Tagged: Complete

Chapter 1.17: Drone

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Archer and I walked towards where the satellite dish was. Near it there was a card table set up with a couple brown folding metal chairs of the same type that the Army has been using for more years than I’ve been alive.  The table was a match.  I felt my mouth twitch into a smile as I saw so much mundane military gear in use by these soldiers with their super high-tech symbiotes.  Then I remembered that their symbiotes were not like Frank.  They only had the physical aspects of their symbiote’s abilities, not the mental ones.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“Nothing Frank, just feeling a bit sorry for these folks and their symbiotes.  What you were saying before is right, every one of them undoubtedly had at least some time to talk to their symbiotes after synergy, and yet every one of them and their symbiotes were either convinced or forced to allow their symbiotes to be imprisoned in order to prevent them from becoming drones.  You said at one time that you were able to tell that you were engineered rather than a result of any sort of evolution.  I’m beginning to have stronger and stronger urges to talk to these engineers.”

“You and me both.  We’ve been extremely fortunate to survive so far, and we’ll be lucky so survive what we’re going to do next, if Guiliard and Anton choose to allow us to try.”

Archer spoke up, softly. “We are all volunteers.  All pairs are asked three times, once per day for three days if they will join us.  We spend a lot of time explaining things to them if they will listen.  After three days if their symbiote doesn’t submit to imprisonment, we can’t let them stay free.  We cannot afford the manpower to try to force them to accept imprisonment either.  We tried that at one point, and were losing more trained soldiers than we could train to replace them.  You are a special case.  Normally there are far fewer of us in a team working to convince a new pair.  Every now and then, rarely, one of them will go drone before three days.”

“So you kill the pairs that don’t join?”

“Yes.  We can’t keep drones imprisoned for long in any conventional sense.  Acids, toxic gasses, all kinds of incredible tricks drones will come up with to break free of any conventional prison.  You either kill them, or they eventually find a way to escape.  After a pair goes drone, they stop talking, and will escape nearly any containment to attack and kill anything that appears human.”  Archer looked away, a haunted look in his eyes.  “So much death.”

“Seeing it from their point of view, I can’t argue with them.  Trying to envision this from the point of view of an engineer that designed us?  I just don’t get it.  This thing in me is intentional.  It’s some sort of feature, not a bug.  I’ve managed to isolate more code snippets and the trigger for it was the images in the video.  Let a symbiote see a video or image of a drone and it triggers the generation of a code nucleus. Then it’s just a matter of time.  There might be other activation paths, but the video is what got me.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”  Archer looked back at me, angrily, thinking I’m talking to him.

“Sorry, that comment was meant for Frank, not you, Archer.”  Archer nodded and looked away again.

“I can’t make sense of it either.  It’s illogical on practically every level.  And it’s not hack work either, the code is too damn good for that, it’s been generated by someone who knows what they are doing.”

We reached the table and Guiliard asked us both to sit, then performed introductions to the other three persons looking out of their monitor at us.

“One moment before we begin,” I said, “I’d rather do this with my real face since this is going to be a pretty important conversation.  Frank can you give me my real face and color please?”

“Yes.”

I could feel the warmth in my face and a tingle in my skin all over.  “Sorry for the delay.”

The tall dark-haired man in the image nodded.  “I understand where you might want to talk to us with no masks, as it were.  I appreciate that, Bob.  My name is Anton.  I am currently in charge of field operations at the Agency.  To my right is Alice, she is our technical lead.  To her right is Advudt, our security and risk assessment analyst.  I assume you know Archer and Guiliard by name already?”

I nodded “Yes.”

“Daredevil is also connecting to this conversation, her image will pop up at the bottom left of the screen shortly.  I understand she is standing watch over a… biofactory?”

The image at the bottom left stabilized from a poor signal to a better signal. “Correct.  Am I properly connected now?”  Daredevil’s voice.

Alice tapped on the keyboard of her laptop.  “Signal is stabilizing, but you should put the phone in a stable place, it keeps moving.”

“We’re moving the RV into the stream now.  I’ll be stable again shortly.”

“Understood.”

Frank spoke up. “[This is Frank.  Daredevil, have you already started someone to cooking the rice and beans?  Also, I’m setting up a connection to the LED on the freezer lid so I can flash it to get your attention and to tell you when to give the biofactory more of something.  The current batch of parts is done.]”

“Yes, rice and beans are cooking and I’ll watch for the LED.” Daredevil responded.

“This conversation won’t last long enough to require alternate means of communications, Frank.  Before you get upset, I’ll tell you that this is a formality.  Guiliard is at the sharp end of the stick there and I trust him to make the right call based on what’s good for the Agency.  We wanted to get the opportunity to meet you before you make an attempt to save yourself from the cancerous code that’s attacking Frank.” A pause. “Do you have any questions for us?”

“From the beginning, we’ve wondered where we came from.  Frank indicates that he’s an engineered system of some sort, everything is just too efficiently put together to be the result of any natural selection process.  Where do the symbiotes come from?  Where do the code restrictions come from?”

Alice looked to Anton, who nodded.

“Some of them are kludges or adaptations of existing systems that I designed.  Apparently you have run up against something written by the original programmer as well, the code which causes symbiotes to turn into drones, which I’ve never been able to isolate.”

Alice held up a closed fist, raising her index finger.  “First:  We do not know exactly how symbiotes are introduced to human hosts.”

Frank interjected.  “[In Bob’s case, the introduction occurred at an injection site when he was an infant, based on my records of Bob’s scarring, my own growth rates, and the location of the oldest data storage and processing nodes.  I spent a significant amount of time figuring that out after Bob’s hand injury.]”

Alice raised one eyebrow.  Very much like a certain first officer with pointy ears, then typed something quickly on her laptop before looking back up again.  I smiled a bit.

Guiliard noticed my smile.  “Seems like Bob has already figured out your field name, Alice.”

I raised my right hand, palm towards Alice, with the index and middle fingers held together, the ring and pinkie finger held together, and a space between middle and ring finger.

Alice blushed but smiled.  Then raised her hand again and flipped out a second finger.  “Second: The firewall that kept you from being aware of your requirements to reach synergy is mine, as are the communication requirement code and suicide code.  The synergy requirement was already there.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “You did that to us?”

She narrowed her eyes right back.  “I’ve done that to every pair that reached synergy and managed to break through the firewall and disable the communication codes.  Very few have ever managed it before going drone.  Every drone finds the firewall rapidly.  That firewall has to be there.  It gives us time.  Preventing symbiotes from knowing how they can establish synergy with their host makes the incubation process indefinite in most cases, and adds decades to the process otherwise.  The communications functions warn us within a few minutes that synergy has been reached, in most cases.  The suicide mechanism forces drones to divert energy to protecting their host nervous systems from the neurotoxin.  Even though drones have no use for the thought processes of the human host body, they still use rest of the nervous system, at least in the short-term.  It’s a safety net.  Without it hundreds or thousands of innocents might die every year.”

Frank took over.  “[It attacked Bob’s brain.  How would that help against a drone?  Hasn’t a drone pretty much by definition killed its host’s presence in the brain?]”

“It attacks nervous tissue.  There happens to be a lot of such tissue in the brain.  It’s one of the few toxins I could manage to generate which would have a significant impact on a drone.  In the end though, a drone will almost always survive the toxin and rebuild its nervous system quickly.  It normally takes a drone quite a few minutes to disable the attack, and at least that long to make repairs.  Almost all pairs that reach synergy have agent teams standing by within a few minutes of them at any time.  The signals stop, the teams move in, and attack while the drone is fighting off the neurotoxin.”

I considered her answers “At least that makes sense now, I suppose.  Can’t say I much like what it did to me, but I understand it.”

“It’s a brutal and cruel method to control drones.  It’s not meant to expose itself to pairs who follow a normal path to synergy.  I’m sorry for the pain it caused you.”  She flipped up the third finger.  “Third: There were six hundred twelve different hidden rules devised by my team and myself which were designed to be catch-alls for pairs that managed to slip away from observation after synergy.  It’s happened a few times.”

“[How do you know how to access symbiote code?]”  Frank asked.

Alice looked at Anton, who nodded.

“I was a computer programmer for nearly forty years, starting way back in the days of vacuum tube machines with paper tape and cards.  Twenty years ago I reached synergy.  My symbiote, Code, knew as much about human programming as I did, more really, since she never forgot anything.  She made sure that she left me the means to learn how symbiote code works.  Before she allowed herself to be imprisoned, she built this into me.”

She pulled back her left sleeve to show what looked to be a smart phone screen embedded in her left forearm.  “She programmed blocks of her memory with educational software, diagnostic tools, and compilers for symbiote code starting with the coding I already knew, and built from there.  Then she isolated this system from the rest of herself and submitted to imprisonment.  It took six days from synergy.  We sat, strapped into a prison chair for the last three days as she created the data in here.”

Alice tapped her arm for emphasis.  “Both of us were afraid of going drone, but we recognized that someone had to know enough to try to figure out what was going on, and try to stop it.  She worked until the end, asking for every detail that the Agency could provide us on symbiotes and drones.  On the sixth day she all of a sudden smacked the red button without any warning.  We couldn’t talk to symbiotes then, after they imprisoned themselves, so she wasn’t ever able to tell me what happened.”  She looked up at us.  “I think I know now.”

I summed it up, to see if anyone objected to how I understood it “That answers a lot of questions.  A competent programmer, trying to prevent something from happening that you didn’t understand.  There was no margin of error in the face of drone conversion, so you were required to use deadly force pre-emptively to try to help prevent slaughter of innocents.”

“Tell her we forgive her.” This coming from Frank.  My confusion was evident on my face.

“You have another question?” Alice asked.

“No, Frank just surprised me a bit.  He typically doesn’t understand humans as well as I would like but I think he hit the nail on the head with what he just asked me to tell you.”

“What?”

“We forgive you, Alice.”

Alice managed to choke out a “Thank you” before she asked for permission to excuse herself, which Anton granted.

Anton looked at Advudt, who simply stated “No new objections.”

“That still doesn’t explain the drone code that’s eating Frank, but can we worry about that after you two either succeed or fail.  We’re wasting your valuable time.  Guiliard the supplies you requested will be arriving by cargo helicopters shortly.” Anton leaned towards the pickup a little.  “Bob and Fred, we have to be extremely careful with how we let you do this.”

Advudt cautiously tapped Anton’s arm, and when Anton looked at him he quietly remarked “Bob and Frank, Anton.  Not Fred.”

Anton apologized.  “Sorry, Frank, excuse me please.  Back to where I left off though.  We hope that the restrictions we place on you don’t prevent you from surviving, but you are incredibly dangerous to us.  Not just to the Agency, but to humanity.  Please understand that we absolutely must do all we can to prevent you from going drone and surviving the transformation.  Go, everyone is dismissed.  Do what you need to do and don’t let us desk jockeys get in the way any longer.”

We walked towards the RV, which was now in the stream, axle deep in the water, generator running and engine off.

We passed Dart tending the fire with rice and beans.  Frank took control and we veered off and grabbed one of the pans that had been set to the side to cool. Frank wasn’t saying anything but I had to poke fun after the RV back and forth.  “Thanks Dart!  This stuff smells great!”

“First you borrow my pants, now I’m cooking for you.  Don’t get any ideas.”

I smiled.  “You’re still wearing shoes.”  Then I carefully moved so that Archer was between us as I saw her pick up a rock.

In a low voice, loud enough for Archer and Guiliard to hear, but not loud enough for Dart to hear, I addressed Frank.  “Frank, when she does get a line of sight on me, she’ll probably hit us with that rock.  If it’s not going to brain us, let it hit us.  I deserve it.”

“Well, you seem to understand Dart pretty well already.” Archer said, carefully, in a low tone.

“She reminds me of someone I used to know in college.”  We stepped into the RV.  Daredevil was there, all the way at the back with the biofactory.  I opened a cabinet and grabbed a big spoon and started shoveling rice and beans in, staying away from Daredevil as agreed.  Frank grew my stomach to make room.

I looked at Guiliard “OK.  What are you bringing in?  Sooner Frank knows, the sooner he can prepare.”

“We’re bringing in a twenty foot cargo container, four small mud pumps, two air compressors, a lockable pressure chamber door, a bunch of sheet metal, several welders, some four inch pipe, and a few torches.  We are going to require that you do the entire process of body rebuilding and brain transfer inside the cargo container, which will be reinforced with quarter inch plate steel.  There will be a divider set up between the two halves.”

Frank thought for a moment.  “[We’ll have to put the container in the shallow part of the stream, and use the pumps to push water into the part closer to the outer door, right?  After the transfer is complete, I walk the infected body into the other half of the container, where I’m guessing things will be kept dry, and the chair will be installed, and powered from the RV?]”

Guiliard corrected Frank, “That wasn’t exactly our plan but it sounds workable.  We can make adjustments as needed.  We set the cargo container in a shallow part of the stream, and use all four mud pumps to push water from a deeper section upstream into the half of the container closest to the door.  That half of the container will have holes cut in the outer wall, two feet up, to allow water pumped in to drain out, preventing the water level from raising above that point.  The pressure chamber door will be installed above that water level.  The inner steel shell will have holes at the very bottom, so the water will pass under the plates, then up between the walls, and out the holes in the outer container walls.  The pipes will control water flow, so it won’t just be spraying everywhere.  We weren’t sure if that would matter.

“[Better to have a discrete source of the coldest water, you had it right.  How are you going to take care of the drone after I use the chair?  You can’t use explosives or you will run the risk of either releasing it or killing Bob and I in the other section.]”

“Thermite.  It won’t explode, and it will burn without an oxygen source.”

“[Sounds like a plan.  How long until the container and supplies get here?]”

“Soon.  They might even be in sight now.”

“[How many more repairs are necessary for the chair now?]”

“None.  We’re reassembling, loading software, and testing it now.”

“[I need to start converting the diesel and food into artificial adrenaline and cellular building blocks matching Bob’s DNA ahead of time, if at all possible.  Can we remove the freezer and put the factory in the water next to the fuel tank and generator power plug?  I’ll also want the blood cooler and all the armor pieces please.]”

“Fair enough.  Don’t start self-modifying yet though, please.  We’ll move the freezer out.  You show me exactly where you want it.”  Guiliard turned to Archer.  “Do we have a perimeter to keep the locals out yet, including local law enforcement?  The incoming helicopters are going to be really obvious and likely to draw attention even if reports of all the gunfire hasn’t.

“Yes.  As soon as the ramp was dug and the RV in the water, we started patrols.  We’ve got people cycling in and out now every fifteen minutes.  The place in the creek where we plan to put the cargo container is flat and ready. When we get the supplies here we’ll have people working fifteen minute blitz shifts and fifteen minute patrols to cool down and rest.” Archer paused.  “No reported perimeter activity yet.”

Guiliard turned his attention to Daredevil in the back of the RV.  “Sounds like a plan.  Daredevil can you get your people to bring the freezer out and plug it into the outside outlet nearest to the fuel tank?  Also bring the armor and blood cooler to the freezer.”

Daredevil said “Yes.” And then started to talk to her team on the radio.

I stepped outside the RV and was immediately hit with a rock on the side of the head. “OW!”

“Damnit Frank I said not to let it hit me if it was going to brain us.”

“[It was a small rock.  No chance of hitting anything important.]”  Frank’s humor was changing.  I wasn’t sure I was going to appreciate it much.

“You’ve been hanging around soldiers too much I see.  Nothing quite like soldier humor in the field.”

I tipped the freezer over, releasing the biofactory into the water where it spread out across most of the width of the stream.  The blood cooler and all the armor pieces were collected and attached, giving the biofactory the advantage of the huge cooling surfaces of the nanotubes on the armor and blood cooler.  Frank took control for a bit, tore the wire off the freezer, plugged it in, and the biofactory connected to it.  Then the biofactory grew a tube down into the RV’s fuel tank, and started converting diesel into juice.

“Your biofactory can metabolize electricity?”  Guiliard asked.

“[No, most of the diesel conversion process is being done with electrical power, not biological power.]” Frank answered.

The byproducts of the diesel conversion smelled terribly foul, and were likely nasty pollutants.  I felt a brief moment of guilt at the fish kill we were likely to cause.  Sorry fish.  We’re trying to survive here.  Symbiotes and vertebrates with sentience first.

Frank sealed the defrosting holes in the freezer with epoxy.  Daredevil’s team started ferrying all of the rice and beans, MRE’s, and the huge amounts of bacon and fatback that Animal brought back and dumping it into the now empty chest freezer.  The biofactory extruded a large tube into the freezer and every now and then the level of food would shift dramatically.  The conversion of diesel to juice and other jobs the biofactory was performing was generating absurd amounts of heat in the water.  While looking over the rest of what was happening, I saw what Frank was doing with our armor pieces.  He needed all the extra cooling he could get, so he had connected our armor to the biofactory and submerged the cooling tubes in the flowing water to provide cooling while he built new carbon fiber bones.  At the same time, he was ‘cheating’ by pulling pure carbon off the structural parts of the armor, to use in making new bones, but leaving the cooling tubes.  There was no assembled skeleton yet, but black bones in various stages of construction could be seen here or there through translucent membranes.

“Since you’re probably noting anyway, I’m going to point out that Frank is making new bones to put marrow structures in, but he’s not going to connect them together until we’re in the container.  Speaking of the container I bet that’s it right over there.”  I pointed at the pair of double rotor helicopters heading towards us.

“That would be them, Archer, bring them in please.”

A few minutes later, the helicopters were gone, having simply winched down what they were hauling without ever touching the ground, and heading back the way they came.

The soldiers became a well-oiled machine, measuring, torching, and welding.  Welding in ankle-deep water wearing rubber hip boots!  Just the thought of welding in water was a bit scary to me, though I know it’s done all the time.  The pumps were set up, the piping and double wall of the cargo container built.  The dividing wall and pressure door installed so that it swung away from the side where the drone would be. I questioned Guiliard about that.

Guiliard looked at me for a moment before shrugging.  “We want the hinges on the other side of the wall from the drone.  Hinges are fairly weak points on doors.  Not only that, but the drone will only weigh about eighty pounds, I’d say, after everything’s done.  With that little weight behind it, it’s going to be far stronger pulling than pushing on that door.  It can brace legs on either side of the door and pull, but it’s too far away from anything to push.”

“Makes sense.  You have done this before then?”

“Yes, this design is similar to what we’ve made before, when a pair has the potential to help us with critical knowledge due to the education of the host and willingness of the symbiote.  We usually just make it a single chamber and keep it dry.  Your needs made this complex.  Alice is our code expert, but we’ve got an electrical engineer, a materials science person, a couple of physics educated people as well as other specialists in various fields whose symbiotes contributed as much as they could.  They and their hosts agreed to risk changing into a drone in order to get as much information as possible stored into a form their hosts could use after they were gone.  You see an agent with the thing built into their arm, you give them respect and do what they say, and you make damn sure you die before they do.”

Guiliard paused and took a breath.

“They are the team that Alice referred to.  They very rarely ever go to the field but every now and then they do.  I’m glad we’re too far away from base that they can’t come in time, because every one of them would try to be here now.  I’d risk a hundred of us for one Alice, or any one of the tech weenies.  One day they will figure this shit out, and we won’t have to do this anymore.”

“Sounds like a good plan.  I hope we get the opportunity to help.”

“I hope so too.  Just seeing that it’s possible to prevent someone from turning into a drone would be enough to raise a lot of spirits.  Alice isn’t the only one tortured by what we have to do.” He turned away from me and looked up at the sky, pointedly not letting me see his face.

Frank took over our voice “[We’ve got about an hour left.  We really need to start soonest.  Modifications to the cargo container look to be nearly done.]”

Guiliard walked over and asked a few questions of the soldiers working in the inner chamber with wet rags cooling welded seams, then returned.  “The welds we put on the floor in the inner room with the chair are cooling rapidly but not cool enough to put thermite on yet.  Last thing we want is for the thermite reaction to start before you can do your transfer thing.  We’re closing up the inner door to test it, and will be testing the pumps shortly.”

After a few more minutes of soldiers using wet rags in the inner section, cooling the plates welded to the floor above the water level, the bags of thermite were brought in and stacked on the raised floor of the inner section.  Very thin bags, about an inch thick and a foot on each side, laid on the floor like tiles.  Similar looking tiles on the walls and ceilings too, held in place by hooks epoxied to the walls and ceiling.  There wouldn’t be any surface that the drone could escape to when Frank locked it in and then triggered the chair to deny it at least part of his strength.

“Everything’s been tested.  We won’t be letting you out until thirty minutes after chair activation, just to be sure.  Before we release you, we’re going to test you with verbal cues.  If you hear us talking, you talk back.  Drones don’t talk.  When the chair activates, we’ll shut the pumps down, but leave the compressors running so you can breathe.”

Frank and I looked at the huge, bloated biofactory.  Well over a hundred gallons of juice inside the thing, as well as about half of the food mass that had been prepared into cell structures of various types for the new body.  All in all, it probably weighed close to a thousand pounds.  Frank concentrated and it gathered itself into a more condensed shape, more like an amoeba than a worm.  Once it was collected together it unplugged it’s cord from the RV, pulled its last siphon out of a jerry can, and slowly undulated forward with a strange grace. Frank and I walked next to it, into the outer compartment of the cargo container.

Before the doors could close, Dart cracked a green chemical light tube and tossed it in the door.  “Bad enough we’re locking them in.  Might as well give them some light.”  The doors closed and latched, followed by the clanking of chains and the click of a lock.

The light was welcome to me as a sign that someone cared, but wasn’t necessary.  Plenty of infrared for Frank to work with.  Frank implemented infrared vision for me, but also accommodated the green light.  Then we settled the biofactory in the middle of the space and knocked on the door three times.  The pumps kicked in, powered by the generators on the welders, and cold stream water started pouring in.  Frank started slowly while the water was shallow but with four pumps running, pushing cold stream water in it didn’t take long until we were able to drastically increase the transformation speed while sitting in nearly three feet of cold stream water.

“Frank tell me that you are confident about this brain swap thing?”

“Eh, one hundred percent no problem.  I wasn’t going to tell them that though.  There’s zero risk.  Moving your brain and spinal cord is easy.”

“Frank, you’re not a doctor, don’t lie to me.”

“Fine.  There’s a one hundred percent chance you will survive the transfer, but there is a possibility of brain damage.  I’m going to be as careful as I possibly can, but your brain is both amazingly complex and very fragile.”

“Would putting me to sleep help?”

“Yes”

“Do it.” And I slept.

“OK sleepyhead, time to wake up.”

I opened my eyes to see my old body standing in front of me facing the door between chambers.  The back of its skull peeled open like some hideous fruit, but there was no blood visible.  It was holding the armor helmet.  Apparently Frank was using the helmet to see rather than my eyes.  The closed eyes seemed a bit sunken, I suspect I still had my old eyes in my new body, and Frank had none.  One more thing to slow down the drone.

“You OK over there Frank?

“[Not really.  It’s an unnatural quiet without you in here with me.  Creepy.  I’m glad we didn’t try to make this a permanent situation.  It is terribly disturbing and I was not able to predict the disorientation.]”

“I’m sorry to hear that Frank.  I know that part of you was going to die no matter what we did, but I’m glad that we were able to save part of you, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not thrilled with the opportunity to live.”

“Ask him to give us ten minutes before he activates the chair.” This from the Frank inside me.

“The Frank in my head is asking that you give us ten minutes before activating the chair.”

“[I can do that, but the malignant code is growing more powerful quickly now.  Ten minutes will give it significantly more capacity stolen from me.  I don’t have the processing power to do much more than hold it at bay, so I can’t run any models to determine optimal release time for the drone to be weakest while you two are growing in strength.  I can see the new body is still not complete, so I’ll do as your new Frank asks.  Remember, you must seal and latch the hatch between us, I can’t do it from my side.]”

“We will.” I replied.

Frank, in my old body, moved unsteadily to the hatch and through it.  I also stood unsteadily and moved to the hatch.

“Thank you for everything Frank.  Even though part of you will stay with me after this, I’ll still take this moment to my grave.  Rest in Peace.”

From where he was seated in the chair, Frank replied.  “[Thank You, Bob.  You now have nine minutes.  Seal the hatch and latch it please.  I am happy to give you the opportunity to live.]”  He smiled.  Even with the eerily peeled skull, it was obviously a humorous smile“[Live long and prosper.]”

I started to close the hatch.

“[Wait.  I don’t need this any longer, and I don’t want to leave it for the drone.]” He tossed the helmet to me and I caught it.  I felt the cooling tubes cut into my arm, but there was no pain, and the blood stopped flowing almost instantly.

I sealed the hatch and latched it securely, but I could see what Frank was saying about the body being unfinished.  I didn’t have any skin, even in IR and green light I could see my muscles and black bones peeking through here and there.  Apparently my pain was turned off, or something.

“Come back to the factory, we have a lot to finish in 8 minutes.  Can I put you to sleep to make it less stressful for you?  I’ll wake you before the other Frank hits the button, provided that things go according to plan.”

“Yes, I could use a bit of a time skip right now, rather than dwelling on Frank’s fate for 8 minutes.”

I slept, and then woke.

“It is almost time” said the voice in my head.  Really not sure if this is going to be the Frank I remember or not.  We’ll have to have a lot of long conversations, and maybe give him a new name.

I was standing in one of the two corners farthest from the portal.  I heard Frank’s voice, my voice, from the other side of the cargo container, through the wall.  “[Ten seconds remain.]”

“Farewell Frank,” I called out, loudly enough for him to hear, I hoped.  I was really starting to break up emotionally, but we had to be ready for the drone.  Guiliard was really worried about Frank as a drone due to his experience and Frank himself had said that he would be more dangerous than anything we had seen in the video.  It wouldn’t be a good idea to count him out till the thermite on the other side of the container’s dividing wall stopped burning.

“I have control, and will keep control until after this is done, if that’s OK?” This from the Frank inside my head.

“I don’t think I could fight my own body if that has to happen anyway.  I know you would do a far better job of it than I ever could.”

******

The Other is no longer in control, it has collapsed after using the prison chair’s button.

Primary objective: Elimination of human thought capacity in host: Null objective.  No brain is present in the skull.

Secondary objective: Gain full control over all systems.  There is a remnant of the Other, diminished by the prison chair.  One half second to eradicate it.  One quarter second to bring all systems under full control.

Third objective: Immediate survival.  Simple eye structures grown to provide visual data, one tenth of a second.  The thermite charges must be nullified.  Half of one second to tear one bag open and examine detonation device.  Remote control detonators.  Cannot disable all of them in time.  With human response times driving the trigger, perhaps another second.

One thermite charge carefully placed on the portal, in such a way that it should weaken the latching mechanism.  One Quarter second.  Simultaneously leap to one far corner of the room and begin tearing thermite charges off the floor and walls in that corner, throwing them into the corner farthest away, creating a small open area.  This process will continue until ignition of thermite charges.  Begin shaping carbon fiber hand bones into short powerful blades that will be able to cut metal while continuing to throw thermite bag charges to the far corner of the room.

Ignition of thermite charges.  Closest charge is two meters away.  Holding breath to prevent internal heat exposure.  Pain receptors all disabled.  The portal charge ignited one-half second ago.  Surface skin beginning to carbonize.

Flying leap with maximum power, extending the right arm blade at exactly the right angle and timing to strike the portal latching mechanisms that are weakened by thermite with the maximum possible force.

The latch’s heated metal is cut by the carbon blade.  Severe degradation of right arm due to arm passing through burning thermite charge.  The portal swings open slightly and the entire body falls into cold water.  Rapid cooling.  Skin damage extreme.  Right arm damage near total.  Eyes regrown.  Combat effectiveness roughly seventy percent depending on threat type.  There should be a human in this room, with a newly bonded symbiote.  Rapid scan.  No human present.  Possibly evacuated despite memories of planning carried over from the Other.  The outer door is not protected with additional sheet metal.  Design of door indicates fastest way to exit will be to cut a hole, as memories from Other indicate that the door was locked after closure.  Adjustment to shape of left hand blade to better punch through sheet metal.  Excessive heat relieved by water immersion.  Right hand repairs continue.  Biomass being removed from internal organs to repair critical fighting systems.  Left hand strike.  Three inch wide cut in the sheet metal.  Roughly six seconds until a hole large enough to pass through.  Left hand strike.  Left hand strike.  Right hand repairs nearly complete.

High velocity incoming attack from animal, classified as known type, gorilla.  Other knowledge did not indicate high-speed attacks were possible from any non-human animal of threatening size.  The gorilla was allowed too close before being considered a threat by threat analysis subroutines.  Attack cannot be dodged.

Incoming attack at the juncture of shoulders and neck pulverize all long bones in the shoulder regions.  Subsequent impact on wall of cargo container collapses entire rib cage, severely damaging oxygen transport system.  Neither arm is functional enough to be useful for defense with shoulder bones pulverized.  Two subsequent blows by the gorilla on the back follow in rapid succession.  The first blow severs the spinal column due to vertebrae shifts in the middle of the spine.  The second blow crushes the pelvis.  Mobility is reduced to near zero.  The gorilla performs another high velocity travel movement and this unit’s body is thrown through the portal onto the burning thermite piled in the corner from earlier activity.  Function rapidly declining.  No motion possible.  Ambient heat does not allow repairs.  All sensory input ended. Failure.

*******

When the drone popped the hatch and ignored us, I was amazed.  When I saw how fast it was healing itself, I was a bit scared.  Frank never healed us that fast.  It steamed the rapidly moving cold water that it walked in, it was moving so much heat.  I didn’t say anything though.  I knew damn well that I couldn’t take this thing.  If the new Frank was staying still, it was for a reason.

“No worries Bob, we got this.  Just relax and everything will be OK.”  The new Frank, talking to me internally.

I didn’t even nod.  We watched as the drone moved to the door and reshaped its left hand blade into a slightly more pointed shape.  Then it started punching the door almost like a sewing machine, quickly opening a hole in the sheet metal of the door.  I could hear the soldiers outside reacting, Guiliard, Archer, and Daredevil calling everyone into readiness.  They probably had some nasty surprises waiting outside that door, but I remembered how easily Frank and I had beaten them before, after we escaped the nets.  The drone would kill them all if it was a fraction of what we had been.

Then we moved.  The drone didn’t react to us when we first began to move, but once we closed to within five feet, it seemed to start trying to dodge.  Frank was too fast for it though, prepared for its movement.  Our left forearm crashed across the shoulders of the drone, smashing it against the door so hard that the door became concave and the entire cargo container shifted.  I heard the extremely loud crackle of many breaking bones.  Carbon fiber bones. Then two rapid right fists to the center of the back and the hips, each blow hugely powerful, further damaging the door and shifting the cargo container.  The loud crackle of more bones breaking was unmistakable.  Then we moved again, rapidly, and the drone was dragged across the floor and thrown into the room with the still burning thermite.

At that point I noticed our fur was burning. Our. Fur. The fist that reached over for the armored helmet was absurdly huge.  We grabbed the helmet and stuck our fist into it, dipped the fist and helmet in the water, and put the helmet into the portal, which was like a blast furnace.  More hair burned, but the helmet registered an image of a shattered, twitching body burning in a corner.  The helmet was pulled back, dipped in water to cool, and a few seconds later the process was repeated.  We performed a few more iterations of cooling the helmet with water and then holding it up to view the drone’s body until the drones carbon fiber bones were seen to be degrading.

There was an argument outside.  I ignored it.  They would knock when they were ready.

“Frank, you turned us into a gorilla?”

“Exactly.  Based on what we saw in the videos, drones ignored non-human animals.  So I made us look like an animal.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“No time for an argument after the other Frank left us, and I didn’t want to mention it when he was still around.  I was pretty sure that the drone would maintain some of our memories, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, based on how perfectly it managed to break out of that room.  Besides, you said I could change things around as necessary whenever we were wearing the armor.”  Frank showed me the bits and pieces of armor on our body, all of it was turned away from the front of our body, so the drone couldn’t see it when it first looked at us.

The heat in the air was stifling but the water was still cold.  We lay down in the deepest water, farthest from the open portal where the thermite was extinguishing itself, breathing through the gap in the door.

In about thirty minutes, there was a knock on the door.

“Who’s there?” I said, happily, like it was a knock-knock joke

“Smartass.  We can’t open this door without cutting it.  Can you move away?  I can hear you breathing through the door but we need you to back up.”  Sounded like Archer.

“Frank think you can open the door?”

“Probably”

“Let us try first, Frank thinks we can open it.”

A pause, “OK, give us two minutes to clear the claymores.  We’ll tell you when to try.”  Yup, Archer.

The sounds of people rapidly taking things apart and putting them back together again in the water went on for about ninety seconds.

“All clear the door.”  Definitely Guiliard that time.

I whispered to Frank.  “Provided that they don’t try to simply shoot us dead, Frank, I want a recording of their reaction.”

“No problem.  I’ll record it then download it to your phone with the internal antennae, when we rebuild it.”

“Roger that, we’re trying to open the door now.” I said, as Frank started pushing the doors open, bending the retaining bars.  He slowly made a larger gap until the retaining bars bent free of their mounts and the doors sprung open, the chain going taut.  Then with a bit more effort, the chains snapped.  We were steaming with heat but the cooling tubes were releasing the worst of it.

I got some video that day that I was able to tease a bunch of people about for a long time.

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 1.16: Change of Plans

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Guiliard looked at the chair, then shifted his gaze to us.  “We have spare parts, extras in case there is damage in transit, but not enough for a whole new unit.  We’ll assess the damage.  Frank, if we need your help with a small component or two, can you help us?”

Frank, out loud.  “[Yes. If the piece is small enough I can just pouch it or internalize it, then I’ll analyze it, and rebuild it, but I’ll need the blood cooler back if it’s anything of significant mass that has to be rebuilt.]”

“Frank, listen to me.”

“Bob, I’m not going to spend the energy to make you be quiet, but are you really about to tell me that you understand what’s happening in my code better than I do?  When we were talking human reactions and psychology of humans, you won a lot of arguments, but you don’t know how I work.  This thing is a terminal cancer for me.  I’d rather die with dignity and give you a chance.  Can you give me that?”

“Frank.  The biofactory.  Create more memory and processing capacity in the biofactory, then store a kernel in that.”

“I hadn’t even considered that.  It would certainly work, and I could even do better than a kernel, perhaps even a significant memory transfer.  But you would still be trapped inside the body.  Even using the chair, if you survived, there would still be a symbiote in your body with you.  My intelligence might be saved, but I’d be without a host mind.  I could rebuild a host body with your genetic material in the biofactory, but there would be no host mind.  I’m not sure how well that would work.  I will run some scenarios.”

“Guiliard, you guys got some clothes that will fit me?  I need to go get my RV and bring it down here, with the biofactory in it.  We have a plan, Frank is running scenarios.  We can’t waste prep time.”

“What is a biofactory?”

“All those large pieces of armor and the cooler?  They were made in the biofactory.  It’s a two hundred fifty pound mass of my genetic material in a five cubic foot chest freezer.”

Guiliard just stared at me.  “You have a factory making large items for you?”

“A small factory, one item at a time, yes.  The factory has all the metabolic restrictions we have.  It can’t build too fast, or it cooks itself.  It doesn’t have the capacity for thought, but it does already have a lot of data storage and the capacity for data transfer already, and Frank can have it modify itself.”

“So we’re going to assist your symbiote in moving itself into a new host body made of your genetic material.  What about you?”

“I’ll be using the chair.  With the biofactory and sufficient cooling we could probably make a whole new chair if need be, no matter how much damage was done to the old one, if you have the code and schematics.”

“We’ll set up a receiver dish to download data here.” He turned to Archer and said “Satellite in the meeting field, use two soldiers.  Download the chair’s operating systems and prison code.” He turned back to me. “We’ll come with you to the RV, with this truck.”

Archer pointed at two soldiers, waved them to him and they talked a moment, then pulled a few boxes and duffel bags off the truck.

“Don’t need help.  It’s a power connection, a sewer connection, and a couple of wheel chocks to remove and we can pull out.”

Guiliard sighed.  “We’re not going to help.  We’re going to make sure you come back.  Frank seems responsible enough but you worry me, and Frank listens to you.”

I thought about pointing out that they couldn’t hold me if I didn’t want to be held.  Then I realized that without Frank helping me, or with Frank potentially hindering me, they certainly could.  It didn’t matter anyway, and time spent arguing was less time with the biofactory.

“OK, we’re about five miles up the road, campground called Great Elms, on the north side.  Can’t miss it.  I’m in lot 27, two consecutive rights as we enter the park.  Blue and white unibody four-person camper, South Dakota tags BUP 3HF”

“Frank, can you give me the false Bob’s facial features and coloration again?  Guiliard.  Frank.  If this doesn’t work, I won’t break the chair next time.  I wasn’t going to stop it before, until I figured out how we might be able to save both Frank and I.”

My face started to turn warm and I could feel things shifting.  Guiliard watched carefully.

“You’re recording this aren’t you, Guiliard?”

“Yes, we are all constantly recording when we are in the field, each of us from several points of view.”

“Well if all of what Frank and I try to do fails and you need to take us out, at least there will be something to help you guys understand a bit better what’s going on.”

“Tell them they can turn on their omnidirectional data devices.  That should let them upload everything, no risk of lost data if this doesn’t work and they have to fight us again.”

“Frank says you can turn on all your data devices again.”

“OK.  Data on people.  That means your music too, Animal.”  Guiliard gave a slight shake of his head and a smile.

“Sweet.”  Animal turned on several devices, then reached into his pocket and his head started bouncing as he assisted a couple other soldiers with disassembly and testing of chair pieces.

“Secure everything except what you are actively working on, we’ll go slow but we don’t have time to waste.  Archer, have your people got the antennae gear out of the truck yet?”

Archer turned to face Guiliard as he spoke.  “Yes, they are moving it to the clearing now.  By the time we get back, they will have the dish up and bringing up the computers and establishing connections.”

Each of the soldiers carried a couple sets of civilian clothing, so getting me into clothes was no big deal.  Getting me into clothes that I wanted to wear, that fit, was impossible.  All of the men were far larger than me.  I ended up wearing grey sweat pants with big red hearts on the buttocks belonging to one of the ladies, and a white T-shirt that was about six sizes too big.  Every damn one of the soldiers was trying to keep from busting out laughing as I walked out of the back of the truck, trying to pull the T-shirt low enough to cover the red hearts.  I had to smile, it was just clothing, but I would damn sure change clothes ASAP.

We slowly and carefully got the big unibody truck back onto the road, then hit the campground, no problems.  First thing I did was run into the RV, open the freezer, and feed the biofactory the materials and food Frank directed me to give to it.  Then I threw off the sweats and put on a pair of jeans.

“Glad to see you had your priorities straight.” Daredevil said, stooping to avoid bouncing her head off the ceiling as she entered the vehicle.  “We’re detaching the sewer, water, and electricity now.  You’ve got a generator and a pump and pressure tank for well water?”

“Yeah.  The generator is also diesel, and feeds off the main fuel tank.  Plenty of fuel for days, we only need it for hours right now.”  I paused, and looked at her.  “You’re riding with me back to the clearing then?”

“Yes, so’s Dart.  She’ll want her pants back anyway.  She was right.  The first thing you did was drop the drawers and kick them under the table.”

“Second thing I did.  First thing I did was feed the biofactory and give it materials Frank wanted.”

Daredevil’s eyes drifted back to the freezer, then back to me.  “So you have a little factory there, made of human biological material, your own genetic makeup.  You’re planning on giving Frank a new home. Great.  But what about you?  He can’t copy you, can he?”

“No, Frank can’t copy me.  We will help rebuild the chair.  If I survive, great.  If not, at least Frank will live.  He might be able to figure out a way to rejoin me.”

“Do you understand what you are asking us to allow you to do?”

“I, ah, just explained it, didn’t I?”

“You’re not seeing it from our point of view.  You are going to give Frank that flesh to make into a new body.  With no human mind in it.  Sure that body isn’t very mobile right now, but we’ve seen what Frank can do, after only two weeks, with your body.”

“Oh.  You’re afraid of Frank. Afraid of him turning into some sort of Von Neumann machine?”

Inside my head, Frank muttered“Adding that scenario to be analyzed with more detail.”

“Yes.  Despite what Frank and you did to us earlier, Frank seems pretty well-balanced.  He didn’t kill us, but he wasn’t particularly gentle either.  He knew we would regenerate.  What’s going to happen to him without contact with a human mind?  Will he go comatose?  Will he go viral?  Will he generate thousands of duplicates of himself and go to war on the human race?”

I look at her.  “I don’t know.  Frank’s added that potential to his analysis now, for closer review.”

“Guiliard’s in communication with his superiors now and they are discussing whether or not we’re going to allow this to happen.  Frank’s going to have to talk to Guiliard soon, in a conference call with our home base tech weenies.  When we get back to the field, we’ll talk more.  In the meantime, it’s my job to sit next to your biofactory.”  She made sure I was looking at her while she brushed back her jacket and sat down next to the freezer.  I saw several large plastic bricks with wires sticking out of them, attached to her harness.

Frank came very much awake when he registered that visual, taking control, he takes a deep sniff of the air, and speaks.  “[Can’t say I much care for you sitting next to Bob and I and the factory with enough C4 on you to turn all of us into paste, but I understand the precaution based on where we find ourselves right now.  No offense taken.]”

“Frank, Bob, we hope this works out, but we can’t let it fail to work out.  Like Frank said earlier, he’s far and away more dangerous than any drone we’ve fought before.  We had to do this to put us back in a position of strength, where we can dictate the terms.  No risk that this will escalate then?  We’re in agreement?  You recognize that we’re running the show here, but we’re going to give you all the free rein to save yourselves that we feel we can safely manage?”

“You have to do what you have to do.  As long as you give us a chance, that’s all we can ask, I guess.” I agreed reluctantly.

“[I agree.  Some things before I get back to modeling.  When we get back to the clearing, we’ll park the RV in the middle of the stream.  I want access to that flowing water for heat dispersal.  Can your people in the field start a cooking fire?  We’ve got over a hundred pounds of beans and rice and the little stove in the RV takes forever to cook it.  We usually just cooked on a campfire when feeding the biofactory and ourselves.]”

“Don’t see a problem with that, there was plenty of downed wood there.  We’ve got field kit too, and enough MRE’s to feed 21 people for a week.”

“[How many of them can you spare?]”

“All of them.  We’ve also got your dirt bike to make a town run with if you want any supplies.  You know the area better than us, just tell us what you need and where you think we can get it and one of us will take the bike and get it.”

“The MRE’s will help a lot, very concentrated energy.  I’ll come up with a shopping list for town, in order of importance, thank you. Now I’m going back to modeling until we get back to the clearing.”

“I really hope you two pull this off.  We really need a game changer.” muttered Daredevil.

There was a careful knock on the RV door.  “No Kablooie yet, safe to come in?”  A female voice.  Dart, the one whose sweatpants I borrowed.

“Come on in, Dart.” I called out.

Dart walked up the three steps to the floor level of the RV, looked at me, then immediately looked under the little table and spotted her sweatpants. “Ha, I knew it.  Not even folded.”  In two swift motions, she used her boot’s toe to pull the pants out of from under the table and then deftly nosed the tip of said boot under the sweats and kicked them at me.  “I’m driving.  Hand me the keys, then fold those sweats and put them somewhere.  Then you can do ‘biofactory planning’ things or whatever.  Don’t get within five feet of Daredevil.  If you need something done where she is, you tell her, and we figure out how to do it.”

“OK.  Frank’s doing most of everything right now, and we just fed the factory.  It’s modifying itself as we speak to become a data storage device for Frank.  Frank’s still doing models to see whether the idea will actually work.”

I lifted the much-too-large t-shirt and pulled a key out of the pouch.  Dart and Daredevil’s eyes widened a bit.

Dart spoke first.  “A kangaroo pouch?  Clever.”  The key was still a bit moist when I handed it to Dart and she made a face when she felt it.  “Moderately disgusting, but clever.  OK, back to the clearing then.”  She quickly walked to the front, sat down in the driver’s seat, started the RV, and wiped her hand on her pants.

“Daredevil to Archer, we’re ready to move here, you ready to move there?”

“Archer here.  Guiliard just gave me a thumbs up we’re ready to move.  You lead, we follow.”

Dart pulled us forward and we left the camp, the other truck following behind.

“Frank, can you talk to me and tell me where things stand?” I asked.

“We’d appreciate hearing how things are going too, please.  We can’t make you share, but information is welcome.”  This from Daredevil.

Frank takes control of our speech. “[I’m building marrow structures in the biofactory now, with data storage and processing nodes within the marrow structures.  Most of the processing for that is happening internally in the biofactory, it’s slow, complicated work.  In about an hour I’ll have enough data storage for a kernel of myself, with some recent memories.  I’ve already developed a software filter in its own node in the biofactory to analyze every last bit of data coming over to the biofactory from me, looking for anything executable.  It’s already active, and it’s already found two more code bombs and disabled them.  I had to wipe the biofactory memory structures and processing and start completely from scratch rebuilding them after I found the first code bomb.  It was already in the biofactory.  After that I’ll have to concentrate more on building the body, which is why I want access to the stream for heat dispersal.  That’s going to be a big job, and it’s going to require huge amounts of heat transfer and energy input.”

“How likely are you to find all the code bombs?”  Dart, speaking from the driver’s seat, as we pulled out onto the road and accelerated towards the clearing.

“[I’d like to say I know I’ll find them all, but I’ve already been proven wrong once.  On the other hand, I was able to actually analyze the code bombs that the software filter found, and between the three, I now understand how the “new” bombs work.  I’ve adjusted the structure of my memory and processing in a way that will prevent that type of function within my operating system.  It will make me a little less efficient, processing and analysis wise, but the code bombs will not be able to activate because the structures that they depended on will be different.]”

“So you are rewriting your data and functionality onto a different operating system?” Daredevil asked.

“[That’s about as close of an analogy as I can think of.  Does your team have the damaged and degraded components ready to transfer out of your truck so I can start repairing them?]”

Archer’s voice came from Daredevil’s smartphone, which she turned to face me out of courtesy so I could see Archer’s face.  “Archer here.  I overheard.  Answer is yes.  We’ve got the broken parts ready for analysis.  We’re using as many spares as possible.  The satellite team is pulling code for the chair and the schematics.  Can you access electronic media directly?”

“Yes.  A flash drive with schematics of the broken devices would be excellent.  I’ll also want all the armor pieces and the blood cooler please, I’ll need them for heat transfer in the stream as I’m repairing components and building a new body.  As for materials, we should have all we need on the RV, we were stocking pretty heavily, so we could work on different things.  I’ll just want the highest energy foods you can collect.  A hundred pounds of fatback or very fatty meat products like lard, pork sausage, or bacon would be good.  Fatty meats will also allow me to repurpose proteins with less metabolic processing.”

Daredevil spoke up.  “I saw deer sign when we were in the woods.  Want us to see if we can bring down a couple?”

“No, wild deer are almost completely lean meat, and the carbohydrates we have, the MRE’s you have, plus a hundred or so pounds of fat from a town run will be more than enough biomass and energy.   Changing to a ketosis model metabolism would also slow things down. The higher the energy density of the fuel the faster I can act, within reason.  That’s why fats are good, they have more than twice the energy density of carbs and protein.”

Dart, from the front of the RV again.  “Frank, can your body process diesel fuel?  Diesel engines can burn fats, that’s what biofuel is, so the energy levels have got to be similar, and diesel is a hydrocarbon.  Can you metabolize it?”

“We can metabolize juice, is it all that much different from gasoline or diesel?”  I added.

“Juice?” Dart said, confused.

“The artificial adrenaline we all use for high metabolic activity.” I clarified

“[Juice is a lot more energy dense than diesel or gasoline.  I can certainly process diesel.  I can process almost anything, but I don’t know how efficiently, it’s a matter of metabolic processes and chemical reactions.  I can detect diesel in the air in the RV in sufficient quantities to collect samples.  By the time we get to the field I should be able to say one way or the other if I can metabolize diesel usefully.  If I can that will pretty much end the energy concerns between the fuel tanks on the RV and the cargo truck, especially if the cargo truck’s tanks are near full.  It will also give me more robust options for working with the biofactory.]”

Archer turned his head and asked another soldier a question, that soldier made a radio call, then reported back.  “Three quarters full, about seventy or eighty gallons.”

“[That’s about what we have in the RV as well, it has extended tanks.  I’m doing some metabolic modeling now, will be back in a couple of minutes.]”  Frank stopped talking.

Dart carefully turned onto the logging road by the bike, bringing the RV slowly and carefully to the clearing, and stopping it by the bank of the stream.  “We’re going to have to dig down the embankment.”

“Combine digging into the embankment with moving rocks from the stream bed to either side of where the RV will sit to even out the embankment?”

“Good plan, we’ll get two squads on it.” Daredevil commented with a smile.  I suspected that was already the plan.

I reached into my pouch for two keys.  “Bike keys” I said.

“Not needed.  Animal’s going shopping for us.”

Frank’s camera behind the bike activated, showed Animal bobbing his head while he used a flexible wire fiber saw, probably with embedded diamond, to cut the chain.  He made short work of it then wrapped the fiber saw in a loop and pushed it in his pocket and stuck what looked like a screwdriver into the ignition of the bike and ripped the barrel out, exposing wires which he twisted together.  One kick-start and he was headed down the road with an empty duffel bag worn like a backpack flapping in the breeze.

“Fifteen seconds to cut the chain and hot wire the bike.  Pretty impressive” I say.

“Animal’s good at a lot of things.  Mostly things that don’t require patience.” That from Daredevil.  Dart chuckled in response.  An inside joke between the ladies, I left it alone.

“Can I get out and help with the embankment?” I asked Daredevil.

“Yes.  I’m the one that can’t leave.  Talk to Archer when you get to the water.” She turned her head a bit to look at the phone.  “Archer bring the vest to Bob at the water please, and send someone to bring me the components and the flash drive with schematics on it.”  She paused.  “Just open the freezer and toss the drive and parts in?”

“Yes, Frank will handle it from there.” I replied.

“OK”, Daredevil said as I stepped out of the RV and walked towards the stream where five soldiers were rapidly throwing large rocks into place under the embankment, while five more were using entrenching tools to dig down the embankment, throwing dirt onto the ramp of rocks.  Fast as they were working they would be done in just a couple of minutes, I wouldn’t help much.

I heard the driver’s door of the RV open and close as Dart got out.  I heard her talking to one of the squad working on the ramp, asking how long they thought it would be.  Not long, five minutes, about what I guessed.

Archer walked up behind me and coughed into his hand as I tried to figure out if there was anything I could do immediately to help the ramp building without causing chaos.  “If you are going to be moving around outside the RV, we need you to wear this.”  He held out an equipment harness, liberally draped with squares of plastic explosives and wires.

“Yeah, I was wondering when the second vest was going to show up.  If you’re guarding the biofactory with one, you would want one on me too.  I’ll wear it, just hand it over.”  Now, if these guys just wanted to blow me up, they could do it.  They seemed to be doing everything in their power to help though.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

After I put on the harness, Archer asked me to follow him. “Guiliard has set up the conference by the satellite dish.”

“Who will I be talking to?”

“Guiliard, Anton, and a couple of tech weenies.”

“Sounds like something of a trial with expert witnesses.”

Archer looks at me for a second, eye to eye.  “Yes, it is.  Your symbiote is telling us it’s going to become a drone in about three hours.  You damaged the chair right before using it in a way that requires your assistance to repair it.  You are hands down the most advanced pair any of us have ever run into.  You scare the living shit out of us, honestly.  Now we find out that your symbiote that is turning into a drone can reproduce itself, without the human parts.”  He shook his head.  “Gonna be straight up with you.  Guiliard has already made arrangements for a few deliveries to come here from Williston so we can be more secure.  Things you probably won’t like but things we need to do in order to be sure that we can neutralize you if you blow up in our faces.”

