Volume 15, Number 03, Summer, 1997


The Blue Light

By Kent Hastings

Earth Union helmets set our insectoid drones buzzing. The alarm signaled a "Blue Hat Special", another target for Granny. Gunfire from her singleshot controller echoed at full volume throughout the bunker.

“Christ, that’s loud. They could trace that audio. Turn up your hearing amp,” I complained.

The grisly scene on the display, red gushing between a globalist’s eyes, made us chuckle. Got one!

Licensed broadcasters would soon fill the globe with calls for the Governors to take immediate action against the Burmese warriors. A lack of enthusiasm would prompt warnings against isolationist poison. Pirate stations would politely urge the Union to get out.

“Appeasement never works”. Granny actually believed this bit of Union propaganda, from the Confederate point of view. Above all, she sought revenge on the bastards for killing her family during the War of Annexation.

The local agents of civilized order and international peace were busy trying to crush our humble trading post with all the force they could muster. We were presently stalemated.

Smugglers at the informal market of Diamante exchanged cash for contraband with the native Burmese. The term “Confederacy” lost its stigma here when Myanmar, and most of the other sovereign governments, fell to Union aggression twenty years ago.

Granny was an old “syster”, the owner of a computerized money laundry, operating in several jurisdictions. Those tax havens were singled out first by Earth Force, for thwarting Global Income Tax collection.

The initial rate was a reasonable 1 percent, merely to protect environment and bring some relief to the poor. Today, the most prosperous citizens paid 82 percent GIT, not including national, provincial, county, and city taxes, regulations, and two weeks’ unpaid labor each year in Earth Serve.

The wealthy were outnumbered, and as a class, shrinking. Three quarters of the world’s people had no direct access to simple phone service before the Earth Union. Half had yet to have their first phone conversation. When class warfare finally rang, many answered the call: “Give us Equality, or we’ll kill you.”

Universal service brings telecommunications to everyone, but privacy is outlawed. Only terrorists and hoarders of wealth need secrecy. Honest citizens of the world have nothing to hide.

I wanted to hide the failure of the Skye missiles I sold to the residents of Mandalay. Right now, they didn’t even explode. I discovered the hard way, that the defense towers in place around the Union camp zapped anything larger than a bumblebee. The towers used lasers, microwaves, and just to be safe, high velocity pellets. They destroyed every missile so far, no matter how many I launched at once.

“Rimbaud Goldensun”, the native militia leader said, as he called for reports from the local defense committees. “The Treasurer of this company won’t pay you any more unless those damn things start working. Didn’t you say that missiles were just lengths of pipe with propellant and explosive? You can’t even get e–powder to explode? Let me give you a hint, add lots of water.”

“I know that. The missiles are too big to sneak through their automatic defenses. Smaller ones wouldn’t do any damage. I’m cutting my losses exploding what's left, just out of range. The noise might unsettle them.”

“The crap you call music would do more damage, Granny?” The militia leader went down the roster.

Bug guns were originally used by the kids, on the theory that none better could play video games. When their attentions wandered, I suggested that old farts, who didn’t sleep much, and had good cause for revenge, would pursue their mission with the greatest dedication. At least one idea of mine worked well.

After the company broke into squad meetings, I excused myself and escorted Granny out of the rented hall in the city, back towards our bunker.

Nights in Mandalay had been warm and clear this summer. Chimes hanging in residential yards softly announced the light breezes. A statue of Aung San Suu Kyi stood at the edge of a park, over a description of her Nobel Peace Prize.

The World Government Center, on State Street downtown, could be seen in the distance. The backlit emblem of an eagle circling in orbit with the moon, its claws reaching for the Earth, must inspire the bureaucrats to grasp for more power.

The olive branches on the side were intended to soften the image, but the effect for me was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Before national and corporate enterprises were globalized, the old AT&T "Death Star" logo would’ve won my prize for the most threatening image. "Have you ever had your phones tapped by the government? YOU WILL."

Communications and transportation wore controlled from the top of the power chain. Bridges linked Alaska and Russia, allowing tourists to drive across five continents. Sometimes, losing all the border guards and passports didn’t seem like such a bad outcome, until the loss of liberty, under a single jackboot, was added to the price.

The Confederates had lost Earth. But none of us could escape until the local Union camp, and its antimissile defenses, were destroyed. I couldn’t wait to dock with my wife, Emma, in one of the new space colonies.

