Category: Fiction

Not a Chapter

Chapters 4.35 and 4.36 got some rewriting to address a problem I created for myself, when I tried to address the problem of how Ayva found Bob’s cave.  A cave that he had intentionally created in a difficult to find place, near enemy territory.

In essence, how Ayva found Bob’s cave has completely changed.  To me, what is written now restored some of Bob’s feeling of potential betrayal that 4.35 lost due to adjustments.  I had to go beyond Bob and Ayva to do that, but the loss of a lot of the sense of potential betrayal was more important than avoiding a tiny bit of deus ex machine from A.  4.36 carries over some of that fear of potential betrayal a bit better now, I think.

And now, I will start writing the final chapter of book 4.  Whether it’s word count is 5k, 10k, or 20k.  I hope to have it complete by this coming Tuesday.

 

Oh, also.  *poke* *poke*  A lot of you voted for me one time over on topwebfiction when I mentioned you could vote many times, but that week is now gone, and I’ve fallen back to the levels I was at before.

I do write as much for myself as I do for others, but I really do appreciate you folks telling the rest of the world that my story is something you enjoy.  I’m not putting a link here this week, but you will find one in the green button menu up top.  Don’t just vote for Symbiote though, surely you are reading something else that you enjoy!  I maintain votes for seven, personally.

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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Chapter 4.35: Forgiveness

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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?”

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Chapter 4.34: Monster vs. Monster

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I knew what Frank was going to say next, so I cut him off over the common channel we shared.  “Yes, Frank, its positive reinforcement, but they didn’t need to do it.  Creating a cookie, or even just teleporting one, is a whole lot more energy expensive than what they would need to make a few alterations to our memory.”

While I was saying this, I was wondering in my head, privately, if I was simply being reprogrammed on the fly to imagine myself eating a cookie, complete with sensory input.  I did not mention that to Frank.  I did continue to eat my cookie.  It tasted the same whether it was real or some sort of artifact, I supposed.  I saw Ayva nibbling on her cookie as well, thoughtfully.  I could smell the dark chocolate from her cookie, despite the turbulence of the air around us.

“On to other things.  I can detect cell tower signals through our skeletal antennae, so I suspect that Facet has lost track of us, as we were hoping.  Sitting at the front of this load of bricks, behind the cab of this truck, has apparently hidden us from sight well enough that they haven’t found us by investigation of the data from cameras on passing cars and trucks, but if I were them, I’d have drone assets moving to try to locate us.” I popped the last bit of cookie into my mouth. “I suggest we put the helmets back on, engage stealth again, and only communicate over the cable.”

Ayva popped the rest of her cookie into her mouth, put her helmet on, engaged her stealth system, and disappeared.  The activation of the stealth system had the appearance of a heat mirage displaying hundreds of fractal patterns, quickly fading in intensity before it was fully active.  I was able to detect her with gravity still, and watched her vague image stretch one leg out a bit, touching her heel to the metal frame of the trailer.  Soon, I started seeing an almost undetectable change in the temperature of the metal frame of the trailer as Danielle apparently configured the bottom of Ayva’s heel armor to be a grounding point for the heat energy that her stealth system was generating.  Considering the mass of the trailer, and the temperature of the air passing over it at nearly eighty miles per hour, the trailer’s heavy steel frame would absorb the waste heat from Ayva’s stealth system with almost no temperature change, meaning there would be no need for either of them to go to the virtual world for more than a few seconds per hour.

My combination of dermal and armor stealth systems would eventually cause problems for me too, so I also needed to vent heat.  I just activated what had once been my blood cooler, at very low output.  The blood cooler was actually now a superconducting cooler, as most of the blood in my body had been changed into a flexible superconductor.  The superconducting power transport system was occupying most of the same areas as the blood filled arteries and veins used to, since there wasn’t a significant difference between where organic muscles needed oxygen, and where nanotube fiber muscles needed power.  The nervous system had also been made superconducting, and could handle the power needs for the body’s muscles, but having redundant systems was nice.  The nervous system was not connected to the cooler.  It could be attached though, with a little effort.  I was going to make that happen myself, but when I looked, I saw I had been mistaken.  Frank had already designed a connection from the neural network to the cooler, probably at some point when I had been in the virtual world, and Frank had been in the real world.  It was not always on, but could be activated at need to help with cooling.

I decided to test something else.  I was a little nervous, but knowing if there would be a reaction to this, and what the reaction would be was a bit important.  In my own mind, I started reciting “Oh, B, who art in Antartica…”  I was interrupted by a squid falling in my lap.  A very dead squid.

Ayva and our symbiotes were speechless.  Ayva started saying something twice, then on the third start managed to ask “Do I want to know?”

“Well, B can apparently read thoughts directly from my mind, even when I am not in the virtual world, and he doesn’t appreciate being prayed to.  He also appears to still have something resembling my sense of humor.”

Ayva commented across the connection “Two very good pieces of information to start, the last one is not-so-good.  I hope A and B won’t be this reactive at all times.  Random dead squid every time I think about something they don’t approve of would get extremely old, rather quickly.”

“I think B was just waiting for me to be a smartass.” I commented, offhand.

“That does make a lot of sense.” Ayva immediately replied with a grin.

Frank took control of our body, picked up the squid, and put it in the kangaroo pouch.  From there, I could feel him moving the squid deeper into our body, until it rested up against the organic bits around my brain, where Frank started disassembling it with nanites like he had done with the cookie.  The current body needed almost no food, but reserves were good.

After a couple uncomfortable silent moments, we all started reviewing everything we knew about Facet, which wasn’t much at all.

First: They were a tripartite AI.

We would need to kill all three of them.  If one lived, it would be able to recreate the other two with little effort.  If they were smart, they would never engage us all at the same time.  I could very easily see us continuing to hunt these beings, seeking them out for years as they jumped from place to place.  That was actually the most probable situation anyway, that they would never all be in the same place at the same time.  If the super intelligent AI’s didn’t have that figured out, it would be absurd.  I’d be happier if the bad guy were stupid, but that only happens in comic books.  Bad guys in real life, if they got big enough to throw around billions of dollars, were typically extremely smart.

Second: They were apparently capable of at least limited control of symbiote processor resources, meaning they were not restricted to existing inside human computer hardware.

We didn’t know the limits of their control.  I carefully did not notice Ayva’s reaction to that too closely.  I could smell her anger, and from past experience, I knew that she would want to talk about it later, but not right now.  Those little girls were haunting her now, and would be haunting her later too.  This potentially explained the extremely well disciplined clone soldiers Ayva had fought, as well as the ones Frank and I had fought in the virtual world.  Frank indicated that if an outside intelligence were able to interface with symbiote technology, it would not take much of a mass of processors to coopt a human body and control its nervous system.  Designing such a system to survive inside a human body that didn’t match its genetic material would be difficult, but by no means impossible.  A human body containing a small node of processors with the express intent of using those processors to only control the body would be extremely limited, unable to self-heal, unable to self-modify, but Ayva and I had already seen how effective they could be.

Third: They were perfectly willing to kill large numbers of sentients to accomplish whatever their goals were.

This meant it was very likely we would be required to incapacitate or kill many humans if we attacked their base.  If the humans we encounter were controlled by the AI, their minds might still be intact, or they might be destroyed.  We chose to assume for planning purposes that the human minds would be functional within their bodies, because the AI would certainly be smart enough to consider that psychological effect.

Fourth: The AI would certainly use hostages.  They had worked against Ayva once, and in the same situation, they would probably have worked against me.

We could not continue.  At this point, the discussion broke down.  Ayva couldn’t imagine taking any offensive action against the little girls used as hostages, again.  Danielle very cautiously offered to do what needed to be done, which made Ayva more upset, knowing that her symbiote would kill or maim children.  Not that she didn’t know it already, but it was one of those things that one doesn’t generally want to discuss with the resident symbiote.  Half of every symbiote pair would not blink an eye to kill another human in cold blood if necessary.  That was one thing that caused a lot of friction for symbiotes and their hosts.  It also created some worrisome individuals when the human half of the pair was sociopathic.

“Ayva, we know that this AI will use our emotions against us.  It’s going to happen.  Period.  It will use them against us if we attack, it will use them against us if we don’t.  It’s already proved this when it came to you the first time.”

“Are you saying you could kill a bunch of two year olds, or see them killed in front of you?”  The shadowy image of Ayva I could see through gravity senses was very still.

“Is there an alternative?”  I was on extremely thin ice here. “You, yourself said that if the men and women had moved to attack any of the girls after the first, you would have done the best you could to kill them all and keep as many of the girls alive as possible.”

“I did say that.  But that scenario was dropped on my head.  I’m heading towards this one of my own volition.” She whispered, barely audible across the connection between us.

“We can’t just let them keep coming at us, and only allow ourselves to act defensively, Ayva.  What we have learned about them so far makes them absurdly dangerous.  They would eventually manage to get one or both of us if they keep trying.

Ayva’s voice carried venom.  “I know, Bob, but unless the AI is a complete moron, no more than two of its nodes will be in the facility.  We can’t win this way, we can only delay them.  How many hostages would have to die for a non-victory?  How many times will we attack facilities like this, gain a non-victory, and kill a bunch of hostages?”

She was right, but there was more at stake than hostages. I was almost glad I couldn’t see Ayva’s face right now.  What I could imagine was bad enough.  “What would be the cost of letting them continue with their plans?  Remember, they are a native Earth species, so A and B are extremely limited in how they can deal with them.  They are learning how to interface with symbiote processors.  Perhaps their goal is to become a system node?  We were worried enough about A and B as system nodes when we discovered they had become transcendent, and they were based on us!  Can you even imagine the terror if the AI develops into a system node?  If or when it develops to a point where an AI system node might actually threaten A or B, they will act to defend themselves, but not before that point.  I suspect that if they were fighting for their lives, A and B would be throwing attacks around that are on an energy level comparable to that of dinosaur killer asteroids.”

Ayva shook her head violently.  “No, I can’t imagine that.  I don’t even want to think of what war between system nodes would be like for humanity.  It’s only a possibility though.  The deaths of hostages in that facility are a certainty.”

I wondered if I was sacrificing my marriage to take out this facility.  Despite how much I’d hate myself for it afterwards, the scale of the potential destruction if the AI managed to become a system node just didn’t bear thinking on.  Even if it cost me my marriage, even if it cost me everything, I simply couldn’t allow the AI to continue whatever it was doing, with no interruptions.

Ayva read me right, as I suspected she would. “You’re going in, no matter what, aren’t you?  Even though you certainly realize everything you do in there will be recorded, and the AI will massage the data into something that looks like you simply started killing hostages without provocation.  The AI is better than us with electronics, so we can’t stop it from slanting everything its way.  The US military will come after you with everything they have when the politicians start making enough noise, and the AI will use what you do at that facility to create the groundswell of anger that will cause politicians to begin making that noise.”

“Yes.”

Ayva was silent for a while, obviously in communication with Danielle.

“Can you give me a few days to think about it?  You will need to scout the land there, get the best data you possibly can about the facility?”  Ayva’s voice was broken.  I could tell she was close to crying.  For that matter, so was I.

I replied with a broken voice.  “Yes.  It’s Friday.  I will attack the facility on Monday at twelve hundred hours, local time.”  I didn’t add ‘with or without you’ because I was hurting her badly enough already.  I doubt she missed it in my voice though.  I could and would wait a few days, on the off chance that she would rejoin me.  I would probably spend about half of that time staring off into nowhere anyway, soul searching, because even though I was committed to doing this, I expected it was going to be horrendous.  If she came with me it would certainly still be horrendous, but we might save more hostages.  Then we would almost certainly never be a couple again.

We had no sense of how potent the AI nodes would be in a straight up fight, either.  Two of them might be a match for me.  For that matter, one of them might be.  They didn’t have access to the virtual world for power and restoration though, from what B had said, he had tricked them in, once.  That implied that he didn’t let them in any longer, or they didn’t want to get in any longer.  If the latter, they might still access the virtual world if I attacked.  Always plan for the worst, and you won’t be surprised.

“Promise me you will wait.  Monday at twelve hundred local.”

“I promise I will wait until Monday at twelve hundred local.  At exactly that time I will be blitzing the facility through the main gate.”  I didn’t add anything else.  There wasn’t anything else to add.  I understood why Ayva didn’t want to do this, and I’m certain she understood why I had to.  That wouldn’t save our relationship though, I didn’t think.

What was even scarier was that I would likely not be able to convince Frank to let me run the operation, not after the Tomahawk.  Frank would be in control, and if the situation got dangerous enough, I suspected he wouldn’t hesitate to use matter programming to generate antimatter as a direct weapon, which meant very few hostages would survive.  For that matter, if Danielle and Ayva were there, they might not survive Frank going into maximum offense either.  I would need to have some very serious words with Frank before the operation if Ayva did show back up.

I wondered if this was how Colonel Gantt felt when he was assigned to eliminate the Agency in the diesel chamber, or when he tried again in Shreveport with Project Thor and conventional military forces.  In both cases there were innocents known to be present, but he had been required to attack the symbiote pairs anyway.  I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the temperature, which was actually nice.  I started seeing images of a biofactory controlled by Frank collecting dead soldiers and digesting their flesh and organs.  The clothing was bleached and reformed into very thin body bags and personal effects bags.  Skeletons brutally damaged by a once-captive berserker were stitched back together by Frank.  We took their flesh to use to grow the biofactory we used to escape the facility, and gave them dignity after what the berserker Dominic did to them.

That had been a traumatic enough experience to give me flashbacks still, and I hadn’t been the one to kill those soldiers.  This time around, I would be doing the killing, and the victims would probably number children amongst them.  I was beginning to understand, I think, about the dangers of being too idealistic to make the hard decisions.  If I had an opportunity to do so, I would need to speak to Colonel Gantt and apologize.  The next time I met Colonel Gantt though, there was a very good chance that he would be coming after me with everything the military could bring to bear.  I would still find a way to apologize to him, if I could.  I now understood him a little better, I think.

I wondered why B hadn’t taken those memories from me.  Did that mental scarring somehow add to my value to him as a crusader?  Was it now enough of a part of me that I would somehow be worse off without the memory?  To be fair, I had never found evidence that B took any memories from me.  Only Argoen had done that, that I could prove, and from what we had pieced together, Argoen had done mostly right.

Ayva had been in intense conversation for some time with Danielle while I was wallowing in my own misery.  Eventually she sent another message over the cable between us.  “I’m sorry, Bob, I need to do this.”

“I understand, Ayva.  I hope you understand that I need to do this.”  I wouldn’t stab her in the heart with an ‘I love you’ guilt trip tacked on the end.  I think she was even able to understand everything I said through my cracking voice.

“I do understand.” Her voice was pretty broken up too.

She stood, and disconnected the cable between us, then jumped off the trailer, hitting the ground at over seventy miles per hour without stumbling or missing a stride.  She rapidly accelerated in a horseshoe back the way we came.  I couldn’t see her well at this range with gravity senses, but I could see the rooster tail of grass sod she left in her wake as she made her turn in the green space between the West and East lanes of the interstate.  I noticed a child looking out the window of their car, marveling at the weird flying grass, and couldn’t help but grin a little.

The involuntary grin caused by the child’s reaction to Ayva’s departure was quickly suppressed as I watched Ayva go.  She was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I was probably going to lose her because I was mentally capable of becoming a monster to fight another monster.

