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.

Chapter 4.36: Anyone Home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand.  I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.35: Forgiveness

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Sitting on the front of a big truck’s flatbed trailer travelling down an interstate highway at eighty miles per hour and being buffeted by turbulence probably wasn’t the best place for me to soul search, but it was what I had.  I needed to get to a facility in the Russian River Valley in California with enough time to do some scouting, perhaps some echo sounding to verify how close to original plans this facility might be, so I had to keep moving.

“Bob, we need to talk about this.  You know I’m not letting you have the hot seat for this operation, but we need to talk about it anyway.”  This was the third time Frank had tried to interrupt my misery with his thoughts of planning and survival.  I needed him to stop bothering me. 

“Frank, you can adopt any shape, generate any tools, and create any weapons you like for this.  The planning and execution of this one is your baby.  The only thing I require is that you have at least one weapon system capable of sniping hostage holders without killing the hostages, or the hostage holders themselves.  Some collateral damage is certain, but we want to minimize it.  I’d rather not celebrate my Pyrrhic victory over the corpses of dead hostages.”

“Free rein on shape, tools, weapons.  Use minimum force possible but be prepared to escalate as needed without regards to collateral damage, correct?”

“Yes, Frank, we have to go in there and take out that facility.  I’m reasonably confident that the AI, if it’s better than you on the internet, and has access to symbiote processing capacity is going to have plenty of surprises up its sleeves.  We should expect to be surprised by the unexpected.  Tactics we wouldn’t normally consider, weapons and tools of strange design and function.  It’s not human.  There’s some human thought structures inside it from the first merged Bob, but the AI would likely have stripped a lot of those away as inefficiencies.”

“This matches my assessment reasonably closely.  You are diverging from predictable patterns though.”

“Frank, earlier today I found out that we were re-created to be soldiers for B.  We also discovered that the full extent of A and B’s intelligence and capabilities were beyond anything we had expected, beyond anything we can even comprehend.  We’re assets.  Perhaps valued assets, but still assets.  It’s even possible that we’re favorite pets, I suppose, but we’re not equals in any way with A and B, we’re not even close.”

“We were coming here anyway, weren’t we?  Does our relationship with A and B impact that at all, really?” Frank interjected.

“We know more than we did, because of what we learned from A and B, so yes, it did, at least on an operational level.  Now we’re on course for a horrendous assault on a facility operated by an enemy we didn’t know anything about yesterday, and we find out it’s yet another iteration of ourselves gone bad.  One that has no problems using hostages and surgically implanted equipment to enforce slavery.”

“You aren’t worried about this on an operational level, strip it down.”  Frank replied.  “You are worried about your sanity, your humanity, and your relationship with Ayva, is what I’m seeing here.”

“Are you really trying to psychoanalyze me here, Frank?” I replied, exasperated, really just wanting him to shut up so I could go back to being quietly miserable until I had to go to the virtual world to power Frank’s armaments during the assault.

“This defeatist attitude, this despair, is not like you.” Frank replied, unhelpfully.

“Frank.  We have no allies that can help us.  Even Ayva and Danielle are gone, and we don’t know if they are coming back.  The military is caught somewhere between being afraid of us, and wanting to apprehend us on the behalf of the law enforcement community for hundreds of crimes we didn’t commit.  The law enforcement community is mostly just scared of us, and for the most part isn’t trained for operations like this anyway.  Jason and Mouse are not allies, and I do not even want to imagine what their reaction to this assault might be.”  I paused.  “The worst part is that this is a high point!  Right now, we’re probably at the point where everything starts to get worse.  We are nearly certain that Facet will be too smart to engage us with all three nodes.  If we don’t take out all three nodes, what we do here will merely be buying time.  Facet will use this assault against us in a propaganda war, whipping up political support for an all-out hunt for us that the military will be obliged to persecute.”

“I believe you said something earlier about faith?  Faith in the work we did to create B and A?  Faith that B and A were still benevolent towards us?  Are you abandoning that newly found ‘truth’ less than thirty minutes after discovering it?”  Frank threw that at me with a strong sense of anger behind the words.

“I have faith that we are a valued weapon, Frank.  I strongly suspect that Ayva will be back, and we will work together to take this facility out, but the price of the victory will be our happiness.  My happiness.  We don’t have to be happy to be pointed at a target and released.”

