Senator Scott McGowan settled into his chair and his new wife, Belinda Hunt McGowan, sat down beside him. They were preparing for an ABC News interview with Robin Ramses.
Ms. Ramses was conducting a series of interviews with prospective candidates for the 2016 Presidential race. Scotty expected it to be a difficult interview. Belinda didn't, and she mentally explained why, via their Companions.
"Her co-anchor is the one that contributed so much to the Democrats. Ms. Ramses' political preferences may lean left, but she is fair," Belinda silently insisted. "Besides, we've both read her, and we will know the motivation of any question that she asks."
"Your insistence that we get a copy of the raw footage, to correct 'misconceptions' caused by editing, was genius," Scotty praised her, their mental connection tinted with his love for her.
"It's good to know that you married me for my brains," his wife teased.
"Nope," Scotty disagreed, managing to put a leer in his thoughts. "I married you for your body. The brains were just a bonus."
Robin settled herself into a chair facing the couple. She saw the expressions of playful love cross both their faces, as they looked at each other and smiled.
'Wow, ' she thought to herself. 'I hope they got that look on camera. That shot would be worth the whole interview.'
"Senator, Mrs. McGowan, are you ready to begin?" Robin asked.
"We're ready, but I really prefer 'Scotty' to 'Senator, '" Scotty replied.
"That's okay for him, Robin. Personally, I can't get enough of being called 'Mrs. McGowan, '" Belinda said with a grin, "You can call me Belinda. That's what our friends call me."
"I think all newlyweds go through that," Robin laughed. "Should I assume that the luster hasn't worn off of married life yet?"
"For my part, every day just gets better," Scotty said with a tender look at Belinda.
"I'll second that," Belinda said, smiling back at Scotty.
"Senator ... um ... Scotty," Robin began, her expression getting more serious.
"She's going to jump in the deep end of the pool," Scotty silently noted to Belinda, picking up the interviewer's surface thoughts.
"Be nice," Belinda replied in kind. "She didn't pick the questions, but she's trying to ask them in as delicate a way as possible."
"Your critics have made a number of observations about your marriage," Robin continued, unaware of the silent mental conversation going on between the newlyweds. "They claim that your marriage is simply a political maneuver. One critic called it a stunt, and the only purpose for the marriage is to smooth your path to the White House."
"I have heard the claims and criticism. They are wrong, and frankly, they display the political weakness of the men and women making those claims," Scotty said, frowning. "Obviously they don't have a platform to attack my stance on issues with cogent arguments. They resort to personal attacks, such as questioning why I would marry a woman I love. There are two specific claims that are particularly irritating. The one that irritates both of us the most is that we are too old to be marrying for love, therefore, it must be for other reasons. Usually those reasons are insinuated to be underhanded. Another false claim is the only reason we married is that America likes her presidents to be family men."
"I wouldn't have married him for either of those reasons," Belinda asserted.
"How can you refute either claim?" Robin asked. "They seem like the kind of claims that can't be proven, one way or the other. You can't prove a negative."
"You are exactly right," Belinda said. "We will state our case, and it won't sway our critics. On the other hand, the people that are trying to decide who to vote for, can also decide who is providing information on the issues, and who is trying to 'muddy the waters, ' so they don't have to talk about the real problems facing America."
"Robin, I've known Belinda for over twenty-five years," Scotty began. "Her husband, Mark, was my best friend through high-school and college. He was killed on the USS Stark by an Iraqi Mirage jet in 1987. Belinda was one of the reasons that I wanted to retire. I had planned to ask her to marry me after I was out of office."
"Did she agree to marry you if you run for President?" Robin asked, leaving her script, and indulging in her curiosity.
"Not hardly," Scotty said, chuckling. "We married IN SPITE of me seeking office again, not because of it. I announced that I would run during the New Year's celebration of 2012. I asked her to marry me a week later. She agreed, and we married a month after that."
"But ... the age thing," Robin said, hesitantly.
Belinda burst out laughing, before saying, "I would like all of America to know that we are consenting adults, and neither of us is too old to enjoy marital bliss ... if that's what everyone's worried about. For those that don't believe that Scotty is more capable than most men half his age; he ran an Army Physical Fitness test last month for charity, with two of his body guards. One guard was an Army Ranger, and the other was a Navy Seal. The Ranger and the Seal both made a perfect score of three hundred. Scotty's score was two hundred ninety-two. He stopped during the run to sign some autographs, so he didn't get a perfect score on the run. He still scored in the top five percent of all US Army scores."
Robin blushed, laughing, and exaggerated drawing a line across her notes, saying, "I think that answers the question about Senator Scott being too old for the pressures of the Presidency, too."
She quickly scanned her notes, looking for a question that would take her in a different direction.
