Edition 16: The Nanofabricated Truth by David Conyers
When anyone can create any technology they require with just a schematic, the threat to civilisation sky-rockets. With security strategies in place, people can rest easy, until those protections are undone. David Conyers’ science fiction follows governmental agent Brian Arctor as he tries to stop a threat from spiralling out of control. SY
Despite his fluency in Mandarin, Brian Arctor couldn’t read the Chinese menu, hacked as it was by a nanovirus.
The spammer was a competing restaurant from across the road. Between roaming lines of white noise, the menu flickered from one dish list to the next, never static long enough to digest either offering.
‘Why eat quality poor establishment you now?’ asked the intruding menu in staccato Engrish. ‘We cook superior noodles. Go ready Ghan Train!’
What the spam could never appreciate was that Arctor had a comfortable seat in this restaurant, the aromas of spices and cigarette smoke weren’t as pungent or offensive as in the Ghan and most important of all, this establishment was discrete. He would remain where he was, thank you very much.
Recognising that he was indeed hungry, Arctor offloaded an anti-spam from his skin screen and watched it crawl onto the menu. It quickly blended with the spam only to have a local brothel exploit a gap in the coding. It offered, instead of food, ‘tasty women’.
Arctor signed as he threw the corrupted sheet onto the pirated IKEA table. Nanotech was everywhere here, and any of it could be spyware. Any item could be bugged, or worse, a chameleon weapon.
He missed the food dens he had known and come to love when he was first transferred to Xinjiang Province, when architecture and furnishings reflected the culture and the geography of the region.
Food preparation, at least, had remained an art form. There wasn’t a nanotech company anywhere that had successfully imaged the chemical complexities of biological substances. There was a comfort in knowing your meat would be sliced from a real animal.
Menu or not, there was a limit to the cuisine in Kashgar. He’d been stationed in this remote corner of China long enough to appreciate the good dishes from the bad. He would guess at a local delicacy for his breakfast, and chances were, the chef could make it.
Mind made up he signalled the waiter. The young Chinese man acknowledged Arctor with a nod and then returned his attention to the young blue-haired lady he was tripping over himself to serve. Arctor shook his head impatiently and sipped at his tea.
The hairs on Arctor’s neck tingled.
Sensing he was being observed, he glanced discreetly around the restaurant, quickly identifying the only other Westerner. That man was staring back at him and wasn’t hiding the fact. With eye contact established, he approached Arctor’s table.
“I take it you’re Paul Hadley?” Arctor offered the stranger a chair.
The thin man accepted the seat with a practiced smile. Like the restaurant, his clothes were nanofabricated; an Armani suit with fabrics designed at the molecular level to remain crinkle, stain, fray and tear free.
“Sloppy tradecraft Arctor,” Hadley’s words oozed with self-satisfaction. “You identified me before we exchanged inner-agency code protocols.”
“What’s the point?” Arctor shrugged. “I’ve had you under surveillance since you arrived in town.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes. I know who you claim to be.”
A smile didn’t match the concern behind the eyes etched itself into Hadley’s otherwise grim expression. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Relax, drink some tea.” Arctor poured them each a cup, but Hadley refused his. “Look, you’re definitely the same man who contacted me three days ago, I’ll give you that.”
“What exactly is your problem with me?”
“You working for the CIA…” Arctor left the sentence hanging so Hadley could draw his own conclusions.
The man had appeared in Kashgar suddenly and unexpectedly, claiming to be a CIA operative long deployed in Arctor’s geographical portfolio; only Arctor had never heard of him.
“You think I’m some kind of double agent?” The man’s response was forced. “What? Let me guess, a Russian spy?” His arrogant and confident businessman persona was fraying, even if his clothes would not. “That’s ludicrous.”
“But plausible. The Russians have wanted China destabilized since the Molecular Wars of ’58.”
“Like I said: ludicrous.”
“I don’t know. The Russians working through me in this anti-Chinese hotbed of hatred seems inspired.”
“You mean through your Uygur Separatist contacts?”
Hadley laughed. “That’s very imaginative of you. But seriously, the US wants China brought down too. I’m American. I’m loyal.”
