The Pod

1.

Prologue

In the early twenty-first century, scientific research turned heavily to minute, molecular machines visible only through electron-microscopes. With them came hopes for everything from micro-manufacturing to bio-regulation. This latter thought alone made the public fearful, and only after the research and development moved into its application phase did the populous began to see its obvious benefits.

The programmable technology, so minute and inexpensive to manufacture, was soon loaded with various directives and deposited into laboratory mice. The mice in turn, were implanted with varying types of cancer cells, and the technology unleashed against the cancer. With a ninety-eight percent success rate in the first clinical trial subjects, the new technology was hailed as the most noble discovery since Penicillin more than a century before.

The technology, hitherto referred as nano-tech, was soon adapted to millions of new uses. It’s applications appeared limitless. Everything from automotive fluids to beauty soaps contained the microscopic robotic contraptions, each type programmed to ease man’s burden or enhance his vanity. The applications were so varied, in fact, that nano-tech soon became an under-thought in the consciousness of man. Much like electricity, it was so abundant and ingrained in the collective consciousness, that the “common man” thought nothing of it in day-to-day life, no matter its risks or widespread benefits.

Bureaucratically speaking, concerns were audible. State-houses heard rising notions and concerns of apocalyptic leanings from both learned and worrisome alike. These notions, said the tech’s inventors, scientists, and manufacturers, were outlandish. Even still, whole scores of compliance parameters were dreamed up and implemented to soothe the naysayers. Beyond any red tape however, people and corporations invested in the nano-tech and its components stood to make vast fortunes. Metaphorically speaking, the local purveyor of electricity could charge rates at thousand of times more for the electrical current and conduit flowing through every facet of the home in the developed world. Only after multiplying such a sum several thousands of times could one begin to grasp the immense, financial gains that lay beyond the tape-line. While many companies did manage to successfully wrestle the red tape, equally as many failed or succumbed to corporate sabotage.

The leader in this new, iconic field, began small but grew exponentially. Over the course of a single, fiscal year, it multiplied in size and profit by a tenfold. By the end of the second year, it had grown a hundredfold, and so on in this vein for nigh-on a decade before it plateaued as an industry leader.

Nano-Particulars, the aforementioned, sought to incorporate nano-technology into every facet of life. In that, they very well might have succeeded. From motor-oils to shampoo, food to medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and everything in between. Nano-Particulars’ manufacturing prowess was second to none. After a time, each new innovation sprinted through approval processes to be released and daunt its competitors. Each product, in turn, incorporated nano-tech to increase its effectiveness.

In the advent of a new golden age, there was little backlash for the exorbitant prices and outrageous claims of the products, that were rather hard to prove or disprove. One such example was the conditioner Nano-Cream, said to contain nanites programmed to eat away weakened strands of hair so that new ones might grow faster, healthier.

Despite the heat Nano-Particulars took from all angles, their first class R-and-D department, reputable PR staff, and lightning-witted, young CEO bounced back with greater impunity. In the midst of this hyped era, the CEO imagined new ways to apply this technology, patented the ideas, then set his company to work– for good or ill. One, particularly controversial idea was the Nano-Mask. The idea was that one would install the software, design a new face within it, and hookup the mask into a computer. In turn, the mask would download the new data, rearrange itself over a period of a few hours, then afterward could conform to the face. The nano-tech bots would attach lightly to the skin, becoming opaque so to appear as though no mask existed. It effectively rendered identity fluid, obsolete.

Of course the novelty to the idea soon gave way to far too many terrifying possibilities. The most glaring example; the ease with which it could be employed to frame others for crimes. The idea was quietly put to rest. Unhindered, the young CEO turned his sights to other projects, the foremost of which began a cataclysm of events whose effects exist to this day, The Pod.

 

2.

The Pod’s Emergence

The Pod, aptly named for its appearance, was first mentioned ten or so years ago, roughly the same time Nano-Particulars had its first legal trouble regarding the face-mask. As the mask was solely an entertainment product, it was obviously lowest on the list of the company’s priorities, but the most anticipated of its products. The Pod emerged fully into consciousness once the funding for the face-mask required reallocation. This new invention boasted masses of promises to the public. In time, it fulfilled more than a few of them.

The Pod, an oblong device raised a bed’s height from the ground on a heavy pedestal, is a three dimensional oval that splits at the middle. One half, connected to its base, is stationary. The other half separates upward on heavy hinges to allow its user entry. There are two sizes; a single, and a double. A single is an economy Pod built for use by one person; the double, built for a couple, or size allowing, up to three.