"Mrs. McGowan," Robin said. "Assuming your husband is successful in his White House bid, what do you feel about the prospects of being America's First Lady?"
"Don't you have any easy questions on your list?" Belinda teased with a smile. "Actually, I'm of two minds about living in the White House. On one hand, it is an incredible honor, and even the possibility that it will happen is humbling. On the other hand, it will be like living in a fish bowl. Scotty is used to that kind of life, to an extent, because of his years in politics. I've been a partial owner, and editor, of a regional newspaper since shortly after Mark was killed. I don't think that I will enjoy the 'fish bowl' aspect of Scotty being President."
"Do the two of you agree politically?" Robin asked Belinda.
"We agree on a lot of things, but not everything," Belinda replied with a shrug.
"What is something that you don't agree on?" Robin asked.
"We don't agree on all aspects of the immigration issue. Both of us think America needs fair and timely immigration laws," Belinda explained, considering her words. "Scotty's views are skewed towards national security in the immigration issue. My views are more focused on the helpless: on the innocents that are caught in the immigration fight."
"Senator, why is the immigration issue important?" Robin asked.
"There are two answers to that question," Scotty began. "The short term answer is that we need to control our borders for security, AND provide a way to legitimize new citizens. We need the influx of productive immigrants to maintain the youthful vigor of our society, but unchecked illegal immigration is counter-productive. Plus, unchecked illegal immigration allows an open door that criminal elements take advantage of. The criminals taking advantage of our lack of enforcement may only be ten percent of the total illegal alien influx, but that ten percent gets the news coverage. The result is all illegal immigrants are painted with the same brush. It isn't fair, but it IS reality."
"The long term answer is much more complex. Mankind has been moving to new locations, to better care for their families, since the beginning of humanity's journey. Migration to better care for the family is a part of mankind's basic makeup, and it is not going to change. Wars have been fought throughout our history because of migrations of people trying to better their families' living conditions. Migration is a human instinct, nearly as strong as our drive to procreate.
"We're running out of places for men to move to, and we can't legislate migrations. It is impossible. The most that we can hope for is to control the migration in the short term, while searching for cost effective solutions for the issues responsible for the migration.
"There are multiple issues causing the migration that we're currently experiencing. They range from religious, to political, to economic, to lawlessness. The question that we need to answer is: what action on the part of the United States would have the most impact, per dollar spent, to alleviate the problem? In my administration, any bill that can show me how to effect a two billion dollar impact with one billion dollars, on whatever the issue, will see the bill signed. I don't care who proposes it. However, I will not sign any bill to 'study' the issues, no matter which party it comes from."
"According to your initial announcement of your presidential intentions, your focus for the election was the American Family," Robin pointed out, leaving unspoken the question of how that fit with his immigration beliefs.
"It is," Scotty said, and then sighed. "The trouble with politics is that it tries to tackle all the problems facing us as individual issues. Immigration, national security, the national debt, the environment, social services, jobs ... Those are a few of the major issues facing the United States. The trouble with placing each issue in a pigeon-hole is that they aren't separate issues! They don't exist in neat little pockets. They are interconnected, like a huge jigsaw puzzle. A president's success isn't measured by how he resolves a pigeon hole issue. It's measured by how successful he is at resolving the issues of the entire picture the jigsaw puzzle represents. Strengthening the American Family impacts all those issues for the better. Space exploration also impacts all those issues," he stated, subtly changing the direction of the interview.
"Space exploration impacts many of those issues negatively," Robin asserted.
"Really? How is that?" Scotty asked, allowing slight amusement to show on his face.
"Funds spent on space exploration could be spent on better social services, or creating jobs, or paying down the national debt," Robin defended her statement.
Scotty shook his head sadly and said, "The US has spent trillions on social services, since the 'War on Poverty' began. In 2012, the United States poverty rate was zero point two percent below the poverty rate in 1965, after adjustments for inflation. What has America gained for the trillions spent? We need a new paradigm for Social Services that allows families to excel, instead of our current system that ensures that the poor stay poor. Study your history! Look at how many jobs were created when we went to space in the sixties. Entire industries were created, and are still providing American jobs. In our recent history, we've traded good-paying engineering and manufacturing jobs for burger-flipping jobs. Sure, the unemployment rates look good, but, how can we call it success when we've traded a high-paying job for a minimum wage job. The burger-flippers used to be the high-school kids who did the job for spending money, to take their girl out on a Friday night. Now people are trying to raise families on that same job, and are complaining because they don't get paid enough!"
Scotty stopped to give that statement time to sink in, before saying, "We need to get back on track with jobs creation, and I don't have to explain what that would do for the American family. As for the national debt, how are we going to pay anything down with a nation of low-pay service industry jobs? We are paying millions to use Russian lift capability to get to space. Why aren't we providing lift capability to other countries and using those millions to pay our own national debt? Why aren't we the leader in research and development? We are the United States of America! When did it become acceptable for the United States to become a second-rate nation?"
