Jason jogged towards Mouse’s best projection of where Bob’s torso would have hit the ground. Mouse spoke to him as soon as Colonel Gantt turned his attention back to his troops.
“Jason, I’m looking at the data here, and however that missile was being guided, it was Bob’s energy expenditures that it was homing in on. Every time we detected a radiation pulse from him creating those stepping stones, the missile’s flight profile adjusted very slightly. We do not know what reserve elements or follow up plans might be behind this.”
“Understood, Mouse, no large energy expenditures – not without being prepared. Have you done a risk analysis of pulling sufficient power into us to generate a coil gun? I really do not want to be unprepared if there’s some sort of follow up attack.”
Jason scanned the broken forest around him. A lot of the trees were structurally sound, but many had fallen, creating a maze of large branches and tree trunks that he had to navigate. He borrowed a small amount of processing power from Mouse and set up a structural analysis program to see what fallen trunks and branches would support his weight sufficiently to be useful in navigating through the mess. A jog was the fastest pace he could manage efficiently in this environment. At nine feet tall though, with carbon fiber bones and carbon fiber strands working with natural muscle, a jog was around twenty miles per hour. He could go faster at need, but it would take a lot of resources.
“We know Ayva is out there as well. Almost certainly vectoring in towards the blast. Generating an energy signature sufficient to create a coil gun is certainly going to get her attention as well, she might even think we’re Bob. Either that, or she will recognize we are not Bob, but we are looking for Bob.”
“Another reason to have the coil gun ready.”
Jason stopped trying to analyze the sparrow he had picked up with Bob’s duplicate body. He could not generate matter like what Bob had made the sparrow and his own body from. Mouse had taken one look at it and given a mental snort, then made some comment about quantum reprogramming of matter. They needed more visual points of view for a decent search. He himself, with a single crow to assist, in this environment, was not enough eyes. He borrowed a bit more processing capacity from Mouse, and started to produce sparrows, but they were mostly organic. Easier that way. All he needed was flight, eyes, and a way to transmit data. Their body, as big as it was, had huge stores of juice compared to a typical human sized symbiote host, so plenty of juice for making small construct animals. He also knew roughly where Bob should be, so he didn’t need huge numbers of them.
“Jason, no, it’s not. If we have a coil gun and try to bring it to bear on Ayva, in this scenario, we’ll almost certainly die. It’s that simple. That dossier that Gantt gave us? Ayva was an intelligence operative in the late 1950’s, throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s with a huge list of official accomplishments, and an even longer list of successful missions that are only referred to by date. CIA records on Ayva are a lot more voluminous than Agency records were, and indicate that she must have been an accidental offspring of Doctor Meilin’s symbiote. Presumably accidental. Doctor Meilin has always been generous with her time, offering consulting to retirement homes and rural clinics for only travel costs when she was younger, and free as she gained wealth.”
“Why wasn’t she folded into one of the existing units that had absorbed imprisoned symbiote soldiers? All the early symbiotes knew one another, I thought, but I have never seen anything about her that predates the records the Agency has.”
Mouse recognized that Jason was multitasking. Jason felt Mouse pausing and expressing critical interest in the sparrow design, probably getting ready to offer advice. Jason had already figured out what he was missing. Before Mouse said anything, he made modifications to allow the sparrows to detect radiation directionally by modifying the wing antennae structures. Bob’s body had been much closer to the nuclear explosion than any other large mass that would be found around him. They should be able to find Bob extremely rapidly based on radiation output alone, since they knew roughly where he should be, and Bob should be more radioactive than anything near him due to his proximity to the initial explosion, combined with the distance that his absurdly light body would have been thrown.
“Ayva never answered any questions about her past, but she didn’t need to. The CIA knew exactly who she was, less than three months after she showed up and offered them her services. They only needed to look for elderly female persons who disappeared from retirement homes after an incredible restoration of muscle and bone strength. They knew to look for elderly persons, because of what she said, how she said it, and her habits before they sent her to various schools for field agents. She never admitted to who she was, and the CIA never challenged her on it, they were more than happy to use her abilities after they figured out who she was. The paper trail of those arguments about her identity, the fact that she thought she was unknown, and the question of whether or not they should press her on admitting her identity within the CIA are longer than her accomplishments.”
“So, who is she?”
