- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
"Oh," I said. "Is that what happens now? We finish?"
She said, "I was outside, in the storage shed."
"Looking for more thermite."
There was no sound. Just a flash of yellow light that spread across the desert horizon for an instant, and then faded. You could almost believe it never happened. But the helicopter rocked and jolted as the shock wave passed us.
The pilot said, "Holy Mother of God, what was that?"
"Industrial accident," I said. "Very unfortunate."
He reached for his radio. "I better report it."
"Yes," I said. "You better do that."
We flew west, and I saw the green line of the forest and the rolling foothills of the Sierras, as we crossed into California.
Almost midnight. The house is silent around me. I am not sure how this will turn out. The kids are all desperately sick, throwing up after I gave them the virus. I can hear my son and daughter retching in separate bathrooms. I went in to check on them a few minutes ago, to see what was coming up. Their faces were deathly pale. I can see they're afraid, because they know I'm afraid. I haven't told them about Julia yet. They haven't asked. They're too sick to ask right now.
I'm worried most about the baby, because I had to give her the virus, too. It was her only hope. Ellen's with her now, but Ellen is vomiting, too. The baby has yet to throw up. I don't know whether that's good or bad. Young kids react differently.
I think I'm okay, at least for the moment. I'm dead tired. I think I've been dozing off from time to time all night. Right now I'm sitting here looking out the back window, waiting for Mae. She hopped the fence at the end of my backyard, and is probably scrambling around in the brush on the slope that goes down behind the property, where the sprinklers are. She thought there was a faint green light coming from somewhere down the slope. I told her not to go down there alone, but I'm too tired to go get her. If she waits until tomorrow, the Army can come here with flame throwers and blast the hell out of whatever it is.
The Army is acting dumb about this whole thing, but I have Julia's computer here at home, and I have an email trail on her hard drive. I removed the hard drive, just to be safe. I duped it, and put the original in a safe deposit box in town. I'm not really worried about the Army. I'm worried about Larry Handler and the others at Xymos. They know they have horrific lawsuits on their hands. The company will declare bankruptcy sometime this week, but they're still liable for criminal charges. Larry especially. I wouldn't cry if he went to jail. Mae and I have managed to put together most of the events of the past few days. My daughter's rash was caused by gamma assemblers-the micromachines that assembled finished molecules from component fragments. The gammas must have been on Julia's clothing when she came home from the lab. Julia worried about that possibility; that was why she took a shower as soon as she got home. The lab itself had good decontamination procedures, but Julia was interacting with the swarms outside the lab. She knew there was a danger. Anyway, that night she accidentally let the gammas loose in the nursery. The gamma assemblers are designed to cut microfragments of silicon, but faced with a pliable substance like skin, they only pinch it. It's painful, and causes microtrauma of a sort that nobody had ever seen before. Or would ever have suspected. No wonder Amanda didn't have a fever. She didn't have an infection. She had a coating of biting particles on her skin. The magnetic field of the MRI cured her in an instant; all the assemblers were yanked away from her in the first pulse. (Apparently that is also what happened to the guy in the desert. He somehow came in contact with a batch of assemblers. He had been camping within a mile of the Xymos desert facility.) Julia knew what was wrong with Amanda, but she didn't tell anybody. Instead she called the Xymos cleanup crew, which showed up in the middle of the night while I was at the hospital. Only Eric saw them, and now I know what he saw. Because the same crew arrived here a few hours ago to sweep my house. They were the same men I'd seen in the van on the road that night.
The lead man wears a silver bunny suit that's antimagnetic, and he does look ghostly. His silvered mask makes him appear faceless. He goes into the environment first to check it out. Then four other men in coveralls follow, to vacuum and clean up. I had told Eric he'd dreamed it, but he hadn't. The crew left behind one of their sensor cubes, under Amanda's bed. That was intentional, to check for residual gammas in case they'd missed any. It wasn't a surge suppressor; it was just constructed to look like one.
When I finally figured all this out, I was furious with Julia for not telling me what was going on. For making me worry. But of course, she was diseased. And there's no point in being angry with her now.
Eric's MP3 player was cut by gamma assemblers, the same way the cars in the desert were. And just as the MRI was. For some reason the gamma assemblers cut memory chips and leave central processors alone. I haven't heard an explanation why. There was a swarm in the convertible with Julia that night. It had come back with her from the desert. I don't know whether she brought it intentionally or not. The swarm could collapse into nothing, which is why Eric didn't see anything when he went out to the car to look. And I wasn't sure of what I saw when she pulled away, which was reasonable enough. The swarm was probably catching the light in odd ways. In my memory, it looked a little like Ricky, but it was probably too soon for the swarm to be taking on appearances. It hadn't evolved that much, yet. Or maybe I just saw an indistinct shape, and in my jealousy I imagined it to be a person. I don't think I made it up, but maybe I did. Ellen thinks I might have. After her car crashed, Julia called for the cleanup crews. That's why they were there on the road late that night. They were waiting to go down the hill and clean up the site. I don't know what caused the crash itself, whether it was something to do with the swarm or whether it was just an accident. There's no one to ask about it now.
The facility in the desert was entirely destroyed. There was enough methane in the main laboratory to produce a fireball in excess of two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Any biological materials would have been incinerated. But I still worry. They never found any bodies in the ruins, not even skeletons.