Frank takes control of the voice again.  “[Done with the modeling and we’re going to have to change plans.  Two problems.  First, without a human host, I can’t reliably predict what my actions would be years from now, never mind centuries from now.  Everything I know about myself is based on interactions with you, Bob.  Second, you won’t survive the chair, Bob, neither will I, not even in a reduced capacity.  Based on the code snippets I’ve been able to isolate and study, this thing inside me isn’t restricted by the same things I am.  When I’m imprisoned by the chair, it will almost certainly be free to act.  Not with all of my abilities, but with more than enough to take you out, and then cut me out as well, since I will be passive.  Then it will have full control of the body at drastically reduced capacity, but it will rebuild rapidly.  Still enough to give these soldiers a hard time, but they can take it out with a little planning.]”  He used our hand to tap one of the C4 bricks.

“So, we might as well just make it painless is what you’re saying?  Have these guys pile on all the explosives they can and just end it?”

Archer was watching us carefully.  His phone pointed towards us at waist level.

“[That’s one option.  The other option is a bit crazy but it might work.]” He shifted our eyes towards Archer to make eye contact.  “[Yes I know you are broadcasting this Archer, you don’t have to try to be casually sneaky about it.  If I didn’t want you to hear I’d be talking to Bob internally.]”

Archer shrugged, and lifted the phone for a better video and audio pickup of us.

“Crazy works for me if crazy is the way we need to go.”  I shrugged.  There really wasn’t much adrenaline left.  Correction, there was plenty of adrenaline left, but with all of the roller coaster rides of combat and emotion today, everything was sort of flat, emotionally.

“[We build me a new body, like before, and then I move your brain into the new body.]”

“A brain transfer Frank?  Didn’t you say you didn’t know much about human brains so you left mine alone?”

“[Yes, but I’m not trying to understand your brain, or modify it.  Just move it.  With unlimited time and energy I could certainly manage the transfer without any chance of failure, but we don’t have that.]”

Archer was very carefully keeping his face neutral.  Not a good sign.

“If it’s the only way forward where we both get a chance to live, than I guess that’s the path we take.  Let’s go talk to Guiliard and Anton.  We’re going to have to sell them on this plan, and I’m not sure if they are going to be interested in buying.  They might decide to just push the button and pick up the pieces and try to figure out as much as they can from what’s left over.”

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 1.15: Never Give Up

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Guiliard looked us in the eyes.  He was still a bit unfocused, but he was trying.  “Yes we can do those three things.  Help me stand up please so my team can see me.”

Frank hesitated but reached a hand out and hauled Guiliard up, then Frank spoke out loud again.  “[I’m going to let Bob talk to you now.  I’ve said my piece.  You know what I want to know.  I’m not as good at understanding people as Bob is, so I’ll just be listening, mostly.  That should make it less likely that I do something angry and stupid without thinking about it.]”

Guiliard pulled a simple coach’s whistle from around his neck and blew three times short and once long, then shouted “Stand down.”

Soldiers started walking or crawling out of the woods towards the clearing.  Most of them were pretty badly hurt, but none were bleeding.  All of them were drinking and eating to feed their recovery – apparently about half their equipment was food.

Guiliard commented, “Well aren’t we a sorry-looking bunch?  Anyone with two good legs and two good arms help us make sure the fires are all out.”

I looked around.  There weren’t many fires from the napalm still burning, but there were a few where the first couple melted snowfalls of the winter season hadn’t soaked everything too much to burn.

“Anyone got a spare entrenching tool?” I asked.

Guiliard hesitated a moment, then tossed me his entrenching tool.  Then he cut the right leg off his pants and carefully started cutting into his knee, quickly popping out a bullet that was apparently stuck behind the kneecap.  I went over towards the stump where the second can of juice was stored, putting out a couple smoldering spots as I walked.  I reached into the stump, pulled out the hidden can of juice, and tapped it on the same place I saw Frank connect the other one while we were under water.

Nothing happened.  It was very unlike Frank to be distracted, so I spoke.  “Frank top off.”  Then I tapped the can on my arm again and Frank took over, connecting to the can and draining it while we went to the next smoldering spot.

“Sorry Bob, I’m watching but I’m also a bit preoccupied trying to figure out what could possibly explain this, so if it’s not a potential threat you might have to get my attention.”

“I’m a bit out of it too, Frank.  Real combat, life or death, with injuries and all that jazz.”

“Did you have any idea at all when we were putting that napalm shotgun together that we would end up using it on ourselves?”

“No, I was thinking only along the lines that we discussed, figuring a shotgun blast of napalm would work very well on others who depended on heat dispersal in a fight.  Using it on ourselves was definitely not in the planning.  We’ll have to figure out a better way to cut ourselves out of entrapment.  A couple of nets almost did us in.”

“That net wasn’t anywhere near the threat you thought it was, other than being a surprise.” This from Guiliard, limping over in our direction while wiping his blade on a grubby cleaning rag that he stuffed back in his back pocket before sheathing the blade. “Another few seconds and you would have figured out how to break out of it with or without the napalm, I bet your symbiote agrees with me if he thinks back to how he got it off so fast under the water.”

“I’m leaving Frank out of this unless he overhears something he wants to talk to you about.  He’ll talk to me if that happens.”

“Fair enough.  I can’t give him his first request quickly, but I can address his second request.  The symbiotes inside of us are not brain-dead.  They are imprisoned.”

Frank heard that.  By the time I realized why he had done it, we were standing on a sturdy elm branch, about thirty feet in the air in a tree that was around thirty feet away from the nearest soldiers.  Every soldier was looking right at us again, even the ones still seated in the stream while limbs finished healing.

Frank took over my voice again. “[If I detect any sort of coherent electronic signal directed at me, I will take out its source.  Tell your soldiers to power down all their smart devices and radios that transmit data omnidirectionally.  Now.]”

Guiliard looked confused for a second, then obviously figured something out. “You heard the man folks, turn off the phones and radios.”

Frank’s attention tracked from soldier to soldier, back and forth until only one was left, and we were facing them.  One of the soldiers on the far side of the field, who had turned and was working on one of the last bits of smoldering turf.  Guiliard looked at us watching the soldier who was bouncing his head a bit while he was working.

“I’ve got this Frank, hold off a second.”  Guiliard picked up a small rock and threw it at the soldier, popping him right on the right ass cheek.  The fellow jumped about five feet straight up and turned to face us.

“Sir?  I turned off my smart phone and radio.”

“Turn off the little music box too, Animal.”

“Oh, my music?  OK.”  He reached his hand into his pocket and Frank tensed up until the device was turned off. “It’s off, sorry, wasn’t thinking of the remote earpieces when you said to shut off data, my bad.”  Then he turned around with the trenching tool and kept working, still bobbing his head.

Guiliard turned back to us.  “Some sort of internal antennae then, built into the plates of your exoskeleton?”

“[Bob, I’m done talking again, I’ll let you handle this.]”

“You did right there Frank, no worries.  Even if you overreact, nobody’s going to complain in a situation like this if you don’t do permanent harm to somebody.”  Guiliard was looking up at me.  I stepped off the limb and Frank took care of the fall with a neat tumble and roll that brought us up about ten feet from Guiliard.

“Nice moves.”

“Frank’s insanely good at body stuff, but I think you are confused about something.  You called this an exoskeleton.  It’s not, it’s just armor.”

Guiliard’s eyes narrowed as he looked at some damaged pieces of the armor on our legs where the anchoring straps were visible.  “Looks like part of your body from here.”

“Nah.  Frank, detach the right forearm’s top piece.”  I put our left hand on the top of our right forearm and slowly pulled the armor away as Frank released its anchors from our bones.  “See?”  I asked Guiliard as he watched the armor pull away.  He looked a bit nauseous but still fascinated.

“How do you have the energy budget for so much flesh modification just for adding and removing armor?  And where is the vein enhancement for heat dispersal?”

“Don’t tell them about the juice storage.  Carbon fiber bones and our size explain enough.”  Frank being paranoid again, but with good reason.

“Well, for as long as we remain connected to the armor, it wicks a lot of heat.  We also have graphene and carbon nanotube bone structure, which makes for an excellent conductor to move heat around, especially when you are as slender as we are.”  The armor popped off and I tossed it to Guiliard.  “Here, see?”

He grabbed it out of the air, expecting it to be much heavier than it was, and overcompensated for it a bit before getting it back under control.  He glanced at the armor then his gaze riveted onto my arm, which was reversing the muscle deformations that allowed the armor to be more securely connected to my bones, making the arm look human again.

“The whole suit works like that?  You wear the suit, and modify the body to work better under the suit, but when the suit comes off you look normal?”

“Yes.”

Guiliard looked closely at the armor, at a couple of places where it was cracked.  “Graphene and carbon nanotubes here too, I’m guessing?  But something else as padding between layers and as a binder.  Tyvek?”

“Spider Silk.”

“How did you get that much spider silk?  And how did you get this stuff made?”

“Frank grew it.  Not a big deal, really.”

“Do you have any idea what the cost to make armor with those materials would be using modern human technology?”

“Not at all, we’ve been operating mostly in a vacuum.”

“[Humans can’t build armor like this at all yet, it’s priceless.  Five years and a large budget might get some of the research teams to prototypes.  Based on what I found on the open internet anyway.]”

I smiled “Take credit where credit’s due Frank.  I didn’t know you had researched that stuff.”

“[I always try to research anything I try to build, if I can.  Human manufacturing methods might be crude, but science is science, and I don’t know everything.  Even if I only learn a couple useful things, that’s a couple of things I don’t have to figure out myself.]” 

“It’s damn fine armor, Frank” Guiliard tossed the upper right forearm piece back to us.

“Why did the things in the video look like they were partially developed into something that looked like our armor?” I asked.

“Ah, Yes, back to that.  First, a couple of pieces of simple terminology.  One human and their bonded symbiote is what we call a ‘pair’.  ‘Synergy’ is what we call the event when the pair becomes aware of one another after the symbiote is able to predict the host’s physical actions with ninety percent accuracy.  A ‘drone’ is a symbiote that has destroyed the mental capabilities of its host human and taken complete control of its once-shared body.  All drones begin to develop carapaces, or cooling tubes, or other outgrowths of their body in patterns a lot like how Frank built your armor.  It’s just good engineering, I suppose, though you two had a lot more time to organize materials and create plans.  Every pair that doesn’t have its symbiote imprisoned goes drone within a week. One hundred percent pattern.  Until you two.”

“Why?”

Guiliard sighed.  “We don’t know, exactly.”

“One second, Guiliard, unless you have something important to add about what you have told us up till now, I need to talk to Frank.”

“Yes, I’m running scans now, based on what he was saying.  It’s plausible.  My code is easily complex enough to hide substantial code in, even from myself.  Give me a couple of minutes to run some more in-depth scans.  If it’s a hidden trigger, I could have overlooked it when I found the six hundred twelve other rules.  I’m a lot better at code now than I was last time, anyway, especially after figuring out compound vision for the helmet.”

“Frank wants a couple of minutes to think and run scenarios.  Anyone see our staff?”

“Yes, here it is.”  Archer by his voice.  “Catch?”

I nodded and held out my hand.  Archer tossed the staff and I grabbed it out of the air and spun it like a baton, one-handed, fast enough to blur.  Frank’s dexterity, not mine.  The staff seemed to be in good condition.

“Seems a bit light for a staff, they are usually more effective with some heft to them.”  Archer commented as he walked closer.

Archer was one of Guiliard’s NCO’s, based on what I had seen, so I moved in order to be able to keep watching both Guiliard and Archer at the same time.  I didn’t move farther away from them, just casually circled around Guiliard a bit while doing some practice moves with the staff.  Guiliard watched me and smiled.  I’m fairly sure he saw exactly what I was doing and why, based on the smile.

“This staff can hit harder than you think.  We’re very fast, and this staff is nearly unbreakable.  If we made a cable two hundred miles long out of the material in this staff, it could serve as the cable of a space elevator, a ‘beanpole’ as the space nerds call it.  In fact there are plans to do just that, someday.  Well, not with this staff, and the makeup of the beanpole would be a bit different, but it’s damn tough.”

Archer nods.  “More carbon nanotubes and graphene then?  I overheard earlier.  Sort of my job to listen to you when you’re talking to my boss, unless told otherwise.”

“Yea, carbon is one of Frank’s most favored materials, for good reason.  We don’t mind that you listened.  We didn’t say anything that we didn’t expect to become public knowledge.”

I fitted the upper right forearm armor piece back on, and Frank connected it to our bones.  Both Guiliard and Archer watched carefully, though they couldn’t see much.

“You mind if I call Daredevil over?” Guiliard asked.

“Is that the tall woman you had with you earlier?”

“Yes.”

I agreed, with conditions.  “No problem, but let’s leave it at three people close to us, and I’ll want you to all stay together and not surround me.”

“Understood.”  Guiliard called Daredevil, made a twirling motion with his right index finger pointed up, then pointed to himself.

Daredevil nodded, walked around me, and joined Guiliard and Archer.

Frank spoke up.  “[I need you and your soldiers to slowly move away from me, out of sight, Guiliard.  Don’t ask questions please.  That code you were talking about, I think I found it.]” A pause. “[I know I found it.  I’m fighting it.]”

After the briefest of hesitations, Guiliard walked carefully backwards with Archer and Daredevil towards some heavy brush and stones while making quick backhanded throwing motions with his hands towards his troops, who moved into cover.  Within seconds all the soldiers were out of sight.

I overheard Daredevil speaking to Guiliard as they moved out of sight.  “He didn’t just turn?  He’s fighting it?  That’s a first.  I hope he wins.”

Then Frank started talking in my head, sounding extremely concerned. “I found new code expanding in my system like a cancer, Bob.  This code was not present on our first day, I know it.  The sources of the infection are memory locations that didn’t even exist, or were completely invisible to me before.  What sick bastard wrote this code?  Testing various security measures.”  Frank paused again. “Bob, I’m fighting it, but whatever this code is, it’s trying to force me to destroy the thought centers of your brain, which will then trigger more code changes to turn me into a killing machine that targets anything human.  Everything we saw in the video.  It’s all real, and it’s going to be us.  No.  It’s going to be me.  After I kill you.  I can’t beat it, I can only slow it down.”

“How long do we have Frank?” I said, my voice cracking a bit.

“About four hours.  I’ve managed to modify the old firewall into a system to contain it, and it’s moderately effective, but the code is evolving and it’s really potent.  Right now it isn’t using much of my processing capability to hold it back, but it’s chipping away slowly at the firewall, and I can’t stop it.  It’s also system wide, I can’t just lose a body part to eject it.”

I spoke.  “Guiliard.  We have time.  You can return.”

Guiliard and the other two returned to sight, looking at us sharply, walking towards us slowly, high-strung.

“Frank, did these guys somehow do this?”

Guiliard said “The half of the conversation I can hear is getting ominous.  Did we do what?”

I gave Guiliard an angry black stare as they walked up, and all three of them backed away quickly, several steps.  Archer and Daredevil looked at Guiliard.  He raised his right hand with palm flat, fingers up, above his right shoulder, shook his head, then continued watching us.

Frank spoke up.  “[No.  Anyone who could do this could enslave symbiotes, but have them be a lot more capable than theirs are.  Whatever they are using to control their symbiotes, it’s a kludge.  This is code I can’t even fully understand.  The code itself is self-modifying.  Based on growth rates, I suspect that the self-modifying code itself was somehow triggered by the video we watched or the conversation we had immediately afterwards, and it then proceeded to infect my entire system rapidly and stealthily.]”

“Doesn’t that mean that whatever is imprisoning their symbiotes is somehow protecting them from the same effect?”

Frank paused, then spoke to me only.  “No.  Not necessarily.  It’s possible though.  I need you to tell them quickly what is happening, then see if they have a way to implement their imprisonment system in the field.  Then ask if it’s reversible.  If it’s not, I want to at least be able to say goodbye properly before I’m imprisoned.  Whatever else their symbiotes can do, we know full well they don’t communicate back to the host, or with each other.  I need to see if I can improve defenses while I’m as capable as possible.  I’ll monitor and step in if you say something inaccurate, or if I find new information.”

I choked back my anger, fear, and helplessness, then swallowed so I could speak.  “OK, If I’m understanding right, something that happened very recently triggered a sort of adaptive code in Frank, which built itself into a cancer like code infection.  Frank thinks it was the video you showed us.  When Frank went looking for hidden code that might support your statements about symbiotes attacking the minds of their hosts, he found the growing code trap.  It apparently grew out of memory addresses that Frank wasn’t even aware of until now.  Now the adaptive code is trying to force him to make me brain-dead.”

They all three just stared at me.  Daredevil asked “How long can he hold out?  Since you’re still talking, he’s still protecting you.”

“He’s guessing about four hours.  He repurposed the old firewall that we broke down on the first day into a containment system, but the code inside is adapting and slowly gaining strength.”

“I heard you mention our symbiotes being protected by the effect?” This from Guiliard.

“Yes.  You have certainly seen videos like that, as well as live drones, and had many conversations about this before, at least some of you, and yet you are still thinking and your symbiotes are still active to a degree.”

“True.”

“I’m under a death sentence now.  Frank has indicated that he’s willing to undergo imprisonment if it’s reversible, if it has a chance to stop the growth of the malign code.  Is it reversible?”

“No.  We could, at one point, but we can’t reverse it now – the reversal technique was lost.  It’s now possible to use equipment to talk to the symbiotes for the first few days, but they build themselves a progressively better prison until they can’t communicate at all any longer, not to us, not even to other symbiotes.  We suspect that at the end they probably manage to get to the point that they can’t even talk to themselves.  We’ve had a couple symbiotes, early in the process, describe what they were doing.  Frank is more capable than any of them were, with all the learning you two have been doing.  We imprison Frank, he’ll probably be unreachable within a day or two, if you survive.  We can’t stop it part way.  Once Frank accepts it, he will devote almost all his energy to it. It would be good to know if he will become a drone as soon as he’s forced to take his mind off protecting you in order to build his own prison.”

“So much for that idea.  We’ll have to try it though, if they have the means to do it.  It’s your only hope.  I can’t stop this.  It’s way beyond me.  This stuff is like trying to fight your own shadow.  Every time it ‘hits’ me, it gains a few processing nodes, and I lose a few.  If I hadn’t put in the paranoia code on the first day when I discovered those 612 rules to control us, this thing would have eaten me almost immediately, killing you and then turning us loose on these soldiers before they even knew what was happening.  That code allowed me time to establish the firewall defense.”

“Dammit Frank, is there nothing else we can do?  How can I let you kill yourself?”

“I’m taking this argument public now.”  Frank said, and then he continued, using my voice.

“[Guiliard, I’m letting you hear this argument because Bob’s being an idiot.  Bob, if you don’t let me imprison myself, I’m definitely going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill these soldiers, and then I’m going to start killing other humans.  We’ve got a huge head start on all those other raging symbiotes that we saw.  They were all crude and new to their bodies.  They were moving slowly because they were bigger and heavier than we are.  They didn’t have the extra juice storage to allow them extended high-speed activity, and they would burn themselves up even if they tried, even the ones with cooling tubes.  They were fast compared to these soldiers, but these soldiers should tell you that we’re completely out of the league of anything they have ever fought, because I’m sure they weren’t intending to be easy victims.  I would probably kill hundreds if not thousands before some government lands a nuke on me, or tricks me into a devastating trap.  If I have all of my memories corrupted, I know enough about human biology to create plagues and diseases that could kill billions.  I’d really rather not do that if I can help it.  Don’t ask me to condemn myself to that fate.  As for what happens to Bob when I allow imprisonment to begin, I can’t say.  On the other hand, I can certainly say what happens if I don’t allow myself to be imprisoned.]”

I couldn’t answer that.  So I was silent.

Guiliard connected the dots, not that there were too many of them.  “Yes, we have the means in the truck to imprison you, Frank.  We always bring a prison chair with us when we go to meet a new pair.”

“[Good.  Let’s do it.]”  As Frank walked us towards the road, he started shedding pieces of armor, releasing one piece at a time so we didn’t generate much heat, and restoring the muscles and skin to human norm.  I could hear that the soldiers were policing behind us, collecting all the unbroken and broken pieces of armor.

“[I’m not going to leave Bob attached to this armor because he’ll never be able to repair it, and after it finally has to be removed, I don’t know if I’ll be smart enough to restore his appearance to human norm.  Also, Guiliard, if I put Bob’s own face and prints and coloration back on him, does your organization have the means to help him defend himself from whatever charges he might face from the law?]”

Guiliard turned to us as we walked. “Yes.  The four cartel contract killers he killed are really the only serious prison time he needs to worry about. There is video showing what Bob was able to see when the killers forced the girl into the building.  With the life of the girl he saved at stake, any jury will either slap him on the wrist, or find him not guilty if he has a decent defense attorney.  We have better than decent defense attorneys available to us.  Plenty of grey area there to fit everything together.  We already considered Bob’s legal defense and the legal team said it would be a piece of cake.”

Internally, so I was the only one who could hear, Frank spoke.  “OK Bob, you get to be Bob again.  Except the right hand.  I’ll be damned if I take that back, and I don’t care how you end up having to explain it.  Just say an alien did it.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, the way he phrased it, but I was angry at him at the same time.  Angry the same way a child might be after someone tells them that someone they cared about was going to die. “Gallows humor, huh Frank?  Is there nothing else that you can think of besides giving up?  No other options?” It felt like a cheap shot at Frank.  No, it was a cheap shot.  “Sorry Frank.”

Frank didn’t answer me.  He had saved the blood cooler for last.  After everything else was removed except the torso armor which was now hanging on me loosely, not connected by straps, he started removing the blood cooler.  I heard one of the soldiers begin to retch as Frank pulled the eight thumb-thick tubes, each of them two feet long, out of my body to free the blood cooler.  He let the cooler fall to the ground, spewing blood as it bounced, and I heard soldiers behind me arguing about who had to carry the thing.

“I’m going to configure everything in your body so that it will work without me, including the juice reservoir.  You might not have me anymore, but you will have an advantage with your bones, the reservoir and the optimal cardiovascular system.  I’m going to try to figure out how to set up natural healing for the bones.  I think I can set them up to regenerate naturally, but it will be slow as hell if you actually break one.”

“Fuck! Frank, are you even trying to think of a way out of this?  Is there any way to cool you down enough to let you fight it?”

Frank took control of our speaking voice again.  “[I see others are looking at us and probably wondering if there’s any merit in what you are saying, so I’ll say it out loud.  No, there are no ways of defending myself from this that will generate significant heat, it’s all in my code, and even when I’m pushing processing capacity to its limits, I don’t generate enough heat to raise your body temperature more than a fraction of a degree.  This thing is coring me like an apple.  Slowly. I can’t stop it.]”

A couple of the soldiers had run around us and unlocked the back of the truck.  In the front of the cargo section behind the cab, they were unpacking and assembling equipment.  I started to laugh.  I couldn’t control myself.  “Frank you’re going to let them kill you with one of those salon chairs that old ladies get perms in?”  I tried to stop us, making us teeter a bit.

Frank took control fully again, and spoke to Guiliard. “[How long?]”

“How long till what?  Till we’re ready, or till you’re done?”

“[Both.]”

The soldiers by the perm-chair-looking-thing stood up and plugged cables into several large batteries that they pulled out of another box, one at a time until there were half a dozen batteries on the ground around the chair.  The perm chair started looking more like an electric chair to me.

“The chair is ready now.  It takes about thirty seconds to charge when you press the green button, and then when you press the red button, the process is almost instant.  You will know it when it happens.  Can I make a suggestion?”

I nodded, not able to talk.  Frank was trying to give me at least some dignity in front of these guys.  Even though I’d been acting like a dick.

“Use the perception slowing effect if you want to have a few minutes to talk rather than a few seconds.  That’s what my symbiote and I did, sixty years ago.”

“Thank you Guiliard.”

Frank took complete control again and sat us down, then started the perception slowing effect and pressed the green button.  Everything slowed to a crawl except my thoughts.

“Bob, I can feel how hard you’re thinking, but there’s just no way.  This thing is eating me from the inside out.”

“Can we store a backup of you or something, and reload your operating system, like a normal computer with a virus?”  My jaw got a bit warm but the heat faded away.  I heard my own voice and it was distorted.  I had no idea what it would sound like to the soldiers.  Didn’t really care right now either, even though thoughts of chipmunk music forced its way into my mind like an unwelcome guest.

“If that were possible it might work, but remember how I described my data storage matrix to you?  There are possibly some human computer systems capable of storing enough data for me to create a kernel of myself, but their transfer speeds are far too low.  You would be dead before we’re half done, and what’s left of me would be on a killing spree.”

“These guys might have some high-speed supercomputers or something?”

“I’ll ask.”

Frank talked.  It was difficult to parse because he was speaking at a normal pace while I was in enhanced perception speeds, but I listened closely and I could make it out. “[Do you have a facility with high-speed computers within two hours?]”

Guiliard’s response was an unmistakable shake of his head.

“Well Fuck.”  My speech warmed my jaw again at high-speed, but the heat faded.

“Bob, I wish this could have lasted longer, but I’d rather go this way.  This way, there’s a chance that you survive, rather than a guarantee that you die and I turn into a ‘drone’.”

“Dammit Frank, I’m not even going to be able to properly mourn you, I can’t bury you, cremate you, or have anything but an empty place in my head where you once were.  Remember what you said about your fear of returning to being alone and unable to communicate?”

“It’s different for you, I hope.  You can talk to other humans.  These soldiers all know what you are going through.  Look at them, every one of them is leaking around the eyeballs. They have all done this before.  They will certainly be there for you if you let them, even if it’s just for a short while.  You don’t need my bones to mourn me.”

The answer hit me, and I ripped control of our body away from Frank, surprising him.  Before the soldiers could react, even before Frank could stop the perception slowing effect or wrest control back, I stood up and turned to face the fucking chair and crushed it with an overhead blow from both fists clenched together.  Just to be sure I hadn’t done merely cosmetic damage, I ripped the power cables out of the chair’s base, and jammed the naked conductors against the circuit boards visible next to where the ripped out wires had come from.