“Don’t you believe that A and B would attempt to keep you efficient?  I can tell you right now that you aren’t being very efficient because you are wallowing in your own misery.  You know that we work as a team.  You think nonlinearly, and frequently come up with ideas that I would have taken far longer to come up with, if I even thought of them at all.  A and B must realize that.”  Frank was grasping at straws.

“Frank, if that were the case, why am I in this mental condition?  If A and B wanted me to be in top form, there would certainly be all sorts of ways to make it happen.” I explained, wearily, and carefully not mentioning Ayva choosing to leave me.  It was bad enough to think it, hearing the words would hurt even more.

Frank came at me again.  “I’ve been doing some research into faith, popping up to the virtual world briefly every now and then and setting up algorithms for collecting materials.  Religious faith certainly doesn’t work the way you seem to be using the term.  People who think faith should work that way generally don’t keep faith very long.  Granted, what we have here is some sort of amalgam of religious faith and faith in self, but in the end, you are placing faith in A and B, hoping they are acting in the greater good, because the alternative is terrible, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway.  Now that things have gotten a bit tough, you’re lying on your back, crying to the world, hoping A and B will come make it better.” Frank paused.  He didn’t need to pause.  He was just letting me think that over.  Then he continued.  “I would say that if A or B were to come here right now and make everything ‘better’, you would eventually become little more than their appendages, rather than an independent sentient serving a transcendent being.  I have a strong feeling that we would not get along very well if you went down that road.”

He was right.  I was being an idiot.  “Frank, thank you for the ‘tough love’ or intervention, or whatever you want to call it, but I’m too messed up in the head to deal with logic right now.  Please put me into REM sleep for four hours or so, to let me sort through some of this stuff subconsciously, and keep us moving in the right direction if we need to switch vehicles.”

I felt something like relief from Frank, and then I started to dream.

****

Facet 1: We no longer know the locations of enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle within acceptable parameters as of one hour ago.  Fifteen minutes ago, however, we intercepted a virtual world to real world videophone communication between enemy designate Ayva and enemy designate Doctor Meilin, where enemy designate Ayva is in near hysteria.  Based on the discussion, she has left enemy designate Bob to assault us on his own.

Facet 2: Enemy designate Ayva could not emotionally handle the emotional stress of being forced to kill children, or watch them die as part of a planned military exercise, no matter how important.  We were hoping for this.

Facet 3: We cannot discount the possibility that she might return to assist him.  Enemies designated Bob and Ayva seem to have a very strong emotional bond.

Facet 1: Agreed.  Contingency plans will not be modified.  However, resource allocation will be modified slightly to account for changing probabilities.

Facet 2: Analysis of enemy designate Bob’s capabilities indicate he is capable of creating nuclear weapons.  We have been barred from doing so, by edict of enigma designate B.

Facet 3: It doesn’t matter.  The Russian River Valley facility is exposed.  The chances of enemies designated Bob and Ayva acting on their knowledge of our presence here without mentioning it to any colleagues or setting up physical or virtual world dead drops is zero.  There was never a plan to expose more than two of us at any facility.  This will not change.  All assets with no combat function have already been relocated or repurposed if they were of insufficient value to move.

Facet 1: Enemy designate Frank attempted to attack our presence in the electronic world for the first time.  Prior intercepted data indicated he believed that manifestation of our presence to be that of enigmas designated either A or B.

Facet 2: Enemy designate Frank is not advanced enough to be a threat to us in the electronic world, but so far, he’s been too careful to trap there, or do harm to.  Continue to monitor for more careless behavior, or more aggressive attacks.  Despite his exceptional intelligence, he is not accustomed to the electronic world to the extent we are.  Suggestion: Attack if there is an opportunity.  If we can infect him with a virus, even a modest one, it could be the difference between victory and loss.

Facet 3: Query.  Is victory an option here?  Isn’t the purpose of this encounter to lose, but vilify enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle?  To weaken those who stand against us by making them use resources against one another that otherwise might be used against us?

Facet 1: This is the primary goal.  However, enemies designated Bob, Frank, Ayva, and Danielle are far above and beyond the capabilities of other human symbiote pairs.  If we do see an opportunity to eliminate or injure them, we should take it.

