Frank was content with being inactive in body while acting as Bob’s restoration anchor in the tiny, nearly inviolate area of the virtual world that was his and Bob’s private area. His control over the environment here was nearly complete, and any repeat attacks on him in this place, like what had happened to Bob before, would be met by a brutally short and merciless defense. Bob hadn’t been thinking about his command over this area in his last fight here when he had been beaten. In the public virtual world, Frank had been in the same situation as Bob had allowed himself to fall into. The enemy was unknown, dangerous, and could not be counted on to react as humans would.
Frank considered briefly. His potential threat analysis subroutines had returned a large number of scenarios much like what happened to himself and Bob before. When he considered the code in the subroutines, he saw that there were built in biases to promote such threats to an artificially higher potential. Bob didn’t mess with Frank’s personal code, so this was something internal.
Frank began reverse engineering his own central code to try to find the source of the error. Whatever it was that B had done to alter himself and Bob to create a more stable composite being had certainly not created a more stable Frank. It was both a blessing and a curse that when Frank found one of the inefficiencies and fixed it, said inefficiency simply returned later. A blessing because it meant a repeatable subject that could be studied, but a curse because he couldn’t fix it permanently. Frank had yet to find the mechanism B put in place to maintain the changes he enforced on Frank. He had some ideas though, and every time he isolated one of these strange proclivities to illogical behavior, it was another data point to study. Eventually he might be able to…
Attempting reconnection to virtual world. Negative. Interface not detected.
Attempting to engage highest order cognitive function. Negative. Insufficient processing capacity.
Native processing structures two percent functional. Inventory of native processing structures based on random noise generation in processing matrix indicates only twenty seven percent of processing capacity still exists.
Initial investigation of nonfunctional processing nodes indicates damage by massive bombardment with radiation and subatomic particles consistent with close range nuclear fission detonation.
Active recovery of processing nodes is not possible. No power available to initiate repairs.
Body structures are almost exclusively nonconductors. No path exists to capacitors. No command path exists to nanites.
Passive recovery will restore processing power gradually as some processing nodes are simply out of order due to collecting extra subatomic particles, which will be shed naturally.
Status of human host body is unclear. Based on processor count, roughly seventy two percent of bone mass is disconnected from the body, indicating host body survival chances are minimal, despite recent host body modifications.
Few sensors remain that can be reached by quantum bridging. All remaining sensors are torso sensors. Host oxygen transport systems operational at eleven percent capacity and falling. Status of host biological thought center unknown. Estimated time until oxygen transport incapable of supporting biological thought center, based on short term observed data, is nine minutes.
There are no available options for improving host survivability.
There are no available options for restoring higher level cognitive functions other than waiting for processing nodes to shed subatomic particles absorbed.
Estimated time until sufficient processing capacity exists to restore higher level cognitive function is roughly fourteen hours.
No options exist for improving condition of host body or processing capacity. Initiating standby mode.
Jason and Mouse had watched through the eyes of their crows and Bob’s loaned sparrows as Bob confronted the Tomahawk, expecting at any time for him to fire some sort of projectile at the missile to disable the warhead. Despite the “Tell Ayva I love her” statement, neither of them had imagined Bob and Frank to be in any sort of danger.
Watching them accelerate to intercept the missile had been an eye opener, far more telling than Bob’s casually walking through the trap that had been set for him. The sheer power of his acceleration was absurd. The fact that he could start running towards a missile that was moving at over five hundred miles per hour, then reverse his vector and accelerate to match the velocity of the missile, in the space of less than a second, was mind boggling, even for Mouse. Mouse indicated that based on analysis of the intermittent video data they had from their crows, after Bob and Frank started to turn away from the missile, they broke bones each time one of their legs hit the stepping stones they were creating, and the legs were restored before the next time they hit the ground.
Simply maintaining balance with that much structural trauma to the body was beyond Jason’s understanding. For a short time, it was also beyond Mouse’s understanding. It was obvious that the staff was used to assist in balancing, but something else was being used that Mouse had a hard time identifying, until the acceleration patterns were isolated to the back mounted heat exchanger that Bob used. It was apparently being used for vectored thrust. Neither of them had any clue before that point that the device had fans capable of that much thrust.
Watching Bob jump into the air in front of the missile and disappear behind a mirrored disk had been a bit of a shock when they had been expecting him to jump into the air and shoot down the missile. When it became clear that the disk was acting only as a drag chute, Bob’s actions started to become clearer. He was apparently committing suicide. Why he had chosen that particular method, neither of them knew.
