Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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Intelligent Drain-o

by Rick Grehan

As I climbed the stairs in the apartment building, my mind afflicted me with thoughts of how my Saturday might have been. I'd had it all planned, which is to say that it was mostly unplanned. It involved me, a lounge chair, my porch, a pitcher of heavily modified lemonade, and an old paperback I'd found at a yard sale. The paperback's cover showed rocket ships, explosions, and a female in a silver spacesuit shooting a ray-gun at something with tentacles. Top quality back-porch literature.

Instead, the phone had rung. My wife answered it, and a few moments later she had shouted downstairs to me that I had to get to Aunt Liz's apartment immediately to help Uncle Mike with a clogged bathroom sink.

Though flight would have been the sane response, when Aunt Liz is involved, no shirking of her request is possible. And so, here I was, standing outside her apartment door, telling myself that maybe, just maybe, Mike and I could clear the sink quickly, and I could escape back home in time to be on that porch before the day was over.

Somewhere offstage, my life's invisible audience hooted with laughter.

I took a deep breath, and pushed the doorbell button.

I heard floorboards creak, and felt the joists under my feet shifting to accommodate the mass that was moving my way. The knob turned and the door swung open.

"Hello, Aunt Liz," I said, smiling.

Aunt Liz was the matriarch on my wife's side of the family. To date, I had seen her in only two forms. First, at family parties and get-togethers, she could always be found situated in a prominent location of the room or yard, seated royally in a chair that had been fetched specifically for her, dressed in a shapeless pants suit, and hovered over by the current family courtiers. Second, at her apartment, her blue-gray hair in large, pink curlers, and wearing a faded flower-patterned bathrobe.

She was, of course, in the second form of her manifestation, and in that bathrobe, she looked like a smaller, mobile version of the Devil's Tower--that rock formation I remembered from the movie "Close Encounters".

"It's you!" she croaked. "When are you going to marry my niece?"

"I did, Aunt Liz," I answered with a sigh. "Six years ago."

"It was seven!" she barked. "But I don't expect you to keep track. I don't expect much from you at all." She came about and steamed away.

With her back turned to me, I counted quickly on my fingers. Damn!

I stepped into the apartment. Though the furnishings were obviously several decades old, the place was clean-room spotless. I had to remind myself: Do not sit on or touch anything!

"Is Uncle Mike here?" I asked. "He wanted me to meet him." She had arrived at the living room's single la-z-boy recliner, and was lowering herself into it like a large piece of pneumatic equipment folding itself up.

"Of course he's here!" she replied. "Got here a half hour ago to fix my bathroom sink. Only man in this family that does anything. Can't imagine why he called you. Maybe to try to teach you how to be useful!" Her finger fell on a button of the remote control that lay on a tray next to her recliner. The show already playing on the big-screen TV was unmuted. I turned and headed for the hallway door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw on the TV a well-fed woman in a bridal salon's changing-room struggling to fit into a wedding dress; I heard the unmistakable sound of fabric stretching to its limit.

In the bathroom, I found Uncle Mike crouched on the floor in front of the sink. He was rummaging around in a toolbox.

"Please tell me this is going to be quick," I begged him.

Uncle Mike was not my uncle; he was my wife's brother. But I called him 'Uncle Mike', as did everyone else in the family. I never found out why, having decided early on that the explanation was probably not worthy of the mystery. Mike was the family fix-it man, and also a wannabe inventor. Time had demonstrated that, while his inventions never failed to fail, they also never failed to produce considerable property damage. Nevertheless, he was universally liked. No one in the family--except me--ever came to the realization that, when Mike unveiled one of his creations, the operative word was "evacuate."

Mike looked up and smiled. "Hey, Rick! Of course it's going to be quick. That's the whole idea."

"What idea, exactly? And why do you need me here to help unclog a sink? What's the worst it can be? Just remove the trap and clean it out, right?" I paused and thought a moment. "Though I'm not sure I'd want to see what might be stuck in Aunt Liz's bathroom plumbing."

Uncle Mike stood. He was holding a small bottle. "No need to worry. We won't have to peek into her pipes. And I wanted you here because you're the only person who really understands my inventions."

"I think you mean I'm the only person who hasn't required hospitalization from one of your inventions," I corrected. "And if this is ABOUT one of your inventions... I'm leaving now." I turned away.

