Jason stared with strange intensity at Bob for a moment. Ayva wasn’t watching him, but Danielle was. Whatever Jason and Mouse were thinking about was apparently not cause for concern, since Danielle wasn’t moving to a more combat ready stance.
Ayva only stared. Stared at Bob, the pain unlocking memories, and the memories burying her like the avalanche of stuff falling out of the stereotypical bachelor’s closet, packed full while ‘cleaning’ their apartment, in the old TV shows.
In her life before Danielle, Ayva had a great many friends, and watched all of them age and die, many of them losing their mental capacity before they passed. Her body had never been healthy enough to bear children, and she lost the full function of her left leg early in life, so she couldn’t do heavy labor, but she had been lucky enough to keep her mind until she was around a century old. She had been born to a mother who died of a fever a couple years before the Civil War, when Ayva had been old enough to remember her, but not quite old enough to fully understand how permanent death was.
So much of that part of her life was washed out, faded memory, even the grief of losing her mother. The fading of other memories was more of a blessing, she barely recalled the betrayal she had felt when her father lost himself in a bottle every night, and would beat her if she spoke to him while he was drunk. The day-after apologies were faded even more, the excuses that she sounded like his mother and he didn’t want to be reminded of her had never made sense to her then, and the hard-earned wisdom of her years told her that she would never understand the logic of a child abusing depressed single father with a drinking problem, even if she lived forever.
Some things refused to yield to logic and clarity, and a damaged human mind was certainly one of those things. At least the drunken beatings had never gone past a beating, and her father knew how bodies worked well enough that, despite their relative size difference when she was a young girl, he never gave her a permanent injury, even when drunk. Just a great deal of pain, punishment for the girl child surviving the fever that his wife had not. It didn’t take many beatings to teach Ayva the new rules after her mother died, and within a year, she and her father lived with unspoken rules which served them well enough that she never did grow to hate him, even if the trust never fully healed. When a bottle was present, Ayva didn’t speak. During the day, she helped her father do whatever he was doing. He had no end of praise for her during the day, before the bottle came out.
Ayva was a smart, agile child, and rarely made the same mistake twice. This wasn’t uncommon in a day and age where a mistake would kill you or maim you with no hope of recovery. Everyone knew children and young adults that had died to mistakes and errors of judgment, and most people that would be called “risk takers” in the modern world died early in the world she had grown up in. The risk takers who survived before modern medicine were generally amazingly gifted persons in some way that complemented their lack of risk aversion. Luck would not keep a foolish person alive long, and those who watched the world around them carefully could see that clearly.
Her father taught her how to hunt, how to survive in the woods. He taught her butchery and anatomy of animals, explaining that humans really weren’t that much different from boar on the inside. He brought her with him when he was called on to act as a veterinarian on occasion, and when he was drafted into the Confederate military, they allowed him to carry a hacksaw and call himself a doctor. The worst part was that he was a better doctor than most of the ones who called themselves doctors and had some small experience with human medicine, because he had spent years of his life hunting and butchering game, with an inquisitive mind. Even the most experienced doctors of human medicine in the army unit he was drafted by and traveled with had nothing like her father’s knowledge of anatomy, even if he didn’t know the “real” words for the body parts. Eventually, after a few minor battles, their unit was absorbed into a much larger unit, and there were some doctors of human medicine with more knowledge about the body than her father had. Her father was drawn into that group because, like Ayva, he was very smart and learned quickly. His knowledge of anatomy was frequently superior to even the more learned doctors, though, to be fair, those other talented men of medicine rarely needed to be told anything twice themselves.
Her father had not survived the war. A cannon shell skipping through their camp like a mad dancer had taken him from her, crushing his chest despite having lost much of its energy dancing with other soldiers. Her father was its last partner as it finished bouncing through the ranks of the reserve unit tasked with defending the camp and officers from skirmishers. Nearly a century and a half later, there were no longer tears, but there was some measure of sorrow for what might have been, even if what might have been probably couldn’t have been much better than what reality had chosen to give her instead.