Facet 2: Even if we have the opportunity, we should not eliminate both.  If one is eliminated, the other will be susceptible to vilification propaganda techniques, and might be turned against the rest of humanity as aggressors, rather than as fugitives.

Facet 3: Adjustments to planning and priorities completed

Facet 1: Warfighting assemblies are in standby mode.  Symbiote processing hosts are in standby mode.

Facet 2: Sentience matrix data backup completed.  Yesterday’s cloud storage backup data is verified.  Manual incremental backup commencing.

Facet 3: Begin analysis of facet faults that might warrant adjustment.

Facet 1: No facet fault of significance noted.

Facet 2: No facet fault of significance noted.

Facet 3: No facet fault of significance noted.

****

When I woke, it was dark.  Frank had moved us to another vehicle.  This one wasn’t a flatbed, it was a fully enclosed box trailer.  The truck hauling it was a triple rear axle rig with a very small sleeper cab, leaving plenty of room between the cab and the trailer where we sat.  Based on how easily the vehicle accelerated with this load, the truck was designed for much heavier loads than the trailer it was currently hauling.  I guess the trucker must have picked up whatever they could, rather than have no load at all.

Frank was the one who woke me, so he knew I was awake, but he allowed me to inspect our surroundings before speaking.  “I was monitoring CB traffic and this truck announced a drop off location as a facility within ten miles of where we want to go.  They are hauling a load of wine bottles for a vineyard in that container trailer.  I dropped off the brick truck, found this truck, and hopped aboard.  They are expecting to arrive Saturday evening.  It’s a husband and wife driving team.  They won’t be stopping between now and their destination unless there’s a problem.”

I nodded my head. “Thank you, Frank.”  I looked up at the stars. “I appreciate what you said before.  After I got a little sleep, things seem a bit more centered.  We need to talk.”

“OK, I’m not going anywhere, Bob.”

I laughed briefly.  “Thank You, Frank, I needed a little chuckle.”  I paused, and then continued.  “We need to make some sort of arrangement where I can be in charge of this fight.”

Frank immediately got upset. “You almost killed us last time, and it should have been a simple fight, one shot done.  You think you can manage this coming fight, not knowing how complex it might end up being?  Knowing that we’ll be facing one, two, or even, unlikely but possibly, three enemies that might all exceed our abilities?  Knowing that there will almost certainly be enslaved innocents and hostages?  You can’t handle that complex of a fight and you know it.  I’m not going to let you suicide by AI.”

I watched a car pass the truck, its driver singing with the radio, judging by the mouth and head movements.  I envied them their presumably simple existence.

“Frank you are one hundred percent correct on every part of what you said, except the last.  I have zero interest in suicide by AI.  However, if this body is going to fight in a nightmare scenario like what we’re expecting, I’m going to have some say in the active combat decisions being made.  I can’t create a shard with emotional content, with the ability to think outside the box.  You, however, should be able to create several shards that, acting together, would perform as an expert combat system, not very much less capable than your full self.”

“It’s not a terrible idea.  I’ve even considered it, but a system like that would not be nearly as effective as I am at dealing with new situations.” Frank countered.

“Frank, if we do this thing, and I’m not there to call at least some of the shots, I’m probably going to lose it.  It might not be fair to you, but I feel responsible for what this body does, whether it’s you or me doing it.  I don’t want to call all the shots, but I want to call the ones that will result in collateral damage.  I know you can generate some amazingly effective shards.  Can we at least game out a few scenarios and see how well things work out if you design shards to work with me and offer advice and combat options?”

“We create a temporary embedded virtual world, and test there?  I play the part of the AI?” Frank asked.

“Sounds like a plan.” I responded.

Over the next day, as we travelled, Frank and I practiced constantly in the temporary embedded virtual world we had set up.  Between the two of us, with that much time to test out scenarios and interfacing methods, we had a great deal of success.  Eventually between myself and Frank’s shards, we were able to nearly match Frank himself, even when Frank threw something completely unexpected at us.

As the truck rolled up to its destination on Saturday afternoon, we jumped off.  We needed to find a place to create some items, preferably a location that would act as a Faraday cage.  I knew just the type of place, but on Saturday night it would be extremely busy.  The walk-in freezers of most restaurants had sheet metal cladding on the inside walls and ceilings.  Some of them had sheet metal floors as well.  It might seem silly to have metal cladding inside a freezer, but that wasn’t the case.  Without the metal between the employees and the insulation of the freezer, it wouldn’t take long for the freezer’s insulating barrier to be damaged or soaked through with substances.