Jason felt Mouse’s attention shift away from the sparrow building project and Jason took that as a sign that there wasn’t anything obvious that needed fixing, then produced a dozen sparrows and sent them ahead, searching for Bob. The crow, a much more complex and durable combination of biological and mechanical parts had already been repaired, and was on overwatch above them, acting more like a hawk than a crow, performing relay duty as well as watching for anything in the air heading their way. The jet which had been communicating with the missile was nowhere to be seen.
“Her CIA code name was Specter. Her specific identifying information was erased from this data by Samwise at the direction of Colonel Gantt, and we have no physical media to use to try to reverse engineer the data. Apparently Gantt decided to give us incomplete data despite the fact that we’re out in the woods playing hide and seek with one of the most deadly symbiote pairs in the world while looking for her potentially dead husband, the most powerful symbiote pair in the world. Gantt should have given us the data. I already protested to Samwise, who told me that he argued too, in our favor, but Gantt refused to allow Samwise to give us the most personal data. I almost convinced Samwise to give us the data anyway, but I think Gantt figured out that I was trying to get data from Samwise and reinforced his decision using different data that Samwise wouldn’t share with me.”
“Well, it’s not as if we’ve never gotten the short end of the stick before. Gantt normally has reasons for being short on words and long on expectations. It’s likely to be legit if Samwise agreed with it, even if he had some reservations. Also, Mouse, be careful ‘convincing’ less advanced symbiotes please. We don’t need anyone saying you did to them what Bob did to you.” Mouse performed what could only be called an electronic snort at that rebuke, but quietly agreed.
Being only two individuals in detached support, just himself and Mouse, sometimes felt weird. Usually the military brought them in for difficult construction or engineering situations. He was also typically considered a platoon-equivalent asset all by himself, which at least meant he rarely had to answer to anyone lower than a captain, which was a good thing. Lieutenants with more than the smallest amount of common sense tended to be a bit rare, and having to listen to them as a military courtesy grated. He requested the document from Mouse, read it over, and started to get nervous.
Ayva and Danielle lived for a year in the Canadian forests without any record of Danielle being imprisoned? They had apparently become a symbiote pair before any of the restrictions Argoen had placed, before Argoen had cursed them all with the berserker code. Why did Danielle ever accept imprisonment? Wait.
“Mouse, based on the timeline here, how likely do you think it is that Danielle was ever actually imprisoned?”
“Very high, we have records of her submitting to imprisonment, but it almost certainly didn’t last for long. Probability is extremely high that she simply engineered a device to remove imprisonment, like modern symbiote soldier helmets, and Ayva triggered it after Danielle had been imprisoned. She indicated in a quote from a CIA interview that she ‘found others like her by accident one day while they were apparently doing some sort of cold weather training with the Canadian military, and started following them, tracking them, learning from them for a couple months.’ I bet she tracked them back to the Michigan base, got in, and reverse engineered a prison chair and a freedom chair, before the freedom chair schematics and replicas were lost.”
“Gantt knew all this? For how long?”
“Only since the existence of A was revealed, based on the notes Samwise attached. All the humans who had worked with this data before simply assumed that imprisonment would work on any symbiote. Very little of the CIA data was provided to the Agency when she requested transfer there.”
“So, Ayva was an unrestricted symbiote pair while serving with the CIA, and then again with the Agency?”
“Almost certainly. Not only unrestricted, but able to hide the fact that she was unrestricted, for sixty years. If she ever told anyone, there’s no evidence of it.”
Jason brought their body to a stop, and adjusted the helmet so that he was sure the white flag was as visible as possible.
“Mouse, we are not walking into that meat grinder. Ayva and Danielle had sixty years of experience before Bob even started? How is he the dominant one, computing power wise?”
“Based on what Gantt showed us yesterday, Frank cheated. Reverse engineering the berserker code on the day he pretended to create a new body for himself and Bob. That allowed him to accelerate his learning curve absurdly. With that advantage, it would only take a few months, and would have overtaken Danielle’s computing power, even if she had been optimally advancing. Notice that Gantt had Samwise pull up all the video from the Agency’s first fight with Bob and Frank, when they were testing him to see if he was stable. Every soldier had a video pickup, and Frank even provided his own recordings as part of the after action report. Several other soldiers see Ayva, who was known as ‘Dart’, but she never appears in Frank’s field of view. See where she is in the video reconstructions of her activity based on what other soldiers saw, and her own video? She’s stalking Frank the entire time he’s beating on Agency soldiers, and he never sees her.”
