My phone connection to Frank, Ayva, and Danielle dropped out. I moved to the real world, briefly made contact with Frank and Danielle, and then returned to the virtual world again with a new internet connection arrangement. When I attempted to connect to Frank again, the new connection established itself, and then failed immediately. I went to a couple different websites to verify that I was able to connect to the internet properly. No problems. Rock solid connection everywhere I went, unless I tried to call the others.
I returned to the real world again, and found that Ayva was encountering the same issue trying to connect to Danielle, myself, and Frank. We all discussed the problem, then Ayva and I left for the virtual world and started connecting to a list of several hundred proxies supplied by Danielle. At first the proxies worked, giving us a second or two of communications, then failing. As we got more aggressive in attempting to connect to one another through the internet, we got less successful. Eventually we were not able to establish a connection at all.
I returned to the real world. “Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action. Frank and Danielle, you want to take a shot at this and see if you can break through?”
“[Yes]” came the immediate response from Danielle.
“[Yes]” echoed Frank.
Frank deployed a tactical shard that he said could talk to me, but was far more concerned with watching for threats. It wouldn’t speak unless I seemed to be engaging in combat. I examined the shard after Frank left to go poking around in the internet from the virtual world. It was a rather substantial chunk of processing power, and it wasn’t interested in talking to me, and rebuffed my efforts to look at its code directly.
Frank and Danielle returned a couple of minutes later, Ayva and I had established a physical wire connection to speak with one another directly, since the sound of wind passing around us at around two hundred miles per hour made speaking directly to one another extremely difficult.
Our symbiotes, upon returning, immediately discovered the direct data channels between us that Ayva and I had set up. I monitored Frank as he first saw it, and he wasn’t happy, but then started to load security protocols onto the connection at his end. I asked Ayva if Danielle was doing the same thing, and got a yes.
“What’s the difference between what Ayva and I just did and what we did to speak to Jason and Mouse in Lake Weiss, Frank? I don’t remember this much security then.”
Frank did not pause in his creation of elaborate security measures. “It was there. On an absolute scale my security across those connections was a lot less secure then, but I’m a lot more advanced now. You didn’t see it then because you were far below your current level of understanding. There was most definitely never an unsecure data connection between myself and Mouse at any time, not from either end. I mostly trust Danielle and Ayva, but mostly doesn’t count in data security.”
After a couple more seconds, Frank and Danielle joined us in conference again. We could still translate up to the virtual world through the quants, but trying to establish any sort of electronic connection to let us communicate while some were in the virtual world and the others were in the real world wasn’t happening.
The first thing we agreed to do was to stop running for a while, so all four of us could put our full attention on the conversation. I didn’t want to stop moving though, so I made the suggestion that we jump on the back of the next flatbed truck headed the same way we were, and let it carry us while we spoke. There was agreement on that, and it didn’t take long to find a flatbed trailer with room for us to sit in the lee of the cab.
When Ayva and I were comfortably seated, leaning up against some random building supplies under a big tarp, Frank agreed that Danielle should lead off our discussion, and she started the conversation with a simple status report. “[Satellites, cell towers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and everything else we approach that might be used for communications are being shut down. We are crossing the US in our own data black hole. It isn’t just us, everyone near to us is experiencing the same issue.]”
“A rolling data blackout, centered on us? How are they centering on us?”
It was Frank’s turn to comment “[Based on the code snippets I found here and there, at first they were trying to simply lock down our individual transmissions, but as we escalated, so did they. Whoever is it, they can match our capabilities with human technology on the internet. After we started to escalate with more complex crypto and proxies, they simply started to shut down transmitters and receivers. It’s easier to encrypt than decrypt, but if you don’t care about the infrastructure, sometimes it’s easier still to just shut things off.]”
This sounded a lot like what I had been told that we did shortly after the attack on governor Albertson. “They also, apparently, don’t care much about the havoc they are causing. Some cell towers and Wi-Fi along the interstates, not a big deal. The satellites? That will be impacting millions. That will also be impacting the government, who will, no doubt, be unamused.” I had an unwelcome thought. “Ouch. Let me guess. It’s being made to look like we’re doing it?”
