As I moved forward, I created hundreds of carbon fiber sparrow constructs and a few construct duplicate selves while Frank fed me torrents of power from the virtual world into the body’s superconducting capacitors. I copied Frank’s tactical shards into the processor nodes of the alternate selves. I made the sparrows slightly larger to accommodate small Penning traps, these traps were much smaller than the ones in my grenades. Empty, of course. But ready for instant use.
There had been six hundred and eleven enslaved humans in that facility. Mouse said the place had hundreds of rooms, like an ant colony. From my own experience, I knew the power of many small combatants. The AI would certainly have learned that, either from watching the successes I enjoyed with constructs as part of the AI learning what it could about me, or from simply connecting the dots like I did. I was expecting small combatant constructs in the thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps more. I needed to even the odds.
One of the things that both Frank and I agreed on with zero dissention between us; threat analysis was everything in this fight. We were assaulting an entrenched position; the enemy was competent, capable, intelligent, and prepared. We didn’t know how many Facets would be present, or how individually or collectively powerful they might be.
A and B seemed to feel that we were capable of at least driving them out of the facility though. Why else risk us like this? I hadn’t gotten the feeling that this was only a game to them, or worse yet, a game between them. I shook my head. Beyond my ability to discern. Down that path was madness.
My mouth twitched with humor as I looked down and saw one of my sparrows following instructions from a Frank shard, carefully arranging itself into the cup of my staff’s sling, gripping with carbon fiber claws and beak to firmly hold itself in position. I paused in my creation of alternate selves and sparrows, briefly.
On my left leg’s next extension, I enabled the molecular blades at the edges of its claws. Those enhanced claws bit deep when they struck through the thin dirt, cutting into stone underneath. As the three front left claws bit into the rock, I used the stability of that rock to anchor me, and whipped my staff forward. The sparrow left the sling of my staff at roughly twice the speed of sound. Too fast, and it wouldn’t be able to steer itself at all.
I established a tight beam connection to the speeding bird construct and made tiny, last minute adjustments to its programming, and then, while I waited for it to reach the cave, I gave my four construct selves a careful once-over. Frank’s shards were functioning properly within them. The organic bits matched my own, and the energy signature was the same. My masking matched their masking. It wouldn’t do for the AI to be able to read quantum processor states and be able to see the difference between myself and the others at a glance. It might be able to discern the difference, but I made sure it wouldn’t be trivial.
I created a few dozen more sparrows very rapidly, and then turned my attention back to the sparrow racing towards the cave entrance. It had extended its wings and begun some evasive maneuvers, slowing dramatically, but it was still supersonic as it exploded in a shower of carbon fiber bits. Its sensors had given me enough data to pinpoint where the first hypervelocity weapon emplacements were located. Time for that in a moment. I had seen something important that needed to be shared.
Colonel Gantt’s soldiers were arranged around me. They were the least advanced symbiote fighters here, and I had wanted them close to me so I could offer them support. I had already made adjustments to a few of their pieces of equipment that were clearly error prone. While I was doing that, I saw that the soldiers were paired. Each pair was connected by a very thin series of cables as they ran in tandem, their movements choreographed to an impressive degree. At first glance, it seemed too impressive, really, they shouldn’t have had the capacity to react to one another that accurately. I looked at their processor activity and almost tripped over my own feet when I saw what they had done. Each pair of bodies was being controlled by a single symbiote. When I looked to the brains of the bodies, I saw what I was expecting. Only one mind was highly active. Each soldier pair had one symbiote and one human, from alternate bodies, in control of actions, while the other two were in the virtual world, providing power for their armor, enhancements, and weapons.
I wanted to shout at Frank and ask him how in the hell Ayva and I had missed this idea, but he was in the virtual world, so I made a note to do it later. What they were doing was very similar to what I already did with my body constructs, but more brilliant. I looked at the node and drone arrangements of the Recovery agents, and wondered if they would be able to take advantage of the improvement on the fly.
