End of Book Four

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After 99 chapters, averaging well over 3000 words each in 6 months (Book One was around 75,000 words, and with only one exception I know of, minimum chapter size has always been 3000 words), I have grown so much as a writer.

A lot of that is due to many of you who have pointed out when I used terrible grammar, left out plotline critical information that made you scratch your heads, or abused basic science and math.  And that’s just the surface.  A good deal of that might not be visible to the casual or first time reader, because I have substantially rewritten a lot of the first book.  The verb tense problems in the first book on the first write were so terrible, I can’t believe anyone read it.

I *expected* many problems though.  It had been a whole lot of years since I wrote any sort of fiction, and that fiction was stuff like “Write 1000 words using these vocabulary words, and include at least three proper uses of past perfect tense”

So, around 25 years after my last English class, I wrote Arc as a Fanfic for Worm (more about Worm, Wildbow, etc., in my About section, linked at the top, if you care to read it.)  Arc was fun, people seemed to like it, and it is still actively viewed today, even though it’s been untouched by me for six months.

So what have I learned?

Narrative tenses must be watched carefully, because they like to run off and play in traffic.

I have a problem with scale.  I either need to learn to more strongly control what my characters can do, or I need to write in a universe without fixed rules, so I can realistically (in universe) bring characters down a peg when they get too powerful.  I recognized this with Bob, fairly early.  But power creep kept happening.  I couldn’t stop one-upping myself.  I started to improve the abilities of other symbiotes to match, but Bob kept creeping up in power.  Part of this was that the story was always about the psychology.  How would a human deal with a symbiote?  How would a symbiote deal with a human?  I would have an idea about how to make a certain scenario occur, and then write to fit.  Bob’s power would expand accordingly.  Then I would look back, facepalm, and say to myself “I did it again.”

I have a couple huge blind spots in grammar.  “then” is not a real substitute for “and then” when appending a final action onto a list of actions.  I also have issues with numerals from time to time, but that can be mostly fixed by just writing them out unless they are huge.  If I ever publish, I’ll let the editors figure out what the number writing rules are, this decade.

The next book will not be a “Gary Sue”  Bob was very recognizably me for anyone who knows me.  This certainly had an impact on the story, but, to be frank, I’m not sure it was negative or positive.

I have been slowly going through this series of lectures by Branson Sanderson and learning a lot, I hope.  Of particular interest to me was the part where he compared a writer to a piano player in one of the first lectures.  In essence, an editor can tell how good your writing is within a few pages at most, just like a professional musician can tell, within a few seconds of practice, roughly how good a piano player is.  When I see how many people still hit chapter 1.1 without hitting chapter 1.2, it tells me that I am probably correct in thinking that the underlying structure of chapter 1 is off, despite cosmetic rewrites.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I am confident that it could be improved with scenes of more immediacy, a little more action.  The problem being, Frank wouldn’t want that, and he understands what Bob’s reactions are likely to be.  However, the chapter could easily be rewritten in such a way that Frank would be forced to act before he was ready, say, a drunk driver clipping Bob as he’s changing a tire on the side of the highway, or something.  Conflict.

I have watched my page hits compared to the content of chapters.  When I went off into lots of cerebral stuff, or world building, my numbers drifted down.  When I started to do action scenes and fights, bam, numbers went back up.  This either indicates that I’m better at writing action than cerebral stuff, or people who were attracted to my story prefer action to cerebral stuff.  Or maybe the webfiction crowd simply enjoys action as a general rule.  It is a bite-sized content media, and bite-sized media tends to be more popular if it has a hook or grab.

Regular output would probably be a good idea.  I didn’t get many complaints about it, but that was probably because my irregular output was frequent, and of substantial word count.  I’ve never done a full word count, but I suspect it’s well over 400k words between all the books.

Regular output requires planning, and likely a writing buffer, so I’ll think about it.  Really.  *wanders off mumbling*

I’m fairly confident that I’m not done with the Symbiote universe, but I’m also rather certain I won’t be writing from Bob’s point of view again.

I was surprised that nobody ever said anything about the Muppets Easter egg that I bounced in front of everyone off and on for months, even going as far as giving Animal a symbiote named Statler.  Then I realized that a whole lot more gets noticed than gets commented on.  This gave me a little insight, I think, in what to expect from readers and how to judge their responses.  I felt I was doing something wrong, that nobody was noticing the funny thing.  I don’t worry so much about people catching everything.  Now I just grin when I see that someone enjoyed something I placed intentionally.

The last thing I’ve learned?  Perhaps the most important thing?  I now have a better sense of what I need to do to improve my writing further, I think.  As mentioned in a prior non-chapter entry, I am considering taking a real creative writing class, because I believe at this point I would gain a lot from seeing people’s visceral reaction to my writing, real time.

**

I really appreciate all of you folks, and I hope to see you return on my next webfiction project.  I have an idea for a small non-fiction pamphlet/book that I am going to look at E-publishing first.  After that is done, I plan to return to doing webfiction again, this time around in a super powered universe, I think.  Without going into too much detail, I plan on exploring the middle-aged take on super heroes, much like I did with Arc, but in my own universe.

The last chapter in Symbiote bugs me.  I have ideas.  I need to think about them.  I will post a new update if it changes, and I’m fairly sure it will.

Now that I’ve told you all some of the things I *think* I’ve learned, I’d love to hear about some of the things that I *haven’t*.

Are there things I do that bug you?  Do my character interactions seem OK?  I worry about how I portray Ayva sometimes, because she has so much unexplored depth, but she’s also very old school.  She’s nobody’s fool, she’s tough mentally, but she’s still emotional when it’s safe to be emotional, and very straightforward.  She’s socially programmed for another time, but lives in ours.

What’s your favorite chapter, and why?

What’s your least favorite chapter, and why?

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Chapter 4.41: End Game?

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Explosions in water are much more deadly than in atmosphere.  Explosions in mineral oil aren’t much better.  The shrapnel from the explosion, what little of it actually hit us, did nothing.  A couple dings and scrapes.  The shock wave, however, demolished our stealth surfaces.  They weren’t capable of absorbing and retransmitting that much kinetic energy.  The shockwave bounced off the floors, walls, and ceiling, passing through us from every angle.  Then, if that weren’t bad enough, the shock waves bounced back to do the same again.  Rock rubble from above crumbled and fell into the oil.  Something not like the rest of the rubble caught my eye.  I saw a simple tube-style pressure sensor fall out of the crack, trailing a wire.  Liquid displacement sensor.  That explained a lot.

The door in front of us was buckled, and would not move upwards in its track, so Frank moved up to the door, drove our foot claws into the floor, and crouched to lock us in place.  After we were locked in place, Frank grabbed the door and ripped it out of its frame.  There were several more explosions, apparently rigged to the doorframe.  I watched as large pieces of rubble fell into place, blocking the oil-filled passage in the direction we wanted to go.

Frank moved forward rapidly, without a wasted movement, anchoring one leg against the wall, clamping the claws down, and then crouching again to lock the claws in place.  He used the monomolecular surfaces of the other claw, and the staff that he held in both arms, to rapidly break apart larger stones, and push smaller stones back the way we came.

With as much power as our muscles could generate, this was simple, easy work.  Unfortunately, neither of us could simply return to the virtual world at a moment’s notice to top up the charge.  I let Frank handle all the physical activity.  He would be far more efficient than I would be.

We finally broke through the rubble.  There were half a dozen constructs in front of us, all of them were highly optimized for operations in liquids, looking a lot like barracuda.  They moved rapidly at us, and Frank just made us grin.  I thought I knew what was going to happen when Frank once again gripped the rock beneath our feet with the claws.  I was wrong.

Frank didn’t create a shockwave by pushing our torso rapidly towards the enemy like I thought, he just clapped at them, shaping his hands to create a pressure wave aimed at each target.  The pressure wave was a barely visible, discolored streak in the oil that looked, and acted, like a spear.  Six fish-shaped constructs slowly floated to the floor of the oil-filled passage.  Frank rapidly cannibalized each, removing capacitors, inspecting each capacitor rapidly, and then tossing them in the kangaroo pouch with the sparrows.

I could feel Frank pulling charge off the enemy capacitors to recharge our own.  It was a tiny amount of power by comparison to what we had spent, but not insignificant.  We knew the layout of the passage, up to where the data haulers left it and crawled out of the oil.  Frank surged up the passage, gripping with claws at every step, pulling against the stone until the stone cracked with the force he was exerting.  Power reserves dropped rapidly.  Behind us, I could hear the sound of rocks sliding.  Unlike gasses, liquids didn’t compress much.  Frank’s forward movement was pushing the remaining thirty feet of oil ahead of us in the passage, while dragging the rest of the oil in the passage behind us, including the rocks.  The strange, squeaky whistling sounds of mineral oil being drawn through the rocks behind us distracted me, briefly, but when our body surged out of the mineral oil at nearly two hundred miles per hour, with a tsunami of mineral oil leading the way in front of us, my attention was very much riveted on what happened next.

There were twenty-three quadruped constructs running down the dry floored hallway we had just entered.  They tried to slow to reduce the energy of the collision with the tsunami of mineral oil, but not fast enough.  The entire pack of them smashed into the wall of oil and then each other, rather energetically.  To credit their toughness, none of the constructs were put completely out of action by the attack, but Frank was on them within a very small fraction of a second, ripping out capacitors, inspecting them, and throwing them in our pouch.  By the time he finished, the pouch was full enough to make us look a bit pot-bellied.  Another small snack of energy for us, but we needed every bit we could get at this point.  We still didn’t know where Facet was, and the complex still below us was large.

Frank carefully peered forward, dug the claws in, and then sprinted about fifty yards in a quarter second.  We were still in a series of passages, maze-like.  I saw my body put one hand on the ground, flat, and then I smacked the ground hard with the other hand, hard, making a hugely loud noise.  Echolocation apparently got results, because he jumped us twenty feet down a side passage, gripped the stone under us with both claws, and smashed the stone beneath us with an overhand blow with both fists held together.  The floor underneath us gave way, and we fell into the center of a large room.

Based on the line of toilets along each wall, with arm shackles above them, and ankle shackles beside the bowls, this room had, apparently, recently, been used to house humans.  I very carefully did not look closely to see what meat was on the pedestal to one side of the room, next to a stack of plates and cups.

“Don’t tell me, Frank, that’s information I don’t want to know.  Thinking I know is bad enough.”

“OK” Frank replied, while turning towards the door of the room.  He jumped us about ten feet to land next to it, carefully.  There was no lock.

“Frank, do we have enough power to rebuild the stealth coating?”

“No.  Not yet, Bob.”

In a brief moment of insight, I realized what Frank was looking for.  The geothermal tap.  He opened the door of the room we had fallen into, which looked into a huge cavern.  We had passed three others like it.  This would be the fourth level Mouse had excavated.  The geothermal tap would be one level below, in the northeast corner, which was almost directly east of us based on what I could see and sense.

Frank carefully and quietly followed the perimeter of the room, moving eastward.  He stopped beside a massive outcrop of metal tubing coming out of the rock.

“Tapping the power, Frank?”

“Yes.  I’ll top off, rebuild the stealth sheath, and then top off again.  Then I think we’ll stay here a bit and see what comes to investigate the path we took to get here?”

“Do you think Facet will actually lead an attack against us down here?” I asked.

“No clue.  We don’t know what it can do.  We don’t know how many Facets will show up.  This whole escapade is a gamble.  Worth doing though.  Whatever it was, it was building power here way too fast, and would have become much more dangerous very quickly.  I do not even want to imagine A and B’s reaction if Facet tries to become a system node.”

I had entertained similar bad thoughts myself.

“We’re not going to pull a small amount of power, Frank.  They’re probably going to come running.”

“Hope they do.  This won’t take long at all.”  Frank peeled away the thick metal conduit, revealing several cables as thick as our wrists.  I felt Frank adjust the resistance of our index fingers, creating a superconducting path from our index fingers into the power distribution network.

Even though I knew full well that Frank knew a hell of a lot better than I did what our current body could withstand, damage wise, it still made my stomach flip when he jammed our index fingers into two of the cables.  Definitely a lot of power.  Jason and Mouse had seriously overbuilt this thing.  It wasn’t as fast as the virtual world could repower us, but a couple seconds wasn’t bad.  After we topped off, Frank pulled his fingers out of the wounds in the cables, and used practically all the power in our capacitors, simultaneously, to rebuild the destroyed stealth surfaces using the mineral oil that was still dripping off us and pooling nearby as a mass source. Then he stuck his fingers back in and about three seconds later, we were recharged again.

Next, Frank dropped all of the nearly thirty capacitors out of our potbellied kangaroo pouch into a pile next to the conduit, and molded them with another fantastic burst of energy into a single shape with two cables.  He recharged us again before doing anything else, another couple seconds with our fingers stuck into the wire, and then attached the wires to the conduits where our fingers had been.  A sparrow, a bit worse for wear, popped out of the pouch and crawled into the top of the box through a hatch.  Frank squirted a bit of code into it, which I recognized as a command to flip a switch if the container it was in moved more than one inch from its current location.

It took my mind a moment to realize what I was seeing here.  A superconducting capacitor being charged by a massive power source, with an explosive core.  I looked closer, briefly, to confirm what I was seeing, and then ran some calculations with some borrowed cycles from Frank.  I wanted to be away from this thing ASAP. I didn’t know what an EMP like that would do to my brain.

As we rapidly, but quietly, moved away from the power conduits, leaving our surprise behind, Frank commented to me. “I see what you are doing with that processing power, Bob.  Yes, it’s an E-Bomb.  The longer we wait to blow it, the bigger the EMP will be.”  Frank released the other three sparrows into the room after touching up their stealth surfaces.  They found suitable tiny spaces to hide themselves in where there were overlapping fields of view.  Frank and I carefully chose a spot along the wall near no doors, but within view of the conduit.

