Chapter 28: Metamorphous
The response to hostility had been planned meticulously, and the programmed macros had been queued in the computer. Ed and his Companion sent the execute order to their Star Hawk at the same time. Their craft snapped down and to the side so quickly it almost seemed to teleport. The hull transformed from reflective, glowing, metallic to a stealth-mode, flat black, absorbing all bandwidths that encountered it. Their Star Hawk became virtually invisible.
Ed’s craft wasn’t completely unscathed. The blinding light of the aliens’ main weapon vaporized a groove through the top of his Star Hawk. Ed felt it when the tiny nanobot machines were burned from his armor’s network. It felt like a searing line of pain in his brain. He also lost his communications array. He was cut off from earth, again, but he could still mentally contact his squadron.
Ed’s Star Hawk bounced three more times, erratically moving up or sideways, always away from the star-ship’s primary cone of fire.
“I guess they don’t want to talk,” Commander Murphy mentally broadcast. “All units, execute Plan B,” he ordered, before dodging again.
“Radio silence,” he ordered. “Mental only! There’s no reason to give them an easy target to lock onto!”
Four wings of five Star Hawks each changed their hull configurations, and darted towards the alien ship. All Hawks were the same light-eating black, as the Commander’s, during combat. All energy absorbed by the Hawks was converted to power to extend their mission, and, on-station time. The four wings were careful not to get between the alien and the fifth wing of ten Star Hawks.
Ten asteroids had been positioned, and gravity drives were attached to them. A crude guidance system was wired into a radar fire control system, and had enough battery life for a one way trip. The asteroids started towards the aliens’ ship with Star Hawks tucked in close behind. The asteroids weren’t as fast as Star Hawks, but their speed continued to increase as they raced towards the star-ship.
Blake, and the four others in his wing, were accelerating directly toward the alien ship. Their Hawks’ armor was in a Viper configuration. Each gravity pod was protected from the front by a shroud of their black armor. Their emissions could only be detected from the rear. As long as their heading was directly toward their target, they should be virtually undetectable, like a viper’s fangs. Virtually does not mean completely, but they got much closer than they thought they would.
Pods that looked tiny on the side of the giant star ship came to life, and began swiveling towards the attacking Hawks.
“Let me guess. The point-defense lasers that Al talked about?” Karen asked Blake.
“It sure looks that way!” Blake replied grimly. “Let’s not make it easy for them,” he ordered. “Time to meld, and tie their targeting computer in knots!”
The minds of the five pilots merged, and their Star Hawks seemed to dance with flashes of laser light. They were good, but they were, still, only human.
The squadron pilots had studied schooling fish, and flocks of birds, and how they escaped predators. Why is something higher on the food chain, confused by their prey’s movement? The pilots’ question was; ‘Could they create the same problem for the aliens?’ The darting craft were indeed hard to hit, but it was not impossible.
“First contact with an alien civilization, and we have to try to kill them,” Blake angrily spoke within their merge, as they closed on the alien ship.
“The Commander tried,” Aaron replied grimly, from his own space in the merged minds. “I thought they got him, there for a moment. I wonder why they decided to start shooting? That isn’t how Al described their culture!”
“It doesn’t matter why they started shooting, now,” Blake replied sadly. “We need to survive this battle! Karen needs to survive, too!” he added grimly.
“Focus,” Karen reminded her wing leader.
Blake could feel the smile from her portion of the meld.
“We will both survive this,” he vowed to himself, in that private part of his mind that is always kept separate.
They reached their effective range, for the coordinated shots they wanted to make. Their rail guns began a steady thump, thump, thump, sending their message of death to the aliens. Each round was joined by four others, all five traveling to impact at the same location, at the same time.
“They’re all around us,” the alien Science Officer announced, his voice slightly shriller than normal for his species.
“We were surrounded, long before we fired on their emissary,” the Medical Officer pointed out. “Did we hit him?”
