Dr. Petra Prawatt pulled her jacket tighter and shivered against the cold of a Michigan winter. There wasn’t much left to block the icy, stiff breeze that whipped in off the river, not since the nuke had crushed most of the buildings in downtown Detroit. The wind tugged lightly at her yellow-and-red-striped scarf and blew a lock of her blue hair into her eyes. She brushed it away.
She stood on rubble-strewn Woodward Avenue, turning slowly to take in a desolate scene lit up by the setting sun. Snow clung to the few bits of buildings that remained standing, making them look like broken teeth in a mouth rotted brown.
It wouldn’t look like that for long, though.
Everyone loves a parade, she thought. Especially parades that aren’t radioactive.
Two people were with her: Roger DuMonde, a grad assistant five years her senior, and Amy Stinson, governor of Michigan. The wind drove scattered flakes of snow, some that fell from the sky and some that were dusted up from the two or three inches that had accumulated on the ground. Nearby was a still photographer, from the Detroit News, Stinson’s two-man security team, and a two-person video crew. The video crew was also Stinson’s, of course; if something went wrong—or if nothing at all happened—the governor didn’t want that video going viral.
Petra had met the governor twice before, once at a press conference announcing the project, and once at Stinson’s office. Normally, Stinson beamed with the confidence and power expected of a woman that many thought would soon make a run for the presidency. Standing in the ruins of Detroit, however, that confidence seemed forced. The governor clearly wanted this to be over as soon as possible.
Or maybe she was just annoyed by the red balloon that floated from a string held in her right hand.
“Dr. Prawatt,” the governor said quietly, “can I let go of this ridiculous thing?”
Petra shook her head. “You promised at the press conference. Everyone heard you.” She raised a noisemaker to her lips and blew. The curled paper shot out to the sound of a whimsical whistle. “Just hold on to it for a little while longer, Governor. After all, what’s a parade without balloons?”
“This isn’t a parade,” Stinson said. “This is a progress check. So how about we check some progress?”
Petra smiled. How would Stinson react when she saw how far things had come along? Petra’s weekly reports made it clear she was closing in on the project’s objective, but she’d held back a few details; she was much closer to the goal than she’d let on.
Stinson wanted to be there at that pivotal moment of victory, wanted to be the one who let the good people of the great state of Michigan know that the phoenix would soon rise from the ashes.
“Sure thing, Governor,” Petra said. She turned to her grad assistant. “Roger? How are the levels?”
Roger’s left hand held a boxy, yellow Geiger counter. His right hand held a thin steel cylinder connected by a cable to that box. He pointed the cylinder away from his body, then slowly turned right, sweeping the area in front of the governor. The sweep was completely unnecessary and didn’t affect the local reading at all, but Roger had a flair for the dramatic.
“Nothing,” he said.
“There’s never nothing,” Petra said. “Give me the exact count, please.”
“Two point three em-ess-vees,” Roger said. “You’re right, there’s never nothing—this is less than nothing.”
Petra grinned. It was hard not to. Her symbiotic machine colonies had worked in the lab, and at the Hanford Nuclear Reserve test site, but to see them operating on such a large scale? It was complete validation for all the boasting she’d done to get the job.
Stinson leaned in close, the way she did when she didn’t want her camera team to hear. “That’s below normal, right? I believe you said Detroit’s former baseline was three point one . . . was it milliverts?”
“Close,” Petra said. “Millisieverts. Shorthand term is ‘em-ess-vees.’”
Stinson smiled. “So, Detroit is actually cleaner than it was before the bomb?”
“So far, yes,” Petra said. “As I told you, Governor, I don’t mess around.”
Stinson pointed to a conical pile of rubble—cracked brick, twisted metal, charred wood, and broken glass—heaped ten feet high.
“Is that where your fungus-robot-bugs live?”
“They’re called minids,” Petra said. “They’re cyborgs, not robots—part biological, part mechanical. And those rubble piles are where they die, actually. There’s a shielded container in the middle of each one. When a minid has consumed too much radioactivity, it crawls inside the container. Once the container is full, the lid is sealed and the other minids start a new rubble pile.”
That was a simple enough explanation. Petra hadn’t told Stinson what actually closed the containers’ twenty-pound lids—more fun to let that be a surprise. Petra wanted to see just how calm, cool, and collected this future president could be.
Stinson rubbed her hands together to ward off the cold. “They overdose on radiation? I thought you said the things digested the stuff.”
Petra had explained all of this to Stinson before. It had also been in all of the reports, an index explaining the biomechanical mycoremediation process and the minids’ life cycle. Stinson knew about the radiation levels and nothing else, it seemed—as long as people could move back into the city, her job was finished. She didn’t give a damn about the science behind that effort.
