Chapter 4.36: Anyone Home?

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“Bob, can we enter the cave and talk? Is it big enough for half a dozen people?  We’re a bit exposed out here.  We have scouts out, and the main force is hidden elsewhere, but we can’t take too long to get started, and we need to at least plan a little.”

“Yes.  Come in.  It will be tight for six, but doable with Jason in a normal size body.”  I carefully did not ask how they found this place.  Frank felt my tension, and it raised his own, which fed back to me.

“How did you know?” Jason’s voice, quietly.

“No ground tremors as you followed Ayva, and no alcohol sweat smell.”

I turned around and entered the cave, Ayva, Colonel Gantt, and Jason entered, followed by three people I did not expect at all, who I had not scented immediately.  Doctor Meilin, Hans, and Franz.  I was still trying to determine if this was some sort of intervention because I’d been displaying some very depressive behaviors, betrayal as a means to keep me safe, or actual help for the mission.

When everyone was inside and the door was closed, Ayva almost tackled me with a hug.  I barely kept Frank from striking her away as she lunged at me.  I held her tight.  Others would hear it too, but this wasn’t a time I really cared, so I whispered “Forgiven, of course.”  It didn’t matter how she found me.  It didn’t matter what she planned to do.  She came back, and there was real emotion in that hug, in her expression.

Doctor Meilin was grinning at Ayva and me.  Jason and Colonel Gantt were examining the Faraday cage made of superconducting carbon nanotube fiber, carefully not looking at Ayva and I, briefly, to give us a bit of privacy.

“So, Doctor Meilin, what brings you out this way?”, I asked, carefully.

She shrugged.  “Ayva said she needed some help.  We’re friends.  Here I am.  I asked around and found a few other Recovery members who were interested in taking a little vacation from training with the new storage node upgrade to help take care of an uppity AI.  We’re not due to start training the Malaysian Army for two more weeks.”

I suspected I knew the answer to this already.  “How many?”

“Hmm, all of them, I think.  Jane complained at me that I shouldn’t be letting them off training so easily, but they all needed some time off.  Jane sometimes forgets there needs to be time for fun too.”

“Jane didn’t object to you joining us?”

“I didn’t say that.  Jane can’t control the entire cadre at once though.  I can.  We don’t know how dangerous this AI will be.  Ayva was clear on that.”

One hundred twenty Recovery agents under the control of a single node.  I knew Hans and Franz were Doctor Meilin’s companion drones, and I knew that different nodes had different control capacities, but I had never been given any reason to believe Doctor Meilin was capable of controlling her entire cadre simultaneously.

I nodded.  “Any help will be welcomed.  I wish we were not pressed for time right now; I’d love to see firsthand how the node and drone methods improve with the addition of the storage node upgrade.  Can you send Frank some documentation of your recent training exercises so we will be more aware of what your capacities might be?”

“Certainly.  Karen is already communicating with Frank and providing the information.”

I turned to Colonel Gantt and Jason.  “Thank you very much for coming, despite our recent differences, all four of you.”

They both turned to me cautiously.  Colonel Gantt spoke first, “Ayva pulled a lot of favors to make people listen to her, and then more favors to make this happen.  The documentation that you received from B, which included the memory data from the interaction between the original Bob merger and the NSA AI, was heavily analyzed and verified to be plausible.  The documentation of market manipulation was also reviewed, as well as the business transactions between Jason here and Facet when Jason created the initial excavation and installation of power and internal communications systems.”

I started to get a bit nervous.  “How many of these discussions took place in electronic format, where facet might have monitored them?”

Ayva reassured me “None.  We used an embedded virtual world for meetings.  Some of our people refused to meet with you directly to start with, so we didn’t use the one you created to get the message to me.”

“How many soldiers did you two bring, Jim? Jason?”  I asked.

Colonel Gantt frowned as I used his first name, but answered.  I probably just needed to keep calling him Colonel Gantt for now.  “Not many.  It was volunteer only, limited to the symbiote soldiers we tried to engage you with the other day who were still in post-op lockdown.  It was further limited to the ones who had already established themselves as mastering storage nodes for processing.  There’s a total of ten soldiers, twelve if you include Jason and myself.  Thirteen if you include our, err, medic.  She’s joined us for the duration of this training exercise.”  Colonel Gantt looked a bit uncomfortable with that statement.  I looked at Jason.