First things first though, I assigned several sparrows to each human body. “Everyone will have a couple companion sparrows, folks.” I broadcast through the birds’ speaker systems. “If you start getting jammed with electromagnetics, they can operate as extremely high frequency audio transmitters, or tight beam radio, allowing more communications options. They might suicide themselves every now and then to block an attack from hitting you. That’s why you have more than one each. If you can think of an alternate use, or a way to improve the sparrows, pass the information to me, please. You have local control. I can override them, but will only do so for ‘Oh Shit’ moments.”
I could feel symbiotes establishing connections to sparrows, and experimenting with their communications capabilities, exploring their physical capabilities. The little birds were spreading their wings to create radio dishes or audio parabolas while rapidly hopping around from place to place on the shoulders of the humans to create connections with others. It wasn’t as fast as cabled connections by any means, it wasn’t even as fast as unenhanced symbiote communications. They were a lot more versatile though. In a worst-case scenario, where there was both electromagnetic and audio interference, they could fly from place to place, and communicate securely that way. They could also block a bullet or a laser, or act as a disposable scout.
One of the birds on Colonel Gantt passed a message to one of my birds, first using tight beam radio, and then the message was duplicated at ultrahigh frequency audio. “Bob, why didn’t you mention this in planning?”
I passed a message back across a secure channel. “Sorry, Colonel, I just thought of it after I saw what your soldier pairs were doing. That’s brilliant, by the way. Whose idea was it? I need to congratulate them.”
“It was Mouse’s idea, Bob. Jason told us about it but took no credit for it. We brainstormed and made it better, but the concept idea came from Mouse post-mission, when he and Jason were in debrief lockdown.” Colonel Gantt responded.
“Oh. Hmm. Thank him for me, will you? I was worried about your soldiers a lot more before I noticed what they were doing.” I knew it sounded lame that I had just offered to congratulate the idea generator, and then reversed myself to ask someone else to do it, when it turned out the idea came from Mouse. “Scratch that, I’ll thank him myself.”
“You can’t right now, Jason’s got control. I imagine you’d rather ask Jason to thank him than do it yourself, anyway.” His dry humor came across the connection quite nicely. Mouse’s dislike for Frank and I was not exactly a secret. It was mutual. Neither of us had a real problem with Jason. It was complex.
We had closed to within three hundred yards of the facility by this time. I generated a connection to Doctor Meilin through normal high bandwidth channels, and transmitted an analysis of what the soldiers near me were doing to her. I asked that she pass the data to Ayva for me. I needed to take out the hypervelocity weapons emplacements inside the shattered main entrance before our people came into line of sight with them. Doctor Meilin acknowledged the transmission.
I suspected Recovery would use it. Ayva and I could potentially use it as well. Jason and Colonel Gantt probably wouldn’t be able to, unless they had spent time training with it with each other. Ayva and Doctor Meilin could conceivably use the idea as well, though I suspected that Doctor Meilin and Karen would be less than thrilled to turn over control of the Recovery cadre to Ayva or Danielle. A quick glance showed that I was right about at least one thing I had guessed. Doctor Meilin wasn’t in the virtual world, based on brain activity, nor was Karen, based on processor activity patterns. Ayva was in command of her body, with Danielle in the virtual world.
All five of me loaded up sparrows into our staves, and, acting with precise coordination, we launched five sparrows. After launch, I removed their Penning trap components, replacing those components with a small, lightly armored, carefully shaped container of fluoroantimonic acid, which in turn, contained a smaller, carefully shaped shell of conventional C4 explosive charge. Everything in contact with the acid was coated with Teflon, of course, or the acid would have started reacting. It was the most potent acid I knew of, and I hoped this worked.
The five sparrows had left our staves with startlingly loud cracks, again at nearly twice the speed of sound, and then unfurled their wings. This time I knew where two hypervelocity emplacements were, and calculated approach paths to bring the birds as close as possible to the emplacements before they popped into view on their attack runs.