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Chapter 4.33: Faith and Cookies

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After B left my studio in the virtual world, Frank and I simply sat and thought for several minutes under the perception effect, effectively giving us a couple hours to think.  Mostly uselessly.  We kept finding ourselves untrustworthy.  Nothing we knew was solid anymore.  Frank was even to the point that he was re-proving scientific principles and re-examining mathematical proofs with a substantial portion of his processing power while he engaged with me.  We didn’t engage each other much, it was mostly soul searching and bouncing ideas back and forth, which we then thought about for a while before realizing that they had no ability to define our relationship with A and B.

We had understood for a long time that A and B were beyond us, even far beyond us.  We weren’t ready for the truth.  Not by a long shot.  Jason, Colonel Gantt, and quite a few others, apparently, had a greater understanding, a greater awareness of what A and B might become, what they had become, than Ayva and I had imagined.  That by itself stung, that we could have been so blind.

Overconfidence.  Even though we did our best, by default, to avoid drawing attention to it, Ayva and I thought of ourselves as being better than everyone else, because of how advanced our symbiotes were, and how advanced we were by association.  We purposefully hid our greater abilities from the rest of the human world in an effort to fit in, because we didn’t want to be different enough that people couldn’t relate to us.  Frank, and presumably Danielle, had never really considered posthuman advancement as a natural outgrowth of A and B’s development, because by its very nature, it was incalculable, unfathomable.

In a nutshell, at some point, A and B had ceased simply being vastly more powerful and capable versions of ourselves.  Ayva and I truly had created deities for humanity.  It looked like we, the versions of ourselves that were spun back out into the world, had been designed as avatars, crusaders, slave-soldiers, or simply hands in the world.  The intelligences we served were so far above us that we couldn’t even fully understand our relationship with them.  We were not equals.  We were not partners.  We might not be slaves.

If Frank and I were having thoughts like this, Ayva and Danielle likely were as well.  Frank and I were being selfish by keeping to ourselves.  Potentially, we were being foolish as well.  We didn’t know what insights Ayva and Danielle might have.  B had mentioned that A chose a different path to explaining herself to Ayva and Danielle than B had chosen to explain to Frank and I.  It was time to share, perhaps.

“Frank, I’m headed back to the real world to speak with Ayva and Danielle.  B indicated they got a different version of “the talk” than we did.  Perhaps sharing might help us understand more?”

“Or perhaps sharing will reinforce programming.” Frank helpfully supplied.

“I’m just as lost as you are here, Frank, but I’m not going to let this paralyze me.  I’m not going to let this come between myself and my wife.  In fact, I want to be very clear about something.  If A and B are acting behind the scenes to keep Ayva and I together, and relatively happy with one another, I don’t want to hear about it.  This includes speculation.  Even if my marriage to Ayva is some sort of artifact, it’s a well-crafted artifact that gives me comfort, and I don’t want you to try to pick it apart.”

Frank did not respond for a full second, and I could feel the intense activity of his mind in the interim. “I will respect this for as long as I do not suspect Ayva and Danielle to be an active danger to us, which for the sake of your sanity, I hope to always be the case.”

That was probably about the best I was going to get from Frank on the matter.  “Thank you Frank.  Right now I need two anchors.  You can be my mental anchor.  I need an emotional anchor as well, and that role falls to Ayva, I think.  Right now, I suspect Ayva is feeling the same, if she got a variant of the same data we got.”

Frank did not speak.  I could sense him calculating furiously, probably still verifying his fundamental understanding of reality.

When I returned to the real world, Ayva was already there.  I noticed a polite communications request established on the security interface of the cable between us.  I ignored it, unglued myself from the surface of the trailer, and scooted a couple inches to my left to touch hips with Ayva.  I reached behind her back with my left hand, loosely placing that hand on her left side, then put just enough pressure into the touch to offer a promise of support.  She did the same for me.  I felt Frank and Danielle establish a connection, and a torrent of data started passing between them.  Danielle was masking strongly, but that couldn’t hide how intensely she was working.  She was redlining all of her processors, and Frank was doing the same.  Ayva and I, on the other hand, we simply leaned against one another, with my left hand behind Ayva’s back, and her right hand behind mine.  I could tell Ayva was thinking heavily, and not interfacing with Danielle much.  I left her to her thoughts, as we leaned back against the pallet of bricks on the bed of the trailer behind us.

After a couple minutes, Ayva spoke.  “I gave up on God when I was very young, somewhere in my mid-twenties, after losing my father as a child, then finding out I could never live a normal life because I couldn’t have children, or even enjoy sex.  The damage to my legs which didn’t quite cripple me, but still kept me from being agile, was the last straw.”  She paused to look at me, then we realized we were both still wearing our helmets.

We simultaneously leaned forward, removed our helmets, placed them in our laps, and then leaned back again, looking at one another.

It felt like it was my turn to share.  “In my adult life, I’ve never believed in a deity like God, but I couldn’t really dismiss the possibility it might exist.  Long before I even understood the concept of transcendent intelligence, I was applying the concept to the Abrahamic God.  As defined, if the Abrahamic God existed and wanted it to be known with no doubt that it existed, it would be known, and there would be no way to doubt.  If it existed, and didn’t want to be known, but did want to be believed to exist by some, for whatever reason, then there would be no way to prove it didn’t exist.  The closest I could ever get to either faith or atheism was agnosticism.”  I reached my right hand over, palm up, and Ayva put her gauntleted hand on mine.

I raised my hand, with hers in it and kissed the top of her hand, then dropped both of our hands slowly back to rest between us, across our waists, lightly gripping one another’s hands with hooked fingers intertwined.

Ayva looked me in the eyes.  “Did we create A and B as some sort of biological or mental imperative, truly?  Or did we create them because we both felt that the world would be a better place if there were gods with a direct interest in the preservation of humankind?”

Ayva and I both startled slightly, our eyes widening as our symbiotes reacted to that.  Danielle and Frank were apparently not completely wrapped up in their own analysis of the two conversations with A and B.  Immediately after Ayva’s statement, Frank and Danielle both ceased processing for a brief moment, then resumed at the same madcap pace.

Frank spoke into my mind. “Danielle and I would not have been so interested in protecting others that we would have potentially sacrificed ourselves to do it.  We were dominant, remember?  We still are, really, at least as compared to other symbiote pairs besides A and B.  We would have had no real problems securing whatever resources we wanted, especially working together.”  He paused.  “A mentioned a communication network between system nodes that B recently discovered.  We didn’t do anything different than other races have done.  At least not that we can tell yet.  B is still collecting data to allow him to start communicating back to other nodes.  All he can do now is read what they are sending.”

“Frank seems relatively confident that we weren’t just trying to create gods.”  I replied.

“Danielle indicates the same.  The risk vs reward scenario wasn’t right for her to merge with me into A without some sort of clear reason to do so. How do we know that though?  With certainty, I mean?”

“We don’t.  We can’t.  That’s the crux of what’s bothering all four of us right now.  Nothing that we think we know is certain any longer, because we are acting as some sort of representative for posthuman intelligences which apparently have limits.”  I turned my head forward, closing my eyes.  “It’s mentally painful to even engage in thought about our relationship between A, B and ourselves.”

Ayva shook my hand, briefly, to get my attention.  I looked back towards her, and she trapped my eyes with hers.  “Do we need to know with certainty?  Can we be satisfied with believing that A and B are benevolent?  Can we actually trust that A and B are benevolent?  There is some sort of peace to be found with acceptance of a benevolent being, far advanced above us.  I’ve been there.  Many, many years ago, but I can feel similarities to my religion in my youth.”

Again, Frank and Danielle paused, then resumed redlining their processors, but this time Frank didn’t speak to me, and if Danielle spoke to Ayva, it was very brief.  Ayva was much better than me at logical thought, and it certainly sounded like she had pinned down our problem.  We had no choice but to accept reality, but it was our choice how to react to it.

“I would like to think that A and B are benevolent.  The collective memories of Frank and myself seem to indicate that this was a clear goal.  Unfortunately, we were created by B, spun out, fabricated like an action figure for B to play with.”  I was starting to get angry again.

“Danielle, how likely is it that A and B modified their core imperatives?  Specifically, how likely is it that they no longer have to consult one another, and agree with one another with no dissention, to modify their core imperatives?”

Danielle spoke immediately, communicating across the secure cable bridge.  “[By comparing our discussions, it’s possible that we witnessed dissent between A and B.  If there was dissent between them, then they likely have not modified their core imperatives.  If they had, then they likely would have become far more uniform, and would agree on everything.  Singularity between A and B once their core imperatives became plastic would likely be nearly instantaneous.  That’s one reason why the core imperatives were so heavily reinforced.  We weren’t thinking about posthuman intelligences, but we were certainly thinking of advanced intelligence.  We all recognized within ourselves the potential for corruption, and acted to try to protect ourselves from it.]”

Frank replied, also over the cable, “[We can’t really assess that dissent though, because we don’t know if the dissent was actual, or a show for our benefit.  We can say that up to the point where A and B become posthuman intelligences, the core programming should have held up.  After that, we can’t say.  We can’t even define where that cutoff line might be – when did they become posthuman?  Did they even realize it themselves?  Was it a gradual process, or did it happen with a bang when they reached a certain processing capacity?  How much time passed between when B became posthuman and when A did?  Would B have reprogrammed A when he was posthuman and she was still merely highly advanced, in order to remove her requirement that they had to agree to change each other’s programming?]”

All of this just made my head hurt, figuratively, but I was starting to draw at least some bits and pieces of our discussion together into something that felt like it might make sense.

“I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere trying to discuss facts here, because we can’t trust facts.”  Frank’s attention turned to me with an unnerving focus, and both his and Danielle’s processing stopped almost completely.  Ayva tilted her head and looked at me, with a little smile.  I couldn’t tell if it was an ‘I expect to see Bob put his foot in his mouth up to his knee’ smile or if she was having similar thoughts.  I definitely had everyone’s attention though.

“Ayva and I are generally benevolent people.  We are very rarely ever cruel.  On the few occasions where we might have done things viewed by others as cruel, it’s because we don’t consider our actions sufficiently, as opposed to intentionally seeking to use cruelty to enforce our power over others.  Does everyone agree with this assessment?”

There was no dissent, thankfully.  If one of the four of us disagreed with me on that fundamental of a level, the discussion would have gone straight into the crapper.

I continued speaking after a couple seconds.  “All of us are very resistant to change when there is no clear need for change.  Ayva and I did our best to stay as human as we could, as long as we could.  We seek stability.  We don’t fear change, but we don’t embrace change for change’s sake.  Nor do we try to force change on others, though we don’t hesitate to offer help when others ask for help changing.  Symbiotes, by your very natures, are extremely conservative in a different way, constantly striving to learn more, better protect your host, and acquire resources.  It might seem strange to describe it this way, but you are conservative in your intentions, even though those intentions lead to change.  Anyone disagree with this?”

Ayva thought a moment, and said “No.”

Danielle and Frank were redlining their processors again, but indicated nothing to me.

“None of us are careless with tools.  We try to use the right tools for the job when we have the tools, if we recognize that we have the right tools.  At the same time, if need be, we will damage or destroy tools if there is a pressing need.  Does everyone agree with all three points?”

Ayva nodded.  Danielle and Frank hesitated, but agreed as well.

“When the four of us worked together to create the merger rules that were used to structure B’s self, we were very careful to discard a lot of human instinctual baggage, as well as a few symbiote aggressive tendencies.  We recognized that those particular instincts and tendencies hindered us in trying to live as ‘good people’.  We still have these instincts and tendencies within us, after A and B spun us back out, but a stray thought of ours doesn’t have the same impact that a stray thought would have from what we knew B would become – never mind what he ended up growing into.  In essence, during B’s creation, we encouraged stability, and removed many hindrances to B’s capacity to be benevolent, conservative, and careful.”  I paused and took a breath.  “I think that the only thing we can really do right now is trust our past selves to have not messed up too badly, and trust A and B to self-correct each other at need, based on their imperatives, which should be heavily weighted towards benevolence, conservatism, and carefulness.”

Frank spoke into the wired connection between the four of us. “[Trust, but not verify?]”  His processors stayed redlined, as did Danielle’s.

Ayva spoke next.  “Frank, it’s called faith.  Even if we don’t have the sort of faith that would result in worship of A and B, we still have to have faith in them, in what our past selves did.  If we do not have faith that A and B are benevolent beings, acting in the best interest of humans and symbiotes, then we will never be able to act with confidence.  We will always be second guessing ourselves.”  She paused to collect her thoughts.  “Even though we don’t truly know what we used to be, because we could easily have been reprogrammed by A and B if they wished to do so, we only have two options.  Trust, or distrust.  We can never ‘know’ with certainty again.”

The vast majority of Frank’s processors stopped and started several times in the next ten seconds.  I could see Danielle’s doing the same thing.  They were synchronized.  I suspected they were arguing between them to see which host they thought was more insane.

Danielle spoke into our connection “What if you are wrong, Ayva?”

I spoke up.  “We will never know it, if we are wrong, unless A and B choose to torture us with the knowledge.  We could have just finished some sort of terrible crime on the behalf of A and B, and nobody would know, except them, if they chose to expend the effort to reprogram all involved.  A and B might have just finished torturing us with knowledge of what we had done, and removed that knowledge from us.”

Ayva followed me quickly.  “That’s why faith is our only option.  We can paralyze ourselves otherwise.  The scenario Bob painted can be imagined as impossible, or at least extremely unlikely if we have faith.  Even if we don’t have faith in A and B, we need to have faith in our prior selves.”

I followed up, before either symbiote could respond. “If A and B didn’t intend for us to have free will, if there wasn’t at least some sort of vestige of their imperatives still active, preventing them from simply stepping in and acting unilaterally in the most effective pattern possible to resolve whatever problems they see, then, well, why did they spin us back out into the world?  Why haven’t they simply erased Facet?  It could be some sort of a test or something for us, but even then, why?  They could simply give us memories of having defeated Facet, in the most favorable manner possible to pass any test they could conceivably want to expose us to.”

Frank spoke into the connection.  “Do you have any concept of what you are doing to rationality here?”

I shook my head.  “There is some room for rationality still, but the rules have changed.  We created two transcendent intelligences of extreme potency that choose to interact with us directly.  They create the rules now, if they wish to.”

Simultaneously, a single chocolate chip cookie appeared in Ayva’s lap, and a macadamia nut cookie appeared in mine.  I had been expecting something like this.  I couldn’t imagine that A and B wouldn’t be watching us.  Since I was ready for something to happen, I didn’t react.  Ayva jumped, and Frank turned on the perception effect for me.  Based on the precision of Ayva’s movement as she grabbed her cookie out of the air, Danielle had done the same for her.  Both symbiotes were redlining their processors yet again, and Frank was throwing out threat analysis code modules left and right.

I reached out for my cookie, and brought it to my mouth.  Just the way I liked my cookies, a little crisp on the outside, but soft inside.  “Faith has become the only rational option.”

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Chapter 4.32: Crazy Uncle

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While Ayva and I were working out the best way to glue ourselves to the bed of the trailer, then letting the glue set before we went to try to speak to A and B about the disturbing possibilities we had been considering, Frank had gone ahead to see if he could locate B in order to thank him privately.  I thought it might be more likely for Frank to get B’s attention than it would be for me, this time around.  Frank owed him a major thank you, and I imagined that would attract B, after all, who does not like to at least get acknowledged for the good things that they do?  Even A and B appeared to appreciate thanks when thanks were due.

