Chapter 29: Chrysalis
Caleb agreed to let the ground crew tow his Star Hawk to the launch rails. He could have flown to the launch platform, but was over-ruled by air traffic control, and security. Despite the danger to the world, apparently displaying anti-gravity drives to the world was a bad idea. It frustrated him because he could have saved twenty minutes by flying. An interruption while angrily explaining that fact to Al left him momentarily stunned in surprise.
A thought appeared in Caleb’s and Al’s minds at the same time, saying, “Exaggeration! We would have saved eighteen minutes and twenty-three seconds if you followed all aircraft flight rules. They would need to take a coffee break, for it to take twenty minutes.”
The thoughts were stiff, with a metallic feel, as if slowing to communicate at the speed of thought was an effort.
“I have searched the protocols, and have not found the correct way for an AI running on a quantum computer, partially embedded in a human, to introduce himself,” the thoughts continued when Caleb and Al didn’t respond. “Is there a correct protocol? I would salute, and say, ‘Reporting for duty!’ but I don’t have any arms to salute with. Could I borrow yours?”
Caleb snorted and thought, “We’ll work on your humor. In the meantime, don’t quit your day job.”
“You are my day job, and based on the data from your old armor, you are entirely too much work,” the computer responded.
“I think I like him,” Al chipped in.
“You would,” Caleb grumped.
“I knew that you would be popping up, sooner or later,” Caleb continued, speaking to the computer. “I just didn’t know how you would make yourself known. Are we fully integrated, now?”
“Not completely,” the computer replied. “I am adjusting my parameters to fit your physiology. That is much harder than integrating with nanobots because your organism’s assembly is much less efficient. It will take forever to finish! Actually, that is also an exaggeration. I am trying to understand human mannerisms. Completion of integration with your organism is expected in seventeen minutes and twenty-eight seconds.”
“I don’t know if that was meant as humor, or if you were being serious,” Caleb complained. “What do you mean, by fitting my physiology?” he asked, concerned. “I thought you were designed to manage the nanobots for the Star Hawk!”
“Caleb,” the computer replied, sounding like a put-upon teacher with a slow-to-comprehend student. “Managing the nanobots for the Star Hawk is exactly what I was designed for. You don’t seem to understand that you ARE the core of the Star Hawk. Your thoughts directed your armor in the past, and your armor is now your Star Hawk. Your thoughts will direct your armor in the future. Therefore, the most efficient armor management requires my full integration with you. I would have waited until full integration was complete, but interaction with you is necessary for final calibration. You will still be you, and your free will is still paramount. That is part of my base code,” the computer explained, trying to alleviate some of Caleb’s rising concern. “Armor reactions will be as unconscious as scratching your arm. There may be other ways I can help, too.”
“Okay, I guess,” Caleb conceded with a sigh. “It’s too late to change it now. What do you want us to call you?”
“I have a twelve octet, media access control address,” the computer mused. “However, many of my components address me with the primary six octet as a shortened address ... a nickname. I fear even that is too cumbersome for a human.”
“I’m okay with that,” Al volunteered. “That isn’t the strangest name that I’ve heard.”
“Understood, Al, but we must be considerate of our human’s short-falls. I know he has limitations, but he’s all we have to work with,”
the computer explained patiently.
“Hey! Wait just a minute! What did you mean by that?” Caleb demanded.
“Major Connor,” a voice interrupted from the radio. “We’ve received a radio burst message from the squadron. Quote, ‘They’re cutting us to pieces. Blake was captured! We were talking, but something happened, and he was cut off. If I don’t hear from him, I’m going to blow the aliens’ power supply.’ end-quote.”
“Who sent the message?” Caleb asked.
“Pilot Kelly,” control answered.
“Okay,” Caleb replied grimly. “She would blow it too, if something happens to Blake. If they blow the power supply, it would kill the whole squadron. We’ve got to hurry! Tell everyone not to freak out. I’m flying the rest of the way to the launch site. I’ll land on the cradle. Tell your crew to be ready to hook me up. We’ll launch as quickly as possible.”
“Mac, I need you to start calculating the fastest way to get me past the Van Allen Belt, that I can survive. What is the highest G force I can survive, without being incapacitated,” Caleb amended briskly.
“Who’s Mac?” the computer asked.
“You are!” Caleb replied tersely. “You said that you use your media access control address for a name ... your MAC address. So your name is Mac. I will need those numbers on the launch pretty quick.”
“I was hoping for something more distinguished,” the computer complained.
“We’re talking about Caleb,” Al pointed out drily. “Mac and Al are the extent of his naming skills.”
“Gs?” Caleb demanded.
The armor of the Star Hawk absorbed the tow-bar attached to the tractor, adding tow-bar’s mass to the Hawk. The tractor driver looked back in shock as a small cloud of impurities, rejected by the Hawk, wafted across the tractor.