“I think so,” the Captain replied, the urgency of the situation reflected in his voice. “He disappeared when we fired, but there isn’t any wreckage! There should have been pieces of the fighter remaining around the impact point!”
The star-ship rang like a struck bell, and the hull breach alarm sounded.
“Point defense just got one of their fighters,” the Science Officer announced in satisfaction.
“They got us, too,” the Captain pointed out drily. “Reset point defense to target them further from our hull,” he ordered. “They’re firing some kind of projectile weapon. If we can prevent them from getting too close, we may survive this.”
“Do we still need to capture one?” the Science Officer asked.
“That’s the only way we can answer our Companions’ questions,” the Captain replied grimly. “Apparently, answering their questions has priority over our lives,” he added bitterly.
The silver cocoon receded, sinking into Caleb’s body. He took a deep breath, held it, and slowly let it out before opening his eyes.
“How long?” he asked.
“About ninety minutes,” JJ answered. “Are you okay?”
“I think so, but this is very different than what I thought it would be,” Caleb answered calmly.
He tried to sit up, and noticed the straps still holding him in place. He frowned.
“Eighty-seven minutes, twenty-nine seconds, to be exact,” Kim volunteered. “We left the straps on because we didn’t know what to expect,” she defended. “Better safe than sorry, and all that,” she added a little nervously.
Technically, Kim knew what to expect from this upgrade, but Caleb’s calm, almost distracted manner, was a surprise. She was worried there may have been a mental aspect of the upgrade that she hadn’t considered.
Caleb looked at her, then down at the straps, and said, “I understand, and it isn’t a problem.”
The straps holding him down seemed to blur silver for a moment, before not holding him any longer. They lay under Caleb, still buckled.
“The armor is much more dexterous,” Caleb praised, while sitting up.
JJ and Kim stared at him, mouths open in shock.
“How did you do that?” Kim gasped.
“Nanobots, in the configuration you’ve designed, are very efficient constructors and de-constructors,” Caleb answered absently, staring down at his freed hands. “They disassembled the binding straps, and reassembled them as not binding me. I wonder what I can do with that?” he pondered thoughtfully.
JJ recovered from her shock, asking, “Are you sure you’re okay? You seem a little ... um ... a little off,” she explained awkwardly.
“I’m okay, honey,” Caleb assured her, smiling gently and reaching for her hand. He pulled her close.
“I did promise to get through the upgrade,” he reminded her. “You know I always keep my promises. If I seem a little off,” he shrugged, and said, “I’ve just been intimately introduced to every cell in my body, and their function. It does change a person’s perspective, but it doesn’t change my commitment, or my goals.” Caleb kissed her, deeply and with feeling, before asking, “ What has happened while I was out?”
“Is Al okay?” Kim asked with some trepidation, ignoring his question.
“I’m fine, Kim,” Al replied, with an odd timbre in his thoughts. “I’ve learned many new and startling things today. Humanity’s great bard reminded us that, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy’. That reality was proven to me, today.”
“There is no need to worry,” Al continued. “Both of us are in very good condition and ready to begin the next step.”
“How is the computer integrating with you and the armor?” Kim pressed, not willing to take their word for their condition.
Caleb cocked his head questioningly, as he looked at Kim.
“The computer, and power supply, have virtually merged with my body,” Caleb explained carefully, looking down at the wires still attached to him. “I’m not sure what will happen, when I become tether-free. Let’s not try that experiment, until after the alien issue is resolved. It isn’t necessary to know that, now.”
“The computer is using armor resources as memory buffers,” he continued. “I’m not sure if that was part of your design, or if I directed the computer to use the armor as needed. It only uses resources that aren’t being used for other tasks, like floating memory. Once a nanobot is locked into position, around bones to strengthen them, for instance, they can be used as memory buffers. The computer also appropriated the AI functionality from the old armor, and integrated that ... ah ... personality with its own. The resulting composite AI is as unique as one human from another. It is also quite protective.”
