I finished the last bits of reassembly and testing on the bikes as Frank watched the conspiracy theory forums.
“I see why some might want to study these forums and their information networks. It’s pretty fascinating how the people interact and the ideas change and mutate over time.” Frank commented.
“That doesn’t sound very useful, in our case. Has the data mutated?”
“Actually, no, there is a coordinated effort by moderators of various sites to keep that from happening. It’s pretty impressive. They recognize that they have been targeted in some way, and they are banding together, trying to figure out what happened, and collecting data.”
“Wow, so they are doing for us what we promised the detective we wouldn’t do for ourselves?” I asked, with a bit of a smile, still speaking out loud. I preferred to speak out loud when I was confident I wasn’t being monitored. It felt more like I was talking to a person that way. Frank’s presence in my mind still irked me from time to time. Speaking internally tended to trigger more irritation at Frank, which he didn’t deserve.
“Sort of.” Frank replied. “Doing what I’m doing now might be considered a violation of that agreement.”
“We’re not taking action, Frank, we’re watching to see what reaction we get from our mistake earlier.”
“You’re splitting hairs, Bob, but I’m on your side with this one.” Frank replied, cautiously.
I cranked up each bike, in turn, allowing them to run for a while, listening to them. No strange noises or smells. We still had about thirty minutes left before Ayva said she would be done, so I turned off the bike that was currently running, cleaned up my tools, and put everything back where it belonged.
Then I closed the roll-up garage door, and left by the normal-sized human door, locking it. I checked on the sparrows and they were fine. Then I walked out back to the pond, to see if maybe I could get some answers out of B with a direct physical connection.
I didn’t even realize it until I started wading into the pond, and noticed that the water level was very low. When I noted the water level I just added another question to the list, to ask B if he needed more water on a regular basis. Still lost in thought, I continued wading, far too long. When I realized that, I looked up, eyes wide. One does not simply move a body the size of an office building. I thought he had maybe made himself invisible of something, but a thrown rock disproved that theory. I looked at the coastline of the pond, and scanned. B hadn’t moved or shrunk himself, unless he had moved a great distance without touching the ground, or shrunk himself to a size vastly smaller than what he used to be.
“Frank. You’re quiet. You noticed too?”
“Yes, I noticed. I’m trying to decide whether this is a good thing, or a bad thing. Might check in the bottle there though. There’s paper inside.” Frank painted a little glowing dot on the bottle bobbing in the water that I had somehow missed.
When we got closer, I saw that the bottle was tied to a string. Bobbing in the waves, the string was apparently tied in place to something under the water, as the bottle seemed to be held in one general area by the string.
I picked up the bottle, and pulled on the string. It moved with a little bit of effort, so I pulled it up and found a big triangular fishing weight. I just looked at the bottle for a moment, thinking. ‘A bottle, old fishing line, and a weight. Really, B?’
I obviously wasn’t going to be able to resist opening the bottle and looking inside, so I didn’t try. Standing hip deep in water, ankle deep in mud, I popped the loose cork out of the bottle and tapped out the small, folded note.
>Bob and Frank,
>Sorry, but you two are about to start trying to get aggressive in getting answers from me, and you
>would have been very angry and possibly even destructive. Rather than deal with your potential anger
>when I refuse to answer your questions, I moved to Antarctica. Thank you for my life, the food you
>provided, and the use of the pond. I can’t be a crutch for you though.
I read and reread the note several times.
Frank spoke after a few re-readings. “We knew he would do it eventually, move somewhere else, that is.”
I thought about it. “I suppose, but it is a bit strange that he chose now.”
“Is it strange, really? You know how good he is on the internet. Do you think he didn’t see what we were doing, do you think he doesn’t watch us all the time? It’s very difficult to get any sense of what B is doing, but I can sometimes see hints of his presence as he subtly shifts things around in the internet to make room for himself as an aspect of his presence follows us.”
I hadn’t noticed any such thing, but then I didn’t experience the internet the same way Frank did. Or rather, I didn’t want to. Frank went all-in digital immersion whenever the connection would permit it. Almost all symbiotes did. I preferred a GUI for the internet. I could do a full digital immersion, but it was strange and irritating to me. The virtual world was a completely different matter, but that connection was formed by a quantum entanglement device that Frank didn’t even begin to understand. B provided instructions on how to make them, then they had to connect to the internet to initialize them. I suspected that part of that initialization was B reaching out to tweak the connection and device manually, but I hadn’t ever found proof.
