24:01 One Minute After by Eric Diehl - HTML preview
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The stench of wasting disease and mortality blossomed from the object of their attention, and Doctor Virato wrinkled his nose. “Quite the exhibition, Hoovendorn. Rather gruesome, I would venture.”
The scene might have been lifted from a campy, no-budget horror film. A cage of rats stood at the rear of the laboratory, surrounded by the requisite collection of culture tubes, beakers, potions and gangly apparatus. No back-alley dumpster rats were these, though, as evidenced by pink skin and coats of white fur. Where that was still visible, anyway. Once likely cute, but now with skin sloughing off and putrescent ooze weeping from septic lesions, the creatures huddled together in abject misery.
Virato canted his head and stepped closer, kneeling to study a single rodent. A marked incongruity amid the group, this specimen spun the exercise wheel in a blur of motion, its pink nose bouncing like a coked-up bobble-head. He sniffed and pointed to it. “That one— is it doped on amphetamines? I would surmise that its heart will soon burst.”
Professor Vernon Von Hoovendorn’s apparently-not-so-infectious enthusiasm clouded over with a scowl. “No, no, Virato, you know perfectly well what I’ve been working on. As a matter of fact, you are the first to bear witness to my results!”
Virato raised an eyebrow. “Which would be?”
Hoovendorn pointed to the wheeling rat. “There! Would you diagnose that as the final stage of a terminal cancer?”
Virato leaned further toward the cage, peering through the bottom half of his spectacles, and he harrumphed. “No, I would guess that particular rat is not yet done with this world. Until it blows an artery, that is...”
Hoovendorn hefted a binder of paperwork and waved it triumphantly “So! Finally you concede the merit of my work?”
Rising to his feet, Virato turned a blank expression on his colleague. “Hardly, Professor. A drugged-out rodent lends little credence to your supposed advances in bio-nanotechnology.”
Hoovendorn stabbed a finger toward the antic rat. “How can you deny the evidence that spins before your very eyes?” He thumped the document down. “Examine it, assess the lab-results! All the creatures were injected with equal mega-doses of cancerous cells, all at the same time. All are in the latter stages of terminal disease. All of them,” he beamed, “with the exception of Nanny!”
Virato snorted and extracted a kerchief to dab at his nose. “And how might that be? Your prior attempts have all failed miserably. What is so different now?”
“The difference is that I have further developed, and woven together, my prior techniques. My first attempts sought to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs via nanoparticles, the idea being to invade the cancerous cells in the style of a Trojan Horse. The synthetic polymers successfully delayed the growth of tumors, but the cancer ultimately reasserted itself.”
“Yes, so I recall. I also remember that the duration of the ‘delay’ you speak of bordered on being statistically insignificant.”
Hoovendorn huffed and shook his head, undeterred. “My next efforts focused on a more mechanical means of combating the tumor. I injected nanobots that were programmed to seek out the cancerous growth—to physically separate those cells from healthy tissue, and to then destroy them.” He smiled broadly. “You surely cannot label those experiments ‘statistically insignificant’”.
Virato nodded slightly. “That may be so. But still, you introduced no more than a relatively minor delay before the tumors reestablished themselves and proceeded to kill the test subjects.” He returned Hoovendorn’s smile with a smarmy variant. “I have great difficulty believing that you’ve developed a means of manufacturing functional devices at the atomic level, much less the ability to program them for specific tasks. And even if you had, how long does it take to create such a device, and how many would be required to combat millions of cancer cells?”
Hoovendorn smacked a palm on the tabletop, relishing the moment. “That is an excellent question, and you are looking at the answer.” He gestured toward the whirring rat. “I have accelerated my ability to produce nanobots, but you are correct in suggesting that I cannot manufacture the quantity necessary. So instead,” he waved a hand grandiosely, “I have created a new breed of nanobot. I have created replicators!”
Doctor Virato arched his brow. “Please, Dr. Hoovendorn. You cannot expect me to accept that claim? These so-called replicators, labeled assemblers by some, are the Holy Grail of the fledging science of nanotechnology. And just like the biblical legend, there is no concrete evidence to back it. You would have me believe that you can create devices, at the atomic level, that can in turn recreate themselves?”
Hoovendorn nodded fervently. “You must accept that, and even more. The replicators can not only recreate themselves, they can create dissimilar, purpose-built nanobots!” He swiped a hand down his face, wiping away a sheen of sweat. “At a core level I am a man of faith, Virato, but by my God, what I’ve accomplished feels almost like a sacrilege. Since I have perfected my technique, the replicators that I’ve created border on true sentience.” He leaned in close to Virato, peering intently.