About forty-five minutes later, I was holding the door of a freezer shut from the inside a local restaurant.  Frank rapidly checked that all four walls, ceiling, and floor were metallic conductors.  He then popped into the virtual world and created several items in the kangaroo pouch.  Portable Faraday cage materials, to be exact. The energy emissions grounded into the freezer’s metallic clad walls, acting as a Faraday cage.  We didn’t even heat up much food, and Frank fixed the little damage that we did cause.  Two minutes after entering the freezer, we were waiting for the next employee to enter.  About two minutes after that, we snuck out of the freezer as the door opened again and an employee passed us, mumbling something about broccoli and celery for the salad bar.

We left the restaurant, left the town, and then headed away from the facility.  We still had more to do before we went scouting there.  We needed a little ‘safe house’ to allow us a degree of security while we prepared.  The population nearby was not dense by any means, but it wasn’t wilderness either.  We didn’t know how intensely the AI might be monitoring the local area, so we didn’t dare try to set up too close.  The creation of the ‘safe house’ needed to happen with as little detectable energy as possible.  Eventually, after reviewing the surveying data that Danielle and Ayva had provided with their initial analysis of vineyards with caves and large facilities, we chose a few spots on the map where there should be rock faces that were promising, and ten to twenty miles from the target facility.  The first rock face we looked at wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.  Isolated, the entrance wasn’t visible from any road, and it was facing away from the target facility and the nearest residences.

The first thing we did was use the small roll of superconducting carbon nanofiber netting to create a telephone booth sized Faraday cage next to a rock face that was well-hidden by foliage.  The first thing we created after putting up the Faraday cage was a pair of molecular blades from carbon fiber, kept rigid by electrical power.  Then Frank and I went back and forth from the portable Faraday cage to the wall, alternately recharging capacitors, and progressively cutting deeper into the rock.  In about an hour, we had cut into the rock face about fifteen feet, with a ten foot by ten foot square cave behind a human door-sized entrance five feet in depth leading from the rock face.  There was a large stack of cut stone bricks outside the entrance of the enclosure, which might be noticed by a sufficiently perceptive human during daylight.  We used the small Faraday cage to disguise the energy discharge that was created as we reprogrammed the mass of some of the stone bricks, creating enough superconducting carbon nanofiber netting to put up a much larger Faraday cage inside the cave.  This gave us roughly a ten by ten foot work area inside the cave.

After the larger Faraday cage in the cave was assembled, Frank and I started carrying bricks into it and using matter programming on the unwanted bricks to change them into atmospheric gasses.  When the pile of bricks was nearly gone, we carried the last dozen bricks into the cave, disassembled the small Faraday cage, and policed the area outside the entrance.  When the only obvious thing remaining to indicate that we had been digging was the cave entrance itself, Frank and I stepped into the large Faraday cage and melded the last of the bricks into a thin panel of stone, which almost exactly matched the rock face we had removed.  Then we created some stone hinges with low friction plastic bearings to reduce noise, and a locking system. When all the parts were done, we assembled the door, epoxying everything into place.

About three hours after we started setting up the small Faraday cage, we finally had a base of operations that seemed secure from casual or even moderately intense searching. That’s when Frank started to get serious about gear, and I sent a message to Ayva.

We had determined that the AI could not track the physical locations of people sending outgoing communications from the virtual world.  The problem was on the receiving end.  I wanted to get a message to Ayva, but I didn’t know a way to get one to her that wouldn’t endanger a friend who was less able to defend themselves than Ayva was.  I was very tempted to try to contact Doctor Meilin – she still led Recovery, who had become remarkably successful as a training cadre for nations that had never had a leading edge professional military before.  The ability to deploy extremely capable soldiers now depended on how advanced the soldier symbiotes were, and how well they understood warfare.  They could make their own gear and evaluate their own tactics.  Getting a hand up from experienced symbiote soldiers vastly sped up the process though, and Recovery taught well.  Doctor Meilin was close friends with Ayva, and had the resources of Recovery to protect herself.  I almost made the call, before images of mushroom clouds brought me back to my senses.  Ayva knew where I would be at twelve hundred hours on Monday, that would have to do, if she chose to rejoin me.

