The traveler strode across the empty wastes, his face shadowed beneath the wide brim of his hat and protected from the blasting sand by the high collar of his coat. His steps were purposeful and methodical, a straight line across the sand dunes. There wasn’t much left of what had once been rich farmland and open prairies. Even the few small towns had been swallowed by the wastes. Nothing lived this far from the hub. There was no water or electricity. There was only one place left for humans, and it wasn’t western Kansas.
The traveler passed a particularly heavy dune and looked down into the valley beneath the waves of sand. A small patch of ground, barely large enough for the one room shack and small garden, had been reclaimed from the sands. The fluffy green leaves of vegetables growing up from rich, black soil drew his attention first. Nothing should be able to grow out here, but someone had managed. Someone had found water.
He checked the GPS on his wrist-com to confirm he’d found what he was looking for. It wasn’t likely for anyone other than Dr. Kendra Johnson would be living in an impossible reclamation in western Kansas, but he had to be sure. The coordinates told him he was practically on top of her.
This was the place alright.
He felt the hum of the unseen fence as he crossed it. His wrist-com squelched once before blipping to death. Across his body, dozens of other enhancements also fell dormant. It would take time for those systems to reboot to optimal again, but they had important failsafes built in. No one wanted their robotic heart to be wiped out by passing too close to an EMP field. The days of avoiding a microwave to protect your pacemaker were long gone.
The EMP field wasn’t what got his attention. The small garden wouldn’t survive the wastes without it, the nanites would have already consumed any new vegetation. No, his mind was drawn to the familiar whirr of rotary barrels winding up to speed. The old slug-throwers were harder to maintain than anything modern, but the rotating rail cannons packed enough force behind the magnetically powered drivers to put a sewing needle through a concrete bunker. Besides, they didn’t need anything special as ammo. Anything that would fit in the tube would launch. Some ammo was more effective than others, but at this range, all of it would be deadly.
“Good Evening, Doctor Johnston,” the traveler said. His voice was as mechanical as his steps. Too many implants for too many years. It was the only way to stay alive in the Hub. If he hadn’t seen the wasteland oasis with his own eyes, he would have told you it was the only way to stay alive, period. Dr. Johnston obviously disagreed.
“What do you want?” The grizzled woman asked. His face didn’t match the image the traveler had been shown. Of course, it had been nearly twenty years since the nanites had escaped into the world. Twenty years of reverse terraforming the planet, the slow, steady return from the life-sustaining mothership to dead rock.
The image in the traveler’s mind was of a much younger Kendra Johnston. A woman in her early-thirties, a serious look on her face, her lab behind her. The image had been one of the last front pages to be run by the New York Times. “The True Story: How Kendra Johnston Destroyed the World.”
How little the reporters had known.
“I have questions to ask you regarding the night of April 23, 2018. I have come from the Hub.”
“Yeah. People outside the Hub have inflection in their voice. Come on inside.” She gestured for him to come into the small shack but didn’t bother to lower her slug-thrower. She didn’t even reduce the power settings. “You read the report, but want to know the true, true story. Dr. Needlemeyer’s account not good enough? Creeper Paul always had his own way of revising the past.” Dr. Johnston flicked off the slug-thrower letting the spinning chamber wind down. When she sat it against the wall beside the door, the traveler expected to see something fall from the ammo chamber, but nothing did. It was empty. “So, are you a reporter, or just a history buff?”
“Alright. And you, what? Want to know the truth about that night? I can give you that. I can tell you what you want to know.” She gestured for the traveler to sit down on the bench beside the iron stove, then rested down on the bed herself. “The containment systems failed. The bastards got out. They reproduced.”
“There is more?” the traveler asked. This Dr. Kendra Johnston was not what he had expected at all. “Didn’t you have a failsafe?”
“The code was never completed. We didn’t think we’d need it.”
Kendra leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbows. Years of reclaiming this small piece of land had pushed her skin even darker and covered her frame in lean muscle. Only the faintest of resemblance remained between this woman and the images he had seen. It seemed likely he was not dealing with Dr. Johnston at all, but a perhaps her daughter. Would he be able to find what he had come looking for?
“Creeper Paul.” She mistook his lack of movement for a need to clarify and went on. “Dr. Needlemeyer, Paul Needlemeyer. He was the Network Security Analyst for Deedrah Enterprises Advanced Research Laboratory. The DEARL was the underground equivalent to Deedrah’s undersea research facility. Literally. We were seventy-three stories beneath the Rocky Mountains. Needlemeyer was our security and networking guru.”