“They do digest it,” Petra said. “The Geobacter bacteria colony inside each minid breaks down environmental contaminants, which creates energy the minids use to move and function. During this process, radioactive atoms are oxidized, causing them to precipitate—radioactivity doesn’t magically go away, it just becomes more concentrated and sequestered away from large organisms, like us. When the minids enter the shielded containers, the contaminants they’ve collected are permanently removed from the local environment.”
Politicians had turned Detroit into radioactive waste; Petra Prawatt had turned radioactive waste into cyborg food.
Stinson looked out across the ruined landscape. Petra tracked the governor’s eyes, watched her as she located a second pile, a third, a fourth—Petra knew there were at least twenty rubble piles in this area alone, and many more near ground zero.
The days of sending in soldiers or immigrants to clean up hazardous sites—telling them that the danger “really wasn’t that bad”—were long since gone. This wasn’t hiring the Irish to clean up victims of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1853, and it wasn’t sending the boys of the U.S. Army to shovel up Hiroshima’s rubble. In the Internet age, where everyone was watching everything, no politician wanted to be responsible for sending people into the World Series of Cancer.
Petra was only twenty-one years old, but that didn’t matter; destiny had called, and she’d been there to answer. She had already been testing her bioremediation technology in Hanford, Washington—an area used for the development of America’s first atomic bomb—when FEMA had put out a call for robotic cleanup solutions to assist with the Detroit disaster.
Even if her work hadn’t already been in use in Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear-development ground, she might have won the grant anyway. She offered the cheapest solution: one that built and destroyed itself. Her minids “ate” the radioactive material, and when that food source ran out, they died. If it worked, it promised to save the country billions in cleanup costs. If it failed, FEMA would just move down the line and try something more expensive.
Stinson tugged down on her balloon, then let it rise up as the light wind moved it all around.
“It’s damn cold out,” she said. “The things don’t have problems with temperature?”
Petra moved toward the rubble. She knelt, listening for the telltale crackling sound, but it was hard to hear over the wind. She overturned a chunk of concrete . . . nothing. Then a brick. Then a board. On her fourth try, she pulled back a torn roof tile and found what she was looking for.
She reached a finger down, pressed it in until she felt the tiny legs reverse and cling to her fingertip.
Petra stood and walked back to Stinson. She held up her finger, probably a bit too close to the governor’s face. Stinson flinched back.
The six-legged minid crawled across Petra’s finger, so tiny a dozen just like it could cluster on her fingernail.
Stinson frowned. “I’ve seen your videos, but it’s still disturbing to see them up close like this.”
Petra thought they were beautiful. Six legs, similar to the ants she had modeled them after. But where an ant had three body divisions—head, thorax, and abdomen—her minids were one shell made of carbon nanotube aerogel. The shell surrounded the minid’s guts: a tiny processor, a heat-to-energy converter, and a chamber for the Geobacter. Such a small package, yet it generated its own power. It could use two legs to move material while always remaining stable thanks to the four that remained on the ground.
Stinson leaned in a little closer, body still poised to jump away if the tiny cyborg moved too fast.
“They’re so little,” she said. “I can understand that they’re working in unison, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole and all of that, but how do they make those big piles?”
“Because it’s more than just working in unison,” Petra said. “They are a self-assembling material. Thousands of them, functioning as a single entity, like a collective organism.”
They could do much more than that, but Petra was saving the details for her big reveal. There weren’t enough of them in this area to show the second-stage form. Petra couldn’t wait to see the look on Stinson’s face when there were.
“Governor, we’re only half a mile from ground zero,” Petra said. “That’s where the minids will be the most concentrated. Let’s get going.”
Roger nodded at her and walked back to the Humvee. Stinson wasn’t so fast to move.
Petra poked Stinson’s shoulder. “You scared?”
The governor gave her a curious glance. She clearly wasn’t used to people touching her in a playful, potentially disrespectful way.
“Of course I am,” Stinson said. She spread her arms, indicating the ruined city. “This place was radioactive; who wouldn’t be scared?”
Petra noticed that Stinson had said that loud enough for the cameras to hear. Now that Stinson knew they were safe from any exposure, she’d show her “fear” in order to let the world know how brave she was, how she would be the first one in before other Michiganders returned to rebuild. Smooth. Or it would have been, if Petra had just played along.
“The city was never radioactive,” she said, also loud enough for the cameras to hear. “There was just radioactive fallout. And we found a way to remove that fallout.”
Stinson smiled, a forced thing that didn’t quite hide a lip-twitch of annoyance. “That’s wonderful, Dr. Prawatt.” Then, her voice dropped low enough that her words were just between them. “I didn’t bring these cameras for my health. One little machine isn’t enough. I was thinking we’d see waves of them. Where are they all?”
Petra looked around again, squinted at the setting sun. “They completed this area,” she said. “I told them to finish at ground zero.”
“You told them? You make it sound like a conversation.”
