You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Death by Chocolate

Death By Chocolate

A short story by Michael Lockridge

“Well, Bill, I must admit I am curious.” Said Ted Wendell, as he followed his host down the narrow hallway.

“It is revolutionary, to say the least!” Bill Horton replied, as they reached a doorway.

“Curious, but incredulous.” His guest said.

“Not for long.” Said Bill, opening the door.

He stepped across the room, and pulled a sheet off of some equipment sitting on a cluttered table.

“I must admit it is not too impressive to look at.” Bill apologized, as he started a computer and several power supplies. While the systems initiated communication among themselves, he extracted a sample of liquid from a clear tank sitting on the same table. He took his sample to another table nearby, and placed it in a test tube.

“This solution is comprised of a number of base components for the fabrication of nanobots.” Bill explained, as he tested the solution. “There are carrier molecules suspended in the liquid, which will respond to a form of chemical programming I have developed.”

“Sounds complicated.” Said his guest.

“Initially, perhaps. However, I worked out some algorithms which moved the work along quite nicely.” Said Bill. “The key was finding a coding interface which allowed me to instruct chemicals in a manner similar to how we instruct computers.”

“You know, Bill, that I am a business man more than a scientist. Still, I think I can see where you are going.” Said Ted.

“It’s ready. The carrier has integrity.” Said Bill. “I can explain as we go along.”

The two men turned back to the table full of equipment. The tank of liquid had begun to churn. Sediment that had been on the bottom was being forced into suspension within the liquid by the churning action.

“Some of that motion is just the liquid being recycled by a pump.” Said Bill. “Some is from the gas ports which are along the bottom of the tank. There are bits of just about everything in there for the program to react with.”

His guest nodded, but said nothing. His was paying very close attention.

Bill removed a small sample of material from a small plastic case. He used forceps to remove it, holding it up to the light. “Iron.” He said.

He dropped it into the tank. It sank to the bottom, shifting a bit with the agitation of the chemical bath. He then turned to the computer monitor and keyboard.

“The interface is relatively simple.” He said. “I direct the visual monitor to lock onto the target in the tank. There.”

On the screen a window gave the computer’s view of the target. Bill made a few more keystrokes, and the agitation of the liquid stopped.

“Now the parameters.” He typed some numbers into several boxes on the screen. “I have set the system to create a duplicate of the iron sample. The ‘bots will have two generations, then break down.”

“Two generations?” Asked Ted.

“The initial program creates a general ‘bot. Quite a few, actually.” Explained Bill. “These are standard ‘bots comprised of the elements in the carrier molecules. These create the replicator ‘bots. Each type of ‘bot can reproduce itself. Each generation has a molecular tag. If not limited, they would continue to reproduce themselves infinitely. You can imagine the consequences.”

“Ahh.” Said Ted. “Yes. So you build in a limiter. Please, proceed.”

“The replicator ‘bots will need raw materials.” Said Bill. He dropped a cleaned piece of metal in the tank. “Just a bit of an old car. Stripped of paint, degreased and acid etched. Not necessary, but the carrier solution is expensive enough to produce that I try to keep it clean. I want to know what is in there.”

Ted nodded.

Bill hit the enter button on the keyboard. Nothing seemed to happen.

“The monitor indicates that the first generation of general ‘bots is propagating. Now the second generation has begun, and the first generation is fabricating replicators. According to the computer, the replicators have started working.”

Ted looked into the tank. Nothing visible seemed to be happening. Then the piece of junk metal began to look a bit fuzzy. Over several seconds the target piece of iron seemed to swell. A few seconds later the swelling stopped.

“Done.” Bill said. He switched the agitator back on, and drew a sample of the liquid. Again he went to the second table and ran a test. “Confirmed. The ‘bots are now inert.”

With a long set of forceps he removed the iron sample. It was visibly nearly double the size of the original sample. Bill rinsed it, dried it and handed it to his guest.

Ted Wendell turned the piece of iron in the light. It was not so neatly shaped as the initial sample, but obviously double the size.

“Do you have anything to drink?” He asked his host. “I think I need it.”

“Yes, of course. Right this way.” Bill said. He led his guest to the door of his little laboratory.

“Bill, I think that you are about to reshape the world. After our drink, I need to make some phone calls.” Said Ted. He still clutched the piece of iron in his hand.

The two men stepped into the hall, and closed the door.