“What happens if a lot more resources become available, like during part two of the upgrade, when you’re linked to your Star Hawk?” Kim asked with trepidation.
“He will be able to communicate better, and our union will be more versatile. Then we can do the job we need to do,” Caleb answered calmly. “Enough, Kim,” he said pointedly. “I need to know what has happened, while I’ve been out. You’re wasting time. Touch me, and I can give you the complete upgrade experience, so you can update your records later. Ignore the screams. They weren’t an integral part of the upgrade,” he added brusquely.
“I’m sorry,” Kim answered sincerely. “I’m just worried about you, and so is Mom. Both of us were worried that what we did had hurt you. And now you’re acting kind of strange.”
“It didn’t hurt me,” Caleb assured her. “It did change me, and I think, maybe, for the better. You’ll have to decide that for yourselves, and then decide if you want to follow me. I know how to help you make the change, now.”
He chuckled before adding, “It’s tough when you’ve driven ten miles of bad road, through a swamp, only to find out there was a freeway that bypassed the whole thing! It’ll be easier for the two of you. Now, what is happening with our pilots?”
“They started fighting about forty minutes ago,” JJ answered, her voice tight with worry. “They might have killed Ed. We can’t reach him on his radio, and naturally, we don’t have a mental connection from here.”
“Let me guess. The rest of the squadron is maintaining radio silence?” Caleb asked.
“Yeah,” Kim grimly joined in the conversation. “We’ve lost some of our guys. We know that, based on visuals from satellites. We just don’t know who.”
“How many have we lost?” Caleb asked, his jaw clenched.
“It looks like we’ve lost fourteen pilots,” Scotty interrupted. “Some of them, or maybe even all of them have escaped in that super-ball thing that Blake dreamed up. The battle is also on every radio and television station in the world!”
“How is the public taking it?” Caleb asked, surprised the news had spread so fast.
“Half are proclaiming the end of the world,” Scotty replied sarcastically. “Another half are arming themselves and barricading their doors, and the last half are claiming the whole thing is a hoax because everything moves so slowly. They expect a damn space battle to happen at the speed it does on television! “
“How does it feel to be in charge of the circus?” Caleb asked his friend, his thoughts grimly smiling.
“Go to hell, Connor!” Scotty snapped back, partly in mock anger. “If you’re through with your little nap, would you mind getting your ass out of bed and go fix this thing? I don’t want to lose more troops than we already have.”
Caleb hopped off the table and said, “Gotcha, boss. Any special instructions?”
“Yeah! Make them stop shooting, and start talking,” Scotty ordered in frustration. “I have a press conference coming up. Give me something to tell them besides ‘Kiss your ass goodbye’, please.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Caleb promised. “Are the other three finished with their upgrade?” he continued, turning to Kim.
“They’re just getting ready to do the switch to the optical armor,” she answered.
“I can’t wait for them,” Caleb said. “People are dying,” he threw over his shoulder as he carefully exited the room, wheeling a stand beside himself with the power supply and computer, both wired into his body.
Kim and JJ followed him to the chassis of his Star Hawk. The optical armor nanobots that would fill out its frame hadn’t been added yet. Each subsystem, attached to the airframe, stood out in stark relief. Caleb was standing, one hand on the frame of the cockpit.
“Where are the lasers?” Caleb asked.
“Uncle Bran had trouble getting them redesigned into the optical nanobot configuration so the printers would print them,” Kim replied. “He got it to work by printing individual subsystems for assembly into a laser. A team is working on assembling lasers now. They aren’t small or simple. The team is working as fast as they can, but they’ve only finished one.”
“I think I only need one,” Caleb mused, a distant look in his eyes, as if listening to another voice.
“Does the computer talk to you?” Kim asked curiously.