There wasn’t much to say to that, but Jason talked to himself a bit to sort things out a bit in his own head. “OK, so that’s pretty much proof that she was a fully functional symbiote acting at a higher level of advancement than Frank at the time of Bob’s first encounter with the Agency. Wow, history rewrites itself, again. That also explains a lot of why Gantt called her a rock of sanity. Sixty years keeping a secret, almost half of that time spent with people who were quite likely to be able to figure out she was hiding something. Nobody suspected a thing. I wonder if she’s told Bob.”
More than four hundred operations that were still important enough to hide evidence of, even half a century after the fact. Three hundred twenty seven other successful, documented operations ranging from espionage and infiltration to hostage situations. A substantial number of operations investigating the activities of other symbiote soldiers. Sixteen failed missions out of nearly eight hundred. Rewriting history, indeed.
“Mouse, I think we’re safer risking drawing fire from whatever attacked Bob, than risking Ayva encountering us before we can talk to her, when we are near Bob, or worse yet, near Bob’s corpse. Let’s make some noise and try to communicate with her instead of hiding from her. First, let’s generate a coil gun. Just in case some nutcase has two Tomahawks. God, I hope they ask us to help them figure out what happened, because I want to help them nail someone to the wall over this. I’ll pull the switch at the execution too, gladly.”
Jason shook his head. Mission first, volunteering to help solve the mystery about the nuke later. He started walking their body towards where Bob was projected to be. The sparrows were close to that point already, and were starting to form into a search pattern. He didn’t want to move rapidly in case they ran into Ayva.
“Jason, I have just turned off masking. Before I move over to the virtual world to start shifting energy, I’m going to set up a program to explain ourselves, while clearly not trying to mask anything going on under the level of the surface thought recording. It’s possible that Ayva is watching us now, recognizing that we’re searching for something, probably Bob, and letting us take the lead. If we start creating a weapon, she might think I’ve detected her.” Mouse actually sounded scared. Jason agreed with him.
After about two minutes post-blast, Ayva passed the outskirts of the encampment, where the soldiers were catching white flag batons from Jim, and attaching them to their helmets. She slowed and skirted the soldiers, listening for why as she bypassed them. When she found out they were putting up the flags for her, rather than for Bob, because Bob might be dead and Ayva might not be very sane anymore, she almost accosted Jim on the spot. Then she overheard that Jason and Mouse were moving to where Bob was supposed to be, in order to see if he was still alive. Bob first.
Jason weighed in at about a ton, and was absurdly easy to track. It was so easy to follow him, it gave her time to think, briefly, before she found him jogging. She followed behind him.
First, Jason and Mouse were being sent to look for Bob. Sensible, other than Danielle and herself, he’s the most likely to be able to help Bob.
Second, Jason and Mouse were being sent to look for Bob. Sensible, he’s got the best chance of being able to kill Bob if Bob is functional at all.
Third, Who sent that nuke? Jim was almost certainly unaware of it, he was telling the truth when he explained to his troops that he knew nothing about it. His terrible masking couldn’t hide that from her.
Fourth, Mouse was certainly capable of creating a nuclear weapon if he wanted to, and almost any symbiote could create a Tomahawk missile if they wanted to.
Fifth, Mouse had a problem with Frank and Bob, from the time when Bob and Frank had apparently merged and created a bit of havoc in the world before Argoen reprogrammed the two of them. Bob couldn’t trust anything he remembered from that time to be accurate, but apparently he had offered Jason and Mouse a suboptimal yet functional version of the berserker code variation as part of an apology, so he had definitely done something significant to piss off Mouse.
Sixth, Mouse knew roughly where Bob was, and was presumably heading in that direction.
Seventh, Mouse could mask well enough to fool Bob, briefly, so he would be difficult to trust completely, even if he seemed like he was acting benevolently towards Bob.
Ayva had been trailing them for a short while when she first saw Jason jogging through the woods. They weren’t moving very fast, though they looked like they were moving much slower than they actually were, because their legs were so long. She saw he was carrying Bob, and drew one of her pistols, aiming for his legs.
“Ayva, slow down. Wait. Look closer. That’s not Bob.” Danielle passed over the internet connection. Then the internet connection died. Ayva tried to connect to other networks, but there were no cell towers that she could detect signals from, and the satellites were also down. A few seconds later, Danielle was in her mind again. Ayva still stood concealed by the chameleon effect, coil gun pistol aimed at Mouse’s legs, waiting for Danielle to explain herself.
