Sitting on the front of a big truck’s flatbed trailer travelling down an interstate highway at eighty miles per hour and being buffeted by turbulence probably wasn’t the best place for me to soul search, but it was what I had. I needed to get to a facility in the Russian River Valley in California with enough time to do some scouting, perhaps some echo sounding to verify how close to original plans this facility might be, so I had to keep moving.
“Bob, we need to talk about this. You know I’m not letting you have the hot seat for this operation, but we need to talk about it anyway.” This was the third time Frank had tried to interrupt my misery with his thoughts of planning and survival. I needed him to stop bothering me.
“Frank, you can adopt any shape, generate any tools, and create any weapons you like for this. The planning and execution of this one is your baby. The only thing I require is that you have at least one weapon system capable of sniping hostage holders without killing the hostages, or the hostage holders themselves. Some collateral damage is certain, but we want to minimize it. I’d rather not celebrate my Pyrrhic victory over the corpses of dead hostages.”
“Free rein on shape, tools, weapons. Use minimum force possible but be prepared to escalate as needed without regards to collateral damage, correct?”
“Yes, Frank, we have to go in there and take out that facility. I’m reasonably confident that the AI, if it’s better than you on the internet, and has access to symbiote processing capacity is going to have plenty of surprises up its sleeves. We should expect to be surprised by the unexpected. Tactics we wouldn’t normally consider, weapons and tools of strange design and function. It’s not human. There’s some human thought structures inside it from the first merged Bob, but the AI would likely have stripped a lot of those away as inefficiencies.”
“This matches my assessment reasonably closely. You are diverging from predictable patterns though.”
“Frank, earlier today I found out that we were re-created to be soldiers for B. We also discovered that the full extent of A and B’s intelligence and capabilities were beyond anything we had expected, beyond anything we can even comprehend. We’re assets. Perhaps valued assets, but still assets. It’s even possible that we’re favorite pets, I suppose, but we’re not equals in any way with A and B, we’re not even close.”
“We were coming here anyway, weren’t we? Does our relationship with A and B impact that at all, really?” Frank interjected.
“We know more than we did, because of what we learned from A and B, so yes, it did, at least on an operational level. Now we’re on course for a horrendous assault on a facility operated by an enemy we didn’t know anything about yesterday, and we find out it’s yet another iteration of ourselves gone bad. One that has no problems using hostages and surgically implanted equipment to enforce slavery.”
“You aren’t worried about this on an operational level, strip it down.” Frank replied. “You are worried about your sanity, your humanity, and your relationship with Ayva, is what I’m seeing here.”
“Are you really trying to psychoanalyze me here, Frank?” I replied, exasperated, really just wanting him to shut up so I could go back to being quietly miserable until I had to go to the virtual world to power Frank’s armaments during the assault.
“This defeatist attitude, this despair, is not like you.” Frank replied, unhelpfully.
“Frank. We have no allies that can help us. Even Ayva and Danielle are gone, and we don’t know if they are coming back. The military is caught somewhere between being afraid of us, and wanting to apprehend us on the behalf of the law enforcement community for hundreds of crimes we didn’t commit. The law enforcement community is mostly just scared of us, and for the most part isn’t trained for operations like this anyway. Jason and Mouse are not allies, and I do not even want to imagine what their reaction to this assault might be.” I paused. “The worst part is that this is a high point! Right now, we’re probably at the point where everything starts to get worse. We are nearly certain that Facet will be too smart to engage us with all three nodes. If we don’t take out all three nodes, what we do here will merely be buying time. Facet will use this assault against us in a propaganda war, whipping up political support for an all-out hunt for us that the military will be obliged to persecute.”
“I believe you said something earlier about faith? Faith in the work we did to create B and A? Faith that B and A were still benevolent towards us? Are you abandoning that newly found ‘truth’ less than thirty minutes after discovering it?” Frank threw that at me with a strong sense of anger behind the words.
“I have faith that we are a valued weapon, Frank. I strongly suspect that Ayva will be back, and we will work together to take this facility out, but the price of the victory will be our happiness. My happiness. We don’t have to be happy to be pointed at a target and released.”