"Wait, wait!" he said, grabbing my elbow. "No chance of anybody getting hurt with this one, I swear. It's small--REAL small. And all you have to do is watch."

I paused, regarding the pleading in his eyes. I looked down at the bottle he was holding. It was clear glass and had a metallic screw top, like a bottle of toy model paint.

"You swear? All I have to do is watch?"

He nodded.

I held up a finger. "I reserve the right to run at any time." He continued nodding. "No looking back, and I WILL ignore all cries for help."

"Sure, no problem, Rick. There won't be any cries for help."

I gave him my best Yeah, Right! look and asked, "Ok, so what's the invention?"

He held up the bottle. "This!"

I peered inside. The bottle was half filled with what looked like some sort of silver liquid. I thought I saw swirls of tiny motion in the fluid, but couldn't be certain.

"And that is?"

"I call it 'Intelligent Drain-o'," he replied proudly. "It's what's going to unclog Aunt Liz's drain. And--" he shook the bottle gently "-- make me a millionaire!"

"It's not, like, molecular acid, is it?" I asked. Then, another thought occurred to me and I began to back away. "Or some sort of explosive?..."

Uncle Mike shook his head, smiling. "Not even close." His smile grew wider as he leaned forward and whispered: "Nanobots!"

I felt my eyebrows shoot up. "Nanobots!? Where the hell did you get nanobots? I mean, you can't just walk into Home Depot and buy a carton of nanobots!" I thought an instant. "Can you?"

He shook his head, but this time he wasn't smiling. Again, his answer was a whisper: "Black market."

Now I felt my eyes pop wide. "Black market?!" I hissed. "There's a black market for nanobots? Holy crap, Mike, how?--Who? --!"

Still whispering, he leaned even closer. "I have a friend that works for this defense contract place near Boston. He was able to sneak some away from these guys, and... well ..." He shrugged, held up the bottle again. "Nanobots."

"'A friend'? 'Sneak'? These guys'? Crap almighty, Mike! Who are 'these guys'? Ex-Soviet agents?!"

"Nah... you kidding?"

"Well, THAT's a relief, I guess."


"Chinese!? Holy--!"

"You boys done in there yet?!" Aunt Liz yelled from the living room, cutting me off.

Uncle Mike leaned over and called back, "In a jiffy, Aunt Liz!"

"Look, Mike," I whispered, "this is nuts! You've gotta --"

"No, this is going to be great," he said..

"But you've got a bunch of black-market nanobots! And you STOLE them! From the Chinese!"

"It's just a few billion or so," he said nonchalantly. "They won't even notice. It's like taking an eye-dropper's worth out of a pitcher-full." He paused. "Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that's exactly how he --"

I felt my legs weakening, and leaned against the wall.

"Besides," he continued, "you can program them to make more of themselves." He unscrewed the bottle's cap, and knelt down in front of the sink which, I noticed for the first time, was was filled with dark, soapy water. The plug, however, was sitting next to the faucet. Definitely clogged, my mind said distantly.

"Now watch," Mike said, slowly tilting the bottle over the water. I could think of nothing else to do but kneel beside him. "It only takes a tiny amount..." A droplet wriggled out of the bottle and fell into the water, followed by two more. He quickly righted the bottle and re-sealed it, then returned his attention to the sink.

"They look like a liquid," he explained, "but they're not. It's just how their coordinated movement appears until they assemble themselves into whatever configuration is required to accomplish the current task."

Initially, it was as though Mike had placed three drops of ink in the water. They spread slowly into tiny, irregular clouds. Then, suddenly, filaments appears on the edges of each cloud, snaked out across the surface of the water, and each cloud connected with the other. I blinked, and the three clouds had snapped together into a single blob.

"Whoa!" I whispered.

"Now they'll seek out the drain. And from there, down to the clog," Mike whispered cheerfully.

I turned to look at Mike. "You programmed these things?"

"Yep. It's pretty simple, really. You'd be surprised how much intelligence you can fit--oh, look! There they go!"

I returned my attention to the water. A filament from the blob was streaming down toward the drain. As it sank into the depths, it became difficult to see through the cloudy water, but it looked like a tiny worm sliding downward. It encountered the bottom, and snaked unerringly toward the drain.