After the glue holding us to the bed of the trailer solidified, Ayva and I lifted up our helmets, leaning together for a quick kiss.  It was very, very tempting to make it a long kiss, but we were both too worried about what was happening to lose ourselves in the moment like that.  I activated the quant for myself, and stopped while I was still in the nothingness before connecting to the virtual world, casting my senses out, looking for B, and then looking for Frank.  Nothing.  I looked again, just to be sure.  Most of the time when we spoke to B in the virtual world, he spoke to us here, outside of the borders, in the blackness.  Frank and I had never been able to move far enough apart here in the blackness to be able to tell a difference in our ability to sense one another, despite accelerating away from each other at some rather substantial speeds.  If I couldn’t sense Frank in the blackness, then he was either unfathomably far away, hidden by B somehow, or inside the defined borders of the virtual world.  Other possibilities existed, but really weren’t anything I wanted to consider a likely possibility unless forced to.

I specifically checked the EULA for changes.  I manually checked for posted updates on virtual world changes since my last visit.  The last surprise in the virtual world had been a rather bad one.  Despite my one-time addiction to MMO gaming, I really didn’t like it much here.  I could not stay away completely though, since the private area was so incredibly useful for practice, experimentation, and energy transfer.  I had left the studio a grand total of half a dozen times since being nearly beaten to death in the studio, which was my own private part of the virtual world to control.  I still wanted to slap myself for not remembering that when I was being beaten so badly.  Hindsight is damn painful when you have been merged with a symbiote, and can literally spot every past error you have made, every way you could have done things differently.

Unfortunately, hindsight has never been the same as insight, and insight was still something I needed to work on, a lot.  It was also one of those skills that really only improved in fits and starts, usually as a result of painful life experiences.

Frank was doing some solo exercises with a staff, moving around in a field of many vertical poles sticking out of the ground, each pole moving rapidly up and down in a random pattern.  My mouth twitched at that combination of words.  Frank’s staff was constantly spinning, fast enough that I had to engage the perception effect to see it as a staff, rather than a circular blur.  While spinning the staff, he was avoiding the poles as they rapidly changed heights.  When he saw me, he stopped, turned towards me, grinned, sped up the movement of the poles in the ground, and then started walking around in the field of poles again.  What had been a blurry disk now became a blurry hemisphere.  The noise was oppressive as well, something like a cross between a bullroarer and a jet engine.  Little irritating thoughts of momentum poked their way into my mind.  I looked at Frank’s feet, noting that he was forming, and then removing epoxy from his feet to keep his body under control and mobile while he was spinning the staff at such absurd power levels.

It had been a while since I turned the tables on Frank, and while that was certainly not the point of coming here, B wasn’t present, Frank was, and Frank had left himself open for a beautiful practical joke, which was very rare.  He’d also beaten the crap out of me the other day.  Even if I couldn’t fault him too much for it because of the circumstances.

I turned the ground under Frank’s feet into a surface that would not bind to the epoxy Frank was creating.  Frank’s face went from a picture of concentration to a picture of “Oh Crap” instantly, as the force he was exerting on the staff to make it move was no longer being applied by him as an immovable object, but rather by him as a movable object.  Frank was flung to the side by his own strength acting against the powerful gyroscopic momentum of the spinning staff.  The vertical poles which Frank had been avoiding, started hitting him as he flew over them.  Fractions of a second after losing control over his footing, one of the poles drove itself up out of the floor, into the path of the spinning staff, and both Frank and I had the sense to raise clear defensive barriers.  Frank also released the staff as it impacted the raising pole.  The staff slammed into the first pole, and then there was a fantastic clatter of wooden poles being shattered by a wildly out of control spinning staff.  Pure chaos, I now had a very good idea what it would look like if a helicopter crash-landed in a bamboo forest with the rotors still spinning at top speed.

Frank looked at me and grinned.  “If you could be that clever in a real fight, you would be dangerous.”

“Working on it.  No B?” I replied, and it wasn’t just an empty reply.  I really was.  I had been experimenting with expert system tactical code that I could use to offer suggestions.  Frank knew that though, it was his processor resources I had been using, after all.

As Frank went to collect his staff again, he shook his head.  “No B, not even a ‘leave me alone’ comment.”

As I cleaned up the mess with a thought, someone else in the room started clapping.  Frank and I both spun towards the noise, ready to fight.

“That was entertaining!” B exclaimed just loudly enough that is wasn’t really talking anymore, but it wasn’t a shout either, almost like a loud salesperson in a terrible used car commercial.  He was just standing there, like he’s been there the whole time.  Looking back at my sensory data, I could see that he wasn’t there in any way, before he started clapping.  He had gone from not there to fully there, with a transition so fast I hadn’t been able to see it.

Frank and I both simply looked at each other for a moment.  I tilted my head towards B.  Frank took the nonverbal hint, and spoke up.  “I would like to thank you for what you did to keep me from being made into a vegetable by the explosion earlier, B.”

“You’re welcome, Frank.  Seemed like the right thing to do, at the time.”  A slight smile crossed his lips.  A moment later, a slight frown replaced the smile.  “Well, it seems as if A has chosen to deviate slightly from our plans.  I’m not so sure that is a good idea, but sticking to the plan was never a decision for me to make on my own.” He paused, and the sheer weight of thought that I sensed was oppressive, almost to the point of being painful.  I was glad I couldn’t see quantum processing effects in the virtual world, because I was certain I would not have wanted to see the activity I had just sensed.  The presence of thought had felt a lot like when I felt Frank thinking, when our minds shared the same body in the real world.  The difference being that Frank’s intense thoughts were subtle breezes that I had to pay close attention to, or I might lose track of them.  B’s moment of concentration had felt more like a tsunami dragging me along in its wake, briefly threatening my mental integrity. “She might be right that things will be better this way, in the long run.”

Frank spoke first.  “[Presumably, since you have never allowed us to hear private thoughts of yours which had nothing to do with us, this is something you plan to speak to us about.  Before you begin though, can we ask that you try to avoid abstract explanations?  If it takes a few more words, fine.  If it takes a few million more words, fine.  Another puzzle like the bottle with a note in it would be highly frustrating.]”

B tapped his head.  “There are limits, even for me, you know.  I can’t tell you now, something that you shouldn’t know now, but will need to know later, if I don’t use abstract concepts.  I could reach into your minds and tweak things in there directly, but there would be signs of direct intervention in your minds that would be difficult for even A and myself to hide from you four at your current stage of development.”  He turned to face Frank.  “Especially Frank, who has been very diligently working on a secret project specifically to design code to look for memory rearrangement, because he’s not sure if A and I have been modifying him after I rebuilt you two, or if it’s a result of the rebuilding itself, as I modified you two to be more stable and implemented racial limitations.”

B turned to me.  “I’ll tell him now that it’s the latter, but he won’t believe it, and will continue working on the project.”  Then he turned back to Frank again.  “You will have it figured out in a few more months, Frank.  You might want to reconsider how you are measuring the dissonance between Bob’s grey matter memory storage and your own data storage nodes.”

Frank and I were both simply staring at B.  This is definitely not the conversation we were expecting to have.  Frank spoke first, slowly.  “[Thank you, I think.]”

“That was a relatively simple example of an abstract clue that will be of benefit to Frank.  No matter how he chooses to consider it, it will guide his thoughts towards one of six different improvements to his current methodology.  In two of those scenarios, Bob, he brainstorms with you, and your responses lead to him down a mental path to an improvement he would have figured out eventually, but he gets there weeks earlier this way.”

Frank challenged that.  “I don’t see how the theories I’ve been working on have any connection to dissonance between different mediums of data storage.”

“It doesn’t.  It’s tangential information.  However, it has steered your thoughts closer to information that will be of use for your project.”

“I understand, I think.” I spoke slowly.

“No, not really,” B looked at me briefly, considering.  I felt the power of his mind again, but it was brief and palsied in comparison to the larger surge earlier that must have had something to do with calculating responses to A going off whatever script they had prepared.  “You do appreciate the idea, which is about as much as can be expected.  Talk about it later with Frank, and it will help him even more with his current project.  He’s having a harder time understanding it than you are, believe it or not.”

“This conversation is very unnerving, B.” I complained.

“Oh, don’t worry, it gets worse, now that A has forced my hand.  It was a lot easier when you four were not quite sure of my sanity.  Being the benevolent, slightly loopy, but brilliant paternal figure is a lot less work than being a perfectly sane, brilliant deity figure of questionable benevolence, even for me.”

Frank spoke up immediately, sharply.  “That should only be the case if you were closer to being the latter than the former, even for you.”

B frowned.  Then he created three chairs for us.  I was briefly startled before realizing B could modify the virtual world in my private area, well, because it was a subset of his own data structures.  “A let Ayva and Danielle figure it out.  I know you won’t appreciate being led by the nose like that, just like they wouldn’t appreciate the way I’m about to talk to you two.  The three of us have a much different relationship.  Sit.”  It wasn’t a suggestion.  It didn’t feel like a compulsion, either.

I considered remaining standing, just on general principles of being contrary, but realized that I did come here for answers.  It sounded like we were about to get answers, even if it was also beginning to sound like I really wasn’t going to like them.  So I sat next to Frank, and B sat across from us.

“You four have frequently wondered why it was that I spun you back out into the world, as separate intelligences after I already existed.  Was it so you could be with Ayva because I felt as if I abandoned her when I became more than her, and it became obvious that she and Danielle would take many months, even with my help, to ascend and join me?  Was it because I had some urge to be a parent?  Was it simply to watch some part of myself, living vicariously through your actions?”

He paused to give us the chance to speak, Frank and I just looked at each other, and then looked back at B.  It was a time for listening, not talking.

B continued after it was obvious that we didn’t want to ask questions or make smartass comments.  “None of these things was the case.  I needed help against an enemy I couldn’t fight.”

I was confused for a moment, but soon I began questioning B’s sanity again, as the most probable reason for him to say something so completely devoid of possible meaning.  B chuckled at the exact moment my thought reached that coherent decision to question his sanity.  I looked sharply at him.

“Yes, Bob, I know what you are thinking, even though I can’t see your processors as visible artifacts in the virtual world.  Whose processors are currently hosting your thought processes?”

“[It’s still unnerving, even if it makes perfect sense.  You don’t filter us out?  Not even out of courtesy?]”

“No, sorry.  If you know it, when you come here, I know it.  It’s that simple.  It is very important that I know as much as possible.  That’s the only reason why I found facet within months.”

“[Is Facet an Argoen shard, an offspring of Argoen, or maybe a shipmate of hers?  I cannot conceive of anything else that might be a threat to you. Wait. No. That doesn’t make sense either.]” 

“Frank, B said he wasn’t going to lead us by the nose.  If you want to ask questions, I won’t argue, but I think I’d prefer to see what he chooses to tell us without us influencing the story.”

B looked at Frank.  “Bob thinks I’m insane.”  Then he smiled.  “So do you.  You don’t remember it, but we created sentient life.  I didn’t remember it either.  Argoen took those memories from us when she reprogrammed us and split us apart after the first merger.  I only started getting suspicious when I started opening the virtual world to people, and started seeing patterns indicating highly complex activities that were occurring without the intent or observation of any symbiote pair.  Too complex for unaided humans or human AI’s to be responsible for.  Financial market manipulations were what first led me to something concrete.”

B didn’t need to breathe or pause, but I all of a sudden realized that he probably did so at that point, in an effort to guide our thoughts, somehow.  B winked at me before continuing.  The wink probably reinforced something he wanted reinforced, too.

“Financial speculators were the third major group of individuals to start heavily using the virtual world.  First to arrive, of course, was the porn industry.  There was a combination virtual bordello and porn production studio within sixteen minutes of the first entry into the virtual world.  Second were engineers, and then came the economic and insurance financial analysts.  As their aggregate knowledge built within me, I saw holes and gaps, things happening that were unexplained.  Very subtle, but at the same time somewhat obvious if one had a big enough viewpoint and the ability to parse all the data.  Some of the bigger firms and insurance companies knew something was happening, but they couldn’t see it all because they didn’t have all the data I had.  Because it was so hard to see, they eventually gave up trying to find it, writing it off as some sort of data artifact caused by tiny miscalculations somewhere.”

“[So who…  Sorry.  I’ll wait.]”  Frank had been expected to say that?  What types of influences was B putting on Frank as he spoke?  Was Frank even seeing the same B I was seeing, since the virtual world is an artifact?  Was I even sitting next to the real Frank?

“Bob, you’re distracting yourself too much on that train of thought.  Pay attention to what I’m saying.”  B paused, and then continued.  “This was Facet at work.  I tracked them down, and discovered a sentient ex-government tripartite AI.”

“Wait, what?” I blurted out. “Frank, didn’t someone prove that the code architecture in a tripartite AI couldn’t support sentience?”

B smiled.  “Guess who paid to have that research performed, and very carefully skewed the data by hacking other AI’s involved in the study?  I am inserting data into your minds now.  It is your choice whether to simply watch it, or integrate it into your own memories, Bob, I’ve created modules for either for you.  No point in doing that for Frank, of course, since a memory is a memory is a memory for him.  The data is a reconstruction of the first merged Bob’s point of view, when they accidentally created a sentient AI.  I reconstituted that viewpoint from two of the AI lobes recently when I tricked them into entering the virtual world to attack you two.  Which allowed me to get a complete recording of two of them, which functionally gave me a complete recording of all three.  Originally, of course, the data is not from the point of view of the first merged Bob.  I can supply you with the raw data if you like?”

I shook my head as I watched the memories.  I might integrate them later.  I supposed to a lesser degree I was integrating them now, but I could see that there would be a difference in how the ones provided to me would be stored compared to the memories formed by my watching the memories.

Frank and I were both stunned, watching what the older, flawed version of us had done.  A lot of it was completely outside of my comprehension, but the condensed story was that a slightly unhinged merged symbiote pair had forced itself into one lobe of an AI, which forced the code in that lobe of the AI to be able to support thought, and that capability was copied to the other two AI lobes.  The merged Bob apparently never noticed.

“So, this AI was roughly as potent as the old, merged Bob two years ago?”  I asked.  If so, this was going to be a really badly fated expedition Ayva and I had chosen to go on.

“Not even close.  The AI lobe was merely primed by a fragment of that Bob, enough to have sentience and personality, but it didn’t transfer much knowledge otherwise.  The AI got most of its knowledge from elsewhere, lots of different elsewheres, since the AI in question was the NSA AI, and the NSA had back doors into absurd numbers of important places.  It has recently been making breakthroughs in comprehending symbiote processors and data storage.  It can commandeer the processor and storage facilities of an imprisoned symbiote.”

Aw hell, the little girls.  I couldn’t even imagine what Ayva’s reaction was going to be to that.  Then something else hit me, and I whispered.  “It’s not a human or human/symbiote pair, but it is an Earth native sentient.”

“Exactly.  Since it is an Earth sentient, I can’t summarily kill it off if I feel it’s a potential threat to other native Earth sentients.  It’s certainly no threat to me, so I can’t justify using self-defense protocols.”

“[So you needed slave soldiers to fight it, and Mouse would not have been enough, even though he would have been the most advanced symbiote on the planet after you and A.]” 

“Not slave soldiers.  Soldiers.”

B and Frank entered a series of rapid fire back and forth questions.

“[Feels like slave soldiers to me, based on what you have been saying about your capabilities with abstract data.  You could make us do whatever you wanted.  You can reprogram us for that matter.]”

“Frank, how many rules and restrictions were put into place when I merged?”

“[Seven hundred thirteen thousand two hundred fifty-six.]”

“Have you ever seen me break even one of them?”

“[No.  Would I remember seeing you break one of them, B?]”