“So, you think B just decided to pick up and leave when he saw what you were just browsing around looking at?”
“Yes.” Frank walked us over to the edge of the pond, where the water no longer covered the mud. “See how fresh and wet the mud is here?” He touched it with our finger. “I’d say he’s been gone less than fifteen minutes.”
“Well, did he tell us anything simple based on the fact that he wasn’t willing to talk to us, and chose to leave at this time? Other than the fact that he knew we would have questions about dead conspiracy theorists?”
“I can’t think of anything right now. I’ll consider it. It’s very possible that he just didn’t want to deal with us if we tried to irritate him until he talked.”
“This was important though.”
“To you. To me. B is a bit beyond us. We do share some memories of what it was like to be B, for a short time before he chose to recreate us. Even then, so early in his existence, it’s hard to follow his thoughts. He grew so fast after that. His growth rate has probably slowed drastically, like ours has, but he probably doesn’t think like a discrete being any longer. He has some fondness for us. Maybe he’s just trying to preserve that fondness for us by not allowing us to bother him?”
I was a bit stunned by that analysis, briefly. Frank doing psychoanalysis is still weird, though he’s been perfectly capable of it ever since we merged. “Sort of like a parent preserving their sanity by kicking a loud, arrogant teenager out of the house, but in reverse?”
“Well, yes, I suppose that’s pretty close to what I’m thinking.”
I chuckled, imagining what Ayva’s reaction to that analogy might be. Then I consulted my internal clock. We needed to go cook. Ayva would be done any time now.
I tucked the note back into the bottle, re-corked it, and then slogged out of the pond through the muck, headed towards one of the front yard water spigots where I knew Ayva kept a garden hose with a sprayer nozzle. Frank could clean off sweat and salt and general skin dirt without much issue, without needing water, but mud and muck would be better handled by spraying ourselves off first.
After I sprayed off the majority of the mud, Frank cleaned off the rest, and absorbed the water out of our clothing. I wiped the bottom of my shoes on the shoe scrubber, then the front door mat, and walked inside through the newly hung front door. I did give it a very quick look after making sure Ayva wasn’t able to see me from where I was. I didn’t expect to see problems, both Ayva and Danielle would have researched wall construction and door hanging six ways from Sunday before picking up a hangar. I’d never seen either of them do construction work though, so I had to take a peek.
Frank immediately figured out what I was doing, as soon as I turned around. “Bob, I’ll look. You had best not. I’ll tell you if I see anything in any of the work they did that we’ll need to look at later. Chances are almost zero that we’ll need to re-do or touch up anything, you know that, right? This is really crude and simple construction. It’s not like she’s some kid apprentice let loose on her first job.”
I smiled as I turned around. Frank was right. I was projecting Ayva’s apparent age and what I knew of her experience into a hypothetical human person template. A young woman in her mid-twenties with no construction experience, no matter how many books you gave her, would not build professionally in her first project. If she was exceptionally good with her hands, and good with reading comprehension, she would build competently the first time, but with many flaws. Adding a symbiote and a lifespan of 165-175 years or so? She had admitted to helping build houses in the past as well, when she talked about ‘fancy’ round nails. I ceased being concerned about it.
I spoke internally. “Thanks, Frank, it was a human instinctual reaction based on her apparent age.”
“Figured that. Still kind of up in the air how she’d take it though, if she noticed.”
I turned around and happened to notice that we’d find out Ayva’s reaction after all. She was watching our reflection in the foyer mirror, from where she was standing in the dining room. She saw that I noticed her, as I noticed her and got a guilty look on my face. She smiled, shook her head, and bent over to pick something up as she continued doing cleanup.
Frank said absolutely nothing to me about our being discovered as I spoke out loud into the house while walking to the kitchen. “Anything specific you want for a light dinner?”
Ayva spoke aloud as well, rather than use the network, since we were close enough to speak. “Doesn’t need to be a light dinner. Just not a heavy dinner, please.”
