One of my favourite flash fiction prompts from Chuck Wendig this week – a subgenre mashup, with a list to select two at random and mash them together (in 1500 words). I’m not sure that this is really a technothriller, although it’s definitely got techno and it’s hopefully quite thrilling. I blame the idea on Claire McCague, whose book the Rosetta Man I review tomorrow (5 stars), who turns out to be a nanotechnologist by day.
Night of the Living Nanobots
I used to work in Nanotechnology. Microscopic robots running round people’s blood systems, clearing away cholesterol deposits, seeking and destroying blood clots, that sort of thing. Then I started working on even smaller ones. It was part of the research to combat various forms of cancer, so I felt truly engaged with it, and I’d put up with a lot of really bad behaviour on the part of management, simply because I believed in what I did. Some day, I would be part of the team that got the cure, or at least an effective, one time only, permanent cure.
I didn’t tell anyone this. It was my guilty secret.
Sometimes we’d sleep around a campfire and reminisce. Mostly we’d sleep around the campfire to be sure of keeping the bogeys away. Bogeys as in bogeymen, which was what we called them. The Z-word was in common usage, but in other parts of the country. Cities, mainly, or what had been cities before the plague. Even that was only a euphemism for the rise of the bogeys – plague. It wasn’t a plague at all, just something that got out of hand, and got loose without sufficient testing and control.
Occasionally we’d sleep round the campfire and plan. You had to keep planning to stay alive. Every time we got a bit of new info, we dissected it, added it to our plan, and adapted our stimulus-response options. You can tell we were a mix of psychologists and techies. In our world, we were damned by all the other sides, so we hung together, arguing with logic and intuition, depending on our personality types. We’d even started a discussion group on new team types. After full peer review of our ideas we introduced ‘survivor’ as a team type. It generally crossed the old ‘company worker’ with secondary ‘shaper’ or ‘plant’, but other combinations seemed to work too, so eventually it got its own category. That was me of course. Company worker with equal plant and co-ordinator as back-up. Survivor suited me fine. Adapt to the new status quo and work hard to get some sort of life worth living back.
We were still living in ruined houses and sleeping round campfires, though. Watching for the bogeys every night. Searching for food or tending our small crop area by day.
It was the ham radio that kept us in this house. Some enthusiast had not only got a great set-up, with his aerial disguised to keep prowlers away, but he’d adopted clockwork power mechanisms to support his solar array. He was such a techie I was surprised he hadn’t stayed and joined up with us when we came.
Although sometimes I wondered whether he had. Sometimes on dark nights when the fire was dying down I thought I saw shapes moving in the cabin at the back, where the extra radio stuff was stored. If I flashed the clockwork torch at the cabin there was nothing there, but I still felt something had just slipped out of sight. Nobody else saw these shapes, but everyone respected my view. There was no point in ignoring anyone who saw things at night. That was how we’d stayed alive so long.
We started rigging up some trip-wires around the perimeter of ‘our’ land, which we took to be the whole block, as it had been. We didn’t need the houses, but we needed the land. Feeding ten of us required acreage that didn’t exist unless you went further out, and we didn’t fancy that. Further in was the realm of scavengers and bogeys, further out was a wilderness of gun-toters who shot anyone they saw, day or night. For some reason, few people frequented the burbs; or maybe there were enough burbs for everyone who had survived long enough to want to settle in them.
We then got the great idea to electrify the trip-wires. First night we tried that we had barbequed fox for dinner. Tasted like rabbit, if you knew what rabbit tasted like. It was okay, anyway.
Second night, there was a bogey.
He was definitely dead. I thought the bogeys were living dead, you know, some sort of unkillable creature. We all thought that. Every scrap of information we’d gathered during the plague was reassessed – all the methods the authorities tried before they’d discussed nuking them. Nothing had worked: tasers, lasers, guns, flamethrowers, MIRs, MRIs, TiGs, MiGs … I was sure they’d tried electric fences too. They’d kept coming.
It gave us hope. Hope that faded the next night, when five of them walked right through our lines, shuffling and angry. They huddled round the shadows outside the campfire range while we huddled inside the light, backs to the fire, watching them, clubs and baseball bats at the ready. It was the only thing we knew could drive them off. I was on radio watch that night, so I was in the loft, keying CQs with one hand, and peering out of the window with a pitchfork in my other hand. I never knew why there was a pitchfork in the loft, it had been there when we arrived. One theory we had was to grab the wire if it broke from the aerial.
Since all they did that night was huddle, and they dispersed before dawn, we thought we were safe. A check on the wires showed they simply disconnected the power line. We connected it up.
Pete the biologist had taken the cadaver around to one of the other sheds and started dissecting it. It took him two weeks to finish his studies, and we burned the whole shed when he’d finished. Apart from the stink, he said the remains were not entirely dead. We pressed him on it, but he just shook his head. I asked privately whether he was infected, but he shook his head again.
“I’ll tell you something, though.”
“We brought this whole thing on ourselves.”
Well, I guess we knew that. I asked Pete what had finally killed it, and he said the fence had shorted out the nanobot in its brain just at the right place. It was a thousand to one chance – just caught it in the right place at the right time. That pretty much confirmed what I’d always thought. My nanobots— well, mine and the other companies’ that had put them into service to eat the cancer cells without having run them through the proper trials, although I had heard that a fair number of trials had been hushed up, just like the old cigarettes and cancer research had been. My nanobots had caused the zombie plague. And now they were coming for me. Me and a few other scientists in our group. And probably other groups in the burbs, because that was where we had lived.
Pete and I shared what we knew with the group. Turned out someone had worked with nanobot implants. I admitted I’d worked on the research. After a day of argument, recriminations, and my protests that I was just working on a cancer cure like the world wanted, things eased off. They started listening to our ideas again, and they came up with some of their own.
A month later the bogeys came back, and the mutual huddles continued night after night—a stand-off between the unliving and the undead. It wasn’t much of a life, but we were living it, and we were all highly motivated to keep things that way. We tried rotating the frequency of the current through the trip-wires. I reckon they’d adapted, or else only those with bots in safe places risked coming through. Then they started coming inside the light, and I recognised two of them.
“They’re coming for me,” I told the group.
“They can have you, then.”
I protested. I kicked, and screamed, and struggled as they took me out to the stores cabin and tied me to the door at sunset.
The bogeys crossed the tripwires carefully, pulling something across them to earth the wires. These were not mindless beings, even if they were undead. I kept quiet as they staggered in their funny gait to the edge of the shadows as usual. I prayed, for the first time since I was a kid, that the bogeymen would not find me. But then I could feel that nanobot in my bloodstream, the one that cleaned arteries and prevented me having heart attacks, I could feel it pulsing, and one of the bogeys turned. His eye sockets looked me in the eyes, and his crooked maw stretched into a gingevitis-ringed toothy grin.
Frankly, life as a bogey is no worse than it was before I was consumed. Just more nanobots eating the undead cells in my body, communicating with all those other great minds out there, looking for a solution to the cancer of the human infestation of Earth.
© J M Pett 2016