"I can see that you're certainly passionate about the subject," Robin commented with a smile. "You have three years, before the next Presidential election, to bring voters to your point of view. It will be interesting to see if American voters share your passion."
"Scotty gets excitable," Belinda said, returning the reporter's smile. "The current attitude - that we should apologize for being Americans - is particularly troubling to him. Most of current foreign policy leans in that direction, including research. By the way, that is one of the issues that we agree on completely."
Robin smiled again, as she selected her next question. She wanted to get as much mileage from this interview as possible.
"Let me ask about another hot-button issue for this campaign," Robin said. "Law enforcement seems to be causing an increase in racial tensions, and the racial mix of prison populations is drastically out of balance with the nation's racial mix. Do you have a plan to address those issues?"
"First of all, law enforcement isn't causing an increase in racial tensions," Senator Scott said sternly. "If you want to blame someone for racial tensions, you can start with the professional race agitators, and end with politicians who have more allegiance to party and dogma than to the people that elected them. I'm not saying that law enforcement officers are always right. We have over a million law enforcement officers, and they are trying to keep the peace for three-hundred million citizens. They have the highest injury rate of any profession in the United States. Some small percentage of that million plus officers will be bad apples. We need to be on the lookout for them, and get rid of them. Another small percentage will make mistakes, the same as in any other profession. Is it right to crucify a person that makes an honest mistake? Despite all the negative rhetoric, the vast majority of law enforcement still protect us. What right do the professional race agitators - both in office and out - what right do they have to denigrate the vast majority of peace officers?" Scotty asked angrily.
"Okay ... I can see that's another subject you're impassioned about," Robin said with a smile, hoping to defuse the Senator's anger.
"You're darn right I am," Scotty shot back, reducing the sternness in his voice, replacing it with the tone of a grandfather lecturing his granddaughter. "The second part of that question was about our prison population. I don't know why anyone is surprised at the racial mix in the prisons. It could have been forecast in the sixties, and had precedent to base the forecast on. Look at what happened to the families and social structure of the American Indian after the government decided to 'care' for them. There were a lot of atrocities when dealing with Native Americans, but the greatest, in my opinion, was stripping pride from the men by providing for their families. Instead of providing jobs, so the men could provide for their families, the government provided food and shelter, leaving family heads with no purpose. The same model was used in the war on poverty, and the first victims of the war on poverty were African-American families. In the sixties, the African-American segment of our society was the most downtrodden, uneducated, and economically disenfranchised in the US. There is no question that they were discriminated against. At the same time, they could boast the hardest working, and most cohesive family units, of any ethnic subgroup of our society, in the United States. We took away their pride by providing everything for them, and have nearly destroyed their entire culture. The war on poverty did something that slavery, and all the discrimination, and soul grinding poverty, couldn't do! It destroyed the African-American family. Why is anyone surprised at the disproportionate imprisonment of members of the African-American community? They have very few positive role models to follow, much less anyone to teach them the work ethic their fathers and grandfathers understood. Furthermore, the laws and regulations are designed to maintain their slide into destruction under the guise of 'political correctness.'"
Scotty looked directly into the camera before solemnly stating, "Look at the demographics available to every American on our government's websites. We are in the midst of a shift in the racial mix of people taking advantage of social services. The numbers of African-Americans is holding steady, but the percentages of every other ethnic group is increasing. Caucasians are the fastest growing ethnic group using social services, primarily single-parent Caucasian homes. According to those demographics, we will see a shift in our prisons' racial mix over the next few generations, because white Americans are on the same path as the African-American community in the sixties and seventies. Check the demographics for yourself."
"Children born into single-parent families is skyrocketing, in every racial demographic. A single parent family is the highest commonality across ALL races in our prison system. The social services regulations seem to encourage single-parent families. The American Family, in all racial demographics, is threatened by our current regulations."
The camera zoomed in on Robin's face, as she raised her eyebrows and said, "I think you have summed up your goals very nicely, Senator, if you are elected President. Thank you for your time, Senator, and Mrs. McGowan."
"What is your view, America? We would like to hear America's response to the Senator's views. Will his views change your vote, when you go to the polls?"
Professor Brandon (Bran) Hawthorn poured coffee into the three cups on the table, and automatically checked the baby bottle for the baby at the table that still used a bottle. He loved watching the kids. Bran had even bought a play-pen so they could stay in his lab while he worked. He often talked to them while he worked, explaining what he was doing and why. They seemed to pay attention better than some of his students at Rice University.
Bran sighed as he settled into a kitchen chair. He looked troubled, and his first sip of coffee didn't alleviate the concern on his face.
"Thanks for coming," Bran said to the other two men sitting at the table. "I've got a dilemma, and I'm hoping you can help solve it."