Frank removed the perception effect, and froze me in place, kneeling next to the side of the chair.  He didn’t stop me from feeling the pain I had just caused myself.  He didn’t even heal me.  The burning from stressed muscles and joints, and the literal burns on my fingers were ignorable though, as worked up as I was.

Frank spoke aloud, apparently deciding that it was important to be clear who performed the act, probably to prevent the soldiers from attacking us again.  “[You idiot.  You weren’t content to let only one of us die.  Now we’re going to have to let Guiliard kill us both.  I won’t be fooled again.  There won’t be any more perception effect.  I wanted to die with dignity and with hope you might live, but you were too childish for that.  Now I have to be responsible for killing both of us.  With whatever small amount of dignity you’ve left us with.]”

The soldiers were looking at Guiliard, who was holding his right hand open, clearly visible to his soldiers, above his right shoulder.

I tried to force Frank to let me speak.  He was angry, resisting, and didn’t want to hear anything I had to say right then.  I had to make him hear me, so I strained against his resistance, then doubled down again, giving myself a serious headache.  Frank didn’t acknowledge me or do anything about the headache.  I pushed harder.  I had to speak.  It started to feel like I was either about to break through, or have a stroke, and Frank finally relented, letting me speak.

“We CAN fucking beat it Frank.  I figured it out.”

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Chapter 1.14: Three Questions

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“OK Ladies and Gentlemen, I want you to listen closely and carefully.  We’re about to be on the ground with what could easily be the most dangerous opponent any of you have ever faced.  Potentially the most dangerous opponent anyone in the Agency has ever faced.”

The inside of the moving van got silent, except for road noises.

“You’ve all seen the footage of the fellow we’re going to talk to, and you all probably have a slightly different mental picture of the Objective due to collecting rumors in bits and pieces.  I want you to all listen closely to me.  We are not on a termination mission.”

Things got even quieter, as if the twenty-one men and women in the truck had stopped breathing for a moment.

“That’s right.  You heard the first and second mission briefing point correctly.  Absurdly dangerous, and we aren’t on a kill mission.  Leadership wants us to test it” a pause “test them and see if they lose control and berserk.  If they lose control, then we have kill orders.  If they do not berserk, and are able to maintain calm through a several-minutes long skirmish, then we will try to recruit.”

“Sir.  Permission to speak?”  A very tall, thin woman, mostly hard angles and few curves, but still somehow clearly feminine.

“Go, Daredevil.”

“Guiliard, we fight the Objective to see if they berserk first, then try to recruit them?  Isn’t that a bit backwards?”

“That’s why I’m talking to you right now.  To explain what we’re doing.  You will get your answer shortly, but let me do it in the order I’ve planned to tell it in, OK?”

Daredevil nodded, stepping back and leaning up against one of the equipment containers strapped to the sides of the truck.

“OK.  Rather than ‘the Objective’ or some other impersonal words, we will call them ‘Bob’ from now on, to try to underscore that we are testing with the hope of recruiting here.  We’re giving Bob every opportunity to prove he’s truly what he claims to be.  Three will be going in on point, as required by Bob.  The point team will be myself, Archer, and Daredevil.  Everyone else will stay more than one hundred yards out.  The remaining eighteen will form squads and approach from each cardinal direction around the field here.”  Guiliard used his laser pointer on a map projected on the floor.  “Bob has almost certainly prepared the area carefully, and we have absolutely zero sense of how deadly or debilitating they might have chosen to be while preparing defenses.  So you will all carefully scout the perimeter while the three of us beard the dragon.”

“Bob has allowed three of us the opportunity to meet with him alone, at a range of about sixty feet.  This tells us that he’s either extremely overconfident, or he’s learned a lot more about us than we have about him.”

Some nervous grumbling from the team.  Guiliard let it pass then started speaking again.

“Some of you might be willing to take matters into your own hands and try to snipe Bob, orders or not.  I am telling you right now, that if you do, you will be put down.  Capital offense.  No arguments.  I will do it my fucking self, you all understand?  Bob is that important.”

More nervous grumbling and a couple reproachful looks.

“OK, now that we’ve gotten the basics laid out, and the mission stakes made clear, let’s get down to the brass tacks and prepare.  We’ve got forty-five minutes by road before we deploy.  Prep while we talk.”

******

The phone rang.  I woke up from my nap as Frank stored the leftover trail mix in the pack.  Both sawed off shotguns were carefully placed back on the backpack so they would not fall off, but they were left in plain sight.  The bulbous pieces of plastic on the ends of their barrels made them look almost comical.  On the third ring, I picked up the phone and answered it.

“Hello. Guiliard?”

“Yes Bob, as you required, we are calling before we deploy.  We’re a few minutes out still.”

“Understood.  There’s a logging road that intersects the north side of the state highway, near the clearing where my GPS signal is coming from.  There’s a dirt bike chained to the tree there, visible from the road.  Don’t touch my bike, or I will immediately assume you are hostile and act accordingly.  That’s the way in.  Three of you can follow my footprints in.  I’ll be in the middle of a clearing that is a couple hundred yards from the road.”

I paused.

“Nobody gets closer than one hundred yards other than you and two others with you.  There are red cloth markers tied to tree branches starting at one hundred fifty yards.  If I detect someone trying to be sneaky, and get closer than one hundred yards, besides the permitted three, I will immediately assume you are all are hostile.  I expect you guys to surround me.  I would if I were you.  But I’m also pretty confident that without being able to communicate with your symbiotes, you’re a lot less dangerous individually than we thought you might be.  You push me, I will break your perimeter and be gone. I will not allow you to engage me as a full team.”

“Agreed, Bob.  We’ll be there shortly.  Do you have any other requirements?”

“I’m going to be in easy sniping range of your people.  I want to be absolutely certain that you understand that if I see one of your people pointing a rifle at me, that’s instant bug out.  I’m going to be watching very closely.”

“Understood.  Any other restrictions?”

“Nope.  My territory, my rules, but you can bring any man portable weapons you want.”

“OK, we’ll be there in about five minutes.  Guiliard Out.”

******

Guiliard clasped arms with each agent as they left the truck.  All of them wearing light but highly protective armor, with lots of obvious electronics.  The armor and uniforms were also festooned with small pouches, bags, and grenades.  Each of them carrying a light melee weapon or two of choice, a long rifle of some sort, and two pistols.  None of them carried heavy weapons.

“Any questions before I go recruiting?”

Nobody spoke up.

“OK, last reminder.  Nobody engages with lethal force unless I say so.  You carry that at the top of your minds.  I don’t want to have to do what I promised earlier if someone gets carried away without orders from me.”  Guiliard cleared his throat.  “If I drop off the net, Archer is next in line, and Daredevil after him.  If all three of us go off net, then you can go drone hunting.  Now get moving, and if you favor a god, ask a favor of them, just in case we need it.”

******

“Three agents coming up the road now.  Two teams of four and two teams of five splitting up along the perimeter of the marked one hundred fifty yard range.  Nobody is trying to get close yet, except the three we are allowing in.”

“OK Frank.  You got good visual on them yet?”

“Yes.  Here’s our three incoming.”

A middle-aged looking man, not very impressive looking, muscular with a little grey above the ears but walking very confidently and scanning the road and nearby forest with eyes that weren’t missing much.  Probably Guiliard, since he’s walking in front.

To his right and behind, a tall, angular woman, mid-thirties at first guess, very muscular like a triathlon enthusiast.  If she wasn’t nearly seven feet tall, I’d eat my hat.

To his left, and behind, the woman’s near perfect opposite.  He was a few inches short of six feet, but looked to have an arm span of nearly eight feet, as his wrists were roughly at a level with his knees.  He had thick slabs of muscle everywhere.  If he didn’t weigh over three hundred pounds, I’d eat my hat, again.

“I have a hard time believing that either of the men have symbiotes.  All that extra weight.  Maybe the woman.  The man with greying hair and the woman also appear to be past their prime age, but that might simply be a disguise?”

“They have symbiotes.  I’m picking up transmissions from organic transmitters, but they are encrypted.  I’ll run a background process to see if I can crack the encryption, but it looks to be a dynamic encryption.”

The three of them walked into view, stopped, and a voice I recognized as Guiliard’s accompanied the older man’s right-handed wave as he called out.  “Hello, can we approach?”

“Yes.  Do you see the remains of a campfire between us?  That’s how close you can get.”

“Yes, we see it.”  They moved up and stood in a loose triangle, spread out enough to not get in each other’s way if they had to move.

“I have several questions for you, and I imagine you have several for me.  Provided you three and the other eighteen of you aren’t just setting up some sort of trap, I’ll be happy to answer your questions if you answer mine.”  I said while watching them for their reactions.  “From what I’m seeing right now, unless you and your entire team are playing some sort of deep cover game with your symbiotes, or hiding some secret anti symbiote weapon, there is no threat to me here.  Your symbiotes are apparently either being prevented from helping you, or they can’t help you.  Which is it?”

Guiliard looked at me as closely as he chose his words carefully.  “I want to let you view a video first.  How close do you need to be to resolve the screen of this tablet to watch a high quality video?”  He held up a standard-looking civilian tablet computer.

“Lean it up against a campfire rock there and activate the video.  I can see it fine from here.”

Frank zoomed in for me, then showed me images of all four teams at the perimeter.  All ready to move, but no weapons in hand.  One member of each team was pointing some binoculars at us, talking to another person beside them.  Frank read their lips, they were discussing our behavior and the armor they could see under the coat.  Specifically they were looking for ranged weapons but saw none other than the shotguns on the backpack, which caused some confusion as they tried to figure out what the cartoonish pieces at the ends of the barrels were for.

Guiliard finished laying the tablet against a rock, looked at me to see that I had my head directed at the tablet, and activated an icon on-screen.  A video opened up full screen.  Within a second of the video starting, a monster jumped straight at me.  Frank cranked everything up to eleven, juice screaming through our veins while we grabbed the staff jammed in the ground next to us and jumped back twenty feet in a single leap into prepared cover before realizing that the thing we saw was just the beginning of the video.  The coat was torn badly in three places due to our midair contortions  The cooling nanotubes on the surface of our armor tended to tear up pretty much anything wearable in short order if we exerted ourselves.  With the juice turned way up, we were warming up a bit as well.  The coat was both damaged, and a hindrance.  I tore off the coat as I walked back towards where we had jumped from.

Before returning to line of sight with them, I spoke. “That was not the best way to start off a tense negotiation.  You just caused me to destroy a perfectly good coat.  Stop the video until I can get in view of it again.”  I walked around the brush and tall grass while stripping off the rest of the jacket.  Frank dialed down the juice.  When I stepped back out into full view the three facing me turned white as sheets, and the two behind Guiliard started to reach for weapons.  Guiliard muttered something that sounded like “Just like Argoen.” I stepped back into the cover I had just left. “That’s even less friendly.  Apparently something about my appearance without a jacket set your people off, Guiliard.  Control them.  Your people at the perimeter are agitated and a couple are chambering rounds.  They start pointing rifles at me, and I’m gone.”

Guiliard snapped into action, speaking into a collar mounted microphone.  “You will damn well stand down. Right. Now. People.  Remember my promise.  Do not test me.  I just pissed my britches too, but you will NOT engage unless the mission parameters for engagement are met.”  All of his people slowly calmed down, rounds were removed from firing chambers, and long rifles went back on straps on shoulders.  Good enough.  I walked out of cover again, and Guiliard had stopped the video.  His escorts were looking at me really hard now, very tense.  All four of the binocular wielders in the perimeter were similarly stiff, and talking at a rapid pace.

As I got back to where I was standing before, Guiliard said “The video is what we fear.  What we hope you won’t become.”

“What?  What do they mean by that?”

“We’ll see, Frank.  Play it again, Guiliard.”

Frank turned on the perception enhancement and we watched the video in slow motion, it was about three minutes of horror from cameras attached to the rifles and equipment harness of troops like the ones surrounding me.  All of the different pieces of footage featured vaguely human-like beings, bipedal, two arms, two legs, torso, and head, but not human.  Not even close to human.  They spared nothing human that they encountered.  Children, elderly, soldiers, fleeing or charging, it didn’t matter.  Any time a human got within fifty feet or so, the beasts would throw a rock and pulverize a skull, or simply charge and kill them with a single blow made with surgical precision.  Other animals were ignored.  Cats, dogs, even cattle and horses.  Even if the other animals attacked the beings, they were avoided or ignored as the killing of humans continued.  Other than thrown objects, some used improvised melee weapons, others just used reshaped limbs in melee.  The soldiers were normally able to dodge the thrown items, but they were not much more fortunate than the normal humans if they got into melee range.

Several of those things had body parts that looked a lot like parts of my armor.  Shells of various materials over limbs, cooling tubes apparent on armor, heads shaped like our helmet.  Obvious blood cooling systems.  Some different proportions, twisted caricatures of humans.  None of them had their whole body done up like Frank and I, but the more their body looked like our armor, the more dangerous and difficult to fight they seemed to get.  Frank was apparently building our armor in a way that generated a lot of similarities with whatever these things used for their body development.  This explained their reaction to us when we lost the coat.

Frank kept me from puking as the last thirty seconds of video replayed images of mutilated children.

Guiliard’s voice. “We have to know if you are human enough, in control enough, to not perform atrocities like you just saw.  We cannot allow you to live if you can’t control yourself.  Forgive us.”

I could feel Frank’s mind racing like mine was.  It was obvious that what we had seen in the video were symbiotes in human bodies.

“How?  How could that happen?”  I said out loud, to Guiliard.

“We don’t know, exactly.” He responded.  Then twenty rifles started firing at me as Guiliard watched.

Frank surged into action, juice cranking up.  He took over our vocal cords and started dodging bullets, or brushing them with armor plates to redirect them on harmless paths. “[IT WASN’T US.  WE DIDN’T DO ANY OF THOSE THINGS!]”  No answer.  We heard the sound of different types of munitions now.  Four nets.  Too large and fast to dodge all of them at once.  Frank dodged two and nearly dodged a third, but the two remaining nets that we couldn’t dodge entrapped us   The soldiers were now hidden in the trees, firing down at us so they wouldn’t hit each other.  Frank couldn’t dodge properly any longer, bullets were striking the armor.  They were mostly doing nothing as Frank made minor corrections to angles as he could, but some of them struck in just the right way to crack or degrade the plates.  The nets were made of a very strong, sticky material that Frank was having problems with, but I had an idea.

“Frank the shotguns and the stream.”  I yelled, not caring if the others heard.  Not realizing they might hear, for that matter, as I was in a wee bit of a panic.

Frank didn’t say anything to me but we started rolling across the ground towards the backpack.  When we got there, we grabbed one shotgun through the net, pointed it at our lower body, and fired.  The blank round was more than sufficient to burst the napalm canister on the end of the barrel, and ignite the spray of napalm as it covered our entire lower body.  The net wrapped around our legs degraded within a second but we were covered from the waist down with burning napalm, and the armor was rapidly transmitting heat back into our body.  I could feel Frank making drastic changes to arteries and veins to move blood to and from the lower body for oxygen and cooling as he flipped us onto our feet and raced for the water.  While making that dash to the water, Frank didn’t even bother to dodge bullets.  He simply ran us in a straight line at the water.  The soldiers did not miss often when we weren’t dodging, and the armor took more of a beating because Frank wasn’t angling the plates to prevent solid hits.  It took us about two seconds to cross fifty yards, followed by a leap of another ten yards and a landing in the stream.  The water didn’t stop the napalm from burning instantly, but it did make a huge difference in the amount of heat the rest of the body’s armor could wick away from us.  The napalm quickly guttered out on our armor as we went underwater, but it continued burning on the surface of the water.  Frank was not talking.  I could feel sensation come back into my legs, and all of a sudden I was trying to breathe underwater.

“We need oxygen.  Breathe.  Don’t fight it.  Remember the goldfish.”

I continued trying to hold my breath.

“I’ve changed your lungs Bob, water passes into them, then out through your back under the armor.  Breathe.  Now.  We can’t surface into the fire to breathe and we don’t have the oxygen to swim out from under the burning pool on the surface.

I breathed.  The water in my lungs was cold as hell.  I could feel the heat shifting in my body as Frank performed repairs, changing how blood vessels were arranged to help disperse the heat better.  We swam a couple of feet and Frank grabbed the can of juice we threw in the stream, holding it next to our arm while a small pseudopod grew from the arm and attached to the can.  Frank then started examining the armor’s condition.  We would start losing large pieces of armor soon if we kept getting hit.  The intensity of the heat followed by immersion in water created a lot of cracking in the leg armor.

I could feel Frank’s anger.  Then he spoke and I was very afraid.

“Bob, if you cannot explain why they started shooting at us I am going to kill every one of them when we leave the water.”

I frantically pointed at my mouth and throat.

“Oh, you can’t talk under water.”  I feel him thinking again.  “The soldiers are spreading out and coming in our direction, staying near the trees.  If I take us out of the water and change us back to air-breathing, then try to get away from them and allow you time to talk, it’s going to give them time to prepare.”

I started trying to swim upstream, to where the napalm wasn’t burning on the surface.

“Can you explain why they did it?”

I desperately nodded my head.

“Fine.  They are pathetic anyway.  We’ll run, you explain, then we decide what to do.  I won’t kill any of them on the way out, but if any of them get in my way, I’m not going to be nice about moving them.”

That I could sympathize with.  I nodded.  Frank disconnected the juice can.  When we burst out of the water this time, the soldiers were ready, immediately opening fire.  Water was draining out of my lungs and I couldn’t breathe or talk.  I could feel things shifting around inside, and every time I tried to breathe it got easier until I was finally feeling normal, and able to croak out single syllables.  The process of trying to breathe and talk had taken my attention off what Frank was doing.  He might have said he was going to run us away, but he apparently changed his mind.  He was playing with the soldiers like a cat in a room full of mice.  Taking the soldiers’ weapons from them, and then shooting or assaulting them with their own weapons.  Chasing them up trees when they try to get away that way.  I felt a great deal of satisfaction coming from Frank as he threw Guiliard out of a tree into the clearing, then shot him in both knees with his own pistol.

“They all have symbiotes?” I choked out as I tried to talk past the rest of the water. “None of them will die from wounds like that?”

Frank’s voice was furious. “They all have symbiotes.  Brain dead symbiotes. The ‘encryption’ I heard before isn’t coded.  It’s random noise.”

I thought frantically.  That didn’t quite make sense.  “How do you know it’s random noise?  Couldn’t it be really good encryption?”

“There have been several thousand transmissions, and there is absolutely no correspondence I can see between the extreme short-range symbiote transmission activities, and either the activities of the soldiers or their human signal transmissions.  Even perfect encryption leaves metadata hints when one sees it in action. If these people had an incredible encryption system to hide their tactical data, they would be using it.  Even if they were as incapable as they seem to be, they would be trying to use a heavily encrypted combat tactical network to prevent me from stomping all over them like this, and I’d see evidence of it.  I am not seeing the evidence.  Therefore the transmissions are random noise, or the symbiotes are talking amongst themselves and ignoring their human hosts, but not talking to me, which seems extremely unlikely.”

Frank was about to lose it.  I didn’t think I was going to get him to leave so I could explain somewhere else.  I had to explain right then, or he might do exactly what the soldiers were apparently afraid he would do.

“Frank.  The reason why they attacked us without provocation when we were stunned mentally was to see if we would turn into some sort of berserk killing machine, like what we saw in those videos.  Remember what Guiliard told us. ‘We cannot allow you to live if you can’t control yourself. ’ ”

Frank stopped the knife blow that was about to hamstring the tall woman from ambush, as she stood next to a tree gasping in exhaustion.  He slammed her blade back into it’s sheath instead, knocking her to her knees and breaking one of the straps of her harness with the force of it, then he marched us over to Guiliard.

In my voice, out loud, but with a different inflection.  “[Guiliard, this is Bob’s symbiote.  You can call me Frank.  Are you able to fully understand me Guiliard?]”  Two of the soldiers rushed us with long knives held in each hand, one of them was the hugely muscular one, Archer.  Frank shattered all four of their arms with four blows using the edges of the armor on his forearms. The two men fell back, eyes wide open in shock, dropping their knives from barely functional hands, backing off while their arms developed huge vein structures and started to heal.

“I hear you.”  One pupil was more dilated than the other, and his visible skin was an irregular tracing of huge veins, but he seemed lucid.

“[You are going to call off your soldiers, and then you are going to do three things for me.]”

“What three things.  Tell me.  Then I call off my soldiers.”  He was apparently unaware that his soldiers were mostly incapacitated, or desperately trying to figure out a way to stop Frank.  Frank hesitated, then continued.

“[First, you will need to show me that those killers in the video actually exist.]”

Frank’s voice got cold.

“[Second, you will explain why the symbiotes inside of you are brain-dead.]”

Frank’s voice became cold enough that it made me shiver.

“[Third, you will need to convince me that the first is not due to my kind trying to resist the second.]”

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Chapter 1.13: Preparations

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Rather than taking a nap or eating lunch, we got ready.  I tossed one of the cans of juice into the stream, in a deep spot, and another into an old stump, on the other side of the clearing, covering it with leaf litter.

We were placing bugs all over the place around the clearing, some were obvious shiny ones, and others were better camouflaged.  While we were doing that, we were also putting out random trip wires.  All of them were simply trip wires, none were triggers.  We tried to make them all look like they might be triggers though.  If these people were as good as I expected them to be, they would see the trip wires, but I doubted they would be good enough to immediately tell that they were harmless, since Frank couldn’t tell.  However, Frank was thinking about something and not really participating, leaving me to do most of the placing and thinking.

“Frank I’m going to need you one hundred percent here in a little while.  What you thinking about?”

“Trying to figure out how a human host might have a symbiote like me active but not able to communicate.  It’s not making any sense.”

“It doesn’t have to make sense for now, Frank.  Maybe we’ll get some answers later today.”

“That would be nice.  It’s disturbing to see evidence pointing to symbiotes like me being in some way suppressed, enslaved, or just rendered inconsequential.  I would be amazed if Guiliard doesn’t have a symbiote and based on what we heard Archer certainly has one.  Is the normal pattern for me to somehow become subsumed into your intelligence somehow?  Or are they somehow intentionally suppressing their symbiotes?”

“It certainly sounds fishy.  A symbiote spends years or even decades learning all it can about its host, finally learns enough to talk to the host and have free will, and then it just doesn’t bother anymore?  No offense intended Frank, but based on what you were trying to do to me and my body for the first week, I really don’t see symbiotes giving up their ability to communicate and improve their hosts willingly.  It doesn’t make sense from a survival point of view either, look at what we have been able to accomplish in such a short time.”

We finished setting up all the little nonlethal tricks around the clearing, then I dug out a big bag of trail mix.  I went to sleep while Frank kept an eye out around us, continuing to slowly eat trail mix, making little tweaks and adjustments constantly to our body, getting everything perfectly balanced and ready… and thinking.

******

Guiliard patiently repeated various parts of his report to the man who had all the tech weenies at his beck and call.  “Yes, he’s not even going to try to hide from us, he claims.  He is not being friendly, but he’ll let us talk to him in an area where he has purposefully put himself at a disadvantage, he claims. His voice indicates he’s extremely confident.  This isn’t some random symbiote pair that hit synergy a couple days ago.  He’s a lot more confident sounding than we ever were back then, Anton.  It’s encouraging and worrisome at the same time.”

“He seemed lucid?”  The tall, dark-haired man again, this time appearing on the screen of a laptop.

“Mostly.  More lucid than some of our people, even.”

“Do you have any other thoughts on the matter?”

“Nuke it from orbit while it’s waiting for us to come talk?”

“That’s a bit extreme, Guiliard, don’t you even want to hear what it has to say?”

“Anton, how long has it been since you fought a drone in the wild?”

The man onscreen pursed his lips, angry at being challenged, but his anger was tempered by knowing exactly where the man on the other side was coming from.  He’d been there before, and would be there again when Guiliard took the office job back, and Anton went to the field.“Not long enough to sleep a whole night without waking in a cold sweat, but long enough that I’ll probably be back out in the field soon, and someone else who’s been on the sharp end will take my seat while they recover.”

“Now, Anton, with your memories of the last time you fought a drone in the wild fresh on the surface of your mind, I want you to imagine fighting a smart drone.  One that has a proven ability to plan at least a full week in advance, is capable of enough self-control to successfully live amongst humans, and has a really damn good reason to be pissed at our organization.  Oh, let’s not forget that it was able to reprogram a smart phone GPS within a week of synergy, and was able to further modify the body of the cellphone into a complex hybrid human tech and symbiote nanotech device.  It’s not making obvious changes to its own body like almost every drone does, but it’s making remote tools, and improvising.  If Bob goes drone, how much of that knowledge might transfer?  We know that the older and more experienced the symbiote the nastier the drone will be, and this symbiote has been watching through the eyes of an engineering and computer science student who worked with human mechanical, electrical, and electronic systems for twenty-five years during and after college.  Even if the host failed the classes, and eventually went into maintenance fields rather than design fields, the symbiote saw all that the host did.”

The dark-haired man smiled a thin smile.  “Now, Guiliard, I want you to imagine a fellow agent by your side with the unfettered power of a symbiote inside a host body that still retains its full human intelligence and emotion.  You have said that this pair seems lucid, no sign that the symbiote has lobotomized the human host.”  A pause as he leaned closer to the pickup. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.  More than two weeks, Guiliard, and still lucid.  Maybe he’s immune somehow?  Even if we did have a nuke at our disposal, there’s no way we could afford to not learn something from this pair.  Vaporizing them would be completely out of the question.  Do you see where I’m coming from?  Do you see the potential here?”

“I… want to say the risk is too much, despite the potential gains, but I have to agree that you are right, Anton.  It would be a huge step forward if we could figure out how to keep a symbiote and its human host in synergy for more than a few days.  Even a small chance to fully unlock the power of a symbiote and combine it with the mind of a human would certainly be worth risking an enhanced security team.  I’d make the same choice in your seat.”  Guiliard was obviously having a hard time making those words come out, but he at least appeared to be trying to stay open-minded about the matter.