“Not speech, exactly,” Caleb answered slowly. “It’s more like ... It’s like an urging in a certain direction, or to a certain action. Verbal communication will come soon,” he added with certainty. “For now, knowing an action is possible, or a course of action is preferable, will have to do. You built fuzzy logic circuits into the computer. I think it is using known data, and calculating possible courses of action for us.”
“You can’t fight the aliens with one laser,” JJ protested, changing the subject back to his survival.
Caleb chuckled, reaching for his wife. After pulling her into an embrace he said, “Hopefully, there won’t be a fight. As for the laser ... I can ... deconstruct the one laser, and reconstruct it multiple times. I simply need sufficient nanobot resources. Don’t worry, honey. I’ve got this covered,” he said before kissing her on the nose.
“Let’s get started, “ Caleb ordered, releasing JJ. “And get another hopper of nanobots.”
“This is the normal requirement for Star Hawks,” Kim pointed out.
“More resources equal more functionality,” Caleb rebutted. “Besides, I’ll need them for laser construction.”
“I’ll have a fresh hopper ready, after you empty this one,” Kim promised.
He pulled JJ into a hug, again, and kissed her tear-stained face. “I’ll be okay,” he promised quietly, happy that his voice sounded more confident than he felt.
“You had better be okay,” she pronounced. “You had better come back to me, intact!”
“Yes, Dear,” Caleb answered, smiling at her.
JJ smiled back through her tears, but couldn’t say anything. She was afraid that she would completely lose it.
“Help me slide these into their mounts,” Caleb gruffly requested, turning to the rolling case.
The two modules providing power and computer control were slipped into position, directly behind the cockpit.
Caleb carefully slid into the cockpit, letting JJ manage guiding all the wires still connected to him. The seat was nothing more than nanobots already molded into shape, and locked into position. He lay his head back, and relaxed, eyes closed for just a moment.
Silver strands grew from his body, flowing down the wires, absorbing them, while retaining their functionality. The casings for the power supply and computer flashed silver, creating an explosion of silver racing fore and aft, absorbing black frame, and system packages, alike. The black frame turned silver, as if a black mask were being ripped away from a brilliant surface.
When the airframe completed turning silver, Caleb opened his eyes and ordered, “Start the first batch, Kim.”
It took thirty minutes before the inflow of nanobots ceased. It was a slower process than previous Star Hawk integrations, but more nanobots were being absorbed. The shape of his Star Hawk was essentially the same as its predecessors, but it also held subtle differences. It was thicker, for starters.
Rail guns had been engulfed by the tide of nanobots. When they reemerged, their structure had changed, and possibly their functionality. They no longer protruded from a port in the hull. Instead, projections grew from the hull, and showed greater flexibility. Rail guns are normally restricted to their location by ammunition stores. That was not an issue with Caleb’s Star Hawk. Power for lasers could be delivered anyplace on the hull, too.
“How are you feeling, Caleb?” Kim asked aloud.
The side of the Star Hawk flowed back, revealing Caleb and a very different cockpit than he started with. The controls and gauges had vanished, leaving a smooth, silver cocoon. The entire fighter, inside and out, looked like it was made of quick-silver.
“Fine,” he answered curtly. “I need that laser, now,” he ordered.
“It’s here,” Kim replied, gesturing to a rolling table nearby that was as large as a gurney. “There is a team here to install it, but it’s quickest to install on a bare chassis. Can you peel back enough armor for them to attach it to the air frame?”
“I no longer have an airframe, and it doesn’t need to be installed,” Caleb replied. “Would you push it next to me, please?”
JJ and Kim were both needed to move the heavy table.
“That’s a little large, isn’t it?” Caleb asked doubtfully.
“Bran was more concerned with making it functional and reliable, rather than small,” JJ explained. “Given a week, he could have miniaturized it.”
Caleb nodded before saying, “I’ll see what I can do, after I deconstruct it.” He looked at Kim and asked, “Would you get another hopper of nanobots and attach a power supply to it?”