The other two men were Bill Parker and Caleb Connor. Bill was bouncing his six month old great-grandson, Mike, on his knee. Caleb was bouncing his own son on his knee: two and a half year old Noah.
Bill had been Bran's friend since grade school. They had even joined the Marines together. The only major conflict between the two men, in their entire lives, was when Bill began dating Bran's sister, Collette. Bran had considered it a violation of the 'guy rule' that you don't mess with your friend's sister. Collette set her brother straight in such a way that had both men walking softly for a long while.
Caleb had married Bill and Collette's daughter, JJ, and was a key part of their family. You could say Caleb joined the family with some baggage. That baggage was in the form of an alien symbiote living in his mind. He had acquired the alien when a space ship had crashed onto his camping site. Fortunately, he wasn't in camp at the time. The symbiote needed a host in order to live, and in return, was able to enhance many of its host's abilities. They called the symbiote a Companion.
The symbiote had never encountered humans, or anything like them. There were several surprises for Caleb and the symbiote, which he had named Al. Optimizing his host's body in whatever way it could was standard procedure for a Companion, based on his billions of years as a symbiote. Optimizing the human body had some unexpected repercussions. Least among those was a highly resilient, and more capable, body that would have a greatly extended life span. The most unexpected result was the ability of the new Companion/host combination to open a portal into another universe, allowing a new Companion to pass through the portal, if a new host was available. The result was that their whole family had Companions.
"What's wrong, Bran?" Bill asked.
"I have a dilemma," Bran said again, "And I need advice on how to resolve it."
"What's wrong," Caleb asked, repeating Bill's question. "You know we'll do whatever we can to help."
Bran sighed again, before saying, "It has been over a year since the last upgrade to our armor. That upgrade accomplished the primary goal of faster reaction time for the armor, and we've discovered several secondary abilities. The stealth capabilities, both visual and audible, were a surprise, but it still has the drawback of not being able to see others that have stealth enabled. The biggest drawback of the armor is that it can't be removed, and it locks the Companions to their host. That's what I've been trying to fix, and I may have a solution, or at least a path towards a solution."
He was speaking of the DNA coded nanobots he had created. Bran had needed Al's advice, based on knowledge accrued from some of his previous hosts, to build on mankind's current technological state. A thirteen billion year old Companion had memories of a lot of technology from previous hosts. The armor had initially been internal nanobots that strengthened bones, and protected vital body systems. The external manifestation of the armor had been slow to react when needed, but was still quite impressive. The upgrade Bran was speaking of was the combination of the internal, and external, nanobots. The result created DNA coded armor that responded similarly to any other bodily muscle, and was very efficient.
The stealth ability was due to the ability to select which frequencies to reflect, and how to reflect them. It could appear as the deepest black, absorbing all radiated light and sound, or blazing white, reflecting all light and sound. Caleb's stepson, Blake, had discovered how to reflect light in a different direction than light would normally reflect. Once he discovered that little trick, it was just a matter of time and practice before he was able to control the phenomena. Reflecting light in the opposite direction than it would normally be reflected created the effect of virtual invisibility, but it only worked when standing still. Sound created as a person moved could also be reflected with the opposite polarity, effectively allowing the host to move in near complete silence, but they would then be visible. The major drawback of the armor was that it couldn't be removed, and it locked the Companion to the host. It was a virtual death sentence for the Companion.
"I've found a way to further upgrade the armor. The trouble is, it could be the solution to removing the armor, or it could take me farther from that goal. The thing is, once the upgrade is installed, there isn't a way to fall back to the current armor," Bran continued. "Either way, the upgrade would greatly increase the armor's autonomy, and functionality. The host and Companion would have dual control of the armor."
"What do you mean by 'dual control'?" Caleb asked.
"Both would be able to control different aspects of the armor," Bran explained. "Both the host and Companion can activate the basic armor. Both can also manipulate the armor to but Companions can probably take better advantage of the armor's capabilities in a survival situation. Humans are terrible at multitasking. Companions are good at multitasking, plus they have better focus internally, while their host focuses on survival. Part of the upgrade adds an artificial intelligence aspect to the programming, which may open a path to remove the armor. It also integrates the Companion and host melding tighter, so it could make it harder to remove the armor. The enhanced capabilities of the armor are so tantalizing that it is hard to resist!"
"What kinds of enhanced capabilities?" Caleb asked.
Bran threw up his hands, saying, "Stealth improvement, so it works while moving. How about using the armor to create a mask that looks like another person's face, or to change the color of your hair, or skin, or facial structure so facial recognition algorithms can't identify you? Deployed armor that look like clothes that really look and feel like clothes, but provide better protection than the best Kevlar. This is AI we're talking about Caleb. What do you want to teach it? Use your imagination, Caleb!"