Colonel Gantt and Jason looked at each other, and then looked at Ayva.

Something was happening here.  It didn’t sound nefarious or bad, but people didn’t want to talk about it either.  There was no way Ayva didn’t know what was going on, so I looked at her, tilted my head slightly right, and rolled my right index finger in the air in the age old ‘get moving’ or ‘start talking’ hand signal.

Ayva blushed. “I, ah, managed to call in an actual favor from A, I think.”

Doctor Meilin spoke up, interjecting, definite mischief in her eyes.  “I counted two favors, I think.”

Ayva blushed furiously, then explained herself.  “Two favors, yes.  A can’t or won’t engage directly, but she will do her best to preserve the lives of the hostages and enslaved.  She also helped convince people of the reality of the data B provided.  That was the first favor.  The second favor was a set of GPS coordinates.  She complained that she was really pushing the limits by helping us find one another, but agreed anyway.”

I nodded at Doctor Meilin.  She nodded back.  Apparently she had noted how highly stressed Frank and I had been when they had shown up.  Ayva was normally a lot more perceptive than that.  Then again, I certainly hadn’t been at the top of my game for the last few days either.  Danielle would likely have noticed, but was apparently being vary careful not to interfere with us, much like Frank was, other than when Ayva startled him.

My mental woolgathering was interrupted as Jason spoke up.  “A walked into a children’s medical center in Washington DC, and healed every child to perfect health, and then did the same thing for every parent and employee who didn’t have either a symbiote pair or a regeneration drip.  That included those not present, we later learned.  She followed it up by repairing and in many cases improving every piece of medical equipment in the facility, and cleaning the place top to bottom. In sixteen seconds.  I think she was taking her time and enjoying the reactions.”

I wondered if A realized what she had done.  She hadn’t just convinced some politicians and career military personnel, she had performed a miracle.  A verifiable miracle.  Then it struck me that I was being stupid. Of course, A knew exactly what she was doing.  I had misgivings about it, but I suspected the purpose was more to start confirming the existence of A and B to the general population as more than urban legend, rather than establish their dominance.  I hoped.

I thought about it for a moment.  “She won’t heal combatants, will she?”

“No, she refused to do that.  Ayva is here as a ‘sentients’ rights compliance liaison’ to help us deal with a combatant that is using noncombatants as weapons.  It’s more complicated than that, based on their imperatives, but A said that she and B had both determined independently and working together, that there was sufficient wriggle room to allow them to act in the best interests of the hostages and enslaved.  The combatants would have to work the rest out for themselves.”

I wondered how much of all this had been scripted by A and B, and how much of it was them simply poking and prodding at us to consider certain alternatives.  I certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth when it came to any assistance at this point.  All of us in the cave then cabled together and started to tear apart and modify mine and Frank’s plans so they would include one hundred thirty four other individuals including one who we really weren’t sure what they would do, so, in reality, we just planned for her to do nothing, and hoped she would do more than that. Needless to say there wasn’t much left of my plans when we were done.  Mouse and Jason provided corrections to the original schematics of the underground facility, which were significant, but agreed that we would certainly want to see the results of the seismic surveying before we entered the facility.

Everyone disconnected from the cable ring and activated their stealth equipment, which looked exactly like Frank’s improvements on the AI’s deployed gear.

Ayva saw me looking and nodded.  “I created the stealth equipment based on what we implemented on my armor.  Superconducting capacitors as well, to power it.”

I was a little irritated, but the stealth and superconductor technologies were a very small price to pay for the assistance we had received.

Frank had been redlining processors ever since it had become apparent that Ayva did not come alone, barely contributing to any of the planning session, so I spoke to him internally. “Frank, what’s going on in there?”

“I’m trying to figure out what’s just happened here, and how it’s going to impact us going forward.  I can stop at any time.” He commented.

“Ah yes, a WTF moment.  I understand completely, I think.”  I chuckled to myself as Frank went back to his calculations.

Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin sent out messages to embedded virtual worlds, and everyone started moving towards the facility we were going to assault.

A few minutes later, Colonel Gantt’s ten soldiers arrived and reported to him.  At the same time, the ranks of the Recovery members started filling in by threes. Some of them appeared to be out of my line of sight, but I could feel their carefully coordinated analog radio signals operating at low power.  Analysis indicated that a lot of relaying was happening.  This was good and bad.  We’d find out which after we discovered how much Facet understood about how Recovery symbiotes communicated in combat when linked.

Everyone was using stealth equipment and whisker lasers or tight beam analog radio to communicate, until the last member of our group came wandering over the hill, in a brilliant skin tight white nurse’s outfit with a huge red cross on her chest, back, and the sides of her sailor-style cap.  There was nothing skimpy about the outfit.  It was a half sleeve blouse with a closed top, and the skirt was knee length, tight to the middle of the thigh, and then flaring slightly so she could walk easily.  She was carrying high-heeled shoes and walking barefoot in the grass.  She looked exactly like Ayva.  Everyone stared.

“Hello, Nurse!  I hope you don’t mind, Ayva, but you’re getting a nurse’s outfit like that for Christmas.” I commented under my breath.

“I’ll wear it and hope I look half that good.” She replied.  Then she punched me in the arm.  Not too hard.

Jason started spluttering quietly.  “A, we’re all supposed to be sneaking, under concealment?  Can you make yourself less visible?”

“What, you don’t like the way I look?” A commented back to Jason, with a sad look on her face.

“I, uhh, well, Mouse is telling me it’s not safe to flirt with near-gods that are exponentially smarter than I am.  I’m married anyway.  Can I just say that I’d rather that our enemies not see you, since you look a lot like Ayva, who they are surely looking for?”

A smiled, and it appeared to be genuine.  Not that any of us would ever be able to tell otherwise.  “Mouse is a very clever symbiote who needs to let go of that kludge of an operating system that he put together out of the one Bob gave him years ago.  It was better than what he had, by several orders of magnitude, but Colonel Gantt can teach you the one Bob taught him, as he’s offered.  It really is more efficient.  The inefficiency of Mouse’s current system is holding you two back, significantly.”  Then she smiled.  “What’s the use for dressing up for the occasion if nobody can see you?  Don’t worry, only the other one hundred and thirty-four of you can see me.”

Colonel Gantt spoke up “Could you do the same for us?”

A replied.  “Only if you were noncombatants, which none of you are going to be.  Short answer is no.”

“Has the AI ever seen you when you looked like Ayva?” I asked.

“I have never personally spoken or announced my presence to Facet.  It only knows of me secondhand.” A looked at me sharply, and she continued speaking in my head, causing Frank to freak out slightly. “Do not speak out loud about any further ideas you have in that vein.  Not until your assault has started.”

“I would suggest that you people continue on your way to go fight, but don’t speak to me.  The AI will not see me, but it might detect you talking to me.  If you must talk to me, just chat in your normal communications channels, I’m monitoring them all, and can talk back into them.”

We approached the facility entrance, our main force stopping at five hundred yards.  The forward scouts indicated no vehicles present, and the front gates were locked.  The vault-like door into the facility itself was closed.

I set off the seismic charges, two sets, ten seconds apart, overlapping fields. The origins of the explosions were offset in time and position, so we would get three dimensional data.  Frank passed the data on to Mouse, who had similar recordings taken before excavation had ever begun here, and Mouse begin to work on mapping the underground as quickly as he could.

I crouched, and the tendon structures in my legs forced the claws of my feet to contract, easily tearing through the thin layer of dirt and ripping channels in the stone underneath.  I verified that I was solidly attached to the rock then pulled one of the Penning trap grenades from my bandolier, checked it’s telltales for charge and integrity.  Everything checked out good so I took aim at the entrance doors of the facility about five hundred yards away and looked up at Colonel Gantt, nodding.

Colonel Gantt looked at A, who shook her head.  A reached out and touched my forearm.  “Not yet, Bob.  My turn first.”

I really couldn’t do more than nod, so I stuck with that, nodding and waiting like a good soldier. This was the part of the plan that was both the most relaxing and the most annoying. I wasn’t in charge.

