“Pro Tip?” I lapsed into a hiccup-like gasping alternating between spikes of pain and the choking glottal stops of a belly laugh, I’m sure I looked like I was having some sort of seizure. For that matter, maybe I was? “I guess I was… a bit slack there… wasn’t I?” It’s amazing how, after you reach a certain point of pain, you can learn to bear it. The problem was that the more capable of filtering out the pain my body got, the less capable of thought I became as the symbiote processors aggressively attempted to establish a low-level connection to my mind on a pathway that didn’t work properly any longer.
Frank just stared at me for a moment, and I wondered if we were going to try to get to thirteen on the pain dial after a brief intermission. That didn’t seem to be in the cards though. “Enough catharsis, I suppose. If I haven’t made the point by now, I’ll probably have to do this again later, if we survive the next episode of ‘What The Fuck Was Bob Thinking’, coming to a theatre near you soon.”
I suppressed a grin. Definitely. Frank was definitely picking up more emotions as we developed, and I couldn’t read them very well yet, since I rarely spent a great deal of time with him as a separate entity, rather than trapped in my skull with him where at times it was difficult to tell if it was me reacting with the body, or him.
“Probably a good… idea to fix the body… so you have a place to go.” I spluttered. It was getting harder to think, my brain was moving to a yet-higher level of pain acceptance.
Frank concentrated for a moment, looking at me. “I see what you were doing there with the modifications. It never crossed your mind to make sure all modes of processor communication were functional? Only one hundred thirty seven modifications would have been required to allow this brain modification of yours to interface properly in all ways with the quantum processors at the lowest levels where they generate electrical signals to initiate grey matter connections. Don’t answer that, the answer is obvious. Give me a second to figure out the fastest way to fix this.”
“One hundred thirty seven… modifications, you say? Should… not be hard?” If it was only a few steps to fix it I wasn’t sure what Frank was referring to when he said he needed time to figure it out.
Frank paused a moment, with an expression on his face that I’d seen before when he was trying to dumb down a concept for me that he thought I should understand without him having to explain it. “One hundred thirty seven steps to have done it right the first time. Fixing it will be substantially harder. Sort of like the difference between fixing your car by replacing brake pads, and fixing the car later after you run it off a cliff because you didn’t already fix the brake pads.”
“A stitch in time… saves nine” I volunteered, nodding.
“Exactly. OK, Bob, this might hurt a bit.” Frank was apparently ready to begin fixing my mind.
The world became white noise. I suppose it might have been pain. It might have been pleasure too. It’s rather difficult to differentiate between pain and pleasure when everything is chaos. All sensory input was scrambled instantly, breaking down at a phenomenal rate in fractal patterns, each newly formed fractal pixel carrying its own rapidly subdividing data as the fractal set continued to expand, rapidly reaching a point where I was unable to discern any patterns to the data because the fractal set was beyond my scope of comprehension. Then all my memories followed in the same way, and eventually I felt my core self breaking down. I know I fought this. I could feel myself trying to hold together, but I had given Frank permission to do this, and he had the upper hand because he knew what he was doing before I did, and he acted ruthlessly and without delay.
I suspect that the years of time that I felt like I was enduring chaos were only the beginning of the brain matter reprogramming process. There were parts of the brain that Frank hadn’t touched yet, before my consciousness faded like an old cathode ray tube black and white TV, the fractal static contracting into a bright singularity, and then fading out.
I woke up, still in intense pain, but I could feel the connections between the processing network and my brain reforming. As I collected bits and pieces of processing capacity, I started organizing them and using half of the collected processing power to bring more processing power back online, and the other half to help me analyze and repair the crude, lifesaving connections that Danielle had been able to implement using transplants from the duplicate body Jason and Mouse had carried with him.
Frank just watched me repair the body, not helping or interfering. The process of restoring the network and body was geometric, and finished in less than two seconds.