As expected, the birds were being tracked on their approach by some passive sensors that I hadn’t detected yet. The first two were annihilated instantly by hypervelocity needles when they popped up into their attack run, but the third and fourth that had popped up were not. Birds three and four detonated their charges, and a tight cone of acid sprayed past the hypervelocity needles that struck out uselessly at where they had been. The fifth sparrow speared past the shattered door, madly evading as it transmitted data back to me. I saw that the acid was at work, fumes surrounding the two defensive emplacements. There was nothing else immediately visible. The two weapons were tracking on the fifth bird, but the degradation of their sensors was made apparent by the fact that they missed.
As expected based on Jason and Mouse’s debrief on the site’s construction, the entry made a dogleg left, fifteen yards into the facility. The sparrow, despite how agile it was, could not navigate that turn at slightly more than the speed of sound. As it hurtled down the short passage, the bird oriented it’s sensors to face in the direction that it would never survive to travel. As the fifth construct bird cleared the corner, it transmitted what it saw to me as it detonated its charge blindly down the passage, the spray of acid expanding away from the explosion while at the same time sweeping left to right across the passage. I didn’t expect to damage any weapon emplacements this way, but the fine mist of acid had a very good chance of degrading stealth surfaces. The first dogleg would be a very good place for combatants to pre-deploy, partially protected from direct fire.
As planned, on a command from Colonel Gantt, each of his ten soldiers launched a drone shot out the vertical tube on their back. The ten small drones were the same chassis and propulsion system as when I’d first seen the technology used by press gangers, but these models were exclusively for recon, and they immediately disappeared from all my modes of detection other than gravity, and sound. They were quiet, but not completely quiet. It was my job to make noise for them.
We stopped to either side of the entrance of the facility. The command group and I stayed right, otherwise the groups split nearly in two. The soldiers, their drones, and the Recovery members scoured the surface of the rock, seeking sensors, and finding some. Certainly not all, but Doctor Meilin had requested a quick stop so she could implement a couple changes.
She was adopting the soldier’s idea in the middle of the operation. Even knowing that she might, I was a little surprised to see it.
Colonel Gantt was upset. “Doctor, your people aren’t used to fighting like this. Mine at least had a couple days under the perception effect to train with it.”
Doctor Meilin answered calmly. “My people have been working as teams for a very long time now, some of them for years. This is not terribly different for us. It’s a very good idea, and Mouse is to be strongly complimented when you get the chance, Jason.”
Jason nodded, but watched the Recovery agents closely as Doctor Meilin concentrated.
I also watched the Recovery node and drone triplets. Every drone had been controlled by a symbiote before, and that didn’t change. Each node had been controlled by a symbiote as well, making Doctor Meilin the only human mind in the entire Recovery combat group. But now that changed. The nodes were swapping from symbiote to human control, and the drones and nodes were establishing slightly different connections, apparently allowing more two-way communications from the drones to the nodes.
Doctor Meilin’s face relaxed a little. “There. Now I can devote a little more attention to what is happening around me in this body, as opposed to having to watch so closely over all the symbiotes. They can get a bit, ah, energetic, if they feel threatened, and working together is not really in their nature. With the drone symbiotes helping to control the node bodies and protect them from harm, the node human minds can help me keep an eye on the symbiotes. Hans and Franz, standing over Doctor Meilin like twin miniature mountains simply nodded. Their bodies were being controlled by their symbiotes, who, in turn, were listening to Doctor Meilin. I looked closer. These two were not connected the same way that the other node and drone triplets were. Hans and Franz each apparently kept a substantial portion of their processing power for their own independent use. I chalked up another good decision to Doctor Meilin as I recognized that her drone pair was intentionally allowed to act counter to, or at least outside of, her wishes, probably because she was a very public figure and they were bodyguards for her as much as they were her drone pair.