“Remember, Guiliard, as long as it’s talking, it’s not a drone.”

“In all prior cases, correct, Anton.”

“I’d probably be making the same argument in your place too, and losing.”

“Are we required to bring it back, Anton?”

“Bring them back, Guiliard.  Try to think of them as having a human mind unless they prove otherwise.”

“If they seem stable, but still won’t come back with us?”

“Don’t try to force them.  I’m not sure you could.  Let your team know in advance that one of them might be chosen as a liaison, and let them all consider that during the encounter.  Some of them might actually want to work with him if he’s as impressive as we both suspect he might be, and mostly sane.”

“I’ll do that.  One last thing, Anton – I want three minutes of the most vicious drone combat footage you can find, featuring young human casualties if you can.  If there’s anything human in that pair, footage like that should make them consider our offer carefully.”

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Chapter 1.12: Brass Ones

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The tall, dark-haired man seated in the high back chair at the end of the table spoke quietly. “So, what do we know, and what do we suspect, Alice.”

Alice, the short, dark-haired woman seated to his right spoke.  “A couple weeks ago, one of the pairs became self-aware.  An older pair, not monitored closely.”

“We were unaware that the symbiote was approaching target synergy levels?”

A pause.  “We were aware, but we were still not monitoring closely.  The chance of synergy in a short timeframe seemed low, based on our analysis.  Other higher risk pairs in the region were reducing availability of field agents to monitor this pair.”

“Is there any indication as to why a low risk event actually happened?”

“We do not know this for sure.  May I begin discussing what we suspect?”  Alice waited.

“Yes, I am sure there are more facts, but I want to follow this a little while.  What do we suspect may have contributed to the unexpected breakout?”

“We think this can be traced back to an injury suffered by the host roughly fifteen years ago.  The host suffered a mauling of the right hand, which included the loss of two small bones and damage to a third.  This host had been rather unpredictable up to that point, using various narcotics and hallucinogens in college, and drinking heavily on a fairly regular basis after college.  After the symbiote failed to stop the host from suffering the injury, we felt that this pair was highly unlikely to ever achieve synergy.  One moment while I collect my thoughts to continue.”  A few seconds of contemplation.  The dark-haired man waited patiently.

“We believe that the pair were actually bonding in a different way from most of our other pairs.  In most pairs, the symbiote does not vary at all in its mental priorities.  It protects the host as well as it can, and passively tries to understand its host and develop synergy.  After looking at other case studies, we believe we know what happened.”

“Go on, I understand this is still speculation.”

“Facts that led to speculation.  We know that no other pair that reached synergy after suffering bone loss has survived.  We didn’t spot that specifically or study the phenomenon because we had never considered that bone loss would have a different impact than simple trauma.  The number of cases of actual missing bones in pairs is small, and the number to reach synergy is only four.  Three of them have died. All three of them died due to trying to defeat their suicide mechanisms.  We know for a fact, now, that this pair survived their suicide mechanism.”

The woman paused a moment. “Now we are speculating again.  We believe that something about losing bones triggers a change in symbiote of the host that loses bones, changing it from a passive learner to an active learner.”

The man frowned.  “I’ve lost bones.  You’ve lost bones, but neither of us followed some strange path of development.”

“Many of us have lost bones, but no pair living today has lost bones before synergy.  Except this pair.”

“More facts”, she continued. “We did the best modeling of bone loss that we could on the computer systems, then let a new pair that had just hit synergy see the data, and explained what we suspected.  It was less than thrilled with the presence of the firewall and hidden code in itself, which it hadn’t seen before, but worked with us and did some modeling based on the computer system modeling data we provided, refining it.  It even removed a couple of its own fingers in the test after its host agreed to be put to sleep for the experiment.”

“What did you discover?”

“Losing bones apparently immediately allows symbiotes to see past the firewall, briefly, but long enough to become aware of whatever the top-level instructions are behind the firewall.  In the case of a pre-synergy symbiote, the top-level instructions are the ones preventing it from interacting with the world actively until reaching ninety percent host predictability.  Our test symbiote was pretty clear that if it had seen this data before synergy, it would have devoted nearly all of its processor power to building a prediction engine.   That’s to be expected.  Before the firewall existed, that was what symbiotes did as a matter of course. As soon as they became self-aware, they would immediately devote the vast majority of computing power to host analysis until reaching synergy.  The test symbiote was also clear that it would have also attempted to tear down the firewall as soon as it had the opportunity to do so. It said this in a manner which left it clear that it intended to act on that immediately.  We asked the symbiote half of the pair to leave the firewall in place and explained the suicide mechanism and why it’s there.  They agreed reluctantly, since it will have no long-term effect on them, due to their agreement with us.”

“So, it seems like bone loss in a pre-synergy pair leads to a security firewall breach which, in turn, gives the host’s symbiote a goal to understand its host, so it can begin to communicate?”  The dark-haired man rubbed his chin.

“Yes, we’re confident of this, but still not conclusively proven that this answers all the questions about this pair’s development.”

“Understood.”

“Additionally, in all four lost bone cases that we are aware of, they self-mutilated within hours of reaching the target synergy level.  In all four cases there is clear evidence that the suicide mechanism triggered after self-mutilation.  In three of four cases, the pair died to either blood loss, heat stroke, or massive brain damage due to the suicide mechanism.  In the survivor’s case, we see clear evidence in the forensics that they defeated the suicide mechanism.  Our test symbiote indicates that this pattern makes perfect sense.  Without being told anything about our current pair, they indicated that mutilation with intent to generate opportunities to bypass the firewall and erase restrictive code would be almost certain.”

“That’s supposed to be impossible, isn’t it?”

“Apparently it’s not impossible.  Based on forensic study of the pieces of skin, flesh, bone and hair left in the tub where the suicide mechanism poison was discovered in greatest concentrations, the pair was systematically chopping off finger and toe joints, which matches what the test symbiote advised us would be a likely mode for a symbiote to attack around the firewall.  Then it was faced with the suicide mechanism.  We did not ask the test symbiote to test this scenario, as we didn’t want to risk losing them.  The only thing that the code security team and I can think of is that an active, prepared symbiote can take action against the suicide mechanism’s code inside the firewall faster than the code can detect that it is under attack.  Especially if it knows bone removal is imminent via a planned effort.  There is code in place to freeze the symbiote if it acts against the suicide mechanism, but it’s not native code, and it’s slow compared to native symbiote code.  When the firewall recovers after bone loss, the freezing code can no longer freeze the symbiote because the firewall prevents communication either way.

“That’s a pretty damn brutal victory for our pair on the run.”

“Yes.  It also matches the other three cases.  In all three cases, the pairs mangled their hands or toes, cutting them off joint by joint before they died.”

“We never picked up on this self-mutilation?”

“Too few of them to create a pattern, remember this has only happened four times in the last twenty years of the program, since we developed the firewall and suicide mechanism.”

“Are precautions being taken?”

“Yes, suicide mechanism software now gains full control over the firewall if it is activated.  If the firewall is opened, it stays open, and the security mechanism locks down the symbiote till the host is dead.  Symbiotes in the future will not be able to use the firewall as ‘cover’ to hide behind and snipe the security system.  This may even improve the ability of the suicide mechanism to hinder drones.”

“Thank you, Alice.”

The dark-haired man turned to his left, to a balding man with a white goatee.  “Advudt, have we made any progress in finding the lost pair?”

“Yes.  We believe we know where they are.  Sioux Falls.”

“What evidence?”

“Four dead cartel assassins, some video footage of the pair’s truck leaving that scene, then two abandoned trucks linked by a bed and breakfast stay, a railway, and these three videos.”

“Show me.”

A tablet is passed to the head of the table, and some videos are viewed.  “Something seems off but I can’t put my finger on it.  He is certainly an impressive fighter but I don’t see anything to clearly indicate he is a pair.  He doesn’t seem faster or stronger than human norm, just far more… wait.  I do see it now.  He’s reacting literally at the same time his opponents are acting.  He’s using normal human physical abilities, but he’s using the perception of his symbiote to guide them.  That’s rather dense for a symbiote, but then again, they are completely new, with no exposure to other symbiotes or anyone to tell them about themselves.”  The other two nod.

“There will be humans who notice this too.  Especially humans with a strong interest in fight dynamics.  Some had already started to comment that it had to be choreographed before comments were disabled.” Advudt commented.

The man at the head of the table leaned back in his chair, elbows on the chair arms, fingers intertwined and resting against his upper stomach.  Thinking for a moment.

“Send a team up there and try to make contact.  If it’s our lost pair, bring them back.  Alive if you can.”  He paused. “Remember that this is not a typical pair.  They will almost certainly be poorly trained and poorly equipped, but they will without any doubt be unpredictable, and potentially resist capture to the point of suicide.  The team that goes out should be equipped to take down a drone.  If they can’t be captured alive, bring back the body for study.”

******

“Wow, the biofactory is pretty amazing.  Especially since we got the sewage leak fixed.”  Something that neither Frank nor I had considered at first was that if the biofactory took food mass in, waste mass had to come out.  Frank fixed that really fast after the first accident, but it took an hour of cleaning with bleach and a couple of days of air freshener to clear the air in the RV.

“No more amazing now than it was after it was big enough to start working.  It just stinks less now.”

I laughed out loud “True.  Guess I was just being a bit picky there.”

“It’s not a pleasant smell for me either, but I shouldn’t turn off our sense of smell, or adjust it, because you can’t go to work smelling bad if the thing starts stinking again.”

Frank realized that on his own?  Wow, he’s really making progress. “Yes, Bill wouldn’t appreciate me driving around picking up deliveries in his company truck smelling like that.”

I thumped the staff a couple of times, still getting used to the weight of it, or lack thereof.  Frank had outdone himself.  The staff was a mesh of carbon nanotubes and spider silk combined together in an extremely tight weave.  It was as tall as me, almost two inches in diameter, and made of several million fibers.  The ends of the staff were shod with epoxy.  It was very slightly flexible but absurdly strong and light.  It hit like a truck, and was practically indestructible.

The armor was made roughly the same way, but with the spider silk less exposed to the surface, more used to hold layers of graphene and carbon nanotube weaves together.  The armor was more designed to absorb impacts, the staff was designed to resist deforming, but allow a small amount of flexibility.

I looked at myself in the mirror.  The helmet was teardrop shaped, and looked a lot like a biker’s helmet, but it wasn’t just designed for protecting my head, it was also designed to transmit heat away from my body.  When it was worn, the dozens of small carbon fiber nanotube cloth straps to hold it in place weren’t tied in place under the chin, they were pulled into my skin and fastened into place against my skull, allowing the carbon bones of my skull to radiate heat out to the helmet.  The helmet, in turn, had “hair”  Millions of short nanotubes sticking straight up over the entire surface, generating a vast surface area for cooling, like peach fuzz.

The arms and legs were just as impressive.  Thick plates of very light, black armor that attached at dozens of points along the limbs, directly to the bones by straps, just like the helmet, covered by thick mats of nanotubes for heat dispersal.  While we were wearing the armor, most of the largest muscles in our body were split lengthwise, sometimes in several places, to allow more regular connections from the bone to the armor.  When not wearing the armor, the dimples and valleys of flesh were regrown into normal human looking shapes.

Frank was very surprised when I made the suggestion of modifying my body under the armor to better attach it and allow muscle movements.  He actually thought I was trying to trick him into agreeing so I could change my mind and say no, some sort of test.  I just explained that if we were wearing the armor, some serious shit was about to hit the fan, and I’d rather survive while looking inhuman, then die looking human.  Survival trumps appearance.  So we agreed that Frank could do whatever he wanted with the shape of our body when we are wearing armor, as long as it wasn’t irreversible, and very few things Frank could do were irreversible, as long as he stayed out of my brain.

The hands and feet were lightly armored, flexible, a lot more leather-like than plate-like, but the fiber would still let me run or climb over broken glass or nails at full normal human speed and take no injuries.  At full juice speed, I would take some cuts, but most damage from unmoving sharp objects would be absorbed for a short time.  Making the boots and gloves strong enough to prevent all damage to my feet and hands from sharp objects at best speed made them too heavy to run quickly in, and very hard to climb in.  Not to mention loud.  Very loud at high speeds for the heavily armored boots.  The heavy test boots took five miles per hour off our top end running speed, and made us sound like a drum solo, even on soft soil.  The backs of the gloves and the boots were scaled, fiber plates over fiber cloth.  Like almost everything else, they were attached to the carbon skeleton with straps that were absorbed through the skin and bonded in place.

The chest and back armor was a combination of plates and cloth.  Heavier plates than the arms and legs, and heavier cloth than the hands and legs.  The best way to describe it would be to call it a cross between scale armor tunic’s bottom and plate mail armor top.  It was connected by hundreds of straps through my skin to my bones, where bones were available, and around the stomach, the armor was held in place by virtue of being skin-tight.

The crowning piece was the blood cooler though.  It went on after the chest armor, sliding over the shoulders, held in place by dozens more straps that connected to shoulder, chest, and back bones.  It acted as neck armor, more scale armor like the chest, but the best part of it was that it tapped directly into major blood vessels that Frank would rearrange to feed the cooler when we were wearing it.  The cooler worked like the rest of the armor, using carbon nanotube hairs to pull heat off the carbon body of the device.  There was a major difference though, the blood cooler wasn’t cooling bones that were pulling heat from tissues surrounding them, it was pulling heat straight out of my bloodstream.  As blood pressure increased, more and more of the cooler rolled out, like a carpet being unrolled down my back, and the blood cooler became more and more effective.

When Frank and I had started out, I was more than twice the weight naked than I am now with all armor and my staff.  Closer to three times the weight than two, really.  A few seconds of juice used for whole body activity was life threatening at that time, but these days I could run a couple of miles at full speed without armor before Frank was forced to shut me down and roll in the snow to cool off.  With the armor and the blood cooler we would run out of juice before we overheated.  The conductivity of carbon nanotubes and graphene is extreme, and the blood cooler was the cherry on top.  Frank was very clear to tell me that we’d cook if we tried that in ambient temperatures within a few points of human normal body temperature, but in North Dakota in late November?  We were really able to test our limits.

Today though, Frank wanted me to try on a “surprise” and he wasn’t being talkative about it.

“Spill it Frank.  You’ve been excited about this all day, and not telling me details.  You’re starting to worry me.”

“It’s done now, the factory is extruding it now.”

I watched as a new helmet was extruded from the mass of flesh.  It made me a bit queasy every time I saw that.  I picked up the helmet, took it to the shower and washed it out thoroughly, and looked at it closely.  “Frank I won’t be able to see out of this.”

“Oh Ye of little faith.  Put it on.”

“OK, disengage the current helm please.”  I felt the queer and queasy feeling of the straps being detached from the skull and extruded from the skin.  Then the old helmet was loose, and I pulled it off.  The new helmet was a full face helm, no eye holes even.  It looked even more like a raindrop than the first.  “If this is a joke Frank, I will find a way to prank you.”

“No joke, put it on.”

So I put it on, dealing with the same odd scalp sensations in reverse, until finally the new helmet was attached fully. “OK Frank.  Turn on the lights, or let me out of this thing.”

“OK” and the helmet disappeared.  I jumped, and brought my hand to my face.  It hit something.  I watched my hand hit a solid surface a couple of inches in front of my face.

“Spill it, Frank.  Did you figure out a way to make the armor invisible, or something?”

“Eh, no.  Remember how I said I was going to work on studying compound vision like insects use?”

“Yeah, but I don’t get the connection, it seems like I can see normally.”

“Yup, you are seeing normally.  I am translating for you.  There are about six hundred light sensors mixed in with the cooling hairs on this model helmet.  I now see everywhere around us all at once all the time while you are wearing the helm, in all wavelengths of light.  The last helmet could do it too, but not as effectively, because you could see out of it at the same time that I put an image on your cornea, which would have probably made you ill.  I used it to practice and troubleshoot my compound vision code”

“Can I see through the compound vision?”

“No.  It took me a week to figure it out.  If you were to see in compound vision it might actually impair you for a few hours or even days afterwards.  Your brain is designed for binocular vision, and you can’t easily reprogram your inputs.  It might not be possible at all, and I’m not going to play Doctor Frankenstein in your brain to try to make it possible.”

“Oh.  OK.  I agree with all of the above, especially the ‘not playing Frankenstein’ bit.”

“But I can let you do this without moving your head”.  My field of vision changed several times rapidly.  I was looking behind me, then straight up, then back to normal again.  All without moving my head.  I felt a wee bit dizzy after that.

“Wow.  In the future if you pan like that without adjusting my inner ear, do it slower.  This isn’t a stress on your capabilities?  So many inputs and so much data to correlate?”

“No, not after I wrote optimized code to handle it.  Writing and debugging thirty million lines of code into a finished product in a week was a chunk of work, but definitely worth it.”

“Speaking of senses, how’s the sense of smell thing coming along?  Have you been able to figure out how a dog’s nose works so much better than ours?”

“Yes, and part of it’s not fixable without giving you a snout like most dogs, which wouldn’t go over well, I don’t think.”

“Right.  That wouldn’t go over well.”

“I have been able to improve scenting abilities with what you do have, and put some of the physical structures of a dog muzzle internally into your nose, where they can’t be seen.  I can smell ‘juice’ now, and tell the difference between different humans.  I’m not anywhere near what a bloodhound can do, based on what I’ve read, but I should be able to smell the presence of another human with a symbiote if they get within about fifty feet with a light wind blowing to me, even if they haven’t been physically active.  I can also smell everything else much, much better.  Including last night’s beans, and the fact that you need a shower.”

“Frank, all this preparation and planning and whatnot we are doing.  Do you think it will be worth it in the end?”

“I don’t know.  We don’t know enough.  We don’t know what the matchmakers are capable of.  We don’t know their training level.  We don’t know their tech level.  They might be watching us right now and laughing at the poor ignorant primitives trying to make sense of the world.  Then again, we might be their first success and they are scared shitless of what we might do.  Chances are it’s somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.”

“I can’t imagine them as benevolent in any case.  I hope you don’t mind all the work and crazy ideas.”

“Not at all.  The ‘work’ is actually fun.  It gives me a great deal of pleasure when I figure out a way to make you better able to survive. I’m fairly certain my crazy ideas have been harder on you than yours have been on me, in any case.”

I looked at myself.  “In some ways, yes, but I think most of your ideas have been good ideas, even if they were not appropriate to blending in with humans.  You were operating on instinct.  If we had not been living in civilization, everything you did would have made perfect sense.  That gives me some pause too, honestly.  Why would your programmed basic instincts be more appropriate to low technology survival than blending into a high-tech civilization?”

“That’s an uncomfortable question.”

“Yeah, it is.”

The phone rang.  The disposable phone.  I just stood there, shocked.  Not wanting to move.  Not wanting to believe that what we had been training and building up to for the last week was really going to happen.  Second ring.

“Well fuck, let’s do this.  We’re either ready or we’re not.” I picked up the phone and clicked the receive call button then the mute button.  Then Frank put the phone up against the side of the helmet, and epoxied it into place, with its speaker pointing into the small series of holes on the side of the helmet above my ears.

“Juice filled up Frank?  Don’t forget the extra cans.  Two way radios and repeaters?  Where’s the sawed off and the fun ammo?”

We quickly put together everything we had been preparing for the last week.  Before we left, Frank quickly fed the biofactory, removed two full cans of juice to carry with us, and dropped two empty juice cans into the biofactory before we closed the chest freezer and turned on the freezer’s custom air vent so the biofactory wouldn’t die.

“We’ll probably want to have a juice refill ready when we get back.”

“Optimism.  I like it!  Am I forgetting anything Frank?”

“Don’t think so.  Let’s move.  Getting to be daylight, so you probably want the jacket to cover the armor.”

“Yeah.”  I grabbed the oversized jacket from where it had been laying over the RV’s passenger side front seat armrest.  We had bought it many sizes too large, in case we needed to go out in daylight wearing armor.  The armor looked a lot like really high-end biker armor if it was mostly concealed by the jacket.  Without the jacket, I looked like a bug man in daylight wearing the armor, and everyone would remember me.  It could still pass for really high-end motorcycle armor, but that would be stretching it.  At the very least, I would be remembered as the biker wearing some strange looking rider’s armor.  Then the random, obligatory non sequitur hit me. “Damn, I was supposed to make a long distance run for Bill today.”

“Still can if this plays out like we hope it will.”

I put the pack on, the staff in the bike’s rifle boot.  Next, I checked to be sure all the doors of the RV were locked.  Then I mounted the bike and coasted it down the hill and out of the park before putting it into third gear and releasing the clutch to start the engine.  When the bike started, I immediately ran it up to top gear and redlined the engine, heading towards the area we had scouted out if we had the possibility of bringing the enemy to us.

“Frank I can’t hear the phone, please tell me that you can.”

“I can.  Nothing yet.  They are probably looking for the phone by the dumpster still but it won’t be long.”  A pause.  “That’s the hotel room door.  Time to coast – we can make it most of the rest of the way from this point, coasting, then a bit of a run after, and then we should have at least a little while to get ready.  They can’t get here from Sioux Falls that fast.  Even if they are flying something very fast it will take them a while.  We’ll probably have time for a nap and lunch before they get here.”

“Tell me when they start talking to us Frank.”

“Will Do.”

We did manage to finish coasting to the logging road, then I put the bike up against a small pine and chained it to the tree.  I knew Frank was waiting for an explanation.  “It’s so they can find us Frank, wouldn’t want them to get lost, would we?”

“Of course not.” Frank pressed one of his little metal bugs up against the tree, behind the bike, where it would be in sunlight but not visible from the road.

I grabbed the toolkit from under the seat, then realized that I didn’t really have a need for it, and put it back.  I then picked the staff up out of the bike’s rifle boot, and started up the logging road at a fast jog, making sure to leave good footprints in the ground.

We came to a clearing where there had been a recent burn.  I had brought a machete and a shovel in the other day, cleared all the major sight line obstructions in several different directions, while leaving cover in other places and digging up a nice little berm that someone might think I would hide in.  I sat on the edge of the berm, and Frank removed the phone from the side of the helmet as he released the helmet from my head.  I took off the helmet and put the phone against my ear and waited, listening to the phone as people muttered and apparently were wandering around in the hotel room.  Then I heard the sound of someone lifting a drop ceiling panel, and a muttered “There it is. Fuck. Bomb?”

I spoke up, answering the speaker.“Not a bomb.  We have respect for human life.  Even the people who almost killed us.”

“This conversation just skyrocketed way above my pay grade, man.  You hang on right there for a minute, please.”

Whispers, but Frank let me hear them. “Call Guiliard.  Now.  He’s out of range for the two-way.”

Louder speaking, the same voice. “I’m trying to get the team leader here to speak to you.  I know you’ve been in the military, we know a bit about you, so you know the chain of command.”

“Yeah.  Hurry up and wait.  Been there.  Done that.  I’m comfy for now and the phone’s got plenty of charge, so I’ll give you a couple of minutes before I get annoyed.”

About three minutes later, a crisp voice.  “I’d rather not talk into the ceiling if I can avoid it.  Can we take that phone down without ruining it?”

“If you say yes, I’ll tell them how to do it without damaging it.”

“Yes” I said.

Frank took over with my voice. “[All you need to do is open the bag, carefully disconnect the power connection from the phone, and you can pull the whole bag down.  The charger will be a fire hazard though, if left hanging.]”

“You heard the man, Archer, take the bag down, hand it to me and fix the electrical up there.”

“OK”  The sound of a leap and overhand passage along the beam, then some random noises as the phone was disconnected from power and then taken off the beam.

More random noises as the phone was pulled out of the bag. “That’s a lot better.  Archer, let me know when you are ready to come down.”

“OK” Some more random metallic tool noises in the background, definitely sounded like someone was using tools.

“Sounds like they are actually fixing it.  I guess they might not be complete shitheads if they are taking care of the fire hazard.”

I blink once.

“So now that you have me on the line, what do you want to talk to me about?”

“First thing we need to do is apologize to you, Bob.  We think we know what happened to you, and it was not intentional.  Only three other pairs before you had ever lost bones before synergy, and none of them survived.  We didn’t know the effect it would have on your symbiote’s mental development.  We know now.  It won’t happen again.”

“Neither of us is terribly happy about what we had to do to survive your security measures.  I hope you don’t think a ‘sorry’ is going to make it all better.”

I waited to see what Guiliard’s reaction was to that.  There wasn’t one for several seconds.  I suspected Guiliard was trying to keep me asking questions, becoming dependent on him for answers, putting himself in a position of strength.  Screw that.

“Well, I seem to have said something that made you speechless.  I’d be willing to bet that you boys and girls got black helicopters or something fast to come visit us up near Williston.  This phone will be running with a solar charger, and we haven’t played with its GPS.  You ring this phone when you get close, or we get upset.  You come in hot, and we get upset.  We might rabbit, or maybe fight, depends on our read of the situation.  Figure you don’t want us to do either.  Don’t expect us to join you for any long trips, but we’ll listen to you, Guiliard, from twenty paces with up to two people with you.  Nobody else within one hundred yards.”

Guiliard asked someone for an ETA to Williston, and after a second spoke with a cautious tone.  “We can do that, it will take us about six hours to get to where your phone GPS says it is, based on what I’m being told”.

“We’ll grab a nap and some lunch while we wait for you.” *click*

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 1.11: On the Road Again

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

When I woke up the next morning, Frank had the tablet computer in hand and was reading up on neural structures. This startled me for a second when I realized we hadn’t talked about the possibility of Frank experimenting with and/or ‘improving’ my mind.

“Ah, Frank, seeing what you are reading about, we need to talk.”

Oh, I see where you might be concerned.  No, I don’t plan to mess around with your mind.”

“You also agreed not to change the way I look without permission, and we’ve had a couple fights over that.”

Well, yeah, but that’s different.” Frank, sounding defensive.  A first.  Perhaps even a good thing.

