Chapter 23: Beyond the Terror
Caleb blearily opened his eyes. At least, he thought he did. He couldn’t see anything. He tried to move his hands to wipe at his face, but he couldn’t move either arm. Panic began to bleed through the fog that shrouded his mind.
“You’re buried and trapped!” a mental voice informed him. “Your men are digging you out. Just relax until they get to you.”
“What happened?” Caleb wondered, not sure if the question was rhetorical, or if he were actually trying to gather information. He wasn’t sure if it made a difference. Did it matter? Who had just talked to him?
Caleb’s head felt like someone had scrubbed the corridors of his mind with acid. Discordant images flashed through his mind, presumably of his last moments of life, if he was dead. The image of the Demon in General Branch’s corrupted body played a central role in the cacophony of memories that bombarded him. He understood the nature of the danger, and vaguely, the battle he had been in. The memory of the Demon’s death scream rose, and hit his consciousness. His mind skidded to a halt. A shiver of dread ran down his spine. That scream had come after Caleb had shot him in the head. The demon shouldn’t have been physically capable of screaming! That blast of pure power that was released after Branch was killed also worried him. Could the demon have survived? Another memory crowded out the memory of the Demon, causing another shiver of dread. He remembered accepting the fact that he was about to die! He remembered searing pain flashing throughout his body! That must have been his body being broken against the wall! The voice said he was buried! Why would they bury him, and then dig him up! Could the Demon...
“The ... The Demon?” Caleb mentally questioned, searching his mind frantically for any trace of the Evil he had felt in the presence of the thing.
“Dead and gone!” the voice in his head answered. “Get it together, Caleb! That wall falling on you couldn’t have rattled you that bad!” the voice scoffed.
He remembered! Al! His Men! Caleb felt a chill when he remembered the meld he was ripped from. He didn’t know anything about melds. Could minds be damaged by forcibly being separated like that?
“Are Noah and the rest of the meld okay? What happened?” Caleb demanded, more focused than he had been moments before, his mind racing in fear. “That scream came after I killed him. Did the Demon escape? What was that blast, and how did I survive it?”
“Whoa, cowboy,” Al replied, mimicking a character from a movie that he had found in Caleb’s memory. “Everyone in the meld is fine. The children were a little shaken, but Syon is counseling them. He’s a good man, and they will be fine. The Demon did not escape. That scream was the Demon’s death scream. The Demon is an ethereal creature, much like the Companions. Its death scream is also ethereal.”
“Men with a Companion have died, and I didn’t hear anything like I did from the Demon!” Caleb protested.
“Companions have always gone into the unknown ... peacefully,” Al answered hesitantly, as if searching for the correct words. “Now that I have witnessed new Companions coming into this reality, I believe I understand why we are different. Consider the reality you saw when a new Companion is invited across the barrier. Try to imagine the reality that would spawn a creature like the Demon! I would scream, too, if I knew I would spend eternity in a reality like that!”
Caleb shivered in horror at the thought, before asking, “And the blast?”
The blast was ... In the great war, when very many Demons died at the same time, the explosion was sometime enough to destroy an entire planet. We lost ships in orbit due to the violence from some of the explosions,” Al explained somberly. “We ... Companions always believed the Demons did not belong in this dimension. We believed that, as an aberration, the process of correction when leaving this reality was an explosive event. Now I know both of us come from another dimension, so our theory must be wrong. I can only think of one other theory that fits. I think the demon struggles so violently to remain in this reality that a back-blast is somehow created.”
“Okay,” Caleb mused slowly, trying to put together pieces of the puzzle his mind had become. “I wish I had known about the blast in advance. I could have included that in our planning. Now the biggie: how did I survive?”
“What plan?” Al demanded indignantly. “The last I heard, our plan was hoping we could get to him, and praying we would survive it!” Al paused, before adding contritely, “You’re right, though. I should have told you. I apologize.”
