Everyone moved out of the Buckyball mess, carefully cleaning themselves off. My best guess on the number of enemy construct units destroyed in the first engagement was around eight thousand, roughly five thousand of them had been flyers and around three thousand crawlers. Most of them were of the flying cockroach and the crawling mantis varieties. I wanted to go find a mostly intact mantis type unit and let one of the construct selves deconstruct it, but Frank’s primary shard convinced me otherwise. We had been told that Jason and Mouse had already prepared a biofactory for use in disposing of enemy inorganic units. I would, maybe, speak to Jason about adding more advanced analysis equipment to the biofactories doing cleanup in exchange for a copy of the results, and/or see if he would try to preserve a few of the best preserved of different models for me. This would likely mean dealing with Mouse, but perhaps only indirectly.
I overheard Colonel Gantt saying something that immediately got my attention. “…it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” Then a little later. “Yes, I understand that after one nuclear detonation on US soil, John Q. Public would go apeshit, and the politicians would have a field day if we irradiated a substantial chunk of California’s wine growing region.”
I looked at the three gaping holes in the mountain. The one in the middle was a man-made entrance, with a wrecked armored door that had been brushed aside. On either side of the man-made entrance was a cave entrance created by explosions. I understood exactly where Colonel Gantt was coming from. We had been attacked by a mob of mining robots, and while we decisively won the engagement, Facet had demonstrated tactics that would potentially have won them the fight if we hadn’t already considered the possibility of quant damage. It was certain that there were more capable combatant constructs inside the entrances, close enough to have emerged if our leadership had been locked out of the virtual world. We had already seen a few of them, the snipers that had fired at us, for example.
I turned to where the shattered remains of the sniper constructs had been. There wasn’t much left of them after center mass antimatter detonations of sufficient magnitude to turn them into confetti, but they had clearly been made of more advanced materials. I could tell that much just from spectrographic analysis at thirty feet, which was as close as the Frank shards would allow us to get to them without need.
It was a smart bet that Facet was going to continue to operate at or above the same tactical level with their real combat units, indoors, as they had just demonstrated using non-combat units outdoors. When we moved into that underground complex, it was going to get ugly.
As I looked around, considering how we had just performed, I was not confident we had the forces to clear this complex. My fingers twitched a bit. This was one problem I would prefer to resolve by application of liberal doses of antimatter. But I could only generate small bits of antimatter at a time, and the size of the complex was huge. It would take days of generating antimatter to scour out a crater the volume of this complex. In that time, we would certainly be accosted by the locals and the state and federal government. We had some measure of sanction to be here, since Colonel Gantt was here, but I didn’t know how ‘official’ those orders had been. Gantt’s soldiers had been volunteers, after all. The military doesn’t typically do ‘volunteer’ work for legitimate, documented missions. I wished some of the others were proficient enough with matter reprogramming to be helpful in demolition, but only Ayva, and perhaps Jason, had symbiotes advanced enough to generate antimatter at all, and it would be very tiny amounts at very short ranges.
I detected a radio pulse out of Jason, and a few seconds later, I heard a diesel engine snort and clatter to life. I sent a few sparrows to investigate while I considered how to recon the next assault. The sparrows had worked very well, but could be improved. I chatted with the primary Frank shard, asked him about a couple possibilities, and ended up delegating half a dozen different shards to solving miniaturization issues.
In the meantime, I saw what was coming. A flatbed trailer hauled by a semi. On the trailer was a biofactory that, based on visible density and volume, as well as the movement of the trailer and the truck, weighed over thirty tons. It was roughly carrot shaped with no legs. There were, however, extensions at the edges of light, flexible plates that defined body segments; those would give it traction beyond simple friction. The mouth was at the more massive end of the body, which was slightly flattened, something like a catfish head. The biofactory would move by a combination of bodily undulation and arching, much like an inchworm. Lifting itself off the ground would not be easy, it would probably only do so at need. It was the largest biofactory I had ever seen, other than A and B, which didn’t count, because they really hadn’t been biofactories at all.