On the eleventh second after the first time Frank had tapped the wires for power, there were several explosions and a flood of constructs that were very clearly carrying weapons burst into the room from every direction.  Some of them were using a stealth system nearly as good as ours, but none of their stealth systems worked with audio kinetic energy, and none of them approached the conduit.  They were guarding the exits, I suddenly realized, as I saw more constructs appearing behind them.  The newly arriving constructs were rapidly disgorging and shaping their loads of quick drying epoxy.  All of the several hundred combat constructs stayed inside the room, and several dozen of the construction robots were staying as well, carefully tending the inside surfaces of the newly sealed doors, making sure the epoxy did not deform and leave a gap I might exploit.

Frank and I stayed quiet.  If they thought we were in here, this didn’t make much sense.  We were topped off on power, and there were very few traps they could throw at us that could bother us in this large of a chamber while we were mobile, and had power to blast a hole in the walls with antimatter.  The combat constructs were an unknown quantity, but judging from gravity readings, they were too dense to have reflexes like ours.  If Frank got into them in melee, they were toast.  Even if they were loaded with conventional explosives.  We were vulnerable to explosives in liquid mediums, but in air, we would ride the shockwaves of conventional explosives more than be damaged by them.

I heard a female voice whisper: “I tell you, we’re a human symbiote pair, he won’t shoot us.”  I didn’t recognize her voice, but it was coming from the down ramp in the center of the room, that led to the geothermal generator room.

I saw a head appear, which scanned as much of the room as it could before turning to face the conduit.

I could see processing nodes firing wildly.  This was an immature young symbiote, in a young host, and it was not masking at all.  It was panicking, but I could clearly read its memories as it recalled them in its flashbacks.  Apparently the symbiote had had the misfortune to be provided to a young lady who was severely psychopathic, but who had never acted violently before being provided with her symbiote.  Unfortunately, the young symbiote, despite the educational materials it had been required to watch after reached synergy with its host, had not sought help for its host after the first killing.  The host had convinced it that the killing was justified.  Facet had found them soon thereafter, and taken them under its wing.  I was exposed to a wild ride of terrifying, sickening memories from the perspective of the symbiote, which was rather graphic.

The young woman whispered again, obviously to herself, to speak with her symbiote “See, they haven’t shot us.  They must be watching the ramp; it’s the only way in or out now.  Let’s go check the conduit.”  She paused. “We aren’t going back.  There’s zero chance we would survive disobeying a direct order.”

I felt Frank acting extremely carefully, using the tiniest bit of power to modify the first dart in the right shoulder coilgun. “Bob, use the right coilgun.”

More terrified memories from the symbiote.  Psychopathy was known to sometimes make people incredibly brave, because everyone else was too unimportant to consider a real threat.  I’d never seen the disorder in a paired human.  This was probably the first time I’d seen a human almost calm when their symbiote was in a near-panic.  I looked carefully at the round in the first coilgun and was a bit shocked, as I comprehended what it was Frank had done.

Then I nearly puked as I saw a particularly sickening memory from the symbiote.  ‘I said I didn’t want to know what that meat was, dammit.’ I thought to myself as I engaged the right coilgun, firing a low velocity round into the girl’s right ear.  She fell instantly, her brains scrambled despite the carbon fiber skull.  Her symbiote’s processors almost instantly went dark.  Maybe they would both rest in peace now.

We skittered sideways a few feet, but the combat constructs in the room didn’t react at all to the death of the symbiote pair.  “Frank, if the rest of the world knew you had a virus that could kill symbiotes that fast, they would come after us.  I grant you that it was useful just then, but that’s scary as hell.”

“Bob, weaker symbiotes wanting to challenge us is something you really should have gotten used to by now.  Just be glad we have always been much more advanced than our enemies, or we might have had to kill more of them.  This one was still here after A removed the innocents.”  Frank declared matter-of-factly.  I got a bit of a chill at the words.  He was right, but that didn’t stop the mild nausea of having just killed another human and symbiote from ambush, in cold blood.

Something huge appeared, walking up the ramp, away from us.  It must have been fifteen feet tall to be visible at that point as it came up the ramp.

My arms and legs exploded as superconducting capacitors suddenly stopped being superconducting.  The capacitors in my torso were simply extracted from our body immediately after, as we were still falling to the ground.

The huge form never even paused.  It continued walking away from us, up the ramp, then when it neared the end of the ramp, it hopped up over the edge with feline grace.  Density measurements indicated that it massed enough to weigh thirty tons, but it walked gingerly on two splayed-toe feet, each toe was the size of a house door.  This thing could not possibly have ever left this room or the one below it, unless there was a different way out from below, somehow, none of the other exits from this room were large enough, and they were all natural rock.

Frank was slowly recovering after losing nearly fifty percent of our bone mass.  I turned off the pain.  We were fucked.  This had to be at least one of the Facets, and it had smashed Frank and I like a bug.  No power, no quant, no arms, no legs.  The only thing left was to gather information and watch for an opportunity to acquire power somehow.

Facet had a strange, bouncing movement which I recognized was due to its agile and quiet mobility combined with its mass and movement speed.  Every movement required a lot of care, and moving that much mass required that the body be accelerated and slowed as slowly as possible, which meant long movements.  It was hard to stop watching how it moved, but the sudden visibility of quantum processors throughout its body grabbed my attention immediately.  The processors were not just starting either, they had the signs of constant use.  Facet could mask well enough to make quantum processors invisible to myself and Frank.  This was yet another serving of bad, piled on top of all the other helpings of bad.

I could clearly see two different types of processors within Facet’s form.  Each of its arms and legs contained a volume of processors easily equivalent to the entire bodies of two or three normal human-size symbiotes.  In the center of each limb were what looked like normal symbiote processors, but they were unreadable.  On top of that, wrapped around the symbiote processors, was a layer of strangely designed quantum processors that were impossible for me to read.  They also interfered with my ability to read the more familiar processors under them.  As I looked closer, I saw that they were linked.  The outer shell of strange processors were providing input that the inner shell was reacting to.

As it approached, the being cocked its head rapidly, in a frighteningly fast movement to the side, looking at me like a bug pinned to a sample board.  “What?  You seem disturbed, but not in pain.  Did you expect a soliloquy from me before we started to fight?  Please.  There’s plenty of time to talk later as I dissect you two.  Now that I’ve defeated you without having to suicide this form, I might actually be able to leave this place with hard data about your capabilities.  I might even be able to bring you with me.  That would certainly be handy, as you have a great deal of obvious potential as test subject material.  This indicates the possibility of a vast amount of not-so-obvious potential that I and my other selves might tease out of you before you cease being useful.”

Facet took a last step towards me, uncannily quiet despite its mass.  There was more noise coming from the stone flexing under its weight than from when its feet touched the ground.  Its strange, fascinating gait was almost hypnotic.  When it stopped moving, I was looking at its legs.  That’s when I noticed that the symbiote processors inside Facet were segregated into small groups, each small group being slightly different from other groups.  The realization then struck me.  Each slightly different group of processors came from a different symbiote pair.  A closer look confirmed early signs of decay in some of the marrow structures, and signs of reduced symbiote processor capacity in those same marrow structures.  I saw no signs of decay in any of the strange processors wrapped around the symbiote processors.  The damn thing was using symbiote processors to boost its own capacity somehow.  We had been told this, but I hadn’t considered that it would be implemented in such a ghoulish manner.

“I can clearly see some very advanced structures you have implemented.  The low-density carbon fiber materials you crafted your body from are amazing.  I also recognize the fundamentals of the stealth technology we stole and repurposed.  You have converted it to operate at highest order as opposed to higher order.  Definitely a technology we can use, especially with that innovation for low energy kinetic absorption and rebroadcast.  Oh, strange.  You disabled your ability to speak.  Let me fix that for you.”

I felt the changes in my body Frank had made to keep me from vocalizing revert so I could speak.  “You sure talk a lot for an action-oriented intelligence that is too good to spout a soliloquy before a fight.” I commented.  I wondered if I could piss it off bad enough it would just kill us.

Facet leaned over a bit, and reached down with a hand the size of a typical kitchen table to pick up my torso, which it then lifted and held at eye level as it slowly, gracefully, walked back towards the ramp down.

“No arms, no legs, no power, but still full of attitude.  I hope this means you will be one of the ones whose hatred for us keeps them alive and useful long after the weak-willed ones die.  It’s amazing how strong, aggressive emotions keep humans alive short-term.  Did you know research, by others of course, indicates that long-term aggressive emotions causes humans to die early?  The dichotomy between short and long term physiological effects of aggressive mental patterns is quite fascinating.”

“You certainly seem to enjoy hearing yourself talk.” I interjected.

“Do you truly believe I haven’t had discussions with humans and symbiote pairs who tried to make me angry enough to kill them before experiments started?  Such behavior would cost me valuable data, however tempting it might be.  Especially for a promising specimen.”  It paused a moment.  Probably for effect, not due to any need to think about what it was going to say next.  I watched as huge sensor bundles examine me from within the shallow recesses of a curved cobra-cowl shaped head. “I see no reason to allow you to keep your coilguns or lasers, those weapons are definitely not interesting.”

Facet moved us a little farther from its face in order to get its second hand on us, where it quickly and precisely pinched each mentioned offending weapon off my armor.

“In response to your most recent comment, while I am forced to walk slowly in this room to avoid damaging the floor, I feel it is time well spent to begin understanding your psychology, Bob.  Frank should also recover fully, soon, I’m sure you will be glad to hear.  He could probably respond to us now, but most likely will not, because he realizes that you two are helpless, and he’s not going to say anything until he trusts himself to understand the full situation that you two find yourselves in.”

Frank said nothing.  I blacked out.

I woke up with a terrible headache.  “Bravo, Frank.  That was a tactic I’ve never seen, and never even considered as a possible response from a human symbiote pair before.”

“[Fuck you too.]” Frank said with my voice.

“Bob, that brief unconsciousness you just experienced was your symbiote, Frank, rerouting the electrical output of your brain to a transmitter used to tell one of your construct sparrows to explode the E-Bomb you two planted.  I wonder if he expected me to have the ability to reactivate your mind after he disrupted it so badly.  I’ve adjusted the barrier around your organic components so that Frank cannot take such an action again.”

“At this point, that might have been a blessing to me.  Don’t try to turn me against Frank.  When the shit hits the fan, we work together.”  I was a bit startled though, that Frank would have made an effort to mercy kill me.  Not that I didn’t appreciate the thought, I must admit.  The rest of my life was looking like it was going to be incomprehensively miserable.

Facet replied.  “I’m truly glad to hear that.  Pairs with strong bonds live longer.  I have, however, disabled all the transmitters remaining in your body, other than your natural voice, of course.”

I looked around.  Everything was dark and quiet.  The infrared signatures of the thousands of servers in their racks in this one room were fading.  I saw the faint, strangely slumped and collapsed shadows of hundreds of dead combat constructs fried by the EMP of the E-Bomb.  Faint because of shadows, not stealth.  The stealth surfaces had been scorched, as had mine, by the E-Bomb.  There was still light coming from the generator room.  Facet took two additional long, careful steps forward which brought me below the level of the floor, so I could no longer see the room above.

“I’m sure that you expected your E-bomb to have some negative impact on me, Frank.  I assure you it has.  All of my offline storage in this facility is inaccessible.  I am now reliant solely on my personal processors and my enslaved processors, which I saw you examining a few moments ago.  This means I might duplicate work if I attempt to do mundane experiments on you.  However, I know several experiments that could not possibly have been performed yet, as we’ve never had a symbiote pair of your development level to work with before.  Fortunately, with you two captured, there’s no need for haste here, so we’ll just take a look at this highest order stealth material while repairs are being performed on the facility power systems.  If there’s time after that, your superconducting capacitors are also quite promising.”

Once Facet was on the main floor of the generator room, it began moving much faster, but with the same uncanny grace it had demonstrated while moving slower.  Look like a giant anime robot, walk like a ballerina, I suppose.

“You do realize that when you fired the satellite lasers at the humanoid outside your facility, you were firing at the symbiote system node known as A?”

“Indeed.  It became obvious that the humanoid was either A or B after it survived the first tenth of a second with no visible damage.”

“You are not concerned that you have taken direct offensive action against A?”

“I am still here.  Therefore the incident will be either ignored, negotiated, or compensated for at some later time.”

We continued moving rapidly towards a very large laboratory-looking room built to scale for a fifteen foot tall robot.

“Oh, that’s right.  You probably haven’t heard about the new volcano on Greenland that A had to go take care of after she removed the innocents from your facility here.”

Facet did not stumble or pause as it walked towards a large archway, but it stopped talking.  It walked through the arched laboratory room entrance, dropped me unceremoniously into something that looked like an aquarium, pressed an activation switch of some sort, and a barrier sprung into being above the four walls surrounding Frank and me.

I spoke internally to Frank.  “I guess it’s something of a compliment that despite having no arms, no legs, and no power, it still took care to properly seal us in.”

“I would prefer that it not be so careful.  You realize that this being has no morals, no scruples, and will do everything it can to wring as much potentially useful data out of us as it can?”

“Yes, I understood that quite well, thanks for the reminder, Frank.  Do you think it can reverse the disabling of pain?”

“Yes, it is extremely adept with matter programming.  It could probably grow you some new pain sensors with a little effort, even if you completely removed them.”

A couple minutes later, Facet returned, with three human shapes tied together with what looked like an extension cord, all carried in one hand, swinging at his side like a person might carry a lunchbox.  They were all very obviously dead, with the boneless movement of dead bodies before rigor mortis set in.