Petra shrugged. “In a way, it is. Just because they’re machines doesn’t mean they’re stupid. If I wanted dummies to do this I’d have told you to bring in soldiers.”
The governor narrowed her eyes. “Petra, you are the smartest person I’ve ever met, but that makes it easy to forget just how young you are. At least, until you say things like that.” Stinson leaned in close, spoke low. “You’ve tried our patience with your God complex, young lady. When this project is over, you might want to make sure you’ve got more friends than enemies.”
Young lady? Petra fought down her anger. Here she was saving an entire city, revolutionizing the field of self-replicating material, even setting the stage for human colonization of the stars, and she was still being looked at as if she were a little girl.
Petra had fought against that image for years. She’d dyed her hair blue, gotten several face piercings, and enjoyed the reaction she got in scientific circles from a severe excess of eye makeup. But nothing changed that she was five foot two and still had the body of a teenager. She couldn’t help but resent the fact that if she had been born male, she wouldn’t have to do anything about her image—she would just be accepted as is.
To make matters worse, this time that you’re just a girl attitude came not from a man, but from a woman. A powerful woman. To Stinson, maybe Petra wasn’t the right kind of female.
“I would prefer it if you called me ‘doctor,’” Petra said. “And you’re ruining my parade. If you’re done posing for the cameras, can we go?”
Stinson smiled her politician’s smile. She called out to her support team. “Saddle up, people.”
The security team piled into one Humvee, the camera crew into another. Roger drove the third; Petra rode in the front and Stinson sat in the back, her posture somehow making it look like this was no different than her normal limo rides.
The benevolent governor wanted to see them? No problem. This was Petra’s show, Petra’s coronation, not Stinson’s.
When this day was done, history would know the name of Petra Prawatt, and then friends or enemies wouldn’t really matter.
• • •
The Humvee rolled down Woodward Avenue, its big tires and heavy suspension easily crunching through both snow and the bumps and debris beneath. Her creations had cleared away all the smaller rubble, but construction and repair crews would be needed to make the streets traversable by normal cars.
Stinson’s balloon softly bounced off the roof every time the Humvee hit a big bump. The governor’s fear clearly hadn’t entirely left her, but knowing the city held little radiation danger had brought back her confidence.
“Dr. Prawatt, you were a real pain in the ass insisting we do this progress check on Thanksgiving,” the governor said. “As usual, you got your way. So tell me, why was it important to do it today?”
Petra thought of telling the governor to go fuck herself, that her business was her business, but what the woman had said earlier nagged at her: You might want to make sure you’ve got more friends than enemies.
Petra looked out the window at the snow-covered ruins. “When I was a kid my mom took me to the parade every year,” she said. “Just like her busia took her.”
“Polish for ‘grandma,’” Petra said. “The costumes, the bands, the floats, the noise, and the smell and the spectacle . . . I loved it all.”
At five, she’d been mesmerized by the forty-foot-long Snoopy balloon. By five and a half, she’d taught herself about air density and learned why things float. Two months before her sixth birthday she built a hot-air balloon that could carry her own weight. She’d floated out of the backyard and made it half a block before it came down again. Her mother had been furious, grounding Petra for two months.
That was before her mother got sick, before she started to change, before she started to resent a daughter whose IQ was so high it couldn’t be properly measured. Petra’s happiest memories were from those childhood Thanksgiving Day parades, from Before the Time When Everyone Found Out She Was Smart.
Detroit had fallen to shit well before the bomb dropped. Urban blight had already claimed the mansions of the rich, the performance palaces of theater and music, the mom-and-pop shops, and the department stores. Aside from a few downtown spots around the baseball and football stadiums and the big-business skyscrapers, much of Detroit had looked like a Third World war zone even before the ten-megaton yield turned Woodward Avenue into a bubbling black river of asphalt.
Every Thanksgiving, however, the city came alive.
Petra remembered the rage she’d felt watching the news reports, seeing the devastation of her home. She was a third-generation Detroiter. Hamtramck, her home neighborhood, had long since shifted from her ethnic group—Polish—to a new one—Arab—but that didn’t matter. Even if Petra didn’t live there anymore, Detroit was still home.
“America’s Parade is always on Thanksgiving,” Petra said. “The parade always goes down Woodward Avenue. If there’s a day that we officially declare Detroit is back, it should be Thanksgiving.”
Stinson nodded, as if that explanation was as good as any other.
Petra turned in her seat to look at the governor. “How are you going to spin this? You were kind of late to the party. The project was under way before you were elected, but something tells me you’re going to take full credit for what I’ve accomplished here.”
The governor nodded. “That’s politics, doctor. And you should know I’ve had far more influence on this than you might think. Where do you think the funding came from?”
“From FEMA,” Petra said quickly. “I had meetings at the White House. I met the President and directors of departments that aren’t even on the books. I’m pretty sure my ass is covered on this.”