“I’d say I’m sorry, Bob, but I’m not. Not really. You nearly killed us both, and I wasn’t consulted. If you get into an ‘Oh fuck’ moment like that again, I’m a hell of a lot more capable with the advanced abilities of our real world body than you are. If, somehow, despite my current wishes, we find ourselves split up like this again, please swap with me.” Frank stared at me, pinning my eyes.
“I know that you would use the body better than me, Frank, but I worry that you would allow others to die who might be saved if you risked our lives. You know this. You’ve been inside my head long enough to know how I think, just like I know that our own survival will always be your primary objective.”
I checked my body and processing system repair work, and everything was back at full function. Just in case I missed something strange and unexpected, I set up a subprogram to watch for inconsistencies, then bent my knees and set my feet flat against the floor and worked my toes into the space between the boundary material and the flooring along the edge of the most recent crated in the flooring that Frank made with me. Once I had the toe anchor for leverage, I stood up by unbending my knees and ankles. I had considered just kipping up, but with my mass as low as it was, this wasn’t any different really. Besides, it was fun and different.
Frank stood smoothly from a cross-legged seated position, arms crossed, looking at me. “What you just did is an example of why I need to be in charge when we’re in real danger. You wasted at least a hundredth of a second there realizing that you could do something differently, and chose to waste yet another five hundredth of a second implementing your decision to dig your toes between the boundary and the floor and lifting yourself up rather than just kipping up. You are always, always looking for different ways of doing things. When you find those different ways of doing things, you frequently choose those ways over more efficient methods. There’s a time and place for experimenting.” He paused. “Any time OTHER than when you are in a life and death situation.”
“My wife and Danielle are guarding our body in the middle of a wildfire. Jason and Mouse are nearby, but have buried themselves while the fire passes by. We both know those two are tenacious, and might try to overpower Ayva and Danielle, however unlikely that seems. They might even consider us a great enough threat to try to kill us while we are helpless. We don’t know what Colonel Gantt is doing with his troops. Finally, whoever it was that sent that missile might have another. Is right here and right now really an appropriate time for this discussion?”
Frank looked stunned at that point, that I had managed to catch him in a logic trap. His mouth opened and closed.
“You are no longer emotionless, Frank. You aren’t just a machine intelligence. You are not only learning emotions, you are adopting them for yourself. Your anger at me for risking our lives, while warranted, I admit, is a perfect example of how emotions will distract you.”
“We will have this discussion later, Bob.” Frank promised.
“I look forward to it, as long as we can manage it without nearly dying first.”
I disconnected from the virtual world, and found myself back in the real world, all alone, laying in a wide scattered pile of carbon fiber threads, graphene threads, and rib bones from the other body that used to be a cocoon protecting Ayva and Danielle from my thrashing. I panicked for a moment but didn’t see any sign of Ayva having been injured by my thrashing. I did see several divots in the ground around me, which puzzled me, but no blood or armor bits from Ayva’s suit. I stood up, activating all spectrums of vision, then turning off infrared as useless. Too much heat from the fire.
“You lost control again, no surprise, as bad as you were hurting.” Ayva’s voice from behind me. Still cloaked. Danielle was probably being hyper cautious, especially if I had been out of control earlier.
“Frank and I are OK now, I think.”
“I’m busy seeing what’s left of the data I left behind, but I’m watching.”
I turned to face Ayva, detecting her by gravity sight, her crouched mass was below the height of the berm, protected by the berm from the heat of the wildfire. Her body, being much more dense than the air surrounding it, created a blobby, humanoid shape to gravity sense. “Yes, we’re both OK. Frank’s trying to salvage some data he left behind in the body.”
Danielle’s voice. “[Frank left data behind? Why? The only reason to do that is if he didn’t want B to… Oh. Ah. Never mind.]”
Danielle’s accusation / realization caused me to think as well. I spoke internally. “We need to talk about this later too, Frank.”