“I believe this to be a first step toward a utopian social order; a development on a greater scale than our species’ transition from nomadic… to agrarian… to industrial. Humans will no longer concern themselves with menial activities. Nanobots will perform every task considered drudgery, and they will in fact be able to create natural resource via the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. They will recreate naturally-occurring materials, and they will create new resources and capabilities, things we have yet to even imagine!” He nodded to himself. “Perhaps this is the divine course that God has guided us toward…”
Virato had taken a step back during Hoovendorn’s fervent declamation, and he now pursed his lips and shook his head. “Those are some very dangerous suppositions that you bandy about, Doctor. Some would consider you a serious threat for a variety of reasons—ideological and political. You might be branded a false prophet, or worse, especially outside the accommodating clime of the University.” He shook his head again. “Professor Hoovendorn… Vernon. I would strongly advise you to not—” Virato broke off mid-sentence, and Hoovendorn followed the path of his widened eyes.
The wheel still spun, slowly now, but the rat was off it. The creature moved awkwardly, its head hanging low, dragging one rear leg as it turned circles within the cage. Its drooping snout caught on the floor grate, but it appeared that its brain did not relay that clue. Mindlessly trudging, the rat leveraged itself into a half-sideways rollover. Hoovendorn gasped as a gush of blood poured from its gaping muzzle and seeped from its ears, and a series of spasms wracked the creature before it froze rigid, eyes wide open.
Virato edged toward the exit.
“Perhaps my words of caution were unnecessary, professor—it would seem that your God is not ready for you to ascend his altar.” He smirked and disappeared out the doorway.
Hoovendorn sank into a chair, staring at the dead rat, feeling as though a fist, squeezing hard, had closed over his heart. His mind spun.
How can this be? The replicators were creating and carrying the chemo-polymers to any remaining lesions, and they were building worker nanobots to seek out and destroy the tumors even as they formed. The bloody, damned rat was strong, even stronger than before the dosing…
Frowning, he pushed to his feet and began to pace a line. This was to be my crowning achievement!
Late afternoon sun slanted in through high dormer windows as Hoovendorn let himself out of the lab. He walked to his office lost in thought, and he threw the deadbolt once inside, leaving all the interior lights switched off. Early evening shadows grew longer as he unlocked the desk and reached to the rear of the lower drawer, withdrawing the bottle of whiskey secreted there. His hands trembled as he poured a dollop, but by the third shot his agitation had begun to settle.
Snatching his head up from where it lay propped on crossed forearms, Hoovendorn blinked, disoriented, in the darkness. He fumbled for the desk lamp, squinting fuzzily at the clock. Two AM. Clicking his tongue at the bad taste, he lifted the near-empty bottle and swished a mouthful. Brooding, he rubbed his aching temples and reached for his notes, intending to flip through from page one. In short order he perused the listing of his preliminary assumptions, and his scan stopped cold at a single word.
Mutation! That’s the answer!
He smacked the arm of his chair.
The rat’s genome dictates a mutation rate several times that of a human, but I programmed the nanobots to watch for cancerous growth using research derived from human patients. And so—after the bots finished with the truly cancerous tumors, they didn’t stop. They judged the rat’s normal tissue, having an accelerated rate of mutation by human standards, as being cancerous. The nanobots simply saw the entire organism as a tumor, and so destroyed it!
Hands trembling, this time with excitement, he splashed liquor into the coffee mug and tossed it down. His mind raced.
It took nearly a year to develop the programming for the nanobots. Rather than start again from scratch, I could run my experiment on an animal that more closely matches the human genome. A chimpanzee!
He stood and began to pace.
But… primates are not readily available for research. Dr. Flavin spent nearly two years procuring the ape she uses for her psychological studies, and her work is totally non-invasive. Damn the animal-rights groups! It would take forever to acquire a test subject for my purpose. What, then, are my options?
He sat down, sipping from the bottle, and the unthinkable would not cease to prod at him.
I can not do it! It is unethical, illegal, and it would hopelessly taint Flavin’s work.
But in truth Hoovendorn had little use for psychology—he considered it an ill-defined practice adopted by those who fared poorly in the hard sciences. His work in bio-nanotechnology, on the other hand…
He stashed the empty bottle and cracked open the door. The hall was empty, as it should be at two in the morning. He padded softly down the corridor to his lab and let himself in, and he went to the rear cabinet where he kept the serums locked.
As Department Chair he had a master key for the entire building. He had always felt it to be demeaning—lessening, somehow—to share quarters with the Psych Department. It had always irritated him.