“Was covered,” Stinson said. “Your insulting, prima donna attitude ruined that. FEMA wrote the checks, but I was a senator before becoming governor. I arranged for much of the funding, getting chunks from the Superfund, the EPA, BARDA, and quite a bit from DARPA.”
Petra hadn’t known that. She’d assumed the strength of her work and the need to recover a major city were the reasons for her project’s massive budget. DARPA? The military was involved? And she’d never even heard of BARDA.
Stinson smiled. “Ah, I see you didn’t bother to look down to the bottom of the deep pockets that keep you going. Am I going to take credit? Yes, because much of the credit really is mine, Petra. You needed funding to build your minids and those . . . those egg things.”
“Root factories,” Petra snapped. “They’re called root factories.”
“Thank you for correcting me, as you always do,” Stinson said. “At seven million dollars apiece, those root factories were a sizeable investment. And here you are, thinking you did all of this yourself? Many people have grown tired of your attitude and your arrogance, Petra. You insult the intelligence of everyone you work with.”
“That’s not exactly hard to do,” she said, the words slipping out before she realized she was saying them.
Stinson held up her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re so brash and caustic, in fact, that there was frequent talk of shutting you down. Two things kept your project going—your reports, which showed consistent progress, and me.”
Petra let out a huff. “Oh, please. No one would shut me down, not when I’m so close to success.”
Stinson smiled again, shook her head. “No one except the big corporations that lobbied to handle the cleanup, so they could sell decades-long, multimillion-dollar maintenance contracts. With your method, the radiation is gone forever and your work is done. In business, Petra, why get paid for something only once when you can get paid for it over and over again?”
“I’m not in this for money.”
“I know,” Stinson said. “And that is why you need friends. Your God complex will only serve you until this project is finished.”
The Humvee hit a bump and rocked up, then down. Had to be a pretty big bump if the oversized vehicle’s suspension couldn’t handle it, but that was what happened to streets when they got nuked.
“Sorry,” Roger called back. “I think that was a telephone pole.”
Petra barely heard him. She had created an entirely new concept in robotics, fusing distributed intelligence and self-assembling construction with bacteria-driven power plants that not only broke down most kinds of hazardous waste, but also concentrated it for easy, safe removal. She’d turned the industry upside down. Only now did she realize that Stinson was right—when the repair of Detroit was said and done, would Petra be marginalized? Would politicians steal the credit for her accomplishments?
They would certainly try, she knew: Bridges are named after politicians, not after bridge builders.
They drove south. To the northeast, she saw the wreckage of Ford Field. Tiger Stadium had been between it and Woodward, but there wasn’t enough left of Tiger Stadium to block the view.
The Humvee’s headlamps illuminated a steep hill of tan rock and twisted steel that blocked the road. Roger slowed the vehicle, brought it to a stop. The blast had hammered One Detroit Center, dropping forty-three stories of granite, metal, and glass across Woodward. The rubble was so thick that the army engineers hadn’t even bothered with it.
Stinson leaned forward, stared out the window. “No getting through there. I guess the trip down the parade route is over?”
“It is,” Roger said. “Don’t worry, the army cleared a path to ground zero along East Congress.” He turned to look at Petra.
Petra bit her lip. Her parade fantasy had been fun, but she’d known it would end at this spot. It had been nice to play make-believe for a little while, anyway.
She raised the noisemaker to her lips and gave it one last blow, then put it in her coat pocket.
“Okay, Governor,” she said. “You can let go of the balloon.”
Stinson looked at Petra oddly for a moment, then opened her window. She pushed the red balloon outside and let it go. It floated up and away, out of sight into the night sky.
Roger turned left onto Congress.
• • •
A cloud-filled, starless night claimed the city, casting a pallor of gray across the ruins.
In some places, Petra could see the minids working. Maybe not them, exactly: a brick that seemed to move on its own toward a growing pile of rubbish; a still-standing building frame slowly tilting, being cut into at its base by thousands of tiny little jaws; a cloud of dust filling the Humvee’s headlight beams as hordes of her tiny machines cleaned the dirt and snow from the pavement.
Roger stopped the vehicle at Jefferson and Riopelle. Everyone got out. The Humvee’s headlamps played across the center of Detroit’s devastation. The blast had gone off a thousand feet above the intersection of Riopelle and Franklin, just two blocks to the south. Here, the damage was greater than anywhere else. Past ground zero, the Detroit River. Beyond the river, the city of Windsor, which had also suffered the bomb’s horrid effects. The Renaissance Center had once stood tall on this same shoreline; the nuke’s heat had melted the tower’s glass a few split seconds before the concussion wave shattered those structures into millions of pieces.
Petra could say one thing for the new Detroit—everywhere you went offered a great view of the river.
Below the dusting of snow, her creations were hard at work. The air was filled with a constant plink and crack of tiny machines breaking material and scraping hard surfaces. It sounded like someone was frying bacon.
She looked at Roger. “How are the levels?”
Roger held the Geiger counter, gave the wand a perfunctory sweep.
“Two point six,” he said. “A little bit higher than before, but nary a radioactive click in sight, boss.”
Two blocks from ground zero, and the radioactivity was still below where it had been before the bomb. Sometimes, Petra impressed even herself.
Stinson stood next to her. “All right,” she said. “I can hear things happening, but I don’t see them. Where are they?”
Petra pulled a thick flashlight from her pocket. “Roger, cut the lights. Governor? Could you ask your people to turn off the lights on the other two Hummers?”
“Why?” Stinson asked. “It’s pitch-black out.”
“Humor me,” Petra said. “It’s not like we’re going to get mugged.”
Stinson called out to her security team. The lights of all three vehicles shut off, drowning the area in darkness. For the first time Petra felt like she was standing in a graveyard, which she effectively was—one of the biggest graveyards in history. Petra turned on the flashlight. It cast a sapphire glow on the ground.
“UV?” Stinson said. “What’s that for?”
Petra angled the beam along the rubble. The broken surface lit up in glowing sparkles of turquoise, sparkles that moved.
Stinson stared, then laughed. “You made them fluoresce under a black light? Like scorpions? Aside from the fact that you never reported that, why?”
Petra wouldn’t have expected Stinson to even know the word “fluoresce,” let alone that scorpions did, indeed, glow under UV light.
“The minids’ coloration helps me detect movement patterns and cooperative behavior,” Petra said. “Also, because glowing is cooler than not glowing.”
She moved the beam slowly to the right. She knew the root factory was close by, but couldn’t remember the exact spot. She saw increasing density in the glowing flecks of blue, then her light fell on a smooth, knee-high cone that was so covered in the little biomachines it seemed to shimmer like an aquamarine gem.
“There’s the root factory,” Petra said. “Come on, Governor, it won’t bite. Step where I step, please, so we have fewer feet trouncing the minids. And can you leave your entourage behind?”
Stinson called back to her guards. “Bob, Phil, stay here, please.”
The two burly men nodded.
Petra led the governor toward the root factory. She felt that familiar swell of pride at her greatest creation. Greatest for now, at least.
They carefully stepped over debris to reach the machine that stood in the middle of a leveled city block.
Stinson looked at the device, looked at the surrounding ground, took in the moving carpet of glowing turquoise dots.
“All of these”—she pointed at the root factory—“came out of there?”
Petra nodded. “That’s right. There’s another farther north, and one across the river in Windsor. Each one had a starter colony of Geobacter and a hundred thousand dormant minids inside when we planted it. The root factory lives up to its name, extending roots to draw raw materials from the ground, then uses those materials to activate the stored minids. Those minids dig tunnels and add on to the roots, increasing the amount of material the root factory brings in. By the time the stored minids are all activated, the root factory has enough raw material coming in to build new minids from scratch.”
Stinson rubbed her hands together, trying to ward off the cold. “So there’s no end to it? They’ll just keep breeding forever?”
Breeding wasn’t the right term, but Petra knew what the governor meant.
“The root factories are programmed to stop at five million minids,” Petra said. “They shut off then, or when there’s no more radioactive material to collect and power the minids.”
Stinson shook her head. “Amazing. It’s truly a miracle.”
A miracle? Leave it to a conservative like Stinson to turn scientific wonder into an act of the divine.
But it was amazing. Petra had built a working Von Neumann device, a machine that could build copies of itself. Well, almost—that was the next step, teaching the minids how to construct a new root factory. Someday, probably long after her death, this same technology would be cast out to the stars: a seed that could land on a distant planet, prepare that planet for eventual human occupation, even make new seeds and launch them into space to find and prepare additional worlds.
For now, however, Petra’s creation was saving a city. When mankind spread beyond the prison of a single world, her work might ensure the survival of the human race itself.
Petra handed Stinson a UV light of her own. The governor turned it on and directed the blue light over the ground, sweeping it across glowing dots that lit up like little stars.
The beam flashed across something scurrying from one pile of rubble to the next, something the size of a rat—a fluorescing rat.
“What the hell was that,” Stinson said, her voice thick with fear.
“It’s okay,” Petra said. “It’s just the minids.”
“But the minids are tiny! That wasn’t a minid.”
Petra felt bad, and that surprised her; maybe she should have given Stinson the full picture after all.
“Honest, Governor, it’s safe,” Petra said. “It’s the secondary working form. Just watch.”
She reached down and scooped up a double handful of ant-sized minids. She held them in her cupped hand, felt the tingling of their tiny feet against her skin. “Chocolate frog,” she said.