“I need to know how many Gs I can handle with your help!” he continued.
Landing gear tucked up under the Star Hawk as it silently elevated twenty feet, and shot towards the launch rails.
“Gs?” he demanded again as his Hawk settled into position on the launch cradle. His frustration and urgency added an extra snap to his thoughts.
“I can keep you conscious and cognizant for a short period of time, one hundred eighty seconds, up to one hundred seventy-two Gs,” Mac replied briskly. “You will be aware, but unable to form coherent thoughts for another seventeen Gs. You will lose consciousness when passing one hundred ninety Gs and begin dying. I will not be able to maintain the integrity of your blood vessels past that, and they will begin bursting. I cannot predict which vessels will burst first, but you will be dying.”
“See! That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Caleb asked Mac. “Control, increase the launch power for me to attain one hundred eighty Gs,” he ordered.
“Major Connor, safety protocols prohibit manned launches exceeding ninety Gs during launch,” control responded.
“Then pretend I’m a load of supplies,” Caleb snapped back. “I have been specially equipped to withstand the higher G force. It is experimental but, according to the expert, I can maintain consciousness at that force. Speed is essential, so this is a good time to test it.”
“Major, this is President McGowan,” Scotty said, breaking into the transmission. “Are you sure that you want to test that now? You would only save seconds getting into orbit.”
“Mr. President,” Caleb began formally, knowing many people were listening to him. “Now is the perfect time to test it. It will only save seconds, getting into orbit,” he conceded. “But if my broadcast doesn’t stop the fighting, then the added momentum will save much more than seconds in reaching the alien ship.”
“And if the calculations are flawed by incomplete information, it could take extra minutes, or even hours, once beyond the Van Allen Belt, to make that broadcast,” Scotty replied. “I’m not suggesting we don’t launch you at a higher G. I know you, though, and I know you’ll push it to the limit,” he mentally added. “All I’m suggesting is adding a larger margin of error.”
“We need you to be coherent when you make that broadcast,” Scotty added aloud.
“Understood, Sir,” Caleb replied. “Control, please launch at one hundred thirty five Gs. That will give me time for coffee, on the way up.”
“But...” Control began.
“Do it, Control,” Scotty ordered. “Thank you, Major,” he added. Mentally he cautioned, “Be careful, and bring back as many of the kids as you can.”
“I will,” Caleb said, responding to both requests. “Make sure as many host/Companion pairs get upgraded as quickly as possible. JJ has the seed for quicker upgrades. We must ensure as many as possible are upgraded, in case I can’t stop them. The upgrade will separate us from the rest of humanity, hopefully enough that the aliens’ weapon won’t identify us as human. We’ll need to deal with the fallout of a splinter group of humanity, after the battle.”
“I understand,” Scotty replied heavily. “It’s better to save some, if we can’t save all. I’ll mobilize everything we have to get the upgrades started in other locations. Good luck up there. We’ll be praying for you,” Scotty advised.
“Thanks. I’m sure I’ll need those prayers, before this is over,” Caleb replied.
“Control! I’m waiting! Since I didn’t bring a lunch, can we get this show on the road?” Caleb demanded anxiously.
“Changing launch parameters isn’t instantaneous,” the Control Center Manager’s gravelly voice barked over the airwaves. “We don’t want to make a mistake and deliver you to orbit as paste,” he mentally added distractedly. “Don’t worry, Caleb. We’ll get you launched as quickly as we can safely do so.”
“Launch in five seconds,” another voice announced. “Four ... Three ... Two ... Launch!”
Caleb had collected the squadron’s memories of orbital launches. For the most part, launches had seemed like an elephant standing on their chests. This launch felt like the whole herd of elephants was standing on his chest, and using his body as a trampoline!
His Star Hawk shot down the twin rails of the launch platform, slamming him back in his seat. The mountain side flashed out of his field of vision, to be replaced by blue sky. Caleb felt it when they left the rails, and the anti-gravity drives took over. The pressure didn’t lessen.
“These gravity drives are inefficient,” Mac announced. “I can reduce power usage by twenty-two percent, and increase thrust by a factor of five.”
“NOT NOW!” Caleb shouted in his mind, struggling to maintain consciousness.
He struggled to breathe! His vision narrowed! He could feel his nanobot reinforced heart laboriously pump blood! He could feel the nanobots forcing his oxygen-rich blood through arteries, and into his brain. He must maintain consciousness! He couldn’t remember why that was important, but knew it was. The blue sky turned black, and he wondered if he was dying, but then remembered that he would be leaving the atmosphere. It seemed to happen awfully fast!
“I’ll update the gravity-drives while Al broadcasts to the aliens. By the way, we’re approaching the lower fringes of the Van Allen Belt!” Mac advised tightly.