Arctor eyes wandered to the busily eating patrons. None were glancing their way, or obviously eavesdropping, and that was encouraging. But with the latest tech now being nanofabricated on the black market, an enemy agent didn’t need to be inside the restaurant. Arctor just had to hope the Chinese Secret Service weren’t interested in this man called Hadley; weren’t listening with robotic surveillance drones the size of a mosquito that would never be noticed.
“No, we don’t. Not while the US makes trillions each year from the world’s richest superpower.”
Hadley finally lifted his tea, but he still wouldn’t drink it. “You still haven’t told me what your problem with me is?”
“My problem is you don’t exist.”
“Is that so?” Hadley lent into his chair. He was still trying to appear sophisticated.
“Hadley, I’ve been working Xinjiang for fifteen years. You’ve never once figured in it anywhere.”
The man drank his tea all at once. “You hungry?” He checked the flickering menu, before he too gave up as Arctor had. When he brushed the skin screen on his left forearm, it lit so he could trawl the net until presumably the same menu uploaded uninterrupted upon his flesh. “Tea is all well and good, but I’m famished. What do you want to eat?”
“I’d suggest the kebabs and naan—if you can get the waiter’s attention.”
“Kebabs and naan?”
“You can’t be sure anything else has been cooked long enough not to give you gastro.”
“Even with the latest antibacts?”
Arctor raised an eyebrow. Hadley should have known they didn’t care as much for hygiene, didn’t understand its importance. “The locals don’t fabricate what they don’t think they need; detergents and soaps included.”
Hadley shrugged, clicked his fingers to attract the waiter, who appeared quickly. Perhaps he had been in Xinjiang longer than just a few of days. He ordered for them both with a command of Mandarin as good as any native speaker. Arctor pondered if Hadley could speak Turkic as fluently; the language of the local Uygur Separatists.
He was about to comment on this when his forearm lit up, indicating incoming NetMail. As he read, he hid the screen with his other arm.
The message was from his boss, Section Head Penny Winterbourne. She confirmed Hadley’s backstory and approved the meeting. Winterbourne had been uncharacteristically courteous enough to provide a recent photograph of the mysterious man. Normally she left disgraced agents like Arctor to work out that kind of detail for themselves. Perhaps he had performed for a change and she was rewarding him; but it was not like her at all.
“Something important?” Hadley asked.
With a sinking feeling in his gut, Arctor felt he was missing an important detail, but couldn’t place a finger on what it was. “It seems you are who you say you are.”
“That’s nice.” Hadley showed no concern. Rather, he looked pleased with himself.
“What is your cover, exactly?”
“An arms dealer.”
“You operate locally?”
Hadley nodded. “I sell small arms to the separatists and local crime syndicates. Buying small arms from me at a discounted rate they don’t spend funds on bigger weapons that can do real damage. I broke non-official cover because I have a situation which requires a Langley-initiated solution.”
Arctor knew plenty of arms traders operating in Xinjiang. Some were Westerners. None were flagged as assets, and definitely none with a protected status like Hadley should have. But Winterbourne had confirmed Hadley was legitimate. Arctor should trust that information—so why didn’t he?
“Still, I’ve never heard of you.”
Hadley’s smile was sly. “I’ve heard of you though, the legendary Brian Arctor.”
“Sure you have.”
“It’s true. You haven’t really been in the Xinjiang fifteen years. Eight years ago you headed up Project Surface Scape, back in Langley nanotech was just taking off. That was quite something you achieved there.”
Arctor was quick to sip his tea to hide any unintentional expression that confirmed Hadley’s guess.
“When it all fell apart, you must have upset someone pretty important.”
“Is that what you think happened?”
“Why not? You’re in exile here, in remote, low-tech Xinjiang.”
Arctor sighed. “If you know about Surface Scape, prove it.”
“If I must. Its aim was to rewrite all the religious texts of the world, by initiating hunter-seeker nanoclouds.”
“It didn’t work though, did it?” Arctor offered, curious to see where Hadley went with this explanation. So far the man had divulged nothing classified.
“Oh I don’t know, send plagues of nanoclouds out into the net, to seek out every copy of the Bible, the Koran, etcetera. Rewrite them so the fanatics no longer had easily misconstrued scriptures to justify their atrocities.” Hadley ran his finger around the lip of his teacup. “Subtle though, one minimally revised edition each year, until all religious texts became very precise, spouting absolute non-violence against anyone, particularly against women and children—and gays too, which I always thought was a nice touch. Oh, and that despite there only being one true faith—in said religion’s view of the world—all of them spouting that all religions are equal.”
“And everything you’ve mentioned can be found in public record.”
“Okay then. You used InTangler Deep 7 protocols. Your first test target was the Korday MetaLibrary of Damascus. You—”
“Okay, you know Surface Scape,” Arctor interrupted, before Hadley revealed anything the Chinese Secret Service didn’t already know, should they be listening.
He began to wonder if the Chinese could replicate him, fit him with internal biological transmitters, replace his real self with an identical copy that unknowingly reported to the enemy everything he said and thought.
Arctor shook his head. It was hard enough dealing with the implications of known nanotech capabilities of today, let alone what might be possible.
“So, why didn’t it work out?”
Arctor returned his attention to Hadley. “It failed because Langley’s directors wanted quick results. I pushed for changes to be rolled out at generational pace, altering the scriptures just enough so as not be noticed. But to rewrite those texts so quickly…let me just say, some fanatics memorise their beloved scriptures to the letter.”
“Not just fanatics, but scholars and priests as well; people who find the good in those books you corrupted.”
“Exactly,” Arctor said, feeling the many years of buried guilt. Now Arctor was justifying who he was, and he didn’t like it.
“Why didn’t you hack the fanatic’s memories while you were at it?” Hadley laughed.
“You know as well as I do that no one has perfected biological nanofabrication or biohacks.”
“I know that, yes.” Hadley spoke quickly, backtracking. “But sometimes I do wonder what our masters come up with behind closed doors, with all those multinational corporations advising them.”
Before Arctor could respond the waiter arrived with their kebabs and naan. Both men thanked him in perfectly enunciated Mandarin, competing to prove better fluency. Only when the waiter was beyond earshot did they resume their conversation in English.
“Don’t expect biohacks for years, decades even.”
“Well if anyone would know, it would be Brian Arctor.”
“Can we drop the subject, please?” With the second mention of his name, Arctor again felt compelled to scan the restaurant. Again, no one seemed interested in them, but skilled spies would never reveal themselves.
“Fair enough.” Hadley shrugged, turned to his food. “By the way, I believe you are who you say you are,” he quipped before he bit into a kebab. “You know what, this isn’t bad.”
Suddenly hungry, Arctor ate too. “You still haven’t told me what this dire situation is, that forced you to break cover and seek me out?”
Hadley kept chewing, and chewing, his teeth fighting a chunk of meat that refused to reduce to swallowing size. Eventually he gave up and spat it onto his bread plate.
“That’s easy, Arctor,” he said, while he dabbed his mouth with a silk-imitation napkin. “Uygur terrorists have nanofabricated a working nuclear bomb, and now they plan on using it on the Chinese.”
Arctor and Hadley were driving east fast, headed deep into the Taklimakan Desert. Neither said it, nor hid from the other, that this new development scared them both. If a working nuclear bomb could be nanofabricated, then why stop at one?
When they passed a mountain-sized lump of infected nanotech fused into the side of the Kunlun Range, Arctor’s anxiety grew. The lump with its thousands of dozen-meter long silver-chromed tendrils was a former warlord’s attempt to recreate the Taj Mahal from severely corrupted designs. Wriggling like a gigantic sea anemone, it was the unofficial no man’s land marker dividing Chinese and Uygur forces.
The wasteland opening up before them was hostile territory. The tiniest rock could be a nanofabricated landmine. A shrub might be an armed spiderbot itching to execute its sniper programming. Invisible cyanide nanoclouds might be hovering above to kill them then and there.
“What I don’t understand, Hadley,” Arctor asked while his eyes remained focused on the road ahead, “is why you think a nuclear bomb is a small arm that can’t do real damage?” His white-knuckled hands were firm on the wheel of the armoured car as he sped onwards.
“Not that long ago, all nuclear weapons were harmless,” Hadley quipped.