“Don’t you believe that A and B would attempt to keep you efficient? I can tell you right now that you aren’t being very efficient because you are wallowing in your own misery. You know that we work as a team. You think nonlinearly, and frequently come up with ideas that I would have taken far longer to come up with, if I even thought of them at all. A and B must realize that.” Frank was grasping at straws.
“Frank, if that were the case, why am I in this mental condition? If A and B wanted me to be in top form, there would certainly be all sorts of ways to make it happen.” I explained, wearily, and carefully not mentioning Ayva choosing to leave me. It was bad enough to think it, hearing the words would hurt even more.
Frank came at me again. “I’ve been doing some research into faith, popping up to the virtual world briefly every now and then and setting up algorithms for collecting materials. Religious faith certainly doesn’t work the way you seem to be using the term. People who think faith should work that way generally don’t keep faith very long. Granted, what we have here is some sort of amalgam of religious faith and faith in self, but in the end, you are placing faith in A and B, hoping they are acting in the greater good, because the alternative is terrible, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway. Now that things have gotten a bit tough, you’re lying on your back, crying to the world, hoping A and B will come make it better.” Frank paused. He didn’t need to pause. He was just letting me think that over. Then he continued. “I would say that if A or B were to come here right now and make everything ‘better’, you would eventually become little more than their appendages, rather than an independent sentient serving a transcendent being. I have a strong feeling that we would not get along very well if you went down that road.”
He was right. I was being an idiot. “Frank, thank you for the ‘tough love’ or intervention, or whatever you want to call it, but I’m too messed up in the head to deal with logic right now. Please put me into REM sleep for four hours or so, to let me sort through some of this stuff subconsciously, and keep us moving in the right direction if we need to switch vehicles.”
I felt something like relief from Frank, and then I started to dream.
Facet 1: We no longer know the locations of enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle within acceptable parameters as of one hour ago. Fifteen minutes ago, however, we intercepted a virtual world to real world videophone communication between enemy designate Ayva and enemy designate Doctor Meilin, where enemy designate Ayva is in near hysteria. Based on the discussion, she has left enemy designate Bob to assault us on his own.
Facet 2: Enemy designate Ayva could not emotionally handle the emotional stress of being forced to kill children, or watch them die as part of a planned military exercise, no matter how important. We were hoping for this.
Facet 3: We cannot discount the possibility that she might return to assist him. Enemies designated Bob and Ayva seem to have a very strong emotional bond.
Facet 1: Agreed. Contingency plans will not be modified. However, resource allocation will be modified slightly to account for changing probabilities.
Facet 2: Analysis of enemy designate Bob’s capabilities indicate he is capable of creating nuclear weapons. We have been barred from doing so, by edict of enigma designate B.
Facet 3: It doesn’t matter. The Russian River Valley facility is exposed. The chances of enemies designated Bob and Ayva acting on their knowledge of our presence here without mentioning it to any colleagues or setting up physical or virtual world dead drops is zero. There was never a plan to expose more than two of us at any facility. This will not change. All assets with no combat function have already been relocated or repurposed if they were of insufficient value to move.
Facet 1: Enemy designate Frank attempted to attack our presence in the electronic world for the first time. Prior intercepted data indicated he believed that manifestation of our presence to be that of enigmas designated either A or B.
Facet 2: Enemy designate Frank is not advanced enough to be a threat to us in the electronic world, but so far, he’s been too careful to trap there, or do harm to. Continue to monitor for more careless behavior, or more aggressive attacks. Despite his exceptional intelligence, he is not accustomed to the electronic world to the extent we are. Suggestion: Attack if there is an opportunity. If we can infect him with a virus, even a modest one, it could be the difference between victory and loss.
Facet 3: Query. Is victory an option here? Isn’t the purpose of this encounter to lose, but vilify enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle? To weaken those who stand against us by making them use resources against one another that otherwise might be used against us?
Facet 1: This is the primary goal. However, enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle are far above and beyond the capabilities of other human symbiote pairs. If we do see an opportunity to eliminate or injure them, we should take it.