Michael Horton crawled out from behind the small sofa in his father’s laboratory. He wasn’t supposed to come in here, but his pet rat had been missing all morning. He had looked almost everywhere. The laboratory was his last area to search, and the area behind the sofa seemed like a great place for the rat to hide.

He felt a little like a rat hiding behind the sofa, when his father and the other man came into the lab. He didn’t dare move, or he might get into trouble. When he realized that he might get a chance to see what his father had been working, secretly, for so long, Michael could not help but crawl out a bit from his hiding. He watched the whole procedure.

He didn’t understand everything he had seen, but he could tell that the other man was pretty excited when the little piece of metal got bigger. He couldn’t understand such excitement over making more metal, though. There was metal all over the place. Not very interesting.

Once the men were gone, Michael crawled out from his hiding place and stood before the machine. He knew how to use a computer for games and homework. This didn’t look any harder. In a moment he had the agitator running, and managed to find the screen that had the settings his father had adjusted.

What would he want to make more of, with a machine like this? He checked his pockets, and found the answer.

“Chocolate!” Michael said. He unwrapped the dark matter, and dropped it in the tank. It sank to the bottom. With a little trial and error, he had the sweet substance centered in the aiming window.

How much was not a real question. Lots of chocolate had to be a good thing. He adjusted all of the numbers as high as he could set them. Then, he pressed the enter button.

Michael waited, and watched. He had not seen the piece of metal get bigger, but his father and the other man had talked about it. He watched the chocolate, and it didn’t seem to do anything. After a few minutes, he grew tired of waiting.

Michael shut off the agitator, and shut down the computer as much as he could. He did not want to turn off the power, so he set everything back to the way he remembered seeing it when he had started.

The last thing Michael did was to fish the chocolate out of the tank. It was a little sticky, so he threw it into the trashcan beside the table. Nobody would notice it there. The remains of several meals were in there from when his dad was working late. Licking his fingers, Michael went to see if he could find his rat.

Bill Horton locked the door to the house, and followed the EMT’s to the ambulance. They didn’t have room for him to ride with Michael, so he had to drive. He would follow them to the hospital.

As he drove, he could barely keep his panic in check. Just after his guest had left, Bill had found his son lying on the kitchen floor. He had been unconscious, but still breathing. Terror had filled his heart, and calling 911 had been an almost impossible task. He kept his son as comfortable as possible while waiting for the emergency medical team to arrive.

He had not returned to the laboratory before finding his son in the kitchen. Had he done so, he would have seen the tank breached by the rampant nanobots seeking the materials they would need to replicate their target. He might have also seen the fat, white rat emerge from the brown mass in the trashcan by the table in his lab. The rodent plopped onto the floor, and trundled away. He dripped brown goo as he went toward the secret way out of the house he had recently discovered.

Just possibly, Bill could have corrected the situation, averted the disaster, had he returned to the lab at that time. However, once the body of the poisoned rat had been picked over by a flock of crows migrating through the area, the fate of the world was sealed. Just possibly, it was already too late.

At least he was in time to hold his dear son, Michael, before life left his young body. A body already becoming something very like chocolate.

Science officer Shaltzan looked at her instruments, and was very troubled. It had been very hard, talking Captain Kelros into diverting to the small planet. Only when she displayed images of the creatures living there had he agreed. That, and the implied offer of ritual mating.

The creatures were quadrupeds, rather than bipedal, but had fur and facial structures similar to her own species. They had longer tails, and of course weren’t sentient. She had studied them for a short period of time while serving on a survey vessel. The chance to look in on them again was worth a ritual mating.

What disturbed her was the state of the continent on which her precious specimens had resided. Past tense. Nothing but a few microbes seemed to live there now. A brown slurry seemed to cover most surfaces, and all of the other continents seemed to also be similarly infected.

Very few signs of life, and no sign of intelligence, seemed to exist any longer on this world. The strange, bald bipeds that seemed to dominate this world all seemed to be gone. At least, that was what her long-range surveys indicated.

Kelros appeared impatient. Science officers on merchant vessels were required by regulation, but not particularly desired by the merchants. Kelros had been unusually indulgent.

“We need to study what happened here.” She said.

“Send a probe. Collect samples. Then we go. We have seven more systems to visit, before we reach home.” He said. “My chamber, in one hour.”

So romantic, she thought. Shaltzan watched him leave the bridge, then turned to her instruments. There. Probes launched. They would return with her samples by the time the ritual was completed.

Seven systems, then home.

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