Frank and I had never tried running at high speed while maintaining stealth before. It was a lot harder than you might think. Why? Bugs. During the winter, in parts of the world where it gets too cold for flying insects in the winter, running at very high speeds with stealth wouldn’t be too bad. It was not winter here yet. While running along the highway, Frank and Danielle were being hammered by big flying bugs from dragonflies and wasps to hornets and beetles. Frank was forced to reduce speed slightly, and Danielle started using some of the cooling energy budget for detecting larger insects and knocking them out of Frank’s path with extremely low powered shots from her pistols, stepping their power level down to something barely more than a toy pellet gun. Smaller insects were swept to the sides by the air flowing around them, for the most part.
The problem wasn’t that the occasional large bug was hitting Frank or Danielle with the force of a hammer, the problem was that the bugs, when they hit, would splatter and degrade their stealth system. This forced Danielle to be constantly cleaning bug remains off stealth systems for a while before the two of them determined that the simplest, most difficult to detect method of resolving the bug problem was to knock the bugs out of their path with a poor man’s antiaircraft system. This wasn’t a problem I had to deal with firsthand though. Frank and Danielle had it figured out within the first two minutes of starting to run. I only heard about it after returning to report to Ayva, Frank, and Danielle on my discussion with Bill, Tanya, and Kirk.
With the sheer amount of power I was having to feed Frank from the virtual world, I was only able to pop into the real world briefly in order to get a quick, compressed data feed, then pop back out again. After the fifth or sixth rapid transition, the phone connection I had used to call Bill and Tanya’s house rang. I had left the phone there because I was considering using the phone as a part of a ruse to get us by Kirk and Jaws. For a moment, I considered not answering the phone, but only for a moment. There were way too many confusing things happening for me to ignore any potential source of data.
I altered my face using an inverted facial recognition system that guided the reconstruction in ways that would prevent real facial recognition programs from immediately picking up on my identity. A similar program acted to help me disguise my voice. I had argued against these programs once, until Danielle and Ayva, with Frank staying out of the argument (because he agreed with them), proved that when I made the changes manually they could pick me out of an otherwise random selection of images or voices nine out of ten times, because I had patterns in how I would alter my appearance and voice.
I answered the phone: “Yo, Billy Rae here, whatcha got?”
Ayva was looking at me in the pickup, smiling. “That’s pretty good, Bob, but Danielle tracked this number across the cell network, and you only made the call a couple minutes ago.”
I chose to test her, make her confirm who she was. “Not sure what ya mean, cutie. I ain’t used my phone in a couple hours.”
Ayva smiled even bigger. “Well played, Bob, but enough games. Danielle is maintaining this connection as a secure connection through the cell provider network now that we’re in range to connect again. Check if you like. The initial connection is using the same encryption key you used for the last data packet you left behind when you returned to the real world with news about our plans for the visit to Bill and Tanya’s.”
I did check, and the statement was true. Then it struck me. “Wait. Danielle is maintaining this connection for you? Are you in the real world long enough to make this phone call?”
Then it struck me again. As my recognition dawned, my face must have shown it. Ayva’s face changed from a wide, happy smile to an impish smirk as she realized that I was going to realize something that was going to make me feel stupid. She wasn’t disappointed. “It doesn’t matter either way. Whether you are in the virtual world, or in the real world, Danielle established the connection… you two can talk to each other by phone or internet connection when one is in the real world and the other is in the virtual world?”
Ayva just nodded, apparently amused by my completely missing the obvious. How many phone calls had I made to the real world from the virtual world, and I had never considered this technique before? To be fair to myself, not many. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the virtual world, and rarely made data connections into the real world from the virtual world. Frank had even less reason to do so. His level of study was advanced enough that there wasn’t much humanity or even other symbiotes could offer him on the subjects he was interested in. When he needed to research something about real, modern world data, he would do it from the real world because he rarely had an interest in those things unless I brought them up, and I was almost never in the virtual world.
I just shook my head. “Wow, I’ve been a dunce. Ayva, please ask Danielle and Frank to join us in conference, so we can figure out our plans.”
A couple minutes later, I was done soothing ruffled feathers. Frank had become very angry when it became clear that Ayva and Danielle had been communicating back and forth electronically from the virtual world across electronic data channels for months, and had never told us about it before. Danielle was rather pointed in explaining that there were quite a few secrets that Frank had kept back in his time, and this was simply a common sense adaptation of technology that Frank shouldn’t have missed. Frank didn’t really have much to say in reply to that, so our respective symbiotes called it a truce and stopped talking to one another for a while.
We discussed our tactics for getting to Bill and Tanya’s place. Ayva was highly irritated with me for calling Bill’s place on an unsecure line, and after I explained that I had done it on purpose in order that the military could try even harder to find us, she said something about me never learning, then turned away from the phone pickup briefly.