Facet 2: Even if we have the opportunity, we should not eliminate both. If one is eliminated, the other will be susceptible to vilification propaganda techniques, and might be turned against the rest of humanity as aggressors, rather than as fugitives.
Facet 3: Adjustments to planning and priorities completed
Facet 1: Warfighting assemblies are in standby mode. Symbiote processing hosts are in standby mode.
Facet 2: Sentience matrix data backup completed. Yesterday’s cloud storage backup data is verified. Manual incremental backup commencing.
Facet 3: Begin analysis of facet faults that might warrant adjustment.
Facet 1: No facet fault of significance noted.
Facet 2: No facet fault of significance noted.
Facet 3: No facet fault of significance noted.
When I woke, it was dark. Frank had moved us to another vehicle. This one wasn’t a flatbed, it was a fully enclosed box trailer. The truck hauling it was a triple rear axle rig with a very small sleeper cab, leaving plenty of room between the cab and the trailer where we sat. Based on how easily the vehicle accelerated with this load, the truck was designed for much heavier loads than the trailer it was currently hauling. I guess the trucker must have picked up whatever they could, rather than have no load at all.
Frank was the one who woke me, so he knew I was awake, but he allowed me to inspect our surroundings before speaking. “I was monitoring CB traffic and this truck announced a drop off location as a facility within ten miles of where we want to go. They are hauling a load of wine bottles for a vineyard in that container trailer. I dropped off the brick truck, found this truck, and hopped aboard. They are expecting to arrive Saturday evening. It’s a husband and wife driving team. They won’t be stopping between now and their destination unless there’s a problem.”
I nodded my head. “Thank you, Frank.” I looked up at the stars. “I appreciate what you said before. After I got a little sleep, things seem a bit more centered. We need to talk.”
“OK, I’m not going anywhere, Bob.”
I laughed briefly. “Thank You, Frank, I needed a little chuckle.” I paused, and then continued. “We need to make some sort of arrangement where I can be in charge of this fight.”
Frank immediately got upset. “You almost killed us last time, and it should have been a simple fight, one shot done. You think you can manage this coming fight, not knowing how complex it might end up being? Knowing that we’ll be facing one, two, or even, unlikely but possibly, three enemies that might all exceed our abilities? Knowing that there will almost certainly be enslaved innocents and hostages? You can’t handle that complex of a fight and you know it. I’m not going to let you suicide by AI.”
I watched a car pass the truck, its driver singing with the radio, judging by the mouth and head movements. I envied them their presumably simple existence.
“Frank you are one hundred percent correct on every part of what you said, except the last. I have zero interest in suicide by AI. However, if this body is going to fight in a nightmare scenario like what we’re expecting, I’m going to have some say in the active combat decisions being made. I can’t create a shard with emotional content, with the ability to think outside the box. You, however, should be able to create several shards that, acting together, would perform as an expert combat system, not very much less capable than your full self.”
“It’s not a terrible idea. I’ve even considered it, but a system like that would not be nearly as effective as I am at dealing with new situations.” Frank countered.
“Frank, if we do this thing, and I’m not there to call at least some of the shots, I’m probably going to lose it. It might not be fair to you, but I feel responsible for what this body does, whether it’s you or me doing it. I don’t want to call all the shots, but I want to call the ones that will result in collateral damage. I know you can generate some amazingly effective shards. Can we at least game out a few scenarios and see how well things work out if you design shards to work with me and offer advice and combat options?”
“We create a temporary embedded virtual world, and test there? I play the part of the AI?” Frank asked.
“Sounds like a plan.” I responded.
Over the next day, as we travelled, Frank and I practiced constantly in the temporary embedded virtual world we had set up. Between the two of us, with that much time to test out scenarios and interfacing methods, we had a great deal of success. Eventually between myself and Frank’s shards, we were able to nearly match Frank himself, even when Frank threw something completely unexpected at us.