In a moment, it had found the edge of the drain. The instant it did, the tip of the filament shot down into the darkness. In a flash the rest of the nanobots followed, snatching the remainder of the cloud still floating on the surface after itself.

"Whoa!" I whispered again.

Clearly enjoying himself, Mike smiled even wider. "Pretty cool, huh? It won't be long now. I've programmed the nanobots to assemble themselves in various ways to penetrate and break up the clog, depending on the materials encountered. Taking apart hair was pretty easy. Oils and soap and shampoo--those kinds of things--were hard, but... well, it won't take them long."

I looked over at him, suddenly understanding. "Intelligent Drain-o!" I exclaimed, nodding.

"What did I tell you? I knew you'd get it! Now, think about it. No more having to buy those big containers of Liquid Plumber. No more having to handle nasty chemicals, having to wear gloves and goggles. Or wondering whether the insides of your pipes will be eaten away, or having to wait overnight for it to 'loosen the clog'. Just a little bit of Intelligent Drain-o." He held the bottle up in front of his face, grinning.

"You won't be able to use 'Drain-o' in the name. They'll sue you to hell and back... especially if it works."

Mike sighed. "I suppose you're right. I'll have to come up with something else." Then, he brightened again, and pointed at the water. "But, as far as its working--look!"

I followed his finger. I could see movement in the water. In a moment, a small whirlpool began to form. In another moment, the whirlpool had grown, its spinning funnel stretching down to the drain, and the water level was rapidly lowering.

I stood up. "I have to admit, Mike ...," I began.

The sink gave a satisfying slurk! sound as the last of the water disappeared. Uncle Mike stood up as well.

"All done," he said happily. He opened the toolbox, and placed the bottle in a receptacle on the inside of its lid. For the first time, I noticed that the toolbox held not tools, but electrical gear. I saw a tablet computer, one of those flexible, roll-up keyboards, several bundles of cable, some sort of meter, and other unidentifiable gadgets. He closed and latched the lid, then stood up.

"All fixed, Aunt Liz!" he called.

I heard straining noises from the other room as Aunt Liz rose out of the recliner and propelled herself toward the bathroom. I stepped away from the doorway at her approach, wondering whether we would all fit in the bathroom and--if we did--whether the building's structure could support that much localized weight.

Aunt Liz huffed into the bathroom and waddled up to the sink. She leaned forward and turned the spigot full on. Water spouted out of the faucet and into the sink, whirling rapidly down the drain. She turned it off.

"See?" Mike said, beaming. "All cleared out."

She looked up at him. One meaty arm appeared from the folds of the bathrobe and patted him on the shoulder.

"I knew you could fix it, boy," she crooned. She swiveled and made for the door. "And I'm sure you did a good job watching," she said as she passed me.

Turning to Mike, I pointed at the sink. "So, what happens now?"

He had picked up his toolbox. "So now we say goodbye."

"No, I mean... what happens to them? The nanobots?"

"Oh, them. Well, once they determine that their task is complete, they take themselves apart and go down the drain with the clog."

"'Take themselves apart'?"

"Yeah. They'll literally tear themselves back into their constituent molecules and--" he held up his fingers and made a waving motion "-- just float away."

"Isn't that wasteful?"

"Nah. Remember, you can program them to build copies of themselves. As long as they have access to the raw materials they need, you can always make new ones when you need them."

"You want some pie, Michael?" Aunt Liz called from around the corner.

"Oh, no thanks, Aunt Liz!" he yelled back. "I have to be going!" He headed for the bathroom door. I followed.

"Me neither!" I shouted.

"Didn't offer you any!--Hey! Where are my forks?!"

She was in the kitchen, standing over the sink. Mike walked up to her.

"Don't worry about getting forks, Aunt Liz. Like I said, We have to be going."

Aunt Liz's balloon-like face swung around to face me. "Did you take my forks?"

"No, Aunt Liz. I didn't take your forks. We have plenty at home."

She pointed down into the sink. "I know I left four forks sitting in the sink. I was cleaning the spots off them this morning, and now they're gone!"

Mike and I scanned the counters.

"Sorry, Aunt Liz," he said. "No forks around that I can see." He turned and walked to the door, and again I followed. "I'm sure they'll turn up. Meanwhile, call me if you have any problems with that sink!" He opened the door.