* * *
Mae took the bacteriophage to her old lab in Palo Alto. I hope she made them understand how desperate the situation is. She's being very quiet about their reaction. I think they should put the phage into the water supply, but Mae says the chlorine will take it out. Maybe there should be a vaccine program. As far as we know, the phage works to kill the swarms. Sometimes I have ringing in my ears, which is a worrisome sign. And I feel a vibrating in my chest and abdomen. I can't tell if I am just paranoid, or if something is really happening to me. I try to keep a brave face for the kids, but of course you can't fool kids. They know I'm frightened.
The last mystery to be cleared up was why the swarms always returned to the laboratory. It never made any sense to me. I kept worrying about it because it was such an unreasonable goal. It didn't fit the PREDPREY formulations. Why would a predator keep returning to a particular location?
Of course, in retrospect there was only one possible answer. The swarms were intentionally programmed to return. The goal was explicitly defined by the programmers themselves. But why would anybody program in a goal like that?
I didn't know until a few hours ago.
The code that Ricky showed me wasn't the code they had actually used on the particles. He couldn't show me the real code, because I would have known immediately what had been done. Ricky didn't ever tell me. Nobody ever told me.
What bothers me most is an email I found on Julia's hard drive earlier today. It was from her to Ricky Morse, with a CC to Larry Handler, the head of Xymos, outlining the procedure to follow to get the camera swarm to work in high wind. The plan was to intentionally release a swarm into the environment.
And that's exactly what they did.
They pretended it was an accidental release, caused by missing air filters. That's why Ricky gave me that long guided tour, and the song and dance about the contractor and ventilation system. But none of what he told me was true. The release was planned. It was intentional from the beginning.
When they couldn't make the swarm work in high wind, they tried to engineer a solution. They failed. The particles were just too small and light-and arguably too stupid, too. They had design flaws from the beginning and now they couldn't solve them. Their whole multimillion-dollar defense project was going down the drain, and they couldn't solve it. So they decided to make the swarm solve it for them.
They reconfigured the nanoparticles to add solar power and memory. They rewrote the particle program to include a genetic algorithm. And they released the particles to reproduce and evolve, and see if the swarm could learn to survive on its own. And they succeeded.
It was so dumb, it was breathtaking. I didn't understand how they could have embarked on this plan without recognizing the consequences. Like everything else I'd seen at Xymos, it was jerry-built, half-baked, concocted in a hurry to solve present problems and never a thought to the future. That might be typical corporate thinking when you were under the gun, but with technologies like these it was dangerous as hell.
But of course, the real truth was more complicated. The technology itself invited the behavior. Distributed agent systems ran by themselves. That was how they functioned. That was the whole point: you set them up and let them go. You got in the habit of doing that. You got in the habit of treating agent networks that way. Autonomy was the point of it all. But it was one thing to release a population of virtual agents inside a computer's memory to solve a problem. It was another thing to set real agents free in the real world. They just didn't see the difference. Or they didn't care to see it.
And they set the swarm free.
The technical term for this is "self-optimization." The swarm evolves on its own, the less successful agents die off, and the more successful agents reproduce the next generation. After ten or a hundred generations, the swarm evolves toward a best solution. An optimum solution. This kind of thing is done all the time inside the computer. It's even used to generate new computer algorithms. Danny Hillis did one of the first of those runs years back, to optimize a sorting algorithm. To see if the computer could figure out how to make itself work better. The program found a new method. Other people quickly followed his lead. But it hasn't been done with autonomous robots in the real world. As far as I know, this was the first time. Maybe it's already happened, and we just didn't hear about it. Anyway, I'm sure it'll happen again.
It's two in the morning. The kids finally stopped vomiting. They've gone to sleep. They seem to be peaceful. The baby is asleep. Ellen is still pretty sick. I must have dozed off again. I don't know what woke me. I see Mae coming up the hill from behind my house. She's with the guy in the silver suit, and the rest of the SSVT team. She's walking toward me. I can see that she's smiling. I hope her news is good.
I could use some good news right now.
Julia's original email says, "We have nothing to lose." But in the end they lost everything-their company, their lives, everything. And the ironic thing is, the procedure worked. The swarm actually solved the problem they had set for it.
But then it kept going, kept evolving.
And they let it.
They didn't understand what they were doing.
I'm afraid that will be on the tombstone of the human race.
I hope it's not.
We might get lucky.
This novel is entirely fictitious, but the underlying research programs are real. The following references may assist the interested reader to learn more about the growing convergence of genetics, nanotechnology, and distributed intelligence.
Adami, Christoph. Introduction to Artificial Life. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1998. Bedau, Mark A., John S. McCaskill, Norman H. Packard, and Steen Rasmussen. Artificial Life VII, Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Artificial Life. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
Bentley, Peter, ed. Evolutionary Design by Computers. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 1999.
Bonabeau, Eric, Marco Dorigo, and Guy Theraulaz. Swarm Intelligence: From Natural to Artificial Systems. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.
Brams, Steven J. Theory of Moves. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994.
Brooks, Rodney A. Cambrian Intelligence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
Camazine, Scott, Jean-Louis Deneubourg, Nigel R. Franks, James Sneyd, Guy Theraulaz, and Eric Bonabeau. Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton, 2001. See especially chapter 19.
Caro, T. M., and Clare D. Fitzgibbon. "Large Carnivores and Their Prey." In Crawley, Natural Enemies, 1992.
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Hassell, Michael P., and H. Charles J. Godfray. "The Population Biology of Insect Parasitoids," in Crawley, Natural Enemies, 1992.
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Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 1994.
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- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold