“So I want to build a billion tiny
factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously,
drilling holes, stamping parts, and so on… At the atomic level."
― Richard Feynman “There’s Always Room at the Bottom”
The morning was flowing in through the eastern facing windows, hot white light that was being filtered through the tri-weave diamond panes inset in the fine faux-wood frames. Inside each pane, invisible micro filaments picked up a small percentage of those errant photons, those troublesome subatomic particles that weren’t quite particles or waves, and channeled them down to the basement where they were stored in the house’s main generator. In the kitchen, Martha was busy heating up a pan of water that would soon be dedicated to the boiling of some eggs for their Sunday brunch. Gerald, her husband, was always hungry at about this time. And their son Timmy would be home at any moment.
In the den, Gerald sat and read from a copy of The Times. The single page was unfolded in front of him, text and streaming video moving about and giving him the day’s events. International news was proving depressing on this fine day, so a simple verbal command changed it immediately.
“Sports,” he said softly. The pictures and text immediately changed, only the title and the days date, and the cost of the circular, stayed at the top. Within moments, his senses were distracted by the smell of toast and eggs coming from the kitchen. He smiled when he realized that fresh cheese was being brought out as well, and his mouth began to water in anticipation.
The stove heated at a deliberately slow pace, drawing energy from the house’ generator to power what appeared to be an old-fashioned electrical appliance, but what was in reality a superior nanotech model. Every element was constructed of super resilient metals that had very little atomic weight and required very little energy to heat. Thus energy was applied slowly and evenly to give it the feel of an old-style cooker, the kind that took minutes or even hours to heat something to the point where it was edible or could be cooked with.
There was a sudden pounding at the door. Gerald and Martha both looked up to see their son standing there, his arms full of all kinds of materials. Gerald was quick to his feet, chivalrously volunteering to let him in so Martha could continue cooking. When the door opened (a slight breeze coming in due to a temporary change in pressure from the perfectly climate-controlled interior) he noticed that his son was indeed heavily laden. His arms were stuffed with what appeared to be scholastic reading materials, sports equipment of various kinds and personal items. And at his feet, the petmodel they had named Rufus was impatiently walking around his legs.
“Come in, son! Come in Rufus!” he said, ushering them both in. Rufus obliged, the result of internal compulsion and not embedded voice-command software. “How was your morning?”
“Oh fine,” Timmy said, putting all his things down at once in the corner. “Why you insist on sending me to such a primitive academy is beyond me, though.”
“Son!” Gerald objected. “St. Anne’s is a prestigious institution, and their insistence on traditional methods is hardly a mark of underdevelopment. It is, in fact, a conscious choice to promote self-reliance and encourage us to remember how blessed we are.”
“Yes, father,” Timmy said obligingly. “I just don’t understand why we can’t use the lighter equipment. It’s not like they are expensive or anything.”
Gerald shook his head ruefully. But eyeing the pile his son had made, he acknowledged that he had a point. Sports equipment made of wood and plastic might be solid to the touch, but was cumbersome and awkward, especially when accompanied by paper tomes that were encased in cellulose bindings. And they certainly weren’t anywhere near as good at keeping dirt and dust away.
It was all food for thought as Martha plugged a vacuum line into the room’s main feed and began running it over their son and his dirty possessions. Within seconds, tiny nanomites poured out of the hose and began filtering through his clothes, hair and pores to comb away outside intruders. Dust, dirt, molds, spores, and bacteria that they had programmed the house’s main directional computer to recognize and target. Unrecognized nanomites (hostiles, perhaps) were also targeted and neutralized using tiny shocks of EM radiation to their central cores, knocking out their power supplies and then carried back like dead drones to the house’s Seed.
When the vacuum job was complete, the unit dinged and Margaret withdrew it to its hole. Had she read the indicator on the line, she would have noticed that Timmy was now clean based on household specifications. While all families knew the importance of allowing their children to be exposed to some degree of filth in exchange for the benefits to their immune systems, every family was at their own discretion to decide how much of it they wanted in their house. The Wilkinson’s were a rustic family by most standards, choosing to program their nanomites to filter out harmful E Coli, Tetanus and other such things, but keeping just enough cold and flu bacteria in the air to keep themselves strong. What was the occasional runny nose so long as their white cells continued to function?