I remembered. No meat. She hadn’t said anything specific about it, but I wasn’t cooking with meat until I saw her cook with meat. If that meant years, then so be it.
I poked and prodded through the refrigerator, found some onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cheese, and tortillas. All of it was still good despite the power outage, which wasn’t a real surprise since the outage hadn’t lasted long. I pulled out the cast iron skillet and the olive oil, rubbing down the pan with the oil and adding a bit more oil to create a thin layer on the cooking surface of the pan, then started the stovetop and set the pan on it to start heating. After the pan was starting to heat I picked up the cutting board from its rack and grabbed a four inch clip point and a five inch wavy edge paring knife out of the big rack of knives. Ayva was very particular about using specific knives for specific jobs. We both agreed on the wavy edge paring knife for tomato cutting but I preferred a clip point blade for veggie cutting rather than a standard smooth chef’s blade. Mechanically, the chef’s smooth blade was better for cutting veggies, but I had been using a clip point blade to cut veggies for twenty years before meeting her, so habit held sway for now – unless she was watching. I tapped into a bit of processing power in order to guide my actions as I turned on the perception effect.
Cutting veggies with the perception effect and symbiote reflexes was fun. I started with the onion, cutting it in half, top to bottom, and setting one half to the side to wrap and put back into the fridge. Then I turned on the speed and flashed through the onion, cutting it into long strips rather than arcs. It’s one of the first things you learn as a chef, how to cook onion, but most people never learn that it matters what way you cut one. As I progressed, I flipped each finished cut piece of onion through the air to land in the cast iron skillet like a chef at a Japanese restaurant tossing food at customers. I had a whole new respect for those chefs who did the work without symbiotes since I started cutting veggies with the perception effect. Then I moved on to the green peppers, pulled the stem and seed ball out of two of them, washed the seeds out, then cut them in half with the wavy edge paring knife, since I wanted to avoid bruising the pepper flesh by cutting through the skin with a sharp blade. After that, I picked up the clip point blade and started cutting the peppers end-to-end, cutting down into the flesh of the pepper. Another chef-trick Ayva had taught me. I had already known the onion tricks. I didn’t put the pepper strips into the skillet yet. I would add them after the onions started to brown a bit. Ayva and I both preferred our bell peppers a bit crisp, barely caramelized on the edges.
I released the perception effect and checked body temperature. Moderate temperature increase, nothing to be concerned about. The skillet was starting to warm up, and the onions and bell peppers were prepped, so I asked Frank to tend the clip point paring knife’s blade edge, which he did in a matter of a minute in the kangaroo pouch. I spent that time turning up the heat on the skillet, and stirring the onions, getting them covered in oil and starting to caramelize. I removed the knife from the pouch when Frank said it was done, washed it, and then returned it to the knife rack. Victory! Improper knife used, and Ayva never saw me!
I grinned to myself. The small victories, even those with no real reward, were still fun. Most big victories really weren’t that fun anyway. I shook my head and chased away several memories of darker times that tried to crowd into my consciousness before they could overwhelm me. Some of my darkest memories were from my victories. I shook my head again, and concentrated on the food. I stirred the onion strips again. They were coming along well, so I scattered in the green pepper strips, and stirred the whole bunch of veggies, getting the green peppers covered with oil.
Time for the tomatoes. Ayva and I both liked our tomatoes uncooked, so they would go on last, diced, after the cheese melted. I cut one tomato in slices using the wavy edge paring knife, then diced it. All at normal speed. I gave the green peppers and onions another stir when the tomatoes were done, then turned off the burner. We used an electric range, which irritated Ayva at first, but after she realized how fast the new heating elements would heat and cool, she minded it less. She had learned to hate electric ranges when they used to have the big heavy coils that took forever to cool. She would still rather have a gas range with electric convection oven. This would require adding gas service to the house though, which we had never gotten around to doing.
We settled for a really nice gas grill for her, which amused me, since as I was growing up, it had mostly been the men of the family that went all in for the grills, and the women who preferred to cook indoors. Various birthdays had gifted her with high end grilling equipment – hats and aprons with clever sayings, grill maintenance kits, thermometers, warm food keepers for storing food as it came off the grill, special blends of wood that could be put in a wood chip rack to give food a smoked flavor, and of course various food preparation tools meant for grilling.