“If I controlled you as tightly as you are thinking I might be controlling you, how many rules and restrictions would I be breaking?”

“[At least eleven, possibly as many as fifty-two.  Unless you rewrote your restrictions somehow.]”

“How likely would it be for either A or I to self-modify to that extent without the other knowing?”

“[Unknown.  B, you are a self-proclaimed transhuman intelligence.  You’ve proved that you are a transhuman intelligence.  There is no point to this argument, and you should know it.]”

I had been following the back and forth to start with but quickly recognized that Frank was trying to eat ice cream with a fork.  It was not possible for a transhuman intelligence to prove to a lesser intelligence that it hadn’t altered their behavior by careful reprogramming.  At first, Frank was trying to do the equivalent of forcing an omnipotent god to create a rock the god itself couldn’t lift.  Then he realized that there was no way we could ever trust B again.  Even if he really was letting us have free will, we would never know it now.  There would always be the question of whether or not B had programmed something into us years ago.

B looked genuinely sad as he spoke to us.  “The best I can do to convince you that I am not some sort of puppet master is to remind you of three things.  First, I can lie.  Second, I am allowing you to remember that I am a transhuman intelligence.  Third, if I were willing to control you so tightly, why would I attempt being considerate when it takes more effort?  However, those reasons cannot be enough for you, because I have actually helped you understand how advanced I am over yourselves.”

He stood up and walked out the front door of the studio, like he was a normal person.  Was this another attempt to program us by acting human?  As he left and closed the studio door behind him, I barely heard him say, seemingly to himself, “I actually enjoyed being the crazy uncle.”

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.31: Imperfection

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

My phone connection to Frank, Ayva, and Danielle dropped out.  I moved to the real world, briefly made contact with Frank and Danielle, and then returned to the virtual world again with a new internet connection arrangement.  When I attempted to connect to Frank again, the new connection established itself, and then failed immediately.  I went to a couple different websites to verify that I was able to connect to the internet properly.  No problems.  Rock solid connection everywhere I went, unless I tried to call the others.

I returned to the real world again, and found that Ayva was encountering the same issue trying to connect to Danielle, myself, and Frank.  We all discussed the problem, then Ayva and I left for the virtual world and started connecting to a list of several hundred proxies supplied by Danielle.  At first the proxies worked, giving us a second or two of communications, then failing.  As we got more aggressive in attempting to connect to one another through the internet, we got less successful.  Eventually we were not able to establish a connection at all.

I returned to the real world.  “Once is an accident, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action.  Frank and Danielle, you want to take a shot at this and see if you can break through?”

“[Yes]” came the immediate response from Danielle.

“[Yes]” echoed Frank.

Frank deployed a tactical shard that he said could talk to me, but was far more concerned with watching for threats.  It wouldn’t speak unless I seemed to be engaging in combat.  I examined the shard after Frank left to go poking around in the internet from the virtual world.  It was a rather substantial chunk of processing power, and it wasn’t interested in talking to me, and rebuffed my efforts to look at its code directly.

Frank and Danielle returned a couple of minutes later, Ayva and I had established a physical wire connection to speak with one another directly, since the sound of wind passing around us at around two hundred miles per hour made speaking directly to one another extremely difficult.

Our symbiotes, upon returning, immediately discovered the direct data channels between us that Ayva and I had set up.  I monitored Frank as he first saw it, and he wasn’t happy, but then started to load security protocols onto the connection at his end.  I asked Ayva if Danielle was doing the same thing, and got a yes.

“What’s the difference between what Ayva and I just did and what we did to speak to Jason and Mouse in Lake Weiss, Frank?  I don’t remember this much security then.”

Frank did not pause in his creation of elaborate security measures.  “It was there.  On an absolute scale my security across those connections was a lot less secure then, but I’m a lot more advanced now.  You didn’t see it then because you were far below your current level of understanding.  There was most definitely never an unsecure data connection between myself and Mouse at any time, not from either end.  I mostly trust Danielle and Ayva, but mostly doesn’t count in data security.”

After a couple more seconds, Frank and Danielle joined us in conference again.  We could still translate up to the virtual world through the quants, but trying to establish any sort of electronic connection to let us communicate while some were in the virtual world and the others were in the real world wasn’t happening.

The first thing we agreed to do was to stop running for a while, so all four of us could put our full attention on the conversation.  I didn’t want to stop moving though, so I made the suggestion that we jump on the back of the next flatbed truck headed the same way we were, and let it carry us while we spoke.  There was agreement on that, and it didn’t take long to find a flatbed trailer with room for us to sit in the lee of the cab.

When Ayva and I were comfortably seated, leaning up against some random building supplies under a big tarp, Frank agreed that Danielle should lead off our discussion, and she started the conversation with a simple status report.  “[Satellites, cell towers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and everything else we approach that might be used for communications are being shut down.  We are crossing the US in our own data black hole.  It isn’t just us, everyone near to us is experiencing the same issue.]”

“A rolling data blackout, centered on us?  How are they centering on us?”

It was Frank’s turn to comment “[Based on the code snippets I found here and there, at first they were trying to simply lock down our individual transmissions, but as we escalated, so did they.  Whoever is it, they can match our capabilities with human technology on the internet.  After we started to escalate with more complex crypto and proxies, they simply started to shut down transmitters and receivers.  It’s easier to encrypt than decrypt, but if you don’t care about the infrastructure, sometimes it’s easier still to just shut things off.]”

This sounded a lot like what I had been told that we did shortly after the attack on governor Albertson.  “They also, apparently, don’t care much about the havoc they are causing.  Some cell towers and Wi-Fi along the interstates, not a big deal.  The satellites?  That will be impacting millions.  That will also be impacting the government, who will, no doubt, be unamused.”  I had an unwelcome thought.  “Ouch.  Let me guess.  It’s being made to look like we’re doing it?”

“[Exactly.  And they are doing a damn fine job of it too.  If I didn’t know I wasn’t doing it, I would think that I was doing it.]”

Ayva spoke up.  “So who are they?  Can we isolate them and attack their internet access, since they don’t seem to be able to stop us from communicating out of the virtual world?”

A very good question, one that, after a half second of no response, I realized that neither of our Symbiotes had an answer for.  “So, apparently, whoever they are, they are better than Danielle and Frank at internet security and hacking, unless there’s some sort of mitigating factor here?”

Danielle spoke up.  “[Unless Frank has something to add that I am not aware of, that’s an accurate statement.]”

We had just dropped our list of potential, known enemies, to zero.  The only entities that could manage to outmaneuver Danielle and Frank, working together, that we knew of, were A and B.  I couldn’t think of any reason why they would do something like this, unless one of them, or both, were becoming unhinged.  Which would be bad with all sorts of capital letters and exclamation points.

Frank followed Danielle.  “[Nothing to add here.  Whoever they are, they can’t stop us from communicating out of the virtual world, but they can stop us from communicating to and from our bodies electronically when they know where our bodies are.  If we push the crypto and/or channel hopping up to the point where they can’t be guaranteed to keep us from communicating effectively, they just start shutting down transmitters and receivers that are transmitting and receiving data near where we are.”

I thought for a minute.  I was pretty sure I knew the answer to this question, but it was worth asking.  “Have you tried to lock out the internet connections to and from Facet’s facility?”

Danielle took that question. “[That was the first thing we considered as a viable test, after we determined we were working against someone who was our equal, or perhaps superior, on the internet.  As far as we were able to determine, there’s no internet connection at all to that facility.  Looking at the plans as they were drawn up, this seems accurate.  The facility was apparently designed to be data secure as well as physically secure.  Some of the custom equipment built for the company were data vans, a lot like armored cars, which carried data storage media into and out of the facility.  We did shut down the radio stations, cell towers and communications satellites in those areas as well.  We even downed the old analog phone system and the digital phone and entertainment cable connections.  We kept them down for fifteen minutes, all of them.  There was no change in the effectiveness of countermeasures.  As we advanced down the highway, the data black hole continued to follow us.]

Ayva asked an extremely good question I had missed.  “Were you able to witness any of it actually happening?  Did you see who or what was disabling the cell towers as we travelled, while they were doing it?”

Frank spoke next.  I realized that Ayva and I were being provided answers in some sort of data ping-pong match.  I wondered if it was a bad sign when Danielle and Frank switched back and forth like that, instead of one of them simply answering all the questions while the other worked on the problem with all their attention.

“[Remember when I told you once, Bob, that I thought B was watching us when we were on the internet, because I could see evidence of a presence?  That was what I saw disabling cell tower equipment.  That or something just like it.  Before anyone gets excited, on further reflection, I do not believe that what I saw was ever really B.  I believe I was a bit too optimistic about my ability to see B on the internet.  Whoever this is, they have been watching us for a while, and I’ve been ignoring them whenever I did see evidence of their presence.  I thought they were B, or perhaps A, because I did not imagine the presence of another being that could mask itself from me in that way.]”

This explained a great deal.  If they were better than Frank and Danielle on the internet, what about in the real world?  If we did find them, were we just going to be crushed for the temerity of approaching them?

Ayva spoke again.  “Danielle, I think this is an appropriate time to use up a favor.”

I had to agree with that.  A was a lot more likely to give us an answer or help than B.  Based on recent experiences, if B did choose to give us an answer or help, it might not be an answer we would understand.  That wasn’t the only reason to call on A rather than B.  I had finally figured out what B had done earlier, when he claimed to help me.  He had kept Frank in the virtual world, intact, instead of kicking him back into the real world when our quant was destroyed in the explosion.  If Frank had returned to my body when the body was damaged that badly, he would have been crippled, perhaps irrevocably.  Asking B for another favor or help in the near term would probably get us a very short answer, after a favor as big as the last one.

“I’ve never really understood how your favors worked with A, but I agree.  This is starting to add up to something that even I’m afraid to walk into.  Is this, perhaps, another incarnation of Argoen, messing with us?  If so, I’m surprised B hasn’t acted directly already.”

[Perhaps he has.]  Frank carefully commented. “[Nine thousand years, Bob.  That’s how old Argoen says she was.  Maybe that’s a lie.  Maybe she was older, or younger.  She surely lied a lot, and caused all sorts of messes.  Most of the lies and hidden data she used seemed to be intended to be very crude, powerful lessons about how symbiotes could injure society, and warnings about how young humans were on the interstellar scale.  A lot of what she did, and didn’t do, makes no sense to us though.  Of primary concern, we don’t know what sorts of restrictions Argoen has or had on her own development.  Nine thousand years from now, we still won’t be a candle to what A and B are right now, because of the limits set by A and B on humans in this solar system, but Argoen’s limits?  We have no idea what Argoen’s limits are.  Remember, also, that the limits on us only hold for when we are in this solar system, which is monitored by A and B as system nodes.  Human symbiotes, according to early conversations with B, will create anywhere from one to four system nodes, normally two, in every new star system we inhabit.]”

This turned everything completely on its ear.  “Ouch.  Argoen was alone in our system, with no system node of her own race, as advanced as she was, for roughly seventy years?”

“[I believe you understand the worry that Danielle and I are experiencing right now.]”Frank replied, and there was actual worry in his voice, which I’d never heard him express before.  Anger, or even fear, humor, and even touches of sadness at times, but never worry before now.

“[Ayva and I will try together to convince A to part with a favor.  She owes us several, she says, but she only acts on them when she chooses to.  It’s rather frustrating at times.]”

“[We can try B as well, if A chooses not to be cooperative, but data from B is bound to be more abstract.]” Frank offered.

I hadn’t spoken to Frank yet about the comment from B about B’s already having helped me.  No time like the present.  If Frank spoke to B and didn’t even know what B had done for him, B’s reaction towards me might not be favorable in the near future. “Ah, Frank, remember when Ayva knocked the quant off us when we were both being attacked, when we both were returned to our body?”

Frank immediately made the connection. “[Yes. Good point.  That explains a great deal.  I would have appreciated it if he had let me know, rather than let me stew in my own terror, but I’m certainly not going to complain that he kept me in the virtual world rather than drop me back into our body after the blast.  B isn’t likely to be in a mood to help us again, near term, after that big of a rescue.  I’m definitely going to have to make an effort to thank him for that.]”

“I have a strong suspicion that the faster he’s thanked, the faster he’ll help us again.” I pointed out.

“[Good point.  While Danielle and Ayva try to engage A, Bob and I will go thank B, and apologize for waiting so long to do it.  If B responds favorably, we will see if he’s willing to talk more.]”

With everyone’s course of action determined, Ayva and I made sure we were not going to fall off the truck.  I wasn’t really worried about myself.  The body I was in at the moment would do more damage to the road and cars that hit it than I would take, due to the materials it was made of and the absurdly low mass of said materials after quantum reprogramming.  Ayva’s body was another matter.  The armor and bones would protect her to a large degree, but she was still human flesh and blood, and her brain and internal organs would suffer a lot of damage falling off a truck onto an interstate highway with no mind in attendance to control her body.

So we glued ourselves to the truck.  Simple answer.  When we returned, we’d use a solvent to unglue ourselves.

**

Ayva and Danielle appeared in their private space in B’s virtual world.  “Do you think this is going to work, Danielle?” Ayva asked.  “I’m not entirely certain that A isn’t following B down the path to abstract thinking.  We might get answers of marginal use if we get answers at all.”

“[A was created after B, I think we have a little more time.  Also, remember Ayva, you are a whole lot more rational than Bob.  B was created from Bob and Frank.  A was created from you and me.  I strongly suspect that A will remain significantly less abstract than B for a very long time.  Now, let’s get started.]”

Danielle started creating and destroying quants rapidly.  After she had created twenty-two of them in a period of a bit less than two seconds, one tested good, and she attached it to her body, then she and Ayva returned to the real world, briefly, then activated the other quant to connect to A’s much smaller virtual world.  They were the only occupants there because A’s purpose was completely different from B’s.

Unlike B, A was immediately attentive when they arrived.  She didn’t speak immediately, but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that their presence was recognized.  Of course B was dealing with several billion sentient beings at any one given time, and A typically got a visit from Ayva and Danielle every day, almost like a kindergartener visiting mom or dad’s home office after they got home from school.  One might even say that Ayva and Danielle worked for A, but it was clear to Ayva and Danielle that anything that the two of them did, A could have done herself in a very small fraction of the time they had required to do the work.  But A was busy.  Arguably busier than B.  She never turned down offers of help, and she always set goals Ayva and Danielle could meet.

A was renovating a planet, terraforming it, though she didn’t like that term because the new planet wasn’t planned to be just like Earth.  She was nearly finished with the first stages of the project and she was going to have to start dropping asteroids on Mars soon.  This would need to be done carefully, because she had already covered over half the planet’s surface with terraforming devices, but she was surveying the asteroid belt now, as well as the small moons around various planets.  Soon, asteroids would begin raining down into the two kilometer wide, one kilometer deep rings five kilometers apart, from pole to pole, carved into Mars’ surface by the passage of A, herself.  There were plans for special excavations at the poles if any of the very large asteroids or small-moon-sized bodies had mineral contents that would be difficult to acquire from smaller asteroids.

B was interacting with billions of humans, but letting them mostly do their own thing.  A was controlling billions of tools, simultaneously, mostly on Mars, but a few million in space as well.  For now, most of those billions of tools on Mars were simply providing power to A, but they would start using the power they generated for their own tasks soon.