The fever she had when she was a child, the fever which took her mother from her, it had also destroyed her ability to have a child long before she was physically capable of bearing one, though she did mature sexually. Sex, however, was always terribly painful for her, and it was a certain fact of that day and age that few men wanted a wife who could have no children and could not bear to have sex.
For years after the war, she had used the skills her father taught her to help support the family of one of the real doctors who had respected her father and saw the spark of intelligence in her. He was a doctor in a rural town, a man of moderate wealth who had inherited a substantial amount of land, and had modest funds from a trust to support himself. She hunted for his family and patrolled the borders of his land, and in exchange, he gave her a non-medical education. He did refuse to teach her medicine at any depth greater than that of an assistant, explaining that it wasn’t something she would be likely to use to support herself, but a strong basic education would serve her forever, in all things.
She recognized long, long ago that what she received from him was invaluable, and what he allowed her to give, was really a token gesture, but he was starved for intelligent company. She, on the other hand, was not worldly enough to live on her own in the years shortly after the Civil War. Frequently, the only way a young woman with no man to support and protect her could earn enough to eat was to perform acts, which she had learned through experimentation with boys, were very painful for her. She was, fortunately, never asked to perform that role for her benefactor in the three years after the war that she stayed at his home. With the education that he gave her, she was able to, in turn, with his connections, get a job as a teacher in a small Texas town near where she had been born. She was a favorite with the ranchers and the townies both, because she could teach the skills needed for a town job, and at the same time, she helped teach basic veterinary skills and would take the children into the woods and teach them how to hunt. She didn’t need to teach them how to shoot, at least not the ones that came from the ranches. Some people didn’t like a woman teaching those things, but after she showed them that she really did know how to do those things very well, most of the ranchers were happy to send her their children to get some useful skills to go with the “book larnin’.”
She was still very young when a javelina injured her leg after some of her students foolishly fired at a substantial herd of the pig-like animals, without all of her students being close enough to trees to climb. She saw two of the older boys talking to one another, then rapidly taking aim, but wasn’t able to stop the students from firing before the five humans found themselves being charged by an angry herd. Javelina weren’t typically dangerous, but when threatened, and if they saw opportunity, they were quite smart enough to choose to take out an attacker rather than run from one. They saw two humans climbing trees, and three on the ground not climbing trees. They charged. One of the two boys on the ground near her immediately understood the danger, and ran to a tree and climbed before the javelina got to him, but the other boy left on the ground with Ayva was the son of a rancher and had a newfangled Spencer repeating carbine with him. He stood his ground and started firing. He really was an excellent shot, even at nine years old, but he failed to take into account that he had only seven shots and there were nearly thirty javelina charging him. Ayva noticed this problem with numbers immediately, and by the time the brave, yet foolish child had fired twice, killing two of the lead charging javelina, she had already thrown her old single shot, bolt action rifle at the rest of the charging javelina, startling them as she and they both charged towards the boy. When she reached him, she ripped his rifle out of his hands and threw it, spinning through the air like a propeller at the javelina. This further confused the javelina, briefly, with what seemed like a threat but really wasn’t.
By the time the javelina realized they weren’t dealing with some strange new human threat they hadn’t seen or smelled before, Ayva was carrying the precocious little killer in her arms towards the same tree that already held two of his classmates. She managed to get close enough to the tree to bodily throw the child into the arms of one of the nearly adult boys that had started firing too early. Even if he had been an idiot and started shooting before everyone was ready, he at least had the foresight to know what was going to happen, and was ready, catching the boy Ayva threw at him. She was relieved to see the bigger boy who was sensibly standing on a sturdy branch catch and lift the smaller one to safety, even as the first javelina boar caught up to her, and smashed into her left leg from behind, tearing into the back of her knee with one of its tusks. The angry little beast was thrown off balance by hitting her, and went skidding on the ground for several feet until it got back to its feet and ran off at a right angle away from her, barely in her peripheral vision, where it wheeled around to look at her , staring with tiny, angry black eyes. Miraculously, she didn’t fall – she only stumbled to all fours briefly before pushing herself back up into a standing position and hobbling the rest of the way to the tree, where she gripped a low branch and tried to pull herself up. By that time, however, her original attacker and several of the other javelina had caught up to her. They recognized that she was trying to go up, out of their reach, and being the smart little beasts they were, they tried to pull her down by biting her boots and skirt and pulling them. Fortunately only half a dozen of them at a time could get close enough to accost her, and she was able to keep them all from putting their weight on her all at once by kicking them, but her legs were quickly being wrecked by the razor sharp tusks of the javelina as they instinctively attacked her legs as they were kicked away. The strength in her arms wouldn’t last long either, not with the blood she was losing from her legs.