“[Exactly. And they are doing a damn fine job of it too. If I didn’t know I wasn’t doing it, I would think that I was doing it.]”
Ayva spoke up. “So who are they? Can we isolate them and attack their internet access, since they don’t seem to be able to stop us from communicating out of the virtual world?”
A very good question, one that, after a half second of no response, I realized that neither of our Symbiotes had an answer for. “So, apparently, whoever they are, they are better than Danielle and Frank at internet security and hacking, unless there’s some sort of mitigating factor here?”
Danielle spoke up. “[Unless Frank has something to add that I am not aware of, that’s an accurate statement.]”
We had just dropped our list of potential, known enemies, to zero. The only entities that could manage to outmaneuver Danielle and Frank, working together, that we knew of, were A and B. I couldn’t think of any reason why they would do something like this, unless one of them, or both, were becoming unhinged. Which would be bad with all sorts of capital letters and exclamation points.
Frank followed Danielle. “[Nothing to add here. Whoever they are, they can’t stop us from communicating out of the virtual world, but they can stop us from communicating to and from our bodies electronically when they know where our bodies are. If we push the crypto and/or channel hopping up to the point where they can’t be guaranteed to keep us from communicating effectively, they just start shutting down transmitters and receivers that are transmitting and receiving data near where we are.”
I thought for a minute. I was pretty sure I knew the answer to this question, but it was worth asking. “Have you tried to lock out the internet connections to and from Facet’s facility?”
Danielle took that question. “[That was the first thing we considered as a viable test, after we determined we were working against someone who was our equal, or perhaps superior, on the internet. As far as we were able to determine, there’s no internet connection at all to that facility. Looking at the plans as they were drawn up, this seems accurate. The facility was apparently designed to be data secure as well as physically secure. Some of the custom equipment built for the company were data vans, a lot like armored cars, which carried data storage media into and out of the facility. We did shut down the radio stations, cell towers and communications satellites in those areas as well. We even downed the old analog phone system and the digital phone and entertainment cable connections. We kept them down for fifteen minutes, all of them. There was no change in the effectiveness of countermeasures. As we advanced down the highway, the data black hole continued to follow us.]
Ayva asked an extremely good question I had missed. “Were you able to witness any of it actually happening? Did you see who or what was disabling the cell towers as we travelled, while they were doing it?”
Frank spoke next. I realized that Ayva and I were being provided answers in some sort of data ping-pong match. I wondered if it was a bad sign when Danielle and Frank switched back and forth like that, instead of one of them simply answering all the questions while the other worked on the problem with all their attention.
“[Remember when I told you once, Bob, that I thought B was watching us when we were on the internet, because I could see evidence of a presence? That was what I saw disabling cell tower equipment. That or something just like it. Before anyone gets excited, on further reflection, I do not believe that what I saw was ever really B. I believe I was a bit too optimistic about my ability to see B on the internet. Whoever this is, they have been watching us for a while, and I’ve been ignoring them whenever I did see evidence of their presence. I thought they were B, or perhaps A, because I did not imagine the presence of another being that could mask itself from me in that way.]”
This explained a great deal. If they were better than Frank and Danielle on the internet, what about in the real world? If we did find them, were we just going to be crushed for the temerity of approaching them?
Ayva spoke again. “Danielle, I think this is an appropriate time to use up a favor.”
I had to agree with that. A was a lot more likely to give us an answer or help than B. Based on recent experiences, if B did choose to give us an answer or help, it might not be an answer we would understand. That wasn’t the only reason to call on A rather than B. I had finally figured out what B had done earlier, when he claimed to help me. He had kept Frank in the virtual world, intact, instead of kicking him back into the real world when our quant was destroyed in the explosion. If Frank had returned to my body when the body was damaged that badly, he would have been crippled, perhaps irrevocably. Asking B for another favor or help in the near term would probably get us a very short answer, after a favor as big as the last one.
“I’ve never really understood how your favors worked with A, but I agree. This is starting to add up to something that even I’m afraid to walk into. Is this, perhaps, another incarnation of Argoen, messing with us? If so, I’m surprised B hasn’t acted directly already.”