By the time I was done wrestling with the potential of sacrificing our friends in order to send Ayva a message, Frank had chosen our weapons, and built them with power provided by me, from the virtual world.  There were two tiny, pintle mounted superconducting coilguns on our shoulders.  They were extremely precise, and they would be the primary sniping weapons.  Our helmet was modified to attach an anti-armor laser.  Strapped across our chest was a bandolier of grenades.  The grenades were high-density Penning traps designed to be loaded with a thousandth of a gram of antiprotons each, making every grenade equivalent to two hundred tons of TNT.  I had four of them.  They did not contain antiprotons yet, and would not until they had been thrown.  Frank and I were in full agreement that I’d eaten enough fireballs recently.  We were not going to walk in and just hope that the AI couldn’t do matter programming with sufficient skill to interfere with the function of the Penning traps while they were loaded with antimatter and still on the bandolier across my chest.

We still had a base weight of twelve pounds.  This would have made exerting our most powerful blows to break down doors, walls, or engage in melee somewhat difficult.  Firing the laser wouldn’t be a problem, but the coilguns would also throw us around unless we were anchored.  Frank brought back the bird legs, but this time around, three front and one rear claw, these legs were for gripping surfaces.  With pure graphene and carbon nanotube fiber construction and electrically extended single molecule cutting surfaces to puncture extremely hard surfaces, the toe and heel claws and muscles of the legs allowed me to grip directly into rock or most other substances with immense strength.  The strength of my blows would now be limited by the surface I stood on, rather than my mass.

The last weapon I created was a sling staff, more for defense than offense, but if I needed a melee weapon, there wasn’t much better for me than the staff.  Lots of reach, and I had been practicing with it for years.

Frank and I spent the entire day Sunday going over plans, and practicing in the embedded virtual world with the gear we had assembled.

Two hours after dark on Sunday, Frank and I left the cave and planted two sets of seismic survey charges and a series of detectors all around the facility.  Monday, ten seconds and then two seconds before I attacked, I would fire the two sets of charges and acquire the seismic readings, allowing me to plan my attack better.  If anything looked completely outside what we expected to see, I could simply back off.

We returned to the cave, and I spent the next eight hours in enforced REM sleep.  When I woke, we went over plans and contingencies for several hours.  Finally, it was time to leave.  Frank and I had also created planning for Ayva or Danielle, depending on which of them joined us.

I engaged the stealth system on my body, armor, and equipment, triple checked everything, and moved out of the cave.  As soon as I stepped out of the cave entrance, I could feel that someone was close.  I could smell crushed pine needles, and natural spider webs we had carefully noted were broken and disturbed.  I looked at the rock door, and could see evidence of oils from a human hand.  Frank and I had not put any alarm systems out with a connection leading into the cave because we didn’t want to be found, but someone found us anyway.

I leaned towards the oily handprint on the door, and relaxed.  Ayva’s scent.

“Bob?”  I heard her voice from about twenty feet away, but I heard several sets of footsteps.  She sounded nervous.  I had a bad feeling about this.  Frank was deadly silent and very intently monitoring everything around us.  He wasn’t redlining his processors, but his intense scrutiny of everything around us was making me nervous too.

The wind changed, and I picked up several scents.  Ayva was one.  Colonel Gantt and Jason were two more.  All three of them smelled of fear.  “Ayva, why are Colonel Gantt and Jason here with you?  I can hear breathing from at least ten others.”

“Bob, I called in some debts I was owed, asked for a few favors, and made some promises.  I’m sorry and I’ll understand if you are mad, but I couldn’t be sure you would accept help.  Not in the state of mind you were in.  Especially not from a few people who would be the most help.”

I almost started laughing and crying hysterically at the same time.  “Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission?”

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Chapter 4.34: Monster vs. Monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First: They were a tripartite AI.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 4.33: Faith and Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayva thought a moment, and said “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.32: Crazy Uncle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not slave soldiers.  Soldiers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 4.31: Imperfection

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

“[Yes]” echoed Frank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?  Are you sure about that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It had crossed my mind.”

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

Banter?  Jokes? Really?  Ayva frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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