“Learn anything new and exciting?” Gerald asked once they were all seated at the dining room table and eating their food. Timmy shrugged, looking up from Rufus, who needed to be shooed away from begging at his feet.
“Miss Tomlin spent the whole morning telling us about the breakup of the old nation state system. I didn’t get it much. Seemed stupid to me.”
“Son, studying the past is important,” Gerald said. “It is how we got to the period we know as the now, after all.”
“Yeah, but why did people ever live like that? She said they used giant machines to make everything. And that they paid a central government to take care of them, even though everyone complained about it, and went to war over flags.”
“People still go to war. Remember the nanocausts?”
“Yes,” Timmy nodded. “But why fight over a strip of cloth? Why pay a bunch of people you never even met to take care of you?”
“It was a different time,” his father reminded him. “They had not yet realized these things were obsolete, or they would have abandoned them. For that to happen, they needed the means. The nanoindustrial revolution changed not only the way people think, but the way they lived and did things.”
“I’ll say,” Timmy said, poking at his lunch. “She also said they cut down trees a lot, used paper for everything.”
“Also true,” Gerald said proudly. “Paper was used for currency back then, and it was considered a replacement for precious metals, which used to be used to fashion coins.”
“But why use money like that? Couldn’t people just steal it?”
Gerald had just finished biting off a piece of toast loaded with egg. He smiled as he chewed quickly.
“They could,” he said, clearing a crumb from his throat. “And they often did. Which was one of the reasons why they began to rely on the credit system. But it was some time before they switched completely, and people still relied on physical currency for quite some time.”
Timmy poked at his food with his fork. “But that’s stupid.”
“Keep in mind people enjoy having physical things they can touch. They are much more tangible. Besides, we still use wood and paper when it suits us. Some people even prefer to use the kind that’s made by hand in an old fashioned press.”
“Huh! Yes, those who don’t mind throwing their money away,” Martha said with a laugh. Gerald gave her a quick look and then went right back to eating his brunch.
“The point, my son, is that we’ve come a long way and it’s important to remember that people in the past didn’t always have it so easy. But chances are, they did things the way they did for a reason, and it’s not really fair to judge them for it.”
“Yeah…” Timmy said, staring off into space and poking his food some more. Were his father watching him, he would see that the boy had more burning questions, he just wasn’t sure how to go about asking them. It wasn’t long before the one he wanted answered most slipped out though.
“Is it true they once used paper to… you know…”
Both his parents looked at him. Timmy shrugged and began motioning towards his backside.
“Oh, Timmy!” cried Martha.
“Son, that’s not appropriate!” said his father. A few seconds passed before he felt Martha’s composure had returned and he could answer further. “But it is true that toiletries were different back then too.”
“Yeah…” Timmy said, finally put food onto his fork. “She said we’d talk about that during the next class too.”
Gerald smiled and patted his son on the shoulder. They continued to eat quietly for a few minutes, until Martha thought the time was ripe to bring up the piece of gossip she had heard yesterday. As with all things, it was important to get the timing right.
“Gerald, I was wondering if maybe it was time to upgrade.”
Her husband looked up at her with sudden disquiet. “Upgrade? But why? Didn’t we just do that?”
“Yes…” Martha replied coolly. “Three months ago. But I heard that the Masons are doing it. Tina told me yesterday that Bert got a tip from the Manufacturing Warrens that a new model is available.”
“Really?” Gerald said incredulously. “They just came out with the 4.0.”
“Rumor has it the 4.5 is even better.”
“When can we access it?”
Martha linked her fingers together triumphantly. “I was told they will make an announcement this week, but if we tell them we already know, they might give us the specs ahead of schedule.”
Gerald sighed. “Nothing ever stays secret in this community.” He thought it over for a second, though Martha could tell he had already made up his mind. “Alright, what’s a few more days in a hotel?”
“Do I get to miss school?” Timmy asked excitedly.
“No!” Gerald said emphatically. “I’ll put in a call to Sydney down at the Warrens. You call the hotel and book a few nights,” he said to Martha. Looking over at their son again, he added: “I suggest you pack some clothes, young man.”