“Humans have a saying about secrets that is very appropriate at times like these.” Facet declared as he raised the bundle of three dead people up to his chest level, pressed a button, and tossed the corpses into the opening that opened up.  There was no reaction to indicate it had done anything more exciting than throw away an inconvenient piece of trash.  “The magma at the base of the geothermal tap monitoring shaft makes such a handy disposal system.  No need to make identifying where we acquired our human assets any easier, if you happen to be wondering why I’m bothering to burn them.”  Facet walked from the disposal chute towards the aquarium he had stored me in and deactivated the top, grabbing me out carefully.

I tried to bite him, but the residual power in my musculature was nearly gone and I barely could move.  Without a power source of some sort, we wouldn’t even be able to talk, in a few more minutes or so, if we lasted that long.

“I fear that I will not be able to study you as I wished, which will no doubt raise your spirits.  I will have to be satisfied with a few flesh, capacitor, and stealth material samples.”  Facet lifted us out of the aquarium, bringing us close to his facial sensors again. It seemed to be scanning me carefully, perhaps looking for the best selections of flesh and stealth materials.

It spun and carried me over to a countertop that had restraints, where I was tied down and had a couple pieces cut off me.  The pieces were soon labeled and placed in small containers.  Facet left me and walked to the back of the lab.  While it walked, it pulled several of our capacitors out of a storage bin in its leg, examining each closely, selecting three and setting the rest aside on the counter.

Several somethings hit Facet hard, one after the other, in the small of his back, knocking him forward and down to his knees.  I recognized three copies of myself before their capacitors all exploded, detonating limbs and torsos.  Then a dozen more of me appeared out of nowhere, smashing the head of Facet with staves and pulling the AI’s robot shape to the ground, where they began tearing it apart.

They were all very clumsy, like the person controlling them couldn’t think fast enough to really control them.  Even though they were powerful enough to rapidly do significant damage to the AI’s body, it wasn’t enough.  The second wave of my constructs detonated as well, one by one, as Facet removed the superconducting properties from their capacitors.

The AI jerkily, rapidly tottered to its feet.  Its limbs were heavily damaged, its head smashed and almost unrecognizable.  Reaching over to grab me, Facet ripped me off the restraints, limped over to the disposal chute, and pressed the button.  A mass of sparrows came around the corner at us, but none of them exploded, even though they were all constructs.  Someone had apparently altered their capacitors to be non-superconducting.  By the time Facet chose their next response option, the birds were on us.  Two of them had very tiny antimatter charges held in their Penning traps.  One of those hit the AI’s sensor module, which flew apart with great energy.  The other struck it dead center on its chest, smashing Facet to the ground hard enough to crack the rock floor.  Most of the other sparrows were made nonfunctional by the two antimatter explosions.  The explosions didn’t do me much good either, but I’d survived worse.

The best thing was that two sparrows with very special cargos had gotten to Frank and me before the others detonated, crawling into our kangaroo pouch carrying their precious cargo.  Two quants, already configured for our use.  Frank was in the virtual world almost instantly, and I was restored in our full body, with full power.

I felt our power levels drop immediately, to a fraction of what they had been before, as the capacitors were no longer superconducting.  I was still being held around the waist by Facet’s right hand.  The AI was struggling to its feet again.  This time, I saw its feet. I saw its secret.

The torso and head rapidly began to rebuild, the heat building up in Facet’s vicinity.  I attempted to generate antimatter within Facet’s torso, and could not.  That amazing zero-leak masking was active again.  It apparently also prevented me from altering anything within Facet’s volume.  I carefully set aside that data.  Frank would want to experiment with the effect later, for certain.  Fine, if I couldn’t do it from the inside out, I’d do it the other way.

“Facet, my father taught me something very important when I was very young.  Never give up.  You can lose, but you never give up.”

Facet’s sensor bundle was nearly restored, and so were the body parts that my alternate selves had torn the armor and outer coverings off of.  It said nothing.

“Fine, you go ahead and be the strong and silent type when there’s a fight you think you can win.  I wonder what will happen when you know you can’t win?”

I was being an idiot again, I realized, trying to get Facet to talk.  I knew how to beat him now, and I wanted him to brag one more time so I could shove it down his throat, but I would lose if I let him fully restore his sensors so he could pick apart my body.  Worse yet, I could smell Ayva nearby, as well as the rest.  Considering the appearance of alternate selves and sparrows, that was no surprise, but I could not risk delaying any longer taunting Facet to make him brag or gloat.

If Facet beat me this time, Ayva and the rest would certainly be killed.  Or worse, they might be captured.  I activated the molecular blade on my left foot’s, outermost claw.  Facet’s sensor bundle, which had been centered directly at my center mass, moved with lightning speed, centering its attention on my claw.

“Too late, you son of a bitch.” As I felt the claw beginning to heat, the molecular blade sliced through the conduit under my left foot, and the torrent of energy passing into Facet through the floor into its legs was cut off.  There was a huge bang from the generator room, and the smell of ozone.  “Oops, did I just trip a breaker?”

Facet immediately started to charge me, which was both its only option, and a huge mistake.  He was a thirty ton robot with the grace of a ballerina.  I was a twelve pound juggernaut that could lift his entire weight easily.  Before it had moved a foot forward, I had leaped forward as hard as I could in a body tackle.  I hit Facet at about two hundred miles per hour.  We bounced off each other.  I bounced back about fifty feet into the main generator room.  He bounced back six inches, rocking back on those amazingly agile legs, which were no longer pulling power from the floor to support the power needs of mass reprogramming.  He looked at the cut section of floor and I saw it repair itself.  He was using his reserves to try to restore his power source.  He would still need to repair the breaker or fuse or whatever had popped when I cut the power circuit.

I looked right and saw Ayva and the rest, everyone else, just standing there, staring at me.  I saw a tunnel behind them.  I broadcast an obnoxiously loud radio signal at them, much faster than I could have spoken it.  “Everyone, back in the tunnel.  Don’t let him see you.  Any superconductors storing energy need to be converted to regular energy storage or Facet will explode them.  Move.  I have this now.”

I scanned the wall of rock behind me, and it was solid for at least ten or so feet.  I leapt backwards and hit the wall, crouching down against the vertical surface, creating trenches in the rock wall as my claws dug in, and then I sprung away from the wall towards Facet with all the power I could, without breaking bones.  The one hundred feet between us would only allow me a single step at four hundred miles per hour, which allowed me to further accelerate to nearly six hundred miles per hour.  Facet was still slightly off balance from the first time I hit him.  This time I was going to flatten him.  I didn’t have time to create a projectile weapon, so I would be one.

There was a huge flare of energy, and a spike emerged from Facet’s armor when I was too close to avoid it.  It speared through the kangaroo pouch, destroying my active quant, and barely missing my brain.  I smashed up against Facet, impaling myself all the way through on the six foot spike Facet had just extruded from his armor.  Frank reappeared in my mind.

Facet staggered back two steps, dropping three discharged superconducting capacitors from its left hand onto the floor. While it was staggering back, it reached towards the counter with its left hand towards where the rest of the capacitors from my body were lying.

The capacitors exploded as Facet’s hand covered them.  “[You aren’t the only one who can make superconducting capacitors explode.]” said Frank, out loud, before using the second quant to re-enter the virtual world.

Facet was almost in a sprinter’s start position now after taking a couple steps back.  I was hanging from a thin blade extruded from his chest.  Facet reached up, behind me, grabbed the blade, and with a minor burst of energy for a tiny rearrangement of metal, cut the blade holding me off its chest.  Then it started to sprint, holding me off the ground, with my back against the top of his fist, like I was the ice cream of an ice cream cone.  I had zero leverage.  But I had power.

“You can’t win, you know.  I am not going to let you reach a section of floor with power in it.”  I formed a thick carbon fiber loop around his trailing leg as he started his second step forward.  The rope was made of hundreds of strands of carbon nanofiber, which trailed on the ground behind the leg, until I changed the rock they were dragging across into epoxy, caused the epoxy to boil up a bit over the nanofibers, and then instantly hardening.  Facet hit the end of that length of rope and stopped, jerking his leg a couple more times fiercely. After two attempts, he reached down with the hand that wasn’t holding me, trying to pry or cut the carbon fiber rope off his leg.

While trying to free his leg, Facet tried to twist the blade sticking through me, rapidly stirring it to try to destroy my brain or the other quant.  I oxidized the blade completely in an instant.

“In a way, I have to respect you.  You really don’t talk when you fight.  I’m not so disciplined, I fear.  So you get to listen to me talking to you while I tear you apart and feed you to your garbage disposal chute.  Perhaps this will remind you of what was happening to me a short while ago.  I hope so, and I hope you remember this, if you somehow manage to reform.”  I ripped off Facet’s arm.  Just the arm alone was larger than I was, but it was made of metal and ceramics, with only a small amount of carbon fiber which was being used as a nervous system.  Facet’s strength had never been the robot body, it had been his command over terrestrial electronics, matter reprogramming, and other quantum effects, as strangely limited as his knowledge had been in some ways.  The robot body housed a huge number of processors and acted as a massive power conduit.

“This isn’t a fight any more.” Facet spoke.

I changed more rock to epoxy, allowed Facet’s weight to settle his frame into it, and hardened the epoxy around him.  He would not be able to break free.

I dragged the arm over to the trash chute, jumped up, and grabbed the wall with my claws, and then hit the button with one hand.  When the door opened, I dropped Facet’s arm into the chute, watching it fall until I saw it hit magma, about fifteen hundred feet below.

“Mouse really outdid himself.  I never knew magma was this close to the surface here.”

I grabbed the other arm, ripped it off after dislodging it from the epoxy, and drug it over to the hatch, then repeated the process twice more, once for each leg.  Facet’s torso was too large to fit into the chute.

“Well, any last words before I crush your torso like a beer can and dump you into the magma?”

Facet did indeed have last words.  Three sentences.  Three fucking creepy sentences that made me wish I could tear him apart all over again, slower this time.  I didn’t respond to what it said, slowly crushing the torso by inches with my fists, no longer feeling even the slightest bit of remorse for ending the AI’s existence.

After all the parts were accounted for, and I policed the area to be triple sure, I walked back to the tunnel, stuck my head in, and found myself face to face with thirteen duplicates of me, ready to kick my ass.

I carefully raised my hands in the air, slowly, before calling out.  “It’s dead.  Don’t shoot.”

“Its him.” Ayva’s voice.

The duplicates of me backed off and I saw all the people I shouldn’t have seen in a large, hollowed out cave, with firing positions and blinds formed out of the walls.  All of them.  The Recovery agents, Doctor Meilin, Jason, Colonel Gantt, his troops, and Ayva.

I think Ayva hit me at about Mach three in a flying bear hug.

“How in the hell did you guys get down here?” I asked as Ayva did her best to break some of my ribs.  “Did you find some way to convince A or B to help?”

Jason pointed at the tunnel around us. “I was thinking of the Faraday cage you built in the cave, the volume of the cave, and the possible volume of matter you might have had a use for based on the equipment you had.  It didn’t add up.  You converted the rock to some sort of gas, right?”

“Yes, I had too much volume left over, so I made it a gas to keep from having to keep it in the cave. Otherwise I would have had to store it outside, where someone might find it.”

“Thought so.  You did all your work inside the superconducting Faraday cage to hide your energy signature, obviously.  What I didn’t realize at first was that you had done it terribly inefficiently.  You should have placed the superconducting Faraday cage against the rock, changed the rock into superconducting materials, and then changed the superconducting rock to atmospheric gasses.  There was no need to cut bricks, stack them, move them around, haul them back into the cage, and then make them into gasses.  The Faraday effect will hold true along the outermost surface of the conductive materials.  All you had to do was make whatever you turned to gas superconducting first, and keep it attached to the rest of the cage.”

Ayva spoke from where she had her chin on my shoulder.  “He told me about the idea Bob, and we spoke about it with Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin.  We could bypass all the site defenses, and come straight to the generator room to sabotage it.  Doctor Meilin took control of all of your drones with some help from Danielle, Jason and I did most of the digging, and Colonel Gantt chose the moment.  We were monitoring for a while.”

Colonel Gantt spoke up, almost apologetically, “It wasn’t the best time.  I would have waited longer if we could have, but the optical lead was showing me a pretty clear indication you were headed to the trash chute soon, so I called it the best I could.”

“Good timing, Jim, thank you.” He didn’t frown when I used his first name.

I didn’t really care that he didn’t frown though, for as long as I was kissing my wife.

After a couple minutes, when that beautiful kiss had stopped, I couldn’t help but remember Facet’s last words to me. ‘You misunderstand us.  We are not psychopaths, because we are not human or symbiote.  We are predators.’

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.40: What Trap?

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

The meeting went on for another three minutes or so, to solidify the plans that would hopefully fool Facet into thinking that we were either unwilling or unable to assault their facility.  At the same time, we began taking actions that could be considered credible first steps towards containment to allow for a very energetic assault or bombardment.  Jason and Mouse with an escort moved around the site perimeter, setting off seismic charges to build a better map of the place.  His biofactory drastically modified itself, feeding off organics from the topsoil, trees, grasses, etc., that were available, as well as getting occasional modifications directly from Jason or Mouse using matter reprogramming.  The carbon from the constructs was put to good use in the biofactory.

The biofactory that was once something very much like an inchworm with a big mouth was now something more resembling a mantis shrimp.  It was creating a trench in the rock around the facility, with the assistance of a few smaller biofactories from some of the soldiers and Recovery personnel that were collecting discarded limbs from the mining biofactory, repairing them, and then returning them to the biofactory.  The Buckyballs were being used to lubricate the high-speed limb joints that drove the graphene and carbon nanofiber rock cutting tools that were constantly needing repair.  Jason and Mouse were working fast, but it would still take days to cut a substantial trench around a diameter as big as the underground facility.  Most of the muscular power the mining biofactory was using was electrical, and Mouse was pulling a lot of power from the virtual world for Jason to feed it.  None of this was wasted effort, if I failed.  The trench would allow easier monitoring of the facility, and could be heavily trapped.