“Sorry, Ayva, the cell providers all shut down within a couple hundred miles to assess damage to their networks and perform repairs. I can’t talk to you and act in the virtual world at the same time. Look at the body on Jason’s shoulder carefully. That’s a decoy, not the real Bob.”
Jason’s body stopped, and he adjusted the white flag on his helmet. Had he detected her? No, she couldn’t see through the masking, but she could see that Jason and Mouse were in deep discussion. If they had detected her, they would certainly have reacted differently, taking cover, or starting to try to communicate.
The body on his shoulder looked a lot like Bob, and was maintaining a human body temperature and respiring, but had no processor activity. It also wasn’t radioactive, even though Jason’s body was slightly irradiated, the body that looked like Bob also had remnants of a ceramic substance attached to it in a bunch of places. She could not imagine any way that Bob might have been injured to leave him in this condition, with no processor activity, and brain activity limited to involuntary actions like breathing and blood circulation.
She circled around Jason and Mouse carefully at about thirty feet, making sure she was seeing all she could of the Bob duplicate, Danielle and herself working together to time her steps so that the noises would correspond to noises generated by the growing wind. The wildfire from the nuclear detonation, due to the dryness of the recent weather, was very efficiently beginning to form its own weather pattern, drawing cool, dense air towards itself from ground level, and venting hot air upwards, like a chimney. They didn’t have long before the fire reached them, a matter of a few minutes.
Putting all the pieces together, it made sense. Bob had apparently walked through some sort of trap involving the foam that she had seen around the encampment, and his duplicate had been trapped in it. Presumably, Jason and Mouse were hauling the duplicate with him to act as raw materials for whatever medical needs Bob had. Whatever Bob had done to that body, if he had done it to his own real body, Mouse would be extremely limited in what he could do to help him. For that matter, Ayva was not sure if Danielle would be able to help Bob if his body was made out of those materials. There was almost nothing organic left in the body, it was almost entirely carbon, and the matter of the whole carbon body had been reprogrammed to have a mass not much more than sea level atmosphere. The vast majority of mass was in the small bit of organics remaining, all of them deep in the torso.
“Danielle, can you work with that material that the duplicate is made of?”
“Some. Not well. I’ll have to use the duplicate body like Mouse was apparently planning on doing, as raw materials, and even then I don’t know how Frank’s processors might be affected by embedding them in such materials.”
Jason started moving and something immediately drew all of Danielle’s attention. Ayva almost stepped wrong, but recovered, freezing in place as she tried to figure out what caught Danielle’s attention. It took only a moment to recognize that Mouse wasn’t masking. She still only caught the end of what Mouse was saying to Jason. Danielle had the whole unmasked conversation though, and replayed it to Ayva. A fairly substantial description of recent events involving Bob and Mouse and the rest of the soldiers was set up to repeat in a loop that wasn’t quite a mask. It looked like deeper thoughts were still visible.
“A more sophisticated mask, Danielle, or did they really unmask in fear of us watching them, unobserved, and misunderstanding their motives?”
“I don’t think Frank could mask well enough to manage a show like this. Mouse is good, better than we imagined he might be, but he’s not that good, and he apparently can’t see density discrepancies via gravity observation either, or he’d see us standing thirty feet in front of him.”
They moved to the side as Jason’s hulking form moved forward, thoughts unmasked. There was some discussion between Jason and Mouse – they were moving slower than they wanted to, so they would not be seen as a threat to her.
“Somebody’s finally leaked my CIA files, Danielle, I’d bet. Maybe even the whole dossier. Any symbiote seeing my case history would start digging deeper. Mouse should expect to be on roughly the same capability level as I am. Truthfully, he is close, but he’s afraid of us.”
“How many people do you think know?”
“Doesn’t matter. No, don’t suggest killing Jason and Mouse out of hand. Mouse probably got it from Jim and Samwise, and if we try to chase that information everywhere and kill people to get rid of it, we’d probably have to kill a bunch of friends, and that’s obviously not happening. For all we know, Bob and Frank already know. I would not be surprised in the least if Doctor Meilin has known for years. She always seems to know things she shouldn’t know.”
They fell in behind Jason as he walked, jumping from footprint to footprint behind him, in his footsteps, timing their jumps to match his footfalls. He was heavy enough to actually generate a detectable ground tremor when he walked. It was a little surreal, like she was a little girl again, following behind an adult. The humor at that thought, despite Bob’s plight, made her smile briefly.
