AntipodeanSF Issue 308

By Kevin J. Phyland

I woke suddenly in the almost-dark. Some noise had brought me from slumber, more by its unusual nature than its volume, and I strained, listening for it.

I finally found it and separated it from the background noises of outer suburbia. It was a faint crackling. Like covert footfalls in a thin layer of frost on a meticulously trimmed lawn.

Staring from my first floor window into my vacant lot next door, a silvery crescent moon illuminated the short, winter-dead grass at a shallow angle to the west. I could vaguely make out what looked like thick snail trails, ruler-straight, along lines of flattened grass.

It looked almost like a plan view of a structure. My mind threw up another possibility for the sound. It was much like I imagined the sound a million caterpillars would make if you could hear them chewing.

It was a bit after five in the a.m. And I was due at the rag's office at seven, where I was a reporter cum dogsbody. The Stansfield Observer was not the Washington Post but I occasionally got a few local colour pieces in, so I dressed hurriedly, grabbed my camera, took a few establishing shots from my window and went downstairs.

Outside it was a chilly August morning and a car was idling in front of the lot, (which I had subdivided a few years prior), exhaust fumes or steam purring out in a contrail of vapour. The driver saw me and lobbed a wadded up piece of paper over the top of their car towards me and drove sedately off.

I picked it up. 'Stan', it read, 'meet me at Gafia Cafe at 10am. Take some pictures of your lot on your phone and bring them.' It was unsigned.

I went over to the short wire fence surrounding my lot and peered at the silvery markings on the ground. Did they look a bit...taller? I went back upstairs to grab a shower and my phone.

By sunrise the lot had gathered a bit of a crowd. A gaggle of primary school kids on bikes were discussing what was being built there, but most of the conversation was on how it was being built.

By now it was clear that some sort of skeletal building was rising from the ground along what was now most assuredly a floor plan. The outer walls were almost ten centimetres high and inner structures were rising just as swiftly. The whole thing was about seven metres by seven metres. It seemed to have at least four rooms. I snapped away from various angles on my camera phone. 

As the morning wore on the number of bystanders and curious grew, and about nine a.m. the local TV network van rolled up and a reporter did a quick noddy to the camera on the 'unusual activity' at 42 Driffen Road. This spurred me to action. I should have been drafting a piece for the rag and meeting with the mysterious car driver. I grabbed my car key and drove to the office.

Whipping off a quick three hundred words and blocking a few pictures in, I sent it to the editor with a brief 'more to come' note appended and headed off to my rendezvous with history. It occurred to me that my little plot of land had not been selected at random.

I sat at a table for two in the Gafia Cafe and waited for my mystery correspondent to approach me. I hadn't got a good look at them in the dark and was mildly surprised when a well-dressed woman of about thirty drew up a chair.

“Hi Stan,” she said. “My name is Gretchen Holloway and I'd like you to do a story for me.”

The first thing I noticed was the 'for me' not 'about me'. “I'm figuring it has something to do with what's happening in the front yard of my lot?” I said.

She signalled for a coffee, her eyebrows raised to enquire if I wanted one. I nodded and she held up two fingers and turned back to me. “Yes,” she said. “I've come up with a solution to the housing problem but will need some positive spin in the media if it is to be implemented.”

The coffees arrived and I took the opportunity to sip mine while I examined her. Her clothing was not expensive but neither was it cheap; she had a faint whiff of some pleasant-smelling body wash and her nails were manicured. No rings visible. Mousy brown hair drawn back in a fashionable ponytail. She looked like a junior business executive on the way up.

Her eyes were hazel and they were looking right into mine.

I put down the cup and launched in. “What the hell is going on in my front yard?”

She smiled. It was a good smile. “Nanobots,” she said. “Micromachines that are programmed to do a single task and then cease functioning. I have released some in your neighbouring yard and they are programmed to build a small house.”

“What are they using to build this house?” I asked. Her smile widened. 

“That's the cool bit,” she said. “It uses the minerals in the ground on the lot. It places them together to form structures and the resultant hole in the ground in front of the house will be the basis of a koi pond. Or whatever. The entire frame will be a single piece!” 

I chewed this over for a few moments. It certainly sounded like a solution to the dearth of housing but she clearly needed spin for some reason. “Composed of what? Dirt? Doesn't sound too strong and it sounds too good to be true,” I said. “Almost like something for nothing...” I trailed off, giving her the opportunity to explain.