For just a moment, the minids’ movements ceased while they processed her command. Then, as a unit, they started crawling, turning, and wiggling. Legs locked with legs, hooking around each other in a snapping motion that bound them together as if they were two muscle cells connected at the ends. Long strands formed, then crossed diagonally, wove together as legs reached out and joined. The swarming minids formed four sheets of interconnected machines.
Each of the four sheets curled up lengthwise, wiggling and bending until the outside edges met and tiny legs snapped together. Four hollow, metallic, inch-long worms now wiggled in Petra’s palms.
Stinson took a step back. “That’s . . . that’s a little disturbing.”
Petra smiled. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
The machine worms wiggled and writhed until an end of each met in the center of her hands. The ends pressed against each other. Little legs again snapped, a rapid-fire sound as dozens of links formed, the worms joining to one another until the construct looked like a four-limbed starfish.
The free ends of each tube pressed down against her palms. The center of the starfish rose up. Where Petra had once been holding hundreds of tiny, individual minids, she now held a single machine that glowed turquoise in the black light’s beam.
A wide-eyed Stinson shook her head. “It’s almost as if you’ve created life, doctor.”
Petra shifted the new machine to her right hand. She held her left hand above it, using her index finger to slowly caress the tubelike legs.
“I call this form a frog,” Petra said. “It’s made up of about two thousand minids.”
“You said chocolate frog,” Stinson said.
Roger laughed. “Didn’t you notice Petra’s scarf?”
Stinson looked at it. “I thought that was from that show with the time-traveling phone booth.”
Well, at least the governor got some points for partial knowledge of Doctor Who.
“You’re in the ballpark, Governor,” Roger said. “You ever read the Harry Potter series?”
“No,” Stinson said. “I saw that first movie, but I don’t really have time to read children’s books.”
Roger nodded toward Petra. “She was a kid when those books came out. So was I. A chocolate frog is a little thing from the books. You might want to read up, Governor—much of Petra’s nomenclature for this project is taken from elements in the series.”
Petra lifted her hand closer to Stinson, who took a step back from the four-legged wonder.
“It’s not going to bite you, Governor,” Petra said. “It doesn’t even have a mouth.”
Stinson seemed to realize she was shying away from a machine held by a five-foot-two woman who wasn’t the least bit afraid. She stepped closer and held her flashlight just a few inches from the frog.
Petra curled her fingers in, turned her palm toward the ground. The four-legged creation responded by crawling along her arm, up to her shoulder.
The governor shook her head. “All the little bits move at the same time. How does it do that?”
“Distributed intelligence,” Petra said. “They operate the same way whether they’re hooked together or they’re individuals. Each minid has a little processor. When it’s near another minid, the two processors sync up and act as one. So, the more minids you have, the smarter they all are.”
Stinson stood upright. Again, she looked scared. She turned, playing her UV beam out across the block. Everywhere the beam fell, minids sparkled as bits of blue.
“There are thousands of them,” she said.
“Millions,” Roger corrected. He smiled, clearly enjoying the politician’s discomfort. “By now, there’s millions, Guv-nah.”
“Millions,” Stinson said quietly. “So, uh, just how big can these . . . these collective kinds get?”
Petra reached up and picked the frog off her shoulder.
“This is the maximum size,” she said. “I haven’t figured out how to give them a structure that could support larger forms. It’s on the to-do list, but it’s not a high priority.”
Stinson nodded. “Good,” she said. “I hope you never catch up to that one. Those things are spooky.”
Petra smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll save you. Frog, disassemble.”
The air hummed with a chorus of clicks as little legs let go. The frog seemed to melt, disintegrating into hundreds of individual minids that fell from her hand and dropped to the ground like turquoise sand.
“Three or four hundred frogs working as a unit can lift and move a one-ton object,” Petra said. “Think of it like this—if you had a thousand hands, but could control them as easily as you control your two, you could move some pretty heavy things. When the minids are in proximity, they operate as one individual.”
Roger poked Petra’s shoulder. “She plays games with them,” he said. “She calls it research, but I think she’s just fucking around.”
Petra felt suddenly embarrassed; why did Roger have to mention that now?
“Roger, shut up,” she said.
Stinson raised her eyebrows. “No, I want to hear this. What kind of games? War games?”
And there it was—of course the government would be thinking of violence and death.
Roger shook his head. “Nothing so cool as that. She makes the frogs play Quidditch.”
Stinson’s eyes narrowed: She thought Roger was messing with her. “Quidditch? Oh, that sport from the Harry Potter movie? With the brooms?”
“But they can’t fly,” Stinson said. She turned to Petra. “Right?”
Petra shrugged. “Not yet.”
Something as small as one of her minids could ride air currents. She just had to figure out how to give them proper wings. She was working on the flight mechanics of Trichogramma as a reference point and model.