Danielle was still irritated, Ayva could feel her thinking and trying to devise machinations to restore the secret about their history. Danielle absolutely hated it when their secrets were revealed. Sixty years of hiding in plain sight, and they had never been caught.
“Danielle, we knew this would happen one day. After A was created, it was only a matter of time before the CIA released the sealed hardcopy files of our activities and a symbiote pair was able to view them. It wouldn’t take much for them to unravel our real history after that. We did too many incredible things for even a symbiote soldier with an imprisoned symbiote to manage. We never lost a teammate on a mission. We personally landed the killing or debilitating blow on almost every berserker the Agency fought, back when we were in the Agency.”
She paused, then continued, and smiled. “I would like to see Bob and Frank’s reaction to how we played cat and mouse with them on that first day we met them. I don’t think they have ever realized we did that. I don’t think Anton or Guiliard ever really understood how difficult it was to do. They just assumed we were some sort of hand-eye coordination prodigy. There are some humans that are just amazingly good at hand-eye coordination. Add an imprisoned symbiote to that, with the enhanced senses, balance, strength, and it’s not that much of a stretch. Animal was nearly as good as we were at some things, which helped us seem more legitimate. We, ourselves, believed Animal was a dexterity prodigy. I cannot believe we missed him as a Recovery double agent.”
They continued following behind Jason. Ayva waited for Mouse’s processors to indicate standby, showing that he had entered the virtual world through his quant. Mouse had been very thoughtful with their quant, it was deep within their body. Physically damaging it with a projectile or externally sourced shock would require wrecking most of his torso’s internal organs and cracking a strong shell of carbon nanotubes and graphene. Hopefully that wouldn’t be necessary.
As soon as she felt Jason starting to draw power from his capacitors, she spoke.
He jumped. Nine feet tall, two thousand pounds give or take, and he jumped about six feet straight into the air. It made her smile.
“Ayva, you scared the life out of me.” As he turned to face her, she saw his eyes flicker towards her right hand. He clearly noticed she had one of her pistols out.
“Jason, I overheard what Mouse and you have been saying since Mouse dropped masking. Make more birds with that energy, not weapons. I’ll be overwatch. Don’t mask. Answer questions, and move faster please. The time I’ve lost being cautious and waiting for the right time to make myself visible to you is irritating me.”
“I really don’t like being at gunpoint, but I understand, Ayva. Ask, I’ll answer as well as I can.”
Jason turned away from her, adjusted the Bob duplicate he held over his shoulder, then started to walk, moving into a jog, and then into a run. She was able to keep up with him easily. He was burning juice at a huge rate, but Mouse was restoring him. The crude method that their body used for enhanced cooling was actually impressive. When his body reached a certain temperature, he started sweating alcohol. He would still overheat, in time, but it was a novel approach, simple, and it would work better in high temperature environments than a blood cooler. She could see that Mouse was constantly filling the alcohol reservoirs, but there were biological structures in place to generate and store alcohol. She could also see where there were organic receptacles that would allow more mundane methods for refilling the alcohol sweat system, he’d been using this cooling tactic for a while.
“How far to where you think Bob is, and how many birds you have in the search pattern?”
“It’s about a mile and there are twelve birds there now, and twelve more on the way now. They have not yet found him.” Jason answered between breaths.
“Do I want to see the video evidence you used to make your calculations?”
“Ah, No. You don’t, I don’t think. I’ll send them to Danielle if you want.”
“Please do.” She spoke internally to Danielle, “Please do not allow me access to those files, even if I ask. If I insist, let me, but try to convince me otherwise.”
“Understood, and he’s right. I’m looking over the calculations of the trajectory and the related data, and their estimate of most likely impact point is within around fifty feet of mine.” Danielle confirmed.
They ran in silence for another few seconds. Ayva stopped running behind Jason, and shifted right, out of the plume of evaporated alcohol sweat. The alcohol fumes didn’t bother her inside the armor, but the thought of running inside a cloud of flammable gas did bother her, even though she was in armor.
“Found him, Ayva. He’s in bad shape. I do not know if he’s alive. The sparrows are hearing something coming from his body though, it sounds like it might be the respiration system.” Jason shifted his running direction slightly, then vaulted over a fallen tree and pointed straight ahead. “Three quarters of a mile that way. Look for the sparrows. I’ll have them flying in a low pattern looking for you. I’ll be there in about 45 seconds.”
There was no response. He hadn’t even seen or heard her accelerate around him.