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“Not completely. But every path they take has its dead end, and the sooner they find this one, the sooner they’ll stop bothering him.”

His mother said, “If we keep him here, that’s a dead end for them too. If they want him in Atlanta, and he’s not in Atlanta–”

“They won’t give up that easily,” his grandmother replied. “If we’re not going to lock him up and throw away the key, they’re not going to take a few setbacks and delays as some kind of proof that Atlanta’s beyond all hope.”

Silence again. Lincoln opened his eyes. His father addressed Lincoln’s grandmother. “Are you sure you’re not infected yourself?”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t go all Body Snatchers on me, Carl. I know the two of you can’t leave the farm right now. So if you want to let him go, I’ll look after him.” She shrugged and turned her head away imperiously. “I’ve said my piece. Now it’s your decision.”

Lincoln drove the truck as far as the highway, then reluctantly let his grandmother take the wheel. He loved the old machine, which still had the engine his grandfather had installed, years before Lincoln was born, to run on their home-pressed soybean oil.

“I plan to take the most direct route,” his grandmother announced. “Through Macon. Assuming your friends have no objection.”

Lincoln squirmed. “Don’t call them that!”

“I’m sorry.” She glanced at him sideways. “But I still need to know.”

Reluctantly, Lincoln forced himself to picture the drive ahead, and he felt a surge of rightness endorsing the plan. “No problem with that,” he muttered. He was under no illusion that he could prevent the Stevelets from influencing his thoughts, but deliberately consulting them, as if there were a third person sitting in the cabin, made him feel much worse.

He turned to look out the window, at the abandoned fields and silos passing by. He had been down this stretch of highway a hundred times, but each piece of blackened machinery now carried a disturbing new poignancy. The Crash had come 30 years ago, but it still wasn’t truly over. The Stevelets aspired to do no harm–and supposedly they got better at that year by year–but they were still far too stupid and stubborn to be relied upon to get anything right. They had just robbed his parents of two skilled pairs of hands in the middle of the harvest; how could they imagine that that was harmless? Millions of people around the world had died in the Crash, and that couldn’t all be blamed on panic and self-inflicted casualties. The government had been crazy, bombing half the farms in the Southeast; everyone agreed now that it had only made things worse. But many other deaths could not have been avoided, except by the actions of the Stevelets themselves.

You couldn’t reason with them, though. You couldn’t shame them, or punish them. You just had to hope they got better at noticing when they were screwing things up, while they forged ahead with their impossible task.

“See that old factory?” Lincoln’s grandmother gestured at a burned-out metal frame drooping over slabs of cracked concrete, standing in a field of weeds. “There was a conclave there, almost 20 years ago.”

Lincoln had been past the spot many times, and no one had ever mentioned this before. “What happened? What did they try?”

“I heard it was meant to be a time machine. Some crackpot had put his plans on the Net, and the Stevelets decided they had to check it out. About a hundred people were working there, and thousands of animals.”

Lincoln shivered. “How long were they at it?”

“Three years.” She added quickly, “But they’ve learned to rotate the workers now. It’s rare for them to hang on to any individual for more than a month or two.”

A month or two. A part of Lincoln recoiled, but another part thought: that wouldn’t be so bad. A break from the farm, doing something different. Meeting new people, learning new skills, working with animals.

Rats, most likely.

Steve Hasluck had been part of a team of scientists developing a new kind of medical nanomachine, refining the tiny surgical instruments so they could make decisions of their own, on the spot. Steve’s team had developed an efficient way of sharing computing power across a whole swarm, allowing them to run large, complex programs known as “expert systems” that codified decades of biological and clinical knowledge into pragmatic lists of rules. The nanomachines didn’t really “know” anything, but they could churn through a very long list of “If A and B, there’s an 80 percent chance of C” at blistering speed, and a good list gave them a good chance of cutting a lot of diseases off short.

Then Steve found out that he had cancer, and that his particular kind wasn’t covered by anyone’s list of rules.

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Credit: Justin Wood

Tagged: Computing

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