“Well, no. The bots cost a bit to manufacture, but once I get the manufactory up and running I can get them done for about a hundred dollars a kilogram. I released about a kilo on your block. They harvest organic molecules and form them into synthetic polymers that are both hard and resistant to chemical reactions.”

“Plastic houses. And you need me for?” I prompted.

“Two things. I need funds to build the manufactory for a start.” She seemed a tad reluctant to spell out the second thing. I waited for her.

“And the second bit is I need spin to calm a few...problem areas.”

“Like?” I belatedly switched on the recorder on my phone.

“There will be a bunch of fairly irate builders I'd imagine. Regulators will probably be having conniptions by this time tomorrow, and unions will pressure government to ban the whole deal.” Her smile was gone.

I nodded. She was right. Even the chance of a new home for, presumably $100 plus some handling, might be strangled at birth by red tape.

“Okay,” I said. “I'll pen up a positive story about the relief for homeless, cheap housing etc. but I will also mention the possible ramifications. We'll deal with the blowback after that. Agreed?”

She gave me a weaker version of her smile and extended her finely-boned hands. “It's a deal,” she said.

Things went downhill fast after my story hit the papers. 'GUERRILLA HOUSING! Relief For The Homeless?' was the banner headline on page one. By the next morning they had somehow identified Gretchen and she turned up at my place with dozens of reporters in tow.

Once inside she dumped a sheaf of papers on my dining table. 

“Look at this...rubbish!” she said. “Cease and desist from the Master Builders' Association. Cease and desist — Union of Woodworkers. Metalworkers. Architects! Shire warnings about Failure to Submit for Mining Lease! Building Permits! Safety concerns. Untested and possibly Dangerous Materials!” She ran down as her breath ran out. I felt a bit sorry for her. No good turn goes unpunished.

“Some of those are legitimate concerns,” I said, but held up a warning hand as she prepared a new tirade. “But...most are knee-jerk holding pattern lawyer tricks while they find out just what the hell you've done.”

“What organic materials specifically are you using?” I asked.

“Carbon nanotubes. Basically carbon fibres with a stronger bond. It's pretty inert.”  

I thought for a moment and got out my phone. I knew a few scientists in my trade. I rang a chemist I knew and told him about it. He seemed more excited about it than Gretchen, but promised to come out and test the stuff.

I told Gretchen this and she seemed a bit calmer. We went through each of the legal notes and placed them in two piles. Those that needed serious consideration and those that were obviously stalls.

We ended up deciding that the unions were the heavy hitters and by extension the government who they supported in many ways. They would be tough nuts to crack unless we found a selling point.

All through that week I'd been running pieces on 'my new house', which Gretchen had chosen because I owned it and was a journalist. My cynicism had not been misplaced.

We'd bucked most of the problems. Building permits weren't needed as it was less than fifty square metres; the floor plan was online public domain for a small house, so the architects had nothing. We threw a few bones to other trades — plumbers, concreters, plasterers, electricians etc. were all going to get a lot more work to compensate for a small loss of building contracts. I pointed out that those building contracts wouldn't even exist because the people living in the carbon houses couldn't afford to build a normal one.

The unions still held firm though and both Gretchen and I started getting unsigned and vaguely menacing letters. Health insurance was not-so-subtly offered.

But the end of week three was a surprise. I received a phone call from the head honcho of the Construction and Allied Union, who warmly congratulated us on a positive outcome for all and looked forward to a joint media conference. The local member turned up and wanted a photo op with me and Gretchen in front of the completed framework and promised a government grant. I was frankly puzzled.

Gretchen cleared it up for me the next day. “I had a chat with them,” she said. “I pointed out that the nanobots could just as easily be programmed to disassemble things as build them.”

I raised my eyebrows in query. I was a bit slow on the uptake.

She smiled. This time it was a feral grin. “And I know where they live.”

rocket crux 2 75

About the Author

kevinjphyland 200Old enough to just remember the first manned Moon landing, Kevin was so impressed he made science his life.

Retired now from teaching he amuses himself by reading, writing, following his love of weather and correcting people on the internet.

He’s been writing since his teens and hopes he will one day get it right.

He can be found on twitter @KevinPhyland where he goes by the handle of CaptainZero and his work is around the place if you search using google or use the antisf.com.au archive.

aus25grn

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