Urbis Rising

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Chapter 33

Voting took place the following spring. Springtime seemed to be a fitting symbol for an era of new growth, the increased warmth of the sun a metaphor for the fervently desired new warmth of humankind towards one another.

In all areas of the city where there was at least a moderate population, polling booths were set up in all manner of functional public places, including schools, sports venues, cafes, supermarkets and underground car parks. Specially appointed scrutineers supervised the whole operation, reminding the voters of how to fill in their ballot papers, and when it was all over, the counting began.

Lyall, Dolores, and their closest confederates gathered around a T.V. with flasks of beer and dishes of little savouries, and watched with excitement as the returns were announced. Communications were still not functioning one hundred per cent, and results from some outlying areas of the city took several hours to arrive. But slowly, during the course of the evening, a picture built up, until at last a seat was declared that gave the Underground an unassailable majority.

With a whoop of elation, Dolores threw herself at Lyall and planted a wet kiss on his lips. “We’ve won!” she rejoiced, her eyes a-twinkle. “We’ve won!”

A few weeks after the installation of the new Government of Urbis, Gus sent out an invitation to a select group of Members of the Presidium, including representatives of all parties, to visit his laboratory to witness the first large-scale trial of his technology.

When they arrived at Gus’ laboratory, those who had seen it before marvelled at the transformation. Not only had the mess been cleared up, but the structural damage had been repaired, and a large section of wall and roof that had previously consisted of concrete was now made of glass.

Crispin tapped a pane with his fingernail. “You’ve had a lot of building work done here, Gus,” he remarked. “It looks very impressive. But didn’t all the work interfere with your experiments?”

Gus said nothing, choosing rather to smile enigmatically.

Simone mingled with the visitors, distributing trays of hors d’oeuvres to the bemused guests as they milled in tight bunches amid large drums and coils of piping, anxious not to jar some vital piece of equipment.

Gus took up position by a table that occupied the centre of the room. On it stood a large vat, made principally of a silvery metal, but with windows set into it on all sides. The contents of the vat appeared to be a milky fluid, and the vat was fed by various pipes and cables that trailed across the floor.

He cleared his throat. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I have invited you here to witness a small scale demonstration of the new technology I have been developing, and to which I have given the name `nanotechnology’. Until now, we have been involved with what might be termed `bulk technology’, that is to say, rearranging matter in large gobs. The same holds true whether we are talking about forging steel girders as thick as a man’s arm, or laying wires a tenth the thickness of a human hair onto a sliver of silicon. Compared with the ability to rearrange matter atom by atom, both must now be seen as extremely crude processes. You will be the first to bear testimony to the new process, which will enable our civilization to make an unprecedented leap forward into an era of untold material wealth and almost infinite possibilities. In some ways it is fortuitous that the war has come, for now we can make a clean sweep of the city we have known until now, and all its citizens will be able to witness the vast potential for good which this development represents.”

He turned to the vat. “In this container you see a fluid that contains billions of molecule-sized assembly devices that will build whatever they are programmed to build. At the heart of everything is a tiny master computer that will co-ordinate everything. The pipes you see connected to the vat bring necessary supplies from other tanks around the room, and also channel the heat generated by the construction process into heat exchangers, where they can be used as a source of energy. The assembly devices are all able to communicate with one another, and are all aware of their orientation in relation to everything else. They build up a structure a bit like crystals in a saturated solution. Now, if everyone’s ready, I’ll set things in motion.”

Gus produced a small handset from his pocket and pressed a contact. The fluid within the vat began to swirl, and slowly, steadily, began to grow clearer.

“You may be wondering,” he continued, “how machines so tiny are able to construct something of great size at enormous speed. One thing to remember is that although they are minute, there are countless millions of them, and by replicating exponentially, they are able to reproduce their numbers many times over in a fraction of a second. In this vat, for example, their sheer numbers are what scatter the light, making the fluid appear milky, and serve to make it also heavy and viscous. The other thing to remember is that being so small means that they are able to move immeasurably faster than anything we are familiar with. If you compare the speed with which you are able to move your arm up and down with the speed at which a small bird, or, again, an insect, is able to beat its wings, you will begin to appreciate what is possible down at the molecular level.”

Conscious that he was beginning to sound like a school teacher, Gus turned to his audience. “I’m not boring you, I hope? Rattling on all the time?”