“[Perhaps he has.] Frank carefully commented. “[Nine thousand years, Bob. That’s how old Argoen says she was. Maybe that’s a lie. Maybe she was older, or younger. She surely lied a lot, and caused all sorts of messes. Most of the lies and hidden data she used seemed to be intended to be very crude, powerful lessons about how symbiotes could injure society, and warnings about how young humans were on the interstellar scale. A lot of what she did, and didn’t do, makes no sense to us though. Of primary concern, we don’t know what sorts of restrictions Argoen has or had on her own development. Nine thousand years from now, we still won’t be a candle to what A and B are right now, because of the limits set by A and B on humans in this solar system, but Argoen’s limits? We have no idea what Argoen’s limits are. Remember, also, that the limits on us only hold for when we are in this solar system, which is monitored by A and B as system nodes. Human symbiotes, according to early conversations with B, will create anywhere from one to four system nodes, normally two, in every new star system we inhabit.]”
This turned everything completely on its ear. “Ouch. Argoen was alone in our system, with no system node of her own race, as advanced as she was, for roughly seventy years?”
“[I believe you understand the worry that Danielle and I are experiencing right now.]”Frank replied, and there was actual worry in his voice, which I’d never heard him express before. Anger, or even fear, humor, and even touches of sadness at times, but never worry before now.
“[Ayva and I will try together to convince A to part with a favor. She owes us several, she says, but she only acts on them when she chooses to. It’s rather frustrating at times.]”
“[We can try B as well, if A chooses not to be cooperative, but data from B is bound to be more abstract.]” Frank offered.
I hadn’t spoken to Frank yet about the comment from B about B’s already having helped me. No time like the present. If Frank spoke to B and didn’t even know what B had done for him, B’s reaction towards me might not be favorable in the near future. “Ah, Frank, remember when Ayva knocked the quant off us when we were both being attacked, when we both were returned to our body?”
Frank immediately made the connection. “[Yes. Good point. That explains a great deal. I would have appreciated it if he had let me know, rather than let me stew in my own terror, but I’m certainly not going to complain that he kept me in the virtual world rather than drop me back into our body after the blast. B isn’t likely to be in a mood to help us again, near term, after that big of a rescue. I’m definitely going to have to make an effort to thank him for that.]”
“I have a strong suspicion that the faster he’s thanked, the faster he’ll help us again.” I pointed out.
“[Good point. While Danielle and Ayva try to engage A, Bob and I will go thank B, and apologize for waiting so long to do it. If B responds favorably, we will see if he’s willing to talk more.]”
With everyone’s course of action determined, Ayva and I made sure we were not going to fall off the truck. I wasn’t really worried about myself. The body I was in at the moment would do more damage to the road and cars that hit it than I would take, due to the materials it was made of and the absurdly low mass of said materials after quantum reprogramming. Ayva’s body was another matter. The armor and bones would protect her to a large degree, but she was still human flesh and blood, and her brain and internal organs would suffer a lot of damage falling off a truck onto an interstate highway with no mind in attendance to control her body.
So we glued ourselves to the truck. Simple answer. When we returned, we’d use a solvent to unglue ourselves.
Ayva and Danielle appeared in their private space in B’s virtual world. “Do you think this is going to work, Danielle?” Ayva asked. “I’m not entirely certain that A isn’t following B down the path to abstract thinking. We might get answers of marginal use if we get answers at all.”
“[A was created after B, I think we have a little more time. Also, remember Ayva, you are a whole lot more rational than Bob. B was created from Bob and Frank. A was created from you and me. I strongly suspect that A will remain significantly less abstract than B for a very long time. Now, let’s get started.]”
Danielle started creating and destroying quants rapidly. After she had created twenty-two of them in a period of a bit less than two seconds, one tested good, and she attached it to her body, then she and Ayva returned to the real world, briefly, then activated the other quant to connect to A’s much smaller virtual world. They were the only occupants there because A’s purpose was completely different from B’s.
Unlike B, A was immediately attentive when they arrived. She didn’t speak immediately, but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that their presence was recognized. Of course B was dealing with several billion sentient beings at any one given time, and A typically got a visit from Ayva and Danielle every day, almost like a kindergartener visiting mom or dad’s home office after they got home from school. One might even say that Ayva and Danielle worked for A, but it was clear to Ayva and Danielle that anything that the two of them did, A could have done herself in a very small fraction of the time they had required to do the work. But A was busy. Arguably busier than B. She never turned down offers of help, and she always set goals Ayva and Danielle could meet.