“Did you just apologize to me? Where is the link, so I can have witnesses when I need them?” Caleb hooted in his mind, obviously no longer wondering if survival was a good thing. “Um ... How did I survive?”
I’m not really sure,” Al admitted, his thoughts sounding frustrated, as if it were a puzzle he had already been working on. “I remember you feeling a stab of pain throughout your body, just before you hit the wall. Your nanites involuntarily surged. They have permeated all your internal organs, including your brain. The nanites were already in your blood, bones, and encasing your organs. The difference is, they have now infiltrated your organs, and are encasing the fiber structures that support the interior of your organs. It seems your armor braced your organs for impact, and hasn’t relinquished that extra protection. Your armor protected your body, externally and internally. The external protection could have been an unconscious action on your part. I don’t think you could have reacted quickly enough to protect yourself internally. The nanites absorbed a lot of kinetic energy when we hit that wall. We hit hard enough that your brain should have been turned to mush. Caleb, I don’t know why we are alive! Maybe the God you profess to believe in provided a miracle and saved us. I sure can’t think of a better explanation.”
“Nanites, huh?” Caleb mused thoughtfully. “Bran and Kim said our armor is programmed as an artificial intelligence. I’ve never seen any evidence of it, but the armor is supposed to learn, the longer we use it. Maybe the armor reacted on its own!”
“Maybe,” Al replied doubtfully. “I do know the nanites now permeate every part of your body; orders of magnitude more than it did before.”
“Caleb!” Scotty interrupted. “Good! You survived! Are you going to be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,”
Caleb answered drily.
“I need you in New Mexico, ASAP,” Scotty replied.
“I’m kind of buried right now,” Caleb told the President.
“Then get unburied!” Scotty ordered. “I have a chopper inbound. It’ll take you to the carrier where a jet is waiting for you. The jet will refuel in-flight, and take you directly to New Mexico.”
“Scotty! Scotty! Slow down! I really am buried, as in dirt piled on top of me. They’re digging me out now! The Demon is dead. What’s the rush?” Caleb asked plaintively.
“Oh! Sorry!” Scotty replied. “Um ... are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine!” Caleb replied patiently ... sort of patiently ... actually kind of abruptly, for talking to the President of the United States.
Good! Good. Our ... um ... alien friends have been spotted leaving Jupiter’s orbit. Their course seems to be taking them into the shadow of Mars so we can’t track them. The experts tell me that’s how these guys got to Jupiter, using the shadows of the larger planets.”
“So they’re trying to sneak up on us,” Caleb mused, understanding Scotty’s haste. “Why do you need me in New Mexico? The last I heard, Bran, Kim, and Ryan are making good progress on our fighters. They’re all smarter than me!”
“That’s what I said, too,” Scotty replied, only half sounding like he was joking. “Bran insists they need you. The aliens have been spotted, and I’m inclined to give them whatever they think they need.”
Caleb felt something hit the back of his leg. Then it hit again; definitely a shovel.
“Hey! Guys!” Caleb broadcast. “You found me. You’re trying to dig through my leg.”
“Sorry, Major,” Sergeant Lee Swift replied. “Your armor is the same color as the rubble. We’ll have you out of here in just a minute.”
“Thanks,” Caleb said with heart-felt relief. “Scotty, I’m just about out. I’ll turn my command over to Master Chief Marconi. How soon will they be extracted?”
“Immediately,” Scotty promised. “Or within the next three hours,” he amended. “It will take that long to get enough choppers to the site to extract everyone simultaneously. I don’t want to ferry them out in shifts. That leaves too many men exposed.”
Thanks, Scotty,” Caleb said sincerely. “I’ll pass the word.”
“Good enough. And ... Caleb, I really am glad that you’re okay. We were all worried about you guys,”
Scotty said, fighting to keep his emotions out of his thoughts, and failing.
“I was a little worried there for a while, too,” Caleb replied, embarrassed by his own sudden flood of emotions. “I’ll get to New Mexico as quickly as I can. Uhh ... They’re pulling my leg. Gotta go!” he said, abruptly ending the conversation.