I got a plate and put some paper towels on it, then poured the oily onions and green peppers onto the paper towels to pull some of the oil off. I drained the little bit of standing oil in the pan into the plate at one edge as well.
I then turned back to the stove, placing the skillet on the largest element and turning that range element to high, throwing a tortilla in the pan as it started to heat, then shredded cheese on the tortilla, then half the peppers and onions. When the cheese was melted, I tossed in half the tomatoes, folded the tortilla in half with a spatula, pressed it flat with a little pressure, then flipped it and repeated the press. Then it went onto one of two plates that I had set aside for the final product, covered by a napkin. I quickly did the same for a second quesadilla, placing it on the second plate, then turned the heat off on the range, moved the skillet to another range element out of habit from years of cooking on old school electric ranges, popped the leftover half onion in a baggie, then quickly put the unused veggies, cheese, and tortillas back in the refrigerator. I carried the quesadillas to the table, which was still in the living room for now. Ayva had gotten herself cleaned up, and set the table. I asked her what she wanted to drink. We were apparently both in a sweet tea mood, so I brought out the sweet tea, and water for after.
We both sat down and demolished our quesadillas. Ayva and I watched each other eat, each of us recognizing that the other would probably be hungry after.
“I’ll grab some tortillas and salsa for after.” I said.
She smiled. “It’s good, Bob, but I underestimated how hungry I’d be, or I would have asked for a bigger meal.”
“No problem. I’ll get the tortillas when I’m done. Want me to move the table back into the other room while you do dishes?”
“Please. I collected all the chair pieces and will set the biofactory to rebuilding them tonight after I feed it the dinner leftovers and let it tap into B’s food reservoir.”
I just nodded, then we both continued eating. I wouldn’t mention B’s disappearance until we were done eating. She had doubtlessly been thinking while she worked too, and would probably have some stuff to talk with me about.
We did the after dinner cleanup dance and I moved the table into the dining room, then got a bag of tortillas and poured some homemade salsa in a bowl. Ayva tossed all the cooking mess into the biofactory which cleaned it all off, consuming everything off all the cooking equipment and maintaining anything that had suffered damage. She then retrieved the plates, cutlery, and skillet, rinsed them, and set everything in the drying rack, after re-oiling the skillet. I realized that I had not pulled out the chef’s blade paring knife and prepped it like as if I had used it. She would know I used the clip point knife, probably. I smiled. It might earn me an unspecified random punishment.
Ayva walked into the dining room and sat down next to me and we ate chips and salsa in silence for a minute, not rapidly, but steadily. When we both slowed down a bit, she started talking first.
Unsurprisingly, Ayva heard the water running and figured out what it meant that I had been using it. “What did B have to say about all this, Bob?”
“Nothing. I went out there and literally found a message in a bottle. He’s gone.”
“What? He’s just gone? What did the message say?”
“One second, I’ll let you see it yourself. I left it outside so we wouldn’t be distracted from the meal.”
I went out to retrieve the bottle, string, and weight, brought them back in, and set them carefully on the table so Ayva could look them over. She removed the cork, tapped out the message, and read it. Danielle’s processing capacity went wild for a couple seconds, and Ayva just stared at the letter.
Eventually, Ayva started moving again and said “Danielle will reach out to A and see if we can get anything from her, but we won’t ask why B moved. No reason to irritate him. If A chooses to give us anything with regards to B’s disappearance, fine, but we won’t ask for it. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of questions we can ask her about any number of other things. Danielle has a list.”
She absently folded the note back up and stuck it in the bottle, then tapped the corked back onto the bottle. “Did you come up with anything new?”
I explained about tracing down the scent data and the reactions of people in the conspiracy theory groups on the internet.
“Aren’t they mostly a bunch of kooks that think too far outside the lines and see threats where they don’t exist?”
“Yes, but every now and then they strike gold, and the ones that are really thinking about this are a bit scared. How many have been ID’ed now, Frank?”
Frank borrowed my voice. “[Twenty-seven worldwide so far. All acknowledged current or past members of conspiracy theory groups. All were active enough, and cogent enough, to warrant interviews from symbiote pairs that study the psychology and methodology of conspiracy theorists.]”