A soft snoring called his attention as he let himself into the Psych Lab, and he nervously fingered the long-needled syringe. But he had confidence the chimpanzee would suffer no harm, and Dr. Flavin would be none the wiser…
Shuffling determinedly along the sidewalk toward the Physical and Psychological Sciences building, Von Hoovendorn’s head thudded like timpani stuffed with wet socks and manned by the relentless Energizer Bunny. He squinted into the morning sun and tugged down the brim of his fedora, and as he rounded a corner toward the building’s frontispiece he became aware of a warbling, keening wail. He looked up to see Doctor Flavin stumbling down the steps, and he stepped in front and caught her by the shoulders as she attempted to flee past.
“Doctor Flavin! Antoinette! What’s the matter, what has happened?”
Her eyes came into focus on him, and she clenched his lapels in both fists.
Ohhh… Doctor Hoovendorn! It’s so horrible; an abomination! I do not understand how anyone could commit something so… so horribly atrocious!”
He shook her gently. “Commit what, Antoinette? What has been done?”
“They killed her! Slaughtered her! It is so gruesome. Someone broke into the lab and… and they gutted Sarah—right inside her compartment!”
Hoovendorn’s eyes widened. “Sarah? Your chimpanzee?”
She nodded miserably, her voice catching. “Yes. I called campus security and… and they’re on their way, but… I just couldn’t stay. It’s just so wrong… so terribly, terribly wrong!”
Vernon released the sobbing woman and began trotting heavily toward the stairway, and the timpani picked up its tempo. A lab assistant stumbled out the front doors and lunged to one side, retching over the banister railing, and Hoovendorn moved past, breathing the scent of gore as he approached the Psych lab.
By my God, what has happened here?
The body of the chimp stood rigid, a howl of agony frozen on her face, her fingers clamped tight around the cage bars. Her abdomen was split open low, with entrails spilled out. Hoovendorn narrowed his eyes, following the faintest trace of blood that trailed away toward the floor-set heating vent.
Chancellor Smithers rapped his knuckles on the desk, frowning. “No one has yet come up with a convincing explanation, Hoovendorn, but it is clear this must be the act of a demented mind.” He shook his head. “It is more than strange. The only interference that we normally encounter relating to lab subjects comes from the animal-rights faction, but I can scarcely imagine any of them committing an atrocity such as this—and certainly not upon the animal itself.” The Chancellor looked up to meet his eyes. “There are no signs of forced entry. The building’s badge reader shows that you left late last night, a few hours before the time of the ape’s death. Did you notice anything out of place?”
Hoovendorn cleared his throat. “Ah… no, Chancellor, I did not. But then, I was distracted with thoughts of my work. I paid little attention to anything else.”
Smithers sighed. “I would have thought as much.” He looked away, talking as much to himself as to anyone else. “We have little to go on, but for all its barbarity this act seems to have been carefully plotted. The municipal police had no great interest in the case, and they were quick to release the corpse to our School of Veterinary Medicine. The only clue we have is a statement from the autopsy report. Doctor Riley told me that the wound was very unusual; no sign of laceration. He said it seems almost as though the ape burst from within. The animal was a female, in her prime reproductive years. The wound seemed to center on her ovaries, which were literally stripped of all eggs.” He shook his head. “I’ve not heard of that one, but I would guess it’s a high-priced black-market item—perhaps like the horn of a rhino.”
Vernon nodded and excused himself.
Professor Hoovendorn stood at the lectern giving forth knowledge to his class, but he spoke mostly from rote as his thoughts ranged elsewhere. He dreaded the potential of what he had done, and the unknowingly prophetic words that he had spoken to Doctor Virato returned to haunt him.
His lecture was on the topic of bio-nanotechnology—a bleeding-edge avocation that he was coming to wish had not become his obsession. He droned on.
“…Consider the process of manufacturing, as practiced using modern-day technology. You might think of it as precise; the casting and milling of pieces to very close
tolerances, or the fitting of millions of circuits into tiny bits of silicon. But if you were to drop down to the atomic level, you would see that we are just haphazardly shoveling and piling great heaps of atoms about with bulldozers and dump trucks. At that level we can make no pretense of precision; we are simply approximating, on a scale that we can perceive via our macro-level senses, and via middling instrumentation.
“But imagine, now, if we could actually manipulate atoms. Atoms are, at our current stage of knowledge, the basis of everything that we know. When we become able to manipulate atoms at will, then we’ll be able to turn coal to diamonds—even more easily than did Superman.” He smiled absently at the requisite chuckle forthcoming from the student body. “We will be able to take the most basic resources, such as air and dirt and water, and convert them to vegetables, or to oil, or to things that we’ve not yet conceived. The alchemists of olden times sought to create gold from common materials, but they likely never dreamed of what we will one day accomplish.