The tree she was hanging in had three boys in it now, two of them with lever action single shot rifles. The biggest boy, who had caught the younger one Ayva threw at him earlier, handed his rifle and ammo sling to the young boy he had caught, and told the two other boys to start shooting the javelina. Then he, in a moment of pure insanity, jumped the eight foot gap between the branch he was on and the one that Ayva was gripping, almost causing her to lose her grip and fall with the vibration of his landing. As he landed he simultaneously reached down and grabbed her left arm with his right, reaching above himself with his left and clamping onto a substantial limb there. The fourteen year old boy had six hard years of chopping wood, mending fences, hauling animal feed, and pumping water for the family, herd, and farm under his belt. Though he would be considered gangly and thin almost to the point of malnutrition by twenty-first century standards, his arms were like iron. He kept the Javelina from pulling her to the ground where they would have surely killed her in short order, eventually pulling her up into the tree as the two other boys coordinated their shots, firing at the bigger, more aggressive Javelina until there was a pile of dead javelina below where Ayva had been suspended, and the remnants of the herd moved away from the tree and started circling. The boy in the other tree joined the two in her tree in the firing then, carefully shooting at javelina that were nowhere near the humans in the tree with the other four. The older boy followed Ayva’s directions on how to keep her from bleeding to death, managing to tend her worst wounds crudely while they were still in the tree. Eventually there were only a dozen or so Javelina left, and their rage faltered and failed in the face of so many of their dead.
She blinked away the momentary flashback to earlier, painful times, and found herself in an even more painful present time, Bob was staring at her now, as she opened her eyes again. She had so carefully avoided allowing herself to care about anyone at a deep level beyond a friendship for more than a hundred years. She let Bob find and claim her heart, and it was looking like she was going to lose him in the worst way possible, a living, breathing reminder of what once was the man she loved.
As her eyes opened, Bob started speaking again. “Pain. pain. Need more pain. More pain. Need more arms for more pain.”
Danielle spoke into her mind. “Mouse is not considering attacking. Jason and he have headed to their bolt hole. Inside the berm, we don’t need to worry about the wildfire too much, and this body of Bob’s won’t be bothered at all by this level of heat.”
“What can you tell me about what is happening to Bob, Danielle?”
“His processing nodes are in a constant rebuild status. I can’t understand what’s wrong. His brain just doesn’t seem to be interfacing well with the network, and the network is practically attacking his brain to try to establish a connection.”
“He’s not rocking back and forth or displaying physical mannerisms of brain damage. What do you make of his statements?”
Bob was just staring at her, wincing every now and then, but not in any sort of pattern. With all the damage he had suffered and all the crude repairs Danielle had made to the reprogrammed mass of his body, he had to be in great pain. But it sounded like he wanted more pain? She could understand him wanting arms back. She would too, but more pain?
She decided to try to speak to him and see if they could communicate clearer that way. She was afraid to try it, afraid that she would discover that he couldn’t communicate, that she was seeing some false remnant of intelligence where there was nothing left. She had done many things that she was afraid of though, so she did one more.
“Bob. Can you understand me?”
“Ayva, yes. Ayva.” He winced, then one of his legs lifted and rotated at blinding speed, smashing the ground next to the body of the duplicate laying close by. “Pain. Pain. Arms.”
“I don’t understand what you mean about pain. Do you want Danielle to connect arms like the legs and hips?”