After Colonel Gantt uploaded his imagery of the first battle through the virtual world into an embedded virtual space for viewing, the military perked up and took notice, immediately requiring every active duty symbiote pair to learn to modify their storage nodes into processing nodes.  Humans without symbiotes would not be required to leave the military, but they were removed from frontline combat duties, relegated to support.  Most of the remaining human soldiers who had been in frontline military occupations took on symbiotes, predictably.  They had seen what their companions could do, and psychologically they wanted to be in the front lines.  That’s why they chose those military occupational specialties in the first place.  Some, however, simply couldn’t deal with the thought of another intelligence sharing their body.  The military didn’t mind, so long as the non-paired didn’t try to insist on staying in the front lines where they would be a liability.

With all the time and effort the military had put into coming up with ways to fight Frank and me, I hoped they had a few surprises I didn’t know about that would work against the AI.  I had my doubts.  The military had been developing systems with electronics designed for remote communications and remote control over the last few decades, and Facet would own anything with remote electronic interfaces.  Like the laser satellite system A had taken out.  I couldn’t exactly expect the military to just open up and let me evaluate all the systems they designed to deal with me.

I did mention my concern about the military’s dependence on command and control electronics to Colonel Gantt.  He gave me a funny look, before telling me that he was well aware of that particular problem, and had already reported it.  Then he apologized and thanked me for offering a good observation.

There was one important thing that I had to do to before trying to infiltrate.  I needed to keep myself visible to the AI on the surface.  It had certainly re-established at least some sensors on the surface, and it would be watching us.  I linked by cable with Ayva and we had a very short conversation about me coming back, before starting what I hoped would be a believable subterfuge.

We started working with four Recovery triplets to create an absurdly huge biofactory, one that was far larger than even A or B had ever been.  The Recovery agents would act as nodal intelligences, allowing Ayva and I to control the entire mass.  It was nearly half a mile in diameter, and it was growing very slowly despite all the effort we were putting into it.  The design was pretty clear.  It would cap the top of the plug of stone that Mouse was creating with his moat, and slowly grind down the pillar of stone containing Facet’s complex, obliterating everything under it.

It was a plan that could actually work, but it would take weeks for us to create the biofactory.  It would be clear to any advanced outside observer that we were having difficulties with design and cohesiveness, and those difficulties were not faked.  Ayva and I brought Doctor Meilin into the connection as well, since she had a lot more practical experience with integration on a large scale than we did, and she delegated Jane and another of her lieutenants to split the rest of the Recovery cadre between them, monitoring the cave entrances with sparrows and sensors dropped by sparrows.

After Frank and I had organized the biofactory construction project, we started to create alternate selves again, another twenty-five of them.  Frank had complete control of the process for the last duplicate we created.  Splitting off alternate selves was tricky, and in this case, we were moving quants from our original body into the alternate, while at the same time creating upgrades in the current body.  We wanted to do it this way, all at once, so the number of energy expenditure spikes would match the number of new alternate selves.  The connection to Ayva and Doctor Meilin by cable was maintained on the alternate, which had also been left with a very advanced Frank shard that itself had within it a very capable model of my intelligence.  It was almost indistinguishable from my old body, and would even respond a lot like me if directly addressed.  It did have two newly created quants, giving it a total of four.

The advanced electromagnetic stealth surfaces were also able to absorb and retransmit vibrations to fool sonar and vibration detection systems.  We carried more capacitors than any other body I had ever created, to power our equipment as long as possible.  In addition to all that, Frank had created a special physical module to handle the stealth systems.  Not only would it detect and retransmit incoming electromagnetic and vibration signals, it would preprocess the incoming data from all of the several million sensors into a format Frank or I could interface with directly, allowing us to see everything with the same fidelity that the stealth system could see.

My body would appear to remain connected to Ayva by cable, and Danielle would control its two new quants.  As all the new alternate selves waited, Danielle navigated through my old body to one of the two new quants, activated it, and then did the same again for the other new quant.  As I watched, it looked like the Frank shard, working with Danielle, were able to give a convincing performance.  All four quants were now enabled, like as if I wanted much more redundancy in my body.  Danielle was pulling power into my old body to charge the twenty-five new constructs, including me.

After charging, all twenty-five new bodies went into stealth, ran over to the trench Jason and Mouse were creating, and jumped across it, starting to patrol the inner perimeter.  Every couple minutes, a sparrow designed to carry power would fly across the trench and one of the constructs would become visible, and then the sparrow would land on its cooler and top off the construct’s capacitors.

We wouldn’t have that recharge option where we were going.

“You ready, Frank?” I asked, internally.  I had completely disabled my ability to speak out loud, just to keep me from accidentally blurting out something audibly if we ran into something ugly.  I had also disabled involuntary muscle reactions that would result in movement of my body.  Frank had seemed mildly surprised that I had done these things, but satisfied.  I strongly suspected this was going to be a mentally scarring episode, worse than where we found Jason and Mouse.

“No.  Way too many unknowns.  Ready as I can be though.  All systems are good.  The sparrows check out too.”

I directed a little attention to the four construct sparrows in the kangaroo pouch.  They might be handy.  Scratch that, in a fight they would be invaluable.  They were the advanced models Frank had been working on, with a stealth system.  Not the best stealth system Frank could design, but the best he could jam into something the size of the sparrows without getting rid of other critical features.

Symbiote instincts were very strange.  When faced with a being at or near their own level of capability, they generally tried to cooperate.  When faced with a being significantly lesser capable than themselves, they would typically assume a command position if they could, unless presented with a good reason not to.  When faced with something more powerful than them, or incomprehensible, their first instinct was to attack.  This made me wonder what the original society of the Kor must have been like.  How had they ever managed to build a civilization?  Human civilization, for better or worse, had always been based on strong central leadership figures, supported by the masses.  Maybe the Kor civilization had been like that as well, at one point?  Had symbiotes been specifically engineered to change that, to force leadership to prove their fitness to lead by some clever subset of AI designers who were tired of top-down political bullshit?  Symbiotes could have served their intended role as a space travel facilitation method without having any sort of aggressive instinct at all.  I wondered how much thought A and B had put into that.  If I got another opportunity one day, I’d try to remember to ask.  The thought of politicians actually being forced to prove their ability to lead and make good decisions sent warm fuzzy sensations through me, and I smiled a bit.

“Bob, do I want to know why you smiled?  I picked up some of that, but it wasn’t clear.”

“Just thinking about what the future might hold, Frank.”

As far as I could figure it, Frank was willing to do this, despite the real danger to our existence, because Facet was advanced enough to be dangerous.  It had demonstrated some abilities Frank could not match, and attacked us.  If it proved itself far too powerful for us to handle, Frank would undoubtedly engage full retreat mode and try to get us away, so we could regroup, rebuild, advance ourselves, and attack again later.  If it had not attacked us already, Frank might have attempted a more cerebral route of attack, which wouldn’t necessarily have led to a fight.  Way too late for that now.  The fact that A and B wanted Facet dead or crippled in its ability to affect the world said a lot for the potential power of the being.  What we had seen so far supported pre-emptive action, at least at my level of comprehension.

After a few more tests of newer designs, we slowly and carefully made our way into the facility, all senses active, including the enhanced input from the stealth system.  The claws on our feet were bent backwards to prevent them from tapping stone, and sealed with the stealth material, as were the pads of our feet.  I had never seen so clearly before.  Everything was easily visible.  Even the enemy units that were under active stealth.  Our new stealth system was highest order, quantum input and output.  It was able to defeat detection by parallax analysis because it operated at a level that selectively directed output at observers.  It could detect observation, because observation had an impact on the quantum environment that the stealth system could quantify.  The enemy units in stealth, however, were using molecular technology.  We could see them clearly, because our own stealth system could detect that they were observers.  Once we knew where an observer was, parallax calculations using data from the stealth system’s inputs measured against the immobile background as we moved clearly defined the observers.  We didn’t even need gravity senses, but we used them anyway.  There was too much we didn’t know about what Facet could and couldn’t do.

There were constructs everywhere, most of them working, the rest were in what at first seemed to be random places, perfectly still, carrying obvious weapons systems, and in stealth.  All of the workers were communicating on at least some level by using sound, in addition to the sound they generated as they built more constructs, or cut into the walls, ceilings, or floors.  After seeing a group of workers move, and then seeing three guards move slightly, Frank did some calculations, and determined that the guards were standing in places where large numbers of echoes intersectd.  They were apparently using the workers as a source of sound for echolocation.  If anyone entered the chamber without the ability to avoid interrupting the sound of the worker’s communications, they would immediately be triangulated, no matter how good their electromagnetic stealth might be.

Frank was carefully analyzing enemy movements, identifying unit types and their capabilities as well as he could, counting them.  He was a very unhappy symbiote by the time we had reached several layers down into the facility, having counted more than half a million simple worker constructs, and at least fifty thousand combat constructs.  As we got deeper into the facility, we saw constructs assembling computers from extremely precise components, nothing like the components of the constructs that were assembling them.  The computers were being placed wherever excavations for coal and ores had apparently ceased.  “Bob, this level of industry is crazy.  If eighty percent of this much industrial capacity was devoted to reproducing itself, and the resulting additional capacity re-invested in reproduction at the same percentage, Facet could outstrip the current industrial capacity of humanity in a year.”

Eventually we got to a point where there had been a lot of recent filling in of holes in the rock, rather than digging.  We moved back and forth across the level, and there was only one way deeper, a narrow tunnel with the sound of water coming out of it.  There was no way we could dig without exposing ourselves, but Frank really didn’t like the idea of entering a narrow tunnel, which had constructs entering and leaving regularly.  The emerging constructs were wet, every one.

There wasn’t any other way around it though, we had to go through the tunnel.  Frank and I checked again, just in case there was a hidden alternate route, carefully scanning with gravity sight for evidence of concealed passages.  Nothing.

We carefully went back to the tunnel, which, despite obviously being some sort of entrance to a higher security area had no guards at this end.

I consulted Frank, who was redlining his processors.  “Frank, this has to be a trap.  Why are there no guards?  The only thing moving in and out are data haulers.  This is the best place for a security checkpoint that I’ve seen, but there’s nothing here.”

“I agree.  I don’t understand.  We really don’t have any other choice besides leaving though.  Maybe the security is all at the other end of this passage?”

I stood still for a moment, back and forth thoughts.  Such a huge security effort above, maybe there really was no security at this point?  This did not fit the profile of a smart enemy, but it was a damn AI, they sometimes had the strangest gaps in understanding when they were not sentient, would they be the same when sentient?

“Best I can think of is that it’s a psychological checkpoint.  Facet knows we are aware it is highly intelligent, and capable of doing some things better than us.  This may be unguarded simply because it really would be stupid to leave it unguarded, and Facet would expect anyone who got to this point to refuse to believe it is unguarded.”

“Bob, that’s ridiculous.”

“Frank, what are we doing right now?  I believe we are doing nothing, trying to figure out what the fuck Facet was thinking here.”

“… Point.”

“Fortunately, we have at our disposal an impulsive, moderately well-educated redneck with significant emotional control issues, and they are ready to guide us through the scary forest of incomprehensible psychological doublethink.  Let’s do this.  We just hit ninety-nine percent charge in the capacitors.”

“Bob, you scare me sometimes.”

“I scare me sometimes too, if it’s any consolation.”

“If you didn’t scare yourself thinking about some of the things you’ve gotten us into, you would be certifiably insane, but still… Not.  Really.  Comforting.”  Frank intentionally allowed a brief pause to drive that point home to me.  “That doesn’t mean you’re wrong about what we need to do though.  It’s either go back, go forward, or start our assault here with no clear idea of where the target is.”

The data haulers moved through the passage fairly regularly, one in, and then one out.  They were small, fat little constructs with flattish limbs that we hadn’t understood before we knew they apparently were designed to swim.  We fell in behind one, and followed it.  The fat little machine trundled down the narrow path, sloped at about ten degrees downwards, and after about fifty feet, it waddled into the water, immediately dropping from sight with strange grace, and almost no turbulence in the water’s surface.

The water wasn’t water, I realized.  It was mineral oil.  Frank and I clambered up the walls as we saw a data hauler under the surface of the oil, coming at us rapidly.  We held ourselves in place by pushing against the walls with arms and legs, and the data hauler passed underneath us.

We let ourselves carefully down onto the floor.  How did we miss that the liquid on the data haulers was mineral oil and not water?  Were we missing something else?

I felt a shudder below us.  I immediately climbed back up between the walls, higher than the data haulers could reach if they tried and prepared to stay there a bit while we figured this out.

“Frank, there’s some sort of a security door down there, I think.  It’s letting the data haulers in and out.”

“Agreed.  We should be able to figure it out within a couple passes of the data haulers.”

“Hopefully we will be small enough to get past the door.” I replied.

We considered our options for a minute, and then, immediately after a data hauler dropped into the oil, we dropped two of our birds, stealth systems active, and they slid into the oil, invisible, and started to slowly, carefully examine the surroundings, taking extreme high fidelity visual and audio recordings of everything.  They returned to us twice, carefully climbing either out of or back into the oil only after the passage of a data hauler created turbulence, and then they would climb up a leg I dropped down to the passage floor for them.  We didn’t need to splatter the hallway’s walls with mineral oil from the bird’s wings by letting them fly themselves back up to us.  Each time we sent them back with more complex instructions as we learned more.

“I think we have it now, Frank.  Anything else you can think of that we need to do?” I asked Frank as the sparrows moved back into the kangaroo pouch.

“I would like to watch a few more cycles for deviant patterns.”