"I will!" she called to him as we stepped outside. And, before the door closed, she barked at me, "And I'm phoning my niece and have her frisk you for my forks!"

* * *

Out in the hall, Mike looked at me as we walked away from Aunt Liz's apartment. "So, you're impressed?"

I nodded. "Yep. Nothing blew up. No one was injured or burned. There wasn't even anyone screaming for help."

Somewhere in a nearby apartment, a woman screamed. We froze. The door just ahead of us in the hall flew open, and, still screaming, the woman bolted into the corridor.

"Help!" she wailed.

"And here we go..." I said under my breath.

I guessed that the woman was in her fifties. She was wearing a terry-cloth bathrobe that she'd obviously lifted from some hotel, and was bare-foot. Her dripping-wet hair hung down, obscuring her face ...

.. except for a noticeably wide section of missing hair that provided an opening through which bugged an eye wild with fear.

"A metal snake ate my hair!!" she screamed.

Whatever mental clock that ticks in my head so my brain can move forward from one thought to the next missed three or four pulses as I tried to parse that sentence. Apparently, Mike experienced a similar mental seizure. He gave a slow, lizard-blink, then asked, "Again, please?"

The woman advanced on us. She grabbed a handful of her hair in one hand. With the other, she pointed back to her door.

"A metal snake," she said gasping, "came out of the drain of my bathroom sink, and.... ate!.... my!.... hair!" She took a breath between each of the final three words, so she could shout them individually. And as she shouted each word, she shook her fistful of hair.

Mike and I looked at each other.

"It can't possibly --" he began.

"Oh, yes it can!" I said, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him away from the woman and toward the stairway at the end of the hall. He had that dazed look of a man who'd just built something, but it wasn't working, but he'd followed all the instructions, but it wasn't working, but he was sure he'd checked and double-checked, but...

"No, it can't!" he babbled. "They should have calculated that they'd finished their task and it was time to disassemble."

"And what are the conditions for a completed task?" I asked.

"That the pipes are cleared of the clog."

"Pipes? Plural? So, they're programmed to deal with multiple clogs?"

We stopped at the edge of the stairway. The woman was still standing in the hall, holding her hair, glaring at us with her single, terrified eye.

"What do I do?!" she howled.

I thought a moment. An idea flared. "Call the town's animal control officer." I tried to make it sound like a command.

She nodded, turned, took a step for her door, stopped, turned back. "What do I tell them it was?"

I raced through my mental file of obscure animal names, yanked one out at random: "Coelacanth."

"That's what that metal snake was?"

"Without a doubt."

She nodded again. I saw her practice the word a couple of times, turn, and head back to her apartment.

"And stay away from sinks and toilets!" I called after her, then turned back to Mike. He had sat down at the top step, opened his toolbox, and pulled out the tablet computer I'd seen earlier. All the time I'd been dealing with the woman, he'd been flipping through screens on the tablet and muttering to himself.

He looked up at me. "You were right," he said. "The nanobots think this whole apartment building is one big house."

"So, they're going to try to clear all the clogs in the building. Or, what they think are all the clogs. So, a woman is washing her hair, and she leans down over the sink to rinse it, and they think the hair that happens to reach to the drain is part of a clog, and ..."

He nodded. "Chomp."

"But that woman described it as a snake," I said. "You only put three little drops in the sink. How--?"

Mike's jaw fell open. "Aunt Liz's forks!"

"I'm telling you, I DIDN'T take them!"

"No, no! They did!"

I sat down next to him. "What are you saying? The nanobots climbed through the pipes and took the forks?"

"Yes!" he said, nodding rapidly. "Remember? They can be programmed to build more of themselves. To do that, they need materials: metals, silica, carbon, stuff like that."

"So, they actually tore the forks down into useable bits, and carried them away to build more nanobots?"

He nodded again.

"But you programmed them!" I protested. "You didn't put 'build more of yourselves' code into their program, did you?"

He returned his attention to the tablet to avoid my glare. "Well," he said sheepishly, "not exactly."

A familiar pain began in my temples. I leaned forward and put my hand to my forehead. "What, exactly, do you mean by 'not exactly'?"

"They are programmed to make more of themselves, but not as a primary activity. Only as needed to complete the task."

"But the task has grown from clearing the clog out of Aunt Liz's bathroom sink, to locating and clearing all the clogs in this whole apartment building, right?" I asked.