The patented purpose of this invention was to make home diagnoses and administer treatments for certain high-powered clientele who wished not to visit doctors. The idea however, was protested heavily by the American Medical Association whom felt, that without the aide of a trained medical professional, any diagnostic results could easily be misinterpreted. It was also possible, they decided, that the machines could be too easily tampered, and so the technology was re-purposed.

It was in this re-purposing that the young CEO questioned what an endearing public might want and desire most. The answer; their dreams. It was a genius, elegant, simple, and not at all far-fetched– at least, not anymore. The new nano-tech allowed frequent, easy, and painless installation and extraction, of specific wireless receivers and transmitters in the brain. The wireless nanites would stimulate the body to sleep while keeping a component conscious in a land where anything was possible. And so it went that The Pod became the first technology in history to allow one to harness and control their own dreams.

In the time of man, a recurring theme to capture one’s dreams has emerged. This notion was now real. Hailed as a step-forward in our own personal understanding of desire, the experiences the Pod could provide were limited only by the user’s imagination. Many men, women, even some children, gained a greater insight into things that they otherwise would never have known. Other uses for The Pod appeared.

Apart from entertainment, it could be used as a therapeutic device in mental health facilities, giving families the chance to speak and otherwise visit with those ostensibly disconnected from the world. In fact, because of The Pod’s unique abilities psychotherapists thought it ground-breaking. Many people, incapable of communication for decades or more, began to speak through the dream lands The Pod connected them to. It afforded their family, friends, and doctors insights into their states. Many of them even managed to cope with their deepest fears and most wicked desires in a controlled manner. Some eventually lifted the curses placed upon themselves unwittingly.

Conversely, the technology was not perfect– or perhaps in the last vein, was built on a loose, moral ground that said each man or woman’s dreams would bring them peace. It is untrue, of course, for there will always be those whose dreams, desires even, are the very definition of nightmares. True as it is that many of these dream-demons were slain with the aide of family and friends, those whose minds had been haggard, worn far too long, are even in their dreams, the victims of phantoms. They are unresponsive, catatonic, emotionless. Even after their dream-demons, whatever they were for each, were slain in proverbial battles, they remained uncured.

And so history deviates to modernity.

For a span of time all of these things came to pass. Unfortunately, so too has that time passed. In the depths of the Pod’s programming, there was a fatal error. As alluded, there is in fact a rhyme and reason to the Pods’ function: One whom wishes to enter the dreamland must enter the Pod. Once inside, it closes you in. A matter of mechanical noises will sound before a bright light moves over your body. It stops on the head, flares for a moment, then shuts off. It is a medical scanning system, designed to tell specific nanites what to repair; this is the medical facet of the system. Indeed, there are massive health benefits to the Pod. (They were, after all, designed as medical devices.) The flare of bright-light is the release of the bots into the tissues of the brain.

There is no pain involved, and the flare has been suggested to be pleasantly associated with the experiences of the device. It hones one’s senses for the pleasure that awaits. However, I digress. The true purpose of this explanation is a deeper understanding of the terror that awaited us all. We overlooked it. Caught so boldly by the beauty and peace that dreams bring, we were asleep to unknowable horrors that lurked in shadow.

It was first reported a month ago; a machine had malfunctioned, and in the removal of the nano-bot phase, the light had flared much too brightly. An old man within the pod, slaying wild beasts (a fantasy lived out countless times through this technology) awoke abruptly. The machine smoked, sparked. The man ran for his life. What happened next was nothing less than a spectacle of terror.

The machine, shook and rumbled before the light flared once more. The Pod’s top flew open, shattered its steel hinges, and emitted a swarm of bots. They stood before the man with shifting shapes. Billions of particle-sized robots, for no apparent reason, took the appearance of the ghastly beast the man had done battle with. The massive, two-headed demon, hued in the ever-amalgamated opaqueness of the bots bared three sets of razor sharp nestled in each of its three heads. The bots, in defiance to their programming, presented this man with a perfect apparition of the beast he’d attempted to slain. It raised a long, flesh-torn arm with a hand of sharp claws. With a single swipe, it lopped the man in two.

This event, while the first, was not the last. Even after the demon mutilated the man, it continued out the door and into the street. It ravaged two passersby who jested at its odd, statuesque appearance, causing the street-walkers to flee in terror.

The demon still walks the Earth, though I have not personally seen it. Good that I haven’t! I would freeze in terror, slain by its absent, cold blood. However, it is not the only shape-shifting, plague-mass that walks the earth. At least a dozen more have been confirmed; everything from demons to lumbering dinosaurs. They are the machinations of valiant, terrified minds, created by those whom so wished to be masters of their own dreams as to slay dragons of myth, or hunt mighty beasts that could topple buildings, or even lead conquests of Spaniards against Mayan tribesmen. All of these apparitions have been confirmed, as well as others of more “refined” dreamers.