“Was he responsible for programming the failsafe”?”
“No, I was. I would have had it in place, too if Creeper Paul hadn’t decided to be so creepy.”
The traveler gestured for her to continue and became acutely aware of her staring at the metallic pieces of his hands. It had taken him this long to realize she had not been enhanced. Was it possible to live beyond the Hub without enhancements? He pulled the collar of his coat tighter around his face, hiding the steel cables and wires.
“Alright, you want the full story, and I’ll give it to you.”
Dr. Kendra Johnston sat at her workstation analyzing code. Across the room, a pool of gray sludge sat in the center of her sterile table, happily consuming a block of wood roughly the size of her fist. So far, the decompilers had torn the block down to about 50% mass. In another eight hours, they would be done and her program would have a new record for matter decompilation.
The second blob of goo was not having the same level of success. The wooden statuette was barely recognizable as it rose up from the table. Its mass had only grown 3 percent since the last measurements. 3% growth in nine hours was not impressive. The board wanted dramatic results.
She could give them dramatic decompile, but the board had seen that. Watching the nanite swarm turn an old building into raw materials again wouldn’t cut the mustard. There wasn’t any money to be made without the other half of the equation, at least as far as the board was concerned.
What Kendra couldn’t figure out was why the recompile team couldn’t keep up. No matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to overcome the nanites lethargy when it came to building. They just didn’t’ seem naturally inclined to create anything.
Perhaps the problem was more chemical than mechanical. She would have to allow the biotechnical guys another look at her work. They had already helped advance her research significantly. Forming the nanite swarms to act like bacterium was a large breakthrough. Microbots were insects. Nanobots were viruses.
She looked up from her console as the door to her lab hissed and The Creeper walked in. Paul Needlemeyer wasn’t the worst person she’d ever known. He was sort of sweet and passionate in his own way. But, he was definitely the creepiest.
Needlemeyer had a doctorate degree in digital surveillance and tracking. If that wasn’t the very definition of a stalker, Kendra didn’t know what was. He was harmless, really. He mostly spent his days watching women through the security system or upgrading this or that service. The old adage about scary dogs came to mind. He was always more afraid of women than women were afraid of him.
“Hi, Paul. I don’t really have time to chat, I’ve got a presentation due tomorrow and it’s not going very well.” Kendra turned back to her scrolling lines of code. There had to be something in there she could use. The control computer was the most powerful device on the planet. It wasn’t a matter of hardware. Something in the code kept the recompile nanos from working in harmony. She could figure it out. Her future depended on it.
“I need your help, Ken,” Paul said. His voice was quiet and nervous. “Something weird is going on with the cameras in the coffee shop on one. I keep getting crossfeed images I don’t understand. Nothing is wrong with the wireless. The rest of the network is fine. I switched out the local cameras, but I’m still getting the images coming through.”
“I didn’t think the coffee shop was part of our security,” Kendra said, absentmindedly. Something in the code was wrong. She could feel it. The resource usage for the recompiler was insanely high. The little builders were doing something, but it wasn’t building the statuette they were supposed to be building. “I’ve got serious issues here. Paul, I could lose my funding.”
“But, Rhonda is working today, and–”
“Oh, my god, Paul! I don’t care. Look, I will help you fix your feed after my presentation. You can stalk someone else for one day. Hell, watch me if you want.” She waved at the black orb hanging from the corner of her lab. “I’ll be here all night.”
“Well, that’s what’s weird. The crossover feed is coming from here in your lab.” Paul walked avoided the table as he walked to stand directly under the security camera orb. “But it isn’t coming from here.”
Kendra looked up from her console. “What are you talking about. That’s the only camera in the room, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” She stood up, angry. The hermetic chamber in the back of her lab required gooping down with a special anti-static slime and climbing into a hazard suit. If there was a camera in her lab that could see behind her privacy screen, she was going to kill the weasel.
“Not that I put in,” Paul protested. He moved to the opposite side of the room and squatted down behind her table. “It’s coming from somewhere around here. Did you bring a cell phone or iPad in with you?”