Arctor knew Hadley referred to the US Government’s flooding of Earth’s atmosphere with hunter-seeker nanoclouds, specifically designed to deconstruct all sources of nuclear fuel by destroying it or depositing it in deep sea subduction zones. The plan had worked, but too well. With all fission fuel eradicated, the fission power industry collapsed, as did the deterrent of missile shields protecting the borders of old nations, and any hope of the human race colonizing the moon, the Lagrange Points, and further afield. The global suffering that followed, however, was preferable to allowing a terrorist with a pirated weapon of mass destruction to murder tens of millions of people.
Luckily, the world had yet to perfect hydrofusion power; otherwise, nanofabricated fusion bombs would be powered on water, a fuel source impossible to eliminate without causing insurmountably bigger problems.
“This was supposed to be a tactical approach to controlling terrorists,” Hadley explained. “Sell them a WMD that will drain their funds to acquire, that without a fuel source, ultimately ends up being useless. How was I supposed to know the Russians would develop nanoclouds that protected and shielded plutonium?”
“You would know by reading every report that hits your NetMail. Or you could anticipate that this would happen eventually.”
Fuming, Hadley would not look at Arctor.
“None of this is important. What is: is how you plan to fix this? And why me?”
“The plan, Arctor, is to buy back the WMD. I contacted the Separatists this morning. They agreed to meet, and provided me with a rendezvous, where I’m taking you now.”
“You want me along as protection?”
“Essentially, yes. This will be a simple op. They think their WMD is faulty. They want a refund, or for me to fix it.”
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll have guessed it’s only faulty because there is no fuel? Why didn’t the Ugyurs work this out earlier? They’re not stupid.”
Hadley smiled, made quotation marks with his fingers. “It ‘worked’ when I ‘demonstrated’ it. I told them it came with a fuel cell that was hunter-seeker resistant.”
“A nanofabricated lie that became the nanofabricated truth?”
“Arctor, I know they haven’t acquired the Russian plutonium.”
“You’re hoping they haven’t.”
“Well, that’s why you’re here, just in case they have.” Hadley stared at the empty road ahead. “Regardless, whatever happens, let me make it clear that we need to get that WMD back in one piece.”
“Not a chance. We destroy it.”
“The hell we do! This is a Spearman Fast Breeder, a top of the range model. Tailored hunter-seeker Netclouds destroyed all known specs years ago. Useless until today, with the Russian fuel source back in play. We can reverse engineer it and they’ll now be worth a fortune.”
Hadley seemed too focused on returning the WMD in one piece, when saving the lives of millions should have been their priority. But Arctor was doubly concerned because this wasn’t the first time he’d heard of Spearman, a defence contractor who’d been employed by the CIA on several highly-classified projects.
Arctor noticed his arm, where his skin screen would be visible were he to activate it. The one element of this desperate situation that still confused him was the NetMail from Winterbourne. Without that message, Arctor would have cut Hadley loose long ago and dealt with the WMD on his own.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun dipped into the Kunlun Range behind them, they spied a convoy of new military vehicles accelerating towards them, each armed with multiple clusters of weaponry
“There they are,” Hadley said.
Their vehicle’s sensors also detected the convoy. The windscreen’s heads-up displays were executing its CIA programming, singling out individuals in the group, identifying each Uygur and confirming them as bombers and murderers. Arctor counted eighteen men, but the display highlighted at least fifty insurgents within visual range.
Those men that Arctor could see brandished AK2100 assault rifles and MigRo grenade launchers, and yet the men harked from an era that the rest of the world had left behind; with their traditional embroidered caps, face scarves and leather coats. Many of the shiny new trucks carried bleating goats in their trays with bales of hay to feed them.
“You sold them all that?”
“Except the goats.” Hadley forced a laugh. Then he shuddered. “It’s different, isn’t it, when you see all those weapons together in the arms of angry men.”
“Welcome to my world.”
Hadley stared accusingly at Arctor. “What do you mean, your world?”
“You know what they say, Hadley, at Langley, about the first rule of negotiating with terrorists?”
“I’m sure you’re going to remind me.”
“If you want things to go your way, bring the biggest weapon.”
Hadley’s skin became white and clammy. “We didn’t do that, though, did we?”
Several of the armed Separatists approached, yelled for them to get out of their vehicle. The HUD flashed red over three Uygur grenade launchers, warning that these weapons were locked onto their vehicle and primed for firing.