So we watched.  The pattern started with a data hauler from the other side sending a signal.  The signal was received by an assembly next to the upwards-sliding door submerged in the oil.  The door would then lift, and another signal was sent, in the direction of the way we had come.  Almost certainly to a small room where we had seen many data haulers sitting idle.  The hauler by the door would move through the door and out of the tunnel.  The incoming hauler would arrive at the tunnel exit a few seconds after the outgoing hauler left.  The hauler would then waddle down the hallway, plop into the water, transmit a different signal, and the door would open.  The inbound hauler would pass through the door, and then the door would close.  After we watched a few of them pass, it was clear, based on small differences in wear and tear on the haulers, that the entering hauler was also the next hauler to leave.  There was no population of haulers on the other side of this door, only one at a time.

“Ready here, Bob.”

“Ready here as well, Frank.  You’ve got this, I think.  You’re much better with slippery surfaces than I am.”

“OK, I have control then.”

We waited for the next hauler to pass us, and then rapidly, carefully followed it into the oil while the turbulence of its passage had not yet settled.  After we entered the oil, we no longer moved rapidly, but slowly, carefully, following the little construct down the short passage to the door, where it obligingly sent its signal.  The door did not open.  We detected a signal above our heads, next to a crack in the stone.  The data hauler, four feet from us, exploded in our face.

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Chapter 4.39: Less Here

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Everyone moved out of the Buckyball mess, carefully cleaning themselves off.  My best guess on the number of enemy construct units destroyed in the first engagement was around eight thousand, roughly five thousand of them had been flyers and around three thousand crawlers.  Most of them were of the flying cockroach and the crawling mantis varieties.  I wanted to go find a mostly intact mantis type unit and let one of the construct selves deconstruct it, but Frank’s primary shard convinced me otherwise.  We had been told that Jason and Mouse had already prepared a biofactory for use in disposing of enemy inorganic units. I would, maybe, speak to Jason about adding more advanced analysis equipment to the biofactories doing cleanup in exchange for a copy of the results, and/or see if he would try to preserve a few of the best preserved of different models for me.  This would likely mean dealing with Mouse, but perhaps only indirectly.

I overheard Colonel Gantt saying something that immediately got my attention. “…it from orbit.  It’s the only way to be sure.” Then a little later.  “Yes, I understand that after one nuclear detonation on US soil, John Q. Public would go apeshit, and the politicians would have a field day if we irradiated a substantial chunk of California’s wine growing region.”

I looked at the three gaping holes in the mountain.  The one in the middle was a man-made entrance, with a wrecked armored door that had been brushed aside.  On either side of the man-made entrance was a cave entrance created by explosions.  I understood exactly where Colonel Gantt was coming from.  We had been attacked by a mob of mining robots, and while we decisively won the engagement, Facet had demonstrated tactics that would potentially have won them the fight if we hadn’t already considered the possibility of quant damage.  It was certain that there were more capable combatant constructs inside the entrances, close enough to have emerged if our leadership had been locked out of the virtual world.  We had already seen a few of them, the snipers that had fired at us, for example.

I turned to where the shattered remains of the sniper constructs had been.  There wasn’t much left of them after center mass antimatter detonations of sufficient magnitude to turn them into confetti, but they had clearly been made of more advanced materials.  I could tell that much just from spectrographic analysis at thirty feet, which was as close as the Frank shards would allow us to get to them without need.

It was a smart bet that Facet was going to continue to operate at or above the same tactical level with their real combat units, indoors, as they had just demonstrated using non-combat units outdoors.  When we moved into that underground complex, it was going to get ugly.

As I looked around, considering how we had just performed, I was not confident we had the forces to clear this complex. My fingers twitched a bit.  This was one problem I would prefer to resolve by application of liberal doses of antimatter.  But I could only generate small bits of antimatter at a time, and the size of the complex was huge.  It would take days of generating antimatter to scour out a crater the volume of this complex.  In that time, we would certainly be accosted by the locals and the state and federal government.  We had some measure of sanction to be here, since Colonel Gantt was here, but I didn’t know how ‘official’ those orders had been.  Gantt’s soldiers had been volunteers, after all.  The military doesn’t typically do ‘volunteer’ work for legitimate, documented missions.  I wished some of the others were proficient enough with matter reprogramming to be helpful in demolition, but only Ayva, and perhaps Jason, had symbiotes advanced enough to generate antimatter at all, and it would be very tiny amounts at very short ranges.

I detected a radio pulse out of Jason, and a few seconds later, I heard a diesel engine snort and clatter to life.  I sent a few sparrows to investigate while I considered how to recon the next assault.  The sparrows had worked very well, but could be improved.  I chatted with the primary Frank shard, asked him about a couple possibilities, and ended up delegating half a dozen different shards to solving miniaturization issues.

In the meantime, I saw what was coming.  A flatbed trailer hauled by a semi.  On the trailer was a biofactory that, based on visible density and volume, as well as the movement of the trailer and the truck, weighed over thirty tons.  It was roughly carrot shaped with no legs.  There were, however, extensions at the edges of light, flexible plates that defined body segments; those would give it traction beyond simple friction.  The mouth was at the more massive end of the body, which was slightly flattened, something like a catfish head.  The biofactory would move by a combination of bodily undulation and arching, much like an inchworm.  Lifting itself off the ground would not be easy, it would probably only do so at need.  It was the largest biofactory I had ever seen, other than A and B, which didn’t count, because they really hadn’t been biofactories at all.

A lot of people turned around to look at the truck with the biofactory on it.  I turned around, and made a point of looking back at the cave entrances, just to drive home the point to the ones that were paying attention that we needed to be sure that nothing snuck out while others were gawking.  Frank’s helmet let me see in all directions at once anyway.  Ayva could do the same, and possibly Jason as well, I hadn’t asked, or noticed.  The rest would likely be capable of it, but probably would not have actually implemented it yet.

Ayva said, “Jason, did you bring that thing all the way from South Dakota?”

Jason shrugged. “Colonel Gantt was able to arrange transport without a lot of trouble.  I had stayed behind to help the firefighters with it rather than just let it degrade there.  After Colonel Gantt called me and we met in the virtual world to discuss this mission, I didn’t know how much biological material or time I would have when I got here.” He paused. “You want to take a look at this thing and see if there are any improvements before I start having it clean up these construct bugs?” I checked to see if Jason was talking to me or Ayva.  Ayva.  Worked fine for me.  Checking on the biofactory would almost certainly also entail some measure of communicating with Mouse. Ayva would ask me for help if she thought it necessary.  I really didn’t want to deal with Mouse any more than necessary before we were done here today.

Colonel Gantt just looked at me, looked at Jason, snorted, and started yelling at his soldiers to watch the pile of bugs and keep shooting the ones that were repairing themselves.  He also asked Doctor Meilin to please pay more attention to the cave entrances, and less to the biofactory.

Ayva and Jason huddled for a short while, and then I felt the energy fluctuations they generated while making adjustments to the biofactory.  It didn’t take long after that for the biofactory to move up to the Buckyball slick, and start tearing up the ground down to rock, absorbing all the organic matter to partially fund its energy budget as it separated the Buckyballs and stored them.  Trying to actually break them down would be way too energy intensive for the biofactory to handle without a lot of help from Jason.

It didn’t take long for Jason’s biofactory to clear up the Buckyball slick, except for the bit under and around the bug constructs.  Then it started to consume the enemy constructs.  Most of them were completely nonfunctional, but a large number were still attempting self-repair by disassembling neighbors and cannibalizing parts.  The soldiers had been shooting any they saw moving, but there were deep piles in many places.

The biofactory was still a worm-like shape, bigger at the mouth end.  When the biofactory started consuming the constructs, rather than the soil, it changed how it was feeding.  To clean up the Buckyballs, it simply dug the lower half of its mouth into the ground and matched the contours of the rock surface below the soil to scoop up all the dirt.  When it started consuming the constructs, it did the same thing to clean the Buckyballs out of the soil under the construct bugs, but it also used its multiple ton tongue to prevent any of the more mobile constructs from escaping.  The biofactory’s tongue worked like an absurdly massive cast net when the biofactory threw it forward, hitting the ground with a solid thump, covering large piles of constructs.  The biofactory then carefully adjusted the prehensile edges of the tongue for perfect coverage of the ground.  After being certain to leave no way for constructs to escape, it would slowly constrict the tongue and drag the covered piles of constructs back into its mouth.  Large numbers of enemy units that had completely rebuilt themselves at the bottoms of the larger piles attempted to flee when disturbed, but the biofactory caught them all.  After the first tongue-casting by the biofactory, collecting several hundred constructs, there was no behavior change in the constructs hiding under the piles.  Facet was apparently no longer in communication with them, or at the very least had written them off.  At the very least, it should have been trying to cause the bugs to retreat like the others had, saving as many as possible.  Some might have gotten away if they had coordinated and used the disabled units as cover.

I also watched the biofactory very, very carefully.  Facet was supposed to be able to control symbiote processors if they were not being controlled by their native symbiote intelligence.  I was not entirely sure how biofactories might fit into that equation.  Imprisoned symbiotes were apparently fair game to it.  I checked with Ayva and verified that the four of them had thought about that.  The biofactory had half a dozen different triggers built into it to cause it to degrade if Jason lost control of it.

I popped up into the virtual world, and asked Frank to come back so we could consult with leadership by wire, while still being ready to react to Facet if they attacked.  The birds weren’t secure enough.  Ayva, Colonel Gantt, Doctor Meilin, Jason, and I all worked with our respective symbiotes briefly, creating shielded cabling to connect to one another, and then initiating another meeting to figure out where to go from here.

I had a strong feeling we were being played again.  I let Frank review all the data I had collected from the sparrow network as well as from my construct selves while the rest were still setting up security and plugging in.

When Colonel Gantt and Samwise connected, I started speaking.  “All symbiotes, please be careful to disallow biological reactions to this conversation.  Mask your thoughts, and mask your host’s expressions to be no more than normal, serious, conversational expressions.  Colonel Gantt, I can’t shake the sensation that Facet wants us to go into that cave complex.  They have had too long to prepare, they have shown themselves to be relatively weak, but just clever enough to not be suspicious.  I don’t think we can enter that complex and survive.”

Colonel Gantt paused a moment.  I could see Samwise redlining, but everyone else’s symbiotes were redlining as well, even Frank.  He was finishing the new sparrow designs, and a few new body modifications as well, based on the very brief conversation we had had.

Ayva was looking at me with a placid, interested expression that didn’t match what I saw in her eyes.  I knew she had caught the ‘we’ but she would wait to see if the others had.  She might even be communicating with the others in channels I wasn’t connected on.  I could certainly see evidence of data passing from her back and forth to Doctor Meilin.

Mouse, of course, challenged me immediately. “[We can’t enter the facility and survive, as in all of us.  Since all of us can’t do it, we’ll send one gung-ho badass with a stick, right?  Didn’t we see that movie a few days ago when you played chicken with a nuke?]”

I bit back my first response, because no matter how much I didn’t like him, he had a point.  The rest wanted to hear my response to it too, and a petulant rant certainly wouldn’t generate a lot of confidence in my arguments.  At this point, I was pretty sure that if they followed me in there, they would almost certainly all die.  Even Ayva would be highly unlikely to live long if Facet had turned the place into a death trap, unless she could modify her body to be roughly equivalent to mine, which I strongly doubted she could.  Danielle had not been able to make clean, accurate repairs to my body only a couple days ago.  Working with one’s own body was a bit easier, so I could be wrong about their ability to self-modify into a state like mine.  If I was, I’m sure I’d hear about it shortly.

I needed to bust some bubbles here.  “Colonel Gantt and Doctor Meilin, I want you to consider this scenario.  Some of your people enter a room, and enemies start attacking.  The enemies are a little more advanced than what we already fought, and they don’t stop.  They tie your people down into a fixed defensive position in the room.  All of a sudden, the exits from the room are sealed by powerful constructs carrying massive pieces of stone with many ventilation holes in them.  The stones are epoxied in place, and then a fifty foot thick plug of stone the same size as the room falls from the ceiling onto your people.”  They both cringed.  Colonel Gantt started communicating internally with Samwise, and Doctor Meilin with Karen.

Colonel Gantt said “I see.  It makes a lot of sense too.  I doubt that Mouse would survive some of the scenarios that I could personally imagine and engineer in a cave system, even without Samwise’s help, if I had the time and resources to implement them.  Facet has had many months of planning time, maybe as much as a year.  They also obviously have a lot more construction and industrial capacity than we ever imagined they might have.  They could use simple physics and an underground environment against us.  We also know they can detect our quants and fire on them effectively, from ambush.  I agree that my people would not survive long underground unless Facet is a complete idiot.  Quant body renewal doesn’t help when the body you are trying to restore occupies a space only an inch wide, with nowhere else to form.  Human brains don’t survive such trauma either.  We won’t be allowed to use nukes.  I already asked.”

Doctor Meilin consulted Karen several times, briefly, and then nodded.  “My people might do a little better than Colonel Gantt’s, but not much.  The underground environment, the defensive position, the time and resources available to Facet.  It all adds up to a meat grinder for us too.”

Jason started speaking. “We could…”

He was cut off by Mouse.  “No, Jason, we couldn’t.  I just gave myself one second to brainstorm, and came up with eleven different trivially difficult to create subterranean traps that could kill us.  I’m making the specifications available to you now, and giving you use of half of our processing power to analyze with.  You tell me which of them you think we could avoid, and how.  You have eleven seconds, one second per trap.  Every trap actually would reach an irreversible state within half a second, but we’ll give you twice as much time, since you will only have half my processing power.”

Fifteen seconds later, Jason spoke again.  “If Mouse could come up with nine ideas we couldn’t realistically manage to defeat in one second, Facet could certainly come up with a few in a year or more.  We can’t expect to survive in there, realistically.”