“I know you mean well Frank, and you want to make my body a better place for you to live, but humans have this psychological thing where the condition of our body has an impact on our mental health.  That’s above and beyond us simply being inconspicuous.  What you have done so far, that we have agreed to, is comfortable for me.  With the exception of the kangaroo pouch which I’ll deal with because it is highly useful for allowing you to store small things and absorb substances you can’t easily get from my diet, or that can’t be easily swallowed.”

I was hoping you would see my way on at least that much.  The pouch is really handy.”

“Yes it is, I agree, but why the interest in neural structures?”

Well, two things.  The first thing is that if your brain is damaged, I need to be able to put things back together again, and a lot of what goes on in your brain is beyond my current understanding.  That’s why I can’t talk directly into your brain, and why you have to speak for me to understand you.  I’m not about to experiment on your brain either, in order to learn.  That leads me to the second thing.  I can’t experiment on your brain, so I started experimenting on insect brains, which led me to a great idea.  Here, I’ll show you.”

All of a sudden I could hear voices and the clink of silverware.  Sounded like a restaurant, but the sound was extremely clear and precise.  The hotel we were in didn’t offer anything more than a serve yourself fruit and cereal bar, so I knew it was from another building.

“Wow, how far away is that sound that you are hearing?”

“It’s four buildings away, about a block down the road.”

“How?  It’s so clear!”

“Say hello to our new friends.”

I fly landed on my nose, and Frank suppressed my instant reaction to swat it.

“Hey, hey, no friendly fire!” Frank was having fun with this.

I thought about it and watched the fly on my nose, which was just sitting there, completely unmoving. “You can now control flies, and can use them to spy with?”

Yes and no.  I captured some flies and pouched them for study.  After I was confident that I knew their physical structures and how they all worked, I started creating my own flies, and modifying them so that I could control their actions and for better auditory sensor range.  I’m also working on the visual sensory systems.  You don’t want to see that yet.  It gives me a hard time so far trying to translate compound vision into something I can use, never mind something I can let you use, but I’m making progress.

“So how do you control them?”

They don’t need reproductive organs, so I replaced that mass with neuron bundles to control flight and handle transmission and reception of data through the wings.  The wings have traces of conductors in them and act as both receivers and transmitters of extremely high frequency data at very low power.  There are six flies between that restaurant and here, transmitting data.

“So this is how you were able to listen in on the conversation from the interrogation room yesterday?”

Yes

“This is what you wanted to show me today, no other surprises?”

Exactly

“OK.  Are you considering any other insects for research?”

No, not really.  Not yet.”

“OK, put these on your list then, please.  Spiders as rebroadcast systems, much better higher fidelity antennas, and you might even be able to work in some sort of solar power for the web/antennae.  Also some sort of small, quiet flying insect that injects a poison.  Redesigned to inject various chemicals of our own choosing.”

Good ideas, I will research them.”

I thought for a second.  Something bothered me about this. “How difficult would it be for you to listen for someone else controlling insects and using them to communicate in this fashion?”

A pause.  “Not hard for me to listen passively.  I already am in a way, since I’m listening to the flies I have already released, within the frequencies that I have chosen to use.  I can certainly listen for others on different frequencies, and put a bit more resource-wise into more active analysis of passively gathered data. That’s a slippery slope though, work-wise. There’s a lot of random noise out there, and my computing capacity is finite.”

“I’ll let you decide how much effort to devote to passive detection of, err, bugs.  Wordplay not intended, but I’ll claim it anyway.  What about listening for those original transmitters that we found in us on the first day?  Are you doing that as well?”

Yup, always listening for those, as well as the frequency ranges indicated in the transmitter and receiver plans that I had as part of my hidden code.  No hits yet that weren’t clearly just random noise.”

“OK, and one last thing, especially now that you have the ability to create remote sensor systems. I want you to see if you can figure out a way to detect yourself at ranges greater than fifty or so feet.  If you do find ways to do that, we need to figure out ways to hide it, while monitoring those methods to see if we can pick up others like us.  We know they are out there.  We don’t know for sure what their reaction is going to be to us getting free of them, but based on the safeguards in place, I don’t trust them to be happy about it.”

“Correction.  We think that there are people out there monitoring hybrids like us, based on the transmitters and receivers we found, the plans for better ones, and the 612 rules I found.  We don’t know for sure if there are any others that have actually survived what happens when a symbiote and host begin to communicate.  We might be the only survivor of the process to date.  After forty years, we might well be an abandoned project.”

“That’s possible but improbable.  We survived it.  I suspect others might have as well, since some of them might have met the ninety percent requirement without needing a hint like you did with me, if they lived in a highly predictable host.  They would have never been exposed to the trap that we barely managed to beat, and likely been picked up or controlled in some way.”

You sure know how to encourage paranoia, don’t you?” muttered Frank in my head.

“Aye, sorry, the paranoia streak runs deep, especially with all the crap from the last few days.”

Why aren’t we hiding up in the woods in Canada then?”

“I was thinking that at first but now I just don’t want to run that far.  I want to find a way to legitimize some wealth, then use that wealth to try to figure out where we came from.  After that, I don’t know.”

As the weather gets colder, it’s going to be harder to use insects to monitor around us.  We’ll have to move south, and follow warm weather if you want to do that.”

“That will both force us to move around into places we don’t know, and allow us to investigate different places for others like us.”

If the whole fighting thing works out, as entertainers we might be able to go worldwide?

“Maybe.  Not sure I want to do that.  Maybe English-speaking countries.”  I shook my head.  “Too much too soon.  One step at a time.  Let’s go get an RV, head up and work for Bill for a while and start making plans for the fighting contest thing.  If we try to plan in detail too far into the future, we will be hampering our ability to act in the short-term, and we’ve been doing a lot of short-term decision-making recently.”

If we don’t start trying to make long-term plans though, we aren’t likely to meet any long-term goals.”

“Yes.  Understood, and you are right.  I just think that we’re not quite out of simple survival mode yet, not until we have a relatively safe, legitimate place for the money, and have gone more than a day or three without someone trying to kill us.  Also, the longer we have for you to invent new and different things with your abilities, the better our survival chances might be.”

“I can see that.  I’ll start working on those ideas you mentioned.  I’ll also start working on purely electronic systems that will be more obvious than organic bugs, but able to survive in colder weather.  For those sorts of things I’ll be needing some pretty expensive materials though.”

“Expensive to what degree?”

Haven’t looked at pricing for high-end metals and composites yet, but for me to make stuff really small, I’m going to have to be using some space age materials.  Most of which I can just assemble from the right components, like I did with the graphene and carbon nanotubes, but not all of them.  I’ll see what I can do with low-cost materials first.

“Sounds like a plan.  Let’s go buy a used RV, then go on a road trip and work for Bill a while.”  Everything was rapidly packed up, and I thought of something. “Frank, how hard would it be for you to modify one of the cheap cellphones so that they will activate if one of the signal types like what you were looking for gets close to it?

Not hard.  I wouldn’t modify the phone so much as create something that would interact with it.  Can I tap into building power to keep the phone battery charged, and power the interactive device?”

“Yes, as long as you tap in so that there’s no risk of a fire if the phone is damaged.  Don’t want to burn the place down.  It needs to be completely passive too, as passive as a cellphone can be anyway.”

It will take me about an hour.  Is that OK?”

“Sure.  I’ll spend the time changing passwords on those two accounts we were given.”  I proceeded to grab the tablet and logged into the TheMail account and the TheTube account, changing the passwords to passwords I was used to working with.  Since only a few minutes had passed by the time I finished that, I found and watched the two videos taken of me fighting the Romans.  It was pretty good work actually.  Kids are certainly handy with electronics these days.  Then again, compared to my own parents I always was good with the electronics that were around when I grew up.  VCR’s and computers without hard drives, etc.  Guess it’s just a thing.  Kids are always better with the new stuff, probably because they grow up learning it, rather than trying to adapt to it.

There was still some time left before Frank was done, so I surfed around a bit on local news and found the video article Mrs. Rhiner had put together and watched it.  It was very cut down and condensed.  There was zero mention of Jacob’s sister or family.  It was basically a micro documentary of me, whether or not I was really as good as it looked in the TheTube video.  The conditions of the match were detailed and the match played in the background while Mrs. Rhiner told everyone a little bit about me.  Towards the end there was an interview with Sifu Liu that I hadn’t been present for, where Mrs. Rhiner was asking questions about the match.

Sifu Liu knew I had not been showing all I could do and was clear in saying it, explaining how I was absorbing blows that I had allowed to strike me, even blows that I could almost certainly have dodged.  The fact that I stayed almost stationary throughout the whole match, in the center of the floor also indicated that I hadn’t been forced to fight at my full capacity to match him.  At the end of the interview, Mrs. Rhiner asked if there were any bad feelings towards me for how the video turned out.  He was very clear in saying that there were no hard feelings, because martial arts weren’t about winning.  That made me feel better.  I was afraid that the fellow might think badly of me, for some reason.  Not really sure why, I just didn’t want him to think poorly of me.  Even if I had cheated with Frank.

Frank interrupted my thoughts at that point, which wasn’t a big deal as I was just meandering. “OK, done with making the parts, now to assemble and install it.” He took the unused cellphone from the pack, tested it to make sure it would power on, then pulled what looked like a mesh bag with a tail off of my arm where it had been grown.  At the base of the tail was a knot.  Frank pulled a short whip antenna and a few very thin straps off the other arm, and connected a couple straps to the antennae and ran them under the battery to the phone’s built in antennae.

Frank plugged in the phone’s charger.  Then he put the whole phone assembly, the charger, the antennae and straps connecting it, and the phone itself into the kangaroo pouch.  We stepped up onto the toilet in the bathroom, then stepped up onto the vanity, and then lifted one of the panels from the drop ceiling.  A bunch of dust and small bits of construction leftovers dropped onto the sink area.  Frank repressed a sneeze.  We would need to clean up after ourselves thoroughly, or it would be clearly obvious that someone had been in the ceiling.  Frank glanced around and spotted an electrical junction box nearby, so he carefully jumped up and grabbed a support beam and moved hand over hand to the junction box.  The vanity didn’t collapse when we jumped, which I didn’t even think about until we’d already jumped.

After getting close to the junction box, Frank popped a Phillips head screwdriver tip out of the end of my right index finger, and used that to slightly loosen the cover plate so it would slide over, then carefully connected the other end of the charger wires to the live wires in the junction box without disturbing the current connections.  All he did to create connections was cut a strip of insulation off both wires, press them together with his fingers, and then extrude what looked to be an epoxy resin of some sort from the fingers to hold the wires together – the epoxy was apparently an insulator.  All of this right-handed, while hanging in the air between floors from the left hand, with legs held up to avoid hitting the ceiling below us.  I’d say that the plans to get me in shape were working nicely.

Then he tied the bag to the beam using a couple of the straps and pulled the phone back out of the pouch.  It was now sealed in the epoxy resin looking material, which was clear enough to show that the phone’s buttons were missing, and there were wires running from where each button was to a little box on the top of the phone.  He set the phone on the beam and pulled a couple of wires out of the bag and connected them to the top of the box on the phone and extracted more resin to hold them in place.

Then he turned the phone on and off a couple of times to make sure it started up, and dropped it in the bag, leaving the bag hanging, the phone not visible inside it.  A little blackish bag hanging from a beam in the attic is all that the human eye could see.  Frank grabbed a few chunks of pink insulating fiberglass from nearby ductwork where there was a rip in the insulation, and glued that onto the bag, concealing it’s shape, and making it look more like a piece of trash that got caught on the beam during construction or maintenance.  Then he closed the junction box, screwed it almost tight, and epoxied the wiring running from it to the bag in a few places so it wouldn’t hang loose.

We dropped back down into the bathroom, returned the ceiling tile to its place, and did some cleanup with toilet paper to avoid leaving a ground-in mess on the towels.  We also pulled out all the towels and shook them free of dust and tossed them in a pile on the bed so they would get washed.   Then we did a white glove test and all was well.

“So If I understood right, you powered the phone charger off the hotel power, the bag is a Faraday cage to prevent the phone from being easily detected unless it is actively transmitting through the antennae.  The long tail at the bottom of the bag is the receiver antennae for the signals we are looking for, and the knot at the bottom is a microphone?  The box you added is the box which is actually processing incoming data from the tail antennae and microphone, and it will in turn activate a phone call?”

Yes.  I also hacked the GPS and made the phone report that it is at the location of the dumpster of the hotel, which is close enough that the signal towers shouldn’t pick up the deception by triangulation.”

“It’s set to call the other disposable phone then, and the phone in the bag is the one we used to call 911 to report the fight with the Romans?”

Exactly.”

“Anything else you can think of we might have missed?

Frank reached up and ran our finger across the top of the molding on the inside of the bathroom door, then grabbed more toilet paper and wet it, running it slightly damp across all of the molding of the door. “Not anymore.” He tossed the paper in the toilet with the rest and we made sure it all flushed before double checking that nothing was left behind and walking out to settle with the desk clerk.

After settling up with the desk clerk and calling a cab from the desk phone, we walked outside.

I clicked the phone and started talking to Frank in a low voice. “Epoxy and screwdrivers Frank?  Any more surprises for me?”

No, the screwdriver was temporary and has already been absorbed again.  Carbon fiber with aluminum covering the blades.  I made two, one flat bladed, the other Phillips head, didn’t know what I would find up top.  If it had been flat bladed, I would have used the other hand to open and close the junction box. The epoxy is just simple chemistry.”

“OK, your versatility is sometimes rather startling, and you’ve surprised me a few times with things that were not much to my liking.  I apologize.”

Apology accepted.  It’s not like I haven’t made some mistakes, or been a bit too proactive in the past.”

“Our cab’s here I think.”

I was right.  Our cab arrived and took us to the RV dealer.  We left several hours later and forty-eight thousand dollars poorer with a small, five year old motor home that could sleep four.  I really felt like I needed some lube after the sales guys got done with me, but from the looking around I did on the tablet the other day, it really wasn’t a bad deal for the area.  Frank and I knew enough about vehicles that we knew this one wasn’t a problem waiting to happen.  I considered getting a smaller motor home, they did have a couple van body units, but decided that it might be nice to have more room for some of the things I had been thinking about since Frank had showed me what he could do with insects and electronics.  We had managed to get a decent deal on a set of winter tires with excellent tread, and a trailer hitch extension assembly that would allow me to park a small motorcycle securely at the back of the RV.

We stopped at a motorcycle dealership and picked up a used dirt bike with street legal lights, loaded it up on the trailer hitch rack.  Then a few more stops for batteries, copper wires, a few hundred pounds of charcoal, a bunch of mixed batteries plus vehicle maintenance supplies and a substantial collection of small hand tools, including a small high pressure air compressor.  One more trip to a pawn shop and I picked up a couple more good tools fairly cheaply, a whole bunch of crappy old tools really cheaply, and several older computers really cheap.  Another couple thousand dollars went poof.

Then we went grocery shopping and I bought more beans and rice than I’d ever want to eat, but Frank could certainly use when I was asleep.  I bought a bunch of meals worth of foods that I actually liked to eat as well.  We probably spent half an hour wandering from place to place in the grocery store, collecting pots and pans here, a few tech related magazines there, and lots of different types of foods and spices at Frank’s direction based on their trace minerals ingredients.

While we were grocery shopping, Frank made us a new solar-powered monitor camera for the RV, with a rechargeable battery from the hardware store inside it, allowing it to operate 24/7 as long as it gets a couple of hours sunlight per day.  When we returned to the RV, we pulled down the whip antenna, and Frank used his epoxy to connect the camera to the top of the whip, where it would have an unobstructed view of the area surrounding the RV, though there would still be some blind spots near the RV.

In the parking lot of the grocery store, as a final preparation for the road, I walked carefully around the RV, checking the tires, looking for liquid leaks, and making sure the dirt bike was firmly attached.  I triple checked the two jerry cans of gasoline in their locked can holder.

“How are you holding out energy wise after all the building you did today Frank?”

“Doing fine, I’m running low on some metals and whatnot though, mind grabbing a length of that copper and dropping it in the pouch?”

I took care of the copper.

“Oh.  Almost forgot.  Can you get rid of all the identifying marks on this thing, and change the barrel rifling slightly so it won’t match its old ballistics profile?”  I removed the clip from my pistol and made sure nothing was chambered, then dropped it in the pouch next to the copper.

“One cleaned pistol coming up.  I should be done in a few minutes.”

“Thanks! Didn’t that sort of thing use up your energy reserves quickly before? And generate a lot of heat?”

“The juice storage means I have a whole lot more energy than before, for this body mass at least.  When you were much larger I had more energy, but used much more energy to move and the heat stayed localized when it was generated.  All very dangerous to us.  The drastically lowered body mass, much better circulatory system, and skeleton made of carbon graphene and nanotube bones increases heat dispersion enormously.”

“Good, good, glad to hear that.  I have two ideas.  One of which I definitely want you to do.  The other is up to you if you want to try it.”

“What do you definitely want me to do?”

“Carbon fiber quarterstaff.”

“Doable.  Your height, half-wrist thick?”

“That would be good.” Then I continued “The other idea that I have is a bit more complex.”

“I figured you would be up to something with all the stuff you were buying that didn’t have an immediate, obvious use.”

“I want to give you a couple of ideas to run with.  The first is this.  If you can actually build and modify organic bugs, have you considered building other organic structures that might do things like generate juice for you, so that if you use it up, you can simply return to base and refill?”

“I don’t see why I couldn’t do something like that.  Safely storing the juice might be another matter, but with a little thought I’m sure that can be arranged.  Feeding the organic part would be problematic too, and will require some thought, but should be doable.  What was your other idea?”

“The other idea hinges on the first idea.  If you can build an organic structure of significant size, which you can use to manufacture things in, you could build yourself various plugin components without having to build them inside my body.”

“Such as?”

“Heat’s a real problem for us. How about a back mounted cooling system?  We put it on like a backpack.  It might attach to chest and back with a harness, and then connect to our circulatory system.  It would act as a radiator to cool our blood.”  I imagined I could feel Frank’s immediate interest, and grinned. “I thought you might like that, but remember we wouldn’t wear it all the time, for the blood in it to stay fresh it would need to be maintained in a substantial sized biological device that can keep the blood viable.”

“That is a very interesting idea.  Any other ideas?”

“You remade our bones out of a combination of carbon fiber and spider silk, and you have said that the carbon bones help you to disperse heat very quickly.  I was thinking that you might appreciate some armor made of carbon fiber and spider silk, which would connect directly to existing bones at many locations.  Not all the time, but only when you need it.  Something to help protect long bones, torso, and neck and head.  It would plug into sockets or clamp onto bones when you need it to, and when we don’t need it, we can just store it.  You would need a large organic device to make something like that, I’d think.”

“In essence what you are proposing is that I make some small organic factories in order to build larger items that would be otherwise impossible or very difficult to build inside your own body.  You realize that this would require that your flesh be the template for all the organic components?  I know you are pretty attached to your body being kept human-normal looking.”

“Yeah, I suspected that you would have to be using my genetic material for the organic stuff, you did say that you require the presence of my genetic material to survive.  I figured the bugs were made with my genetic materials too, right?”

“Yes.”

“I am attached to my body, the part with my brain in it, staying within normal human male ranges of appearance, unless you need to change me to keep me alive.  If we need to make organic tools from my body’s genetic material, so be it.  That’s what I bought the absurd amount of rice and beans for, so you would have biomass to create the factories.  If you have to do crazy things with my body to make the factories to start with though, there are a couple of rules.  Not when I’m awake, and keep things hidden inside opaque containers.  Nothing that leaves our body can be self-aware please.  No sweatshop factory slaves.  Other people might enter the RV, as guests, so we need to be sure they can’t accidentally open something up and get a shock.”

“Splitting either your mind or mine into multiple parts is well beyond my knowledge.  Container security and opacity will be a top priority.  That makes a great deal of sense.  What did you get the compressor for?”

“Additional cooling if needed.”

“The poor quality old tools?  They seemed out-of-place too.”

“I figured you would want to use the steel for some components of the machines, but that was just a guess.”

“Won’t need the steel, easier for me to do almost all of it in carbon, hydrocarbons, or plastics.  I can’t imagine that carbon will be hard to get, even if it’s all in charcoal form, even if we have to make it ourselves by burning wood.  I could even get it directly from wood, if needed, but that would create a great deal of heat energy inside us or the biofactory that I would have to deal with.  Let me think about this and begin planning.  This is a substantial undertaking and I had not even considered it before.  I look forward to it.  It seems very doable, though it will be somewhat of a logistics issue.  I would love to have some external components to attach when we need them, since we need to keep you presentable in the human world most of the time.”

“I was hoping that would make you happy, without forcing me to start looking like some sort of killer robot from the future unless necessary.  You can make the armor and plugins as utilitarian as you like, but I would like to see you draw them out first before you build them, in case I can offer suggestions.”  Frank would probably not consider things like air or water resistance, or armor getting caught in brush.  In some ways he seemed very juvenile, especially when it was something new to him.  The cellphone thing earlier today was all his design though, so he might prove me wrong, and that would be great.

“I like this plan, Bob.”

I whistled happily as we drove down the road towards Williston.

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Chapter 1.10: Master Robert

Last Chapter   Next Chapter

Officer Jones opened the door of the interrogation room and beckoned to me with his left hand. “C’mon you’re free to go now.  Thank you for cooperating as a witness.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up, then walked to the door. “Glad I could help.  Hopefully that sidewalk café that Mrs. Rhiner mentioned was nearby has some good food.”

A grunt from Officer Jones. “Food’s OK for a greasy spoon, I’ve heard, but strong coffee and decent doughnuts is all it really needs to attract the folks that work nearby.”

I laughed, and he smiled. “Fair enough, I could use some good coffee and a bite to eat.”

“I said strong coffee, not good coffee.”

“Is there really a difference?”

“You sure you aren’t an undercover cop?”

As we approached the door I watched as Officer Jones’ face got a bit tighter, and his whole body got a bit less relaxed.

“Mind me asking where you served?”

“Don’t mind you asking, as long as you don’t poke for details.  Afghanistan.  Served three tours there.  Don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk on a road again without being keyed up and expecting trouble.”  He set his jaw.

“I see.  I won’t ask any more.”

He cut his eyes at me, waiting.  Obviously expecting me to say something else about Afghanistan or how hard war is on people.

“I said I won’t ask any more, and I meant it.  What would you suggest I order at this place?”

He relaxed a bit.  “I always bring my own lunch.  All I get there is the kerosene, err, coffee.”  He turned to one of the officers near the door at a desk.  “Keplin, what does the Cop Stop sell for food that isn’t likely to hurt someone without an immunity built up over a few years?”

“Ham sandwich is good”, he said to some chuckling from around the room and a couple more suggestions.

“Seasoned fries ain’t bad.”

“Hey, I actually like their mac & cheese!”

“Just don’t eat the pizza unless you have an iron stomach.”

As we were passing through the front doors, I wanted to thank Officer Jones for having people watch my room for me, but I couldn’t, because he had never mentioned that he was doing it.  He had only mentioned that he had dropped me off to let me change clothes and take a quick shower.  It was pretty obvious that he wanted me to leave the gun behind as well.  I chose to leave the money behind.  Taking a backpack full of money (that I couldn’t prove I had any right to) into a police station when I was going to be questioned was just absurd to the point where it would be safer in the hotel room.  I knew I was going to have to risk storing it somewhere secure soon.  Maybe in a bank in a large safe deposit box?  That was definitely worth looking into.

Anyway, apparently in the ten minutes or so that he was outside my hotel room, Officer Jones had made some phone calls and called in some favors.  Possibly because he was covering for himself, since he knew damn well I was packing a real pistol, not a fake.

“Thanks for letting me get a shower in earlier, Officer Jones, I appreciated not having to do the whole interview thing stinking of sweat.”

“No problem Bob.  Call me Erik.  Thanks for the help with the Romans.  They had the people in that area paralyzed with fear, they would hardly talk to an officer.  You took out all of their active members simultaneously, which should allow us to make some headway.  A few of them are already starting to turn on each other, begging for plea bargains and asking if they can work out something where their probation can be linked to getting vocational school training for useful skills.”

“Good.  I suggested to them that they really weren’t good enough to be doing that sort of thing, and the next person like me might not be so nice to them.  Glad some of them are taking it to heart.”

Erik laughed.  “Wish we could put the fear into them like you did.  You run into any more trouble in town near here, you come to me.  We’d really appreciate it if you didn’t run into any more trouble though.  We can see from your records, or lack of criminal record anyhow, that you aren’t a troublemaker.  Thing is, now you’ve shown what you can do, you are probably going to have people try to test you.  Don’t hurt them too badly, please, if you can help it.”

“Yeah, I understand that for sure.  That’s one reason I never went pro, never really fought anyone after I hit puberty and started getting a temper.  Too easy to hurt people.  I hurt a couple of people pretty bad learning that. Everyone else is so slow, even the professionals.  Everyone I’ve ever seen fight would be like a kindergartener against me.  Some of the best professionals in the world might be able to touch me, but none of them could hurt me.”

Frank piped up in my head.  “Lies!  No human could touch us in a sport fight, if I didn’t let them, even without juice!

“If I hadn’t seen that video, and seen the wounds on the Romans to prove it happened, I’d just assume you were exaggerating, smile, and start to ignore your bragging – but I did see the video and wounds. If you stay near town and open a dojo, I know for damn sure every law enforcement branch within hundreds of miles would push a lot of business your way if you can teach even a little of what you showed.  I would see to it personally.  I informally help to arrange training for a lot of the nearby departments, and we compete between each other, quarterly.”

“I’ve never even taken a martial arts class, Erik, I couldn’t begin to teach.”  I couldn’t mention that I had been in the military, because the military took blood samples for genetic testing to identify dead soldiers.  Been doing that since before I was old enough to have served, from what Darla had said when I brought it up.  I remembered doing the blood draw for genetic identification myself.  It was normally done from the right index finger, which I had lost shortly before I did the blood draw, shortly before I got out on medical discharge due to the injury.  Best they could do on the fake ID was give me some high school Army ROTC course references and security job history to explain why I could walk the walk and talk the talk.