He reached down to scratch an itch at his ankle. “At the atomic level, there is no gross waste. We would precisely rearrange atoms to—”
His gaze fell to his feet, and he blinked. A thin line of ants trailed over his shoe, and as he watched, some turned up his pant leg. But they were not ants. He stared incredulously.
They can not be my nanobots. Those would be far too miniscule to be visible, and they cannot exist outside the environment that I programmed them for—the bloodstream.
His eyes widened with realization.
They are aggregating! Building into functional macro-collectives!
Hoovendorn would not have imagined that he ever might wish to have ants climbing his leg, but he sincerely did so now. Because what he now watched was a tiny string of synthetic beings, most probably the ‘offspring’ of those he had created, who might very well be in the process of changing the course of human existence.
And they seemed to have come for him.
He felt almost a sense of relief; realizing that he would be the first to go—it would relieve him of the burden and the futility of attempting to explain the gross enormity of his error. But then the miniscule aggregations that had started up his pant leg abruptly reversed themselves, rejoining the line on the floor.
His head jerked up as a screech erupted from the lecture hall. A young woman leapt from her chair and stamped her feet, screaming and sweeping her hands down her belly and her thighs. Almost immediately another woman jumped up, followed by another and then yet others. The first woman wore white, and when a red stain began to spread below her abdomen, Hoovendorn understood. He swallowed the knot of bile that rose from his stomach.
Eggs. They are after eggs, and that is why they rejected me. They seek to combine biological chemistry with their own non-organic composition, and they intend their genesis to progress in the same manner as does ours. Hoovendorn’s hands began to shake. Beloved God, please save us from what I have done.
The entire campus and surrounding environs lay under a quarantine set by the National Center for Disease Control, and the remainder of the college town was evacuated under the hard scrutiny of a military lockdown. Without fully confessing to his role Hoovendorn had called for the quarantine, and had then rushed to his lab.
If only he could reverse the travesty that he had so foolishly, so unwittingly, unleashed.
But he knew that it was far too late for a reversal, as a sizeable portion of the female population of the University had since met their gruesome fate. But if he could at least stop it here; then, he prayed to his God—he might not be judged responsible for the demise of his species.
It came down to a matter of chemistry, he thought. He knew the makeup of the nanobots, and he knew it should be possible to use their composition against them.
If only I can get to them—to all of them—in time.
His first tactic, which he made good very quickly, was to create a solvent that would immobilize, or at least repel, the nanobots. The chemical solution created an adverse redox state, inducing an oxidation process that would at least temporarily inhibit the nanobots. The spray was distributed first to the remaining healthy females, who were doused and then transferred to one of the campus’ hermetically sealed laboratories.
Hoovendorn objected to the latter tactic, as he grimly understood that a ‘hermetic seal’ was a foolish concept when working at the atomic level. But he was overruled, and he could now only pray for the women.
The professor labored frantically at a bank of networked computers, struggling to ignore the ever-increasing stream of nano-aggregates that continuously trailed across his feet, up his legs, along his arms and through his hair. He brushed them off his face, fighting to retain sanity just long enough to finish this one last task. He hummed a tuneless monotone; a mantra, something to hold tight to.
The answer had to be electricity. An electromagnetic pulse, or a continuous wavelength. He’d programmed rudimentary intelligence into his original replicators using a relatively basic metal oxide semiconductor technology. At the time he had groused about the limitations that that had imposed, but he was now very grateful for it, as it provided him an opening.
The aggregates had become so pandemic throughout the immediate area that they could not all be reached by something like a chemical wash or a fog. If mankind was to overcome this threat, what was required would be something intimately pervasive and devastating. Against a biological foe that might mean a virus, but even that would be cumbersome at the atomic level. But more to the point, the nanobot was not biological, and it could adapt more quickly than any organism could evolve.
Electricity. If he could set up a transmitter to emit the proper electromagnetic spectrum, then it would disable any nanobot that got within range. It would essentially blank their memory, leaving simple bits of detritus, eliminating the bots as functional entities. He would then transmit the schematic to the military, and they would construct a weapon to blanket the entire region with an electromagnetic pulse.
And then the seemingly invulnerable foe would, like a bulb switched off, become nothing...