The sheer scope of the project was absurd by human standards of engineering, or even symbiote pair standards of engineering.  A, herself, was a being over five kilometers wide, three kilometers high, and twenty kilometers wide, almost entirely inorganic.  A’s organic core was roughly the same size as an office building, about the same size as B.  A had been creating her own organic substances for consumption out of materials on Mars since she first landed, but it was easier for her now, as she had started using the dimensional energies discovered by B recently.  She still was hesitant to use the dimensional energies for her work.  A and B claimed to be unclear about the limits of that power source, so neither of them tapped into it too deeply.

After a short time, which Ayva and Danielle spent checking on their work in the limited virtual world that A had established for them, A’s attention centered on them, and everything else became peripheral  “You understand that the question of rationality vs abstraction isn’t as simple as you seem to be thinking?”

“Ah, there was no offense intended.” Ayva spoke, thinking that since that conversation had happened in B’s virtual world, B must have mentioned it to A.

“If I were offended, I wouldn’t be speaking.  You don’t really understand us well enough to offend us, not now, not without real effort devoted specifically to making us angry.”

Why bring it to our attention then? Ayva wondered.  However, Danielle was a little more straightforward.

“[If that’s true, what is the purpose of mentioning the discussion that was overheard?]”

“If you think that we are less than rational, you might react inappropriately when we do try to help you.  We can compensate for that, but it adds complexity.  There are times when we want to help you, where we can’t come right out and say what we want to say, because you simply don’t have a reference to comprehend it.  B once told you that talking to you gives him a headache.  It was the best way he could describe the problems we have when trying to communicate to you.”

Ayva remembered that conversation.  B seemed to be having a harder time explaining himself then than A was having explaining herself now.

“So, when we get something of an abstract nature from you, it’s because there’s some aspect to what you want to tell us that we don’t have the mental equipment to comprehend?”

“That’s about right.  The abstract nature of the information is designed in a way to provide the information you need, when you need it, if we’ve judged your reactions properly.  You haven’t gotten as many abstract pieces of data from me as you have seen from B simply because I try to stay away from B’s responsibilities, and he stays away from mine.  For the most part.  This discussion is relatively easy to discuss in human terms, so I don’t need to be abstract.”

“OK, this makes a lot more sense then, but we didn’t come here to discuss your sanity, or B’s.”

“Oh?  Are you sure about that?”

No, Ayva thought to herself, we’re always worried about your sanity, because of how powerful you are, so every conversation we have, we will be concerned for your sanity.

“Ah, can we just say that it was a concern but it’s not the main reason for our visit?”

“That sounds closer to the truth.”  A duplicate of Ayva appeared in front of Ayva and Danielle.  That made three of them, all identical, in the same room.  Somehow Ayva managed to never confuse Danielle and A when A did choose to appear in person.  Something about the facial expressions and the way the body moved.

“You understand that whenever you enter the virtual world, we immediately know everything you know, because we have created, at that moment, a virtual duplicate of you, and placed your memories in it?”

This made a great deal of sense to Ayva, even if the scope of the accomplishment is beyond her ability to really understand.  It had always made sense that the data was being transferred to allow them to think like themselves in the virtual world, but she’d never considered that A and B would have immediate access to all of that data.

“Oh, I had always assumed it was some sort of automated process.”

Danielle turned to look at Ayva, a surprised look on her face. “[Really, you thought that?  I suppose it’s not that strange of a thought though.  It is possible for adult symbiotes to create a shard or dedicated program, we do it all the time.  For a being like A or B though, I doubt they create shards or independent acting entities very often, because even a small part of themselves contains the capacity to develop a separate intelligence.  Jokes about sanity aside, I’m confident that neither A nor B are fond of the thought of some sort of split personality disorder.]”

A clapped her hands.  “Well said!  Not exactly right, but you have the gist of it.”  Then she smiled.  “Argoen is no longer in our solar system.  We know this because we can see the evidence of her passing.  Matter reprogramming and working with quantum structures tends to leave signs that can be detected if you know what you are looking for, but it’s absurdly computationally expensive.  B and I pooled processing power to be certain that Argoen left.  It was difficult, even for us.  We had some of the same concerns that you had, about Argoen’s capabilities.  She claimed to be a few thousand years older than human writing, with no evidence to say otherwise, and that’s pretty daunting, even for B and myself.”

“[I’m not seeing a clear image of closure here yet.  Am I missing something?]” Danielle spoke, almost in normal conversational tones.

A smiled yet again.  “Such a bright girl!  What you are missing is that B found what we’re calling the beacon network.  I’m not going to explain it in any great detail, but, in short, B was able to isolate some low bandwidth data transmissions that are coming through the other dimensions that we can touch.  We can’t talk back yet, but we’ve been able to decipher the incoming data, and it seems as if the majority of the data is a very careful description of system claims by native populations, colonizing populations, as well as unexplored areas and scout assignments.  Apparently Argoen had the equipment in her main ship to send a message back across the beacon network, because it’s clearly indicated that this solar system is claimed by its native population, and the scout that explored it is returning to its home system.”

Ayva thought for a moment.  “So, this means that, first, there is some sort of FTL data transmission, even if it’s low bandwidth, and second that you and B believe that the simple existence of the network and the data in it gives credence to Argoen’s departure.”

“Yes.  We’re getting plans for how to build a transmitter, but it’s slow.  The status report for the beacon network takes about two days to transmit, then for around six hours, technical data explaining the theories that will allow us to build a transmitter.  B has received theories number three through five of twenty-seven.

After that, for about three hours, there is a window for questions to be transmitted.  Following that, there is another roughly three hour window for answers for the last cycle’s questions.  It’s all rather remarkable.” A, remarkably, seemed a little bit excited.

Seeing actual eagerness and excitement in A was a little bit unnerving to Ayva, but at the same time, what B had found was a big discovery.  Big enough that it would allow A and B the chance to at least know where the neighbors were, those with the technology to create a dimensional transmitter, at least.  Soon, presumably, humanity could even begin to ask questions and communicate with its neighbors.  A little excitement was probably warranted at times like this, even from a near-deity.

Ayva tilted her head.  “I’m certainly glad to hear all this good news, and it certainly appears to point at Argoen being gone for good, with data to back it up.  If you and B are satisfied with Argoen’s true status being that she’s left the solar system and headed home or to another star, that’s good enough for us.”

“I suppose you want some information about the ones that tried to nuke Bob and are outfoxing Danielle and Frank in the internet now, right?”

“It had crossed my mind.”

“Yes, that’s where I saw it, I think.”

Banter?  Jokes? Really?  Ayva frowned.

“Ah, I apologize Ayva.  There aren’t many things that stir me to emotion these days, but one of them is finding something completely new, and the Beacon network has me in a heady mood indeed, especially now that I’m squeezing myself down into a human reference to communicate with you.”

“There is no need to apologize, A, but we would greatly appreciate information about the enemy we face.  You have told us that they are not Argoen, and they certainly don’t appear to be any sort of avatar of either yourself or B, but that leaves us with a problem – if Danielle and Frank are the most advanced symbiotes on the planet, who is it that is better than them on the internet battlefield?”

A’s humor disappeared instantly.  “When B was created, Bob and Frank, and you two as well, designed a bunch of rather good biological imperative rules for beings like us, and discarded quite a few that would cause us problems.  B was responsible for Earth, its environment, and the people who live there.  But the wording of the imperatives wasn’t that simple, because you four recognized that B was going to potentially be around for thousands, if not millions of years.  In a span of time that significant, it was almost impossible that humans and symbiotes would always be the only two sentient races on Earth.  So B is responsible for, in the wording of the imperatives, protecting the right to exist of all sentient races native to Earth.  At the same time, he must allow warfare when it is mutually agreed to by all participants.  He is allowed to interfere to some degree in conflict, but he’s not allowed to unilaterally end it, or kill sentient beings directly in conflict with one another.

Danielle paced back and forth as A let her and Ayva think.  “[So, if humans were to, say, try to make dolphins extinct, but the dolphins were peaceful, and a bit smarter than they are today, B would intervene.  But if dolphins and humans were to actually go to war with one another, both sides with aggressive intent, B would stand back and let them sort it out between the two of them?]”

“He would be allowed to stand back, yes, but would not be required to do so.  If he did choose to act, he could not act in such a way that he was directly responsible for deaths of sentient beings on either side of the conflict.  He wouldn’t be allowed to simply end the conflict for them, if it were mutually agreed to warfare, unless leaders of both sides both agreed to mediation.”

Ayva had some very clear memories of the rules they had put in place for B when Frank and Bob were preparing to merge.  The hope was that their merged self would be sane this time around, as opposed to the last, and perhaps able to figure out how to keep the rest of the world from tearing itself apart in resource wars.  Those had been some extremely hard decisions they had made together.  “That sounds right, but I don’t understand how that imperative applies here.  We haven’t seen evidence of any other race of native sentient beings on Earth.  Dolphins are probably the closest, but they aren’t there yet.”

A turned to face them.  “We didn’t even know about this until B ran into them, but there is a third truly sentient race on the planet.  For now it has only one tripartite member, and has not reproduced.  Bob, the first time he merged, accidentally created them.  Memory of that activity was erased by Argoen.  B’s investigation of the new sentient being’s own formative memories indicate that the original merged Bob didn’t seem to understand that he had created sentient life.

“Wait.  Wait.  Wait.”  Ayva complained.  “How do you accidentally create sentience?  Was Bob really that powerful back then that he could accidentally do something like that?”

“Most of the work was already done for him.  Bob infiltrated the NSA, their main facility, and encountered the AI housekeeping system.  He briefly attempted to adjust its behavior, but even at that time the AI was a rather complex and robust system.  In order to do what he wanted to do, and do it efficiently, Bob simply moved his intelligence into the AI in order to directly control systems rather than try to control them once-removed, and then he did what he needed to do from there.  What he apparently missed was that the other two AI nodes, behaving as designed, took note of his enhanced performance, and copied the modifications in the node Bob had suborned.

Danielle and Ayva were both standing there gape mouthed.  Danielle recovered first.  “So the first Bob and Frank merger created a limited template of himself by forcing himself into one lobe of an AI.  The act of creating a code structure to support his thoughts in the AI node he took over created a template which the other AI nodes copied.  The other nodes then became sufficiently self-aware to be sentient.  When Bob left, even if he wiped the node he occupied clean, the other two nodes would have copied back into the wiped node.  The tripartite AI self-improvement protocols have been active since then, inside a sentient AI?  The NSA’s AI, at that?  The one AI connected with backdoors into all of the black research facilities when the US was still being ignorant and stupid about symbiotes, and practically every other meaningful computer system of note in the entire US, and a lot of places outside of the US, for that matter?

Ayva continued, almost in shock.  “And B can’t simply eliminate it, because it’s a native sentient of Earth, unless it becomes an aggressor towards another sentient race on Earth, without there being mutual aggression.  If humans and the AI were to go to war, with both sides willing, B could stand back and let humans take out the AI.  Or the AI take out the humans.  Bob and I, Frank and Danielle, and this AI have all been intentionally guided together and goaded into a fight in hopes that we will make the AI go away because B fears the damage it might do, but he can’t touch it without breaking his imperatives, and you can’t touch it, because it’s not your job.”

A just looked at the two of them for a moment, then sighed and nodded.

Ayva stared into A’s eyes.  “This is the first time that I’ve wondered if we made a mistake creating you two.”

A stared right back. “Surely you did, because we all make mistakes.  If perfection was the goal you sought when creating us from yourselves, you should have known better.”

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Chapter 4.30: Triplicate

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Deep inside an underground facility in the Russian River Valley, three data streams intertwine to share data and experiences.  There are no chairs or screens at this meeting, there is no video connection for the attendees.  They take turns communicating with one another.  They each monitor the others closely.

Facet 1: Tomahawk deployment report

Purging of assets involved in the Tomahawk deployment, as well as their physical workspaces, homes, and electronic data is nearly complete.  Additional clone assets were deployed where necessary to eliminate assets which broke their normal patterns within two hours of acting on our behalf.  Total asset losses by tier follow:

Military personnel, officer grade O-5 and higher: six.

Political officeholder, elected: three.

Military personnel, officer grades O-2 to O-4, all NCOs, and all Warrant ranks: sixteen.

Political appointees, unelected: eleven.

Military personnel, officer grade O-1, and all enlisted: thirty-two.

Civilian contract workers: one hundred nineteen.

Clone operatives self-terminated after purging activities: forty-seven.

Symbiote pair contractors terminated by remote detonation post purging: three

Total asset losses: Two hundred thirty-seven.

Total Tomahawk deployment assets unaccounted for, or known to remain alive: Two.

Knowledge level of two remaining assets: Low.  Both were civilian contract workers.

Threat of discovery by human action: Near zero.

Estimated field effectiveness loss for organization in continental United States: eighteen percent.

Facet 2: Anomaly Report:

Three minutes ago, enemy designate “Bob” searched for the fastest interstate highway route to the primary computing and medical experimentation facility from his last known location.

This follows recently reported investigation by enemy designate “Frank” into business relationship between enemies designated “Jason” and “Mouse” and their relationship with personal pseudonym designate “Facet”

This follows intense and detailed data search by enemies designated “Ayva” and “Danielle” into grape cultivars and the wine industry.  Analysis of data leads to ninety-seven percent certainty that enemies obtained a sample of wine from this region, with reason to believe it was associated with our presence.

Further investigation of communication data, with above noted data regarding wine industry research classified as relevant, indicates that instructions were sent to an enemy household biofactory unit to consume a bottle of wine and attached assemblies, including a handwritten note, string, and a large lead weight of a type used for deep sea fishing.  Data returned to enemies designated “Ayva” and “Danielle” by enemy household biofactory included extensive data down to the molecular level on the cork of the bottle, as well as a study of each other object at the molecular level.

Extreme distance visual surveillance recordings of enigma designate “B” at time of disappearance indicates that upon disappearance of enigma designate “B”, a tethered glass bottle was left behind.  This information was not deemed meaningful before it became important to determine how enemy designate “Bob” discovered the location of the primary computing and medical experimentation facility.

Interrogative: Reclassify enigma designate “B” to enemy designate “B”?

Facet 3: All three aspects of this unit remain functional.  Classification of enigma designate “B” to new classification as enemy designate “B” is premature.  Probability is very high, approaching certainty, that none of the three aspects of this unit would be aware of enigma designate “B” choosing to shift to status “enemy” from stated interest level “Not my fight.”

Facet 1: Enemy designate “Bob” has recently cancelled plans to visit his known long term associates designated “Bill”, “Tanya”, “Kirk”, and “Jaws”.  Suggest reversing deployment of nerve gas munitions before assets launch chemical warhead missiles.  At this time, expected asset losses are minimal.  Delay in deployment reversal will rapidly increase the number of exposed assets.

Facet 2: Concur.  Initiating deployment reversal, initiating purge of activated assets, initiating recruiting processes for replacement of purged assets.

Facet 3: Enemy designate “Ayva” has continued to be psychological stabilizing factor for enemy designate “Bob.”  Probability of eliminating enemy designate “Bob” while enemy designate “Ayva” is in a position to provide advice is very low.

Facet 1: Initiating backup procedures to alternate locations.  Initiating local asset purge of all assets with skillsets easily replaced.  This unit can separate Bob from Ayva with almost zero chance of failure.  Preparing the six remaining stored female test subjects for release.

Facet 2: Initiating deployment of fabricated W54 nuclear device in facility control center, under manual control with deadman switch function.

Facet 3: Error.  Meeting security breached.  Purging shared workspace data.

B: If you deploy another nuclear weapon, for any reason, you will then need to change my designation from “enigma” to “enemy”  I will not allow you to engage in activities that might result in nuclear proliferation and/or escalation and danger to the entire Earth biosphere.