Reports of Einstein walking about spouting nonsensical equations have been confirmed in the triplet. (No doubt, his ignorance is drawn from the limits of not only his programming, but the mind of his dreamer.) There are sirens who, in defiance to reason, lure people over only to have their songs never end. New harlots seek out patrons, but having been dreamed by the Rippers of the world, wish not to engage in intercourse, instead rob and murder.

It is a dreadful, terrifying time, but there is a plan in the works. I can say little until it is finished, or else fall to the demons I attempt to slay.

 

3.

The Bear

Arriving home the other night, I found myself face to face with a swarm of my own conjuring. It was wildly appropriate at the time I began using The Pod, to imagine myself in a battle of wills against a beast of outstanding proportions; A great, grizzly-bear. I am a realist who enjoys the fruits of a realistic imagination. This realism led me to the bear in my dreams. I wished to conquer something of this Earth, not a fantastical creature whose power was mythical and could easily conquer any other living thing. I wanted a challenge– an honorable one. One of man against his better, his maker; nature. So, I dreamed of the bear.

It happened in a clearing on the outskirts of a giant forest. The world, returned to former glory with nary a man nor civilization to exist. From the trees it lumbered, gargantuan, and with a sheen of thick fur whose earthen tones rivaled the most fertile of soil. My own, conscious mind had scarcely realized the proportions of my prey. My ego must be kept in check from now on, for the beast surely could not exist, nor be slain, by any man armed as I had been; with only a large, ceremonial, hunting-knife.

As it met the center of the clearing, it saw me. It reared on its hind legs with a bellowing roar, dropped to all fours, and charged with a ferocity I’ve never seen. I was quick to act. My blade drew, adorned in a virulent poison. The beast neared me. I dodged, rolled away to safety. My feet moved with an agility I have never possessed. This, after all, was my dreamland.

It reared up once more with an anger that it had missed. My mind fought for the quickness to keep pace. I slashed three times at the belly. Blood seeped from the wounds at a pained yelp. It swatted feebly at me, growling. Its mouth dripped blood, its body already encumbered by the debilitating poison.

It was then that I felt my greatest satisfaction with this impossible scenario. Even then, I felt this brute must be released from its misery. It swiped at me, caught me loosely in the belly to leave deep gashes. My adrenaline flared. The wounds stung, angered me with pain. I dodged the next few attempts to catch me, got ’round it. Before it could turn, I lunged. My feet bounded, body lunged through the air. I landed on its back with a precarious motion, clung for dear life as it whipped in all directions with attempts to buck me.

My reserve was strong, its movements more lumbered with each moment the poison coursed through its veins. In a cunning movement, I lunged my blade into the shoulder of the bear, and drew backward to sever the tendon. Such vile hostility; something I’d never thought myself possible of. But even in my dreams, neither blood-lust nor adrenaline could be controlled. I became an animal of my own.

It was felled, one arm disabled. It cried, lashed out in pain. I must finish it now, I thought. I leapt off, spun around to face it once more. It lie in a heap. An angered look upon its face told me it knew it had been bested. I too knew this. With an onerous, but understanding look, it seemed to grant me the permission necessary to end its suffering.

I did.

One never knows their true identity until they confront their primal nature. In my dreamland I had done just that, or so I had believed. In lowering myself to the level of an animal, engaging another for a simple matter of survival, I had gained a confidence in my own cunning. Unfortunately, I had also given myself an unwitting advantage in the battle; I could not die, no matter the risk. It was however, the aforementioned cunning that paid off most when I returned home, and was confronted by the bear.

My mind raced, though time around me stilled: This would be different. The beast could kill me here. Cunning was the only skill I might rely upon, the others of agility and strength non-existent in this realm. I did however, happen to be working on a plan that might destroy these apparitions; a weapon, far from ready. Based on the simple principle of electricity, it was to be the counter-attack of the battle humanity appeared to be facing.

It is a fact that the swarms of miniature robots comprising the apparitions are electrical in nature. They require electricity, generated by the body, in order to form and function within it. This is why the Pods would smoke and explode as the swarms would form. The extra surge of current was required to reform themselves appropriately and in such large numbers. It is a supplementary theory of mine that these creatures kill not solely out of malice, but as a result of the attraction to the electrical charge from our bodies combined the directives of fatal errors in programming. By interacting with us in certain ways, they are able to drain the body of its remaining electrical current. Though it has yet to be proven, it is the best theory any of yet heard. The shapes these beasts take are only a result of memory leaks in programming from the dream-land. In essence, they take the form of our dreams because of imprecise lines of code that tell them to present the challenges and shapes we’ve asked of them. We did create them, after all, and it was usually to fulfill some challenge to our primal, or in some cases, carnal natures. In short, we want to best them and they’re told to allow us to attempt it.