A loud pop sounded, followed by a prolonged hissing noise. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but Martha though she saw the edges of the house folding and coming down. As they watched, the house’s nanomites were busy at work, decompiling entire areas of the house atom for atom, sending it to the Seed where it would be reprocessed and sent back along the feed lines to wherever it was needed. Every section that was to be upgraded would slowly be replaced this way, regrown over a matter of days until it looked new. When they returned, they would find themselves presented with a new house. Not radically different, but better and more efficient. Those areas of the house that were no longer up-to-date would be combed out and replaced with new, healthy tissues, nanoware that was current and top of the line.
Martha hadn’t read the specifications, she preferred to be surprised. But Gerald, with his engineering background, just had to devour the manual. He knew exactly what the layout would look like once they returned, and a general understanding of how much less energy it would need to consume to do many of the same tasks as their old house. Plus they could look forward to new planters out the back, a gondola, and a new theater den set for Timmy. Perhaps they would take the opportunity to add another child to their flock, a little girl perhaps.
Picking up their bags, the family came about to face the driveway, the only part of the house that was under control of the Seed and its feed lines. He sighed.
“Well, let’s head out then. The house won’t finish as long as we’re watching it.”
Martha and Timmy tittered. That was such an old joke! And with little Rufus barking and running circles around them, they began to walk to the edge of the property, the Pedi cab waiting for them, its engine cold and quiet.
“Where are you fine folks heading today?” asked the Hindustani man in a flawless English accent.
“To the hotel by Baywater Inn, my dear man,” said Gerald, handing him his credit slip.
“Very good sir,” he said, putting the last of their cases in the rear and heading to the front. He quickly waved the slip over the cab’s remote sensor and smiled when it chimed and turned green. He turned to hand the slip back and looked on them with smiling green eyes.
“Taking a little vacation, are we?”
“Just a little time away while the house upgrades,” said Gerald.
“Ah, you too,” he observed. “Seems to be a common thing in this community.”
Martha looked to Gerald worryingly. He knew that look well enough. It was the kind that wondered if they were getting in on this development just a little later than she would have wanted. He could imagine her embarrassment if they walked into the Inn and found every family in the neighborhood sequestered there, looking at them and wondering what had taken them so long.
“And would you like me to take the smart highway, or would you like the scenic route?”
“Scenic,” said Martha, acerbically. The man politely doffed his driver’s cap.
“Very well, ma’am. Scenic route it is. Strap yourselves in, please.”
He waited until they were all settled in the rear cabin before mounting the cycle at the front. Releasing the brake and pressing down on one of the pedals, the clockwork engine began to cycle and build up energy. Setting it into gear, the machine began to move and pick up speed.
“I’m telling you Gerald, we shouldn’t have waited so long to upgrade to the 4.0. Have I not said that any dilly-dallying will cause us to fall behind as soon as the next upgrade comes out? If we’re to stay current, we need to be quicker about these things.”
“Yes, honey, you have. But I still think a little caution is warranted. As an engineer, I know that it takes time to work out all the bugs and that we should wait for all the patches to be made available.”
Timmy sat in the living room on the rather large rug that covered the floor, admiring the old-fashioned wood furniture and the log-cabin walls. Rufus was running around and fetching a small ball of paper they were using to play fetch. The sheet was of the nanopore variety, and didn’t crumble as nicely as the real kind. Still, its super light properties made it more bouncy and entertaining for Rufus, the wild trajectories he sent it on playing havoc with his sensors. Every time it bounced Rufus made another wild bark and began jumping at it until it descended back to the floor.
He envied the little animatroid, simple pleasures and no need to listen to people arguing. For what seemed like hours they were debating, and all because of one idle comment made by their cabbie. Of course, the fact that most of the town’s people were to be found at the Inn or had hopped an airship to go overseas for a little holiday probably had much to do with that as well. His mother was obviously dreading what dinnertime would be like when they all went down to the resto-bar for some food and would be forced to make conversation with them. He knew their arguing points too well, he had heard them all made several times over now.
Rufus was on his way to fetching the paper ball as it descended to the ground once more, his front arms aimed at the ceiling and his back haunches erect and straining. His father was once more making a point about patches and nanowire glitches, when he realized Rufus had stopped yipping. He looked up at the dog, saw a standing statue at the edge of the carpet. His arms aloft and his mouth open, no movement or sound emanating from him.
“Mooooom!” he cried. “Mom! Dad! Come help!”
Gerald rushed to the door of their room and poked his head in. “What is it, son?”
“It’s Rufus, dad! I think he’s sick!”