“Are you insane? The equipment in here is extremely sensitive to electromagnetism. All of my gear is handmade and specialty shielded. I don’t even like the damn camera you installed and I built the shield on it. You think I’m going to risk my funding by bringing a cell phone in here?” Kendra knew it was absurd. She tried to remind herself this was Paul’s’ actual job. He was a security expert.
“I’m just hitting the bases, Ken. This is a formality… or an informality as the case may be. But, yes, your funding is in danger here. So, what if you brought in a camera to show your progress to a competitor, say, maybe Li Wang Industrial?” He was still sliding along in a crouch behind her table, looking at her over the top edge.
“I told you about the Li Wang recruiter. I filed a report on everything they offered me. If my funding gets cut, I might go work for them, but I’m not a spy, Paul. You know that. You’ve got enough footage to know everything about me, so why are you really here?”
“I’m here because a secondary camera feed is being broadcast from your lab. How long have these goo piles been doing their thing on your table?”
Kendra looked down at her console, checking the progress data. “Almost ten hours. Why?”
“The far edge of this table is in the image, but the goo piles aren’t. The camera should be either on the table or in this wall at exactly the right height to hit the line.” He pointed to a space on the wall behind him, just about where his eyes were as he squatted.
“Neither of those is possible. The goo would destroy any electronics left on the table if the broadcast signal didn’t scramble their receivers. Even if it was hidden in that wall, the nanos would be acting crazy.”
“Exactly,” Paul said, popping back up from the floor. “So, why am I getting a camera feed from down here?”
Kendra shrugged. “I don’t know, but can you tell me when you figure it out. In the meantime, I’ve got nanites that refuse to work faster. Lazy little bastards take up an entire server farm’s worth of resources and can’t even build an action figure. It’s going to be hard to convince anyone they’re better than another iteration of a 3D printer.”
“Do they normally use that much bandwidth?” Paul asked, this time pointing to the displays on her console. “I’ve seen Professional Gaming events use fewer systems resources.”
“Not usually, but I’m trying to get them thinking faster. It’s just proof of concept, but if I can get them to build the statuette in, say, an hour instead of 90, I’ll be in business. Even if we can’t do it continually, yet.”
Paul moved in to stand beside her, mesmerized by the processes running on her secondary screen. He leaned in to focus on the code with only the trained eye of a camera obsessed stalker. “Look at ‘em go. Those guys are busy doing something.”
“Yeah, but it’s all junk code. It doesn’t mean anything. As far as I can tell, they’re all stuck in a recurrent loop, like they’re waiting for input. The controller is giving them commands, but only a handful of them execute. Something is broken in their internal network. Something in the code.”
Paul leaned in even closer, putting his hand on Kendra’s shoulder for support. A snap of static shot from his hand to her skin, causing the hair on her neck to stand on end. “Oh, god,” she muttered, already hammering away at her console. “Paul, tell me you ground yourself before you came in! Tell me you didn’t just expose my swarm to static!”
“I followed protocol,” Paul said defensively. “I must have built up a charge in here.”
“That isn’t possible. This room is ionized to prevent static. Everything in here is non-conductive. Even the damn computers are shielding in non-conductive materials. This is an electrically sterile environment for a reason. The nanites–”
“The look fine to me,” Paul said. “See, they’ve started building their little statue again.”
Kendra looked down at the recompile goo sitting on the table. The statuette was indeed rising from the puddle exactly as it should, only it didn’t match the specifications she’d programmed into them. Instead of a dancing ballerina, it was a small eyeball on a stalk.
And they were building it fast. Too fast.
“Is that a camera?” Paul asked, pointing down at the little eye. “You said you didn’t give them electronics to work with.”
“I don’t.” Kendra backed away from the table, moving toward the red button on the wall. “Paul. I’m sorry I called you the creeper.”
“What? Kendra, don’t worry about it. These things are great! They’re working. Look at ‘em go!” Paul turned back, trying to get her attention and saw her reach for the emergency shutdown button. “Ken? That’s for biohazard contamination, these guys are just working really well. Like you programmed them to.”
“I never gave them access to a camera.” Kendra leaned back and pushed the red button, killing the power to the controller computer and sealing the electromagnetic locks on the lab’s doors. “Someone’s been tampering with my goo.”
On the table, a second eyestalk began to grow from the little puddle of sludge. The decompile group finished devouring their wooden block and began moving in mass toward Paul’s hand at the edge of the table.