All I got in response was an irritated grumbling. Definitely need to discuss emotions sometime soon. Finding out what Frank was plotting that he didn’t want B to know about was also important, because I had a strong suspicion that Frank wasn’t actually hiding anything from B.
The stealth field around Ayva and Danielle dropped, and Ayva threw a loop of thin carbon fiber rope at my feet. The other end of it was connected to my left leg. I stared at the rope, then looked at the divots in the ground again. “You were pulling me back in as my flailing bounced me out of the protected area?”
“Yes. You were bouncing out of the berm circle like popcorn out of an open pan. Fortunately there was nothing intentional about what you were doing. After the second time we went out wading into the wildfire to throw you back, we just tied a rope to you, and hauled you back in when you bounced out. We stayed concealed just in case you did start acting in some way intentionally.”
“Thank you. Now, lovely woman who just saved my life, come here and kiss me before we get out of here.”
That kiss wasn’t sexual, though there was definitely a strong sexual undertone there which would have certainly expressed itself if we hadn’t been in the middle of a wildfire caused by the detonation of a nuke. It was electric, energizing, an affirmation of life. It was a reminder of how much I loved and how much I had nearly lost. Ayva returned the kiss with passion as well, but like me, she didn’t try to turn it into sex, too dangerous here, but it wasn’t too dangerous for us to spend fifteen seconds celebrating.
I had forgotten how strong I was, with the new body materials, briefly. In the initial hug before we got down to serious kissing, I started to crumple Ayva’s chest armor, but caught myself before it impacted her ability to breathe. Ayva’s body was full of small capacitors, superconducting ones. Danielle had apparently figured out the boiling water temperature superconducting materials. I saw the energy flare as Danielle fixed the armor I had damaged, and apologized. Ayva put her hand behind my neck and forcefully pulled me closer again, resuming the kiss. I figured that meant the apology was accepted.
All in all, in the next minute, we probably spent forty seconds kissing, and our symbiotes were intelligent enough to just stay quiet.
Eventually though, the moment was over, and it was time to plan. Danielle and Ayva could not duplicate what Frank and I had done to our body, but they didn’t need to, we carried them.
I looked around for Mouse to make sure he wasn’t about to try anything aggressive or sneaky. He was underground, watching us through a buried crow with a fiber optic cable connection. I set aside a small shard to watch him, his biofactory underground with him, and the crow buried in the berm that was protecting Ayva and I from most of the radiant heat.
This time around, the four of us planned together. Ayva and I went to our private areas in the virtual world, and fed power to Danielle and Frank. Frank carried Danielle, and the power I funneled to Frank was used to power his careful acceleration and the creation of a small, pintle mounted hypervelocity weapon, which he grew out of our right shoulder. Danielle provided cooling for them both, using all of the power Ayva could send to her to compress air into two shells she had created, much like the one she had created earlier, except modified into backpacks. She carried both pistols, one in each hand, arms crossed over her chest. Both Frank and Danielle were scanning heavily for any threats as they travelled. After they reached around one hundred miles per hour, Frank started jumping up into the air with each step, using radar, microwave, and gravity senses to see through the smoke and ash, looking for the next place to jump from. Within two minutes, we were clear of the fire.
My concern about Jason and Mouse trying to take advantage of my weakness had apparently been unfounded. At no point did they attempt to restrain us, they stayed hiding in the earthen cave until we left, and would be fine. Their biofactory had dug deep, too deep for the wildfire on the surface of the Earth to cook them.
As agreed, Frank and Danielle kept control of our bodies, and once free of the wildfire, they piled on speed. All four of us agreed that going to Bill and Tanya’s place at this point was pretty silly, but at the same time, Ayva and I thought it really was probably the last place anyone who was after us would believe we were going. Danielle and Frank strongly disagreed with this, saying we were too predictable.
From within the virtual world, I created a connection to the internet and called Bill’s house. Kirk picked up the phone, and when the video connection came up, immediately went off on me.