"Sorry, Bran," Caleb murmured, sitting back in his chair with raised eyebrows.
Bran was seldom irritable, especially with his Companion's assistance in conveying information and smoothing his sometime rough social skills. This, whatever 'this' was, must really have him going.
"What's the problem, Bran," Bill soothed, knowing, from their long acquaintance, how to help his friend resolve an issue that was troubling him.
"To put it simply, I don't know if the upgrade will make it easier or harder to find a way to remove the armor. I've gone as far as I can with lab testing. Someone needs to decide if I should continue on this path, or start over from square one," Bran explained, slumping back in his own chair.
"What does the upgrade involve?" Caleb asked.
"The upgrade is a change in the programming and the integration of some new materials," Bran explained, his irritation fading, and his excitement growing while explaining what had been developed. "A programming language specifically for artificial intelligence was recently developed. The language was designed for programming artificial neurons, essentially artificial DNA strands, so they could learn from their environment. Essentially, each node that makes up the armor is treated as a neuron in a matrix."
Bran tapped the table thoughtfully before saying, "The material that makes up the nanobots are different, too. The nanobots of the armor are currently made from graphene and carbon nanotubes. I upgraded the physical structure of the nanobots with stainless steel and tungsten nanotubes to increase the armor's durability, and their computational characteristics. The physical characteristics are a departure from brain neurons, but they can handle more information at an order of magnitude faster. Encapsulating the new materials in the carbon prevents the body from rejecting the new nanobots."
"I rewrote the armor programming, using the kernel from the AI language. The upgrade allows the armor to learn, and adapt to the user, but I don't know to what extent. I don't know if it will evolve into a true Artificial Intelligence system. In the lab, the armor became more intuitive. Maybe, with assistance from the fully realized artificial intelligence, the armor can be removed. I won't know that unless we test it on a live subject. My dilemma is: should I continue to pursue this research, or drop it to continue searching for a sure way to separate the nanobots from our bodies?"
"I don't know what effect direct exposure to intelligence, both human and Companions, will have on the nanobots," Bran continued, with a note of caution in his voice. "The armor functionality should be increased beyond the lab experiments, even if it can't be removed. However, I don't know how a live environment, with a human mind and a Companion's influence to interact with, would change the armor's parameters. I don't know how interaction with live intelligence would impact the programming adaptation."
"It sounds like you need a guinea-pig," Bill mused.
"Yeah, but it can't be Bran," Caleb said. "He's the only one that can fix it if it goes bad. I would like the upgrade, but I wouldn't be a good test subject. Al was locked to me before we ever thought about armor."
Bill sighed before asking, "Will this hurt?"
The babies looked at each other and giggled. Sometime they seemed to understand a lot more than they should.
"I'll let Scotty know about the armor upgrade," Caleb said over the giggles. "He's worried about the aliens getting here before we're ready. His Companion is still angry at Al for waiting a year to tell us about the aliens' probable frame of mind when they show up."
"I've explained that," Al complained, including everyone at the table with his rebuttal.
"I know," Caleb replied aloud. "His Companion's point of view is much narrower than yours is. He's only a little older than Noah. You've got a few billion years of experience on him."
"He has access to all my memories each time we meld," Al pointed out. "He should be over it by now."
"Memories are not the same as experience," Caleb advised. "There is no substitute for experience."
The upgrade didn't allow them to remove the armor, yet, but the improvement in the armor was remarkable. The stealth attributes were nearly perfect while allowing the host to see other hosts in stealth mode with something similar to a heads-up-display. The density was increased, so stopping power against projectiles was improved, and it seemed that the more the armor was used, the more uses they found for it.
The full scope of the artificial intelligence capabilities didn't manifest themselves until much later.
Mullah Abdul Ali Hassan gritted his teeth in anger. The Demon that resided inside him raged. They were watching a news broadcast with the results of the United States' 2016 Presidential election. The man that won wasn't supposed to be alive! But there he was, President Elect-Scott McGowan, giving his acceptance speech.
The Mullah drew a pistol, and screamed before he shot the television.
Guards rushed into the room.
"Get out," the Mullah screamed, and shot the television again, while calling the wrath of Allah down on whatever had enraged him.
The guards hurriedly backed out, their eyes wide with fear, and they had good reason to be afraid. There were former guards, survivors now retired to an asylum, that had tried to calm the Mullah when he was in a rage. The lucky ones could still feed themselves, though not in polite company. The not-so-lucky guards could only drool, and swallow with help, when someone bothered to place food in their mouths.
Some guards, in what they believed were their private thoughts, wondered why the guards that had lost their souls were kept alive. The more experienced guards believed that live, damaged guards were better object lessons than the fading memories of dead guards, and of the Mullah's wielding of Allah's power.