They weren’t exactly pulling his legs, but he could feel them clearing debris around the lower part of his body. That was close enough.
“What do we need to do to find the exact voltages?” Ryan demanded irritably, and quite rhetorically. Obviously, none of them had the answer.
“We can use the voltage settings we used for our existing armor,” Kim replied with determination.
Bran shook his head no, saying, “The new armor needs to carry a higher current load! Physically it does more! It has more computing power! It ... it...”
“We know how much more voltage the new armor needs,” Kim interrupted, her voice hard. “We can work out exactly how much we need and test it. We know how much control voltage our bodies supply. It’s a math problem; it’s not rocket science! We don’t have to run a hundred tests to find out. We do the math, and run one test! I can change the programming parameters in ten minutes and have it compiled in thirty. You two can get the experiment set up. We’ll know if it works in an hour. Then we can live test it!”
“But, we can’t...” Bran began protesting.
“We’re out of time, Uncle Bran!” Kim shouted angrily, tears springing to her eyes. “There are always more tests we can do! We don’t have time to play it safe! Al told us what will probably happen when they get here! Everybody dies! Even Mike! I won’t let them kill my baby because we decided to play it safe!”
“Okay, Kim. Okay,” Bran soothed as Ryan moved to his wife to comfort her. “I understand,” Bran continued. “Why don’t we run this experiment and then decide the next step? I agree with you, but hurrying can cost us more time, too.”
Kim nodded mutely, wiping at her eyes angrily.
“I’ll work out the voltages,” she declared, the hard-edged determination of a mother protecting her child in her voice. “I have my notes from helping you on the last armor upgrade,” she said over her shoulder after she turned to her computer.
Ryan looked at Bran, shrugging his shoulders. Bran noticed that Ryan’s jaw was set with the same determination that he had heard in Kim’s voice. He nodded his understanding before turning to the workbench and sighing, “We’ll need to hurry to have this ready by the time Kim finishes.”
Two and a half hours later, the experiment was completed, and evaluated as a success.
“I can think of another half-dozen tests we should run, before trying this out on humans,” Bran objected. “We must take the time!” he continued. “We know the resting and working voltages. Great! We have a starting point! What happens to the nanites when we change between the two voltages? What happens to the human the armor is attached to? We don’t know what will happen, and we can’t ask someone to test the upgrade without tests showing a good chance of survival!”
“You’re right, Uncle Bran,” Kim answered quietly, tears glistening in her eyes. “I know those ‘things’ are coming, and I can’t help but feel like we’re running out of time! I’m scared!”
“I understand, Kim,” Bran murmured gently, hugging his niece. “We’re all scared. Sometimes we can cut corners, but, sometimes, cutting corners costs time and lives. We can’t afford to waste either.”
Kim straightened with a nod and a sniffle, saying, “Then what are we standing around for? Let’s get to work!”
Twelve hours later, Bran quietly breathed, “Damn,” as another test batch of nanites briefly flashed, and turned the color of ash.
Another failed test!
“Test one dot fourteen, failed,” he said aloud, for the record.
“Oh, yeah,” a tired female voice answered. “Test three dot twelve, failed,” Kim said quietly.
“Umm ... Test two dot ten and eleven, failed,” Ryan muttered loud enough to be heard, deep in thought.
That’s how science works. Failed test after failed test must be conducted, and carefully recorded, until you have a combination of ingredients and procedures that work. Reports of scientific breakthroughs seldom mention all the failures experienced before that big breakthrough. However, the scientist must learn from each failure, so each one brings them a step closer to the goal.
The working voltages and the resting voltages had been quickly identified. Kim had been right. It wasn’t rocket science; it was just simple math. The tests proved it. The challenge was switching between the two voltages. So far, every time they tried switching, the nanites were fried.