“Bob, you had damn well better not be coming here to make my parents accomplices to whatever escape it is that you’re in the middle of right now. Especially if you had anything to do with that nuke.”
I was a bit shocked. Kirk looked furious. He was near zero threat to us in the real world, and knew it, but at that point it was certain that he was both ready and willing to fight to protect his parents. From Ayva and I. I didn’t know what to say, my mouth hung open, slightly, as I tried to figure out how to respond.
I heard Tanya’s voice in the background, exclaim, in a surprised voice “Kirk! Where are your manners?”
At the same time, I heard couch springs, followed by half a dozen heavy, quick steps. Bill’s voice started up on the second step and moved closer as the sentence neared completion. “Unless you plan on hurting me, son, you’re going to step away from that phone and let me talk to Bob.”
A large hand appeared, laying itself on Kirk’s shoulder, not trying to exert any force, just sitting there. Kirk looked down at the hand, without moving his torso.
“Kirk. I know you are trying to protect us. Thank you. Let me talk to Bob. Now. Step away from my phone.”
Kirk looked back up, towards where the arm came from, obviously looking his father in the face. He backed away. There wasn’t any fear or anger towards his father, just a yielding of authority. He took three steps back, placing himself in a position where he could be seen past Bill in the phone pickup, crossed his arms, and stared at me. He was unhappy, but that unhappiness was aimed at me.
“Hello Bob, I tried to bet Kirk here that you and Ayva would show up today like you said you would, but he wouldn’t take the bet. We’d be more than happy for you to drop by, provided you can do so without risking our lives.”
Kirk’s eyes grew harder as he stared at me, his stance shifted slightly into a more aggressive pose, the pack male backing up the alpha, even though the alpha wasn’t asking to be backed up.
Bill apparently was able to see Kirk shift pose in the reflection of the phone’s screen, I saw his eyes twitch. He frowned. “Kirk, nonverbal threats are still threats. If you can’t control yourself, leave the phone’s video pickup. Bob’s no enemy of ours, and I won’t stand for you to threaten him. If I have to tell you again, I’ll ask you to leave the house.”
Bill turned back towards me. Kirk left the phone pickup. Bill’s eyes tracked his son in the reflection of the phone for a moment before he spoke to me again.
“You raised a good one there, Bill, even if he’s a bit of a handful now and then. I can’t object at all that he’s protective of you. Ayva and I can get to you, unnoticed, even if they know we are coming. There’s a very good chance that Kirk and Jaws won’t see us either, if that makes him feel any better.”
Bill smiled. “Sounds like a good challenge to me, and if you’re good enough to manage it, I don’t think that Kirk will have any reason to object any longer. I have confidence in Kirk though. I’ve seen him and Jaws in the woods. I’ll bet you a beer that he spots you.”
I grinned. “We’re on then. We’ll be there in less than six hours.” I said, knowing full well that we would be there in less than two, since Frank and Danielle had determined that Frank, with Danielle providing cooling, could keep a constant pace of two hundred miles per hour, running in huge leaps next to highways, with Ayva’s armor cloaking, and my skin’s cloaking active as well. No need to tell anyone exactly where we were though, or when we expected to arrive. Frank and Danielle were still visible in infrared, due to the energy they were expending, but the other people driving beside us on the highways wouldn’t see us with their eyes, and the thermal signature would be nearly impossible to pick up against the blacktop and the eddy currents of passing vehicles.
Kirk’s voice came from off screen, calmer now. “Dad, make sure they at least decontaminate themselves fully if they were near that nuke. Even if Ayva gives you a symbiote, if they are hot enough, you might die before the symbiote can mature and fix you up. Jaws and I aren’t able to remotely manipulate matter with sufficient skill to decontaminate you two, yet, if you are irradiated.”
Bill turned his head looking towards Kirk, but he wasn’t annoyed or irritated. He nodded, then looked back to me. “You heard Kirk?”