Most of the current guards had seen Mullah Hassan call down the wrath of Allah on some hapless soul. They had watched vibrant young men and women scream ... as they became ... less. Physically they hadn't changed. They still breathed, and made sounds, though the sounds didn't sound human. They had lost something vital to sentient life.
The guards believed Allah had taken their souls, while leaving their bodies alive. They were only partly correct. Allah had nothing to do with it. The demon had absorbed the souls, and every soul continued to scream in agony, in the Mullah's mind. Mullah Hassan had learned to suppress the screams, after the first two, an old man and his wife. The demon had stolen the woman's soul, and had horrified the Mullah. Then, the demon forced the man to shoot the shell of the body of his wife. The Mullah considered that a mercy, but the man didn't know that. He died screaming, too, and was still screaming in the Mullah's mind. The Mullah had to suppress the screams, or go mad himself, if he wasn't already.
Mullah Abdul Ali Hassan hadn't always been known by that name. He was born as Robert Blanchard, but everyone that could remember the black haired son of a whore was dead. He had made sure of that, starting with his murder of his mother. Afterwards, he had assumed the name of Robert Branch and joined the army. Brigadier General Robert Branch was on the cusp of retirement when he was requested to take one last mission.
The mission was his first on American soil. All of his other missions had been in South America, Africa, the Middle East, or the Far East. General Branch and his aide had developed a reputation for getting the job done, no matter what obstacles were in the way. Behind their backs, the General and his Aide were called the Bloody Duo because of the way some of those 'obstacles' had been eliminated. The nick-name was well deserved. It was during that last mission that General Branch's world became unraveled.
An honest-to-God space ship had crashed in Arizona, near the Colorado River. General Branch's orders had been to control the situation. The News Networks couldn't find out about the crash. According to his superiors, the public had to be protected from that kind of news, so that stock markets and shaky governments didn't collapse.
The only loose end in the mission was the man that happened to be camping where the ship crashed. He wasn't badly hurt, unfortunately. General Branch had been tempted to throw the man in a lock-up and forget him. But the man had also once been in the Army, and was some kind of law enforcement officer with the state of Arizona. His absence would be officially noted, and unwanted questions would be asked. General Branch released the former Army Ranger, Caleb Conner, after he had signed secrecy documents. Those documents promised dire repercussions, including execution, if he violated them. General Branch - AKA Mullah Abdul Ali Hassan - considered releasing the former soldier the worst decision of his life.
Less than a week after the space-ship had crashed his Aide was dead, and General Branch was under arrest. He was 'questioned, ' a sophisticated euphemism for torture, for two days before he killed two guards and escaped. General Branch was dead, but his anger at his treatment was alive and well in Mullah Hassan. He swore the authors of his mistreatment would pay.
Caleb Conner was at the head of the Mullah's list of people that must die. Scott McGowan, President Elect, was number two.
Mullah Hassan had been sure that at least one of them had been killed in Texas. He had sent an Islamic sniper team, and they had positively reported hits, but apparently they hadn't even been wounded. Or maybe they had, but the medical nanites they had formulated had healed them.
The Mullah had thought that he had stolen the formula for the medical nanites. He shivered as he remembered the testing of the formula. He considered using the formula himself immediately. Fortunately, he decided to test it on someone else first. The guard that had been selected for the test had lived nearly twelve hours as his bones melted. The results of the test had terrified Mullah Hassan. They had thrilled the Demon, who had basked in the guard's terror and agony. The Demon had refused to allow the Mullah to leave the guard. He enjoyed the Mullah's terror as much as that of the dying guard.
Obviously, there was a serious flaw in the formula. Islamic scientists were working on the formula, trying to discover its secret. Every week or so, a new version would be tried on someone else. The Mullah no longer used guards for those tests. He needed their loyalty. They had plenty of prisoners for testing new batches. The prisoners were often more terrified than the guard had been, and that suited the Demon just fine.
Other assassins had been sent to kill Conner and McGowan, but none had succeeded. The last attempt on their lives had been an utter failure, just like the earlier attempts. At least the Mullah knew what had happened to the last assassin. A second man had been sent to watch the assassin, and report back.
The assassin had been 'conditioned' by the Demon to explode a suicide vest when near Conner and McGowan. The explosives in the vest had been treated to prevent detection by machines or dogs. Glass beads from a sand blasting shop had been added to increase the size and lethality of the killing-field of the vest. The beads had been sprayed with a formulation to ensure high rates of infection from the smallest wound.
The observer had not been conditioned, and his task was merely to observe. He was on a cell-phone, talking, while recording the proceedings with a wireless camcorder. The observer's words and the images were immediately relayed to another link that was connected directly to the Mullah's command center. The observer reported on the scene as if he were a reporter, while the camera remained focused on the bomber, who worked his way toward his targets.