“Bob, just a few minutes ago we put you back together again after you were nearly killed by a nuke. We still don’t know for sure where that nuke came from. We agreed to come up here to Bill and Tanya’s in order to give Jason and Jim a little time working within the system to determine where that nuke came from, to see if it was some sort of official action, not to throw another glove into the face of the government. If another nuke gets used near Bill and Tanya’s place, and they don’t live through it, how is that going to feel?” She simply stared at me over the phone connection, angrily.
There really wasn’t any excuse for it, I realized. I had let the testosterone take control. “Guilty as charged, Ayva, sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I’ll call and let them know we won’t be showing up. You’re absolutely right that it’s too dangerous for us to try to visit them.”
There was mutual agreement between all four of us that time. We needed to concentrate on our enemy. I changed my face and voice back into my real face and voice.
Bill hadn’t left the chair next to his computer when I called him back.
As our faces appeared on each other’s screens, Bill commented, “That was quick, Bob.”
“Despite my earlier blustering and testosterone-speak, we’re going to have to delay the visit, Bill, unless there’s a pressing need for a symbiote for either of you, a medical diagnosis or something?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that. Just aches and pains, and competition in the market that I am only able to keep up with these days due to personal connections, and Jaws’ and Kirk’s help. Tanya wants to be able to go hiking again, and her hip won’t let her.” Bill looked tired.
“Ayva’s more than happy to provide the symbiotes for you two, but she also wanted me to make it absolutely clear that you recognize that any female symbiote can provide them for you. It’s not like human reproduction where you get traits from the host. The symbiote spawn are all exactly alike until they interface with human DNA in a host with no existing symbiote. Then they modify themselves to fit you. Most hospitals have female symbiote hosts who would be more than willing to provide you with a symbiote. They will make you watch a video, then sign waivers and forms, but the paperwork really is minimal. Ayva has volunteered at our local hospital from time to time to do exactly that, for other people. I know it wouldn’t be as personal as an interaction with Ayva, but we don’t know when it will be safe for us to meet you.”
Bill took a moment to think before answering. “OK, Bob, as long as you two won’t be upset if we go to someone else. Ayva seemed very happy when she provided the symbiote for Kirk. We were unsure about what her reaction might be if we didn’t let her do the same for us.”
“If there weren’t dangerous things happening around us right now, you might be right that Ayva would feel slighted if you were to choose to go to a hospital for the procedure. Right now though? No, she will have zero complaint. She would have never had any complaint at all if a female friend or relative of yours were to have provided you with symbiotes either. I would find it difficult to believe if you were to tell me that none of your other friends are female symbiote pairs.”
Tanya appeared in the pickup, and walked up next to where Bill was sitting, then bumped his left shoulder hard with her hip. “Move over, Bill, you’re hogging the screen.” She reached over with her right hand and pulled another chair close as Bill scooted his chair to his left some, to make room. After they were both seated, Tanya spoke.
“I overheard some of the conversation, Bob. We know a few symbiote female pairs. They were all hesitant to offer unless we were sure that Ayva wouldn’t take offense. You’re a pretty big name in the symbiote world, Bob. You overshadow Ayva, but people who pay attention don’t forget about her. Most symbiotes seem to be very attentive and cautious, even though they can make our human bodies do things that other humans find to be insane.”
“One second, Tanya, let me conference in Ayva.”
I established a connection with Ayva and explained the conversation with Bill and Tanya, then brought her into the phone call.
Ayva, after a few video effects, appeared next to me on the screen, rather than in a separate window like she should have, since she was on a separate phone connection. We wanted it to be clearer and less ambiguous that we agreed with one another on this.
Ayva spoke. “Tanya, Bill, I understand that you have other female symbiote pair friends who are willing to provide you with a symbiote, but they are cautious about how I might feel about it. You can tell them that I would certainly have appreciated the opportunity to give you two symbiotes, but I will consider it not just acceptable, but a favor, if someone else were to do so for you now. Kirk is right. It’s too dangerous, but it’s not because of the soldiers around you. I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to say more at this time.”
Kirk’s voice came from outside the visual somewhere. “So the bet’s off?”
Bill and I grinned at the same time, we could both hear the relief in Kirk’s voice. Even Tanya’s lips twitched, though she didn’t much approve of gambling of any sort.
I spoke a bit louder into the pickup. Jaws could surely hear perfectly well, but Kirk might be listening with only his own senses if Jaws was busy. “Yes, the bet is off, Ayva and I forfeit. We owe Bill a beer, though I think we’ll just make that a meal for all three of you at the restaurant of your choice when we get this mess taken care of. Sound fair?”