Stinson looked worried, but tried to mask it with an air of annoyance. “You get any resource you ask for, and you use these things to play games?”
Of course, she was too small-minded to understand.
“Games are good,” Petra said. “Games make them think, make them react, make them conceive and test strategies. We can watch and learn from that.”
“They strategize?” Stinson said. “So they think? For themselves?”
Petra shrugged again. “Don’t blow it out of proportion. Trial and error isn’t an advanced concept in robotics. The minids are programmed to do random things in the context of a goal, like move their legs until they feel their bodies change location. When that happens, they lock that motion and start trying variations. I don’t program them to walk—they teach themselves.”
Petra heard a different kind of clicking. She glanced to the source of it: Roger’s Geiger counter. Roger looked at it as if he were surprised to find it in his hands. Her light played off his face as he leaned in to read the meter.
It clicked faster.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “This says we’re getting fifty-three em-ess-vees.”
That was impossible . . . seconds earlier the dose had been barely measurable.
Stinson turned her flashlight toward Petra.
“What’s going on?” she said. “Are we in danger?”
Petra shook her head. Fifty-three wasn’t going to kill them, but it wasn’t good news.
The Geiger counter clicked faster.
“Sixty,” Roger said. “No, seventy. We need to get the hell out of here.”
Stinson cupped her hands to her mouth, screamed for her security detail. They drew their weapons and started scrambling over the rubble toward her.
“Eighty,” Roger said.
It didn’t make sense. They weren’t moving, so how . . .
Petra turned, shone her beam to the right; the minids were packed together, a dense sheet of glowing turquoise. Every way she turned she witnessed the same thing. Left, right, behind them . . . so many.
“Ninety,” Roger said.
Mats of the glowing blue minids drew closer, flowing toward Petra as if she were standing on a small island and the waves were lapping higher on her shores, coming from all directions . . .
. . . all but forward.
“One hundred,” Roger said. “These minids are going to cook us, Petra!”
Petra grabbed Stinson’s sleeve. “Come on!”
Stinson shrugged her off.
“Just stay still,” the governor said. “My people will get us to the cars.”
Petra aimed her beam toward where she’d last seen the two guards. They had closed to within fifty feet and were coming fast. The guards had normal flashlights, not UV.
The guards can’t see the minids . . . They don’t know they’re stepping on them . . .
The trailing man slowed, suddenly reached down to rub violently at his pants leg. Then he lifted his hand and shook it hard, staring at it like one would stare at a sudden, unexpected burn.
Both Petra’s and Stinson’s UV beams focused on the man’s hand.
It glowed blue.
The man looked toward his partner. “Something’s on the ground!”
Just fifteen feet from Stinson, the other security man stopped and turned to look back. When he did, Petra’s flashlight lit up a nightmare.
From either side of the guard who had cried out, the ground seemed to rise up like tendrils of blue lava that wrapped around him . . . and squeezed. The guard (Bob his name is Bob he didn’t do anything to anyone) tried to grab at the things holding him; his fingers pulled away sparkling, disintegrating clouds of minids, even as more tendrils shot up from the ground to snake around his legs, his chest, his head. All of the tendrils visibly contracted, smashing Bob to the ground.
He vanished beneath a moving shroud of blue.
“One-twenty,” Roger said. “We have to get out of here!”
Petra realized that the other guard was also down, also covered by the living blanket. She aimed her beam toward the third Humvee, the one with the camera crew—the vehicle glowed blue, as if covered by bright plastic. There was no sign of the people who’d been in it.
Petra turned her beam back to the one safe place she’d seen: The ground in front of her was still bare. She grabbed Stinson’s sleeve again, pulled hard. “Come on, Governor!”
This time, Stinson didn’t fight. Petra yanked the shocked woman along. Roger fell in behind them.
Petra’s UV beam bounced in front of her, a long patch of normal ground lined on either side by thickening walls of glowing, liquid sapphire.
• • •
THE GOD COMPLEX
The turquoise seas parted for them.
Petra, Roger, and Stinson moved as fast as they could across the rubble. The night’s starless dark hid everything but the beams in front of them.
“Down to eighty,” Roger said. “And falling fast. As long as we’re moving southeast, it’s getting better.”
Southeast . . . toward ground zero.
Stinson tucked her flashlight under her right arm, fumbled for her cell phone. “They’re herding us,” she said as she dialed. “They’re making us go this way. You said they couldn’t get that big, Petra, you said they couldn’t!”
They . . . them . . . her minids. The chocolate frog was the largest form she’d created, but the two security guards had been taken down by man-sized tendrils. Trial and error . . . the minids had solved that engineering problem on their own.
“Fifty,” Roger said. “Still dropping fast.”
Petra kept moving, kept the others moving, stayed on the path provided for them by her creations. She didn’t know what was happening, didn’t know how it was happening.