The bomber had joined the crowd seeking to shake the hand of the man running for President. The observer saw the bomber stiffen as a man and a woman moved to stand beside him. The camera reported that fact. The observer hesitated as the bomber, bracketed by the man and woman, extricated themselves from the crowd. Then the observer abruptly ended the call, and was not heard from again.
The Mullah and the Demon lost several men in that exercise, but they discovered a new capability of their enemy.
Mullah Hassan's only information about 'Companions' came from the same young woman that had supplied the information about the nanobots. Unfortunately, she was new to the Companion cadre, and couldn't reveal much about the Companion/human host capabilities. Her 'interrogation' had resulted in a Demon passing through the Veil of Creation, and taking up residence in the Mullah's mind.
He had intended to resume her 'interrogation' later that evening. However, the girl was rescued soon after the vehicle she was being transported in had left the mosque. Apparently, Companions had a way to sense those that the Demon had touched, or they could read minds. Maybe Companions could do both.
"We need accurate intelligence," the Mullah said aloud, speaking to the Demon.
"Why? They can be destroyed. That would be quicker, and the outcome more predictable," the Demon said in his mind.
"We have not been successful in trying to destroy them," the Mullah pointed out, silently, and trying to keep the sarcasm from this thoughts. "We need accurate intelligence, so we can destroy them."
"How do you propose we get that intelligence?" the Demon asked, not bothering to hide his sarcasm, nor his opinion of the Mullah's abilities.
"We need to use an indirect method of gathering intelligence," Mullah Hassan replied, answering the Demon's question, but stating it aloud to solidify the goal in his mind.
The clearer the target, the easier it is to hit the target. Mullah Hassan had spent a lifetime perfecting the art of finding unusual solutions to difficult problems. There was no doubt in his mind that he would find the Companions' secrets, and their weaknesses, so he could kill their hosts.
"President Scott McGowan," Caleb said with a chuckle, and shaking his head in disbelief.
Caleb settled into a comfortable chair in front of the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Scotty grinned wryly before saying, "This is a long way from boot camp, but you're still in front of my desk, Connor."
"That's for sure," Caleb replied affably.
The two were referring to the first time they met. Scott McGowan was the First Sergeant of the recruit company that Caleb Connor found himself a part of. Caleb first came to his First Sergeant's attention for fighting. He hadn't been fighting because of a bad attitude. He had been fighting because some of the larger members of his platoon were bullying smaller members. Rather than refer the young recruit for disciplinary action, the First Sergeant had made him the Recruit Platoon Sergeant. The platoon had gone from barely mediocre, to the Battalion Honor Platoon for that series.
First Sergeant McGowan had retired from the Army soon after Caleb graduated from boot camp. He maintained contact with the young recruit, and a stilted friendship grew between the two. Scotty had gone into politics, and became a Senator within six years. Caleb's attempt to make the army a career came to an abrupt end, amid his questioning of the leadership abilities of some of his officers. Friends had died, and Caleb saw the glory hunting officers that caused their death go free. He didn't reenlist.
Caleb went back to college, and got an undergraduate degree in Electronic Engineering. He didn't work in his chosen field. Instead, due to a fluke in circumstances, he found himself working for the State of Arizona as an investigator in the Department of Economic Security.
He was very good at his job. Caleb was so good at exposing welfare fraud that he angered many of his more 'progressive' co-workers. Their anger caused frustration on Caleb's part, which was why he was camping in the desert on Thanksgiving. His boss had agreed that camping was preferable to Caleb unscrewing someone's head, and defecating down their throat, though Caleb hadn't described what he wanted to do to the sanctimonious co-worker in such polite terms.
Caleb often wondered about the string of circumstances that had placed him at the one place in the world, where an extraterrestrial spaceship would crash. If he hadn't camped where and when he did, Caleb would never had encountered Al, the ethereal alien Companion that lived in his head. He wouldn't have met his wife, JJ, or moved to Texas to complete his Master's at Rice University. He also wouldn't have found out about the aliens that would probably attack earth in the next two to one-hundred years, depending on how far away they were when they received the distress signal the original craft had sent out.
The aliens wouldn't attack because they were evil, or for conquest. They would attack because one of their ships had been destroyed by humans. Retaliation for a perceived wrong is something that humans well understood.
The impending alien attack was the reason for the plan to put Scotty in the White House, and get the US Government behind the effort of preparing for the attack. It also meant that many more people would need Companions, including Scotty.
Their conversation about old times was for the benefit of the Secret Service agents listening to their conversation. Both men could communicate silently, and much faster, via their Companions.
"Did you clean out that cell the suicide bomber came from?" Scotty asked silently.
"I left one," Caleb replied silently. "We are tracking him to find other cells."
"That's a good idea," Scotty said.