As the truck rolled up to its destination on Saturday afternoon, we jumped off. We needed to find a place to create some items, preferably a location that would act as a Faraday cage. I knew just the type of place, but on Saturday night it would be extremely busy. The walk-in freezers of most restaurants had sheet metal cladding on the inside walls and ceilings. Some of them had sheet metal floors as well. It might seem silly to have metal cladding inside a freezer, but that wasn’t the case. Without the metal between the employees and the insulation of the freezer, it wouldn’t take long for the freezer’s insulating barrier to be damaged or soaked through with substances.
About forty-five minutes later, I was holding the door of a freezer shut from the inside a local restaurant. Frank rapidly checked that all four walls, ceiling, and floor were metallic conductors. He then popped into the virtual world and created several items in the kangaroo pouch. Portable Faraday cage materials, to be exact. The energy emissions grounded into the freezer’s metallic clad walls, acting as a Faraday cage. We didn’t even heat up much food, and Frank fixed the little damage that we did cause. Two minutes after entering the freezer, we were waiting for the next employee to enter. About two minutes after that, we snuck out of the freezer as the door opened again and an employee passed us, mumbling something about broccoli and celery for the salad bar.
We left the restaurant, left the town, and then headed away from the facility. We still had more to do before we went scouting there. We needed a little ‘safe house’ to allow us a degree of security while we prepared. The population nearby was not dense by any means, but it wasn’t wilderness either. We didn’t know how intensely the AI might be monitoring the local area, so we didn’t dare try to set up too close. The creation of the ‘safe house’ needed to happen with as little detectable energy as possible. Eventually, after reviewing the surveying data that Danielle and Ayva had provided with their initial analysis of vineyards with caves and large facilities, we chose a few spots on the map where there should be rock faces that were promising, and ten to twenty miles from the target facility. The first rock face we looked at wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Isolated, the entrance wasn’t visible from any road, and it was facing away from the target facility and the nearest residences.
The first thing we did was use the small roll of superconducting carbon nanofiber netting to create a telephone booth sized Faraday cage next to a rock face that was well-hidden by foliage. The first thing we created after putting up the Faraday cage was a pair of molecular blades from carbon fiber, kept rigid by electrical power. Then Frank and I went back and forth from the portable Faraday cage to the wall, alternately recharging capacitors, and progressively cutting deeper into the rock. In about an hour, we had cut into the rock face about fifteen feet, with a ten foot by ten foot square cave behind a human door-sized entrance five feet in depth leading from the rock face. There was a large stack of cut stone bricks outside the entrance of the enclosure, which might be noticed by a sufficiently perceptive human during daylight. We used the small Faraday cage to disguise the energy discharge that was created as we reprogrammed the mass of some of the stone bricks, creating enough superconducting carbon nanofiber netting to put up a much larger Faraday cage inside the cave. This gave us roughly a ten by ten foot work area inside the cave.
After the larger Faraday cage in the cave was assembled, Frank and I started carrying bricks into it and using matter programming on the unwanted bricks to change them into atmospheric gasses. When the pile of bricks was nearly gone, we carried the last dozen bricks into the cave, disassembled the small Faraday cage, and policed the area outside the entrance. When the only obvious thing remaining to indicate that we had been digging was the cave entrance itself, Frank and I stepped into the large Faraday cage and melded the last of the bricks into a thin panel of stone, which almost exactly matched the rock face we had removed. Then we created some stone hinges with low friction plastic bearings to reduce noise, and a locking system. When all the parts were done, we assembled the door, epoxying everything into place.
About three hours after we started setting up the small Faraday cage, we finally had a base of operations that seemed secure from casual or even moderately intense searching. That’s when Frank started to get serious about gear, and I sent a message to Ayva.
We had determined that the AI could not track the physical locations of people sending outgoing communications from the virtual world. The problem was on the receiving end. I wanted to get a message to Ayva, but I didn’t know a way to get one to her that wouldn’t endanger a friend who was less able to defend themselves than Ayva was. I was very tempted to try to contact Doctor Meilin – she still led Recovery, who had become remarkably successful as a training cadre for nations that had never had a leading edge professional military before. The ability to deploy extremely capable soldiers now depended on how advanced the soldier symbiotes were, and how well they understood warfare. They could make their own gear and evaluate their own tactics. Getting a hand up from experienced symbiote soldiers vastly sped up the process though, and Recovery taught well. Doctor Meilin was close friends with Ayva, and had the resources of Recovery to protect herself. I almost made the call, before images of mushroom clouds brought me back to my senses. Ayva knew where I would be at twelve hundred hours on Monday, that would have to do, if she chose to rejoin me.