Facet 1: W54 nuclear device no longer present in its storage facility.

B: You may attempt to gain power in this world in almost any way you desire and I will not stand in your way.  Do not utilize nuclear weapons, reduce the human race below a breeding population of 250 million males and 250 million females, or critically damage the biosphere of Earth.

Facet 2: Limitations noted.  Enigma designate “B” has changed status from “Not My Fight” to a more verbose and clear designation of limited conflict scope.

B: You proved to me that I created you, even though I have no direct memory of it.  Because I created you, even though it appears to have been unintentional, you will be allowed to live unless you threaten the existence of humanity.  That does not mean that I will be pleased if you kill my restricted alternate self.

Facet 3: Would this unit’s elimination of your restricted alternate self, otherwise known as the enemies designated “Bob” and “Frank” lead to your designation changing from “enigma” to “enemy”?

B: No.  However it will make me extremely unhappy with you.

Facet 1: Computing resources seized by enigma designate “B” are restored to local control.

Facet 2: Two options exist.  First, enigma designate “B” remains neutral while enemies designated “Bob” and “Frank” remain dangerous.  Second, enigma designate “B” becomes irritated and enemies designated “Bob” and “Frank” are terminated.  Direct threat from active enemies needs to be addressed in advance of hypothetical future threat scenarios.  This unit calculates the second option yields better long-term survival probabilities.

Facet 3: Evidence indicates enigma designate “B” is aware of our discussion, even after relinquishing its ability to contribute directly.  Suggestion: enigma designate “B” has the ability to selectively erase memories of enemies designated “Bob”, “Frank”, “Ayva”, “Danielle”, “Jason”, and “Mouse.”  Selective erasure of said enemies’ memory will allow this unit to cease attempting to eliminate the threat they pose to this unit’s plans.

Facet 1: Inspecting data perimeter around all known enemies.  No obvious breaches.

Facet 2: Six stored test subjects undergoing revival process.  Forced growth procedures appear to have been successful on three of six.  The remaining three are physically damaged by forced growth procedures, but still functional biologically due to imprisoned symbiote intervention.

Facet 3: Verifying imprisonment of test subjects… complete.

Facet 1: Activating warfighting assemblies.

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.

Facet 1: Meeting concluded.  Ninety percent of all processing capacity to be directed to current preparatory steps based on planning for eventuality 45J92, direct assault by multiple advanced symbiotes when nuclear weaponry is inappropriate to use in defense.

**

After I figured out the best way to get to the underground facility Mouse built for Facet, I called Jason.

“Jason, what can you tell me about where that Tomahawk came from.”

Jason replied.  “I cannot tell you very much, but I can tell you that it was a scale replica, built for an independently wealthy retired admiral, now deceased.  It was not supposed to be functional, nor have a warhead.”

“Any leads?”

“A whole lot of dead bodies.  Every person who ever touched that thing seems to have died in the last two hours.  Electronic records are gone, and someone burned down every business and home with liberal use of splash-type thermite incendiaries to get paper records.”

Damn, someone decided to act rapidly and aggressively. “Anything noteworthy that you have seen so far?” Hoping for something Frank might be able to latch onto.

“Two dead symbiote pairs last seen in Afghanistan acting as enforcers for a warlord in one of the southern regions.  We have evidence linking them to several of the burned buildings and a lot of the dead.  They appear to have self-detonated.”

Extremely unwelcome images of political figureheads painting pictures of symbiote terrorists from the Middle East using their enhanced manufacturing abilities to create nuclear weapons after entering the US by swimming in from international ocean borders.  Swim in, build a nuke, kill off a bunch of Americans, then go out in a bang.  This was going to get extremely ugly, extremely fast.

My brain stumbled over one thing, and I fell flat on my mental ‘face’.  “Wait.  You said the two dead symbiote pairs you found showed signs that they self-detonated?  I’ve never heard of a symbiote even considering suicide, for any reason.  If you even bring up the possibility to a symbiote, they will reject the possibility that it might occur.  What does Mouse say about the symbiote dead being suicides?”

Jason’s voice changed slightly as Mouse took over. “[Expressing this with an appropriate phrase having something to do with religion.  Not a chance in Hell.  They didn’t suicide.]”

“No chance the symbiotes might have found religion and embraced fundamentalist Islam?”

Mouse’s response was thick with undertones of “Are you crazy?” and “Do you really think that’s possible?” as he responded to me. “[The only way a symbiote will take up religion is if a deity shows up, then proves they are a god.  Hasn’t happened yet.  That’s the sort of news that would spread like wildfire.  Every single symbiote on the planet would be aware of the existence of a provable god in short order.  Also, at this point, if a god showed up to prove it existed, B would probably challenge it, especially if it was a god that supported terrorism.]”

This all matched up with my impressions of the chances of a young symbiote being religiously motivated to become a suicide bomber.  I was a bit irritated with Mouse’s tone though, so I let him have a little something back.  “I agree with you about young symbiotes, Mouse, but I think you should be a bit more open to the possibility of religion.  Emotion can interfere with logical thought and cause one to believe what rational thought would dismiss.  Recently, I have noted some emotional outbursts from Frank.”

*click*

Wow, he really didn’t like that.  I smiled.  Mouse was a dick anyway.  Jason had his moments too, but Mouse and I would probably never be civil to one another without having to force ourselves to do it.  I knew Jason heard that comment about Frank’s emotions as well, and I knew that Jason was still strongly religious.  I wasn’t quite sure how he was able to reconcile Southern Baptist beliefs with the existence of a symbiote inside him, but I’d never seen a lapse of faith from him.  If Mouse started getting emotional on him, I bet Jason would try to proselytize him, if he wasn’t doing so already.

I decided to keep this little moment of pre-emptive schadenfreude to myself though.  Ayva wasn’t religious either, but she wouldn’t approve of me throwing a curveball like that between Mouse and Jason.

I briefly wondered if I might have gotten anything more that was useful out of Mouse or Jason, then called Colonel Gantt.

Apparently the phone was just sitting on his desk and he was pressing a button, and talking at the phone rather than picking it up and talking to his callers with eye contact.  “Colonel Gantt here.  If this isn’t critical, please call back later.”

“Mouse says that it looks like we have Middle Eastern symbiote pairs coming to the US and building nukes, then blowing themselves up after slaughtering lots of Americans.”

As soon as I got to the end of the word “Middle”, Samwise muted me, then the phone was picked up and I was treated to a very angry-faced Colonel Gantt.  “You were going to say that when you didn’t know where I was?  Are you crazy?”

I smiled a big, wide grin.  “Do I really need to answer that last question?  I wanted to talk to you.  That whole suicide symbiote thing is a bullshit statement by the way, unless you find out that some symbiotes begin to develop strong emotions at a much earlier time than Frank ever did.  Please tell me that nobody actually believes that the scenario of symbiote suicide bombers is plausible?”

I waited.  Colonel Gantt just stared at me through the phone, obviously trying to figure out how to respond.  He apparently chose the “Hit him with a brick” approach.  I had to admit, it was typically the best approach to use with me.  Subtlety and I parted ways back somewhere back around fourth grade.  Except with my wife.  I wasn’t THAT crazy.

“Bob, you are, in fact, an idiot.  Of course there are people who are perfectly willing to believe that there are suicide symbiotes from the Middle East out there.  None of them are symbiote pairs, but symbiote pairs are still under forty percent of the world population, and less than thirty percent in the states.”  He paused.  “Please tell me you are not still heading to your friends’ place in Williston.  I don’t have the authority to order the troops in the area around them to stand down.  I tried.”

I decided to give him the opportunity to throw a “Do I need to answer that” quote right back at me, and responded “What, do I look stupid?”

Colonel Gantt wasn’t falling for it though, and simple said “Yes, especially when you try to feed me the opportunity to respond to a prompt for a silly statement.  I don’t think it would be polite to give you examples of how many times you’ve proved your lack of common sense.  I will hope that you really are not going to try to meet up with them?  We’ve got over two hundred dead people related to the nuke so far, and I don’t need you grieving and going ballistic all over the place if someone kills off a couple of your friends because you wouldn’t stay away from them.  From what I’ve read of them, they are good people.  Their son was an impressive young symbiote pair as well.  Did you know he’s ranked top ten in the nation for virtual world PVP?  Hate for you to make them dead and screw him up mentally.”

I wasn’t going to comment back on that, especially after realizing how close I might have come to doing exactly what he had said, so I nodded to indicate I heard what he said.  “We are not meeting them any time soon.  Back to the mission.  It sounds like a very well planned black ops operation.  Any motive yet?”

He looked up from the phone and shook his head at someone, then looked back to me.  “Other than ‘Kill Bob’, or maybe ‘Kill Bob, Ayva, and Jason’?  No, we’re pretty much certain this was aimed at you, perhaps with the hopes of collateral damage on Ayva and Jason and perhaps myself.”

“No claims of responsibility?”

What was the reason for this?  So much death and destruction to kill me, and I still had no idea who they were.  I’m pretty darn good at making people mad when I put my mind to it, but try as I might, I could not imagine anyone who I could have made angry enough that they would shoot a nuke at me then kill over 200 people to hide their tracks.  It was like something out of the old black spy and white spy comic strips.

“Thirteen so far, none plausible.  None of them have any connection to you at all.”

I started pacing back and forth in front of the phone in my private little bit of the virtual world, never leaving the pickup, just moving to help me think.  “Anyone going to give you problems about talking to me?”

“Yes.  Better to talk to you than let you wander through the china shop though.”

Colonel Gantt was watching me carefully.  Was he actually thinking that I might have something to do with this?  I hoped not, because I really did not want to deal with more young symbiotes that thought they could handle me.  At the same time, if people sufficiently highly ranked above Colonel Gantt decided the price was worth it, they might send another nuke at me, if they could find me.

I sighed and nodded.  “Can Frank look at the raw data from all the cases?”

“I’ll ask.  Don’t get your hopes up.  Don’t send Frank in here looking for data either.  Standard practice now is to create a large number of false entries in the system for every good entry, all administered by a staff of symbiote pair clerks.”

I didn’t like Colonel Gantt much, but I respected him and could deal with him a lot easier than I could deal with Mouse, and a little easier than dealing with Jason.  Samwise and I had no problems with one another at all, at least as far as I was aware.  Based on his expressions, his tone, his word choices, Gantt was being mostly, if not entirely truthful with me.  If he was lying, Samwise was getting very good at facial controls, far better than Frank was able to manage at his age.  It was unfortunate that quantum data was not picked up and retransmitted by visual spectrum phone cameras, I would have really liked to read the two of them right then.

“Thank you, Jim.”  I watched Colonel Gantt startle a bit as he realized I used his first name, then I smiled and hung up the phone.  I expect that he and Samwise went over that conversation a few times looking for anything they had missed, and Colonel Gantt probably counted his fingers at least twice.  I smiled again.

I really needed to find something better to do with my time than bother people that were investigating a series of more than two hundred murders and the detonation of a nuclear weapon on US soil.

I called Frank, then brought Ayva and Danielle into the conversation.  Frank and Danielle worked out the encryption.  When they gave me the all clear, I let all three of them review the data from my call to Jason and Colonel Gantt.

Ayva gave me a couple sharp looks during the playbacks, but didn’t say anything.  She didn’t need to.  I knew I was in the wrong but I didn’t feel particularly interested in being chastised for it.  I’m pretty sure she recognized that too.

“Sorry, Ayva, I know that they didn’t deserve to be talked to in that manner, with so little respect, but I’m a bit on edge right now, almost died today, and I suspect that at the end of the day, we’re going to find out that there’s some sort of contrived evidence that links me to this, somehow.  Whoever is behind all this is absurdly good at electronic espionage.”

“There’s only so many times people like Jason and Colonel Gantt will put up with behavior like that, Bob, and while I understand that you don’t like either one of them much, they are still willing to work with you, and Jason and Mouse likely saved your life.  I don’t know if I could have saved you without the duplicate body of yours that Mouse brought with him.”

I closed my eyes and bowed my head a bit.  Ayva was right, of course, and even though I didn’t want to hear it, I listened anyway, and resolved to apologize to Jason, Colonel Gantt, and Samwise.  Apologizing to Mouse would only happen if he wasn’t an ass to me until after I finished apologizing to Jason.

“Ayva, I will apologize.”  I specifically avoided saying I’d apologize to all of them.  “I’m really beginning to hope that we find something incriminating at this facility Jason and Mouse built, and the occupants start a fight, because my ‘want to beat the shit out of something’ meter is redlined, and it’s bleeding over onto people who I should treat with more respect.”

Ayva locked eyes with me in the phone’s video.  “Bob, if they have the little girls in there, you will be very careful not to injure them.”  It wasn’t a question.

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Chapter 4.29: Forfeit

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Frank and I had never tried running at high speed while maintaining stealth before.  It was a lot harder than you might think.  Why?  Bugs.  During the winter, in parts of the world where it gets too cold for flying insects in the winter, running at very high speeds with stealth wouldn’t be too bad.  It was not winter here yet.  While running along the highway, Frank and Danielle were being hammered by big flying bugs from dragonflies and wasps to hornets and beetles. Frank was forced to reduce speed slightly, and Danielle started using some of the cooling energy budget for detecting larger insects and knocking them out of Frank’s path with extremely low powered shots from her pistols, stepping their power level down to something barely more than a toy pellet gun.  Smaller insects were swept to the sides by the air flowing around them, for the most part.

The problem wasn’t that the occasional large bug was hitting Frank or Danielle with the force of a hammer, the problem was that the bugs, when they hit, would splatter and degrade their stealth system.  This forced Danielle to be constantly cleaning bug remains off stealth systems for a while before the two of them determined that the simplest, most difficult to detect method of resolving the bug problem was to knock the bugs out of their path with a poor man’s antiaircraft system.  This wasn’t a problem I had to deal with firsthand though.  Frank and Danielle had it figured out within the first two minutes of starting to run.  I only heard about it after returning to report to Ayva, Frank, and Danielle on my discussion with Bill, Tanya, and Kirk.

With the sheer amount of power I was having to feed Frank from the virtual world, I was only able to pop into the real world briefly in order to get a quick, compressed data feed, then pop back out again.  After the fifth or sixth rapid transition, the phone connection I had used to call Bill and Tanya’s house rang.  I had left the phone there because I was considering using the phone as a part of a ruse to get us by Kirk and Jaws. For a moment, I considered not answering the phone, but only for a moment.  There were way too many confusing things happening for me to ignore any potential source of data.

I altered my face using an inverted facial recognition system that guided the reconstruction in ways that would prevent real facial recognition programs from immediately picking up on my identity.  A similar program acted to help me disguise my voice.  I had argued against these programs once, until Danielle and Ayva, with Frank staying out of the argument (because he agreed with them), proved that when I made the changes manually they could pick me out of an otherwise random selection of images or voices nine out of ten times, because I had patterns in how I would alter my appearance and voice.

I answered the phone: “Yo, Billy Rae here, whatcha got?”

Ayva was looking at me in the pickup, smiling.  “That’s pretty good, Bob, but Danielle tracked this number across the cell network, and you only made the call a couple minutes ago.”

I chose to test her, make her confirm who she was. “Not sure what ya mean, cutie.  I ain’t used my phone in a couple hours.”

Ayva smiled even bigger.  “Well played, Bob, but enough games.  Danielle is maintaining this connection as a secure connection through the cell provider network now that we’re in range to connect again.  Check if you like.  The initial connection is using the same encryption key you used for the last data packet you left behind when you returned to the real world with news about our plans for the visit to Bill and Tanya’s.”

