Chapter 9: It begins
Wang Wei looked at the video at William McClain’s habitat. It would incite emotion. Of that Wang Wei was sure. He was now afraid though it would be too much and of the wrong kind. He now wanted to make sure it wasn’t in the wrong place.
“You are sure the filters are in place?” he asked. “This will not get back to earth?”
“I am sure,” the middle manager said. “The people on earth will only see what we want them to see.”
“What about the leadership?” he asked. He tried to keep the nervousness he felt out of his voice.
“They will only see what is taken back physically,” the middle manager said. “That will take months.”
Months, Wang Wei thought. Months to plan for the backlash.
Involuntarily the video began to reply in his mind. It had all begun according to script. The swarm of roaches had come to William McClain’s hab and issued the warning. McClain had replied with an expletive. He clearly viewed the warning with contempt as he couldn’t even read the swarm of roaches on his radar.
The swarm had then, again according to script, begun to confiscate--that is consume and convert--his corn-growing habitat. It was immediately after this that the plan had gone awry. McClain had put on his suit and gone over to the corn-hab with his shotgun. This had not been foreseen by the technicians that had programmed the roaches. Once he was in the hab with them the roaches--so the technicians had later surmised--had interpreted him as a water source.
These roaches had been designed to replicate themselves in normal space in addition to that around a hab and so a high value had been placed in their programming on the acquisition of water. The roach swarm turned on McClain with a vengeance and soon had consumed him in his entirety.
It was what happened thereafter the technicians had more difficulty explaining. Having consumed McClain without leaving so much as a drop of blood, they then left the corn-hab and proceeded to the family-hab. They breached the hull and the atmosphere vented immediately into space. This was considered a mercy as those inside were rendered unconscious within minutes, and were therefore--for the most part--spared the sensation of being eaten alive by robotic roaches.
Wang Wei was less certain that they felt nothing, but with the atmosphere gone, at least the sound of the screams was not picked up by the audio track on the video. The technician had told Wei that perhaps the heuristic learning algorithms of the roaches having found a richer source of water had expanded its search farther to find similar sources. Wei, oddly enough, had a certain appreciation that matters of programming could become complicated in unexpected ways. What he was not able to either understand or forgive was what had happened later.
After the McClain compound had been completely devoured and converted into new roaches. The entire video of what had happened to the McClain family had been immediately uploaded without editing to the part of the Net that was available to the Belt. No video ever had received so wide a distribution so quickly. There was no getting it back now.
“Retrieve the roaches and reprogram them,” Wei ordered the middle manager.
“We cannot,” the middle manager said. “It was not foreseen that such would be needed.”
“Not foreseen?” Wei was incredulous to the point where he let a note of near hysteria in his voice. “Things always go wrong. I thought engineers were one’s who formulated Murphy’s Law.”
“Yes, this is true,” the middle manager responded as calmly as he could. “But the best engineers do not come to the Outer Holdings...at least not to be in government service. I think that has been amply demonstrated by this, uh, incident.”
Wang Wei gathered himself, breathed, and slowly formulated a question.
“As best as these technicians can say, what will happen?”
“They say that the programming will continue,” the middle manager replied. “The swarm will divide into standard sized subswarms--two or three, it is difficult to estimate. They will then seek out other habs that are listed as delinquent on the tax rolls and repeat the scenario. Now with the, uh, feature of considering humans as a high value water source.”
“This will proceed geometrically then?” Wei asked.
“Is there anything that can stop it?”
“Only if the settlers choose to pay their taxes.”
Wei did not believe in God, but even he uttered a prayer.
To an outside observer, Johansson's Co-Op would’ve looked like a bunch of rocks floating together in space with a largish hab to the side. An outsider with a keener sense of observation would have noticed that one of the rocks was mostly made of ice. To someone from the Belt, they would’ve recognized a veritable gold-mine. All of those resources in such close proximity to each other. You could let your herd of crabs graze there and double its size in just a few hours time.
It was the brainchild of Klaus Johansson who was known in various places as store-keeper, organizer, and druglord. He was also a stone killer, but that was less well-known. Those who had the best knowledge of it simply weren’t around to pass the information on. He was, on most occasions, a very pleasant man. He would remember your wife’s birthday; he would remember the names of your children; he would remember every single time you tried to cheat him. But he would also remember every single good thing you had done for him.
Wild Bill McClain had been his friend.
Wild Bill had helped him to get staked when he first came to the Belt as a simple grower of the coca plant. He’d helped Klaus along and shown him the ropes. He’d “loaned” him a crab in the manner of the Belt-folk. He’d been a second father--no--a real father to Klaus.
Now Klaus had seen Wild Bill, with his wife, his children, and some of his grandchildren, ripped into nothingness.
Payment for this would be taken.
Klaus had gathered fifty leaders, men and women like himself, who he had grown to respect over the years. Twenty of them had made it in person; thirty were on their way but were involved in the meeting over secure line-of-sight connections transmitted through laserbeams.
The meeting had been started and Klaus had reshown the video even though everyone there had seen it a dozen time. When it ended, a voice came from one of those present.
“What the hell are they? What are them things that are eating them?”
Klaus turned to the man and talked to the group at the same time.
“We think they are like crabs, just smaller,” he said. “They self-replicate. There have been two other attacks. Each coming from sides opposite of Wild Bill’s. From the time passed, we figure that the first ‘swarm,’ for lack of a better word, split and went in opposite directions. In the first attack, they paid and nothing happened. The swarm did take water for fuel we figure, but the water was paid for with some of the money transferred back. In the second attack, the people ran. They escaped but the swarm devoured their whole holding. It was small, but still big enough for the swarm to double.”
Another voice came from the group.
“Is there any way to kill ‘em? Could you blast into them with a shotgun enough times?”
Klaus waited a couple of heartbeats for someone else to speak and perhaps answer, but that didn’t come.
“Well some of us had thought of that, but the problem is it would be hard to get them all. If even one escaped, he could hide out in your hab and chew quietly away until things were too far gone. It would be like termites back on earth if any of you can remember. Termites could eat on your house unnoticed until the damage was done.”
Someone else spoke.
“To me it looks like they got us by the short and curlies, then. We either pay or they take everything we have and double in strength when they do it.”
That was what Klaus had been waiting for someone else to say.
“That appears to be the truth of it,” he said. “If the swarm comes here. I am going to pay. I’ll pay regardless of what the rat-bastards did to Wild Bill, regardless of the fact they have no right to one red cent of what we make here by fighting blackness and death. But after we pay, they will pay all the more. They will pay back for what they did to Wild Bill and his family a hundred-fold. They will rue the day they started this.”