Bob didn’t say anything for a moment, just shivered uncontrollably for a second, then jerked several times, before managing to gasp out “Yes.” His eyes never budged from her own. A few tiny fragments of carbon crumbled off the shattered bits of helmet that remained as he shivered, falling inwards and trapping themselves between the armor and the strange skin he had designed for himself.
Ayva allowed herself to feel some hope. He seemed at least somewhat lucid, even if he seemed to be in terrible pain. “Danielle can see your nerve activity. Her repairs are not synching properly with your body. They are causing you pain. You still want the arms attached? They will cause more pain.”
After another brief shaking fit, Bob nodded. “Yes. Arms. Yes. Pain. Pain with arms. Pain makes sane.”
Danielle spoke. “[I’m watching your network and to a lesser degree your neural activity, Bob. Are you saying that you need the pain?]”
Bob nodded strongly, then shivered, and one of his legs started to shiver. “Pain. YES. Arms. Pain. Sane.”
“Danielle, if you think it’s a good idea, I’ll go into the virtual world again and feed you power while you connect Bob’s arms? You can also dig us in, in the meantime, or set up some sort of cooling system. The wildfire is here.”
“I’m concerned about Bob’s sheer muscle power in his current mental state. With as much strength as he has and as little as his body masses, he could crush our armor like a soda can and severely injure us by accident, before I could react. I must stay near him to do the repairs, it’s far too complex to do from more than a very short distance. If he happened to hit our quant and damage it, you wouldn’t be able to restore us through the link.”
“Can you bind him?”
Danielle laughed into her mind. “No.” Then she paused. “Actually, yes, if he agrees to allow me to bind him.”
Bob was simply staring at them, a little slack jawed, and occasionally shivering. As she considered the words she would use, Bob’s leg bounced into the air an inch, then slammed into the ground once, then ten times, and then two hundred times, all in less than two seconds.
Ayva spoke again “Bob, Danielle is concerned that with your lack of muscle control that you might hurt us when we connect your arms. Can she bind you to prevent you from accidentally hurting us?”
Bob went perfectly still for a moment and his eyes grew larger. Then he shivered and nodded three times before forcefully saying. “Yes. Yes. Tie.”
“Let me know when you are done, Danielle. I’ll feed you power.” Ayva’s mental presence left abruptly.
Danielle immediately began to work, reforming all of the armor from the duplicate as well as the fragmented shards of the real Bob’s body armor fragments into ropes of carbon fiber and narrow plates of graphene, each major body joint being tightly bound and splinted. There wasn’t enough carbon left in the two sets of armor, so she started to draw it out of the forest detritus on the ground and the floating chunks of char, ash, and embers raining down around them like a snowstorm in Hell.
There still wasn’t enough. She had been overconfident in her ability to confine him. Calculations showed he would blow through everything she had managed so far, with little effort. There had to be something else, and it didn’t take long to figure out where to get it from. She removed the duplicate Bob’s arms, and placed them against the real Bob’s body, tacking them into the proper place with a brief, temporary connection. Then she started disassembling the rest of the duplicate’s body in strips, pulling out the ribs. She couldn’t create matter like his body, but she could cut up his duplicate body’s muscles and armor-like skin in strips and use that. She could reshape the ribs to reinforce the splints.
Bob, laying on the ground with his head turned towards her, watched his other body unravel and come apart like an exploded engineering diagram and his eyes got huge. Then he nodded, going into spasms after the second nod, while the ribs and strands of carbon composite flesh and skin taken from the duplicate’s body were used to reinforce the binding. “Good. Strong. Enough. Strong.” His heels drummed against the ground.
Jason and Mouse, deep inside their carefully excavated and backfilled hole, watched events unfold through passive video and audio sensors connected to their crow that was buried in the berm, and connected to them through more fiber optics.