I turned to Ayva, who just stared at me.  “Bob, I happen to know your abilities well enough to know there are ways that Facet could kill even you, underground.  Oh, say, another nuke?  He’s already used one.”  She paused a moment.  “Danielle, send Bob the other twenty-seven traps we designed that could kill him and Frank.  They could all kill us too, we admit with no shame, but you aren’t going to convince me that you would be remotely safe going in there alone.”

All of the traps they sent my way were incredibly deadly.  After Mouse’s example, Frank was ready for challenges from Ayva and Danielle.  He was able to quickly generate twenty-three answers, sending them back to Ayva a second after Danielle sent the trap designs.

“Bob, are you serious that you two can do these things?  Some of what you and Frank sent back looks farfetched even for you two.  Despite your twenty-three rebuttals, most of which seem a bit far-fetched to me, there are four methods I see you had no answer for, and they aren’t very difficult to engineer.”

“Nothing is perfect.  Facet is dangerous.  Frank has also been considering the different ways Facet could kill us in a subterranean environment.  He’s come up with four hundred and six.” Ayva winced.  Danielle wasn’t supposed to allow that.  “Most of them are absurdly complex, requiring Rube Goldberg levels of complexity to implement.  He’s compared Mouse’s best reconstruction of the underground facilities, to his design ideas, and found places where perhaps a dozen of these highly complex methods might exist.  There are twenty other complex, but doable methods which might be found underground here based on the mapping, and beyond that, half a dozen fairly simple methods, including using a nuke or antimatter.  If they were going to use another nuke, they would have used it by now, on us here, as we are all grouped together in front of the facility entrance.”

The only reason the other four humans didn’t all turn to look right at the entrance, simultaneously, was because their symbiotes prevented it, because of my request at the beginning of the meeting.

Colonel Gantt looked at me.  “Can you do what A did?  Are you that tough?  I know what satellite that was she took out.  I know how powerful those lasers were.  I know who they were supposed to be used on, if needed.”  Damn, he was right back to trying to equate me with A and B.

His statements were an obvious goad.  I responded, to see where he would go with it.  I wasn’t going to leave Ayva behind if she was just going to be a target for the next satellite to come over the horizon.  “Colonel Gantt, when do you think the government will stop trying to invent ways to kill me?”

“When you stop being the living personification of off-the-scale offensive warfighting capacity wrapped in the shell of an impulsive, moderately well-educated redneck with significant emotional control issues?”

Well, hell, if that’s how the military top brass and policy makers thought of me, it explained a lot.  I never realized they considered me like that.

Doctor Meilin was actually nodding.  Damn.  That lent substantial weight to what Colonel Gantt said.

Ayva gave Doctor Meilin a sharp look, and got a tiny shrug in return.

Jason and Mouse just stared, watching me closely.  Mouse was redlining his processors.

I looked back at Colonel Gantt.  “Fair enough.  I wish it had been explained this clearly before.  I understand better now.”  I paused, and answered the original question.  “I can’t do what A did.  B demonstrated some impressive durability in his first outing, and we all saw what A did, just standing there with the lasers on her like that.  Frank thinks he knows how they manage that durability, and it’s actually easy to explain in an understandable fashion.”

“Go on?” Jason commented.

I could see the symbiotes of the others ramping up to follow what I was about to say.  I chuckled, getting some strange looks, though nothing startling.  From the outside, looking in without hearing the conversation, it would appear as if I’d said something stupid.  The symbiotes were choreographing our physical responses to disguise our actual reactions.  “It’s very simple, they are just ‘more here’ than we are.”  Before they started throwing things at me, I continued.  “We live in three dimensions.  They live in eleven.  Imagine an old-school overhead projector from a few decades ago.”

Ayva frowned, briefly, but I saw Danielle communicating with her.  Probably explaining how an overhead projector worked, though I would have imagined she would have seen one at some point in her life.  After a second or two, she nodded.  The others looked a little confused at where I was going with the discussion, but they all made some expression indicating they were listening again.

I looked at my ‘students’ then continued.  “Draw a light image on a transparency page, and then put it on the projector.  A light image is projected onto the white screen.  Then, draw two more of the exact same image on two more transparencies, and place them carefully on the first image.  That darker image on the white screen is a good representation of humans and non-system-node symbiotes.  Three transparencies for three dimensional beings.”  I paused.  “Now, draw eight more light images on transparencies, and place them on top of our three transparency stack.  The image on the white screen is now nearly pure darkness, very solid.  Eleven transparencies for eleven dimensions.  That is the footprint A and B have in reality.  So, when they manifest visibly to us in the world, they are simply ‘more here’ than we are, since they express their existence in eleven dimensions.  We only see three of those dimensions, but that doesn’t reduce them.”

Colonel Gantt rubbed his chin.  “That actually makes a lot of sense, I suppose.  OK.  I suspect we won’t know when Frank can duplicate it, in any case, until we see him use it.”

I laughed.

Frank was silent.

I stopped laughing, and spoke out loud, without thinking about it.  “Frank, I will find a way to make you miserable if you manage to figure out how to make me a multidimensional being.”

Ayva, Colonel Gantt, and Doctor Meilin just stared at me.  Jason twitched, and then stared.

Frank laughed in my head, and then borrowed my voice.  “[Bob, we’ve already done it once.  We just can’t do it here.  Colonel Gantt, you will have to join us in another solar system, one without a human symbiote pair system node, to see us become multidimensional.  A and B won’t let us develop in certain ways.  Becoming multidimensional is one of the things they will not allow.  Based on observing them, I have enough data to start experimenting to get hints on what they are actually doing, but every experiment, no matter where it’s performed, fails.  Not just simple, predictable failures either, the experiments fail In a different way each time, very clearly indicating I’ve reached an artificial border to learning.  I won’t say Bob and I are at the pinnacle of allowed development yet, but I’m finding lots of dead ends that should lead to advanced knowledge.]”

I thought about it for a moment.  That actually was a really good lead into the next stage of this discussion.

“Frank and I can’t make ourselves ‘more here’, like A and B, but we’ve done a pretty good job of making ourselves ‘less here’ through stealth technologies and body manipulation.  Frank’s come up with a few ideas on how to improve on that.  He’s improved the stealth systems slightly, so they operate in every frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and they also absorb and retransmit sound energy in much the same way as they retransmit light.  We still can’t manage any sort of gravity stealth, but I strongly doubt anything in that facility that’s not a Facet AI has any possibility of visibly detecting density fluctuations in the air.”

Ayva practically shouted at me across the group wired connection. “Bob, you’re an idiot.  They can detect your quant.  Frank doesn’t actually know how to do that.”

Frank kept me from reacting visibly to Ayva attacking me so energetically.  “They detected active quants.  All five of us were shot twice, both shots targeted on the active quant we had in us.  Nobody was shot in inactive quants.  That’s not necessarily a guarantee they can’t see inactive quants too, since we don’t know how they detect active ones.  Frank and I will have to go in with no quant at all, just a topped off charge in the capacitors.”

“You have no idea how much power they might have siphoned off the virtual world, and stored, Bob.” Ayva threw right back at me.

“Not very much, and what they might have stored, they have likely spent by now.  B said he tricked them into the virtual world only once, and that was it, they never returned.”  I tried to sound confident.  That was a really big facility, with a whole lot of room for energy storage.

Jason’s voice, with an inflection.  Mouse. “[Bob, it didn’t have to be Facet drawing power to store it.  Jason and I can tell you from very painful personal experience that it’s possible to make a symbiote take actions to preserve the life of its host and itself.  You saw it firsthand yourself, remember?  Not only that, but you might be a bit naïve here if you think what A did stopped energy transfer, if it ever existed. A took innocents out of the place.  That probably took care of any symbiotes gathering power from the virtual world, but it’s possible they have symbiotes working with them willingly.  A would not have lifted anyone out that was willingly working with Facet.]”

I looked Jason and Mouse in the eyes, and could only whisper a response to part of his argument.  “Yeah. I remember, Mouse, and I’m afraid everyone might end up like how we found you two, if Facet isn’t stopped.”

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Chapter 4.38: Rough Start

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The large constructs began emitting jamming in symbiote natural communications frequencies, as well as every radio frequency we’d been using so far for communications.  I immediately assigned more birds to communications and scouting duties around Colonel Gantt, realizing that I’d overlooked the fact that he needed to communicate with many people, and see the battlefield.  He didn’t even acknowledge the birds, he simply started using them.  Within a second of the additional birds being available to him, Colonel Gantt sent a command “Withdraw Blue” through the birds’ audio network.  Everyone leapt back thirty feet, almost as one, back in the direction we had come from.

I opened fire after landing on the ground and anchoring myself to the stone with the claws of my feet, as did all four of my construct selves.  I/we formed a line abreast, in front of everyone else, giving them time to recover from the explosion.  Ten shoulder-mounted coilguns started hammering out tiny needles at absurd velocities.  Our carbon fiber muscled bodies absorbed the energy of the recoil without much difficulty.  All five helmet-mounted anti-armor lasers activated as one, and we started burning down the large constructs that were jamming us.

The enemy constructs were not moving as quickly as I had feared they might.  Was this a tactical decision of some sort, or a limitation?  I could not imagine too many scenarios where it would be a good idea to limit mobility in a direct assault.  Frank’s shards could though, and they were yelling at me in Frank’s voice to ‘analyze, analyze, and give us the data!’  I focused my attention on the lead elements of the assault wave, mostly flying constructs.  The flyers all seemed to be exclusively designed for melee engagement, multiple sharp front legs, with a small shaped explosive charge inside a container of… carbon powder?  The Frank shards were irritated and didn’t understand the purpose of carbon powder.

Colonel Gantt sent a command to ‘Drop secondary mines, withdraw blue.’  I was point.  I didn’t carry mines.  All four of my duplicates and I continued to rapidly fire.  The power levels of my alternates was dropping rapidly.  I modified a dozen sparrows as energy carriers, adding an additional superconducting capacitor where their Penning trap had been.  I modified all five of us to have tiny access ports on our cooling systems where the sparrows could use their claws to transfer power in and out.  Then I assigned the sparrows to ferrying power from my systems to my construct selves.

I saw that the last of my companions had dropped mines and leapt back.  The leading edge of the flight-capable drones was less than ten feet from me now.  I turned off the anti-armor lasers.  They were too energy expensive to use on the flyers unless I was in desperate need.  I wasn’t, yet.

All four constructs and I adjusted our posture out of a crouch, standing taller to release the tendon locks which involuntarily forced our claws into the stone beneath us, leaving us with voluntary control of our claws on the rock.  We all leaned slightly forward, and then fully released our claws from the stone simultaneously, while carefully continuing to fire with the coilguns.  Each of our bodies only weighed twelve pounds, twenty with gear, and we were rapidly firing hypervelocity needles.  The effect was immediate – we started sliding backwards rapidly, accelerating due to recoil.

As we accelerated, skidding backwards, the fastest flying enemy constructs nearly reached us, exactly as planned.  One of my constructs slammed a leading flyer with its sling staff, knocking the flyer into the hands of another of my constructs.  Immediately after the successful catch, we all hopped over the line of mines, continuing to fire into the enemies while we were in the air.  After passing over the mines, we briefly directed the coilguns directly into the air, using their recoil to push us back to the ground after the leap.

All four constructs and I hit the ground, still moving backwards in a controlled slide powered by firing into the enemy formation.  When I/we were about five feet in front of the skirmish line where my companions were settling in,  all five of us crouched to drive our claws into the ground and lock us in place.  By that point, everyone standing behind us was organized again and joined us, firing into the mass of oncoming flyers.  I assigned a Frank shard to coordinate targeting with Danielle, who would pass on my targeting algorithms to Doctor Meilin so we wouldn’t shoot at the same thing very often.

Large numbers of Frank shards spread out through the four constructs and myself started clamoring for data on the captured unit.  I made certain that the Frank shards assigned to data security were in charge of the rest before allowing said Frank shards in the construct holding the flyer to begin deconstructing it, looking for evidence of something hidden or disguised somehow.  These things appeared crudely designed, had no ranged attacks, and were attacking in advance of what looked to be not-much-more advanced units.  Nothing we’d seen so far was even made of particularly high-quality materials.

Each piece that the dissecting construct removed was inspected by the Frank shards in that unit, and then tossed in front of me, where I would examine it as it fell to the ground.  The primary Frank shard and I had decided that with the AI being so good with electronics and computing, it was likely to try to infect us with a virus.  The chances of a virus in a construct was acceptable, but I wasn’t to touch any code directly with our real body unless I absolutely had to.

We had destroyed hundreds of the flyers before leaping the line of mines.  That was just a taste.  When I linked myself and the other four into the firing network with the Recovery cadre through Danielle, we were able to destroy the flyers faster than they approached.  Why were they so slow?

The central processor of the enemy construct we had collected was thrown in front of me, and I analyzed it with senses that the construct duplicates of myself didn’t have, passing the data to the Frank shards.  I did a double take when I recognized what I had just seen.  Magnetic memory storage assemblies?  What was the AI thinking?  I had to know.  I consulted with my primary Frank shard, and it agreed that the memory capacity of the flash memory module that had just passed in front of me was probably insufficient to contain threatening code.  We quarantined a shard, and then adjusted security protocols just to be safer.  When that was done, I handed over electromagnetic senses outside the visual range to the quarantined shard, and it read the data out of the flash memory.