It was my rushing mind, and the perceptive stillness around, that allowed me to deduce a massive amount of electricity was needed to kill this wisp-beast. I searched my memories for a suitable voltage source. The only one within reason, the power-box in my kitchen. If I could make it there, I could surely destroy this beast. But I needed rubber-gloves to insulate my hands; a rubber suit for the rest of me. I would have to be fast. My armors would be in my study where I had last worked with the new weapon.

Only one other thing was certain about this lumbering swarm-beast; it was easily out-maneuvered. So long as I could move fast enough to snatch the suit and dress in it I would stay alive. I would need somewhere to hide while I dressed. The crawlspace, another easy spot, would be sufficient enough.

I moved fast, getting ’round on the beast for a doorway it attempted to block. My feet angled left, legs pumped hard. I snatched my suit and gloves from the desk, dove for the closet beside it, and threw up the hatch. I plunged into darkness, yanked down the hatch behind me. The crawlspace was cramped, but afforded the momentary solace I sought before the swarm could resolve to shape-shift.

I wasted no time, thrust myself into the suit. It was then that I heard the swarm curiously buzzing at the hatch. Slowly but surely, a thick mist of microscopic origins form around the the hatch. It seeped through the minute cracks, pouring in from above. I acted fast. The swarm was preoccupied with its transference between levels.

I sprang up through the hatch, clambered out, rolled away to my feet, and sprinted out for the the kitchen. The swarm reassembled in a flash, barreling after me with reckless abandon. I made my way to the power box as it came within reach. Pure adrenaline fueled me to rip hot power-lines from atop the box. It arced all around me, myself unaffected. The beast lunged. I turned, thrust hot, metal cabling forward and struck it dead-center. Sparks and smoke flew outward in droves. The swarm was stunned mid-lunge, held in place by the current that coursed through it. Flames spit alone arches through the air. Then, little-by-little, the nano-bots burned to dust.

Armed with this new knowledge, and my protective suit, I gathered my things for a colleague’s home. He would have everything needed to end this madness.

 

4.

My Colleague

I arrived at my colleague’s amid frightened traffickers that fled for the city’s limits. Common sense suggested this was the best of options, unknowingly propelling themselves from one rampage to another. Everywhere The Pod had been sold, manufactured, or used, swarms had emerged in the tens of dozens. It was utter chaos. My colleague and I were the only ones, it seems, to have been working the problem. Even then, we were the only two so near a solution. There was a certain glib satisfaction in that knowledge, that I must admit, came from my primal nature.

Instincts of this type had been ever-present since my defeat of the swarm-bear, and I daresay I was thinking faster and clearer than I’d ever had. It is an odd thing to know when One’s own strength in a crisis has risen above that of the majority around you. I was clear headed. My mind focused on each step and the one that would follow. All around me however, was mass hysteria: I saw a woman beating a man to a near pulp in the street. Clearly he was her husband and only wished to bring some order to his deranged wife, but she refused to listen to reason. With a final blow, he reared on her, struck her back. He ran off, cursing the woman’s name as she lie on the sidewalk, blubbering, incoherent, but otherwise uninjured.

It was a horrific sight to behold, but it was hardly apart from the norm of this chaos. I fear I may not do it justice. Every vehicle that lined the street had been over-turned and set ablaze. Dead lay here and there, the dying caught in the ghastly throes of this insanity. Driving was no longer an option for escape from residential blocks. Even if one had somehow preserved their vehicle, they would never have made it through; shot going past, or car-jacked by denizens. The problem was summed up in a thoughtful moment of clarity as I surveyed the land.

These were the fruits of our labored dreaming. The chaos, disorder, and death, awakened terror of dreamers, myself included, whom wished to prove themselves in that strange land beyond waking life. This was the price we had paid for having our dreams fulfilled– or at least, manipulated. Inevitably, if society survived this maelstrom, it would be considered an “industrial accident” caused by a manufacturing defect from the first line of Pods. There would be a public apology from that young, quick-witted CEO; perhaps a recall or stipend to those who had lost the most. After a time, it would fade from the minds of man through lawsuits in a veil of public relations. Such was the way that it had always been, what could change that now?