Danielle stood briefly, and scanned around them for any sign that the fire was going to get worse. It had fully enveloped the area around them and was sucking the oxygen out of the air, but not enough to keep a symbiote from breathing. The berm protected them from most of the radiant heat. Jason had cleared enough area and gotten the counter fires started soon enough that there was no real danger to the three Symbiote pairs, not even to the wounded Bob. When she looked at where Jason had buried himself, she happened to notice a thin line of extremely homogenous material leading through the chaotic earth from the hole, to the berm, and then to a buried crow. She pretended not to notice, and set a few programs in place to watch for activity from the crow or Jason and Mouse.
Then she kneeled, and pulled clouds of char and ash and coals out of the air for about thirty seconds, creating a soccer ball sized shell of woven carbon nanofiber, which she continued to build onto for a minute, making it stronger, then sealed the shell with epoxy. When the pressure chamber was complete, she started to compress air, rapidly feeding it into the shell, and continued compressing air until the air within the shell liquefied. She then reshaped the shell slightly, creating a bunch of slow leaking vents that would leak until they froze up, then melt from the ambient heat, and begin leaking again. She placed the completed cooling device next to her pistol on the ground, setting her second pistol next to it as well. Wouldn’t do for the weapons or her armor get too hot, and explode in a chain reaction of failing superconducting capacitors. No need for Mouse to think her equipment might be failing, and maybe get ideas, especially with Bob bound the way he was. Mouse and Jason would certainly take advantage of any weakness. She knew they didn’t want to kill anyone, but they would certainly attempt to apprehend them still, if they thought they could manage it. Those two were old school tenacious. Ayva would probably make Mountie jokes about them if it weren’t true that they rarely ever failed at any task.
“[You sure you want this Bob? I can see that you are in intense pain already.]” Danielle asked one last time, looking Bob in the eyes, while viewing the neural and processor activity throughout his body.
“Yes.” He shook violently, arching his back slightly. “Must. Pain. Free.”
Danielle began connecting Bob’s arms to his body. Like all the other connections she made, these connections were also imperfect. Binding to the strange reprogrammed ultralight carbon flesh of Bob’s body was absurdly difficult, it was like a dissimilar metal weld, but she had to control every molecule and force them to fit, removing and adding electrons as needed to help create bonds. Millions of individual actions per second. The crude repair obviously was causing Bob a great deal more pain based on the neural output in the first arm that she could see. She also noted the processors in the arm bones coming online, and adding to the chaos level in the body’s processor network, before settling down into the strange, aggressive initialization state that should have never lasted this long.
“Thank. Thank. Ayva. Get.” He concentrated a moment, furrowing his brow. “Call. Ayva.”
Danielle popped back into the virtual world, and said. “Come back Ayva”, then followed Ayva back to the real world again.
Bob was shivering and jittering even more than before, but he was speaking more clearly, though every now and then his teeth would slam together with a noise like a pistol shot. “Thank You. Symbiote network attempting… direct neural connection to my brain… digital analog interface unable to process… Handshake failing at lowest levels… Higher level data transmits through interface… No problem… But higher level data unusable… without lower level interface to translate.” Bob went into something like a seizure at that moment, arching his back, trying to move his limbs. The cocoon of carbon fiber threads and splints creaked and made alarming noises.
“Pain. Pain helps… Pain interferes with neural pathway transmissions… Processors in this state use same pathways as pain for transmission… quantum restructuring of brain for structural… stability removed necessary quantum structures… causing lowest level digital analog interface failure.”
Danielle spoke “[I do not detect Frank’s presence, Bob. How do you know all this?]”
“Another Frank secret… Small analytic shard in regeneration drip… Sneaky bastard corrupted my self-monitoring code and I never saw it… Like Star was in Doctor Meilin… Very limited… Activated on network collapse… Sole purpose, help network rebuild… Yelling at me about changing brain right now…” He tried to smile but it turned into a grimace.
Danielle seemed to accept what Bob was saying as potentially plausible, so Ayva took over. Her relief was palpable, though there was still worry there. “Can’t kiss you proper right now, you might bite me.” She leaned over and kissed him on the nose, then brushed some dirt off his cheek. “You seem much more lucid now. Can you navigate through the setup process for the quant and get into the virtual world now? Can the Frank shard help you restore yourself in the virtual world?”