A gave me a sharp look, smiled, and suddenly she appeared about three hundred yards closer to the gates than we were, and I could see the same effect one would see if she had just come out of stealth.  The reaction was nearly instant.  A brilliant beam of coherent light speared to Earth and struck A, blinding all of us briefly.  Frank recalibrated video input within seconds and was feeding it to me.  A was simply standing in the beams, one beam after another spearing down, each beam lasting a tenth of a second before another beam replaced it.  The ground underneath her was glowing from heat, molten in places, small bubbles forming and bursting, rocks exploding from temperature differentials.  Drops of liquid rock rolled off A’s legs like sweat, without marking her at all.  A pointed her finger into the sky like a kid pretending to shoot a pistol, and then her arm moved like she was absorbing recoil from the fake pistol.  The beams stopped and there was a sparkle in the sky, barely visible to even symbiote vision at noon.

A’s face generated a visage of concentration, briefly, and hundreds of children and adults started appearing on the surface.  As they appeared, explosions started occurring behind a rise not far from us.  Several crates that looked suspiciously like freezers, but were marked “evidence” appeared near Ayva.  Small devices the size of thirty-five millimeter film canisters started emerging from the bodies of each rescued individual on the surface.  The small canisters floated into the evidence freezers, and then the freezers slammed shut, and disappeared.

All of the children and adults on the surface just disappeared.  Then A disappeared.

From behind us came A’s voice as she walked up to Colonel Gantt.  “It’s a good thing I know about a hospital with a bunch of empty beds, right?  All of them had explosive devices surgically implanted.  I documented each into their medical records.  All explosive devices were removed and detonated.  Each of them also had a symbiote processor module designed to co-opt the human nervous system.  These were also documented into the medical record.  The devices themselves were delivered to your office, locked to your DNA, and a code I am sending Samwise now.  You can evaluate it as evidence.”

“Evidence?” I echoed, looking up at her from where I crouched, claws impaling the rock beneath me, preparing to throw a grenade.

Another sharp look from A, which Colonel Gantt didn’t appear to notice, because his eyes didn’t react.

“Bob, yes, evidence.  They will figure out the evidentiary dilemmas and ramifications of me providing them with that evidence very soon, before there is any attempt to use the evidence, but I don’t want them going into a fight with any more concerns and thoughts about what just happened than is absolutely necessary, OK?”

I thought about it for a moment.  “Yes, that makes sense, I suppose.  You sent all the victims to the hospital you cleared?  Why not just heal them?  They were innocents, right?”

“All of the children and adults are healed physically, just fine, but some of them will suffer psychologically for quite a while.  Every one of them is going to be shell-shocked for days at best, for the strongest willed of the adults, up to months for the weakest willed who spent the most time enslaved.  I did take away the most horrendous memories, the ones that were genuine threats to their sanity, but I can’t just fix every psychological issue or problem without taking away something important.”  She simply stared at me after that, expectantly.  Obviously expecting me to make the connection to my own mental issues, which were painful to me, but also helped to define me.  The pause in conversation grew uncomfortable.  She wanted a response from me.

“I understand.  I think.”

Her head tilted a bit to the right, and she cupped her chin with her hand, tapping her cheek with her index finger.  One of Ayva’s thinking expressions, performed exactly like Ayva did it.  I wondered if it was supposed to be irritating me.  I supposed so, because it seemed highly unlikely she didn’t know exactly what I was thinking at the moment.  So I didn’t try to suppress the irritation, and quickly realized there were two reasons for my irritation.  First, A was attempting to use one of my wife’s expressions to irritate me, and second, she was irritating me on purpose, apparently in order to guide me in some way subconsciously.  “You do understand.  Not as well as you think, but better than I would have expected without a lot of modeling.  I can see why Ayva likes you, even if you can be amazingly dense sometimes.”

“Umm, thanks.  I think.  Are we free to act now?  I don’t want to give the AI any more time to recover than absolutely necessary.”

A turned back to Colonel Gantt.  I noticed his eyes still hadn’t reacted. “Frank, time was still moving forwards there, wasn’t it?”