When I arrived at my colleagues, I knocked heavily on the door. It flung open to the end of a rifle’s barrel. My Colleague was poised with his weapon drawn, not bothering to look out the window. He lowered it, looking me over peculiarly. I still wore the odd, yellow, rubber suit– something that had escaped my mind as I’d wandered down the streets. He ushered me into the foyer quickly, bolting the door in my wake and rambling on about vultures and tyrants.

He stood for a moment there, apologizing for the rifle and the state of things. His eternal hospitality was amusing in the advent of the chaos beyond his doors. At least for me, his manners had survived intact. After another moment, he ushered me down the stairs and into his workshop. There, electrical components were strewn about across a dozen benches, amid an otherwise immaculate organization. Above each bench were sets of tools designed for different states of work, pristinely separated and categorized.

He led me in deeper, while explaining of an issue creating a capacitor that would sustain and recharge large amounts of electricity. Until now, he had been working under the assumption that the charge would have to be relatively massive. He believed new capacitors had to be invented, as well as a renewable power source. When I told him of the minimal charge necessary, he was elated. It came to him then, what he would need; an alternator and a massive series of car batteries.

The problem then became about size. Somewhere between eight and ten automotive batteries were required, along with a constant, external source of power for the alternator to recharge them. It meant starting from scratch once more, and with little time, we set to work building the firing device itself before tackling the problem of mobility. We knew what needed to be done, but where the supplies would come from was beyond us.

We finished the weapon after measurable labor and looked upon our achievement with pride: a massive four-foot tall rifle, mounted on a heavy, steel tripod. It would work, provided we could procure the power source. The alternators and lines for battery charging were ready, and awaiting connection. The weapon would take a short time to recharge between shots, but there was no doubt; it would do the job.

 

5.

Provisions

We deliberated a while on what to do next. After a period of rest, we concluded that the weapon must be mounted in an appropriately sized vehicle or trailer, powered by a gas generator meant for homes. We set about procuring the supplies.

Perhaps looting is the more apt term. The truth was, upon emerging from his home, My colleague and I found the scene worse than before. Looters were abound. The city had descended into all-out anarchy. Windows were being smashed all down the street. Homes were broken into, their owners still fighting for their lives and valuables. Some rightful residents were able to gain the upper hand, throwing their opponents into the streets bloodied and bruised. Others, lost in their own rights. Soon the thieves were seen running, light-footed, over bodies as they carried out their victim’s possessions.

Luckily, several levels of security on my colleague’s home protected his workshop and our weapon. The windows were of high strength Plexiglas, meant for use in tall office-buildings, thicker than normal. His front and rear doors were constructed of double-ply steel, set in heavy frames and bolted shut. Even the basement workshop was barred by one of these doors in addition to electronic and analog security locks. These were not the fruits of a paranoid man, but rather the result and value of the contents of his workshop. His work was not primarily his own. Very little was, in fact. Most consisted of several multi-million dollar projects of small research firms that, because of his idiosyncrasies, he was allowed to work on at home. Being that he was a well-respected man in his field, his employers readily gave such allowances.

After acquiring all that we would need from a hardware store, we hurried home in a large pick-up truck, stolen from a new vehicle lot. With the insanity around us, the crime was hardly unwarranted. Upon returning home, we found an eerie sight: The streets, previously filled with looters, rioters, and all manner of human-detritus, were now devoid of life. The neighborhood and surrounding blocks were silent. Had a mass exodus begun and concluded in so short a time?

We rolled to a stop outside his home, hurried inside to gather the weapon and any necessary tools, whilst the question festered in our minds. With the batteries aligned in the truck’s bed, there was just enough space for the alternators between they and the generator to connect to the weapon. My colleague set about configuring the weapon while I bolted its heavy tripod into place.

It was then that a sound came, shattering silence like a gunshot. It rocketed overhead from the West with a high pitched whine. It Doppler shifted, grew louder, passed by invisibly, then sank to a lower frequency. Then, once more, from the distant East.

It could not be true, could it? No man was so foolish, so short-sighted to dream it, were they?

It came at us from the West again; a beast possessed of an unnatural, synthetic survival, sonic-booming overhead. The shock-wave from its low flight and high speeds shook the truck, nearly deafened us. I worked faster to bolt the gun’s final leg down. My Colleague readied the batteries, switched on the gas generator. The gun climbed to a low rumble. The power increased, the rumble shifted higher to a whir its own. It was then that we glimpsed it, hovering on the horizon, studying us. Without conscious thought, I grabbed at the gun.