A lot of people turned around to look at the truck with the biofactory on it. I turned around, and made a point of looking back at the cave entrances, just to drive home the point to the ones that were paying attention that we needed to be sure that nothing snuck out while others were gawking. Frank’s helmet let me see in all directions at once anyway. Ayva could do the same, and possibly Jason as well, I hadn’t asked, or noticed. The rest would likely be capable of it, but probably would not have actually implemented it yet.
Ayva said, “Jason, did you bring that thing all the way from South Dakota?”
Jason shrugged. “Colonel Gantt was able to arrange transport without a lot of trouble. I had stayed behind to help the firefighters with it rather than just let it degrade there. After Colonel Gantt called me and we met in the virtual world to discuss this mission, I didn’t know how much biological material or time I would have when I got here.” He paused. “You want to take a look at this thing and see if there are any improvements before I start having it clean up these construct bugs?” I checked to see if Jason was talking to me or Ayva. Ayva. Worked fine for me. Checking on the biofactory would almost certainly also entail some measure of communicating with Mouse. Ayva would ask me for help if she thought it necessary. I really didn’t want to deal with Mouse any more than necessary before we were done here today.
Colonel Gantt just looked at me, looked at Jason, snorted, and started yelling at his soldiers to watch the pile of bugs and keep shooting the ones that were repairing themselves. He also asked Doctor Meilin to please pay more attention to the cave entrances, and less to the biofactory.
Ayva and Jason huddled for a short while, and then I felt the energy fluctuations they generated while making adjustments to the biofactory. It didn’t take long after that for the biofactory to move up to the Buckyball slick, and start tearing up the ground down to rock, absorbing all the organic matter to partially fund its energy budget as it separated the Buckyballs and stored them. Trying to actually break them down would be way too energy intensive for the biofactory to handle without a lot of help from Jason.
It didn’t take long for Jason’s biofactory to clear up the Buckyball slick, except for the bit under and around the bug constructs. Then it started to consume the enemy constructs. Most of them were completely nonfunctional, but a large number were still attempting self-repair by disassembling neighbors and cannibalizing parts. The soldiers had been shooting any they saw moving, but there were deep piles in many places.
The biofactory was still a worm-like shape, bigger at the mouth end. When the biofactory started consuming the constructs, rather than the soil, it changed how it was feeding. To clean up the Buckyballs, it simply dug the lower half of its mouth into the ground and matched the contours of the rock surface below the soil to scoop up all the dirt. When it started consuming the constructs, it did the same thing to clean the Buckyballs out of the soil under the construct bugs, but it also used its multiple ton tongue to prevent any of the more mobile constructs from escaping. The biofactory’s tongue worked like an absurdly massive cast net when the biofactory threw it forward, hitting the ground with a solid thump, covering large piles of constructs. The biofactory then carefully adjusted the prehensile edges of the tongue for perfect coverage of the ground. After being certain to leave no way for constructs to escape, it would slowly constrict the tongue and drag the covered piles of constructs back into its mouth. Large numbers of enemy units that had completely rebuilt themselves at the bottoms of the larger piles attempted to flee when disturbed, but the biofactory caught them all. After the first tongue-casting by the biofactory, collecting several hundred constructs, there was no behavior change in the constructs hiding under the piles. Facet was apparently no longer in communication with them, or at the very least had written them off. At the very least, it should have been trying to cause the bugs to retreat like the others had, saving as many as possible. Some might have gotten away if they had coordinated and used the disabled units as cover.
I also watched the biofactory very, very carefully. Facet was supposed to be able to control symbiote processors if they were not being controlled by their native symbiote intelligence. I was not entirely sure how biofactories might fit into that equation. Imprisoned symbiotes were apparently fair game to it. I checked with Ayva and verified that the four of them had thought about that. The biofactory had half a dozen different triggers built into it to cause it to degrade if Jason lost control of it.
I popped up into the virtual world, and asked Frank to come back so we could consult with leadership by wire, while still being ready to react to Facet if they attacked. The birds weren’t secure enough. Ayva, Colonel Gantt, Doctor Meilin, Jason, and I all worked with our respective symbiotes briefly, creating shielded cabling to connect to one another, and then initiating another meeting to figure out where to go from here.