Bran’s mind tried to skitter away from thinking of what would happen to a Companion/host, whose armor was suddenly burned out. Would their body combust from the inside, or would it simply turn them into a vegetable with a destroyed nervous system? Or was there something worse that could happen that he couldn’t even imagine.
They had to finish the prototype, and quickly, so they could begin producing fighters! Then, enough fighters needed to be produced so human/Companion pairs could be acclimated to fight with them. All in time to meet the aliens! Bran had the feeling they were running out of time, too. Balancing caution with the need to hurry was giving him and his Companion a headache.
Bran leaned back, and rubbed his eyes. Kim and Ryan were in separate parts of the lab. Once they had listed all the permutations that could affect the nanites, they had split the tests in three, and were working independently.
“This wears on me, even with you helping clear my mind,” he told Alexander, his Companion.
“I don’t know of anything else we can do,” Alexander answered, sounding tired himself. “Maybe Al and Caleb will have an idea, when they get here.”
“I wish they were here now,” Bran agreed tiredly. “We can’t continue like this. We’ll miss something, possibly the key we need.”
“Caleb will be here tomorrow, or later today,” Bran said aloud, just to hear a voice. Mental communication was fine, but he was an old man. He was allowed to have some eccentricities.
He felt a sensation like Alexander snorting in his mind.
“Let’s take a break, and get some fresh coffee,” Bran continued. “All of us need a break. I know I do! I’m an old man!”
“According to some of the lady professors at the college, that would be dirty old man,” Kim corrected, appearing from around a partition. She was kneading her lower back, and twisting to work out a kink.
“Gossip, my dear,” Bran replied. “Sl ... slanderous, cruel, gossip!” he said around a yawn.
“Test two dot twelve, failed,” Ryan grunted loudly to the microphone set up for recording, before appearing from a different cubical. “I don’t know how you research guys do this all the time,” he said, following his wife.
“Are you calling me a guy?” Kim questioned, frowning over her shoulder, or maybe she was just stretching stiff neck muscles.
“No!” he said with a crooked smile, kissing her on the ear as he passed, heading towards the coffee pot. “I’ll make a fresh pot. Does anyone want this last cup before I rinse the pot? It’s hot!”
“No, but maybe we can use it at home as paint remover,” Kim said with a grimace.
Bran smiled at their banter. It was so nice to work with colleagues that didn’t gripe all the time.
“Caleb, we sure hope you have an idea on how to move this along, when you get here,” Bran said, connecting to his friend.
“Yeah, well, prepare to be disappointed. The gas station had a little equipment malfunction. We had to land for refueling which takes a lot longer than getting a fill-up at twenty-thousand feet.” Caleb answered. “Plus, we have a strong head-wind. We’re just now getting over the Atlantic!”
Bran groaned inwardly, but Caleb could still sense it, through their link.
“Look, Bran, why can’t I just help you from here? All I’m doing is sitting in the back seat of a Super Hornet. I’ll tell the pilot I’m going to catch some zees, so we won’t be disturbed.”
“It’s just not the same as having you here in person,” Bran complained.
Caleb sent the equivalent of a mental shrug before sending, “I’m working on that. In the meantime, why don’t you explain where you’re at in the process, and what kind of problems you’re having?”
“Fine,” Bran replied. “The kids and I are taking a break, anyway.”
“Kim, Ryan” Caleb said, linking his step-daughter and her husband into the connection. “Why don’t you join us? I’ve got a few hours of bouncing around in the back of a jet. I might as well be helping you guys.”
“Guys?” Kim asked, her thoughts faux ominous.
“I think this is where I came in,” Ryan chimed in cheerfully.
“Figure of speech,” Caleb responded with a mental laugh.
“I’m not sure how you can help us,” Kim continued, turning more serious.
“I’ve found that he’s very intuitive, even if he isn’t completely versed in a subject,” Bran opined, drily. “That’s why I asked Scotty to send him.“
“I think it is more a case of a fresh view-point, and I don’t know enough to know a question is stupid. I really don’t know enough to be of any real help,” Caleb admitted. “Just show me what you’ve been working on, and I’ll ask questions when I don’t understand something.”