The massive fighter jet seemed to notice my intent and made for us. It began a passing run, spitting out imitation bullets composed of the nano-bots. They chipped at the ground, punctured cars with as much velocity and intimidation as their real counterparts might.

I had no fear. It was not an option. Not for a mind so bent on firing the weapon. I judged its trajectory, fired. The weapon’s concussive wave shoved the truck forward several inches. The blast of electricity traveled faster than anticipated, attracted to the mass of minute robots. It struck the nose, emanated through-out the swarm. The plane dissipated mid-attack, the bots fried and raining ember to the ground.

The weapon had worked. We knew what must be done. My colleague and I set off to gather as many survivors and materials as possible; to build weapons and an army to fire them. In time, all could be put right.

 

6.

The Militia

With our militia at hand, we began patrolling a large city block. My Colleague and I were the commanders of the make-shift army. We set up high-powered electronic perimeters, assigning shifts to militia-members. It was exciting, invigorating. The local police, thoroughly disbanded from the chaos, came to us for help. Indeed, we offered what we could; a safe refuge, and free meals for those willing to carry their share of work. Though I make it seem more grand than it was, it was inspiring to see what had come of just a few days time.

The city block was barely a mile squared, and only a few places within had been left habitable by the rioters and looters. As such, most people were jammed like sardines into a few small homes. But food was abound, and security a given. It had to be, for this was where we were constructed the weapons. While it was true we had ample defenses there was still the matter of the swarming behemoths, demons, and all other manner of concocted apparitions wandering about. They seemed to have sensed the area was off-limits when their first forays against our perimeters were met with their demise. Since our militia had secured the block, the swarms had re-evaluated their strategy.

It is not a stretch to think there might be some capabilities for collective self-preservation in the swarms. It is more of a stretch however, but by no means impossible, to believe these swarms had begun thinking for themselves. Perhaps they had devised a means of inter-communication; their programming was already sophisticated enough to work as a group containing individuals– this was their purpose, after all. A swarm’s behavior dictated many things, but without complex intelligence necessary. What lends doubt to this last point however, is the coordination of the last attempt on our perimeter. The swarms have greater means of intricate processing than the average insect swarm. This, I assume, has allowed the change in their goals. They no longer appear target individuals, but instead, groups. This, among other things, suggests a communication, perhaps even a central leadership.

The attack, though in itself not indefensible, displayed a tactic astonishing to even the simple minded: They came at us from all sides of the block, as if to divide us and overwhelm individual groups. The swarms managed to injure several of the militia’s patrolmen. In the disorder that ensued, a few managed to breach an unguarded section by flying high overhead toward the block where we lay in hiding. There is an immovable contingent of weaponry hidden on either side of the main buildings both at street level and atop the roofs. These few guns are more than enough for our protection, and were invaluable in this skirmish.

We eliminated the breaching swarms with that most spectacular of raining fire that signals their demise. Nonetheless it appeared then, as it does now, that they had collectively learned tactics. They had transformed from masses of picturesque nightmares, bent on murder, to full-blown, intelligent beings ready to sacrifice themselves for whatever cause a machine might have.

Thankfully, since then we’ve neither heard nor seen them. The militia has prepared a scouting party for search and reconnaissance. Speculation suggests they are near a large substation south of our perimeter. If true, it would be advantageous for both sides. While swarms in their individual masses are still vulnerable to electrocution, if banded together in a large enough group they might be invulnerable to our weapons. If such is the case, the power station’s massive electrical-charges would be all the energy we need to patch the weapons into, and eliminate even the most massive of swarms.

Even if we are able to strengthen our weapons, the possibility of high-voltage traps is a real danger. As well, the massive swarms’ power draw from the area might ground our guns, making them useless. It is a heavy burden on all of our shoulders that we might see an unfavorable ending to this fight.

Whether or not the news that returns changes anything is not something any would wish to speculate on. There is no point in riling ourselves up. We must focus on a supply run before we can mount any sort of offensive.

Sometimes I think of that young CEO, whatever his name, to fuel my anger and hatred towards these swarms. There is no way now that the man can ever reclaim any title to a fascist throne. I have to wonder, is hidden away in one of his mansions? Is he cowering in fear, or laughing in the face of his fortune and fame amidst the chaos of his shortsighted ambitions? More importantly, did the man surround himself with these Pods? Was he slaughtered outright like the countless others who’ve died at the hands of their own, deluded dreams?

Our scouts returned with word that the swarm is amassing at the substation. They were able to meet with our caravan from town. Travel is slow from desiccated streets, but our people continue to be well fed. The attack is to be planned. My colleague and I suggest detonating homemade explosives within the substation. Any possible chain reaction they much cause would send surges of electricity through the area, that might be capable disabling the swarms. Afterward, we would inevitably begin mopping up the last of the surviving swarms of nanites. Most we have discussed this with agree.