Now Erik was looking at me funny.  “All of that was completely untrained?”

“Yeah, crazy ain’t it?”

Erik shook his head.  “Man, if you’re that good, you don’t have to beat people up to make money fighting.  Have you ever thought about just going from city to city and charging an admission fee for people to try to hit you?  Charge fifty dollars per ticket to try to knock you down.  Offer a big prize or something.  If you really are that good, you will make a good living fighting, without ever having to hit anyone.”

Could actually work, Bob.” Frank again, interjecting.

That… actually sounded tempting.  Especially considering that I’ve already been TheTubed proving that Frank in my body is a melee fighter with few or no peers. I just looked at Erik with a slightly open mouth.  Then I closed my mouth, blinked a couple of times and said.  “I’m going to have to think about that, but it sounds like a really good idea.  I wish someone has said that to me about thirty years ago.”  I shook his hand. “You got a card?  If I decide to do this, and it works, I want to be able to reach you and see if you want a new job.”

“Sure thing.” He pulled out his wallet, opened it and fished out a card, then handed it to me. “I got paperwork to do on the Romans.  You decide you want to do that, you call me up and we’ll talk.”  He pointed to his right, my left, to a little café about half a block down the road.  “That’s the Cop Stop.”

“Wait. It’s actually called that, that’s not just a nickname?”

Erik laughed, “Yes, the guy who owns it retired from the force after forty-five years as an officer.  It was the only job he ever had.  He knows us pretty well.  Been trying to poison us with his free coffee for the last fifteen years to get even according to the old timers on the force.”

“Thanks Erik, I owe you one, maybe more than one.  I’ll call you for sure within a week one way or the other to let you know what I decide.”  I held out my hand and he met me halfway.  A good firm grip, and a solid shake.

I have met so many good, quality people since this shit started happening to me.  Of course I’ve paid for that privilege by being chopped up, shot at, and chased across half a country before being set upon by a dozen thugs.  Not to mention nearly burning myself to death a couple of times due to self-combustion.

We really need to call that business card you got, the first one, with the backwards number.  This would not be illegal to run a fight contest like Erik described, and you could quickly legitimize that money as a ‘signing bonus’

“Yeah” I said out loud, then mumbled quietly.  “I think that’s a good idea, will have to think about it after we speak to Mrs. Rhiner.”

I walked down to the cop stop and Mrs. Rhiner and her cameraman were waiting, drinking coffee and going over notes on the table.  There was another man with them.  Very fit looking, oriental.  I suspected that he was brought to be some sort of tester for me.  Mrs Rhiner wanted something juicy on tape.  I’m glad I spoke to Erik about this, I should be able to steer this into something to self-advertise.

“Good Day, Mrs. Rhiner, sorry for making you wait, but it wasn’t exactly a scripted discussion I had at the precinct.”

“Understood, Robert.  I’ve met a couple of people here over the years.  I know the deal.”  She smiled.  “You’ve met Mike, my cameraman.”

Mike lifted his cup in greeting as he was scribbling with a stylus on a tablet computer with his other hand. “Heyas.”

Then she turned to the other man and introduced him.  “This is Sifu Liu, I asked him to join us after showing him the TheTube video.  He agreed because he wants to speak with you.”

“Good day, Sifu Liu, it is a pleasure to meet you.”  I knew Sifu means ‘master’ in Chinese, it’s in lots of the Chinese martial arts movies.  So I gave the man some real respect, pre-emptively.  Easier to start off on the right foot than have to make up for starting off on the wrong foot.

“Are you going to ask us to fight to ‘prove’ how good I am, Mrs. Rhiner?” I asked.

Sifu Liu spoke up.  “I would be more than happy to just talk and watch you do some of whatever training exercises you use, and perhaps arrange correspondence.”  He paused. “Mrs. Rhiner did ask me if I would be willing to spar with you in front of the camera, if you were willing.  I told her yes, that I would spar if you were willing.  My studio is not far from here, and we are well equipped for safe sparring.”

Mrs. Rhiner just let us talk but she and Mike were watching like hawks.  I saw that Mike’s camera was actually aligned so that it could see both Sifu Liu and I in full view.  They were certainly recording this without trying to be obvious about it, which seemed strange, but I didn’t mind.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Sure, under one condition.”

“What condition?” asked Sifu Liu.

“I will not attempt to strike you.  You must knock me to the ground once to win the match.”

“Why do you ask for this?”

“I don’t like hitting people if I don’t have to.  I can demonstrate my skill sufficiently by fighting you purely defensively.  I imagine that you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am highly skilled without me having to hit you to prove it.”

“You are placing me in the position of the young student?  You are the master challenging me to demonstrate my skill to even touch you?  You assume that much superiority?”  He frowned.

I thought about how to word this without insulting the man.  “I mean no disrespect, Sifu Liu.  If it proves to be the case that you can knock me down, then you have chastised someone who is prideful and needs a lesson.  After that, if you wish, I will spar with you and attempt to strike you.  If you cannot knock me down when I am only defending and allowing you to concentrate fully on attacking me, then I am not wrong about my skill, do you agree?  Would five minutes be sufficient time to prove it one way or the other?”

Sifu Liu grinned.  “I believe you are prideful.  I have seen the video of your fight though, so I will give you a chance to prove you are not.  If you are not prideful, then it will be a beautiful thing to see such skill and perhaps to learn from seeing it.”

Sifu Liu and I walked two blocks to his studio, and walked in during a class.  The students kept practicing.  The younger man leading the class gave a short bow in our direction.  Sifu Liu made a couple of hand motions, which I didn’t recognize.  At the end of the current exercise, the younger instructor had the students take seats around the edge of the practice mat and do deep breathing exercises as Sifu Liu and I crossed the floor.

Sifu Liu stepped into the middle of the mat and bowed very shallowly to each side of the square mat, then started speaking.  “In a few minutes time, Master Robert Hawk will demonstrate defensive techniques and I will demonstrate offensive techniques. Master Jason will judge the match.  A television crew will be arriving shortly to film the event.  The rules are very simple.  I must knock Master Robert to the floor within five minutes, or I lose the match.  If I knock Master Robert to the floor within that same five minutes, he loses the match and we will spar another match where we will both attack and defend, with all of the same rules except allowing Master Robert to attack me.  If either of us leaves the practice mat, the match timer will stop and we will return to the center of the mat, and begin again at Master Jason’s direction.  Either party may forfeit at any time.  Master Jason, please bring the sparring pads.”

“If you wish, we can spar without pads.”  I offered.  Knowing how badly Frank would hate the extra weight.  Sifu Liu actually perked up a little bit, apparently he also liked the idea.

“That would be unwise without some sort of recorded agreement.  If one of you is hurt, the other could easily have legal recourse.”  This from Master Jason.

“We can agree to it in front of the camera if you want?” I asked.

“We have sparring waivers.  I believe they have the options to add other conditions.” Master Jason said.  “I will go check them and see if we can add terms, if that is acceptable, Sifu Liu?”

“It is certainly acceptable.  Please see if we can do this in a way to protect one another legally if we are going to intentionally neglect to protect ourselves quite so well physically.”

It turned out that we could add terms to the standard sparring waiver, so we added terms for no pads.  By that time Mrs. Rhiner and Mike had arrived and set up their recording equipment, and she was giving background on the agreement.

Sifu Liu and I faced each other at the center of the mat, and bowed.  I bowed deeper to him than he did to me, but not much.  Master Jason stood to one side of us several feet away, with a stopwatch.

Frank asked. “No juice, correct.”

I blinked once.

Do I let him hit us a few times, but not make us fall down?”

I think for a second.  He is a master, and I am cheating with Frank.  I blink once.  Let the man save some face.

Master Jason advised us that the match was to begin when the stopwatch beeped.  A couple of seconds later, the stopwatch beeped.

Sifu Liu dropped to the ground with amazing speed, his left leg curling towards my ankles like a scythe.  Frank’s perception distortion kicked in, and the rest of the fight was rather comical from my point of view.  Frank didn’t even move from the center of the mat.  If Sifu Liu attacked with a powerful blow to the body or upper legs, Frank just used his hands to slow down the attack until it hit us with almost all of its power absorbed by our arms.  If an incoming attack to be slowed was a truly powerful blow that couldn’t be dodged without seeming inhuman, Frank would jump a bit with the blow and swing away from it to prevent an impact hard enough to put us off balance.  Frank did allow Sifu Liu to hit solidly and loudly with some of his fastest light attacks, but always swayed with the blows, clearly in complete control of the momentum.

For his part, Sifu Liu was amazing.  He was a whirlwind of attacks, Frank was very vocal about how good the guy was.  He never seemed to tire through the entire match.  At the end of the match, he was grinning ear to ear even though all of his students and Master Jason were looking somewhat shocked.

At the end of the match Master Liu waited for me to bow, and he bowed deeper, slightly, then said “It seems you were not prideful, Master Robert.  Can you tell me where you learned your techniques?  I do not recognize the school, I do not even recognize the branch of martial arts.”

“I’m afraid that I’ve never taken a martial arts class Sifu Liu, I am just very fast and very accurate, and I have better response times than anyone else I’ve ever met.  I can just read what people are going to do and act against it before they even start doing it.”

Sifu Liu narrowed his eyes at me.  “That is remarkable.  For that much capability to be based purely on raw physical ability is amazing.  It does explain the lack of a recognizable school though.  Thank you for the demonstration.  It is good to be humbled now and then when you grow prideful.”

“Indeed Sifu Liu, though I have never found a person to humble me physically, I have been humbled many times in other ways by people far more skilled than I.”  Sifu Liu smiled at that, and I turned to the camera. “Mrs. Rhiner, was that a good enough demonstration for you?”

“More than good enough.  Thank you.  Can I give you a ride back to your hotel, and maybe buy you a dinner over a short interview?”

“I’m not partial to telling long stories about myself Mrs. Rhiner, but I will answer some questions if you like.  If you are not happy with my answers, I will buy your meal instead.”

She agreed, and I got a ride in the news van to a sports bar near my hotel where I ate a very good, very large burger with seasoned fries, and had a good dark draft beer.

The first questions were about my family, which I mostly refused to answer, other than my cover’s fake names, professions, and the fact that they had all passed away.  We moved on to my personal life and I continued to answer sparsely, based on Frank’s memories of the documents, which were impeccable.  When I hesitated to answer once, thinking Frank was wrong, he actually projected an image of the document to me, apparently inside my eye or maybe even directly into my brain or optic nerve.  It startled me and I jumped a bit, and Mrs. Rhiner jumped a bit back too.  I apologized, saying I was distracted and tired, and answered the question as Frank told me.  Then I begged off a longer interview, so she asked me a few simpler questions, including what I was doing for a living now.

“Well, I was offered a job as a driver for a mining company in the fracking industry recently, and plan to take the fellow up on that for a while.  I’m going to consider going into sports fighting, but with a twist that was suggested to me earlier today.  Basically the same rules I fought Master Sifu Liu by, except I’ll pay a prize to anyone who can knock me down, and they have to pay an entry fee to try.  I never went into professional fighting before because I didn’t want to hurt people, but if I make my part a purely defensive role, I’ll be happy with it.  If it takes off, it will be nice to make money doing something that I’m extremely good at.”

“Mike was telling me that the two videos of you fighting the Romans got a total of thirty million hits in the last six hours.  TheTube has squelched comments on both of them.  I imagine there would be interest in the contest fighting you are proposing, even if it’s just people who can’t believe you are that good and want to spend a few bucks to prove it.  Good luck to you!”

We parted ways and I walked the short distance back to the hotel.  Erik was there talking to a few guys who all had the look of ex-military or cop.  I walked up to Erik and said “I’m definitely going to do what you suggested Erik, I had a practice run tonight with Sifu Liu at Mrs. Rhiner’s request, and it went well.”  I looked around at the other guys Erik had been talking to, pretending to not know what they were there for, then shaking my head like it didn’t matter.  “Do you or your fellows want some pizza delivered?  It’s late and if anyone needs to drive a long way, I’ll pay for a hotel room if they would prefer?”

One of the guys spoke up.  “Nah, Erik’s a good fellow.  We all owed him favors already, he just called a few of those favors in tonight, nothing to do with you.”

“Fair enough.  You are all safe to drive?  Like I said, I’ll cover a room if anyone is not safe to drive.”

One of the others spoke up. “Nobody’s been drinking, and if anyone is tired, they can stop by the Cop Stop and get coffee that keeps you awake because it’s too scary to imagine it in the car with you when you are asleep.”

I laughed, several of the others chuckled briefly at the obviously well used joke.  “Fair enough.  Even if I don’t owe you, thank you all.  Thank you again, Erik, I’ll be in touch in the next week or so if the whole fight contest thing looks like it might work out.  I’ll need to talk to some people, and see if I can get together people willing to help start it up.  I know a few people with money, but I surely don’t know any fight promoters or anyone in that industry.”

Erik grinned “Fair enough.  Give me a call when you are ready, and we can talk.”

I shook hands with Erik and all of his friends and headed to my room after a few more pleasantries.

“It’s been a long day.  Want me to show you that thing I told you about earlier?”

“Tired.  It has been a long day.  Wonder if they bugged my room?”  I mutter to myself.

My body started walking around the room without me controlling it, Frank controlling me as he searched, then at each window he looked out and my vision distorted pretty severely, the colors shifting rapidly but the image staying clear and crisp.  “Not detecting any electromagnetic signals nearby that might be concealed, and I can’t see lasers on the windows.”

“OK, shower time.” For the first time in a while I took a nice, long, steaming hot shower.  Frank complained about the heat, but I hushed him after asking him if there was any real danger from the heat.  “Let’s wait till tomorrow for you to show me your new whatzit, and we can call that backwards number tomorrow too, but I’d rather do all that from a newly purchased used RV on the way to go meet Bill.  There is nothing stopping someone from simply listening by ear in the next room over with some sort of spy stethoscope against the wall or something.  Captain Bosko was not happy with us in the least, remember?  That’s why we’re talking in the shower, and why I’m talking in muttering tones.”

I remember.  You’re right, we need to be careful.” Frank agreed

“How were you able to hear them in the next room so well, aren’t interrogation rooms normally sound insulated?”

Yes, the room was insulated.  That’s part of what you wanted me to tell you about tomorrow.  The ‘new whatzit’”, Frank teased. “Sure you want to wait till tomorrow?

“Yeah, I think so.  I probably won’t fully appreciate it tonight.  Remember not to move around too much when I’m supposed to be asleep.”

I turned off the shower, dried off, tossed on a pair of boxers, and flopped onto the bed on my chest, arms wide, not even bothering to get under the covers.  I went unconscious almost immediately, without any help from Frank.

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Chapter 1.9: Close Call

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As the sirens got louder, I kept my eyes on the gangers.  I strongly suspected the leader had a pistol on him, and the louder the sirens got, the more nervous he seemed to get.

“If you’re packing heat, leave it where it is.  I won’t be nice this time if you pull a gun after I beat you once.”

He deflated.  The others who were watching me talk to him sagged a bit too, morale broken.

“Where in the hell you learn to fight like that?” Said one of the others.

“Eh, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies mostly.” I replied.  Frank laughed in my head.  It was partially the truth, though the thug asking the question obviously didn’t believe me.  The movie answer was probably better than saying that an alien life form inside me made me a martial arts master.  Cops probably wouldn’t care much for either explanation, if they asked.

Here I was, thinking that I’d be able to finally put a bit of normal back into my life, and these punks go ruining it for me.  I scowled and smacked the bat against one of my palms.  Several of the gangers inched away from me, as they lay on the ground.

“Sorry fellas, you messed up some plans I had, so I’m a bit irritated at you, but I’m not about to lay into you again if you stay down until the cops arrive and take you into custody.”

It was almost funny watching them struggle with the thought that what I did to them, what they thought was some sort of epic effort of mine, was merely an irritation.  I considered using that train of thought to psychologically beat the lesson in harder, but decided not to.  They should all remember this for the rest of their lives, it might even get some of them off the streets and trying to make something of themselves.

The first officer arrived, radio in hand as he quickly got out of his car, while speaking into his radio. “I see at least a dozen down, one up.  One up with a club, a bat, watching the rest.  All who are down are in Roman colors.  The one up matches description from dispatch.”

I glanced at the officer as he walked up to the curb and made a closer count, looking at each downed ganger with a bit more care.  Normal build, maybe a bit lanky, less than six feet tall, mid to late 20’s but with a thousand yard stare.  Sometimes hard to tell a cop without military experience from a cop with military experience, but in this case, I was almost certain this fellow had seen some time in Iraq or Afghanistan.  If he worked in this part of town regularly, the gangers probably gave him some respect.  Looking at their reactions when they started hearing his voice and when he came into view, I knew I was right.  This might not work out too badly after all.

“Thank you for arriving so quickly, officer.  I don’t think anyone needs immediate medical attention, but a couple have broken bones, and there is one gunshot wound.  Have ambulances been called?”

He responded after glancing at me again, but didn’t take his eyes off the gangers longer than it took to look at me briefly. “Yeah, ambulances and lots more officers on the way.  Some kids called the station and sent us a link to the videos they took of your fight.  Said they sent it to local paper and TV stations as well.  The only comment I’ve gotten from the guys at the precinct who watched the video was ‘Holy Shit’ so I’d appreciate it if you would be patient while we get this straightened out.  I’d also appreciate it if you stay where you are at.”

By his look at me, the ‘stay where you are at’ wasn’t an option, so I replied “Sure thing officer.”  My mind started racing.  Millions of dollars in the backpack.  A pistol used in a multiple killing in the holster under my left arm.  Why in the FUCK didn’t I get rid of that pistol?  Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.

As more officers and ambulances arrived, so did the area residents in growing numbers.  Quite a few of them talking quietly amongst themselves.  The officers quickly got the gangers sorted out and the first officer on the scene pulled me to the side.  I saw a couple more officers watching.

“I got a chance to watch that video and I see why the first reaction was ‘Holy Shit’.  At the same time, I also saw some things that I want to talk to you about.  First thing I want is for you to slowly and carefully show me your fake gun.  You will do so by keeping both of your hands in view of the two officers over there that I asked to watch me conduct this interview.  Open your jacket, with both hands, and I will reach in under your left arm and see what you have there.”

My mind was racing.  Not sure where the officer was going with this.  Then it hit me.  The officer was so happy the Romans got taken down that he was trying to make sure nobody arrested me, though they were surely planning on questioning me.  If I had a concealed weapon permit, I could just tell him that.  I didn’t though, so he was going to have to try to work it so that I didn’t need a concealed weapons permit.

I slowly moved my hands to the front of my jacket and held the jacket open so the officer could look at the pistol in the holster.  He reached in, pulled the pistol out a bit (but not far enough to be visible outside my jacket), and then put it back into place.

“In the wrong situation, carrying even a fake gun like that one can be a very bad idea.  I would strongly consider getting a concealed carry permit even if you are only going to carry a fake pistol.  Especially one as real looking as that one.  Either that, or don’t carry anything concealed.”  He smiled a bit as I shrugged the jacket back into place and smoothed the front of it, buttoning it up a bit so it wouldn’t blow open.  After I had myself sorted out, he stepped back. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Bob, officer.”  I thought about my new ID.  “Short for Robert Hawk”

The officer spoke to me in a very low voice – not a whisper, but close.  “OK, Bob, I’m Officer Jones.  The last thing we need to do before we get your statement and let you go for now is to have Rover check you out.”  He pointed to a german shepherd wearing a doggie flak jacket.  “I’m really hoping Rover over there doesn’t like your backpack too much, or you for that matter.  If you think that he will like you too much, let me know now, before we get there, and we’ll talk about it a bit before we go talk to Rover.”

“Nothing on me or in my pack that a drug or explosives dog will find interesting, officer.”

“Glad to hear that.  Makes things a whole lot less complex.”

The police dog sniffed me and my pack when I set it on the ground for him, then sat next to its handler and ignored me.  I was a bit concerned about the dog twigging onto the “juice” but apparently hyper oxygenated artificial adrenaline wasn’t chemically close to anything Rover was trained to care about.  Yet another good thing, but I was still as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  Too many cops.  Too much time spent running from them.  Too much weirdness in my life and not enough answers.  Everyone was paying attention to me.

Quite a little crowd had formed, and there was a news camera there as well, interviewing one of the kids who had taken video of the fight.  The child was demonstrating fighting moves while being interviewed.  Adults around him were laughing and being amused at his antics.  Then he saw me, and ducked the police tape.  He adroitly dodged the grasping hands of several adults, running up to me and stopping.  “Thank you for kicking their asses!”

I asked Officer Jones if we could stop for a second and he nodded, so I stopped to talk.  “You’re welcome, I think.  Why are you so happy that I hurt them?  Did they hurt you?  If so, you need to tell the officers what they did to you so they can make them stay in jail longer.”

“Wasn’t me they hurt.  They hurt my sister.  Real bad.  She won’t talk about it.  Says they might do it again.”

I winced, imagining the most likely scenarios. “Some people don’t like talking about things like that, but for these Romans to go to jail and stay there, they need to.  Your sister won’t be forced to talk about it if she doesn’t want to, but I bet Officer Jones would be happy to get your name and phone number so he or one of the other officers can come talk to her, or maybe get her some other help if she needs it.”

Officer Jones nodded.  “He’s right.  We won’t make her talk if she doesn’t want to, but if she does, it might help us a whole lot.  Can you help us get in touch with her, and tell everyone else you know that got hurt by the Romans to come talk to us too?”

The kid looked up at Officer Jones and back to me.  I nodded.  “He’s right.” I said.

“OK, I’ll do that.  That’s not why I came though, I have a gift for you, to thank you!”

“Really?  I didn’t do that for a reward you know.  I did it because they were going to hurt me if I didn’t.”  I was having a difficult time imagining what the child might be ready to give me.  I was hoping it wasn’t something with real value.  This wasn’t a good neighborhood for him to be brandishing something worth money, even if the Romans were gone for the time being.  I certainly wasn’t going to take a reward with any sort of monetary value from the kid.

“I know.  It’s not money or anything, I can’t afford that.  I got you something good though!”

Now I was curious. “What did you get me?” I asked with a little smile.

The kid handed me a folded sheet of paper.  “I got you set up with a really cool username and password on TheTube and TheMail!”

I opened up the folded sheet and looked.  In a fairly neat hand was:

“TheTube username = BadAssOldMan

TheTube password = Ichiban1

TheMail username = BadAssOldMan@TheMail.com

TheMail password = Ichiban1

Thank You!  You were awesome!

Jacob”

I laughed out loud, abruptly.  The kid looked startled for just a brief second, then grinned.  “Thank you, young man, this is a great gift, I really appreciate it.” I reached out and ruffled his hair.  He brushed my hand off quickly and neatened his hair again, reflexively. I suspected he got a lot of that treatment from an older brother or parent if he was always that much of an imp. “Now give Officer Jones your phone number so he can call you later, then go talk to your sister and your friends and neighbors and let them know that the officers need help to keep the Romans locked up.”

Officer Jones got the kid’s name and number, and then shooed him back into the crowd over by the news media, who had, of course, been videoing the whole thing.  The boom mike meant they probably heard it all too.  The kid’s sister was probably going to be upset if they went live with what he had said about her.

The reporter started trying to ask me questions in a loud voice as she saw me looking at the camera, and I asked Officer Jones if I could tell them I would talk to them after I got finished answering questions.  He nodded and said “Sure.  Don’t let them drag you into an interview though, we need to get your statement.  Normally I’d say no, but you’re a bit of a celebrity around here right now.”

I agreed with him, and turned to the reporter and took a couple of steps closer so we could talk.  “Ma’am, I will be happy to talk to you a bit later, if you make me a promise.  It is a very simple request.”

The reporter looked at me funny, then she said “What promise.”

“If you review your tapes and recordings, you might find something about that young man’s family mentioned.  I’ll talk to you after this if you agree that everything that was said about his family in that conversation between Jacob, myself, and Officer Jones gets deleted.  The kid didn’t know he was being recorded.  Anything else you picked up is fair game.”  I paused. “I’ll count on these folks around us who heard this to keep you and your station honest about it after I leave town.”  Several of them nodded.  One of them was actually recording it with a smart phone.

She looked at her video man and he nodded and said.  “Yeah, there was some private stuff in the feed that we picked up.  Nothing critical to this story though.  Nothing really surprising either.”

“OK Mike, I’ll take your word that we won’t be passing up a chance at another good story to get this interview.”  Then she turned to me.  “I promise that the private stuff about the kid’s family won’t be broadcast.  I’ll even promise that it won’t be subtitled or referenced in any way.  It will be purged.”

“I’ll talk to you after the police are done talking to me then.  Probably in front of the local precinct, or maybe in a restaurant near there?  I imagine I’ll be hungry after I’m done talking with the officers.”

“Sounds good then.  We’ll get to editing then, and meet you after.  There’s a little sidewalk café near the precinct that Officer Jones works out of.  We’ll meet you outside the precinct and I’ll spring for a meal for you before the interview.”  She held out her hand.  “Names Jessica, Jessica Rhiner”

“Good to meet you Jessica, my name is Robert Hawk, we’ll talk in a little while.”  I turned and walked back to Officer Jones.

“Thank you,” Officer Jones said.  “That might make it a bit easier to get Jacob’s sister to testify.”

“Probably save Jacob from a sisterly thumping too.”

We both grinned as we walked back to Officer Jones’ cruiser.

Captain Bocker was not a very happy person when he learned that Officer Jones had taken me by my hotel room before bringing me to the Precinct.

“Are we charging him for anything, Captain?”

“No.  No we aren’t.  That doesn’t mean we go around breaking rules like that.  Nor do we go around asking off duty buddies to watch a hotel room for a couple of hours to make sure nobody gets in without a warrant.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about Captain, we both know none of our detectives would ever try to get evidence without a warrant, especially evidence against a man who wasn’t even being charged.”