Up ahead, her beam lit up a shape of bright blue. A familiar shape . . .
“Stop! Everyone, stop!”
She pressed back against Roger. He put his arm around her shoulders, pulled her tight. Stinson stood with them, cell phone pressed to her ear. She turned, casting her beam across the sea of turquoise that surrounded them.
Petra couldn’t look away from the shape. It was as tall as her waist, turquoise writhing over a pile of bent steel, rusted iron, sand, brick, and glass . . . a jumbled pile or ruin, but organized, with a familiar shape . . . a conical shape.
From the top of it poured a constant trickle of bright turquoise, glowing rivulets that flowed down the sides to blend with the moving mat that coated the broken ground.
“Roger,” she said. “That’s . . . that’s . . .”
Petra couldn’t get the words out.
She felt the hand on her shoulder go rigid, a metal talon pushing through her coat, squeezing her flesh.
“A root factory,” Roger said. “Jesus Christ, Petra . . . they built one on their own?”
Stinson aimed her beam to the left. “Over there,” she said, cell phone still pressed to her ear. “Point your light there!”
Petra did so. Her beam landed on a growing mound of her creations. The material seemed to bubble, to lump, to coalesce like time-lapse video of a melting turquoise candle being played in reverse.
Roger squeezed a little harder, fear giving him a painful strength. “Petra,” he said, “what the fuck is going on?”
She shook her head, but didn’t look away from the growing mound, the top of which was now a good three feet above the freshly scraped earth. As it grew taller, the sides narrowed. Petra heard a grinding sound, a hissing and crunching . . . the sound of masonry and concrete being dragged, bits grinding into each other.
In that vibrating mass, she saw things form and swarm and melt away again: frogs that existed for seconds but dissolved, a cube with flat sides that morphed into a sphere, then vanished inside the expanding mound, and—for just a second, had she seen . . .
. . . a face?
The grinding sound grew, now far louder than the Geiger counter’s fading clicks.
The radiation continued to drop. The more “full” minids were moving off, taking their concentrated radiation with them. A shock of awareness hit Petra, awareness that Stinson was right—the machines had herded them, herded them to this specific place.
Stinson handed Roger her flashlight. She pressed a finger into one ear, the cell phone against the other.
“Yes, this is the governor. We need a helicopter, right now. We’re being attacked by Dr. Prawatt’s creation. Get us out of here!”
The bubbling mound of turquoise moved faster. The tink of breaking concrete grew so rapid it sounded like a constant hiss of static.
Roger put an arm around Petra, pulled her close. “This is bad, boss.”
She nodded. She had no idea what had gone wrong, but then again, maybe it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. She’d created a life-form—a self-assembling life-form—that fed on radioactivity, then let that life-form loose on a nuked city. She had taught them to learn through trial and error, taught them to try new strategies . . . she had taught them to think. Her Hanford test site had used half a million minids, all working together to form a collective brain. Here? There were five million of them, maybe even more. Did that create an exponential increase in intelligence?
Stinson screamed into the phone. “Now! No, not a truck, you understand? A hel-i-cop-ter. Military, FEMA, a fucking news copter for all I care!” She paused, looked around. “Where are we? Uh . . . I’m trying to see.”
There were no street signs—there were barely any streets— but Petra knew where they were.
“Franklin and Riopelle,” she said. “Ground zero.”
Stinson repeated that into the phone, screamed more threats.
The shimmering mass was a mound no more. Now it was a lumpy, four-foot-tall tower, maybe a foot wide at the base. The sheet of liquid blue suddenly sagged away from the mound, finally exposing the rock and brick.
Petra looked at the newly uncovered form.
Impossible . . . it can’t be . . .
“Oh, shit,” Roger said.
Stinson glanced at it. She stopped screaming into the phone. She stared.
Petra’s hands fell to her sides. She found herself looking at a statue of . . . of herself.
It wasn’t perfect. It was crude, actually, but there was no mistaking it was her; the hair hanging in front of her right eye and the long scarf left no doubt. The statue looked . . . regal.
Stinson turned, her face blazing with fury.
“What is this, Prawatt? Why did you make them build this? Why did you make them kill my men?”
Petra wanted to speak, but her mouth felt dry, glued shut.
Roger reached out, gently took Petra’s flashlight.
“Petra didn’t make them do anything,” he said. “They did this themselves.”
He pointed the beam to the base of the statue. There, in sparkling blue letters, were two words:
The freezing air of a Michigan winter flooded deep into Petra’s soul. She didn’t feel angry, or afraid, or anything, really . . . she just felt cold.
The girl with the God complex had become just that: God.
—For research on this story, Sigler would like to thank the scientific
consultants who helped him: Jeremy Ellis, PhD, Robert Bevins, PhD,
Andrew Allport, and Cassidy Cobbs.