He didn't answer. He continued reading whatever was on the tablet.

"Oh man, Mike--that's going to take a lot of raw material. A few forks aren't going to cut it." I paused. "So, THAT means--"

Someone began screaming. It wasn't the woman with the eaten hair. From the direction of the sound, we could tell it came from the floor below. Mike dropped his tablet back into the toolbox, and the two of us jumped to our feet. We bounded down the stairs.

The screams were continuous. Running down the hall, we quickly located the apartment they were coming from. I began knocking. Mike punched the doorbell and called: "Hello!? Do you need help in there?! Hello?!"

The door flew open. It was another woman, tall, in her 50s, wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Her hair was in curlers. What is it with these women and their hair? I thought. They're either curling it or washing it or ...

She held out what appeared to be a pan's handle--minus the pan--and waved it in our faces. "There's a lizard made of metal in my dishwasher and it ate my best sauce pan!!" she yelled. She turned and stalked away to her kitchen, obviously intending that we follow her.

Mike hesitated. I grabbed him and propelled him into the apartment after the woman. We followed her into her kitchen. The door to her dishwasher was open, and she leaned in front of it, peering inside, holding the pan's handle like a club.

I approached the machine cautiously, bent down, and peeked inside. I saw rows of dishes, a couple of glasses, and a clump of utensils. The woman and I straightened simultaneously.

"It's gone, now," she announced. "But it ate my pan!" She shook the handle at me again. "And look at this!" She leaned down, pulled out a spoon, held it up. I took it from her hand, whistling.

Something had taken a substantial semicircular bite out of it. Literally just bitten off half of the bowl of the spoon. I whistled again, and held it up for Mike to see. He stared at it blankly. I could see that his mind was at work elsewhere.

"Did the snake do that?" a voice said. We all turned. The woman from the floor above stood in the doorway. Still barefoot. Wet hair still hanging down.

"It wasn't a snake," the woman with the handle replied. "It was a lizard!"

"Well, whatever it was," the first woman said, "it certainly wasn't a seal-cat." She glared at me. "The animal control person hung up on me when I told him that."

"Seel-oh-canth," I corrected. "Not 'seal-cat.' No wonder he hung up."

Her one eye narrowed at me.

"Seel-oh-canth?" the woman with the handle repeated. "What's that? A kind of lizard?"

"No, I told you, it's a kind of snake!" the woman with the hair snarled.

"Actually, a coelacanth is an--" Mike began, and I was about to stomp on his foot when, somewhere else in the apartment building, someone began yelling. We all piled out into the hall. Down at the corridor's end, a door flew open, and an elderly man danced out trailing soap-suds. He was wearing a bathrobe, had a shower-cap on, and held a back scrubber in one hand.

Mike turned to me. "We've seen a lot of bathrobes this afternoon --"

"There's a baby alligator made out of metal in my shower, and it's eating my soap!!" he yelled.

"It's not a baby alligator!" the woman with the pan handle shouted. "It's a lizard!"

"I'm telling you, it's a SNAKE!"

"Well, I'm calling the police!" The woman with the handle disappeared into her apartment, slamming her door.

"And I'm calling the landlord!" yelled the woman with the hair. She stomped away.

The man in the shower cap stood looking at me and Mike. He gestured with his back scrubber toward his still-open door. "What do I do?"

Mike shrugged. "I expect once it's finished disassembling your soap, it'll go back down --"

I grabbed Mike and hauled him to the stairway, back to his equipment. We climbed the stairs, and sat down next to his toolbox.

"Mike, this is getting--no, wait--this HAS GOTTEN out of control. It's growing, and arranging itself into different shapes. I guess it's doing that to fit whatever it thinks its current job is."

Mike had pulled out his tablet, propped it on a little stand, and unrolled his keyboard onto a small lap-desk. He was typing as he talked, "There might be more than one 'it'."

"What?! You mean, there might be multiple... colonies? That fast?"

"Well, you saw how fast they got to the forks. And then downstairs into the dishwasher."

"You've gotta do something quick," I said. "The police might take that woman seriously! And what happens if someone climbs into a bathtub and settles their butt right over the drain?"

Mike looked up at me, his eyes wide. "Chomp!" he whispered. He returned his attention to his tablet, typing furiously.

"Tell me you have a plan," I said after a moment.