"Yeah, it is," Caleb said, his thoughts tinged with embarrassment. "I'll tell Noah that you said so."
"Your four-year-old thought of it?" Scotty asked in surprise.
"Yeah," Caleb acknowledged. "It's pretty embarrassing. Noah and the other kids are scary smart. He'll only be four next month, and some of the stuff he comes up with is amazing."
"Have any of them named their Companions yet?" Scotty asked curiously.
Caleb resisted the urge to shake his head no to the silent question, and thought, "No, and I don't think they will. I asked Noah about it, and he said there was no need. He doesn't identify his Companion as a separate entity from himself. He considers his Companion an extension of his mind and thoughts."
"Have there been any problems with his nanobots?" Scotty asked.
"Not with Noah. No problems with any of the kids," Caleb corrected himself. "Leslie, Singer and Gabi's little girl, is the only one that has given any indication the kids have nanobots at all. She took a tumble from a slide, and her armor deployed before she hit the ground. It disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and no one seemed to notice. Leslie didn't give it a second thought. She was up and running for the ladder again before adults could react to her fall."
"I can't imagine what it must be like to be born with a Companion and nanobots," Scotty mused. Aloud, continuing the verbal conversation, he said, "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go, too. Do you have the notes I asked for, to prepare for the State of the Union?"
"Got them right here," Caleb nodded, handing Scotty a folder while keeping the other for himself. "We should have policy statements back from each cabinet member, for their areas of responsibility, tomorrow."
"Good ... Good ... Let's get started," Scotty said, rubbing his hands together.
"What can we do to help our humans prepare, beyond what we're doing?" Al asked the melding.
There were three hundred and twenty-seven Companion/host pairs on earth, but Al was the only one that had been in this universe since shortly after the big bang. The rest were 'new' Companions, that had been introduced to this universe through an odd evolutionary characteristic of humans. A Companion and a human together could open a portal in the Veil of Creation. If a human mind is nearby without a Companion, a new Companion would pass through the portal, and pair with the human host.
The Companion could migrate to other minds, if the host or Companion desired. The human host derived many benefits from the pairing. Longer life, better health, increased intelligence due to the ordering of memories, and pseudo-mental telepathy, via their Companions. No human host had requested a Companion to migrate. However, the development of nanobot armor that locked the Companion to its human host was an unexpected wrinkle. The armor provided better protection for the human, but was also a death sentence for the Companion.
Two hundred and sixteen Companions accepted the sacrifice, to protect their host. Humans with Companions could easily live hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Host/Companion pairs with the DNA enhanced armor could easily live thousands of years and beyond. Thousands of years didn't compare to the billions of years that Al had been alive.
Companions with DNA enhanced armor were in a melding, a joining of their minds that allowed them to solve problems of larger magnitudes. Other Companions could listen in, if they wished, and even use the solutions provided by the melding.
"We need to be careful of how much technology we provide to humans," Al continued. "Advancing them too quickly could be as bad as an attack by the aliens. We could destroy mankind by providing too much technological information. Is there anything else we can do?"
"Too much caution with technological assistance could be equally as dangerous," a subgroup of Companions disagreed. "Human technological growth is increasing by the day, without help from us. Look at their history! Their advancements in all fields is astounding. Primarily, it is due to improved data storage and retrieval, but their environment is physically changing them, too. We shouldn't just dump a lot of technology on humanity, but we should increase their rate of advancement."
"Good point," Al mused thoughtfully.
"We need to take a more active role in the humans' conflict," a subgroup of Companions opined. "We have cast our lot with humans. We are not simply companions to a host. We are equal partners, because our existence is dependent on the continuing existence of humans."
"I think the humans would welcome Companions taking a more active role," Al mused thoughtfully, as a chorus of agreement rippled through the melding. "They always seem to appreciate good ideas, even when they gripe about them. Is there anything else we can do?"
"Every human seems to have a unique skill set," a different subset of the melding replied.
Al noticed this subset was comprised of children's Companions. Specifically, children that had been born with Companions and nanobots.
"I think we need to study why that is true," the subset continued. "We need to find ways to enhance evolutionary traits, and what humans label as paranormal skills should be high on the list. For example: why do some people continually get accurate 'hunches' while others don't? It would be valuable if all hosts were able to get glimpses of future events, and the skill sharpened in the hosts where the skill is naturally present. Some hosts can read strangers from a farther distance than others. Why is that, and can that distance be increased with the right training. Survival traits developed through human evolution should be able to be enhanced and nurtured across every host to some degree."
The melding agreed. They worked on ways to isolate and enhance dormant abilities in humans, and on ways to take a more active role in their host's efforts. There are very few problems a couple of hundred minds, perfectly joined into one intelligence, can't resolve, and these were no exception.
Preparing for an attack by extraterrestrials provided a lot of motivation.