His audience was spellbound, their attention divided between his explanation of things and the developments within the vat, where something was undeniably taking shape.

“The vat,” he went on, while his audience strained their eyes to catch a glimpse of what was forming inside it, “is only necessary at this early stage in the proceedings. In future, assemblers will be able to take their raw material and energy from the soil, the air, and sunlight. Or from anything you may wish to disassemble.”

Steadily the fluid continued to clear. Looking on, Simone wondered how much of Gus’ diatribe his audience was taking in. Less and less, she imagined, as the developments in the vat drew more and more of their attention.

If Gus was reaching the same conclusion, he appeared undeterred. Educating the great mass of people to handle the radical changes that were now inevitable would be an ongoing task, he realised, and was resigned to the necessity of repeating the same things time and time again.

Catching Lyall’s eye, he pressed on with his explanation. “When it’s a matter of some really large assembly, like the construction of huge building projects, the heat generated by the process could become a considerable problem, but we know already how nature copes with such problems. It uses a vascular system, a network of tubes of various sizes, and that is what we will do. The elevators and corridors, the plumbing and the air conditioning system will all be able to carry the building material and the fluid containing the assemblers, and will also serve to carry away waste heat.”

“Gus,” said Dolores, “what exactly is that thing in there?”

Gus looked at her and smiled. “Well, it’s a model, basically. It’s based on the designs one of my colleagues here was working on before the fighting started. He’s dead now, I suppose. But I stumbled across the plan programmes in his lab, and thought it would be fun to make up a prototype for this demonstration.”

Dolores felt, as others had done before her, a shadow of irritation at Gus’ indirect way of explaining things. But there was something about the affable boffin that made it hard to get annoyed with him.

“What is it a model of, Gus?” she inquired, delving into her reserves of calm.

“Well,” said Gus, “a type of aircraft, really. It’s powered by an engine of the same type as powers the little assemblers, though on a somewhat larger scale.” He smiled at his own little joke. “It’s a molecular engine that derives its power the same way that yeast derives its power from dissolved sugar. It actually needs very little power, because it’s built of extremely lightweight materials.” He pointed through a window of the vat. “As you can see, it looks almost transparent, and has a certain sheen. That’s because it’s made of interlocked fibres of carbon configured in the structure of diamond...”

There was a stunned gasp from the crowd as they realised precisely what it as that they were looking at.

The work of the assemblers in the vat was soon complete. When they had done their job, they flowed out of their creation, and the fluid was pumped away. An elegant miniature aircraft sat where there had been nothing before but a tiny computerised `seed’.

Gus pressed another contact. The sealed lid of the vat opened. The machine within could be heard purring softly. And then, to the delight of all present, it began to rise, with no further command from Gus, emerging from the vat, turning over on its axes to allow the onlookers to inspect it from every angle, before departing on a tour of the room, circling faster and faster, hugging the walls until it seemed it must inevitably crash, but still negotiating every turn perfectly. And then it stopped abruptly, hung briefly in mid air, and finally executed a sequence of aerobatic manoeuvres over the heads of the dumbfounded crowd, before coming to rest on the table.

“Needless to say,” Gus observed dryly, “a full scale version would be no harder to construct. Though I suspect it might be a little unpleasant to ride in.”

There was some laughter, welcomed by many as a means of releasing some of the impalpable tension that had built up as they watched with expectation each new marvel that unfolded.

“Now for the interesting bit,” said Gus jauntily, as if all that had preceded was somehow a bit passé.

He pressed another button on his handset, and the machine before them began to metamorphose. It began slowly at first, such that a few in the crowd began to wonder if it was merely their eyes playing tricks on them. Then it became more pronounced, like wax melting in the heat, and parts of the little craft lost their integrity, spreading and collapsing. But when it seemed as if the softly iridescent mass would be reduced to a puddle, parts of it seemed to regain their stiffness. Its shape became more simple, and as appendages grew it was rapidly identified as...

“A chair!” One of the guests called out incredulously, as a complex flying machine was converted into something ridiculously mundane.

“This shows us something else about this technology,” said Gus. “We will have to rethink a great many things, including our perception of spaces. For spaces are necessary to contain things that we possess, even when we aren’t using them. But how would it be if when you weren’t using something you could simply turn it into something else, something that you did want to use?”