A few seconds later, Kirk made his way into the video pickup, screwing the top back onto a half-full five gallon plastic bladder of a mostly clear liquid. The hard plastic crate containing the bladder had a handle on it, as well as a large label indicating that the liquid was filtered, used peanut fry oil, suitable for use in diesel engines.
Kirk cleared his throat. “Thank you for reconsidering this, you two. I was very concerned that you were bringing danger to my parents. I apologize for my aggressiveness and impoliteness earlier, Bob.” He then left the pickup, carrying the plastic crate of peanut oil back the way he came, towards the back porch.
Tanya spoke up. “After you put the generator fuel back, you will clean up all the spiders, and their webs, right, Kirk? If I find any of them inside the house, we’re going to have words.”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll clean them up. You won’t find any of them in the house, Jaws is controlling all of them individually.” Kirk called, definitely from the back door. I heard the unmistakable tone of that door’s squeak as Kirk opened it.
I wondered how long that door’s squeak would remain after Bill and Tanya had symbiotes. For that matter, all the other doors squeaked too, and loudly. Bill and Tanya had refused to let either Kirk or I fix the doors, we had even conspired to act together to try to get permission. As it turned out, after Kirk and I leaned on him for the reason why we were not allowed to fix the squeaking, Bill wanted the squeaks, and Tanya put up with them. All of the external doors squeaked because Bill had intentionally shimmed the doors slightly off to force loud squeaking.
I smiled to myself in memory of that conversation. Kirk had grown up in the house and never been told that the squeaks were intentional. He had seemed quite irritated that his father hadn’t ever mentioned that the squeaking doors were that way by design. Bill had simply shrugged and made a comment about another side benefit of the squeaking – other than potentially letting him know where someone might be in his house, it apparently had done a fair job of keeping certain high school teenagers honest about when they returned home from parties. Kirk had simply shook his head at that, with a grin, and said nothing else. I was not sure who had scored points in that father & son verbal sparring match, since both of them acted like they had won.
I brought myself back from woolgathering, attention back on the conversation. Ayva advised Bill, Tanya, and Kirk to spend the night at a friend’s place, hotel, or anywhere else, and pay for anything they bought for the next 24 hours in cash. Since we had spoken over an unsecure line before, there might be plans being made by our enemies involving their house. There was no reason to believe that they, personally, were targets, but their house might be, and being cautious never hurt.
We did not discuss what their exact plans would be. The connection was still unsecure on their end.
“Take care you three, wish us luck.”
Kirk had returned to the house and washed his hands in the sink while his parents, Ayva and I had talked about precautions. He had spoken up once or twice, briefly, making common sense suggestions before walking into the video pickup, behind his parents. All three of them waved and said variations of “good Luck” before Ayva and I said our thanks and goodbye, hanging up the phone.
I made a new call to Ayva, and we established a fully secure communication, bringing Frank and Danielle into the connection as well.
After the connection was established, I commented to Ayva “Every time I see all three of them together, it’s almost like a 1960’s family TV show with perfect husband, wife, and child. Even when they disagree, they listen to one another and respect each other.”
“I agree. Bill and Tanya are pretty amazing people, and they raised Kirk well. I wouldn’t tell them this to their face because it would probably embarrass them, but I’m glad they are finally getting symbiotes, because I’d love to talk with them about maybe getting some advice about raising kids, and perhaps even raise some children together. Danielle is not confident about human literature on child raising. Half of it’s insane, and the rest makes no sense. She agrees with me that it would be better to learn from someone who’s never written a book about it, but who has a well-raised child.” Ayva ended her sentence, fading off into thought.
There had been many muttered conversations about the potential of children between Ayva and I while we considered our future. Both of us being symbiote pairs meant that, barring misfortune, we were functionally immortal. We had so much potential future ahead of us that it was hard to define what it actually meant to think in the long term. Was long term next year or next century? I refused to even think farther out than that, other then in terms of financial investments. I considered my next words carefully. “We could certainly move closer to Bill and Tanya if you and Tanya decide to have children of the same age. I’m fairly sure that Bill and Tanya wouldn’t have a problem with having another child, or maybe more than one if the two of them were biologically young again. They are quite stable financially and emotionally.” I paused a moment again to collect my thoughts. “It might take a couple years before they are comfortable enough with their symbiotes that they would want to raise a new child though. Fortunately, there’s no rush, once they have symbiotes.”
It was about the best I could do to say I would support a decision to have children, without being blatant about it. We had talked about it before, but not recently, and definitely not since the incident where the ten little girls had been used as psychological weapons against Ayva. In truth, I was rather suprised that Ayva had brought it up at all at this point in time.
Ayva nodded and said “I think you’re right. Thanks, Bob.”
I called up an atlas and calculated a highway route, then asked Frank to alter course. We were going to go investigate the facility that Mouse had built for the fellow who called himself Facet.