Back underground, I clicked a location on my controller. A Skye missile erupted from its random position, darting evasively to its destination, just out of range of the Union camp, then exploded. The shock rattled glass and loose objects. An arrow against all tyrants.

Next, I launched two missiles, one about twenty meters ahead of the other, set to explode in order. A nice double whammy.

Then I decided to experiment. If I couldn’t overwhelm their defenses with several unexploded missiles at once, maybe a few explosions could make some progress.

About fifty missiles launched and exploded in order, gradually approaching one of the Union defense towers. A few Skyes made it into enemy territory not reached before, but the remaining missiles were knocked out without exploding.

The few hundred I had available all launched. This time, I staggered the pattern. Some would backtrack, and some would attempt to move forward. The defense tower had trouble selecting missiles out of the background of ever closer explosions. The last twenty explosions were on target. One of three towers were gone, two to go.

Brad Neeley and I served in the Earth Force together. Fear of globalism seemed paranoid until the day we received the orders to conduct house-to-house searches, and to confiscate all civilian weapons. Brad stayed in the service to hijack military supplies for the militia groups.

Brad sent us e-powder, a nano-engineered source of energy, which made our underground space program possible. Regular chemistry would have made the Skyes larger, but they might have worked anyway. Most of our military hardware was assembled under the table, using off the shelf parts.

The old fogies kept the blue hats out of sight. Confederates wore civilian clothing. Kids old enough to be scouts planted missiles for future launches, in and around Mandalay.

One fine summer day at high noon, a thousand Skyes exploded the remaining defense towers, all the tanks, and the largest structures in the Earth Union camp. A blue fluid, released from containment by an explosion, went unnoticed.

Smugglers herded their families to assigned space vehicles, simple delta capsules called Komanchis, fueled by e-powder. The ceilings of the makeshift silos were demolished in an elegant fashion.

Rockets in the singlestage craft developed tremendous force as the hyperreactive e-powder combined with H20. Water merely acted as an "on" switch for the nano-engineered material, its flow controlled the thrust.

During the ascent, some of the new colonists were puzzled by a growing area of pure blue light, centered in the Union camp.

It didn’t matter now, the space monkeys were safe. Killer satellites would only provoke another attack by all of the space colonies. The Earth Union would deal with the anarchist spacers later.

I helped Granny shoot the blue hats attacking Diamante. Both our displays started to fail, blanked out by a jamming signal with blue video. Then static filled the displays. The bunker suddenly filled with a bright blue light, and then sunlight.

How could months of digging and pouring concrete be undone without an explosion? Granny and I stared at the open hole in the ceiling. The tunnel we normally used to reach the city ended abruptly at the surface, which was now much closer. We walked outside.

Our camp was gone. No structure remained. The last Komanchi locked partially eaten in its silo, as though dissolved by a strong acid.

The ground had been scooped up, and polished in silence. The Earth Union camp seemed to be the center of a giant bowl that included most of Mandelay.

Blue aircraft spotted us and landed. Nowhere to hide. Uniformed blue hats emerged and held us still. A woman wearing a white lab coat, with the letters PANL stitched over a molecular tinker toy design on a patch, approached us. She rolled up our sleeves and gave both of us an injection. We were forced into separate aircraft. I never saw Granny again.

"Lay him down," the lab rat directed the soldiers. They placed me in a stretcher. She addressed me. "We're taking you back to the U.S." For interrogation, no doubt.

"The medication will help you sleep." The injected arm felt funny, it was becoming stiff and unresponsive. Then the rest of me started to freeze up. I couldn’t move at all. I blacked out.

Management thought the fiber monitors wore secure. Outsiders couldn’t tap into company newsfeeds. The bosses didn’t know about Richard Overton, a technician on contract with the Palo Alto Nanosystems Laboratory. He "fixed" the internal comm lines, giving himself unlimited access, without an audit trail.

Dr. Renata Presley considered the vulnerabilities of her medical system. A holoprojector displayed a standard PANL replicating assembler, with her improvements. Representations of blue photons emerged and seemed to move away from the model to other locations, while other photons arrived and were absorbed.

Assemblers could poll their neighbors, but to coordinate the repair of an organ or systems throughout the body, would require trillions of message handoffs consuming too much energy and time.

Dr. Presley’s solution combined Web protocols, quantum cryptography of matched photons, and a molecular scale version of a blue laser, one for each assembler. This made rapid assembly of very large objects a practical reality.

But it was unsafe. If a software bug, such as forgetting to decrement the generation counter, caused a classic out of control "gray goo" condition, there was no way to stop her current design. She needed an "off" switch. A strong pseudonoise program from the Web was a good start.