“We were near the blast, but we’re clean now. I know you’re listening, Kirk. Ask Jaws how long he’d let radioactive elements stay inside your body. Ayva and I were clean within minutes.”
Bill looked back towards Kirk, and I heard Kirk’s voice again, except with a tone shift – Jaws was speaking. “[Almost certainly true. They wouldn’t be able to sneak past us if they were radioactive anyway.]”
Bill turned back to face me, opening his mouth to start speaking
I heard Kirk clearing his throat.
Bill closed his mouth then looked at Kirk for a second. Apparently Kirk communicated something to Bill nonverbally, and Bill nodded.
Kirk moved back into the pickup, still very serious and edgy, but not angry. “Bob, you and my father have your little bet going here, that’s all fine and good, but since it’s actually me and Jaws against you, Ayva, Frank, and Danielle, I’m raising the ante. If I or any of the soldiers around this place detect you before you enter the house, you leave and return at some point when there aren’t several hundred symbiote soldiers with hypervelocity weapons staked out in a twenty mile radius around our house. You two are about as devious as bricks. Colonel Gantt made it damn clear that you would show up here unless you were maimed or killed, and the people in the military who outrank him are not allowing these soldiers to back off like Gantt is trying to get them to do. They have shoot on sight orders for you, and I really do not want hypervelocity weapons going off anywhere near my parents.”
I somehow doubted that Colonel Gantt had brought Kirk and Jaws into his confidence, so apparently Jaws was tapping into the communications from the nearby soldiers somehow, but I wouldn’t reinforce that thought over an unsecure phone line. The government would have a damn difficult time convicting a son listening in on military communications to try to be best prepared to defend his father and mother. It might get him in trouble as a lawyer though. I didn’t know enough law to be sure. “So if someone spots Ayva or me, we owe your father a beer, and we have to leave. If we manage to sneak in, I get a beer, and I assume Ayva can have one too?”
Bill turned away from watching his son, looking back at me with a big grin, and nodded. “Sure, or a glass of wine if she’d prefer.”
“Where’s your side of the bet here, Kirk? What are you putting into the pot?”
“Do I need to? If you get past me you get what you want.”
I thought about it for a moment. He was right. Mostly. It was also damn clever of him to use a bet like that against me. He knew he couldn’t stop us physically, and his parents wouldn’t let him fight us psychologically, beyond the barbs that one could expect any young adult to try to use. Bringing up the danger to his parents being near a bunch of soldiers with hypervelocity weapons was a fine example of young adult reasoning. He failed to account for the fact that his father and mother probably knew around half of those soldiers by their first names.
His only recourse to keep me away was to make it part of a gamble, knowing that both Ayva and I would follow our end of the terms. “You don’t need to, I suppose, but you did kind of push between your father and me, here. I think it would only be fair if you have some skin in the game, and you did escalate, so it’s going to be more than a beer.”
“What can I offer you that would make a difference to you, Bob?” Kirk said, with a confused look on his face. “Frank could certainly learn the legal system sufficiently thoroughly to match our law knowledge, and you’re good enough with people that you could pull off defending yourself in almost any case where you weren’t guilty.”
I smiled “If I get past you, you give me virtual world PVP lessons. Two hours. At some point in the next year or so when things aren’t crazy.”
Bill suddenly burst out laughing, then tried to hold it in, failing miserably. Kirk and I both looked at him as he regained control, and thumped his chest a couple times as the laughter turned into a bit of a cough. “He told Tanya and me the story, Bob, sorry.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle myself, at my own expense.
As it registered with him what I had asked for, Kirk had a stunned look on his face, almost horrified, wide eyed, and slack jawed, but managed to choke out an “OK.”
“I’m not that bad at virtual world PVP am I, Kirk?” I asked.
Kirk managed to get his facial muscles back under control, then he turned and stalked off screen, his voice fading as he walked away. “Yes, yes you are.” A pause. “I’m almost tempted to let you get past me if you can get past the soldiers.”