‘Oh, son,” Gerald said with a casual wave of the hand. “Petmodels can’t get sick, you know that. Why if he made a mess or is coughing, I assure you it’s strictly simulated to –”
He took a few steps into the room and stopped. His eyes were fixed onto the edge of the carpet where Rufus had been frozen a second earlier. Timmy now stared at his father, seeing all color drain from his face and his features frozen in disbelief.
“Dad? Daaaaad?” he said. Slowly, his father raised an arm, his index finger pointed. Timmy followed its path, towards the edge of the rug and the small pile of grey goo that had formed there. He gasped. They were both speechless.
“What is going on in here?” they both heard Martha say as she walked in. She came to where her husband was standing. A sudden gasp, and began yelling hysterically.
“Oh my God! What is THAT?!”
“It’s okay,” Gerald said, obviously not convinced of that himself. He knelt down. “Son, come here, come to me. Just get up and come to me.”
“But dad, where’s –”
“Son! Come to me right now!” he demanded. Timmy did as he was told and got to his feet, keeping one eye on the small pile that appeared to be getting bigger. He ran to his father’s side and felt his father’s hand close around the scruff of his neck. A strong pull followed, one which nearly choked him. Timmy tried to protest, but Gerald would not let go. His other arm he had wrapped around Martha’s waist, his grip tight so that they couldn’t possibly venture anywhere near the small, metallic pond that was just a few meters away.
“Honey, what is that thing?” asked Martha.
“Yeah, dad. What is it? And what happened to Rufus?”
“Martha, son,” he said in turn. “We need to get out here, right now. Go down to the lobby and tell the concierge we have an emergency in here, to call a nanoevac team immediately. Okay?” He looked at both of them direly. They both nodded. “Good! Go now, I’ll get our valuables and meet you down there, okay? Go! Now!”
He released his grip, and Martha and Timmy both made a dash for the door. They looked back just once, at the edge of the doorway, to make sure Gerald was okay. In one hand, he had secured his credit slip and ID. In the other, he was madly grabbing at pieces of Martha’s jewelry from the bed side table. He saw them standing there, his face went red and his hands began to wave frantically.
“I said I’d be right behind you, but you need to go NOW!”
And so they did. Right down to the
lobby, no stops or even a pause to catch their breath.
It was perhaps an hour or so later. Perhaps it was several hours. Neither Martha nor Timmy could really tell. All they really knew was that the sun had set, the authorities seemed satisfied that the grey goo was contained, and that nobody was hurt. This knowledge came only after they had answered all the Constables questions, after they had watched him interview person after person, questioning the hotel staff in the hopes of getting some kind of explanation, and the evac technicians in full-body suits were finally done sweeping the building. Once that was all made clear to them, Martha and Timmy were finally allowed to see Gerald again.
He was sitting in the back of the EMR carriage, a white towel wrapped around his neck. A person wearing a mask and goggles was checking his vital signs and running a sweeper over him. They both ran to him when they saw him, another Constable stopping them along the way.
“Whoa, ma’am! Wait until he’s been cleared!”
“It’s alright,” the emergency technician said through the filters of his mask. “He’s clean. And all vitals are stable.”
“Alright,” the Constable said, releasing them and letting them both embrace him.
“Gerald! You gave us both quite the fright there!”
“I know, I’m sorry dearest. We had quite the brush there though, didn’t we?”
“What happened daddy?”
“I’m not sure, son,” Gerald said, running his hand through the sweaty mop of hair on his head. “But I’m afraid we’re going to have to get a new petmodel.”
“WHAT?” Timmy’s face went red and his eyes swelled up with tears.
“Gerald,” Martha interrupted. “Was that thing… Rufus?”
“I’m afraid so, honey,” he said, looking back to Timmy and putting his hand on his son’s cheek, wiping some of his tears away. “A ‘nanoware meltdown’ is what we call it down at the workshop, or ‘nanomelt’ for short. It’s where the nanomaterial breaks down and loses its prescribed configuration. We're just lucky none of it came into contact with us.”
“Why?” Timmy said, his eyes still streaming with tears.
“Because it would have eaten the flesh right off your bones, son,” he replied. Martha leaned in close, putting her head on his shoulder and shedding some tears of relief.
“Rufus would have done that to us?” Timmy demanded.