I had a strong feeling we were being played again. I let Frank review all the data I had collected from the sparrow network as well as from my construct selves while the rest were still setting up security and plugging in.
When Colonel Gantt and Samwise connected, I started speaking. “All symbiotes, please be careful to disallow biological reactions to this conversation. Mask your thoughts, and mask your host’s expressions to be no more than normal, serious, conversational expressions. Colonel Gantt, I can’t shake the sensation that Facet wants us to go into that cave complex. They have had too long to prepare, they have shown themselves to be relatively weak, but just clever enough to not be suspicious. I don’t think we can enter that complex and survive.”
Colonel Gantt paused a moment. I could see Samwise redlining, but everyone else’s symbiotes were redlining as well, even Frank. He was finishing the new sparrow designs, and a few new body modifications as well, based on the very brief conversation we had had.
Ayva was looking at me with a placid, interested expression that didn’t match what I saw in her eyes. I knew she had caught the ‘we’ but she would wait to see if the others had. She might even be communicating with the others in channels I wasn’t connected on. I could certainly see evidence of data passing from her back and forth to Doctor Meilin.
Mouse, of course, challenged me immediately. “[We can’t enter the facility and survive, as in all of us. Since all of us can’t do it, we’ll send one gung-ho badass with a stick, right? Didn’t we see that movie a few days ago when you played chicken with a nuke?]”
I bit back my first response, because no matter how much I didn’t like him, he had a point. The rest wanted to hear my response to it too, and a petulant rant certainly wouldn’t generate a lot of confidence in my arguments. At this point, I was pretty sure that if they followed me in there, they would almost certainly all die. Even Ayva would be highly unlikely to live long if Facet had turned the place into a death trap, unless she could modify her body to be roughly equivalent to mine, which I strongly doubted she could. Danielle had not been able to make clean, accurate repairs to my body only a couple days ago. Working with one’s own body was a bit easier, so I could be wrong about their ability to self-modify into a state like mine. If I was, I’m sure I’d hear about it shortly.
I needed to bust some bubbles here. “Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin, I want you to consider this scenario. Some of your people enter a room, and enemies start attacking. The enemies are a little more advanced than what we already fought, and they don’t stop. They tie your people down into a fixed defensive position in the room. All of a sudden, the exits from the room are sealed by powerful constructs carrying massive pieces of stone with many ventilation holes in them. The stones are epoxied in place, and then a fifty foot thick plug of stone the same size as the room falls from the ceiling onto your people.” They both cringed. Colonel Gantt started communicating internally with Samwise, and Doctor Meilin with Karen.
Colonel Gantt said “I see. It makes a lot of sense too. I doubt that Mouse would survive some of the scenarios that I could personally imagine and engineer in a cave system, even without Samwise’s help, if I had the time and resources to implement them. Facet has had many months of planning time, maybe as much as a year. They also obviously have a lot more construction and industrial capacity than we ever imagined they might have. They could use simple physics and an underground environment against us. We also know they can detect our quants and fire on them effectively, from ambush. I agree that my people would not survive long underground unless Facet is a complete idiot. Quant body renewal doesn’t help when the body you are trying to restore occupies a space only an inch wide, with nowhere else to form. Human brains don’t survive such trauma either. We won’t be allowed to use nukes. I already asked.”
Doctor Meilin consulted Karen several times, briefly, and then nodded. “My people might do a little better than Colonel Gantt’s, but not much. The underground environment, the defensive position, the time and resources available to Facet. It all adds up to a meat grinder for us too.”
Jason started speaking. “We could…”
He was cut off by Mouse. “No, Jason, we couldn’t. I just gave myself one second to brainstorm, and came up with eleven different trivially difficult to create subterranean traps that could kill us. I’m making the specifications available to you now, and giving you use of half of our processing power to analyze with. You tell me which of them you think we could avoid, and how. You have eleven seconds, one second per trap. Every trap actually would reach an irreversible state within half a second, but we’ll give you twice as much time, since you will only have half my processing power.”