The quarantined shard responded appropriately to several hundred tests, and then was finally allowed to pass data to another quarantined shard.  The first shard was deleted, its data eradicated.  The second shard again passed tests.  This process was repeated dozens of times before the primary Frank shard deemed the data safe.  When I looked at what we had found, I nearly lost my concentration on everything around me.  Von Neumann machines.  Crude ones.  But still.  Twenty gigabytes of data exclusively oriented to locating, extracting, and processing minerals into appropriate shapes to create more of itself.  It clearly didn’t have the entire process within itself, but it had enough to be clear that it was part of a machine community that could reproduce itself, without direct intervention from the AI.  This was why they were so slow and crude.  They were primarily resource harvesters, with a secondary purpose to create rough shapes that more dextrous machines would assemble.

The flyers were made of rough carbon fiber components.  Strong, but nothing like finely constructed graphene and carbon nanofibers.   Sure, they were crude and easily replaced, but not even one had gotten close enough to damage us in the first twenty seconds or so since the explosion.  I had not even bothered turning the anti-armor lasers back on.  I would turn them back on again when I could see the larger constructs again.  I was at a loss.  The flyers looked like they were just a distraction, and Colonel Gantt apparently thought exactly that.  He had directed Jason to start indirect fire on the ground-based constructs behind the flyers, concentrating on the ones that looked to have larger, ranged weapons.  His other soldiers had backed off from the front, slightly, and were joining Jason with indirect fire, though theirs was directed at the closest ground-based enemies, not any specific types.

There was absolutely no way Frank and I would have ever considered sending out the flyers like this.  At the very least, they should be carrying a useful combat load where they had their tiny shaped charge and carbon dust.  There had been days of preparation for the AI to modify these things, and they had Von Neumann architectures, so the AI would only have to come up with the plans, and the machines would act on the design change without intervention.  No, the dust and the explosive charge were intentional.  At the very least, the flyers could have been made modestly faster to accelerate by removing the mass.  I had grabbed the packet of carbon dust out of the air after the construct had separated it from its explosives.  Looking closely at the atomic structures, I saw they were buckminsterfullerene.  Buckyballs, to be exact.  I very carefully examined the structure of those atoms, looking for any molecules stored inside them.  Nothing.  These flying constructs were not advanced enough to even generate Buckyballs, so they definitely came from somewhere else.  There was a purpose to them and I could not imagine it.  Perhaps the purpose was simply to confuse us with nonsense?

I threw the container of buckyballs over the minefield, hitting a flyer, but only knocking it backward in a puff of buckyballs.  Twenty-four seconds into the battle, almost half of the flying enemies and about ten percent of the ground-based were down, and they hadn’t even wounded anyone since the original explosion.  Everyone was professional, but I could tell we were relaxing, people were thinking this was going to be a cakewalk.  We hadn’t even needed to activate the secondary mines yet.  I made absolutely certain that the sparrows were watching every part of the sky.  I even stopped firing briefly and looked around with gravity sight, getting a frown from Colonel Gantt until he saw me scanning the sky.

Colonel Gantt furrowed his brow, and then I saw him look at me.  I got an incoming message from him through the audio from one of the sparrows on my shoulder. “You’re also thinking it’s too easy?  They aren’t even trying to envelop or flank us.”

I stopped scanning the horizon and above us, and returned to firing, replying across the audio link.  “It’s a terrible waste of resources.  It makes no sense.  There’s zero possibility that these are the best the AI has, and less chance that it would waste its fodder like this.  A six-year-old human could plan a better offensive than this with ten minutes of education about tactics and unit types.  I absolutely refuse to believe Facet does not understand combined arms.  At the very least, the AI should have waited and attacked us with more potent units, supported by this mob.”  The primary Frank shard tried to argue with me about possibilities, especially negative possibilities.  I had to explain to it that I was slightly exaggerating.  It made annoyed noises after it understood, and complained that it was supposed to be a tactical advisor, not a literary analyst.

Colonel Gantt responded.  “I saw you disassembling that thing, get anything useful?”

I could not begin to transmit enough data over the high frequency audio network the birds were using to relay the results of my study, so I modified three sparrows to be data receptacles and loaded them with the data, sending one to Colonel Gantt, one to Danielle, and one to Jason.  Danielle would pass the data to Doctor Meilin over their connecting cable if it seemed like it might be useful.  Doctor Meilin didn’t look strained, but she certainly didn’t look relaxed either.  Karen was redlining, and I could see the receptacle that used to house Star was highly active as well.  Karen had apparently advanced sufficiently to use its processing power, though inefficiently.  This probably explained how Doctor Meilin could control her entire cadre at once.

I saw the change happening, but could not react to it because I didn’t understand it.   The leading elements of ground based enemies, most of them looking like some sort of praying mantis analog, started picked up the disabled flyers. After I noted the initial few units performing the strange behavior, the main body of crawlers hit the pile of disabled flyers on the other side of the minefield from us.   Every one of the leading crawlers I could see had picked up a disabled flyer.  Thousands of flyers had been picked up and carried forward as… shields?  I wasn’t the only one who was confused by their actions; I could feel the confusion in everyone around me.

“What the hell are they doing?  Playing cockroach Frisbee?” I heard one of Colonel Gantt’s soldiers say to another.

Colonel Gantt warned us to withdraw after the enemy ground forces hit the minefield.  We would continue to lead them, withdrawing.  I had a bunch of sparrows to our flanks and rear, watching for envelopment.  Colonel Gantt had deployed several of his borrowed ones in the same way.

All of the enemy ground combatants carrying disabled flyers suddenly turned the disabled flyers to face us, exposing their unarmored bottoms.  All the remaining flyers in the air performed a simultaneous movement, exposing their own unarmored bottoms.  I had spent my fair share of time in the ocean controlling an orca construct, and what I saw the constructs do looked almost exactly like a massive school of fish simultaneously turning in the water, distracting an attacker with the combined light from all their bodies.  There were thousands of simultaneous explosions, and a thick cloud of purplish dust appeared in the air.  I heard rockets from the other side of the cloud, and all of a sudden, it became clear what the Buckyballs were intended to do, as the cloud of Buckyballs was driven through our ranks by explosions behind the cloud.

Everyone and everything around us was coated in Buckyballs.  The nearly perfectly round molecules of carbon created a dry lubricated surface that covered everything, including the insides of weapons, eyes, nasal passages, lungs, our clothing and footgear, and the ground we were standing on.   It was like someone dropped several tons of ultra fine graphite powder on us, only worse.  Friction became an abstract.  The air was filled with coughs, curses, the clatter of dropped weapons, and the shouts and thumps of people falling down.

My ranged weapons were attached to my body, and my body was anchored into the ground with claws.  With a thought, I removed the Buckyballs from my helmet and lungs, and then cleaned the Buckyball coating off the insides of the barrels of my coilguns and the lenses of my lasers.  After that, I increasing my rate of fire, making sure the coilguns had plenty of flechettes left.  There were no longer any flyers remaining.  I maintained fire on the ground constructs lined up next to the minefield with the coilguns, and opened fire on one of the large constructs with all five lasers, and it staggered, threw off a massive gout of steam, and fell over.  The AI had apparently tried to implement water cooling for laser defense like I had done with the urchins at Lake Weiss.  It made sense that there would have been an analysis of the urchin’s seeming immunity to lasers.  Steam would have been a clear indication of what I had done.

The five lasers quickly found another large construct that was jamming, ending it.  The flyers were no longer obstructing my ability to target the jamming machines.

The enemy ground units started to surge towards us, approaching the line of mines.  I increased rate of fire to an unsustainable level, my energy reserves draining away faster than Frank was restoring them.  Colonel Gantt was shouting something at me, but I had to give the others time to recover.  I could feel them using matter programming crudely, removing Buckyballs from their lungs, eyes, sinuses, ears.  When they could breathe, and see, they started cleaning weapons while prone. Then they slowly made adjustments to their footgear, spikes like golf shoes helping them with traction.  Everyone started standing again, slowly, carefully backing out of the purplish-black blotch of ground where friction was an afterthought.  That’s when I detected several density fluctuations in the air, very still, behind the front line enemy combatants, far from the jamming constructs that I was still engaging with lasers.

The primary Frank shard took control of my voice and shouted “[Snipers!]” out loud while at the same time passing the message through the network of sparrows at highest priority.  I had not even seen code where Frank had given the primary shard the ability to seize my voice or other external communications for its own use.  I ignored that for now, because it was right. I initiated a movement of sparrows to get between prime targets and the snipers hidden under stealth while I created a tiny fraction of a gram of antimatter at the apparent center of mass of each barely visible silhouette I could see.

I wasn’t fast enough.  The sparrows weren’t fast enough.  Ten hypervelocity rounds were on their way before my antimatter formed.  Two rounds each fired at me, Doctor Meilin, Ayva, Jason, and Colonel Gantt.  Both rounds targeted at me hit me squarely on my kangaroo pouch, demolishing my quant, slamming me backwards against the grip of my claws in the stone.  The same happened to the rest of us, except I was the only one anchored.  The AI was apparently able to design equipment to precisely identify the locations of active quants, which would also have allowed it to tell which of the five lookalike Bobs was me.  The possibility of lost quants was something we’d planned for, but not like this, not as a planned attack from the AI.  Everyone had moved their primary quant to the lower waist or hips, since those were low probability kill shots, and the AI hadn’t been expected to fire there, specifically.  Surprise on us.

“Fuck this AI” Frank yelled in my head as he activated the secondary quant in my lower left leg and disappeared again.  Colonel Gantt had insisted everyone have two quants, both configured.  Frank had agreed, loudly, which wasn’t a surprise, considering recent history.

The crater in my stomach disappeared.  My organic bits seemed OK.  I turned and saw the others recovering where the shots had thrown them.  Ayva’s armor was shattered and bloody around the right hip, but already healed as she ran towards Doctor Meilin, who had been thrown nearly thirty feet.  As I watched, Ayva’s armor repaired itself with a considerable energy expenditure.

Doctor Meilin had been nearly torn in half at the waist, but as I watched, her body restored itself.  Neither of them were supposed to be in the virtual world during the operation, I thought?  Apparently I was wrong if the AI had hit her like that.  I watched Karen for signs of processing problems, if there were problems, the Recovery agents would not be as effective working as a unit.  When Doctor Meilin’s body had been hit that hard, losing that much bone mass, Karen had suffered a lot of network disconnections.  I didn’t see any clear signs of significant problems, though there was definitely plenty of activity going on to repair network connections.

Jason looked anything but fine.  He had been cut in half, but it looked like Mouse had it under control, crawling over the ground rapidly on his arms towards his hips and legs.

Colonel Gantt was already standing, his armor was badly damaged on one hip, and would remain that way for a while, since Samwise was not advanced enough quite yet to duplicate it.  He was already looking over the battlefield and controlling sparrows.  I double-checked.  It was Colonel Gantt, not Samwise in control.  I wasn’t sure what I felt as I saw him standing there like that.  Impressed at the mental fortitude for being right back on top of things after taking a wound like that, or frightened at the callousness as he ignored Jason’s torso dragging itself across the ground.  His eyes never even tracked to Jason that I saw.

I felt quants forming and disappearing in my kangaroo pouch.  Soon there were five.  There was no doubt what the intent was.  Our ‘other halves’ were all in conference in an embedded virtual world, able to talk to each other there like we could talk here.  Frank had apparently been elected as the quant-replacer, which made a lot of sense.  I grabbed quants out of my pocket and threw them to people, who put them on, concentrating briefly to activate them.  I realized that was a good idea, and did the same, activating my new quant before I needed it again.

Despite the chaos of having all five of the senior leadership shot at once, the rest of the soldiers and Recovery people had never stopped firing.  My four alternates being run by shards had dramatically reduced their firing rate because Frank was no longer powering me and them by extension, but they still fired in support when needed.  The Recovery agents had used a lot of grenades, the minefield had been blown, and Colonel Gantt’s soldiers had been passed instructions by someone to bodyguard a few senior Recovery nodes that had taken over for Doctor Meilin when she was down.

I resumed firing on the retreating constructs with the others as they flowed back into the tunnel entrance and two newly formed cave entrances.

We hadn’t even made it inside yet.

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Chapter 4.37: Not Welcome

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As I moved forward, I created hundreds of carbon fiber sparrow constructs and a few construct duplicate selves while Frank fed me torrents of power from the virtual world into the body’s superconducting capacitors.  I copied Frank’s tactical shards into the processor nodes of the alternate selves.  I made the sparrows slightly larger to accommodate small Penning traps, these traps were much smaller than the ones in my grenades.  Empty, of course.  But ready for instant use.

There had been six hundred and eleven enslaved humans in that facility.  Mouse said the place had hundreds of rooms, like an ant colony.  From my own experience, I knew the power of many small combatants.  The AI would certainly have learned that, either from watching the successes I enjoyed with constructs as part of the AI learning what it could about me, or from simply connecting the dots like I did.  I was expecting small combatant constructs in the thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps more.  I needed to even the odds.

One of the things that both Frank and I agreed on with zero dissention between us; threat analysis was everything in this fight.  We were assaulting an entrenched position; the enemy was competent, capable, intelligent, and prepared.  We didn’t know how many Facets would be present, or how individually or collectively powerful they might be.

A and B seemed to feel that we were capable of at least driving them out of the facility though.  Why else risk us like this?  I hadn’t gotten the feeling that this was only a game to them, or worse yet, a game between them.  I shook my head.  Beyond my ability to discern.  Down that path was madness.

My mouth twitched with humor as I looked down and saw one of my sparrows following instructions from a Frank shard, carefully arranging itself into the cup of my staff’s sling, gripping with carbon fiber claws and beak to firmly hold itself in position.  I paused in my creation of alternate selves and sparrows, briefly.

On my left leg’s next extension, I enabled the molecular blades at the edges of its claws.  Those enhanced claws bit deep when they struck through the thin dirt, cutting into stone underneath.  As the three front left claws bit into the rock, I used the stability of that rock to anchor me, and whipped my staff forward.  The sparrow left the sling of my staff at roughly twice the speed of sound.  Too fast, and it wouldn’t be able to steer itself at all.