“What are these guys doing?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know. They shouldn’t be doing anything. The control box is down. They can’t function without input from something.” Kenda watched in fascination as the decompile pool reached the edge. A tendril of silver liquid lifted up from the center of the pool, the swarms feelers on the air, searching for more wood. That had been preprogrammed. The decompiler nanites would only chew fibrous organic material. Wood could be regrown, and they didn’t care what they were eating at the atomic level. Parts were parts.
Horror struck her as the silver tendril darted out and tagged Paul’s hand. He screamed and pulled away, his blood gushing from the huge hole in his flesh. “They bit me! The little fuckers bit me!”
Kendra couldn’t help but watch as the quarter sized chunk of Paul’s hand was consumed by the swarm. They didn’t care what they found. Parts were parts.
Sirens began to sound in the lab as the blood hit the floor. Pathogen protection protocols would be engaged. The entire floor would go hermetic. They would be trapped in here with the man-eating swarm until hazmat arrived if she didn’t do something, anything.
Kendra pulled at the panel for the kill switch, breaking away the shielding. The secondary failsafe was right there. All she had to do was cut the line. They wouldn’t make it off the floor, but they could get to one of the other labs.
She cut the line. At first, nothing happened. Then, new klaxons began to wail.
“Security Breach. Security Breach. Initiate Clean Sweep.”
“What’s a clean sweep?” Kendra asked. She hadn’t thought Paul could get any paler, but the clean sweep announcement shook him to his core.
“You don’t want to know. We need to get out of here.” Paul looked at the sealed door, then toward the back of the lab. “Quick, get in there. We’ll be alright in there.”
Kendra felt his hand wrap around her upper arm as he pushed her through the double containment lock on the sealed chamber. Both sets of doors hissed behind them, cutting out all sound from the rest of the lab. Kendra could still see the two pools of gray goo on the table, slowly forming back into one. They merged together, adding a small amount of mass to the eye stalks–the piece of Paul’s hand, Kendra realized–before turning their attention to the door.
A few moments later, everything went white.
“So, now you know. Are you going to print that, Mr. Reporter?” Kendra asked.
The traveler could see how tired she had become. Reliving the events of twenty years ago must have been emotionally draining for her. He empathized. Too few had been enhanced to ignore those feelings. He could still remember them. They were saved in his memory, but he no longer possessed them himself. “I have one more question, Dr. Johnston.”
“Go ahead,” Kendra said. “I’m game.”
“Dr. Needlemeyer suggested you may have access to the root code for the swarm. He said you were going to build a cure. Are you still working on a solution to the swarm?”
Kendra smiled. “No. The code evolved beyond my ability to comprehend it. I’ve spent the last five years on other projects. Stalling the swarm, slowing it down. Reprogramming them now is a pipe dream. One best left to young people with more brains than wisdom.”
“Do you still have the root code?” the traveler asked again. “My masters are greatly interested in accessing the root.”
Kendra tapped the side of her head. “Good old Human 1.0. I could rewrite that code in my sleep. I’m sure there’s a disk or something with the code on it, but the EMP generators are hard on computers. I’d rather work in my head than lose everything. I have to take them offline to do any new structuring and every time I do, I lose a few inches of my garden. It took a long time to get that garden up and running.”
“That’s good to know.” The traveler stood and pulled a small metal tube from his pocket. “Thank you, Dr. Johnston. Your services are no longer required.”
The traveler stepped out of the small cabin, Kendra Johnston’s slug-thrower over one shoulder. The magnetic field was already fading, and his enhancements were coming back online. The fuzzy edges of his vision sprang to life with a new set of commands.
His primary target had been eliminated. The source code threat had been dealt with. He turned back toward the east and began walking across the Kansas waste again. Soon he would return to the Hub and the collective. The swarm was safe from those who would destroy it. The mother had been silenced. She would never be able to threaten the code again.
A Note From the Author
I have a confession to make. This is not actually this week’s short story. I originally wrote this story back in May 2015. It has never been published before and it was languishing in my Google Docs. But, I really like it and thought it deserved to see the light of day. So, here it is.
I did write a short story this week, but I haven’t decided if I will share it next week or not. I’m torn. I really like the character and the story. I mean, I really like them. Enough to maybe turn it into a much longer story.
Like I said. I haven’t decided.
Either way, I will be posting another story next week.