A was renovating a planet, terraforming it, though she didn’t like that term because the new planet wasn’t planned to be just like Earth. She was nearly finished with the first stages of the project and she was going to have to start dropping asteroids on Mars soon. This would need to be done carefully, because she had already covered over half the planet’s surface with terraforming devices, but she was surveying the asteroid belt now, as well as the small moons around various planets. Soon, asteroids would begin raining down into the two kilometer wide, one kilometer deep rings five kilometers apart, from pole to pole, carved into Mars’ surface by the passage of A, herself. There were plans for special excavations at the poles if any of the very large asteroids or small-moon-sized bodies had mineral contents that would be difficult to acquire from smaller asteroids.
B was interacting with billions of humans, but letting them mostly do their own thing. A was controlling billions of tools, simultaneously, mostly on Mars, but a few million in space as well. For now, most of those billions of tools on Mars were simply providing power to A, but they would start using the power they generated for their own tasks soon.
The sheer scope of the project was absurd by human standards of engineering, or even symbiote pair standards of engineering. A, herself, was a being over five kilometers wide, three kilometers high, and twenty kilometers wide, almost entirely inorganic. A’s organic core was roughly the same size as an office building, about the same size as B. A had been creating her own organic substances for consumption out of materials on Mars since she first landed, but it was easier for her now, as she had started using the dimensional energies discovered by B recently. She still was hesitant to use the dimensional energies for her work. A and B claimed to be unclear about the limits of that power source, so neither of them tapped into it too deeply.
After a short time, which Ayva and Danielle spent checking on their work in the limited virtual world that A had established for them, A’s attention centered on them, and everything else became peripheral “You understand that the question of rationality vs abstraction isn’t as simple as you seem to be thinking?”
“Ah, there was no offense intended.” Ayva spoke, thinking that since that conversation had happened in B’s virtual world, B must have mentioned it to A.
“If I were offended, I wouldn’t be speaking. You don’t really understand us well enough to offend us, not now, not without real effort devoted specifically to making us angry.”
Why bring it to our attention then? Ayva wondered. However, Danielle was a little more straightforward.
“[If that’s true, what is the purpose of mentioning the discussion that was overheard?]”
“If you think that we are less than rational, you might react inappropriately when we do try to help you. We can compensate for that, but it adds complexity. There are times when we want to help you, where we can’t come right out and say what we want to say, because you simply don’t have a reference to comprehend it. B once told you that talking to you gives him a headache. It was the best way he could describe the problems we have when trying to communicate to you.”
Ayva remembered that conversation. B seemed to be having a harder time explaining himself then than A was having explaining herself now.
“So, when we get something of an abstract nature from you, it’s because there’s some aspect to what you want to tell us that we don’t have the mental equipment to comprehend?”
“That’s about right. The abstract nature of the information is designed in a way to provide the information you need, when you need it, if we’ve judged your reactions properly. You haven’t gotten as many abstract pieces of data from me as you have seen from B simply because I try to stay away from B’s responsibilities, and he stays away from mine. For the most part. This discussion is relatively easy to discuss in human terms, so I don’t need to be abstract.”
“OK, this makes a lot more sense then, but we didn’t come here to discuss your sanity, or B’s.”
“Oh? Are you sure about that?”
No, Ayva thought to herself, we’re always worried about your sanity, because of how powerful you are, so every conversation we have, we will be concerned for your sanity.
“Ah, can we just say that it was a concern but it’s not the main reason for our visit?”
“That sounds closer to the truth.” A duplicate of Ayva appeared in front of Ayva and Danielle. That made three of them, all identical, in the same room. Somehow Ayva managed to never confuse Danielle and A when A did choose to appear in person. Something about the facial expressions and the way the body moved.
“You understand that whenever you enter the virtual world, we immediately know everything you know, because we have created, at that moment, a virtual duplicate of you, and placed your memories in it?”
This made a great deal of sense to Ayva, even if the scope of the accomplishment is beyond her ability to really understand. It had always made sense that the data was being transferred to allow them to think like themselves in the virtual world, but she’d never considered that A and B would have immediate access to all of that data.