I established a tight beam connection to the speeding bird construct and made tiny, last minute adjustments to its programming, and then, while I waited for it to reach the cave, I gave my four construct selves a careful once-over.  Frank’s shards were functioning properly within them.  The organic bits matched my own, and the energy signature was the same.  My masking matched their masking.  It wouldn’t do for the AI to be able to read quantum processor states and be able to see the difference between myself and the others at a glance.  It might be able to discern the difference, but I made sure it wouldn’t be trivial.

I created a few dozen more sparrows very rapidly, and then turned my attention back to the sparrow racing towards the cave entrance.  It had extended its wings and begun some evasive maneuvers, slowing dramatically, but it was still supersonic as it exploded in a shower of carbon fiber bits.  Its sensors had given me enough data to pinpoint where the first hypervelocity weapon emplacements were located.  Time for that in a moment.  I had seen something important that needed to be shared.

Colonel Gantt’s soldiers were arranged around me.  They were the least advanced symbiote fighters here, and I had wanted them close to me so I could offer them support.  I had already made adjustments to a few of their pieces of equipment that were clearly error prone.  While I was doing that, I saw that the soldiers were paired.  Each pair was connected by a very thin series of cables as they ran in tandem, their movements choreographed to an impressive degree.  At first glance, it seemed too impressive, really, they shouldn’t have had the capacity to react to one another that accurately.  I looked at their processor activity and almost tripped over my own feet when I saw what they had done.  Each pair of bodies was being controlled by a single symbiote.  When I looked to the brains of the bodies, I saw what I was expecting.  Only one mind was highly active.  Each soldier pair had one symbiote and one human, from alternate bodies, in control of actions, while the other two were in the virtual world, providing power for their armor, enhancements, and weapons.

I wanted to shout at Frank and ask him how in the hell Ayva and I had missed this idea, but he was in the virtual world, so I made a note to do it later.  What they were doing was very similar to what I already did with my body constructs, but more brilliant.  I looked at the node and drone arrangements of the Recovery agents, and wondered if they would be able to take advantage of the improvement on the fly.

First things first though, I assigned several sparrows to each human body.  “Everyone will have a couple companion sparrows, folks.” I broadcast through the birds’ speaker systems.  “If you start getting jammed with electromagnetics, they can operate as extremely high frequency audio transmitters, or tight beam radio, allowing more communications options.  They might suicide themselves every now and then to block an attack from hitting you.  That’s why you have more than one each.  If you can think of an alternate use, or a way to improve the sparrows, pass the information to me, please.  You have local control.  I can override them, but will only do so for ‘Oh Shit’ moments.”

I could feel symbiotes establishing connections to sparrows, and experimenting with their communications capabilities, exploring their physical capabilities.  The little birds were spreading their wings to create radio dishes or audio parabolas while rapidly hopping around from place to place on the shoulders of the humans to create connections with others.  It wasn’t as fast as cabled connections by any means, it wasn’t even as fast as unenhanced symbiote communications.  They were a lot more versatile though.  In a worst-case scenario, where there was both electromagnetic and audio interference, they could fly from place to place, and communicate securely that way.  They could also block a bullet or a laser, or act as a disposable scout.

One of the birds on Colonel Gantt passed a message to one of my birds, first using tight beam radio, and then the message was duplicated at ultrahigh frequency audio. “Bob, why didn’t you mention this in planning?”

I passed a message back across a secure channel.  “Sorry, Colonel, I just thought of it after I saw what your soldier pairs were doing.  That’s brilliant, by the way.  Whose idea was it? I need to congratulate them.”

“It was Mouse’s idea, Bob.  Jason told us about it but took no credit for it.  We brainstormed and made it better, but the concept idea came from Mouse post-mission, when he and Jason were in debrief lockdown.” Colonel Gantt responded.

“Oh.  Hmm.  Thank him for me, will you?  I was worried about your soldiers a lot more before I noticed what they were doing.”  I knew it sounded lame that I had just offered to congratulate the idea generator, and then reversed myself to ask someone else to do it, when it turned out the idea came from Mouse.  “Scratch that, I’ll thank him myself.”

“You can’t right now, Jason’s got control.  I imagine you’d rather ask Jason to thank him than do it yourself, anyway.”  His dry humor came across the connection quite nicely.  Mouse’s dislike for Frank and I was not exactly a secret.  It was mutual.  Neither of us had a real problem with Jason.  It was complex.

We had closed to within three hundred yards of the facility by this time.  I generated a connection to Doctor Meilin through normal high bandwidth channels, and transmitted an analysis of what the soldiers near me were doing to her.  I asked that she pass the data to Ayva for me.  I needed to take out the hypervelocity weapons emplacements inside the shattered main entrance before our people came into line of sight with them.  Doctor Meilin acknowledged the transmission.

I suspected Recovery would use it.  Ayva and I could potentially use it as well.  Jason and Colonel Gantt probably wouldn’t be able to, unless they had spent time training with it with each other.  Ayva and Doctor Meilin could conceivably use the idea as well, though I suspected that Doctor Meilin and Karen would be less than thrilled to turn over control of the Recovery cadre to Ayva or Danielle.  A quick glance showed that I was right about at least one thing I had guessed.  Doctor Meilin wasn’t in the virtual world, based on brain activity, nor was Karen, based on processor activity patterns.  Ayva was in command of her body, with Danielle in the virtual world.

All five of me loaded up sparrows into our staves, and, acting with precise coordination, we launched five sparrows.  After launch, I removed their Penning trap components, replacing those components with a small, lightly armored, carefully shaped container of fluoroantimonic acid, which in turn, contained a smaller, carefully shaped shell of conventional C4 explosive charge.  Everything in contact with the acid was coated with Teflon, of course, or the acid would have started reacting.  It was the most potent acid I knew of, and I hoped this worked.

The five sparrows had left our staves with startlingly loud cracks, again at nearly twice the speed of sound, and then unfurled their wings.  This time I knew where two hypervelocity emplacements were, and calculated approach paths to bring the birds as close as possible to the emplacements before they popped into view on their attack runs.

As expected, the birds were being tracked on their approach by some passive sensors that I hadn’t detected yet.  The first two were annihilated instantly by hypervelocity needles when they popped up into their attack run, but the third and fourth that had popped up were not.  Birds three and four detonated their charges, and a tight cone of acid sprayed past the hypervelocity needles that struck out uselessly at where they had been.  The fifth sparrow speared past the shattered door, madly evading as it transmitted data back to me.  I saw that the acid was at work, fumes surrounding the two defensive emplacements.  There was nothing else immediately visible.  The two weapons were tracking on the fifth bird, but the degradation of their sensors was made apparent by the fact that they missed.

As expected based on Jason and Mouse’s debrief on the site’s construction, the entry made a dogleg left, fifteen yards into the facility.  The sparrow, despite how agile it was, could not navigate that turn at slightly more than the speed of sound. As it hurtled down the short passage, the bird oriented it’s sensors to face in the direction that it would never survive to travel.  As the fifth construct bird cleared the corner, it transmitted what it saw to me as it detonated its charge blindly down the passage, the spray of acid expanding away from the explosion while at the same time sweeping left to right across the passage.  I didn’t expect to damage any weapon emplacements this way, but the fine mist of acid had a very good chance of degrading stealth surfaces.  The first dogleg would be a very good place for combatants to pre-deploy, partially protected from direct fire.

As planned, on a command from Colonel Gantt, each of his ten soldiers launched a drone shot out the vertical tube on their back.  The ten small drones were the same chassis and propulsion system as when I’d first seen the technology used by press gangers, but these models were exclusively for recon, and they immediately disappeared from all my modes of detection other than gravity, and sound.  They were quiet, but not completely quiet.  It was my job to make noise for them.

We stopped to either side of the entrance of the facility.  The command group and I stayed right, otherwise the groups split nearly in two.  The soldiers, their drones, and the Recovery members scoured the surface of the rock, seeking sensors, and finding some.  Certainly not all, but Doctor Meilin had requested a quick stop so she could implement a couple changes.

She was adopting the soldier’s idea in the middle of the operation.  Even knowing that she might, I was a little surprised to see it.

Colonel Gantt was upset.  “Doctor, your people aren’t used to fighting like this.  Mine at least had a couple days under the perception effect to train with it.”

Doctor Meilin answered calmly.  “My people have been working as teams for a very long time now, some of them for years.  This is not terribly different for us.  It’s a very good idea, and Mouse is to be strongly complimented when you get the chance, Jason.”

Jason nodded, but watched the Recovery agents closely as Doctor Meilin concentrated.

I also watched the Recovery node and drone triplets.  Every drone had been controlled by a symbiote before, and that didn’t change.  Each node had been controlled by a symbiote as well, making Doctor Meilin the only human mind in the entire Recovery combat group.  But now that changed.  The nodes were swapping from symbiote to human control, and the drones and nodes were establishing slightly different connections, apparently allowing more two-way communications from the drones to the nodes.

Doctor Meilin’s face relaxed a little.  “There.  Now I can devote a little more attention to what is happening around me in this body, as opposed to having to watch so closely over all the symbiotes.  They can get a bit, ah, energetic, if they feel threatened, and working together is not really in their nature.  With the drone symbiotes helping to control the node bodies and protect them from harm, the node human minds can help me keep an eye on the symbiotes.  Hans and Franz, standing over Doctor Meilin like twin miniature mountains simply nodded.  Their bodies were being controlled by their symbiotes, who, in turn, were listening to Doctor Meilin.  I looked closer.  These two were not connected the same way that the other node and drone triplets were.  Hans and Franz each apparently kept a substantial portion of their processing power for their own independent use.  I chalked up another good decision to Doctor Meilin as I recognized that her drone pair was intentionally allowed to act counter to, or at least outside of, her wishes, probably because she was a very public figure and they were bodyguards for her as much as they were her drone pair.

I traced out what Doctor Meilin had done, and noted that the symbiotes in the drones were heavily utilizing the sparrows for extra communication channels as well as different angles of vision.  I spent about thirty seconds making another cloud of sparrows.  There were several thousand of the tiny construct birds around us now, about five hundred assigned to individuals other than myself, roughly four per person for everyone else, and a few thousand for me.  I carefully kept the sparrows that were not in use flying over our heads in a bunch of small flocks so they would not hinder our combat sightlines.

Ayva finished talking with Doctor Meilin, and then reached over and touched me on the shoulder.  I had intentionally blocked out their conversation, since they seemed to be arguing a bit.  When I turned around to face her, I was rewarded with a brief kiss.

“I’m going to switch with Danielle, and allow Danielle to plug herself into Doctor Meilin’s network.  We won’t be directly connected in the same way the other Recovery agents are, because we’ve never trained that way before, but Danielle can process and pass targeting and threat analysis data to Karen as if we were just an independent sensor network.  I’d like to ask for a couple hundred sparrows for Danielle to use, please.”

It made me a bit nervous to have Ayva and Danielle subservient to Doctor Meilin, who for all intents and purposes was many times less capable in combat, but it made some sense.  The Recovery cadre was a very capable combat group.  They trained professional soldiers for a living.  What they lacked in power compared to Ayva and me, they partly made up for in experience and synergy.  Improving their capabilities with minimal cost to Ayva’s survivability would be a good idea.  “Danielle will be able to act independently at need?”

Ayva turned a little to look at Doctor Meilin, who grinned back at her.  “She said you would ask that.  Danielle will still be working with Jason to bodyguard the command group.  She will just be sharing what she knows with Doctor Meilin and Karen on a dedicated channel, always on.”

“Good idea then.”  I spoke as I leaned forward to give her another kiss.  “How long for you two to integrate?”

“[Already done, Bob, Karen and I are synched.]” Ayva’s voice replied, with the slightly different intonation that indicated Danielle was speaking.

Going into a firefight with your wife by your side is not exactly the most relaxing thing.  That might be one of the biggest understatements I’d considered saying recently.  I noticed Colonel Gantt and Jason watching me intently, but ignored them.  “Let’s try to bring everyone home safely, alright?”

I reached out my hand to Ayva and she took it.  I turned to see how the others were doing finding the passive sensors.  They were confident they had found them all.  I looked at what they had found, and where they had found them, and the data looked good.  Then I looked again at where the sensors had been located, and I saw one regrow suddenly, the hair thin fiber optic cable flashing into existence inside the conduit with a barely noticeable flash of energy, mostly contained and grounded by the conduit.  The sensor was carefully pushed towards the end of the conduit by tiny actuators, not far enough to be visible, but close enough to the end of the conduit to collect some data.

Over the network of sparrows, I announced,  “I’ve just confirmed, with a very high degree of confidence, that there’s at least one AI in there, and it can reprogram matter.  One of the passive sensor runs was just recreated with remote matter reprogramming.”

I detected two large flares of energy, much more significant, each of them a few feet under the rock face that the entrance tunnel was dug into.  One on one side of the tunnel where half of us were, the other on the other side, where the rest were.  All of us felt it, and we all recognized immediately that it was some sort of attack, leaping away from the surface with varying degrees of success as two huge explosive charges created craters in the rock face where we had been.

Everyone survived the explosion, some with injuries of various seriousness that almost immediately disappeared.  A couple individuals were temporarily trapped under larger pieces of rock, but were quickly freed.

There was no time to prepare any sort of coherent defense plan against the three pronged assault, especially after we had been buffeted and disorganized by the explosions. Thousands of roughly foot-long insect-like mechanical constructs started flying and running out of the two newly blasted holes and the original tunnel.  Immediately following the appearance of the first small constructs, several large mechanical constructs emerged from the original tunnel as well, shouldering aside the fragments of the demolished vault-like door with prodigious strength.

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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.