Chapter 38: Failsafe
“Deena!” He grabbed her and forced her to look at him. Her eyes were wide with terror. “Deena, look at me. Focus!” He shook her.
She calmed a bit. He brushed her long red hair back out of her eyes. “Easy. I’m here. Talk to me.” He kept his left arm around her, but with his right, he stroked her face. Whatever had frightened her had broken right through her reserve. He feared the worst. She was a strong person.
“I’m right here. Tell me.”
She blinked, coming out of her self-induced trance. A timid smile came and went. He felt her straighten up. He released his grip on her, reluctantly.
After a deep breath, she said, “I saw it.”
“What did you see?”
“The asteroid. Luther, they’re going to drop an asteroid on us. All because of me!”
They sat at the computer in the back of the Internet Cafe in Fresno. It was morning on a weekday. They had the place to themselves.
The peril to San Francisco was totally forgotten. They had something more important to worry about.
Luther spelled it out. “An asteroid that size could destroy all life on the planet. Of course, the blast would wipe out everything for thousands of miles. But what’s worse are the long term effects. There would be secondary fires everywhere. So much dust and smoke would be thrown up into the atmosphere that the sun would be blocked out, for years! All crops would die. Winter would come to the whole planet. Everything would freeze.
“It’s just like what wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe some life would survive. But it would reset the planet’s ecology back to the beginning.”
Deena made calculations, converting the time and distance measurements the nanobots used into human units.
She gave him the distance and he searched the NASA online database of NEO’s, Near Earth Objects.
“I can’t imagine anyone doing something so horrible. They would be killing billions. Maybe everyone.”
Luther kept his eyes on the screen. “Does the sin scale with the body count? Once they started on this project, they knew they would kill people. It was important to them to knock us back to the Iron Age. It’s not too surprising that if that failed, plan ‘B’ would be to blast us back to the Stone Age.”
Deena sagged back into her chair. “It’s all my fault. They’re only doing this because they detected me giving them new orders.”
“No, it’s not at all your fault!” He was angry. “How could it be? Nanobots were their idea. The asteroid was their idea. Hurting us was their idea. I’ve got no patience with evil people putting their guilt onto the victim!
“It’s no more your fault for triggering their failsafe that it is the fault of the kid who steps on an old hidden landmine in some long abandoned battlefield.”
Deena was shocked by the outburst. Then she understood. What had happened in those torture sessions? What twisted arguments had Drye tried on Luther while Thompson was cutting up Katy’s face? What scars had he left on Luther’s soul?
Luther hit the keys hard as he worked. His words were hard as he talked.
“The aliens want to undercut our technology. You didn’t volunteer to be their warrior, no more than Ruben volunteered to tear down his master’s house.
“It’s all the aliens’ fault. First for putting the nanobots here, then for being so sloppy with their planning.”
“What do you mean, sloppy?” she asked softly.
He clicked on a picture icon and a radar image of an asteroid appeared on the web page. “Is this the one?”
She looked over the blurry image and shook her head. “No. It’s long, not round.”
He nodded and went on down the list.
“Sloppy?” she prompted.
“Yes, sloppy! I’m starting to think that the nanobots aren’t even their technology. I mean, think about it. From what you told me, the nanobots are designed carefully. They never get out of control. No gray-goo catastrophe for their creators. There’s no universal assembler that’s self-contained and can create itself.
“The brain-bots give the orders. Database-bots have the schematics. Scavenger-bots gather the raw materials. And finally, the assembler is just a tool that puts the nanobots together. Many different schematics to make many different versions of the robots. No simple mistake can turn it into a devouring monster. If biological life had that many constraints, we would never have lasted a billion years.
“And think about how important orders are to them! Without orders, they self-destruct. That’s what you said, right?”
Deena leaned back in her chair. She crossed her hands on her lap. “Yes. Katy’s repair was very simple, really. I had them rebuild her according to her DNA, and then once they did that, they just unzipped their structure and her body cells cleaned up the pieces.”
“So that’s what I’m talking about. Nanobots are very well designed. They are efficient, powerful, and have lots of safety constraints.
“Now think about our aliens’ plan. Use the native animals to contribute to their own destruction, and then take no precautions when connecting to their brain cells.
“I mean, they must have thought about the possibility of host brains feeding their own orders into the system—otherwise why have this asteroid failsafe system in place for that eventuality.
“Okay, I grant it’s a plan, but why not just make a rule to never connect to a brain any larger than a frog’s.
“If the nanobots are really the aliens’ technology, why not make them loyal? From what we’ve seen, nanobots take orders from you, and maybe even Ruben! How hard would it be to add a security code? Dumb!”
He pointed to the screen, “This one?”
She gasped. “Yes. That’s it.”
On the screen, an animated image of the spindle-shaped rock tumbled end over end. The text described its mapping. On its previous closest approach to Earth, scientists had used the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to map the two-mile long worldlet.
“It looks pretty deserted,” she said. Craters covered the terrain.
“The closest details they have are still hundreds of meters across. We’re not going to see anything.”
He frowned at the image.
“But I just don’t see how they’re going to make it hit the Earth. According to this orbital projection, it will make a close approach to the Moon shortly, but it will come nowhere near here.”
She gazed at the tumbling asteroid. It was a repeating video clip. “Here!” She stabbed at the image, and then said, “No. Can you stop it?”
He clicked a button on the browser. The image froze.
“Right here. That’s where they’re working.”
She traced her fingernail across the narrow waist of the asteroid.
“They’re digging, honeycombing the rock, making it weaker.”
“They’re splitting it!”
“Breaking it apart,” she finished almost at the same moment.
He switched to the table showing orbital data, estimated mass and the like.
“I don’t have enough information. NASA notes that it is tumbling faster than any other asteroid of its class. I’d bet the nanobots did that somehow. But if the direction of its tumble was in the right direction, one of the pieces just might pass close enough to the Moon....” He drifted off, considering the possibilities.
Sometimes Deena just needed a few words from him to add clarity to the information she was getting from the distant redwood grove. She put her hand on his arm.
“You’re right. The asteroid will split. One piece will swing by the Moon, lunar gravity bending its orbit enough to hit the Earth. About a year later, the other piece will be in position to hit as well.”
He sat back in the chair. “A one-two punch. I can’t imagine the calculations necessary to make that come off.”
“Oh, they can do it. The asteroid is riddled with little chambers, full of nanobots, doing nothing but orbit estimates.”
He frowned. “Do they have precise enough measurements of the orbits?”
She could tell he was looking for a loophole. Something to cause their plan to fail.
“Sorry, the surface is covered with optical sensors. They work together, somehow, to make highly detailed images.”
He waved through the air, “Now we know how they knew about San Francisco and the San Andreas Fault. With a two-mile long optical baseline, they could clearly see small details. It’s like an telescope with a lens two miles wide!”
She laughed. “Physics class! What was that equation?”
He rattled it off, “Dawes Limit! Let me look it up.” He went to the search engine.
As quickly as he read out the equation, she did the math. “When it came as close as two million miles away on that other pass, the nanobots could see things as small as two feet wide on the surface of the Earth.”
“Mr. Fenner would be proud.”
Then his smile faded. “So the nanobots probably know their orbit precisely. They know they can cut the asteroid in two and use the Moon to bend its path towards the Earth. They know they can hit us.
“So, what are you going to do to stop them?” he asked.
He turned around to face her. He took each of her hands in his.
“Yes, Deena. Right now, aliens have declared war on the human race, and you are our only warrior. The weapons are nanobots, but a gun can point both directions.
“You are the only human who can control them. You are our only defender. In this war, you are the human race, Deena.”