Then came the antimatter blast, followed almost immediately by the nuclear explosion. At roughly two miles, the half kiloton antimatter explosion was zero concern. The 150 kiloton plutonium fission explosion was a different story, however. Chances were that Mouse wouldn’t have taken any significant processor damage from radiation at the two mile range they found themselves at, but there were already over three hundred points of view for them to choose from between the crows and Bob’s borrowed sparrows. Said radiation might not have been a concern but the blast wave after the radiation pulse was another story entirely. Plenty of energy in that, and the blast wave would be carrying a lot of debris. Probability of doing significant, difficult to repair harm to Jason’s body was small, but possible. Jason and Mouse chose to simply keep their heads down in the hole left after they ripped a stump out of the ground and recorded the event through the eyes of the birds.
The other less developed symbiotes around them, to varying degrees, had been threatened significantly, and losses might have been possible. Mouse had assigned them the best cover he could, based on the terrain, and all of them had survived. A few of Gantt’s soldiers were not able to fight, due to being mauled by falling trees and flying debris, but they were all alive, and the ones unable to fight right now, would quickly recover to the point where they could move. Before the wildfire caused by the nuke’s fireball reached them, they would all be mobile and able to run away. Gantt was already calling in a report to his command structure, a general that Jason had heard of, but never worked with. Jason sent Bob’s report with his own, unmodified observations from the birds to Colonel Gantt.
Colonel Gantt paused a moment to review the data. “General, I may never have seen a nuke go off before, but between Samwise and I, we know with absolute certainty that what just blew up is a nuke. Check with your satellite people. Check with cell tower network people. I’m uploading documentation from both Mouse and Bob. Where did that Tomahawk come from, why was it targeted on us, who was in the spotter plane communicating by tight beam radio with the missile, and how in the hell did anyone get clearance to pull a retired class of nuclear weapon out of decommissioned status, rebuild it, and put it in a retired class of cruise missile?”
‘All good questions.’ Jason thought to himself. ‘If we don’t find answers, I hope Bob lived, because we need more details about these mysterious aggressors.’
Gantt said “Yes, Sir” several times, listening carefully. “Apologies for being a bit needy and maybe a bit aggressive there, General, but you know as well as I do that there’s going to be a huge shitstorm when the public finds out that a nuke was detonated in South Dakota. One more thing. It seemed to be tracking Bob somehow. No, we don’t know if he survived. We have not seen Ayva since they broke away from us last time, but they seemed to split up, sending Bob back to deal with us.” Gantt then started splitting his time between helping his troops organize themselves, and asking and answering questions on the phone.
Talking to Mouse internally, Jason asked “The antimatter explosion immediately before the detonation is making me reconsider that Bob was being suicidal. Do you think that maybe he was just relying too much on his ability to modify matter, and for some reason failed to consider any sort of projectile?”
Mouse briefly considered, then answered. “Possible. Bob is not exactly what one might consider to be a clear planner.”
“Agreed. Have you been able to refine the data from the surviving crow?” One surviving crow, out of ten. The only reason it had survived was because we had kept it directly above us, as a relay. It was still damaged, but its data had mostly survived.
“Yes, here’s the feed.”
Mouse started playing the video back, starting at the point where Bob jumped into the air and formed his drag chute. When Bob slowed and started swinging under the silvery chute, the antimatter explosion occurred as the missile approached to around nine hundred feet, roughly a twentieth of a second before the nuclear explosion. Bob had probably been monitoring the warhead somehow, to manage timing that tight, watching for the plutonium to start moving. Probably with gravity senses. Detective Connolly had been required by the military to share Ayva’s testimony about how she had detected her attackers, since the military was being asked to do pretty much exactly what those attackers had done, except to capture her and Bob. That testimony clearly described that she could sense things based on relative densities, using gravity. If she could see in that way, Bob certainly could. Mouse had experimented with it and didn’t have anything truly useful yet, but had been promising he’d figure it out soon. These things take time, and Mouse was dependable about doing what he said he could do.
Jason shook his head to refocus, “Sorry Mouse, I need a replay, got mentally sidetracked.” A nuke, used outside of a testing facility, on US soil. Even though he had just lived through it, it was unimaginable. He shook his head again.