Ayva looked puzzled. “People study them? Do we really need to understand paranoia better?”
I chuckled. “They aren’t always wrong, they are just mostly wrong. It’s the ones that have been right in the past that get most of the study. The ones that seem better than almost everyone else at picking out meaningful data from background noise and creating an accurate picture of reality. Like the ones that knew the Agency and symbiote pairs existed despite how hard the Agency and the government tried to keep everything hush-hush, or the ones who managed to put together a fairly decent timeline around Argoen’s ship crash, her attempted takeoff, and her apparent death.”
Ayva digested that for a moment. Danielle was revving her processors to the red line, but I couldn’t get any real idea what they were thinking. They had advanced their passive masking capability to the point I couldn’t casually get an idea what they were thinking. Probably for the best. Knowing what your wife is thinking can be harmful to your relationship.
“OK, Bob. That makes sense then. These are humans then, mostly, or are some of them symbiotes?”
I let Frank answer it again. “[All of them so far have been human, the symbiotes, when they engage at all, appear to be trolling them. That being said, I’ve been looking at some of the data that shows up in conspiracy theory forums, and it’s very likely that some symbiotes are feeding data to the conspiracy theorists in order to see what comes out. There are also, of course, the symbiotes mentioned before, who study conspiracy theory. These symbiotes doing the legitimate study are the ones who recognize the scents of the humans. All twenty-seven recognized scents have been dead conspiracy theorists who were involved in legitimately discovering something real. They had all been interviewed in real life by symbiote researchers, which is how they were scent identified. They were of two classes, either they provided data that others turned into meaningful arguments, or they analyzed data provided by others, making connections that others couldn’t, then backtracking and finding data to collaborate their analysis.]”
Ayva nodded, thinking. “OK, so someone is apparently creating clones of human conspiracy theorists with a proven ability to either identify real conspiracies, or provide meaningful data that allowed others to identify real conspiracies. People who think so far outside the box that it’s difficult to credit them until they are proven right.” She paused and Danielle’s processors were very busy for a short time. “Frank, have you seen any evidence that they were killed, rather than dying of natural causes? It would be much, much easier to clone someone with live tissue samples than dead samples. Even for Danielle and me, and I suspect for you and Bob too.”
Frank borrowed my voice again “[The conspiracy theorists are already all over this, though they don’t know the real reason for it. They do, however know that Bob placed the original ad. He is getting about three hundred emails per minute right now that I’m fending off. That list of dead people has them seriously spooked, and that’s a community that gets positively weird when spooked. They are looking into the circumstances of the deaths of every single person who has died in the last several years that was involved in conspiracy theory arguments in their forums. Some of them are real nuts, but some of them, like I mentioned before, are pretty damn good at putting pieces together.]”
Ayva rubbed the sides of her forehead with her fingers, then tented her fingers under her nose, thinking a second, then commenting. “This happens now, right as B just disappeared and claims to have moved to Antarctica. Right after he proved how incredibly powerful he is, to the point of being something close to a deity. Lovely. The nuts are going to have lots of fun with this.”
“Yes. It’s a fine mess, isn’t it? The best part? We don’t really know for sure that B isn’t involved in it somehow.” I said, frowning.
That thought created another huge spike in processing in Danielle, and Frank both. Ayva spoke, “We’ll call in a favor for that question, Bob. Danielle will ask A. We’ll get an answer if we call in a favor. We don’t have many favors left though.”
Ayva put her fingers back up to her nose and sniffed, looking puzzled. Then she picked up the bottle, and pulled the cork with one hand, holding the bottle with the other. Danielle extended a pseudopod from one hand into the cork, and another extended into the bottle. I waited for her to finish doing whatever she was doing before interrupting her. By the concentration on her face and Danielle’s processor activity, she was onto something, and I wasn’t going to interrupt.
“Bob, this bottle has no markings at all, the glass the bottle is made from is flawless, the cork is brand new, the bottle has never held wine, and it’s clear glass.”
I just looked puzzled, and waited, she had something else to say.
Ayva smelled the cork again, then handed it to me. “Why does this cork smell strongly of fresh, well-aged red wine?”