“Oh, I had always assumed it was some sort of automated process.”
Danielle turned to look at Ayva, a surprised look on her face. “[Really, you thought that? I suppose it’s not that strange of a thought though. It is possible for adult symbiotes to create a shard or dedicated program, we do it all the time. For a being like A or B though, I doubt they create shards or independent acting entities very often, because even a small part of themselves contains the capacity to develop a separate intelligence. Jokes about sanity aside, I’m confident that neither A nor B are fond of the thought of some sort of split personality disorder.]”
A clapped her hands. “Well said! Not exactly right, but you have the gist of it.” Then she smiled. “Argoen is no longer in our solar system. We know this because we can see the evidence of her passing. Matter reprogramming and working with quantum structures tends to leave signs that can be detected if you know what you are looking for, but it’s absurdly computationally expensive. B and I pooled processing power to be certain that Argoen left. It was difficult, even for us. We had some of the same concerns that you had, about Argoen’s capabilities. She claimed to be a few thousand years older than human writing, with no evidence to say otherwise, and that’s pretty daunting, even for B and myself.”
“[I’m not seeing a clear image of closure here yet. Am I missing something?]” Danielle spoke, almost in normal conversational tones.
A smiled yet again. “Such a bright girl! What you are missing is that B found what we’re calling the beacon network. I’m not going to explain it in any great detail, but, in short, B was able to isolate some low bandwidth data transmissions that are coming through the other dimensions that we can touch. We can’t talk back yet, but we’ve been able to decipher the incoming data, and it seems as if the majority of the data is a very careful description of system claims by native populations, colonizing populations, as well as unexplored areas and scout assignments. Apparently Argoen had the equipment in her main ship to send a message back across the beacon network, because it’s clearly indicated that this solar system is claimed by its native population, and the scout that explored it is returning to its home system.”
Ayva thought for a moment. “So, this means that, first, there is some sort of FTL data transmission, even if it’s low bandwidth, and second that you and B believe that the simple existence of the network and the data in it gives credence to Argoen’s departure.”
“Yes. We’re getting plans for how to build a transmitter, but it’s slow. The status report for the beacon network takes about two days to transmit, then for around six hours, technical data explaining the theories that will allow us to build a transmitter. B has received theories number three through five of twenty-seven.
After that, for about three hours, there is a window for questions to be transmitted. Following that, there is another roughly three hour window for answers for the last cycle’s questions. It’s all rather remarkable.” A, remarkably, seemed a little bit excited.
Seeing actual eagerness and excitement in A was a little bit unnerving to Ayva, but at the same time, what B had found was a big discovery. Big enough that it would allow A and B the chance to at least know where the neighbors were, those with the technology to create a dimensional transmitter, at least. Soon, presumably, humanity could even begin to ask questions and communicate with its neighbors. A little excitement was probably warranted at times like this, even from a near-deity.
Ayva tilted her head. “I’m certainly glad to hear all this good news, and it certainly appears to point at Argoen being gone for good, with data to back it up. If you and B are satisfied with Argoen’s true status being that she’s left the solar system and headed home or to another star, that’s good enough for us.”
“I suppose you want some information about the ones that tried to nuke Bob and are outfoxing Danielle and Frank in the internet now, right?”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“Yes, that’s where I saw it, I think.”
Banter? Jokes? Really? Ayva frowned.
“Ah, I apologize Ayva. There aren’t many things that stir me to emotion these days, but one of them is finding something completely new, and the Beacon network has me in a heady mood indeed, especially now that I’m squeezing myself down into a human reference to communicate with you.”
“There is no need to apologize, A, but we would greatly appreciate information about the enemy we face. You have told us that they are not Argoen, and they certainly don’t appear to be any sort of avatar of either yourself or B, but that leaves us with a problem – if Danielle and Frank are the most advanced symbiotes on the planet, who is it that is better than them on the internet battlefield?”