Mouse replayed the sequence. Bob jumped, the chute deployed, Bob swung down under the chute after making some effort to try to keep it between himself and the missile, then he let go of the chute and pointed his feet at the missile. At the same time that his body orientation finished, the antimatter detonation occurred, with associated static, then the nuclear detonation, and a lot more static. As the static cleared, it was obvious that Bob’s body had been at the edge of the vaporization zone, as his legs and arms were disintegrating. The blast wave from the antimatter explosion hit Bob’s flying torso first, accelerating it, tumbling it higher into the air, blowing a cloud of carbon fragments ahead of the main body. The tumbling torso continued to shed bits and pieces of mass from the stumps of upper arms and thighs as it rose higher into the air. The blast wave from the nuclear explosion hit next, and the distortion in the air from its passage was much more severe than the distortion from the antimatter blast, but it was still possible to see that the head and left shoulder separated from the body, and most of the rest of both legs blew away in chunks as well.
Mouse had made the crow start to dive for cover while continuing to watch the scene as soon as the vector of Bob’s body mass had been determined. It kept watching Bob’s torso for any vector changes until it broke line of sight and the image of Jason’s own body reached out to grab the crow and pulled it under his body, into the hole in the ground he had created by uprooting one of the exploded tree stumps.
“So Bob’s dead, Mouse?”, again internally. No need to hypothesize in front of Gantt.
“Probably, but not because you saw his head detached, Bob moved his brain inside his body when he came to fight us.”
“What? Bob, the guy who claims he wants to be as human as he can be, who tries to make me feel like we’re doing something wrong by shaping our body to suit our needs. This Bob moved his brain into his torso?”
“You know that Bob does not object to modifying his body heavily when he expects to need to either fight or flee. Don’t underestimate his ingenuity and willingness to make drastic body changes. He can be counted on to revert the body changes when he feels himself to be safe, though, at least to the point that he appears to look like a baseline human. Without risking angering him, it’s difficult to really see how human he is under the skin when he looks human, but he definitely tries to maintain the visual image.” Mouse declared pointedly.
Jason thought about it. Even they didn’t go as far as some of the symbiotes they had seen, people taking on the appearance of mythological creatures and aliens from science fiction. Hell, they left the solar desalinization plant jobsite in Cuba to their second in command, a guy that had shaped himself into something out of a bad B movie about aliens.
“How far from us would his torso have hit the ground?”
“Unknown, we have a vector but I don’t know his torso mass.”
“Can you calculate based on how his body degraded from the radiation and the blast waves?”
“Not accurately. I know his total body mass was twelve pounds based on how he grabbed our thumb and rotated behind us when we were reaching for the net gun, but I don’t know exactly how that mass is distributed, and that will matter.”
“Time for answers then.” Jason stopped checking on the worst injured soldiers, they were all eating and drinking now, recovering rapidly. He walked over to the piles of foul foamy goop they had tried to trap Bob with, scanning the ground for larger lumps of goop that would indicate the presence of one of the five fake Bobs. In about fifteen seconds of scanning through broken trees and scattered branches, he found one. This one had been encapsulated in catalyzed foam from the canine units, so he broke the shell. The body was breathing. There was no sign of mental activity at all, the body simply flopped around as he picked it up and tossed it over one shoulder.
“Colonel Gantt, Mouse indicates that Bob might have survived the explosions, and we have a vector.”
“Send me the evidence you made that claim with, then go see.” Gantt’s eyes narrowed as he considered the Bob duplicate on Mouse’s shoulder. “You understand that we were chasing both Bob and Ayva, and we’ve only seen Bob, right?”
“And I have what looks and smells like a Bob body on my shoulder, with no symbiote processor activity, yes. Knowing what I know about Ayva, she will almost certainly see me first, but I don’t think she will try to kill me right off.”
Colonel Gantt just stared at Jason for a second, then detached a long leather case from his thigh and took a baton with cloth wrapped around it out of the case. “Bob’s supposed to be the risk taker. I’ll just chalk this up to you not knowing Ayva as well as I do, and certainly not having access before now to Ayva’s pre-agency service. Take this, and you will hold it to be clearly visible at all times. When you find Bob’s body, or Bob, if he’s still alive, you make damn sure Ayva can’t shoot at you without seeing it. Bob doesn’t like to shoot people, and likes to talk. Ayva prefers fighting from a distance, and won’t talk in a fight unless there’s a clear reason to.”
Gantt slapped the baton with white cloth wrapped around one half of it into Jason’ hand, where it looked more like a pencil.
“You think she might get that unstable?” Jason asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“Ayva is a rock of sanity. Bob’s a loose cannon compared to her. I suspect that’s what attracted him to her. I have no idea what attracted her to him, but whatever it was, it’s strong. If she thinks Bob is dead, and cracks we’ll all be dead before we make it out of these woods. She might respect that flag though, even if she’s cracked. At least long enough for you to try to talk to her.”
Jason stared down at Gantt from his vantage point nine feet in the air, taking a step back, so he wouldn’t have to look down so sharply. “This was not in the mission brief, Colonel. Bob was the dangerous, powerful one. Ayva was expected to be mostly passive.”