“That’s… The plan… You can’t come with… Won’t be bound in virtual world… Except by constructs of mind, and mind not… not entirely stable.”
Danielle moved the two of them away from Bob a short distance as he went into another seizure, puffs of carbon dust wafting off his body as his limbs strained against the restraints, cracking a couple splints with sounds like small explosions.
“Does the Frank shard know if Frank himself will recover from the damage?” She asked. Bob, with all that processing power, and with no Frank to help him manage it, would be bad, very bad. A damaged Frank might even be worse.
“Unknown… Hope so… Bad otherwise… Need to go… Another kiss for luck?”
Ayva felt Danielle start to try to say no to her, but apparently her symbiote realized that that was an argument she wouldn’t win. With a little smirk, Ayva imagined it was probably another one of those sanity model things, except this time it worked in her favor. She carefully walked around and knelt over Bob’s head, and put one hand on his chest and the other on his forehead, to buffer herself against damage if he went into a spasm again while she was kissing him. She then leaned forward and gave him a quick, careful, chaste kiss on the lips, then pulled back a bit, looked down at him, and moved forward with a little smile and rubbed noses with him. “Good Luck Bob, Love you. Come back safe.” She whispered.
He looked back up at her. “Love you… See you soon.”
Danielle was able to see the quantum activity start as Bob activated the quant, using the power from capacitors in the transplanted lower body, and within a few seconds, the quant went from barely comprehensible to completely incomprehensible. He had managed to activate the quant. They should be able to see changes soon, if Bob was able to repair himself. The first thing he would be fixing would be his brain, if he could. She started watching his head closely, while keeping an eye on the buried crow, Jason and Mouse, and the rest of Bob’s body as well. While she was at it, she briefly stood up, and saw that the wildfire was still going strong. She immediately ducked back down out of the radiant heat again.
For a brief moment, passing through the nothingness after configuring the quant, Bob felt no pain, no sensation, and he made a plaintive half begging, half praying plea to B.
“What? I already helped you. Stop crying and leave me alone.”
“At least he talked this time.” Bob thought to himself as his hopes for help from B dissolved.
Then he was booted out of the nothingness, back into the pain, staggering and crashing to the floor of his own private little corner of the virtual world. Tsunamis of pain raged through his body. Out of habit more than anything else, he tried to force himself to stand, succeeding after half a dozen literal face plants, then falling yet again, leaving smears of blood from a broken nose that he didn’t bother trying to imagine away. His body was so powerful, and so uncontrolled that anything in his virtual world was mangled by even an accidental touch. He trenched the hardwood floor of the studio with his nose, and only did enough damage to himself to bleed because his nose hit whatever it was that served as the boundary for his private area. Frank had claimed to get a headache trying to analyze the boundary material. Bob couldn’t even sense it at all, except as a solid, impenetrable surface a few inches below the floor, and a few feet beyond the walls and ceiling.
After flailing around for a few seconds with no real thought to accomplishing anything but standing up, he came to the understanding that he needed something strong and stable. Eventually, after half bouncing, half rolling across the floor, and a couple drunken staggered steps, he managed to put his hands on one of his practice staves. As long as he was careful to not grip it at both ends, he probably wouldn’t damage it. Breaking it would be almost beyond him, even now, though he might manage it if he tried – but he didn’t have the coordination to really try.
Using the staff, he stood up in a series of half a dozen gasping efforts, gathering his legs under him and step by step controlling his center of balance, embracing the pain, letting it pass through him.
The Frank shard had not said anything at all to him since they arrived. He put both hands on top of the staff and spread his legs so his feet were shoulder width apart for balance, then started to concentrate and begin to formulate a question to direct at the Frank shard, when a massive blow smashed into his chest, causing him to fly backwards, at a fantastic speed, hitting the wall of the studio, and crashing through it. There wasn’t any more pain. That was already dialed up to the maximum, he was pretty sure. Whoever this was, they were strong, but they were in his private area, so he should still be able to protect himself. He imagined a shield, and it sprung into being, clear, and impenetrable. He started to try to stagger to his feet again, but the pain stopped him. Even without the terrible footing from the pile of broken cinderblock, there was no way he was standing so soon after that blow. He didn’t even understand his own new biology well enough to fix himself here. There was certainly at least one fractured rib from that blow.