He glanced around at his guests, and saw thoughtful nods of agreement, chins being pulled in perplexity and earlobes being tweaked as their owners made an effort to come to grips with the changes he was presenting them with.

A further press of the button and the table began to disintegrate, undergoing a further transformation. The material was changing too, growing darker and more opaque as the miniscule assemblers carried out changes to its molecular make-up. Unwanted extra matter was allowed to drain away into the table top beneath, rendering its mass marginally more dense, but utterly inconsequentially so.

There was laughter as the new shape became apparent. It was a bicycle, standing unsupported on the table.

“I know you like these things, Crispin,” Gus said impishly. “Mind you, I’ve cheated a little with this one by telling the assemblers to bond the bottoms of its wheels to the surface of the table, so it won’t fall over.”

Gus decided to call a halt. His visitors shuffled out, almost speechless with amazement, many with their mouths still agape.

“Remember,” he called as they filed past him, shaking his hand, “that was just a tiny sample of what is possible. There is much, much more to come.”

As she reached the door, Josie greeted Simone. Gus’ assistant was glowing with pride.

By the time Gus had ironed out any last possible flaw in the functioning of his exponentiating `nanobots’, the first anniversary of the fall of sector one was not far off, and Lyall had decreed that that should be the day upon which Gus should effect his transformation of the city. In the meantime, work on all but the most pressing repairs was wound up, as Gus had shown that his tiny machines would render cranes and heavy transport utterly obsolete.

Before the big day, however, Gus announced that his laboratory would be open to the public, and would serve a very different purpose: that of a hospital. His invention, he declared, would cure all human ills.

At the first word of this, the city’s medical practitioners were outraged, but the scientific committee of the Presidium, which had been given the task of keeping tabs on Gus’ work, insisted that he be permitted to go ahead.

At the head of the queue when he opened his door were Crispin, Josie, and Karl, who was now showing signs of distinct retardation in his learning capacity. He was two years old, and still crawling, while his cognitive faculties were also scarcely off the floor.

Gus smiled. “I thought I might see you here.” He ushered them into the laboratory.

“It was part of the deal, wasn’t it?” said Crispin. “Not that you needed my help putting your case to the Presidium.”

“Whatever the case,” Gus smiled, “I’m happy to be able to help you. Take a seat.”

Simone entered, carrying a small red casket and a beaker of water. Her trim figure was concealed by unusually loose-fitting clothes that hung in slack folds over her belt and flapped loosely about her hips and thighs. They were the kind of clothes, Josie reflected, that were usually worn by women who were...

“These little fellows are almost untried,” Gus explained, opening the casket to reveal hundreds of tiny silvery capsules.

Simone edged closer to Gus’ side, placing an arm round his shoulders. She wore an expression of pure bliss.

Gus put his arm round her waist and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “I say almost untried. Sim and I have already run one little test, to see if we could neutralise the contraceptive implant she had.” They looked warmly into each other’s eyes for a moment. “I’m pleased to say that that little experiment was one hundred per cent successful, and a little Trencher will arrive in due course.”

“That’s wonderful!” chorussed Crispin and Josie.

“And now to business,” said Gus. “If you could slip off the little fellow’s shoes, we can see the full effect.”

Josie removed Karl’s shoes. He sat on her lap with a bemused look on his face.

“Open wide,” said Gus, picking one of the silver capsules out of the casket.

The child sat with his lips sealed.

“Hey,” said Josie softly, jiggling her son on her knees. “Aren’t you going to open your mouth for Uncle Gus?” The child shook his head mistrustfully, his jaws determinedly clamped shut. “I think you are,” she chuckled.

She tickled his ribs and he squealed with delight. Gus was quick to pop the capsule into his mouth, and as he began to choke, gave him the beaker of water.

Karl drank. Gus took the beaker from his little deformed hands.

There was a moment of apprehension as the adults gathered around him watched expectantly. Then, without causing any apparent distress to the boy, his skull shrank back from its swollen shape to normal dimensions. His misshapen claw grew extra fingers and took on a more orthodox shape, while the tissue bonding together the fingers of his right hand melted away, freeing the captive digits, and his right foot lost its superfluous toe.

He stretched out his arms. “More water, please.”

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