The three scientists mentally discussed the project explaining the reasons behind various decisions and processes. Occasionally, explanations were included of why some paths turned out to be a dead end.
The most surprising change in the design was the nature of the shipboard computer. Originally, the planned computer was similar to computers in any advanced fighter aircraft. The new computer was made entirely of nanobots, like the armor, but with different programming.
“How did you come up with that?” Caleb asked in amazement.
“We had a problem with computers made with traditional materials,” Bran explained. “They wouldn’t integrate with the nanobots well enough to give instantaneous responses. Our fighters need to respond to a mental interface with the host. There were too many issues with the traditional computer. Kim decided starting fresh would be faster than unraveling the mess in state of the art mental interfaces. She called it hardwired programming by committee, and refused to spend more time on it.”
“I went back to computer basics, and programmed batches of nanobots to address the separate computational functions,” Kim said, blushing at the praise. “The nanites can conduct electricity, or not, depending on need. They can also create or forward signals when needed. It wasn’t hard to program some nanites to add and subtract. That is all traditional computers do, so the programming part was straight forward. I used some theories and algorithms developed for quantum computers, so most of the computer’s inner functions use photons. It’s fast! I had to include a very large buffer for the more traditional parts. They’re a lot slower, but only in comparison to the portions that work on light. It’s fast! It isn’t a quantum computer, yet. I think I can upgrade it to full quantum functionality, if I had a couple of years to work on it.” She sighed, wishing she had the time, before saying, “It does integrate well with armor, and built from nanobots means it can change its shape, for different physical requirements.”
The explanations and images of various processes continued until they reached their current state. It took them nearly fifteen minutes, a very, very long mental discussion.
“You guys are doing all this, individually?” Caleb asked in sudden understanding.
“Well, not exactly,” Ryan assured Caleb. “We can link anytime we want and we are in the same room.”
“My boy, have I got a treat for you,” Caleb all but mentally chortled. “I take it that you haven’t heard of melding, yet?” he asked the group.
“Noah explained it earlier,” Kim replied, wondering if she had missed something. “This isn’t a battle, though. This is research.”
“Trust me, Kim,” Caleb assured her, remembering the sensation of the battle awareness he had received from the Master Chief’s mental debrief. His own memories of melding were fleeting, having only lasted for moments. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No, Caleb,” Kim answered with a smile.
“I told you so,” Bran smugly interjected aloud. “Is there a certain procedure we need to follow for this melding?”
“You three are already anchored,” Caleb answered. “You are already virtually melded with your Companions. They can meld with Al, and you can float along on their coattails.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. Bran had trouble releasing himself into the selflessness of a meld. He realized, after successfully joining, how wrong he was. His sense of self was more clearly defined in the meld, not less. His thoughts and knowledge freely mingled with those of the others, until they suddenly merged, and the four of them were one entity.
Everything they needed was right there. All of Bran’s knowledge, and his decades of experience was available. Kim, Ryan, and Caleb, each had some knowledge of nanobots, from working with Bran, but each had a depth of knowledge in other fields that could be applied. Kim’s understanding of artificial intelligence, and DNA programming, enhanced Bran’s knowledge and experience. Ryan’s knowledge of airframes, flight characteristics, and stress factors blended with the other scientists’ knowledge and abilities. The Companions’ contribution to the meld was knowledge, and a way of looking deeper at a problem than humans were accustomed to.
Caleb’s mind was different; a fact that Bran noted immediately. He could still join the meld easily enough, but it felt like a part of his mind remained aloof.
“What happened to you?” the Bran portion of the meld wondered/asked, and immediately had the answer, as if it was his own memory.
The sequence of events ran through the combined mind of the meld, and they still didn’t know what had happened. They also didn’t know how to fix it, or even if it needed fixing.