His shield simply disappeared. He felt someone grab his hand, but saw nothing. Then he went from his hands and knees, with one hand being held in front of him by something, to laying flay on his back, spread-eagled on the floor, in a human-shaped hole where the hardwood floor had crumbled. He had been flipped and smashed on the floor so fast, that he wasn’t able to detect it with human senses. Except the pain afterwards. He felt some extra pain from that, almost like he had three lower backs, all reporting in concert.
Frank turned off his cloaking system. “I cannot fucking believe what you did to our body, Bob. What in the hell did you do to your brain?”
He paused, not really giving me a chance to answer.
“I should continue to beat the crap out of you, because getting the crap beat out of you seems to be the only way you learn anything. However, I can see that you can barely feel what I’m doing to you now, and doing enough damage to actually cause you more pain would be far more effort than it’s worth.”
“Missed you too, Frank” I grinned, then convulsed as another wave of pain passed through me.
“I thought you were dead. I thought I was some kind of ghost in the machine in B’s consciousness. I thought that at any moment, some automated software in B’s system would come along and simply wipe out your private space, with me in it. I didn’t dare leave the private area for fear of drawing attention to the area. I didn’t dare make any changes. I sat, absolutely, completely, utterly still without any movement at all for twenty-one minutes after my connection to the real world simply blinked off. And you joke about it?” Frank was livid. I’d never heard him so angry. He stood there, in a relaxed fighting pose, standing at his preferred full height of about four feet tall in the virtual world, looking like an exact duplicate of me, just a foot and a half shorter, and, or course, he was in armor. He could kick my ass forty-nine out of fifty times in melee on my best days. He was much more dense than me, but had made the carbon fiber modification like I had. The way I was feeling right then, I wouldn’t have a hope of one in five thousand, and Frank had just as much control of our private corner of the virtual world as I did, so I couldn’t use that to even the odds.
“You take your immortality more seriously than I thought, Frank. I’m sorry. Feel free to hit me a few more times if it will make you feel any better.”
People really aren’t supposed to do that when you tell them they can. Frank was beyond reverse psychology at that point though, so he hit me a few more times. It hurt. A lot. I was surprised that he was finding ways to hit me that I could actually still feel as more than a distant pain. That’s Frank, doing the near-impossible. I didn’t mind that much though, the more pain I was in, the better I was able to think.
I found myself lying flat on my back again after having made a couple back and forth trips across the studio floor courtesy of a combination of my low mass, and Frank’s strength. Someone apparently managed to turn the pain past eleven and found twelve. I was actually pretty clearheaded now. Clearheaded enough to realize what Frank was wanting.
“I’m sorry, Frank.”
Frank had been stalking towards me to continue taking me up on my offer to hit me a few more times, but when I spoke, he stopped, completely motionless, like a predatory bird, looking at me.
After about two seconds of staring at me, he turned his back on me, and visibly tensed, then relaxed, his arms and legs actually vibrating as he was apparently trying to bring himself down off of whatever combination of fear, anger, and pain that had built up within him. He had to perform the relaxation exercise four times before his arms and legs didn’t thrum like cello strings. I had never seen such a lack of control in Frank. I knew better than to say a word. Frank could probably find thirteen on my pain dial if he wanted to, and I didn’t want to encourage that.
Finally, Frank turned around to face me. “The shard has reported to me what happened, Bob. If I ever leave you alone in the body again, which I am extremely unlikely to do any time in the next few decades, there’s one thing I want you to remember above everything else.”
I cautiously responded. “What’s that?”
With a bitter grin backed by an angry glint in his eye, Frank explained: “Pro Tip: Run AWAY from nukes.”