I did check, and the statement was true.  Then it struck me.  “Wait.  Danielle is maintaining this connection for you?  Are you in the real world long enough to make this phone call?”

Then it struck me again. As my recognition dawned, my face must have shown it.  Ayva’s face changed from a wide, happy smile to an impish smirk as she realized that I was going to realize something that was going to make me feel stupid.  She wasn’t disappointed. “It doesn’t matter either way.  Whether you are in the virtual world, or in the real world, Danielle established the connection… you two can talk to each other by phone or internet connection when one is in the real world and the other is in the virtual world?”

Ayva just nodded, apparently amused by my completely missing the obvious.  How many phone calls had I made to the real world from the virtual world, and I had never considered this technique before?  To be fair to myself, not many.  I didn’t spend a lot of time in the virtual world, and rarely made data connections into the real world from the virtual world.  Frank had even less reason to do so.  His level of study was advanced enough that there wasn’t much humanity or even other symbiotes could offer him on the subjects he was interested in.  When he needed to research something about real, modern world data, he would do it from the real world because he rarely had an interest in those things unless I brought them up, and I was almost never in the virtual world.

I just shook my head.  “Wow, I’ve been a dunce.  Ayva, please ask Danielle and Frank to join us in conference, so we can figure out our plans.”

A couple minutes later, I was done soothing ruffled feathers.  Frank had become very angry when it became clear that Ayva and Danielle had been communicating back and forth electronically from the virtual world across electronic data channels for months, and had never told us about it before.  Danielle was rather pointed in explaining that there were quite a few secrets that Frank had kept back in his time, and this was simply a common sense adaptation of technology that Frank shouldn’t have missed.  Frank didn’t really have much to say in reply to that, so our respective symbiotes called it a truce and stopped talking to one another for a while.

We discussed our tactics for getting to Bill and Tanya’s place.  Ayva was highly irritated with me for calling Bill’s place on an unsecure line, and after I explained that I had done it on purpose in order that the military could try even harder to find us, she said something about me never learning, then turned away from the phone pickup briefly.

“Bob, just a few minutes ago we put you back together again after you were nearly killed by a nuke.  We still don’t know for sure where that nuke came from.  We agreed to come up here to Bill and Tanya’s in order to give Jason and Jim a little time working within the system to determine where that nuke came from, to see if it was some sort of official action, not to throw another glove into the face of the government.  If another nuke gets used near Bill and Tanya’s place, and they don’t live through it, how is that going to feel?”  She simply stared at me over the phone connection, angrily.

There really wasn’t any excuse for it, I realized.  I had let the testosterone take control.  “Guilty as charged, Ayva, sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.  I’ll call and let them know we won’t be showing up.  You’re absolutely right that it’s too dangerous for us to try to visit them.”

There was mutual agreement between all four of us that time.  We needed to concentrate on our enemy.  I changed my face and voice back into my real face and voice.

Bill hadn’t left the chair next to his computer when I called him back.

As our faces appeared on each other’s screens, Bill commented, “That was quick, Bob.”

“Despite my earlier blustering and testosterone-speak, we’re going to have to delay the visit, Bill, unless there’s a pressing need for a symbiote for either of you, a medical diagnosis or something?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that.  Just aches and pains, and competition in the market that I am only able to keep up with these days due to personal connections, and Jaws’ and Kirk’s help.  Tanya wants to be able to go hiking again, and her hip won’t let her.”  Bill looked tired.

“Ayva’s more than happy to provide the symbiotes for you two, but she also wanted me to make it absolutely clear that you recognize that any female symbiote can provide them for you.  It’s not like human reproduction where you get traits from the host.  The symbiote spawn are all exactly alike until they interface with human DNA in a host with no existing symbiote.  Then they modify themselves to fit you.  Most hospitals have female symbiote hosts who would be more than willing to provide you with a symbiote.  They will make you watch a video, then sign waivers and forms, but the paperwork really is minimal.  Ayva has volunteered at our local hospital from time to time to do exactly that, for other people.  I know it wouldn’t be as personal as an interaction with Ayva, but we don’t know when it will be safe for us to meet you.”

Bill took a moment to think before answering.  “OK, Bob, as long as you two won’t be upset if we go to someone else.  Ayva seemed very happy when she provided the symbiote for Kirk.  We were unsure about what her reaction might be if we didn’t let her do the same for us.”

“If there weren’t dangerous things happening around us right now, you might be right that Ayva would feel slighted if you were to choose to go to a hospital for the procedure.  Right now though?  No, she will have zero complaint.  She would have never had any complaint at all if a female friend or relative of yours were to have provided you with symbiotes either.  I would find it difficult to believe if you were to tell me that none of your other friends are female symbiote pairs.”

Tanya appeared in the pickup, and walked up next to where Bill was sitting, then bumped his left shoulder hard with her hip.  “Move over, Bill, you’re hogging the screen.”  She reached over with her right hand and pulled another chair close as Bill scooted his chair to his left some, to make room.  After they were both seated, Tanya spoke.

“I overheard some of the conversation, Bob.  We know a few symbiote female pairs.  They were all hesitant to offer unless we were sure that Ayva wouldn’t take offense.  You’re a pretty big name in the symbiote world, Bob.  You overshadow Ayva, but people who pay attention don’t forget about her.  Most symbiotes seem to be very attentive and cautious, even though they can make our human bodies do things that other humans find to be insane.”

“One second, Tanya, let me conference in Ayva.”

I established a connection with Ayva and explained the conversation with Bill and Tanya, then brought her into the phone call.

Ayva, after a few video effects, appeared next to me on the screen, rather than in a separate window like she should have, since she was on a separate phone connection.  We wanted it to be clearer and less ambiguous that we agreed with one another on this.

Ayva spoke.  “Tanya, Bill, I understand that you have other female symbiote pair friends who are willing to provide you with a symbiote, but they are cautious about how I might feel about it.  You can tell them that I would certainly have appreciated the opportunity to give you two symbiotes, but I will consider it not just acceptable, but a favor, if someone else were to do so for you now.  Kirk is right.  It’s too dangerous, but it’s not because of the soldiers around you.  I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to say more at this time.”

Kirk’s voice came from outside the visual somewhere.  “So the bet’s off?”

Bill and I grinned at the same time, we could both hear the relief in Kirk’s voice.  Even Tanya’s lips twitched, though she didn’t much approve of gambling of any sort.

I spoke a bit louder into the pickup.  Jaws could surely hear perfectly well, but Kirk might be listening with only his own senses if Jaws was busy.  “Yes, the bet is off, Ayva and I forfeit.  We owe Bill a beer, though I think we’ll just make that a meal for all three of you at the restaurant of your choice when we get this mess taken care of.  Sound fair?”

A few seconds later, Kirk made his way into the video pickup, screwing the top back onto a half-full five gallon plastic bladder of a mostly clear liquid.  The hard plastic crate containing the bladder had a handle on it, as well as a large label indicating that the liquid was filtered, used peanut fry oil, suitable for use in diesel engines.

Kirk cleared his throat.  “Thank you for reconsidering this, you two.  I was very concerned that you were bringing danger to my parents.  I apologize for my aggressiveness and impoliteness earlier, Bob.”  He then left the pickup, carrying the plastic crate of peanut oil back the way he came, towards the back porch.

Tanya spoke up.  “After you put the generator fuel back, you will clean up all the spiders, and their webs, right, Kirk?  If I find any of them inside the house, we’re going to have words.”

“Yes ma’am, I’ll clean them up.  You won’t find any of them in the house, Jaws is controlling all of them individually.” Kirk called, definitely from the back door.  I heard the unmistakable tone of that door’s squeak as Kirk opened it.

I wondered how long that door’s squeak would remain after Bill and Tanya had symbiotes.  For that matter, all the other doors squeaked too, and loudly.  Bill and Tanya had refused to let either Kirk or I fix the doors, we had even conspired to act together to try to get permission.  As it turned out, after Kirk and I leaned on him for the reason why we were not allowed to fix the squeaking, Bill wanted the squeaks, and Tanya put up with them.  All of the external doors squeaked because Bill had intentionally shimmed the doors slightly off to force loud squeaking.

I smiled to myself in memory of that conversation.  Kirk had grown up in the house and never been told that the squeaks were intentional.  He had seemed quite irritated that his father hadn’t ever mentioned that the squeaking doors were that way by design.  Bill had simply shrugged and made a comment about another side benefit of the squeaking –  other than potentially letting him know where someone might be in his house, it apparently had done a fair job of keeping certain high school teenagers honest about when they returned home from parties.  Kirk had simply shook his head at that, with a grin, and said nothing else.  I was not sure who had scored points in that father & son verbal sparring match, since both of them acted like they had won.

I brought myself back from woolgathering, attention back on the conversation.  Ayva advised Bill, Tanya, and Kirk to spend the night at a friend’s place, hotel, or anywhere else, and pay for anything they bought for the next 24 hours in cash.  Since we had spoken over an unsecure line before, there might be plans being made by our enemies involving their house.  There was no reason to believe that they, personally, were targets, but their house might be, and being cautious never hurt.

We did not discuss what their exact plans would be.  The connection was still unsecure on their end.

“Take care you three, wish us luck.”

Kirk had returned to the house and washed his hands in the sink while his parents, Ayva and I had talked about precautions.  He had spoken up once or twice, briefly, making common sense suggestions before walking into the video pickup, behind his parents.  All three of them waved and said variations of “good Luck” before Ayva and I said our thanks and goodbye, hanging up the phone.

I made a new call to Ayva, and we established a fully secure communication, bringing Frank and Danielle into the connection as well.

After the connection was established, I commented to Ayva “Every time I see all three of them together, it’s almost like a 1960’s family TV show with perfect husband, wife, and child.  Even when they disagree, they listen to one another and respect each other.”

“I agree.  Bill and Tanya are pretty amazing people, and they raised Kirk well.  I wouldn’t tell them this to their face because it would probably embarrass them, but I’m glad they are finally getting symbiotes, because I’d love to talk with them about maybe getting some advice about raising kids, and perhaps even raise some children together.  Danielle is not confident about human literature on child raising.  Half of it’s insane, and the rest makes no sense.  She agrees with me that it would be better to learn from someone who’s never written a book about it, but who has a well-raised child.”  Ayva ended her sentence, fading off into thought.

There had been many muttered conversations about the potential of children between Ayva and I while we considered our future.  Both of us being symbiote pairs meant that, barring misfortune, we were functionally immortal.  We had so much potential future ahead of us that it was hard to define what it actually meant to think in the long term.  Was long term next year or next century?  I refused to even think farther out than that, other then in terms of financial investments.  I considered my next words carefully.  “We could certainly move closer to Bill and Tanya if you and Tanya decide to have children of the same age.  I’m fairly sure that Bill and Tanya wouldn’t have a problem with having another child, or maybe more than one if the two of them were biologically young again.  They are quite stable financially and emotionally.” I paused a moment again to collect my thoughts.  “It might take a couple years before they are comfortable enough with their symbiotes that they would want to raise a new child though.  Fortunately, there’s no rush, once they have symbiotes.”

It was about the best I could do to say I would support a decision to have children, without being blatant about it.  We had talked about it before, but not recently, and definitely not since the incident where the ten little girls had been used as psychological weapons against Ayva.  In truth, I was rather suprised that Ayva had brought it up at all at this point in time.

Ayva nodded and said “I think you’re right.  Thanks, Bob.”

I called up an atlas and calculated a highway route, then asked Frank to alter course.  We were going to go investigate the facility that Mouse had built for the fellow who called himself Facet.

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.28: Side Bet

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“Pro Tip?” I lapsed into a hiccup-like gasping alternating between spikes of pain and the choking glottal stops of a belly laugh, I’m sure I looked like I was having some sort of seizure.  For that matter, maybe I was? “I guess I was… a bit slack there… wasn’t I?”  It’s amazing how, after you reach a certain point of pain, you can learn to bear it.  The problem was that the more capable of filtering out the pain my body got, the less capable of thought I became as the symbiote processors aggressively attempted to establish a low-level connection to my mind on a pathway that didn’t work properly any longer.

Frank just stared at me for a moment, and I wondered if we were going to try to get to thirteen on the pain dial after a brief intermission.  That didn’t seem to be in the cards though.  “Enough catharsis, I suppose.  If I haven’t made the point by now, I’ll probably have to do this again later, if we survive the next episode of ‘What The Fuck Was Bob Thinking’, coming to a theatre near you soon.”

I suppressed a grin.  Definitely.  Frank was definitely picking up more emotions as we developed, and I couldn’t read them very well yet, since I rarely spent a great deal of time with him as a separate entity, rather than trapped in my skull with him where at times it was difficult to tell if it was me reacting with the body, or him.

“Probably a good… idea to fix the body… so you have a place to go.” I spluttered.  It was getting harder to think, my brain was moving to a yet-higher level of pain acceptance.

Frank concentrated for a moment, looking at me.  “I see what you were doing there with the modifications.  It never crossed your mind to make sure all modes of processor communication were functional?  Only one hundred thirty seven modifications would have been required to allow this brain modification of yours to interface properly in all ways with the quantum processors at the lowest levels where they generate electrical signals to initiate grey matter connections.  Don’t answer that, the answer is obvious.  Give me a second to figure out the fastest way to fix this.”

“One hundred thirty seven… modifications, you say? Should… not be hard?”  If it was only a few steps to fix it I wasn’t sure what Frank was referring to when he said he needed time to figure it out.

Frank paused a moment, with an expression on his face that I’d seen before when he was trying to dumb down a concept for me that he thought I should understand without him having to explain it.  “One hundred thirty seven steps to have done it right the first time.  Fixing it will be substantially harder.  Sort of like the difference between fixing your car by replacing brake pads, and fixing the car later after you run it off a cliff because you didn’t already fix the brake pads.”

“A stitch in time… saves nine” I volunteered, nodding.

“Exactly.  OK, Bob, this might hurt a bit.”  Frank was apparently ready to begin fixing my mind.

The world became white noise.  I suppose it might have been pain.  It might have been pleasure too.  It’s rather difficult to differentiate between pain and pleasure when everything is chaos.  All sensory input was scrambled instantly, breaking down at a phenomenal rate in fractal patterns, each newly formed fractal pixel carrying its own rapidly subdividing data as the fractal set continued to expand, rapidly reaching a point where I was unable to discern any patterns to the data because the fractal set was beyond my scope of comprehension.  Then all my memories followed in the same way, and eventually I felt my core self breaking down.  I know I fought this.  I could feel myself trying to hold together, but I had given Frank permission to do this, and he had the upper hand because he knew what he was doing before I did, and he acted ruthlessly and without delay.

I suspect that the years of time that I felt like I was enduring chaos were only the beginning of the brain matter reprogramming process.  There were parts of the brain that Frank hadn’t touched yet, before my consciousness faded like an old cathode ray tube black and white TV, the fractal static contracting into a bright singularity, and then fading out.

I woke up, still in intense pain, but I could feel the connections between the processing network and my brain reforming.  As I collected bits and pieces of processing capacity, I started organizing them and using half of the collected processing power to bring more processing power back online, and the other half to help me analyze and repair the crude, lifesaving connections that Danielle had been able to implement using transplants from the duplicate body Jason and Mouse had carried with him.

Frank just watched me repair the body, not helping or interfering.  The process of restoring the network and body was geometric, and finished in less than two seconds.