It is a curious thing to plan attacks on microscopic creations, once so prevalent and revered by our society. Now we must hunt them without mercy, for that is what they’ve shown us. It may be a fatalist assertion, for there is no way for them to show mercy, they’ve no concept of it. It’s possible they’ve no concepts at all, though the concept of domination appears to have emerged within them. It is possible, so sophisticated is their programming, that they were told to learn from our dreams to help make them a better experience and present us the greatest challenge. In the grand scheme, this is humanity’s dream: To triumph as one group over adversaries whom view us as enemies, forgoing regards of our own petty differences we’ve concocted over the eons.

What a strange and terrible platitude to behold, but perhaps it has been the solution all along; for now we do band together as one. We have risen up as a unified group, protected the weakest of us, fought together whilst bypassing the prejudice, bigotry, and indifference that has otherwise been so prevalent. The road ahead is no doubt filled with either victory or tragedy, triumph or terror, hope or hopelessness. In any case, it will be a long road.

 

7.

The Substation

It was very early in the morning, cold with a brisk wind that blew out of the North. We had deliberately stayed our hand, waiting for the opportune moment. In the week of planning and preparation that had followed our scouts return, there was no further advancement. Our scouts kept their eyes on the power station, and our patrols kept their guns ready, but thankfully, in vain. My Colleague and I put together a force of a dozen able-bodied men and women, finished the last of the weapons, and retrofitted capacitors in order to couple with the power station. The militia, comprised of men and women of all walks of life, said goodbye to their families and readied for the fight.

My Colleague and I, in our best attempts to rally morale, prepared a speech. We assembled whom we could to hear it, and all but the furthermost patrols were there. I began reading from notes written down, but soon abandoned them. They were filled with false sentiments, lies concocted to hide and ease all too present pains. These men and women did not need these things. They did not need the burden of false hope. They needed perspective.

“I won’t bother to sweeten things,” I said. “I’m not going to lie, or sell you false hope. It is not right, and it will not work. The truth is, Humanity is in shambles. Who do you place the blame upon? The inventor and his machine?” There was a sporadic nodding from the silent crowd. I countered, “He is an easy target, no doubt. So was Oppenheimer and his bomb.” This confused the crowd. “Neither of these men can attest to the actions carried out by the intent of those whose hands were placed at both switches. It is, however, at our feet. Every one of us, myself included, sought dreams of glory and triumph through violence– To prove ourselves in a challenge that we would never face, to bolster our egos.” I lost the crowd a little, with these remarks. No matter, I continued on. “It is partially the inventor’s blame, you say, for it was his machine that malfunctioned. This too, is a false sentiment. Perhaps the blame may lie solely at his feet, perhaps he has wished this plague upon the world. I have my doubts. As I look out, I see inside, that so do a great many of you. No, we all know the truth; it is our own fault. Each in our individual way, and collectively, our egos craved an ever-increasing boost.”

I paused to look out among the faces, many worse the wear for my words. It did not matter, morale or not, no man, woman, or child, would have stopped trying to survive. After a tense moment, I resumed my words. “So what is the solution, then? Give our ego the boost of a life time. Give Humanity’s collective ego a boost for the books. Let us look at this honestly, admit that we’ve made a mistake, and paid for it, and fix it.”

A slight applause began to creep from the crowd. It started slow, a few people here and there, before building to a courteous clamor. It erupted suddenly into a full-on roar, the group finally feeling the impact of my words.

“Many have given their lives to fix it, and we have all made payment for it. We live in fear, cowering, remorseful, wallowing in our own pity. This is not the time to make fools of ourselves! Let us win the day! Let us earn that one final boost, erase our mistake from the page, and continue on. Let us eradicate these damned swarms! Are we going to let these tiny bastards push us around?”

A chorus of “No!” gripped the bolstered crowd.

“Or bring us down?”

No!”

“Or scare us into living like caged animals?”

No!”

“Then get your asses ready, and let’s take this fight to them!”

A thunderous applause erupted. My Colleague raised a fist, thrusting it into the air with defiance. The others joined in, chanting a rhythmic “No!” The dozen militia members charged off for the waiting vehicles, and headed for the station. My own fervor got the better of me; I too charged off, my colleague fast behind me. We started the trucks and tore off through the neighborhoods, onto the rural roads. Sprinted for the main road in front of the substation, setting up a defensive line.