I traced out what Doctor Meilin had done, and noted that the symbiotes in the drones were heavily utilizing the sparrows for extra communication channels as well as different angles of vision. I spent about thirty seconds making another cloud of sparrows. There were several thousand of the tiny construct birds around us now, about five hundred assigned to individuals other than myself, roughly four per person for everyone else, and a few thousand for me. I carefully kept the sparrows that were not in use flying over our heads in a bunch of small flocks so they would not hinder our combat sightlines.
Ayva finished talking with Doctor Meilin, and then reached over and touched me on the shoulder. I had intentionally blocked out their conversation, since they seemed to be arguing a bit. When I turned around to face her, I was rewarded with a brief kiss.
“I’m going to switch with Danielle, and allow Danielle to plug herself into Doctor Meilin’s network. We won’t be directly connected in the same way the other Recovery agents are, because we’ve never trained that way before, but Danielle can process and pass targeting and threat analysis data to Karen as if we were just an independent sensor network. I’d like to ask for a couple hundred sparrows for Danielle to use, please.”
It made me a bit nervous to have Ayva and Danielle subservient to Doctor Meilin, who for all intents and purposes was many times less capable in combat, but it made some sense. The Recovery cadre was a very capable combat group. They trained professional soldiers for a living. What they lacked in power compared to Ayva and me, they partly made up for in experience and synergy. Improving their capabilities with minimal cost to Ayva’s survivability would be a good idea. “Danielle will be able to act independently at need?”
Ayva turned a little to look at Doctor Meilin, who grinned back at her. “She said you would ask that. Danielle will still be working with Jason to bodyguard the command group. She will just be sharing what she knows with Doctor Meilin and Karen on a dedicated channel, always on.”
“Good idea then.” I spoke as I leaned forward to give her another kiss. “How long for you two to integrate?”
“[Already done, Bob, Karen and I are synched.]” Ayva’s voice replied, with the slightly different intonation that indicated Danielle was speaking.
Going into a firefight with your wife by your side is not exactly the most relaxing thing. That might be one of the biggest understatements I’d considered saying recently. I noticed Colonel Gantt and Jason watching me intently, but ignored them. “Let’s try to bring everyone home safely, alright?”
I reached out my hand to Ayva and she took it. I turned to see how the others were doing finding the passive sensors. They were confident they had found them all. I looked at what they had found, and where they had found them, and the data looked good. Then I looked again at where the sensors had been located, and I saw one regrow suddenly, the hair thin fiber optic cable flashing into existence inside the conduit with a barely noticeable flash of energy, mostly contained and grounded by the conduit. The sensor was carefully pushed towards the end of the conduit by tiny actuators, not far enough to be visible, but close enough to the end of the conduit to collect some data.
Over the network of sparrows, I announced, “I’ve just confirmed, with a very high degree of confidence, that there’s at least one AI in there, and it can reprogram matter. One of the passive sensor runs was just recreated with remote matter reprogramming.”
I detected two large flares of energy, much more significant, each of them a few feet under the rock face that the entrance tunnel was dug into. One on one side of the tunnel where half of us were, the other on the other side, where the rest were. All of us felt it, and we all recognized immediately that it was some sort of attack, leaping away from the surface with varying degrees of success as two huge explosive charges created craters in the rock face where we had been.
Everyone survived the explosion, some with injuries of various seriousness that almost immediately disappeared. A couple individuals were temporarily trapped under larger pieces of rock, but were quickly freed.
There was no time to prepare any sort of coherent defense plan against the three pronged assault, especially after we had been buffeted and disorganized by the explosions. Thousands of roughly foot-long insect-like mechanical constructs started flying and running out of the two newly blasted holes and the original tunnel. Immediately following the appearance of the first small constructs, several large mechanical constructs emerged from the original tunnel as well, shouldering aside the fragments of the demolished vault-like door with prodigious strength.