“They’re going to kill us. Why do they want to kill us?”
Arctor didn’t answer. He instead positioned the vehicle’s laser targeter. “Is that the WMD, on that truck?” He pointed to one of the largest vehicles towards the centre of the convoy, certain he already recognized the bomb.
The thin man nodded. “That’s it, yes, but—” With lightning reflexes, he pinned Arctor’s arm against his body. “What the fuck are you doing? That’s the very expensive piece of hardware I told you not to touch!”
Despite Hadley’s restricting grip, Arctor spoke quickly into the radio. “Alpha One to Alpha Zero. Target locked. Code: Albedo, Strabismus, Brimstone, Pepperjack.”
A sharp pain surged through Arctor’s arm where Hadley punched him. Responding on instinct, Arctor deflected another blow. Then he pinned the other man’s arm in such a way that it would be agonizing to resist.
But Hadley resisted, screaming when he realized he was immobilized. He wasn’t looking at Arctor though, but at the approaching Uygurs. The men outside had become animated. One fired a volley of bullets into the air to get their attention.
“Stay where you are!” Arctor snapped as Hadley struggled.
An impermeable darkness struck the convoy, the detonation signature of a broad-spectrum nanomissile, launched from a military satellite that had come into range in low orbit. The explosion unfolded silently and suddenly, a thick black mist like the ink of an octopus. Men and goats coughed and cried as they ran from the cloud. Some men wore the cotton and wool clothes they arrived in. Nano-fabricated materials and metals had disintegrated, so some ran naked. All the terrorists were unarmed; the missile had seen to that.
When the black cloud dissipated, the convoy and the WMD were gone. Only the residual oil droplets and clumps of complex carbon molecules that remained rained from the sky. Like snowfall in the negative.
Arctor released Hadley, opened the vehicle and pushed the man onto the dusty road. He followed quickly, chambered the first round and then pointed his sidearm at the man. The sidearm was loaded with stun gas but he wanted Hadley to believe he was about to die.
“You idiot, Arctor! You just destroyed a fifty million Yuan weapon. You think this won’t come back and ruin you?”
Arctor removed a pistol hidden in the arms dealer’s waistband. Watching his peripheral vision, Arctor wanted to ensure the Separatists did not return for round two, but in their fear and embarrassment, they were running for the mountains.
In that moment, seeing their raw and naked bewilderment, Arctor felt sorrow for the Uygurs. They were a minority ethnic group without rights or resources in a land that no longer wanted them. They fought because the Chinese had taken away everything that had once been theirs. That was an honourable enough reason to fight in Arctor’s view of the world, but did not justify weapons of mass destruction.
“I’ve been wracking my brains, Hadley, as to why the Spearman Corporation was so important to all of this. Then I remembered. Spearman was the private contractor that developed most of the nanotechnology behind Project Surface Scape.”
“So?” Hadley moved to stand, but Arctor waved his weapon to indicate this was a bad idea. Hadley remained where he was, in the dirt rubbing his injured arm.
“You’re not really CIA.”
“Your boss confirmed that I was.”
“Did she? And how did you know that anyway?” They were far enough apart that if Hadley moved suddenly it would be a simple matter to shoot him. “The Spearman Corporation, who you really work for, knows all about nanoclouds, because Spearman developed them for Surface Scape. You knew in our earlier meeting today things weren’t going well for you, that you needed an extra something to keep me interested. You sent a nanocloud to create a fake NetMail from my boss. That was a nice touch by the way. I almost believed it.”
“Okay, you got me.” Hadley raised his arms in defeat. “But that doesn’t change why we’re here. We needed to get that WMD out of the hands of those terrorists.”
Arctor chuckled. “You don’t get it, do you?”
“You sold terrorists a WMD, but worse, later, when you realized how dangerous it was, your only priority was to get it back intact. You’re seriously going to tell me Spearman’s plan wasn’t to reverse engineer it to resell the specs on the market again?”
Hadley remained silent.
Arctor tsked, shook his head. He couldn’t believe the Spearhead Corporation had hoped to dupe him; what was worse was that they had almost succeeded.
