matter, even for us.”
“So A or B could do it. You could do it if you could ignore the waste. Ayva might be able to. As far as you know, nobody else should be able to.” He paused. “What about Argoen?” Kirk asked.
“Definitely could do it. No doubt. But B’s fairly certain she’s no longer on Earth. Argoen has been around thousands more years than B, but B has tens of thousands of times her processor volume, which equates to an absurd rate of growth of information. The last time B discussed relative strengths with Frank and I, he was confident he was more potent than Argoen, but not by much. That was months ago, and it was almost pure guesswork.”
“So you could do it, but only with massive losses. They would, by necessity, have a lot more in the way of wasted lives, if they are cloning. These guys don’t seem terribly concerned about losses, Bob.”
“You’re right. Think your mom and dad would be up to a visit from Ayva and me, since we’ll be up in that area anyway?”