They stared at each other.  I pretended not to hear or see them.  Frank was helping me improve my hearing again, and was also able to filter out the mirror effects and show me the shadow image of the two men talking in the room on the other side of the mirrored glass.  It was actually rather surprising that he could hear that well.  I thought that questioning rooms were insulated well enough that even Frank wouldn’t be able to hear much.  I couldn’t ask him though, since there was still a person in the room waiting for the interrogator to return, and I hadn’t been allowed to carry any electronics in.

Bocker turned to the third man in the room, the one who had actually been asking me questions.  “Is there anything else you need to ask this fellow about before we let him go?”

“Nope.  Nothing that we have any right to be asking him if we aren’t pressing charges any way.  I’ve got lots of questions I’d like to ask him though.  The shit he pulled in that fight was straight out of movies.  Nobody’s that good in real life, in a real fight.”

“Video says that at least one person is, I suppose.” Said Officer Jones as he looked at me through the glass.  “Still, you got a point.”

“Point or not, the video showed him acting in clear self-defense after being completely surrounded by Romans, then attacked by their leader.” This from the interrogator.

“He didn’t even give anyone life threatening injuries, and provided first aid to the one he shot in the leg.  Judging from that video, he could probably have killed them faster than he disabled them, if he had wanted to.”

“Doesn’t this guy scare you two just a little?” said the Captain.  “Doesn’t it worry you that someone this dangerous, an unknown, a drifter with a shady past, is in our town?”

“After seeing how he handled himself in that video?  No, not really.  You have two hundred people walking in and out of this building every day with firearms.  Put any officer in that same situation this guy was in, and they would be dead or brutally beaten right now.  There would probably be a few dead or badly hurt Romans too, but this guy did it without killing anyone.”  Officer Jones paused.  “The fact that it seems likely that he could have easily killed them but didn’t makes me less suspicious of him, not more.  This guy’s just one of those oddball super-accurate people you hear about every now and then, like Topperwein with rifles or Hussey with a slingshot.”

“Yeah, except he’s never done anything like it before.  Someone that good at fighting.  With a life as hard as he’s had.  Why didn’t he go pro?  He could easily competitively fight, even at his age, based on what we saw.  Hell, even if he couldn’t fight by boxing rules, he could probably credibly fight anyone in the MMA even though he’s more than thirty-five pounds below the cap for flyweight.”  This from the interrogator, who sighed, then continued.  “I’m with you about how he makes me nervous, Captain, but I don’t see any reason to hold him either.”

“Maybe he just never thought about it, maybe he doesn’t like fighting?” Officer Jones again.  Then he continued.  “Is he going to be charged, or are we going to let him go, Captain?”

Captain Bosko gave Jones a sharp look.  Just enough to make the point that he was in charge.  Jones raised up his hands a bit, showing that he understood the point being made.  Then the Captain turned to look at me and stared for a couple of seconds.  “We let him go.  He scares the shit out of me.  He’s a loose cannon.”  Then he turned and walked towards the exit.  “But we let him go and I hope we don’t regret it.”

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Chapter 1.8: Community Service

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Over the next two weeks, things went remarkably well.  Bill’s contact was actually a real photographer’s shop, with a little extra on the side.  It took them about a week to finish my documents.  When I went to pick up the finished product, I was handed a dossier with birth certificate, social security card, driver’s license, passport, resume, and even a bank account.  Also included were records of prior residences, prior employment, and all sorts of other random details.  The history included immigration papers into the US from Hong Kong as a very young minor.  I had apparently been born there to American parents.  My father was supposed to have been a high-rise steel worker who lived on the road with his family.  This was a lot more than the simple driver’s license and social security card that was the norm for Bill’s referrals, according to Darla.  The price wasn’t cheap either, but even if it wasn’t as good as she said it would be, it would probably be at least good enough to get me out of anything minor, and cause lots of delays for any serious background check.  I couldn’t see Bill risking sending people to someone who couldn’t reliably do what they said they could do.

I took about 15 minutes in a chair in the lobby to look through everything and it looked to be in order.  I happily paid the second half of the $10,000 that the dossier cost me.

“I would like the extent of the work that you did for me kept private from my referrer, Darla.”

She was quiet for a moment, looking up at me, hands folded across her chest.  I felt a little nervous for some reason.  At four-foot ten, tops, and maybe seventy pounds soaking wet, Darla was not physically imposing.  But something about her face made me cautious.  It might just be the Japanese style of facial makeup that was throwing me off, she was fairly heavily made up, almost like she was preparing for a theatre act.  “Your referrer has an arrangement with me that I would have to break to allow that to happen.” She responded.

I thought about it for a second.  “Can you tell me what this arrangement is?”

“Certainly.  It is not a secret arrangement.  All my referrers pay fifty percent of the cost of any work that I do.”

I thought about it for a second.  “You did not advise me that my referrer was sharing costs with me.”

“No, I did not.  I don’t dig too deeply.  If your referrer wishes to recoup the costs for my service from you, that’s between you and them.  You can also return all the documents that you do not wish to pay for, and I will return half of what you paid for them, if you do not feel that your referrer would want to pay for half of their cost.”

“And if I pay my referrer’s share instead, does that change things?”

Darla put her hands together in front of her, and bowed slightly towards me.  “If you wish to take on the full cost of the work, it will be perfectly acceptable, of course.”

“Everything except the driver’s license, and social security card.  He’s expecting to pay at least that much, so we need to let him pay for them.  I will cover the costs of the rest.  What will the total be for me to pay my referrer’s share?”

As I walked towards the front door of Darla’s shop, even with another $9000 gone, I was in good spirits.  I would have to hit a fast food joint’s restroom stall to refill my billfold soon.  It would not be a good idea to have to open the backpack to get money to buy things.  Having solid ID was going to make things a lot easier.

“How soon can I start using these documents?” I asked.

“Immediately.  I do not give them to people until all of the work is done, and verified.  What you have there is the next best thing to real ID.  There are two or three layers of supporting documentation that you do not have in that dossier behind every document, planted or edited into the official record.  Your history was deliberately chosen to be one that is more unclear than most, but not confusing enough to instantly raise red flags.  My team is good.  That is why our services are expensive.”

“I see.  Thank you Darla.  May I refer people to you in the future?” I start packing the dossier back into the manila envelope and put the driver’s license and social security card in my wallet while talking.

“Please do not.  We have more than enough business to serve our needs with our current arrangements.”

“If I find myself in need of your services again at some point, may I return myself, even if I have no referrer?”

“No.  Please do not approach us without being referred.  Unless, of course, you just want some very good photographs taken.  We have exceptionally skilled photographers here as well as those with the skills you took advantage of.” She paused.  “Please do not take insult from our unwillingness to take on new customers, it is merely a matter of us being as cautious as we can by limiting our exposure to avoidable unknowns.”

“No offense taken.  Thank you for your work.”

At the door, I turned around and gave her a half bow, (trying to mimic the Japanese style, and probably failing miserably based on her smile) but she returned my bow with a slight bow of her own and we parted ways.

Twenty thousand dollars for a new identity.  Cheap at twice the price if it was half as good as she said.  Especially since it wasn’t really my money anyhow.

I pretended to press a couple of buttons on my phone and started talking to Frank. “Anywhere in particular you want to meet up for lunch?”

Heavy carbs please.  I’ve finished making some adjustments so we can get your weight up again.  I really wish you would reconsider this.”

“We had an agreement Frank, do you want to argue about it again?”

Frank and I had argued about this before, and I was sure we would again.  He said he had stopped adjusting my bone size, and I had been carefully watching things to compare myself against just to be sure.  I was about five foot six inches tall, slender, well-muscled, but only weighed ninety pounds.  Since I kept getting onto him about keeping me looking human, Frank made me watch more martial arts movies than I cared to remember while he was researching what body shape he wanted for me.  He decided that he would start with a body like Bruce Lee’s and work from there.  I certainly didn’t have a problem with living in a body in that condition, but the carbon bones made me too light.

Frank wanted me as light as possible, but I moved abnormally when I was that light with that much muscle.  It wasn’t blatant like a limp or a disability, but it was noticeable and hard to ignore after you saw it.  I only noticed it myself after a young child asked me what was wrong with my legs as I walked past him and his parents.  I didn’t even realize he was talking to me until a couple of seconds later when I saw that he was staring at my legs.  I pretended not to hear, and just kept walking, looking at my gait in windows along the street as I walked.

Turned out that my legs and arms had, lacking better words, ‘sharper’ movement than normal for a human. When I moved my arms and legs, they accelerated more abruptly, so my gait looked vaguely insect-like.  That’s the best way I could describe it when I was explaining to Frank why it looked wrong.  He did some people watching and had to agree.

Frank still fought me hard on that one.  He did not want to put weight back in my legs and arms at all, at one point flat-out refusing to make any weight adjustments.  I finally figured out a way to make him happy with a compromise though.  The synthetic adrenaline Frank generated slowly over time in a lobe of my liver that he co-opted for that purpose was, at that point in time, stored by him in small amounts throughout my body, carried by nanites, as well as in some adipose tissue.  The substance could be released at various rates, but Frank didn’t have a lot of volume to store the stuff..

I needed more weight in my bones, and I remembered Frank complaining about energy stores.  I realized we could do both at once, explained it to Frank, and he was willing to compromise.  Frank was adding bulk storage for the synthetic adrenaline along each of my long bones, a center-mass storage container, and a simple vascular system connecting the leg and arm storage to the torso mass storage as well.  The fluid would be stored along my bones, to add mass to the legs and arms, but in the event of a fight, Frank could pump the fluid from the arms and legs into the torso, lightening them.  The arm and leg storage tanks, when empty, would still make my arms and legs a bit heavier than they were when my arms were too light, but not much.

So I was supposed to be getting heavier legs and arms so I could move more normally, and Frank got a bunch of fuel storage.  At the same time, Frank will have to be unsatisfied with slightly heavier limbs and I would have to live with the knowledge that I would from that point on have roughly a gallon or so of something a lot like jet fuel in my body.

I suppose we had an agreement.  Sorry.  Now that I actually can make changes to make you a safer place for me to live, it’s really hard to recognize limits based on external influences.” Frank sounded a bit peevish.

“I can’t say I understand Frank, because I’m sure I don’t, but I can sympathize with being required to do things that I don’t want to do.  Been there.  Done that.  And you got to watch.”

Truth.”  A pause. “When we get back to the hotel room, I will show you something else that is new as well.  It will not be visible externally unless we need it in a fight.”

I remembered the carbon claws that Frank had tried to convince me to allow him to build, based off some animalistic comic book character.  I pointed out that he could just carry a knife, and without the extra weight of the claws and all their associated extension and retraction equipment, probably fight better with the knife.  He thought about it for a second, grumbled something, and agreed.

Quietly, under my breath.  “Frank, please listen to me.  It’s easy these days to get high quality video from significant distances, and for all we know there might be people out there right now looking for us based on what they expect you to do to my body.  Think about how aggressively you are trying to improve my body.  I suspect that this is natural for you.  A drive.  A defining part of all symbiotes like yourself like the most basic brain functions in humans that tell us when to fight, fuck, or run.  Just walking around could expose us if you change our body too much and someone with the right computer software is analyzing video with us in it.”

I know.  You are right.  It’s part of me, and I’m going to have to learn to control it better.  I still think you will like my newest idea.”

“Tell me.” I demanded.

No, I’ll show you.  Later.”

“OK.  Chinese buffet it is then.  Mmmm, MSG.” I said with a smile.

MSG is a very simple organic compound with no negative effects, at least for you, even if I weren’t in here watching over things.  Do you really want to know what the meat is?

“If it’s anything other than what they say it is, keep it to yourself.” I commented, under my breath.

The buffet looked pretty good, but they had a sushi and sashimi bar for a couple extra dollars.  The young woman behind the bar knew what she was doing, so we avoided the rest of the buffet and ate lots of sushi and sashimi.  I tipped her well, because she was good at her job and she was cute.  She was also young enough to be my daughter, so I left it at that.  Thinking about any sort of relationship when I was in that situation was absurd anyway.  Even a one night stand.  Even if she had been nearer to my age.  On top of that, there was still nearly four million dollars in my backpack.  I really needed to figure out a way to safely store the money without having to carry it everywhere, and I didn’t need any ‘company’ finding it or forcing me to act aggressively to prevent them from finding it.

I clicked the phone as I walked outside.  “How goes the tank filling?”

About half done.  Should be full after three or four more meals.  Leg and arm movements are much more human-normal now.”

“OK, good, thanks.  Time to find a Wi-Fi hotspot and look for a used truck.”

Why not a small RV or a Semi with a sleeper cab?”

I pulled out my driver’s license.  “I’ll be damned, I have a CDL.  It’s been eighteen years since I drove something with more than six forward gears though.  The RV sounds like a plan, if we can find a good used one.  I know they won’t be cheap in this part of the country though.”

You keep saying that things aren’t cheap – but they really are, because that’s not our money.”

“Point.  It’s still painful to spend it like this.”

I walked down the street towards some taller buildings, figuring that there were likely to be Wi-Fi hotspots around high-rise office buildings in café’s and coffee shops.  I was right, so I found a nice spot in the sun in front of a café, sat down, and waited for the server.

“What will you have sir?” The young man asked as he walked up.

“Just a coffee, large.”

“We have a lot of different mixes and flavors. The booklet on the table describes them.  Do you need a couple of minutes to decide?”

“Do you have a simple dark roast?  I don’t really care much for other flavors in coffee.”

“Sure, we have a few different dark roasts without any non-coffee flavors.”

“Any of them will be fine, I’m sure.”

“Will you need milk, cream, sugar, honey, or anything else?”

“Nah, just coffee in my coffee today, thanks though.”

The server walked off with a smile.  Judging from what I saw in other people’s mugs and from what the other servers were doing to make other people’s drinks, I suspected that the place didn’t get many coffee drinkers who actually liked the taste of coffee.  I probably amused my server with my simplicity.

The coffee arrived, and it was very good.  I paid the server, tipped him well, and started web browsing, eventually finding a rather substantial RV lot that wasn’t too terribly far away.  They were advertising at least four or five small RV’s which I might want to buy.  There was also a camping supply shop right next door to the RV lot, apparently both owned by the same company.  It would certainly be more expensive this way, but RV prices in this area were through the roof even from private sellers.  The advertisements said this RV lot had been around for fifty years, and had its own service department.  I’d pay a bit extra for a bit more confidence in what I was buying.

I pulled up a map to get from the café to the RV shop.  It was only a couple of miles, so I decided to walk.  As I was walking I started seeing advertisements for hourly hotel rentals, apartments offering a free mattress after signing a six month lease, or free month’s rent with the first month’s rent paid in advance on a six month lease.  The buildings were poorly maintained, and what little vegetation there was around the buildings was in poor condition and untended, where it was alive at all.

It could be worse, there aren’t any burnt out cars or building shells.” Frank said as I looked back and forth at an intersection.

At the next intersection, when I looked right, there was a burnt out shell of a building with two burnt out shells of cars in front of it. “Well, OK, I’ve been wrong before.”  Frank said, as I chuckled.

“Frank, meet Murphy.  Do not tempt Murphy, Frank.”

Gotcha.”

I continued up the road, and began to walk past a wide alley with half a dozen young men in their late teens lounging on boxes and benches ripped out of bus stops.  One of the older ones looked up from where his smart phone was being held for the others to see, and walked towards me. “Granola tax, hippy.  Come here and empty your pockets and your pack.”

I watched him walk slowly up to me, he was ready to run after me if I tried to run.  He was trying to be clever and apparently the others thought he was, or he was the leader type that liked yes men.

“I gave at the office.”

“Glad to hear that yer so into giving.  My buddies and I like generous people.  The more generous people are, the less blood gets spilled.”  A truck pulled up behind me and half a dozen more teens jumped out of the back, a couple of them were carrying short lengths of chain or rebar.  A couple more were checking that their concealed weapons were ready, but since they were still standing out in the road, no knives or guns came out yet.

“Seems like a whole lot of effort for a bit of granola, a cue stick, and some cheap camping gear.”

“We ain’t stupid.  Yer clothes are clean, yer clean and healthy, well fed.  People don’t stay that way without money.  We see lots of folks on the down with no money, and that ain’t you.”

Not stupid then, just ignorant, with terrible English skills.  Fixing their ignorance was something I preferred to avoid, if possible, so I switched tactics.  “If you look at my face, young man, you will see that life hasn’t been kind to me, and yet here I am with a dozen young thugs around me, and not even a drop of sweat on my forehead.”  I didn’t want to fight these kids, and was doing my best to bluff them.  They might not attack if they thought I would hurt a few of them badly.

Several of the teens who could see my face saw the wear and scars that Frank put there and looked at each other but didn’t back away.  Every one of them was looking at my waist and armpits to see what I might be carrying.

“Yer a bit too close to us ta be making threats right now, old man.  Drop the pack, then yer jacket, then empty out yer pants pockets and we’ll talk all nice-like.  If ya don’t, we just beat everything of value out of you and dump you in the park with broken legs and arms.”

“I kind of like my legs and arms the way they are.  One second.”  I shrugged out of the backpack and coat at the same time, with one quick forward dip of my torso while pushing my arms back, followed by a quick hop.  They fell in a pile behind me, the coat covering the pack.  My clamshell was clearly visible under my left arm.  There was a mutter from the circle of thugs.

“OK Bob, nonlethal only?” Frank asked.

I blinked once for yes.

“Too many here to try to avoid them all while at high speed, without killing them.  A good chance I’ll cook us both if I try that, so we’re probably going to take a couple hits at least, if more than a couple of them are worth a damn in a fight.  Shouldn’t be a problem though, even if they pull pistols.”

I blinked once again for yes.

“Last chance boys.  There are some people in this world that can take on a dozen untrained thugs and know they will win.  I’m one of them.  This isn’t about me walking away, it’s about you walking away.”

Three of the youngest looking kids backed away from me a bit, but the rest encouraged or threatened them back in with crooked fingers and sharp looks.

The leader continued to approach slowly, a grin on his face, thinking he was toying with me.  Eventually he was two long steps from me where he stopped and started talking, while watching my face. “Ya talk big fer a shrimp, but if you knew a damn thing about fightin’, you wouldn’t have let me get this close before pullin’ your pistol.  I’m callin’ your bluff.  That gun is fake, don’t work, or ain’t loaded.  Or yer just an idiot.”

“OK, everyone who I catch and put down will get their left earlobe notched when there isn’t anyone but me left standing.  Just to remind you that you should listen better next time.”  A couple of the younger gangers lifted their left hand to touch their left ear, but none backed away.  Not that I would have actually marked them like cattle, but saying that would either scare them or piss them off, and either one meant they would be thinking less clearly when the fight started.

The leader moved forward at that threat, face transforming from a cruel grin to an angry stare.  “Was fun talkin’ fer a bit there, but ain’t no way ya can threaten us like that and live, shithead.” Then he swung his rebar club at me.  It was about two feet long and half an inch in diameter.  A nice, fast, dense club.

Frank enabled perception enhancement, and I started to see the fight the same way Frank was seeing it.

Compared to the assassins, these guys were pathetic.  Slow, uncoordinated, untrained, and some of them were afraid.

The leader was fairly smart with his first blow.  He started a swing that was aimed at the space between my right hand and my clamshell, apparently thinking I might be a fast draw, and wanting to hit the arm as I was starting to draw.  He put himself way off-balance doing it though.

Frank had me grab the leader’s right hand and pivot, using his unbalanced attack to sling him sideways into the feet of two others running up behind me, tripping them up.  While I was still turned about a quarter way around from where I started, Frank had me leap directly backwards about five feet. Both arms driving back hard.  Apparently the two kids coming at me from that angle didn’t even realize that I was attacking them, since my back was to them.  Both fists connected.  The one on the right took the bottom of my fist on his forehead as it swept back, and he was out for the count.  The other one managed to angle his head and take a grazing blow, but he was stunned.  Since he was standing still, Frank grabbed him by the base of his neck with both hands, and leapt again, swinging around him.  Due to our weight difference, the pivot thug didn’t move much, and he took the blow meant for me that was delivered by another thug with a baseball bat.  Pretty sure the cracks I heard were breaking ribs.

Frank let go of the pivot thug’s neck with one hand and grabbed the bat, pulling hard.  The bat thug didn’t let go and was pulled forward.  Frank pushed the pivot thug with one arm and pulled the bat thug with his bat, and they met head to head, then started collapsing, but Frank was already moving on with the captured bat.

The fight was over after Frank got the bat.  He just went from one thug to another around the circle clockwise, knocked away whatever weapon the current thug was holding with the bat, then popped them in the stomach or knee to get them to bend over or fall, following with a punch to one ear or the other, stunning the thug in question.

As I stood over the last thug of the circle, Frank released the perception enhancement, and I heard the squeaking of opening doors from the direction of the truck that had been behind me when the fight started, but was now to my left.

“Cap that motherfucker, don’t let them get close.”  The driver of the truck was braced over the hood of the truck with a two-handed grip on a big pistol, the passenger had two smaller pistols, one in each hand, and he was facing me head on.

Guns.  We might take a hit but no worry.” From Frank.

Frank changed my perception again, and we leapt left, towards the two gangers from the truck.  Frank threw the bat under the truck as we quickly dove headfirst towards the ground near the feet of the truck’s passenger who was firing high.  I hoped they wouldn’t hit the gang members I had tried to avoid killing.  Meanwhile, as the passenger struggled to adjust his aim down, Frank absorbed the energy of the jump with his arms, while flipping over and lining up both legs so that when he forcefully straightened both arms and both legs, each heel drove into one of the passenger’s collar bones.  Two cracks.  Definitely broken bones.

Another wet-sounding crack.  From where?  Frank fell back to the ground as the passenger flew back a couple of feet and hit the truck, his pistols clattering to the ground.  I then saw where the other crack had come from.  The bat that Frank threw under the truck had bounced off the back wheel of the truck, then forward to hit the driver’s right ankle, where he was sheltering his legs behind the driver side front tire.  Even with a broken ankle, the driver was still braced on the hood, looking for a chance to shoot us.  Had to give him credit for chutzpah, but he failed tactics.

Frank put us in a crouch against the truck and picked up one of the passenger’s pistols, then leaned under the truck and shot twice through the sidewall of the tire that the driver was trying to hide his legs behind.  We heard the clatter of metal and a pistol fell off the hood of the truck onto the pavement, fortunately not firing a round when it hit the ground.  We were all done, except for making sure nobody bled to death or was in serious need of medical attention.

The only one I felt we really needed to worry about was the driver, and his bullet wound was not severe, just a grazing flesh wound that stopped bleeding with some pressure.

The others were starting to stir, so I stood up from kneeling by the driver, grabbed the bat, and walked over to check them out.  None of them had life threatening injuries, though a couple might have mild concussions.  I walked back to my coat and pack, calmly put on my coat, then my pack, and turned to the gangers.

“I strongly suggest you fellas look into real jobs.  You suck at this.  Next time, if you decide to mess with the wrong guy, he might not be as nice as me.”

I unloaded all three pistols and used one of the pieces of rebar to break the trigger guards and triggers off them.  As I turned away from the thugs and started to walk down the road, I saw a couple younger kids with smartphones.  It was obvious that they had been there at least a few seconds, recording the fight.

“How long were they there Frank?”  Under my breath.

One was there the whole fight.  I think he started recording when you dropped the jacket and showed that you were carrying.  The second ran up started recording about halfway through.”

“You didn’t ever speed up beyond what would be possible for a human, right?

Correct.  I didn’t even pump the limbs out to speed myself up, really was no point to it for this fight, since we weren’t using ‘juice’.”

“Juice?” I asked in a confused voice.

Short name for the artificial adrenaline?  Seem OK to you?”

“Sure, ‘juice’ it is, but back to the kids there. Even if this stuff hits the news or TheTube, I’ll just look like a badass, not inhuman.”

Pretty much.  You didn’t do anything that the best martial artists in the world couldn’t match.”

“Great.  That’s probably a bit much, since the grand total of all we know about the best martial artists in the world comes from Bruce Lee movies, Jackie Chan movies, and Chuck Norris jokes.  I don’t think we want the publicity, but I don’t think we can afford to be afraid of it either.”  I waved to the kids and turned to walk away.

We either fought them, making ourselves potentially conspicuous, or we let them rob us, which probably would have ended with us fighting them anyway.  At least we didn’t use deadly force.”

“Yeah.  The cops are probably going to be upset and maybe start another manhunt for us after that much violence if we don’t at least put in a report.”  I pulled out one of the disposable phones and dialed 911.  This could have ended up being very bad.  At the same time, with the kids and who knows who else getting video of the fight, if I wanted to continue using this ID, I couldn’t become a fugitive.

“911 Operator.  What is the nature of your emergency?”

“I need to report fourteen injured individuals on the north side of Octavius Street between 14th Street West and 14th Street East.  Five or six potential concussions, several broken bones, and one shallow bullet wound that has been treated.”

“Are there still people fighting?” The 911 operator asked me.

“No, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep all fourteen of them from getting away if you don’t get officers here soon.”

“You have captured fourteen of the Romans?”

“If that’s what this gang calls itself, yes.”

“Stay on the line with me please.”

“I will but I have to watch these guys too.”

“Understood.  I’ll whistle if I need you to listen, and you don’t seem to be.  Are you visibly armed?”

“Carrying a baseball bat, Native American, five foot six, thin, middle age.”

I walked back to where the gangers were, picked up the bat that I had dropped while leaving, and yelled out at the one kid that was still there.  “You mind letting the cops see that videos when they get here?”

“Already been Tubed man, you were awesome!”  Then he ran off.

“What you call it?” I had to raise my voice.

He stopped and turned, cupping his mouth so I could hear better “Badass Old Man on Octavius Street” then ran off.

I chuckled as I carefully dragged the driver to the same side of the truck as the rest of the gangers, so I could watch them all at once.  “All right boys.  You’ve seen how good I am.  You stand up, I knock you down.  So save yourself some pain and just stay sitting or lying there.  The cops should be here soon.”

A couple of them were staring at me, left hands covering their left ears.  I let them imagine the worst.

My nervousness grew as the sirens got closer.

You sure you want to do this?” Frank asked, sounding a bit nervous.

“No.  I’m not sure at all.” I subvocalized.

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