Fifteen seconds later, Jason spoke again. “If Mouse could come up with nine ideas we couldn’t realistically manage to defeat in one second, Facet could certainly come up with a few in a year or more. We can’t expect to survive in there, realistically.”
I turned to Ayva, who just stared at me. “Bob, I happen to know your abilities well enough to know there are ways that Facet could kill even you, underground. Oh, say, another nuke? He’s already used one.” She paused a moment. “Danielle, send Bob the other twenty-seven traps we designed that could kill him and Frank. They could all kill us too, we admit with no shame, but you aren’t going to convince me that you would be remotely safe going in there alone.”
All of the traps they sent my way were incredibly deadly. After Mouse’s example, Frank was ready for challenges from Ayva and Danielle. He was able to quickly generate twenty-three answers, sending them back to Ayva a second after Danielle sent the trap designs.
“Bob, are you serious that you two can do these things? Some of what you and Frank sent back looks farfetched even for you two. Despite your twenty-three rebuttals, most of which seem a bit far-fetched to me, there are four methods I see you had no answer for, and they aren’t very difficult to engineer.”
“Nothing is perfect. Facet is dangerous. Frank has also been considering the different ways Facet could kill us in a subterranean environment. He’s come up with four hundred and six.” Ayva winced. Danielle wasn’t supposed to allow that. “Most of them are absurdly complex, requiring Rube Goldberg levels of complexity to implement. He’s compared Mouse’s best reconstruction of the underground facilities, to his design ideas, and found places where perhaps a dozen of these highly complex methods might exist. There are twenty other complex, but doable methods which might be found underground here based on the mapping, and beyond that, half a dozen fairly simple methods, including using a nuke or antimatter. If they were going to use another nuke, they would have used it by now, on us here, as we are all grouped together in front of the facility entrance.”
The only reason the other four humans didn’t all turn to look right at the entrance, simultaneously, was because their symbiotes prevented it, because of my request at the beginning of the meeting.
Colonel Gantt looked at me. “Can you do what A did? Are you that tough? I know what satellite that was she took out. I know how powerful those lasers were. I know who they were supposed to be used on, if needed.” Damn, he was right back to trying to equate me with A and B.
His statements were an obvious goad. I responded, to see where he would go with it. I wasn’t going to leave Ayva behind if she was just going to be a target for the next satellite to come over the horizon. “Colonel Gantt, when do you think the government will stop trying to invent ways to kill me?”
“When you stop being the living personification of off-the-scale offensive warfighting capacity wrapped in the shell of an impulsive, moderately well-educated redneck with significant emotional control issues?”
Well, hell, if that’s how the military top brass and policy makers thought of me, it explained a lot. I never realized they considered me like that.
Doctor Meilin was actually nodding. Damn. That lent substantial weight to what Colonel Gantt said.
Ayva gave Doctor Meilin a sharp look, and got a tiny shrug in return.
Jason and Mouse just stared, watching me closely. Mouse was redlining his processors.
I looked back at Colonel Gantt. “Fair enough. I wish it had been explained this clearly before. I understand better now.” I paused, and answered the original question. “I can’t do what A did. B demonstrated some impressive durability in his first outing, and we all saw what A did, just standing there with the lasers on her like that. Frank thinks he knows how they manage that durability, and it’s actually easy to explain in an understandable fashion.”
“Go on?” Jason commented.
I could see the symbiotes of the others ramping up to follow what I was about to say. I chuckled, getting some strange looks, though nothing startling. From the outside, looking in without hearing the conversation, it would appear as if I’d said something stupid. The symbiotes were choreographing our physical responses to disguise our actual reactions. “It’s very simple, they are just ‘more here’ than we are.” Before they started throwing things at me, I continued. “We live in three dimensions. They live in eleven. Imagine an old-school overhead projector from a few decades ago.”
Ayva frowned, briefly, but I saw Danielle communicating with her. Probably explaining how an overhead projector worked, though I would have imagined she would have seen one at some point in her life. After a second or two, she nodded. The others looked a little confused at where I was going with the discussion, but they all made some expression indicating they were listening again.