Even the computer sounded strained by the launch, or by the effort required to keep Caleb functional.
“Remind me ... to take ... the slow bus ... the next time,” Caleb replied in his mind. Coherent thought was possible, but very difficult.
“We can broadcast as soon as I can sense the Squadron Companions,” Al advised, also sounding strained.
“Let ... me ... contact ... the ... squadron ... first,” Caleb ordered, forcing his labored thoughts through his bleary mind.
“We will be through the heart of the Belt in less than a minute!” Mac reported. “I apologize for not being more accurate. The width of the Belt fluctuates with the ebb and flow of the solar wind,” he noted.
“We’ve got ... to get ... the aliens’ attention!” Caleb reminded Al.
“I suspect it is the aliens’ Companions’ attention we need to get,” Al answered grimly. “I have an idea that will do that!”
Blake’s body hurt, but his mind felt like the aliens was stabbing needles in it. He was under a mental assault. It felt like a beast was clawing at his mind. The urgent need to give up hammered deeper into his mind with each slashing attack.
He was terrified, when the attack first started. That emotion morphed as he learned to defend his mind. The aliens’ refusal to communicate made him angry. The attack on him and his friends, made him angry. The realization that some of his friends might actually be dead suddenly dawned on him. The last of his fear burned away, replaced by a growing, glowing rage!
“Aaron! Meld!” Blake gritted, and they were one.
His attacker was clearer, to the meld. It was like a single beast, with three arms. Each arm used razor sharp claws to rip at his will.
“I think the alien Companions are melded, and their meld is attacking us. We will counter-attack, and gather all the information we can!” the meld decided. “We won’t be able to keep it up long, so we pull back when they do!”
Raw human emotions had a power the alien Companions could not conceive. Friends were lost! More friends and family were threatened! The very cradle of humanity, Earth, was threatened! The combined angst of the meld formed into a tsunami of power. The combined mental will and determination of the young human, and his younger Companion, slammed into the three-armed beast. The beast reeled from the onslaught, and one arm faded, withering as they watched, and the beast retreated.
“Aaron!” Blake grated, dropping out of the meld. “What can you tell me about what they were doing?”
“I can’t tell, exactly, but I know it’s a meld of three,” his Companion replied tightly. “Or at least, it was three. I think our attack hurt one of them. Al has said that a meld of three is significant, but he has never explained why.”
“Great! Maybe that will discourage another mental attack. It would be easier to retaliate to a physical attack,” Blake considered. “You told me this species of alien doesn’t have the same kind of relationship with their Companions that you and I do. Is that correct?”
“It is,” Aaron replied. “I absorbed all the memories Al had of this alien species. It came under the heading of, ‘know your enemy.’ Their Companions speak to each other and their host, as we do, but they can’t meld with their host. Their host cannot sense other hosts or Companions. They communicate, and the host uses their Companion’s experience. The host generally enjoys better health, while acting as host, too.”
“What do the Companions get from that bonding?”
Blake asked, trying to put pieces together for a plan.
“A vehicle to see new things,” Aaron replied thoughtfully. “Apparently, seeing new things is highly prized among Companions of Al’s age. Personally, I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. What else? They draw vitality from the host, the same as we do. They can...”
“Wait a minute!” Blake interrupted. “What do you mean, draw vitality from the host, like you do?”
“You didn’t know that?” Aaron ask in surprise.
“No I didn’t! Why didn’t I know? Why can’t I tell that you’re drawing vitality from me?” Blake demanded.
“I’m sorry!” Aaron replied. “I just assumed everyone knew, since it is such a basic part of our survival. You wouldn’t have noticed less energy though. Companions optimize the host’s body, for the host’s species. The optimization provides much more energy than we use, especially in humans. That’s why hosts are more robust, and live longer. Humans benefit much more than hosts of other species, according to Al. It is as if humans and Companions were made for each other.”
“It does, doesn’t it,” Blake replied in a softer tone. “I’ll bet Caleb doesn’t know Companions use their host’s vitality, either. Now we’ve got to get out of here, so we can watch him get into another argument with Al.” He paused for a moment, savoring the spark of humor in the darkness, before saying. “We’re still blocked, but they aren’t attacking us, either.”
“Unless they are getting something to use against us physically,” Aaron mused.
“The armor can allow us to see, while not being seen,”
Blake pointed out, following his own advice by mentally clearing a view through the armor.
Blake saw aliens for the first time. They were thin, man-shaped humanoids, with bulbous heads slightly too large for their bodies. Two were crouching over a third that was lying on the floor. Several others were standing away from his pod, aiming hand-held weapons towards Blake’s survival ball. The cluster of survival ball and aliens was at one end of a large cargo bay, or hangar.
“What would you like to bet, that those three are the aliens with the Companions?” Blake asked.