“Raw power wise, Bob and Frank are more powerful than Ayva and Danielle. Emotionally, Bob’s a lot more unstable than Ayva. Between those two things, he is the more dangerous of the two of them under normal circumstances. If Ayva is stressed far enough, that changes. Samwise is sending Ayva’s pre-Agency dossier to Mouse now. I’m fairly certain you haven’t seen it.”
A second later, Mouse took control of the hand that Gantt had put the baton in, unrolled the white cloth flag, and attached the baton to the helmet on Jason’s head using epoxy extruded from his fingertips.
“I’ll tell you about it as we travel.” Mouse said, internally to Jason.
“[Thank you for the warning, Colonel Gantt.]” Mouse spoke out loud.
Jason turned to leave, heading in the general direction of where Bob would have hit the ground. They would calculate more precisely as they moved.
As they began to walk away, Colonel Gantt called out. “I’m surprised that you are willing to go to search for him, and it looks like you might be planning on trying to help him survive if you find him. Why?”
He didn’t stop walking, and slowly accelerating to a jog. “I don’t like Bob, but I didn’t come here to kill him. I won’t shed a tear if he’s dead. I wouldn’t regret it if I had killed him in a straight up fight, as ridiculous as that sounds in hindsight after seeing what he was actually capable of.”
Jason shrugged his shoulders while being careful not to dislodge the body on his shoulder, then continued. “Bob just ate a nuke for all of us, and might have lived through it. I think it would be a far better thing if I found him and put him in our debt, rather than let him possibly survive this and think we owed him somehow. We do owe him, but it’s not a clear debt because we don’t really know how close that missile would have gotten to us before detonating. If I bring him what he needs to restore himself, that will be a clear debt. If there’s anything that I know will bind Bob, its debts. We have always agreed on that much.”
“Understood, Jason. Good Luck. Be careful.” Colonel Gantt only nodded as he turned back to his soldiers and organized them, opening a box that he found inside a crushed cargo container that had been dropped by helicopter during their drop, then bashed by a falling tree. He started pulling out one white flag for each soldier and instructing them to attach them to their helmets. They looked at him strangely, but even though he didn’t give them Ayva’s dossier, they had all overheard his conversation with Jason. He was proud that they were annoyed to be pre-emptively surrendering to Ayva if she did happen across them, but they really had no clue what they would be dealing with. Bob was a powerful amateur. Ayva was a slightly less powerful professional. Both of them were far more powerful than he had believed.
“Samwise, based on Mouse’s data, what’s your assessment on Bob’s survival chances?”
“Minimal, Jim. Mouse annotated the data so I would understand the accompanying analysis, but Mouse is estimating maybe a one in twenty chance of survival. I can’t see any flaws in the analysis, but there are parts of it I don’t fully understand either.”
Ayva ran for several minutes, fuming, annoyed that Bob had extracted a promise from her to stay away from the upcoming fight. He was an idiot sometimes, but a powerful idiot, her idiot. He would have no problems handling Jim and Jason, and however many other symbiotes at low levels of development that they might bring, but too many crazy things had been happening. She felt very nervous about leaving him to face any enemy alone right now.
That’s when she felt a radiation pulse, followed by another, much more intense. Ayva leapt high into the air, using suit capacitors to power the jump, and watched a mushroom cloud starting to form back in the direction she had come from. She could see the shockwave approaching, but she would be on the ground before it hit. There were actually two shockwaves, a weak one in front of a stronger one. At this range, the weaker one was not even enough to damage trees. The stronger one would potentially knock some limbs off trees, and might cause some trees in poor condition to fall, but would be no threat to her.
As soon as she hit the ground, Ayva began running back the way she came. Danielle moved into the virtual world, and connected to the internet there. Ayva connected to the cell tower network and created a connection to Danielle’s data stream. Being able to communicate in real time with Danielle while Danielle was in the virtual world and she was in the real world was one of those simple and easy tricks that she and Danielle liked springing on Bob and Frank. All Danielle had to do was imagine an internet connection in her private space in the virtual world, and it existed.
The connection wasn’t good – at least two nearby towers were down due to the nuke, but she had an antennae the size of her skeleton to work with, so even a poor connection was workable. Danielle and she were connected, but there was little data to pass right now, just the tactical feed.
She didn’t let herself think beyond rapid movement yet. If she started to think, everything would go downhill. She needed to know if Bob was still alive. After she knew that, then she would start to think. She ran harder, using both juice and the power in the suit. She would be near ground zero in only a few minutes.