Friday, November 30, 2012

Nanobots in the lawn.



Simone peered out the front window, wishing she was dressed. The yard man had arrived, disrupting the quiet serenity of her staid but upscale neighborhood. He got out and slammed the door as usual. Even through the walls she could hear the crackle of the radio speakers. Drat that man! But she was in no mood to be hurried, and if nothing else, their lawn was well looked-after.

While the service was expensive even by her standards, the people they sent around left a little something to be desired in the couth department. Suddenly, unable to control the impulse, she opened up the door, and stuck her head out awkwardly.

“Sir! Sir! Mister Fred!” She called out, but the man couldn’t hear her, apparently. She glumly closed the door, being fairly certain that the fellow wouldn’t have had the nerve to simply ignore her. With one more glance out the little peep-hole, she watched as he prepared to get to work. Then the lady of the house went back to her toilette; as this morning routine held great significance in determining her mood-of-the-day.

Outside, Fred as usual ignored the red-plastered stickers all over the tanks and equipment. He had been a licensed sprayer for ten years. Everyone had to sit through interminable safety meetings when they were hired, and once a year in the springtime, just before the season really got going. Usual nonsense; don’t drink it, don’t get it in your eyes, stuff like that. Do not apply directly to skin. Don’t snort it, he thought with a rueful grimace. In this job there was just no way you weren’t going to get some of the chemicals and stuff on you from time to time. There was simply no way around it. Thank the good Lord that it wasn’t liquid pig manure or something old-fashioned like that. Yesterday Fred had gotten splashed in the crotch, and it had been windy and cool, downright uncomfortable it had been. Luckily he kept a spare pair of coveralls in the truck, rolled-up under the seat.

The stuff he was applying to the Wheatley’s lawn today was the latest rage among suburban clients; who placed a high priority on carpet-like swaths of greensward. Some of them could be a little unreasonable in fact; expecting thick grass right up to the base of tree, where shade and a lack of rainfall made it almost impossible. Some of these people were nuts about the patchy sod up under the dry, leeward side of their homes. Fred couldn’t be expected to be there every day to water it. The homeowner had to do some work.

He winced as it came on the radio again, every twenty minutes so far this week.

Baytown was a small marketplace and radio air-time came cheap in a recession.

“Nanobots, nanobots, happy are we,

“Buy us once, and we work for free,

“Nanobots, nanobots, in your lawn,

“We kill the bugs, and their spawn,

“No more weeds, on a sunny day,

“Nanobots, nanobots, service all the way!”

“Buy ‘em once and never have to weed or spray your lawn again!” The announcer concluded, as the music faded away.

Fred Thorsen couldn’t get the company’s crazy little jingle out of his head. The forty-something single father of two little girls had a pretty naïve mental picture of a pill-capsule-shaped critter, complete with six metallic, double-articulated legs, and a couple of lenses on the front end. Tiny, mechanical, robot things, with funny-looking waving antennae. Yes; curved mandibles for gripping, and some kind of a stinger on the back end. The notion that they were built of molecule-thin structures was only of limited interest to the beer-guzzling, football and TV-poker watching Fred. Their spring radio blitz had just hit the airwaves, and the truck Fred had been assigned to could only pick up their local AM station, as the antenna was busted off. The guys at the shop said the things were so small they could crawl around inside your blood vessels and you would never know the difference. It was all just product to Fred.

This wasn’t the greatest job in the world, but it was the only one he had. When the company bought the franchise, they were supposed to switch over to shiny, specially-cooled metal tanks to keep out heat and sunlight. Okay, those tanks were very costly. But they didn’t do it—the owners were too cheap, or too stupid. It wasn’t Fred’s problem if the stuff went bad or something. Anyhow, it seemed to work pretty well so far, and if the customers were happy, then so was Fred.

All these thoughts went through Fred’s mind as he puttered about, getting gloves and funnels, wrenches and oil cans out of the big bin on the side of the truck. None of this was actually needed, but if you finished up your day too soon, they might find you another clutch of work-orders; and then you were sure to be late home for dinner. Fred would be having a couples of frozen Salisbury-steak TV dinners, eaten off of a plate instead of out of the shiny foil trays. With a couple of cold Black Label’s, a dinner a man could look forward to. Truth is, he liked those dinners.

Every freakin’ Friday, he had to attend the obligatory sales meeting, complete with coffee and doughnuts, as well as genuinely stupid motivational talks. Every week, one department or another had to put on a sketch, or a skit, or some kind of comedy act.

Banjo-playing clowns were pretty much done to death. The client service department’s turn was coming up in two weeks. Fred felt a sick sense of dread at the prospect. The company’s management wanted them to be like one big, happy family.

“A mom and pop atmosphere in the workplace.” It was in their mission statement.

As he unrolled the air hose to charge the tanks for the applicator; a nice green power source for the rotating distributor heads, he reflected for the seventeenth time that he wanted out. No one ever questioned it, but the air was compressed by electricity, which came from the very same place as everyone else’s did.

In spite of all the scientific, high-tech talk, it was one of the most boring jobs in the world after a while. Nanobots were the result of decades of scientific research, he knew, lifting the wide-mouthed screw-cap off of the semi-transparent white plastic tank. The slurry, or “applicate,” as it was referred to in lawn-care jargon, looked and smelled pretty much as it always did. It was its usual dull, olive or mossy green colour, and the reassuring aroma of fresh, wet, humus wafted up to his nostrils. There was just the slightest hint of ferment.