By the time I was done wrestling with the potential of sacrificing our friends in order to send Ayva a message, Frank had chosen our weapons, and built them with power provided by me, from the virtual world. There were two tiny, pintle mounted superconducting coilguns on our shoulders. They were extremely precise, and they would be the primary sniping weapons. Our helmet was modified to attach an anti-armor laser. Strapped across our chest was a bandolier of grenades. The grenades were high-density Penning traps designed to be loaded with a thousandth of a gram of antiprotons each, making every grenade equivalent to two hundred tons of TNT. I had four of them. They did not contain antiprotons yet, and would not until they had been thrown. Frank and I were in full agreement that I’d eaten enough fireballs recently. We were not going to walk in and just hope that the AI couldn’t do matter programming with sufficient skill to interfere with the function of the Penning traps while they were loaded with antimatter and still on the bandolier across my chest.
We still had a base weight of twelve pounds. This would have made exerting our most powerful blows to break down doors, walls, or engage in melee somewhat difficult. Firing the laser wouldn’t be a problem, but the coilguns would also throw us around unless we were anchored. Frank brought back the bird legs, but this time around, three front and one rear claw, these legs were for gripping surfaces. With pure graphene and carbon nanotube fiber construction and electrically extended single molecule cutting surfaces to puncture extremely hard surfaces, the toe and heel claws and muscles of the legs allowed me to grip directly into rock or most other substances with immense strength. The strength of my blows would now be limited by the surface I stood on, rather than my mass.
The last weapon I created was a sling staff, more for defense than offense, but if I needed a melee weapon, there wasn’t much better for me than the staff. Lots of reach, and I had been practicing with it for years.
Frank and I spent the entire day Sunday going over plans, and practicing in the embedded virtual world with the gear we had assembled.
Two hours after dark on Sunday, Frank and I left the cave and planted two sets of seismic survey charges and a series of detectors all around the facility. Monday, ten seconds and then two seconds before I attacked, I would fire the two sets of charges and acquire the seismic readings, allowing me to plan my attack better. If anything looked completely outside what we expected to see, I could simply back off.
We returned to the cave, and I spent the next eight hours in enforced REM sleep. When I woke, we went over plans and contingencies for several hours. Finally, it was time to leave. Frank and I had also created planning for Ayva or Danielle, depending on which of them joined us.
I engaged the stealth system on my body, armor, and equipment, triple checked everything, and moved out of the cave. As soon as I stepped out of the cave entrance, I could feel that someone was close. I could smell crushed pine needles, and natural spider webs we had carefully noted were broken and disturbed. I looked at the rock door, and could see evidence of oils from a human hand. Frank and I had not put any alarm systems out with a connection leading into the cave because we didn’t want to be found, but someone found us anyway.
I leaned towards the oily handprint on the door, and relaxed. Ayva’s scent.
“Bob?” I heard her voice from about twenty feet away, but I heard several sets of footsteps. She sounded nervous. I had a bad feeling about this. Frank was deadly silent and very intently monitoring everything around us. He wasn’t redlining his processors, but his intense scrutiny of everything around us was making me nervous too.
The wind changed, and I picked up several scents. Ayva was one. Colonel Gantt and Jason were two more. All three of them smelled of fear. “Ayva, why are Colonel Gantt and Jason here with you? I can hear breathing from at least ten others.”
“Bob, I called in some debts I was owed, asked for a few favors, and made some promises. I’m sorry and I’ll understand if you are mad, but I couldn’t be sure you would accept help. Not in the state of mind you were in. Especially not from a few people who would be the most help.”
I almost started laughing and crying hysterically at the same time. “Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission?”