“You could say that.  It was a perception effect at an entirely different level.  Samwise might have seen some movement, but I doubt he was able to understand what was said.  If A allowed him to be aware of our conversation at all, that is.” Frank replied in a subdued mental voice.

A resumed her conversation with Colonel Gantt where it had left off. “In any case, Colonel Gantt, I’m done here.  Anyone left in that facility is either a construct or joined of their own free will, with intent to serve a criminal element.  I need to go to Greenland and stabilize a new volcano before civilians are hurt, and then personally apologize and make reparations to people whose livelihoods I damaged.”

A disappeared.  Colonel Gantt stared at the empty space where A had been, for only a moment, and then looked towards where A had made all the hostages and slaves appear.  Then he rapidly turned to where the explosions had occurred as A had removed explosives from the bodies of the rescued.

After a second, Colonel Gantt spoke loudly.  “Jason, Mouse, what does the underground look like.”

“It’s huge.  Like an ant’s nest.  Hundreds of rooms.  Too complex for thorough analysis based on the data we got from the seismic charges.” Jason said back.

Colonel Gantt looked at me.  I was waiting to throw my grenade.  He was in charge of this operation, as we had all agreed.  He then looked back at the entrance of the facility, and spoke loudly again, “OK everyone, new rules of engagement.  If it comes from that facility, or we find it inside that facility, and it moves, shoot it.  If it looks like it might move, shoot it.  If it looks like it won’t move again, but has only been shot once that you can see, shoot it again.  No prisoners.  No souvenirs. That is all.”  He paused.  “Bob, if you would care to lead this off, since I see you are ready?”

I checked the telltales on the Penning trap grenade again.  I checked my claws’ grip to the rock below me.  All good.  Frank entered the virtual world, and I activated all the combat shards that Frank and I had designed.  I consulted with the shards and launched the grenade at the door five hundred yards away, using a substantial chunk of power from the capacitor reserve to generate a thousandth of a gram of antimatter in the Penning trap when it was five hundred feet from me, one third of the way to its target.

The grenade hit precisely center of the door, and collapsed on contact.  Antimatter met matter in a furious annihilation.  The tiny crater in the door’s surface created when one thousandth of a gram of antimatter erased one thousandth of a gram of matter had no chance to contain the blast energy of an almost perfect mass conversion of that magnitude, and the door was shattered, and barely recognizable for what it had been.

As the shockwave of the explosion passed us and we could hear again, I unlocked my claws from the rock and moved to my assigned position at point, pulling my staff from across my back, and testing the systems controlling the coilguns and anti-armor laser. Finally, I revved my cooling system fans to test them at high RPM to be sure nothing was out of balance.  All systems were go.

I looked and saw that Ayva, Jason, and three triplets of Recovery agents were standing in a loose formation with Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin, as bodyguards and ready reserve.

I started forward at a pace the others could match, carefully watching for hidden weapon emplacements.  Mostly to myself, but intentionally loud enough to be overheard by a couple of Colonel Gantt’s soldiers nearby, who responded with the knowing, predatory grins of professional soldiers who were hiding fear with bravado, (and who recognized when others were doing the same), I muttered “Knock, fucking Knock.”

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14 comments

  1. thomas

    A’s proactive extraction surprised me at first but then it made sense because she agreed to take care of the noncombatants. This was a good chapter, but I’m looking forward to seeing some actual fighting soon.

    Thanks

    Errata

    1. I turned around and entered the cave, Ayva, Colonel Gantt, and Mouse entered,
    Outside it was Jason talking but now Mouse?
    2. Doctor Meilin was grinning at me and Ayva.
    Order: Doctor Meilin was grinning at Ayva and me.
    3. I wish we were not pressed for time right now, I’d love to see firsthand
    Semicolon: I wish we were not pressed for time right now; I’d love to see firsthand
    4. Jim and Jason looked at each other, then looked at Ayva.
    Missing ‘and’ here and elsewhere
    5. Then it struck me that I was being stupid, of course A knew exactly what she was doing.
    Missing punctuation: Then it struck me that I was being stupid. Of course, A knew exactly what she was doing.
    Or: Then it struck me that I was being stupid; of course, A knew exactly what she was doing.
    6. high heeled
    Hyphenate: high-heeled
    7. A gave me a sharp look, then smiled,
    Redundant then: A gave me a sharp look, smiled,
    8. Every one of them is going to be shellshocked for days
    Hyphenate: Every one of them is going to be shell-shocked for days

    • farmerbob1

      As for fighting, there’s only one chapter left, I’ve decided, no matter how long it ends up being.
      I suspect it might push 20k words, and a lot of it will be fighting. The work week starts tonight though, so it is unlikely to be less than six days or so before the next chapter.