She opened the door to her office and caught an intruder using her workstation.

"Overton. Do you mind?" she asked.

"Check this out. Look familiar?" He invited her to watch a video file.

Missiles exploded in a military base. Homebrew space craft wore launched. A blank area, with an unmistakable blue glow, swallowed the base and much of a large city.

"The city of Mandalay, in Burma." Overton added.

The file ended with a shot of a giant crater that looked like a shiny parabolic dish. The only cause that made sense was her nanotech design.

Medical devices reprogrammed for genocide. Betrayal was a weak term for this. Dr. Presley thought about the ten years she worked in a small cubicle on a crowded floor, spending half her time on clerical tasks. Then suddenly, she gets her own plush office and a promotion. She should have suspected that something wasn’t right.

"I can post this on every newsfeed on the Web," Overton offered.

"Don’t tell anyone else about this, Richard. I'll handle it. You book passage to a space colony for both of us. We’ll need it." Renata decided.

"It's a date, Dr. Presley. I’m all over it."

"Or full of it. Thanks for showing me this file. For once, a horrible weapon might never be used."

"What about Mandalay?"

Dr. Presley implemented the planned safety features, with some new enhancements. Renata then released a replicating disassembler, designed to recognize, and quickly destroy, all artificial molecular machines.

The new assemblers would only work in the presence of a radio transmission, modulated by an unpredictable code. Disassemblers within reach of the same signal would be temporarily disabled. Otherwise, the disassemblers were timed to prevent all nanotechnology from functioning, for exactly two hundred years.

Overton almost ran into Renata, pulling her to the display. A new video file taken inside an aircraft, revealed a prisoner in experimental room temperature biostasis. Information was stored in an amberlike substance spread evenly throughout the body, to allow future reconstruction of living organs, including memories in brain tissue.

The waxy figure wore a Confederate T-shirt under his vest. Dr. Presley’s boss appeared briefly, checking on the mummy. They must be returning from that site in Burma.

"Richard, we should make room for another passenger."

Overton browsed management reports, a habit acquired when his career began on night shifts. Bosses didn’t make an effort to inform graveyard workers about company events. Snooping was the only way to find out what was going on.

From that innocent beginning, espionage became more rewarding. There was a market for inside information, especially from a classified bomb factory like PANL.

When Overton’s bank account was seized by Global Equalization for no good reason, any allegiance to Earth Union was forfeited also. Richard became an asset to the Confederates.

Spies at other institutions altered the official database, reversed the forfeiture, restored his money, and removed all trace of activity. With his newly cleaned record, Overton’s low bid got him a contract with PANL.

A clandestine search of PANL contracts with Earth Force, revealed an interesting project. Stealthy craft would hide in the solar system, with all the dangerous new weapons they could hold. When the signal to act arrived, the spy ships would open fire on rebel settlements. Lethal versions of Dr. Presley’s device, and other fine products of eutactic mechanosynthosis, were included. The first ship was ready to launch, from a location in San Jose.

"Renata, I found a ship. Where’s that prisoner?"

I regained consciousness, but couldn’t see or move.

"Don’t panic, Rimbaud. You’ll be fixed soon," a female voice said. I hoped that didn’t mean castration.

"Welcome to the 23rd century 2234 AD." She continued, "Your guess is as good as mine concerning current events outside. Your ship is hidden at the position tagged in the map file. Oh, you don’t know me, I’m Renata Presley, the designer of the devices used to wipe out your camp. Sorry about that. When I discovered how my work was corrupted, I disabled all molecular computing. In one year, the disassemblers in the solar system will expire, and nanotechnology will work again, on the grandest scale, instead of only in your ship. I saved a list of useful application designs in a document labeled 'suggestions'. This recording is called 'wakeup'. If I have myself frozen, we may meet in person someday. Otherwise, I hope freedom will triumph in your lifetime."

I sat up, and scanned the ship's interior. A receiver detected children's voices on radio, but no broadcasts or business. Maybe serious radio used very directional beams these days, or signals were spread across the entire spectrum. Perhaps radio was just a relic for history students, replaced by a new mode of communications. The other equipment seemed in good order. A holoprojector displayed an intricate chemical model.

I stood up, and was able to lift my arm. Beneath the skin I could see the glow of a blue light.

Kent Hastings lives in Los Angeles. He is acknowledged in Free Space as "Doc Technical," for helping design the book's universe.

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