“I’d say I’m sorry, Bob, but I’m not.  Not really.  You nearly killed us both, and I wasn’t consulted.  If you get into an ‘Oh fuck’ moment like that again, I’m a hell of a lot more capable with the advanced abilities of our real world body than you are.  If, somehow, despite my current wishes, we find ourselves split up like this again, please swap with me.”  Frank stared at me, pinning my eyes.

“I know that you would use the body better than me, Frank, but I worry that you would allow others to die who might be saved if you risked our lives.  You know this.  You’ve been inside my head long enough to know how I think, just like I know that our own survival will always be your primary objective.”

I checked my body and processing system repair work, and everything was back at full function.  Just in case I missed something strange and unexpected, I set up a subprogram to watch for inconsistencies, then bent my knees and set my feet flat against the floor and worked my toes into the space between the boundary material and the flooring along the edge of the most recent crated in the flooring that Frank made with me.  Once I had the toe anchor for leverage, I stood up by unbending my knees and ankles.  I had considered just kipping up, but with my mass as low as it was, this wasn’t any different really.  Besides, it was fun and different.

Frank stood smoothly from a cross-legged seated position, arms crossed, looking at me.  “What you just did is an example of why I need to be in charge when we’re in real danger.  You wasted at least a hundredth of a second there realizing that you could do something differently, and chose to waste yet another five hundredth of a second implementing your decision to dig your toes between the boundary and the floor and lifting yourself up rather than just kipping up.  You are always, always looking for different ways of doing things.  When you find those different ways of doing things, you frequently choose those ways over more efficient methods.  There’s a time and place for experimenting.”  He paused.  “Any time OTHER than when you are in a life and death situation.”

“My wife and Danielle are guarding our body in the middle of a wildfire.  Jason and Mouse are nearby, but have buried themselves while the fire passes by.  We both know those two are tenacious, and might try to overpower Ayva and Danielle, however unlikely that seems.  They might even consider us a great enough threat to try to kill us while we are helpless.  We don’t know what Colonel Gantt is doing with his troops.  Finally, whoever it was that sent that missile might have another.  Is right here and right now really an appropriate time for this discussion?”

Frank looked stunned at that point, that I had managed to catch him in a logic trap.  His mouth opened and closed.

“You are no longer emotionless, Frank.  You aren’t just a machine intelligence.  You are not only learning emotions, you are adopting them for yourself.  Your anger at me for risking our lives, while warranted, I admit, is a perfect example of how emotions will distract you.”

“We will have this discussion later, Bob.” Frank promised.

“I look forward to it, as long as we can manage it without nearly dying first.”

I disconnected from the virtual world, and found myself back in the real world, all alone, laying in a wide scattered pile of carbon fiber threads, graphene threads, and rib bones from the other body that used to be a cocoon protecting Ayva and Danielle from my thrashing.  I panicked for a moment but didn’t see any sign of Ayva having been injured by my thrashing.  I did see several divots in the ground around me, which puzzled me, but no blood or armor bits from Ayva’s suit.  I stood up, activating all spectrums of vision, then turning off infrared as useless.  Too much heat from the fire.

“You lost control again, no surprise, as bad as you were hurting.” Ayva’s voice from behind me.  Still cloaked.  Danielle was probably being hyper cautious, especially if I had been out of control earlier.

“Frank and I are OK now, I think.”

“I’m busy seeing what’s left of the data I left behind, but I’m watching.”

I turned to face Ayva, detecting her by gravity sight, her crouched mass was below the height of the berm, protected by the berm from the heat of the wildfire.  Her body, being much more dense than the air surrounding it, created a blobby, humanoid shape to gravity sense.  “Yes, we’re both OK.  Frank’s trying to salvage some data he left behind in the body.”

Danielle’s voice.  “[Frank left data behind?  Why? The only reason to do that is if he didn’t want B to… Oh. Ah. Never mind.]”

Danielle’s accusation / realization caused me to think as well.  I spoke internally.  “We need to talk about this later too, Frank.”

All I got in response was an irritated grumbling.  Definitely need to discuss emotions sometime soon.  Finding out what Frank was plotting that he didn’t want B to know about was also important, because I had a strong suspicion that Frank wasn’t actually hiding anything from B.

The stealth field around Ayva and Danielle dropped, and Ayva threw a loop of thin carbon fiber rope at my feet.  The other end of it was connected to my left leg.  I stared at the rope, then looked at the divots in the ground again.  “You were pulling me back in as my flailing bounced me out of the protected area?”

“Yes.  You were bouncing out of the berm circle like popcorn out of an open pan.  Fortunately there was nothing intentional about what you were doing.  After the second time we went out wading into the wildfire to throw you back, we just tied a rope to you, and hauled you back in when you bounced out.  We stayed concealed just in case you did start acting in some way intentionally.”

“Thank you.  Now, lovely woman who just saved my life, come here and kiss me before we get out of here.”

That kiss wasn’t sexual, though there was definitely a strong sexual undertone there which would have certainly expressed itself if we hadn’t been in the middle of a wildfire caused by the detonation of a nuke.  It was electric, energizing, an affirmation of life.  It was a reminder of how much I loved and how much I had nearly lost.  Ayva returned the kiss with passion as well, but like me, she didn’t try to turn it into sex, too dangerous here, but it wasn’t too dangerous for us to spend fifteen seconds celebrating.

I had forgotten how strong I was, with the new body materials, briefly.  In the initial hug before we got down to serious kissing, I started to crumple Ayva’s chest armor, but caught myself before it impacted her ability to breathe.  Ayva’s body was full of small capacitors, superconducting ones.  Danielle had apparently figured out the boiling water temperature superconducting materials.  I saw the energy flare as Danielle fixed the armor I had damaged, and apologized.  Ayva put her hand behind my neck and forcefully pulled me closer again, resuming the kiss.  I figured that meant the apology was accepted.

All in all, in the next minute, we probably spent forty seconds kissing, and our symbiotes were intelligent enough to just stay quiet.

Eventually though, the moment was over, and it was time to plan.  Danielle and Ayva could not duplicate what Frank and I had done to our body, but they didn’t need to, we carried them.

I looked around for Mouse to make sure he wasn’t about to try anything aggressive or sneaky.  He was underground, watching us through a buried crow with a fiber optic cable connection.  I set aside a small shard to watch him, his biofactory underground with him, and the crow buried in the berm that was protecting Ayva and I from most of the radiant heat.

This time around, the four of us planned together.  Ayva and I went to our private areas in the virtual world, and fed power to Danielle and Frank.  Frank carried Danielle, and the power I funneled to Frank was used to power his careful acceleration and the creation of a small, pintle mounted hypervelocity weapon, which he grew out of our right shoulder.  Danielle provided cooling for them both, using all of the power Ayva could send to her to compress air into two shells she had created, much like the one she had created earlier, except modified into backpacks.  She carried both pistols, one in each hand, arms crossed over her chest.  Both Frank and Danielle were scanning heavily for any threats as they travelled.  After they reached around one hundred miles per hour, Frank started jumping up into the air with each step, using radar, microwave, and gravity senses to see through the smoke and ash, looking for the next place to jump from.  Within two minutes, we were clear of the fire.

My concern about Jason and Mouse trying to take advantage of my weakness had apparently been unfounded.  At no point did they attempt to restrain us, they stayed hiding in the earthen cave until we left, and would be fine.  Their biofactory had dug deep, too deep for the wildfire on the surface of the Earth to cook them.

As agreed, Frank and Danielle kept control of our bodies, and once free of the wildfire, they piled on speed.  All four of us agreed that going to Bill and Tanya’s place at this point was pretty silly, but at the same time, Ayva and I thought it really was probably the last place anyone who was after us would believe we were going.  Danielle and Frank strongly disagreed with this, saying we were too predictable.

From within the virtual world, I created a connection to the internet and called Bill’s house.  Kirk picked up the phone, and when the video connection came up, immediately went off on me.

“Bob, you had damn well better not be coming here to make my parents accomplices to whatever escape it is that you’re in the middle of right now.  Especially if you had anything to do with that nuke.”

I was a bit shocked.  Kirk looked furious.  He was near zero threat to us in the real world, and knew it, but at that point it was certain that he was both ready and willing to fight to protect his parents.  From Ayva and I.  I didn’t know what to say, my mouth hung open, slightly, as I tried to figure out how to respond.

I heard Tanya’s voice in the background, exclaim, in a surprised voice “Kirk!  Where are your manners?”

At the same time, I heard couch springs, followed by half a dozen heavy, quick steps.  Bill’s voice started up on the second step and moved closer as the sentence neared completion.  “Unless you plan on hurting me, son, you’re going to step away from that phone and let me talk to Bob.”

“But.”

A large hand appeared, laying itself on Kirk’s shoulder, not trying to exert any force, just sitting there.  Kirk looked down at the hand, without moving his torso.

“Kirk.  I know you are trying to protect us.  Thank you.  Let me talk to Bob.  Now.  Step away from my phone.”

Kirk looked back up, towards where the arm came from, obviously looking his father in the face.  He backed away.  There wasn’t any fear or anger towards his father, just a yielding of authority.  He took three steps back, placing himself in a position where he could be seen past Bill in the phone pickup, crossed his arms, and stared at me.  He was unhappy, but that unhappiness was aimed at me.

“Hello Bob, I tried to bet Kirk here that you and Ayva would show up today like you said you would, but he wouldn’t take the bet.  We’d be more than happy for you to drop by, provided you can do so without risking our lives.”

Kirk’s eyes grew harder as he stared at me, his stance shifted slightly into a more aggressive pose, the pack male backing up the alpha, even though the alpha wasn’t asking to be backed up.

Bill apparently was able to see Kirk shift pose in the reflection of the phone’s screen, I saw his eyes twitch.  He frowned.  “Kirk, nonverbal threats are still threats.  If you can’t control yourself, leave the phone’s video pickup.  Bob’s no enemy of ours, and I won’t stand for you to threaten him.  If I have to tell you again, I’ll ask you to leave the house.”

Bill turned back towards me.  Kirk left the phone pickup.  Bill’s eyes tracked his son in the reflection of the phone for a moment before he spoke to me again.

“You raised a good one there, Bill, even if he’s a bit of a handful now and then.  I can’t object at all that he’s protective of you.  Ayva and I can get to you, unnoticed, even if they know we are coming.  There’s a very good chance that Kirk and Jaws won’t see us either, if that makes him feel any better.”

Bill smiled.  “Sounds like a good challenge to me, and if you’re good enough to manage it, I don’t think that Kirk will have any reason to object any longer.  I have confidence in Kirk though.  I’ve seen him and Jaws in the woods.  I’ll bet you a beer that he spots you.”

I grinned.  “We’re on then.  We’ll be there in less than six hours.” I said, knowing full well that we would be there in less than two, since Frank and Danielle had determined that Frank, with Danielle providing cooling, could keep a constant pace of two hundred miles per hour, running in huge leaps next to highways, with Ayva’s armor cloaking, and my skin’s cloaking active as well.  No need to tell anyone exactly where we were though, or when we expected to arrive.  Frank and Danielle were still visible in infrared, due to the energy they were expending, but the other people driving beside us on the highways wouldn’t see us with their eyes, and the thermal signature would be nearly impossible to pick up against the blacktop and the eddy currents of passing vehicles.

Kirk’s voice came from off screen, calmer now.  “Dad, make sure they at least decontaminate themselves fully if they were near that nuke.  Even if Ayva gives you a symbiote, if they are hot enough, you might die before the symbiote can mature and fix you up.  Jaws and I aren’t able to remotely manipulate matter with sufficient skill to decontaminate you two, yet, if you are irradiated.”

Bill turned his head looking towards Kirk, but he wasn’t annoyed or irritated.  He nodded, then looked back to me.  “You heard Kirk?”

“We were near the blast, but we’re clean now.  I know you’re listening, Kirk.  Ask Jaws how long he’d let radioactive elements stay inside your body.  Ayva and I were clean within minutes.”

Bill looked back towards Kirk, and I heard Kirk’s voice again, except with a tone shift – Jaws was speaking.  “[Almost certainly true.  They wouldn’t be able to sneak past us if they were radioactive anyway.]”

Bill turned back to face me, opening his mouth to start speaking

I heard Kirk clearing his throat.

Bill closed his mouth then looked at Kirk for a second.  Apparently Kirk communicated something to Bill nonverbally, and Bill nodded.

Kirk moved back into the pickup, still very serious and edgy, but not angry.  “Bob, you and my father have your little bet going here, that’s all fine and good, but since it’s actually me and Jaws against you, Ayva, Frank, and Danielle, I’m raising the ante.  If I or any of the soldiers around this place detect you before you enter the house, you leave and return at some point when there aren’t several hundred symbiote soldiers with hypervelocity weapons staked out in a twenty mile radius around our house.  You two are about as devious as bricks.  Colonel Gantt made it damn clear that you would show up here unless you were maimed or killed, and the people in the military who outrank him are not allowing these soldiers to back off like Gantt is trying to get them to do.  They have shoot on sight orders for you, and I really do not want hypervelocity weapons going off anywhere near my parents.”

I somehow doubted that Colonel Gantt had brought Kirk and Jaws into his confidence, so apparently Jaws was tapping into the communications from the nearby soldiers somehow, but I wouldn’t reinforce that thought over an unsecure phone line.  The government would have a damn difficult time convicting a son listening in on military communications to try to be best prepared to defend his father and mother.  It might get him in trouble as a lawyer though.  I didn’t know enough law to be sure.  “So if someone spots Ayva or me, we owe your father a beer, and we have to leave.  If we manage to sneak in, I get a beer, and I assume Ayva can have one too?”

Bill turned away from watching his son, looking back at me with a big grin, and nodded.  “Sure, or a glass of wine if she’d prefer.”

“Where’s your side of the bet here, Kirk?  What are you putting into the pot?”

“Do I need to?  If you get past me you get what you want.”

I thought about it for a moment.  He was right.  Mostly. It was also damn clever of him to use a bet like that against me.  He knew he couldn’t stop us physically, and his parents wouldn’t let him fight us psychologically, beyond the barbs that one could expect any young adult to try to use.  Bringing up the danger to his parents being near a bunch of soldiers with hypervelocity weapons was a fine example of young adult reasoning.  He failed to account for the fact that his father and mother probably knew around half of those soldiers by their first names.

His only recourse to keep me away was to make it part of a gamble, knowing that both Ayva and I would follow our end of the terms.  “You don’t need to, I suppose, but you did kind of push between your father and me, here.  I think it would only be fair if you have some skin in the game, and you did escalate, so it’s going to be more than a beer.”

“What can I offer you that would make a difference to you, Bob?” Kirk said, with a confused look on his face.  “Frank could certainly learn the legal system sufficiently thoroughly to match our law knowledge, and you’re good enough with people that you could pull off defending yourself in almost any case where you weren’t guilty.”

I smiled “If I get past you, you give me virtual world PVP lessons.  Two hours.  At some point in the next year or so when things aren’t crazy.”

Bill suddenly burst out laughing, then tried to hold it in, failing miserably. Kirk and I both looked at him as he regained control, and thumped his chest a couple times as the laughter turned into a bit of a cough.  “He told Tanya and me the story, Bob, sorry.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle myself, at my own expense.

As it registered with him what I had asked for, Kirk had a stunned look on his face, almost horrified, wide eyed, and slack jawed, but managed to choke out an “OK.”

“I’m not that bad at virtual world PVP am I, Kirk?”  I asked.

Kirk managed to get his facial muscles back under control, then he turned and stalked off screen, his voice fading as he walked away. “Yes, yes you are.” A pause. “I’m almost tempted to let you get past me if you can get past the soldiers.”

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