A’s humor disappeared instantly. “When B was created, Bob and Frank, and you two as well, designed a bunch of rather good biological imperative rules for beings like us, and discarded quite a few that would cause us problems. B was responsible for Earth, its environment, and the people who live there. But the wording of the imperatives wasn’t that simple, because you four recognized that B was going to potentially be around for thousands, if not millions of years. In a span of time that significant, it was almost impossible that humans and symbiotes would always be the only two sentient races on Earth. So B is responsible for, in the wording of the imperatives, protecting the right to exist of all sentient races native to Earth. At the same time, he must allow warfare when it is mutually agreed to by all participants. He is allowed to interfere to some degree in conflict, but he’s not allowed to unilaterally end it, or kill sentient beings directly in conflict with one another.
Danielle paced back and forth as A let her and Ayva think. “[So, if humans were to, say, try to make dolphins extinct, but the dolphins were peaceful, and a bit smarter than they are today, B would intervene. But if dolphins and humans were to actually go to war with one another, both sides with aggressive intent, B would stand back and let them sort it out between the two of them?]”
“He would be allowed to stand back, yes, but would not be required to do so. If he did choose to act, he could not act in such a way that he was directly responsible for deaths of sentient beings on either side of the conflict. He wouldn’t be allowed to simply end the conflict for them, if it were mutually agreed to warfare, unless leaders of both sides both agreed to mediation.”
Ayva had some very clear memories of the rules they had put in place for B when Frank and Bob were preparing to merge. The hope was that their merged self would be sane this time around, as opposed to the last, and perhaps able to figure out how to keep the rest of the world from tearing itself apart in resource wars. Those had been some extremely hard decisions they had made together. “That sounds right, but I don’t understand how that imperative applies here. We haven’t seen evidence of any other race of native sentient beings on Earth. Dolphins are probably the closest, but they aren’t there yet.”
A turned to face them. “We didn’t even know about this until B ran into them, but there is a third truly sentient race on the planet. For now it has only one tripartite member, and has not reproduced. Bob, the first time he merged, accidentally created them. Memory of that activity was erased by Argoen. B’s investigation of the new sentient being’s own formative memories indicate that the original merged Bob didn’t seem to understand that he had created sentient life.
“Wait. Wait. Wait.” Ayva complained. “How do you accidentally create sentience? Was Bob really that powerful back then that he could accidentally do something like that?”
“Most of the work was already done for him. Bob infiltrated the NSA, their main facility, and encountered the AI housekeeping system. He briefly attempted to adjust its behavior, but even at that time the AI was a rather complex and robust system. In order to do what he wanted to do, and do it efficiently, Bob simply moved his intelligence into the AI in order to directly control systems rather than try to control them once-removed, and then he did what he needed to do from there. What he apparently missed was that the other two AI nodes, behaving as designed, took note of his enhanced performance, and copied the modifications in the node Bob had suborned.
Danielle and Ayva were both standing there gape mouthed. Danielle recovered first. “So the first Bob and Frank merger created a limited template of himself by forcing himself into one lobe of an AI. The act of creating a code structure to support his thoughts in the AI node he took over created a template which the other AI nodes copied. The other nodes then became sufficiently self-aware to be sentient. When Bob left, even if he wiped the node he occupied clean, the other two nodes would have copied back into the wiped node. The tripartite AI self-improvement protocols have been active since then, inside a sentient AI? The NSA’s AI, at that? The one AI connected with backdoors into all of the black research facilities when the US was still being ignorant and stupid about symbiotes, and practically every other meaningful computer system of note in the entire US, and a lot of places outside of the US, for that matter?
Ayva continued, almost in shock. “And B can’t simply eliminate it, because it’s a native sentient of Earth, unless it becomes an aggressor towards another sentient race on Earth, without there being mutual aggression. If humans and the AI were to go to war, with both sides willing, B could stand back and let humans take out the AI. Or the AI take out the humans. Bob and I, Frank and Danielle, and this AI have all been intentionally guided together and goaded into a fight in hopes that we will make the AI go away because B fears the damage it might do, but he can’t touch it without breaking his imperatives, and you can’t touch it, because it’s not your job.”
A just looked at the two of them for a moment, then sighed and nodded.
Ayva stared into A’s eyes. “This is the first time that I’ve wondered if we made a mistake creating you two.”
A stared right back. “Surely you did, because we all make mistakes. If perfection was the goal you sought when creating us from yourselves, you should have known better.”