All seemed well, as he opened up the valves, and engaged the pump. He filled the tank on the remote unit right to the brim. This account, the Wheatley’s, had a frontage of seventy-five metres, and composed at least a hectare of beautifully kept turf, stretching out behind the long, lean, brown-brick ranch house, deceptive in its low lines, but it had to be twenty-five metres across the front, and almost cathedral-like inside. He had once been allowed to stand in the hall, and a rather imperious lady of the house had given him a tall glass of lemonade as if to prove that the plebeians were never far from her heart and her thoughts.

“Yes, she probably prays for me.” He chuckled at the thought.

The unmanned, powered applicator moved off the end of the ramp of the trailer, as he carefully guided it with the infra-red hand-held controller device; not unlike a modeler’s radio control unit. He could make it go anywhere and apply just about anything. The mid-range blaring of its pumps and rotors cut through the late May stillness. Fred lowered his hearing protection, grateful for the new lightweight hard hats the company was providing this year. Arriving at the nearest corner of the lawn, he paused the machine after careful alignment. Fred rolled up his sleeves, as the day was quickly warming up. That was the way of it, he thought, idly scratching an itchy spot on his left forearm, and continuing to meditate. First thing in the morning, it’s as cold as hell, then you get to sweat your backside off. Picking up the controller from on top of the applicator unit’s shrouding, Fred got down to brass tacks; and began to run the machine back and forth, around and around on the Wheatley’s extensive lawn. The itching on his left arm was still there.

Probably an early-season mosquito, the hard-working lawn-care man reckoned, not paying it another thought. The fact that when showering this morning; he had noticed a pretty big pink patch, the beginnings of a rash on his left thigh; had been completely forgotten. A big handful of Gold Bond had cured up that itch pretty well.

Poor old Fred didn’t know it, but he was already a dead man. The nanobots were built of organic and inorganic molecules. In order to be able to recognize organisms, the nano-computers that made up their brains were based on organic models. They had to be able to smell their prey, and differentiate between grass and weeds. In order to self-replicate like good little von Neumann machines ought, they had been designed to breed and to provide nesting and brooding care to their offspring. And it was crucial that they did not mutate, under the excess heat of the sun, with the sun’s rays filtered by the translucent plastic of the old-style tanks. Left too long in the heat of the day, their little nano-brains had become just a little bit scrambled, and their normal appetites had changed, to the extent that they were capable and even desirous of taking down some bigger game.

***

Simone heard a crashing thump against the outside wall of her private dressing room. She leapt out of her chair in front of the vanity. Clutching her peignoir closer around her throat, the lady stumbled a bit as she trod on one of Hank’s tattered slippers, always left in the same place when he was through dressing. She peered out through the sheer white nylon window covers of the back bedroom window, but could see nothing.

She clothed herself with one of Hank’s thick bathrobes, and headed for the kitchen, and the rear dining room doorway. She could hear the lawn man out there. The distinctive note of the cute little robo-tractor he used was close by the house. Sliding open the patio door, she idly wondered if he had hit a tree, meaning to speak to him about it. Simone’s landscaping efforts had recently been rewarded with an Honourable Mention in the local Master Gardeners annual photo contest, sponsored by a nursery in the local area. She had made page four in the lifestyles segment of the local daily. Quite a feather in her cap.

The yard man was nowhere to be seen, and nonplussed; she regarded the chuff-chuffing machine, as it rocked and vibrated about a half-metre away from her bedroom wall. While still running, it seemed to be in some kind of pause or readiness mode.

Shading her eyes from the glaring hot sun, she peered about. Where in the name of blazes was the lawn-care guy? Good help was so hard to find these days.

Her attention was drawn by a blood-curdling snuffling and moaning noise, guttural sobs, and incoherent mouthings from behind their three-car garage. Just as she was looking around for a stout stick, a weapon of some type before going out there, the whimpers rose to a crescendo. She stepped back through the open doorway.

“Hank? Hank!” she barked, hoping her husband would be a little quicker on his feet than usual…God, Hank was getting so slow and stupid these days.

The blood-curdling moans from the back yard made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She felt a cold flush quiver through her from head to toe. The rush of fear quickly turned to anger.

“Hank!” she bellowed, infuriated. No response from the other room, barely nine metres away. Suddenly came the thud of footsteps on damp turf, and bursting out from behind the cover of the garage, what had once been Fred Thorsen ran at breakneck speed.

Simone stared, rooted to the spot.

Fred covered about twenty metres, and smacked face-first into the trunk of the biggest tree in the yard with a sloppy sound, like a gob of pudding falling out of the bowl and onto the floor. She gasped as the man flopped down into the grass. Simone was stunned by the fact that he had bounced. She noted her own objectivity in a kind of horror, as the man just lay there, so still, so limp and so flat—as if he were dead. She had never thought a man could bounce like that. The horror of it was numbing. She realized vaguely that she was in shock, and she thought maybe the lawn care man was dead…Oh, God!

“Hank! Hank!” She shouted at her husband, dozing in his chair in the front room, with yesterday’s and this morning’s papers all scattered around on the floor beside him.


End

This story also appears in the Spanish-language Axxon, as 'Nanobots en el Cesped.'   Top Photo: Wiki Commons. Willow Gabriel and Bob Goldstein. http://tardigrades.bio.unc.edu/   Lower: Wiki Commons. DBCLS. http://lifesciencedb.jp/resource_icon/icon.cgi?i=Echiniscus&t=L    

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