I looked at my ‘students’ then continued. “Draw a light image on a transparency page, and then put it on the projector. A light image is projected onto the white screen. Then, draw two more of the exact same image on two more transparencies, and place them carefully on the first image. That darker image on the white screen is a good representation of humans and non-system-node symbiotes. Three transparencies for three dimensional beings.” I paused. “Now, draw eight more light images on transparencies, and place them on top of our three transparency stack. The image on the white screen is now nearly pure darkness, very solid. Eleven transparencies for eleven dimensions. That is the footprint A and B have in reality. So, when they manifest visibly to us in the world, they are simply ‘more here’ than we are, since they express their existence in eleven dimensions. We only see three of those dimensions, but that doesn’t reduce them.”
Colonel Gantt rubbed his chin. “That actually makes a lot of sense, I suppose. OK. I suspect we won’t know when Frank can duplicate it, in any case, until we see him use it.”
Frank was silent.
I stopped laughing, and spoke out loud, without thinking about it. “Frank, I will find a way to make you miserable if you manage to figure out how to make me a multidimensional being.”
Ayva, Colonel Gantt, and Doctor Meilin just stared at me. Jason twitched, and then stared.
Frank laughed in my head, and then borrowed my voice. “[Bob, we’ve already done it once. We just can’t do it here. Colonel Gantt, you will have to join us in another solar system, one without a human symbiote pair system node, to see us become multidimensional. A and B won’t let us develop in certain ways. Becoming multidimensional is one of the things they will not allow. Based on observing them, I have enough data to start experimenting to get hints on what they are actually doing, but every experiment, no matter where it’s performed, fails. Not just simple, predictable failures either, the experiments fail In a different way each time, very clearly indicating I’ve reached an artificial border to learning. I won’t say Bob and I are at the pinnacle of allowed development yet, but I’m finding lots of dead ends that should lead to advanced knowledge.]”
I thought about it for a moment. That actually was a really good lead into the next stage of this discussion.
“Frank and I can’t make ourselves ‘more here’, like A and B, but we’ve done a pretty good job of making ourselves ‘less here’ through stealth technologies and body manipulation. Frank’s come up with a few ideas on how to improve on that. He’s improved the stealth systems slightly, so they operate in every frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and they also absorb and retransmit sound energy in much the same way as they retransmit light. We still can’t manage any sort of gravity stealth, but I strongly doubt anything in that facility that’s not a Facet AI has any possibility of visibly detecting density fluctuations in the air.”
Ayva practically shouted at me across the group wired connection. “Bob, you’re an idiot. They can detect your quant. Frank doesn’t actually know how to do that.”
Frank kept me from reacting visibly to Ayva attacking me so energetically. “They detected active quants. All five of us were shot twice, both shots targeted on the active quant we had in us. Nobody was shot in inactive quants. That’s not necessarily a guarantee they can’t see inactive quants too, since we don’t know how they detect active ones. Frank and I will have to go in with no quant at all, just a topped off charge in the capacitors.”
“You have no idea how much power they might have siphoned off the virtual world, and stored, Bob.” Ayva threw right back at me.
“Not very much, and what they might have stored, they have likely spent by now. B said he tricked them into the virtual world only once, and that was it, they never returned.” I tried to sound confident. That was a really big facility, with a whole lot of room for energy storage.
Jason’s voice, with an inflection. Mouse. “[Bob, it didn’t have to be Facet drawing power to store it. Jason and I can tell you from very painful personal experience that it’s possible to make a symbiote take actions to preserve the life of its host and itself. You saw it firsthand yourself, remember? Not only that, but you might be a bit naïve here if you think what A did stopped energy transfer, if it ever existed. A took innocents out of the place. That probably took care of any symbiotes gathering power from the virtual world, but it’s possible they have symbiotes working with them willingly. A would not have lifted anyone out that was willingly working with Facet.]”
I looked Jason and Mouse in the eyes, and could only whisper a response to part of his argument. “Yeah. I remember, Mouse, and I’m afraid everyone might end up like how we found you two, if Facet isn’t stopped.”