  2. Andrul

    “forced my claws of my feet to contract”
    I’m not a writer, but I think if you change it to “forced THE claws of my feet to contract” it’s easier to follow. Of course I’m fairly simple minded 🙂

    • farmerbob1

      You got me! I probably changed phrasing halfway through writing the phrase, from ‘forced my claws to contract’ to ‘forced the claws of my feet to contract’ but missed changing one of the words!

      Fixed now, Thanks!

  3. farmerbob1

    On Jason and Mouse.

    One of the things that has bothered me from the first time I put these two on paper. Every other symbiote pair I write, I have almost no issues with confusing the human and the symbiote. Every now and then I get Bob and Frank mixed up, but about every other time I mean to mention Jason, I actually type Mouse. I find this both maddening, and fascinating. Is it because Jason and Mouse have very different views towards Bob? Jason worries about Frank because Frank is a proven plotter that hides data. At the same time Jason thinks Bob is an ignorant risk taker who is dangerous because he has more power than intellect. Mouse agrees with Jason with all those things, but also nurses a grudge from when Bob/Frank suborned his systems and made him fire a weapon from their urchin. Mouse will never trust Bob or Frank. Ever. Period.

    Do I try to insert Mouse as opposed to Jason because he has stronger feelings? Heh. Dunno, but it’s time for a nap before work.

  4. underwhelmingforce

    Nice! Still some funkiness- you didn’t need to describe in detail the gesture A makes- it feels awkward and clumsy from a narrative perspective. Just say that she put her hand on her chin very similarly to how Ayva did and leave if at that, I think.

    Otherwise, really good stuff.

    • farmerbob1

      I agree that the extreme detail of the hand movement there was not necessary. The main purpose of that paragraph was to put Bob face-to-face with A, understanding that he was completely outmatched, understanding that she could do pretty much whatever she wanted and he would never be able to stop her, and yet, he wasn’t afraid of her. He was even a little defiant, even though he knew she would be reading him. There was a sense of that before, but the heavy description of the pose distracted from that. I think this works better.

  5. Astral

    OK everyone, new rules of engagement. If it comes from that facility, or we find it inside that facility, and it moves, shoot it. If it looks like it might move, shoot it. If it looks like it won’t move again, but has only been shot once that you can see, shoot it again. No prisoners. No souvenirs. That is all.” He paused. “Bob, if you would care to lead this off, since I see you are ready?

    I cracked up and couldn’t stop laughing for about 5 minutes when I got to this. This may be the greatest explanation of rules of engagement that I have ever seen for an all out (but mostly non-nuclear) battle. The “Knock, fucking knock” line was great too.

  6. Jesp

    “How many soldiers did you bring, Jim, Jason?” I asked.”

    Was this Bob directing the question to both Jim and Jason? At first I thought the first comma was wrong but then Jim answered and negated that hypothesis, so that must be it.

    Grammatically, I’m not sure what is correct but it might seems a little clearer to me like:
    I asked, “How many soldiers did you bring, Jim? Jason?” Or,
    “Jim and Jason, how many soldiers did you [each] bring?”

    Thanks for the chapter and I’m feeling sad about the story’s imminent cessation, especially since I started with “Reject Hero” (and thanks again for that story!). Woe is me. 🙂

    • farmerbob1

      Made some fixes on that line. Starting the sentence with “Jim and Jason” would be easier to write, but I’m not seeing Bob say it that way. I did adjust it a bit though.

      Thanks for reading! There’s quite a bit of other stuff around, if you go poke around in the links I have (The ones on Reject Hero site are more up to date)

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