“So what happens next?” Hadley looked small against the vast backdrop of empty desert. “You going to shoot me here, or do you plan on leaving me to die of dehydration?”
Switching his sidearm’s safety back on, Arctor holstered his weapon. “I’m doing neither.”
“What, you’re going to let me go?” Visibly relieved, Hadley stood.
This time Arctor did nothing to stop him. “Actually, it’s not that simple. Spearman might pay your wages, but you work for me now.”
The arms dealer cocked a tight smile. “How do you figure that?”
“I’m betting that WMD isn’t the only one you’ve sold, and with the Russians mass-producing plutonium-protecting nanoclouds, I can’t imagine you’ll be a very popular man when the truth gets out about what was done here.” He pointed to their armoured car, indicating that Hadley should get inside. “We’ve got to go.”
Hadley walked slowly to the vehicle. He had likely been amassing a small fortune on commissions with his weapon sales, but that was all about to change. He would soon be unmaking them all.
“What exactly is it you want me to do?”
“First, we need to get out of here, in case others decide to investigate.”
“And then what?”
“Then you’ll take me to all the buyers you’ve sold WMDs to, and we get them back or destroy them anyway we can.”
“Arctor, you’ve been in the wilderness too long if you think that will work.” Hadley stared into the sky, where oily raindrops of by-products still fell, adhering to their skin and clothes when it landed upon them. “These are cunning and ruthless buyers you’re talking about. You think it will be easy to find any of these WMDs, let alone get them back?”
“No, but we’ve already neutralized one, so having you on the team is proving to be worthwhile.”
“Well, the next thing you should do—”
Before Hadley could finish his sentence, an intense light flooded the sky. Arctor was momentarily blinded by the whiteness searing his vision. The blindness lasted several seconds before it faded. When his vision returned he noticed Hadley shielding his own eyes. The attack, then, was not localized, not nanofabricated across his irises.
“What the hell happened?” Hadley exclaimed.
A tight knot twisted in Arctor’s stomach, for he understood. He looked west, seeing what he expected to see and wishing that he hadn’t; a city-sized mushroom cloud forming on the horizon.
“Was that Kashgar?”
Arctor checked his skin screen, called up live-feed satellite imagery of the Xinjiang Province. CIA intel confirmed that a WMD had just disintegrated the city.
“I had friends there.” Hadley said.
“So did I.”
For a very long time, the two men stared. Arctor felt numb and powerless in the face of what he now witnessed, because it could never be undone.
“We were in Kashgar only this morning,” Hadley said bleakly.
Arctor couldn’t take his eyes off the explosion. If one WMD could be made this easily, it wouldn’t be the last.
“Does this change anything between us?”
Arctor shook his head. He couldn’t alter this event, but he might still do some good for other populous centres across the province, if he acted quickly.
“Listen to me Hadley,” he spoke quickly as ideas formulated. “We need to destroy every last WMD whatever it takes, before another one does more damage.” He turned back to the arms dealer. “Get into the car.”
Hadley silently did as he was told.
Arctor looked back at the mushroom cloud tiny on the horizon, but only small to his eyes because it was so far away. He felt sick. He was fearful of what the world had just become.
“What do you private sector types call it?” he asked Hadley as he climbed in behind the wheel. “A customer satisfaction tour?”
Hadley grimaced. “Something like that.”
Accelerating fast, the desert opened up before them. The desolate wilderness looked unchanged to how it must have been hundreds, even thousands of years ago, but Arctor knew invisible and disguised nanofabricated killing machines lurked everywhere, and now many of them had turned nuclear.
“Don’t you ever forget, Hadley; I’m your only customer now.”
David Conyers is an Australian science fiction author and editor residing in Adelaide. He has published over fifty short stories in various anthologies and magazines, many of which are collected in his e-books: The Entropy Conflict, The Uncertainty Bridge and The Nightmare Dimension. David is the author of the Lovecraftian espionage science fiction series featuring his ongoing character, Major Harrison Peel, collected in The Impossible Object, The Weaponized Puzzle and The Eye of Infinity. He is the editor of the anthologies Extreme Planets, Undead & Unbound, Cthulhu’s Dark Cults and Cthulhu Unbound 3. You can find his website at http://www.david-conyers.com/