“I can do that, but why?” Kim asked. “Are you going to try to absorb more nanobots, and a second power supply?”
“No,” Caleb said, chuckling. “I need to ... The computer needs to imprint it, before we are launched. It will essentially be a ... a stream-lined duplicate quantum computer with the same attributes and knowledge. If something should happen to me, it will prevent you or your mom from going through what I did. The computer thinks of it as ... ah ... reproduction? This is hard without verbal communication. He thinks of it as his child. Would you just do it?”
“Of course,” Kim replied.
“Nothing is going to happen to you!” JJ stated emphatically.
“I know,” Caleb replied lightly, reaching for the laser. He couldn’t quite reach it, from where he was sitting in the cockpit. Silver strands leapt from his fingertips to the laser. The bulky shape Bran had created seemed to turn to dust, sucked up by a silver vacuum.
Caleb lay his head back, after the laser had vanished. He closed his eyes and said, “The computer has recreated the laser in a virtual space, in our mind. We can test it there, and reduce it to its essential parts. We don’t have to reconstruct the same lasers we are using as an example. Yesssss,” he said, smiling. “That will be very satisfactory.”
Opening his eyes, Caleb looked at Kim and said, “Humans have creativity, and drive. Companions have knowledge, and a vast history of experience to draw on. The raw computing power, memory resources, and growing self-awareness of our Computer, makes us a very formidable weapon. We’ll need more of him, if this goes badly today.”
He nodded towards the separate power-supply and hopper of nanobots, saying, “Use that as a template. Your own existing armor will merge and you will have an individualized computer. Continue to duplicate and upgrade, as rapidly as possible. The power supply is necessary for the startup, but that will also be optimized when joined with a host/Companion pair.”
“Do you want everyone upgraded, to fight?” JJ asked, concerned.
“No,” he replied, considering his words. “They may get past us, and reach earth. I don’t know how they can eradicate an entire species. Al doesn’t either. He knows it is a weapon that is seldom used, and a closely guarded secret. This upgrade seriously changes a host’s ... perspective? That’s not the right word!” he muttered to himself forcefully. “The biological platform of the union must change for full integration. The computer must fully integrate with our biological aspect, which means the flesh and bone part moves well outside human norm. I don’t know how far it goes beyond being human, but maybe it does enough to protect you from their weapon.”
“We’ll start now,” JJ vowed.
“The kids, too,” Caleb demanded grimly. “This is the only way I know to protect all of you, if we fail,” he added, so JJ and Kim could both feel the full impact of his love for them.
He burned JJ’s face into his memory, and stored it with the computer. It was the equivalent of a loved one’s picture on a desk at work.
“I’ve got to go,” he said with a sigh.
JJ leaned into the cockpit, and Caleb kissed her again.
“Stay safe,” she whispered.
“You, too,” he whispered back. “Get upgraded! The kids, too! It’s the only way I know you might stay safe.”
“I will. I love you,” JJ said.
“I love you, too,” Caleb said, kissing her lightly on the nose, before she pulled back.
The side of the cockpit flowed closed.
“Hey, Caleb,” Kim called. “What about the laser?”
“Instructions are included in the imprint,” Caleb replied, sounding like he was standing outside his Star Hawk.
Abruptly, the nose of the Star Hawk bristled with a ring of stubby barrels. Initially, they faced forward. Each of them waved showing a one hundred-eighty degree range of motion.
“Pulse lasers, with an option for an ionized core taken from the rail gun rounds,” his voice continued. “Trust me, they will seriously get the aliens’ attention.”
“Wet blanket,” Karen Kelly ordered, fighting to keep her thoughts under control. She was having trouble seeing through her tears, too.
The order was for her wing to fly, ‘nap of the earth, ‘ over the surface of the star-ship. The theory was they would be impossible to hit, while delivering blow after blow to the star-ship. The name, ‘Wet Blanket, ‘ was given to the maneuver because that’s how close to the hull they were supposed to be.