“It wasn’t Rufus anymore, son. That thing was not the good doggy you knew. But we can get you a new one, one who won’t hurt you.”
They stood together a few minutes longer, Gerald patting his son on the and Martha stroking Gerald’s back. Each of them took comfort in the other; frightened, angry, but happy to be unharmed and together again. Slowly, things began to return to normal. That was, until an unwelcome thought intruded into Gerald’s mind. Involuntarily, he pushed Martha back and grabbed her shoulder with one hand, the other gripping Timmy’s scruff again. Timmy protested once more, but Gerald didn’t hear him over the sound of his own panicked thoughts.
“Honey! We need to check on the house now!”
“Wha – why?”
“We just need to go there now! Call us a cab! We need to go home now!”
“Gerald?!” she demanded. She didn’t like to see him like this, certainly not twice in the same day. He could be so forceful when he was frightened. But she did as he asked, grabbing her phone out of her purse and punching in the number for the cab service. Meanwhile, Gerald ran to find the Constable again…
“Oh my God…”
It was what they imagined a smoking crater would look like, something out of the old black and white war reels where bombs were constantly falling on cities. Or perhaps a murder or accident scene from the turn of the century forensic shows. Either one would have been an apt comparison given the carnage they now beheld.
At the edge of the absence, the evac people were busy erecting a barricade, a ten foot high tent made of transparent material that was anchored deep into the ground. A vacuum formed inside with a loud hiss once the final flap had been closed. Inside, the techs descended into the pit with their powerful hoses and containers to suck up the liquid grey mess that lay at the bottom. The Constables stood beyond this structure, faces covered with masks and goggles and their hands with poreless gloves, putting up yellow tape to keep everyone back. One of them had to step past this line to hold Martha, make sure she didn’t try to break through. Her face was red with fresh tears, anger and grief.
“Ma’am!” the Constable shouted. “You have to stay back! This area is not safe for you!”
“Oh God, Gerald! Our home! OUR HOME!”
“I know, honey,” he said, deflated. “I know…”
“Daddy, what happened?”
Gerald looked down, saw Timmy clinging to his leg. Once more, his arms were divided between them. With one, he embraced Martha at the hip and cradled his son next to him with the other. He shook his head ruefully, doing his best not to let tears form in his own eyes. One of them had to stay in control, one of them needed to keep the others from doing something foolish. Trying to run inside and see if anything was left would only make things worse, he knew. He knew from his training that the only thing to do in cases like this was let the techs do their job and haul every trace of the goo away. Every trace that had once been their house, their possessions, and their memories. All the matter they once called home.
It was hopeless. The tears began to form and streaked down his cheeks.
Martha spun around and buried her face against his cheek a moment later. Timmy saw this and wrapped his arms around his father’s leg. Together, they all cried.
“Oh Gerald, I’m sorry!” she said. “I should have listened to you. I never should have insisted we upgrade so soon!”
“It’s okay, honey…” he said, patting her back. “You couldn’t have foreseen this. I didn’t either, and I’m the damn engineer.”
Timmy looked up at his father, vaguely aware that he had said a bad word. But at the moment, no one could fault him for it, and he buried his head again into his father’s flank.
“I just don’t understand,” Martha said, looking beyond their property at similar scenes being played out around the neighborhood. “How could this have happened?”
“I… I don’t know…” said Gerald, but he knew he was lying. It was pretty clear how they had let this happen. In their mad rush to make something new available, with all the latest features and applications, they had rushed it into production. The demand had been there, to be sure, but they could have taken their time and processed it further.
It was the only logical explanation.
Certainly no one could have hacked the designs and implanted a virus. That sort of thing simply didn’t happen anymore! The authorities would investigate this, he knew. They would consider sabotage, as he had just now. They would eventually blame the designers themselves. And perhaps, for the first time in generations, people would be charged with the destruction of property. Regardless, he knew that no one else would be taking responsibility for this.
For the second time in that day, they stood there together, the seconds stretching into minutes and even hours. The very concept of time melted away amidst the noise, the sirens, and the sounds of more evac teams arriving at the scene.
And there’s wasn’t the only property where it was happening. On every lot where a four-point-five was in the process of creating a new home, evac teams now worked. Tents were being erected, loud hisses sounded as teams sealed themselves in and descended into craters, and families stood behind impromptu barricades, looking on in horror.
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