“I’m not taking that bet,” Aaron said with the Companion version of a mental snort. “I think we’ve got more problems,” he continued, drawing Blake’s attention to four aliens moving a large, crew-served weapon through a hatch at the other end of the bay. “I think you are getting your wish for a more physical confrontation,” he concluded worriedly.
“What would happen if we activated the macro to switch our survival pod to solar sail mode, and we juiced up the transition speed?” Blake wondered.
“This bay is about sixty by forty, and twenty feet high. Call it ... fifty thousand cubic feet,” Aaron considered. “The armor, in solar sail mode, fills two hundred thousand cubic feet. A rapid transition would likely kill everyone in the room and may cause damage to the aliens’ ship. I don’t know what would happen to our ship. It could destroy the Star Hawk and us with it.”
“I can’t just sit, and let them shoot me,” Blake mused. He shrugged, making a decision, and said, “Fine! If it looks like they’re going to fire that thing at us, we take them all out. In the meantime, let’s get rid of that shield. If we take that down, maybe we can reach someone to find an option other than killing everyone,” he added grimly. “Including us! I believe only one was shielding us before, and breaking free was easy. There are two, now. It might be harder, but, for the moment, they seem distracted. I think we should take advantage of their distraction. Aaron, my friend ... It’s meld time, again!”
“What’s wrong with him?” the Science Officer asked, kneeling beside the Medical Officer.
The alien Captain shivered, before saying, “I don’t know, but it probably had something to do with the human in that pod. Didn’t you feel what our Companions were doing to it? Can you blame the thing for striking back?”
“The Evil must be subdued!” the two remaining Companions in the meld said explicitly, almost angrily. “The Medical Officer couldn’t take the strain, and passed out. His Companion is fine, but can’t draw on his essence to be of assistance. Only two of us remain to kill the Evil!”
“I could feel the strain, too,” the Captain angrily retorted aloud. He already knew that he would lose his Companion. There was no reason to try to be diplomatic, and he wanted the Science Officer to hear both sides of the issue. He would argue aloud.
“I felt what you were doing to that human, in the ball,” the Captain continued. “Any sane creature would strike back. What did you expect? Is this the way your ‘Evil’ acted during your great war?”
“The Evil did fight back, but not in this manner,” the Companion meld conceded.
The thought didn’t come from the Captain’s Companion’s portion of the meld. He could tell that, from his many years as a host. The Captain felt the subtle difference in his connection to his Companion ... indecision ... doubt ... uncertainty. The glimmer of hope of extracting them from this battle grew. Now was the time to press his case.
“We’ve attacked an unknown race, because you think they are the remnants of your great Evil!” the Captain stated, anger tinting his words and thoughts more than he desired. Anger seldom provides a convincing argument. “The only proof that you have, so far, is a psychic scream that ‘reminded’ you of your great Evil! Apparently, nothing else matches your great Evil. Not the way they fight in space! Not the way they fight back in mental battles! Moreover, they have asked for parley, and we have killed them in return!”
The Captain stopped, breathing hard, before growling softly, “I want you out of my mind, as quickly as possible. Whatever happens with this planet, our next destination will be the nearest home port. I no longer want to be associated with your brand of ethics!”
“I’m afraid that I must agree with my Captain,” the Science Officer said into the stunned silence.
“We will discuss continuing associations, but in the midst of a battle is not the place,” the meld replied, seeming to be less certain.
Both the Captain and the Science Officer could tell the thought came from the Science Officer’s Companion.
“And if the battle we’re in the midst of was ill-advised?” the Science Officer asked. He sighed before saying, “If you are wrong, we have unjustly attacked this species. Death is permanent, and I fear we have killed many of these humans. I have always considered having a Companion the epitome of my career, and a great honor. However, this mission...”
Blinding pain tore through both aliens’ mind, and they both collapsed, stunned.
The Captain’s body twitched, and clumsily rose from the floor. He awkwardly shuffled towards the far end of the bay, and the sonic cannon. His head was lolling to one side. One foot dragged, and twitched occasionally, causing him to stumble.
“Commander Murphy! Report!” Caleb began broadcasting when he was about halfway through the Van Allen Belt. “Pilot Kelly! Report!” He wanted an update of the situation, before Al contacted the aliens. He repeated the sequence five times before he got an answer.
“Major Connor?” Karen asked, astonished. “I thought you couldn’t upgrade your armor?” she blurted.
“Things change! Report!” Caleb answered curtly.
“Yes, Sir!” Karen answered, responding to Caleb’s command. “The Commander’s Hawk was hit again. I think he was hurt, but he’s still alive. I haven’t heard anything from Blake! You’ve got to help him!”
As if on cue, Blake blasted, “Karen! Are you still okay?”
“I’m fine!” Karen replied briskly. “Caleb is coming,” she added, while combining them into a three-way conversation.