My colleague and I gave the militia their orders; distract the masses to buy us time to plant our explosives. They inched nearer the substation, and my colleague and I set off for a path ’round the back. We made our way to a point along the side, and infiltrated through a tree-line there. The first shots came from the militia. We hastily cut our way through the fence surrounding the station, climbed through for the smallest transformers, grouped together in one section of the area. The shots grew louder, more numerous as the seconds passed. There was no time to fear what might be happening. We planted the explosives on the first transformers, moved to the mid-sized ones.

The plan was to overload the largest grouping by taking out the conduits that would dampen their charge. This required all of the smallest, and several of the mid-sized transformers to be destroyed.

We rigged the last charges, and made our retreat. Back on the road, we were taken by a terrifying sight. It froze us mid-stride, our minds unbelieving of our eyes. A massive swarm, continually transformed its shape as it threw cloud-like fists upon the militia. Bodies lay slumped over trucks, some thrown back on the road in puddles of blood. We watched on, aghast. The swarm threw a cloud at one man on a truck. He flew backward, to the ground. It advanced on him with a second cloud. He clambered to regain his footing. In his confusion he missed his chance to dodge. The impact slammed the man’s body into the road, threw small chunks of asphalt into the air. His corpse had been pulverized. He was done for, but a few others remained. We had to act.

My Colleague and I snapped from our trances, hurried to our truck and signaled a retreat. I jumped on the gun to engage the mass. It turned its sights from the fleeing militia to us. I fired inexhaustibly. The truck accelerated, flew forward at an alarming rate. My shots became erratic, missing by miles. The truck burst through the station’s high, front gate throwing me forward.

The swarm gave chase, toward the center of the clearing between the transformers. The truck stopped, my colleague climbed up into the back. The swarm descended rapidly.

“It is good to have known you, my friend,” He said. He smiled a wicked smile, as only a man crazed by the exhilaration of sacrifice could.

“You as well,” I said with a slight bow of my head.

I let out a battle cry, and fired the weapon. My shots hit the swarm that encompassed my vision, but dislodged little of its individual flecks. My friend lifted the detonator from his pocket, flicked a switch. We flung ourselves to our bellies in the bed of the truck. Fireballs erupted on either side of us, searing the area. The swarm gave pause.

Then, with a sound of building electricity, the final transformers overloaded. The swarm, confused by the explosions, stood motionless as the largest transformers blasted apart. A tidal wave of electricity accompanied fireballs and debris that engulfed the area. The gun’s batteries in the bed exploded. Lead-acid sprayed our clothes, burned us, but we dared rise until the swarm had collapsed.

And collapse it did! The electrical wave burst forth, and the swarm surged. It burst into flames like a mortar around us. Electrical arcs discharged into the truck, nearby by metallic surfaces, and melted the gun’s barrel above. The scent of burning rubber mixed with a thousand acrid fumes that spewed skyward in plumes of smoke.

Then, with a final, crackling of electricity, that beautiful rain of embers began once more.

My Colleague and I, pained from the burning acid and choked by the flames, rose to our knees. We watched the swarm burn and fall to dust on the ground. We laughed, cheered with giddy delight, hugged in a celebratory manner as two men who’ve conquered such a beast against our odds might. The day had been won, Humanity the victor.

Epilogue

In the days and weeks that followed the defeat of the massive swarm, we were able to reclaim much of the city and begin rebuilding what had been lost. Though the lives of many were irreplaceable, few felt it a price they couldn’t live with. It was not a foolish sentiment in the least. For either because of many combined factors, or just that fateful speech before the fight, many saw the true villain behind the swarms: It wasn’t the machines that had malfunctioned, and it wasn’t a man who’d built them poorly, it was ourselves. Each and every one of us had contributed to the near-fatal destruction wrought upon our species and our civilization. In each our own way, we learned the dreadful power of our own egos. In this knowledge, a new-found kindness and concern for one another emerged. No person went hungry, homeless, nor without aid in our new city.

Whether or not there are swarms left beyond our little crook in the world, I cannot yet say. No one has since ventured too far into the outskirts. There is no mass-communication left– the swarms have seen to that. As well, we have no time to. When reconstruction is over, we will move toward neighboring cities in search of survivors, and to provide aide and weaponry if need be.

Few things are certain of the human condition, save these points: Firstly, there is triumph in the human spirit that can be found when others suffer unduly. And that beneath all of our desires for greatness, all of our wants to be best, strongest; there is an aching desire to band together as one, and see that boost of pride passed on– At least, in some ways. For Humanity is both its own worst enemy and its greatest ally, and its dreams both beautiful and nightmarish.

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