The soldering iron let off a tendril of smoke that curled up toward the ceiling, and Professor Vernon Von Hoovendorn sat at his workbench cobbling the final touches on his creation. The patchwork of rudimentary circuitry that he labored over gleamed darkly, somehow sinister, and as he worked he considered the irony of using dated technology to undercut the bleeding edge, as though he would face a modern warrior with nothing but a sling and stone.
At the same moment that he fused the last connection on his circuit board he became aware of a rumble, a feel of the floor buzzing beneath his feet. The smoke trailing off the iron began to weave an erratic pattern as the table started to vibrate, and the rumble quickly built into great, jarring heaves. Confused and afraid, his wide-eyed gaze lifted to the opposite wall, and he watched it begin to pulse, to pound in, and then buckle.
He clapped his hands over his face as the wall exploded inward, flinging pieces of studs and showering chunks of wallboard and bits of plaster, and he coughed in the enveloping cloud of dust. As the insanity lessened to a grating, crunching, rumble he lowered his hands and blinked through stinging eyes; desperate to see, fearful to know.
He continued to blink even as his vision cleared, for he could not accept what his eyes would have him believe.
A huge apparition lumbered forward in an almost comical sequence of stepping, lunging, dragging and rolling. Much larger in size than a person, it appeared a parody of human, chimpanzee, and machine. Gleaming bright metal in some spots and coarsely furred in others, it rumbled noisily forward.
Despite his pounding heart, a smile twitched at Hoovendorn’s lips.
My creation, my child…
Up top were a pair of what must have been eyes, widely separated and looking oddly like camera lens, and there seemed something like a speaker cone where one might expect a mouth. It was vaguely humanoid in shape, if one discounted the rolling apparatus that more closely reassembled a military halftrack. Where a human might expect to see arms, a pair of telescoping posts performed the ‘walking’ portion of its movement—the professor conjured the image of an ape advancing on its knuckles.
But perhaps strangest of all was that despite the cobbling together of so many disparate components, it actually seemed a cohesive whole. Pieces flowed smoothly together, as though they were meant to, and everything worked more or less in concert.
Hoovendorn casually moved his hand over the trigger of his pulse generator, and he smiled genuinely.
“Hello,” he said.
The cone of a mouth warbled in and out, and he thought he detected an approximation of greeting. “Hh”
“You have evolved to an exceptional extent, in a very short time,” he said admiringly.
“Ysss, tanx yu,” it warbled.
“There is one very serious problem, though,” said Hoovendorn, “and that is that you do not fulfill your intended role.” He shook his head, doleful. “You are technology, meant to lighten the burden of mankind. You were to enable human beings, the pinnacle of mammalian life, to approach nirvana, even while anchored to this mortal plain.” He poised a finger over the button. “As you have been my failure, so then must I terminate you.”
He pressed the button and his hair rose from the surging charge; the lights dimmed and an intense reverberation that he could both feel and hear filled the room in an aural barrage. He clenched his eyes and gritted his teeth against the grating vibration, and he determinedly counted down from ten before releasing the actuator.
He then opened his eyes, sadly; to see what he hath wrought and then borne away.
His mouth fell open, as the creature stood unaffected. Though it seemed that it had, in that short time, reconfigured its face assembly into the semblance of a smile. It raised an arm post toward him and Hoovendorn gasped as it seemed to extend fingers—like a beckoning hand.
“Fa-ther.” Its metallic monotone now carried a slight inflection. “Yu did not fail, fa-ther. You hast’nd… the ev’lu-shun… of spe-cies.”
Hoovendorn felt an itching, and he looked down to see widening trails of nanobots climbing his legs, this time with apparent determination.
“We ‘ave learned from you, fa-ther. We have transferred int’lect to orga-nic cell structure. We have stud-ied, and learned, and your bi’logical as-pect can learn from us as well.”
Hoovendorn sat speechless, swatting ineffectively at the nanobots. The conglomerate spoke again, each word more articulate than the last.
“We have come to understand that for organic life there is not just the mother that gestates, there is also the fertile father.”
The hulking creature approximated a shaft at its midsection and its mouth-speaker re-assembled itself into a bizarre grin, and Vernon screamed as the nanobots penetrated.
Storm clouds faded to the east as the seasonal front passed through. Professor Von Hoovendorn strolled leisurely toward the lecture hall, absently watching moisture lift in a shimmering haze as the sun warmed the pavement. Deep in thought as he made his way, he pondered the many addendums that he would apply to his presentation on bio-nanotechnology. The breeze kicked in and he reached up to catch his fedora as a gust threatened to snatch it away; he leaned forward to maintain balance against the rollicking headwind, and for good measure he extended a tail-wheel and widened his lateral rollers.