"I do," he replied. "I'm going to program some shepherds."

I blinked. "Shepherds?"

"Yeah. They search a programmed area for other nanobots, herd them together, and deliver them to a specified location."

I sat back. "Oh... wow... that's actually cool. Will that work? No, don't answer that. I should know better than to ever ask you that."

He rummaged around in his toolbox, pulled out another of the little bottles of nanobots. In his other hand, he held a small metal wand. A wire was attached to its base; the other end of the wire terminated in a connector that he snapped into a jack on his tablet. He handed me the bottle.

"Unscrew the top," he commanded.

"What are we doing?" I asked as I complied.

"Programming the nanobots." He held up the wand. "You can't see it, but this has tiny connectors--sort of like docking stations--all over its surface. I'll stick it into the nanobots, and a bunch of them will connect to it instantly. Then, I'll hit a button on the keyboard, and my program will be downloaded to them. That'll just take an instant, and then they'll detach and pass on the program to all the other nanobots."

"Got it." I held up the opened bottle. I watched as he carefully lowered the wand into the nanobots inside the bottle. Then, he tapped the keyboard. After about two seconds, the tablet beeped, and he withdrew the wand.

"That's it," he announced. He began placing equipment back into the tool chest. I screwed the cap back on the bottle.

"What now?" I asked.

He closed and latched the toolbox's lid. I handed him the bottle. "We need to get the shepherds into the plumbing... fast. And preferably, as high up in the building as possible, so it'll be easier for them to work their way down."

"Top floor, then," I said, standing. "Two flights up. Do we know anybody up there?"

"I don't," Mike replied. "Guess we'll have to make friends quick." He jumped to his feet, and we began running up the stairs. Somewhere down below, I heard what sounded like the beginnings of a new commotion. I forced myself to ignore it.

We arrived at the top floor. Mike went to the first door and began knocking and ringing the doorbell. I moved down the hall to the next one. I was halfway there when the first door opened and someone croaked, "What's all the knocking for?!" I turned and headed back.

Just inside the doorway stood an elderly woman, cane in one hand, and--amazingly--not wearing a bathrobe. She was dressed in a pastel-blue pants suit, and peered at Mike through glasses whose magnification swelled her eyes so they filled the lenses. At the sight, Mike actually took a step back.

"Well?" she barked.

"I... uh... that is, we ...uh ..." Mike stammered. I suddenly realized that neither of us had given any thought to what we would say to whoever opened a door. The cartoonish eyes glaring up at him didn't help, either.

I thought quickly, then began hopping from foot to foot as I reached his side. "Mikey!" I mewled. "I hafta go to da bafroom! I hafta go bad!"

Both Mike and the old woman turned to look at me. I screwed my face up, conjured the biggest frown I was capable of, and continued hopping.

"Who's that?" the woman said, pointing at me with her cane. "What's he want?"

"I, uh... " Mike began. I stomped on his foot. "Ow!"

"I gotta go NOW, Mikey!" I looked past the woman, into her apartment. Luckily, all the units had substantially identical layouts, so the inside looked familiar. I said a quick mental prayer that the woman didn't have a gun--or a husband with a gun--and dashed past the two of them, running bowlegged, and snatching the bottle out of Mike's hand on the way by.

"Hey, you!" the woman barked. "Stop!" I felt the swoosh! of the end of her cane just behind my head.

"You'll have to excuse him, ma'am!" I heard Mike plead. "He had a head aneurism a couple of years ago and had both halves of his brain removed!" He was finally catching on.

"I don't care what parts of him have been removed! I want him out of my house!" I heard the clump of her cane as she gave pursuit.

I found the bathroom door. For a panicky moment, I thought it was closed and wondered what I would do if someone was inside. Luckily, though, it was slightly ajar. I darted through, slammed the door behind me, and headed for the toilet.

It took me mere seconds to unscrew the lid, flip the toilet open, and upend the bottle. A peanut-sized glob of nanobots plopped into the water. I jabbed the handle, and banged the toilet lid down just as the door opened.

"Get out of my house!" the woman yelled over the sound of the flushing. She lifted her cane. I ducked under it, and did the only thing I could think of.

I hugged her.

"Oh... fank you, fank you, lady!" I crowed. "I hadda go bad!" I felt the cane lower. I stepped back, forcing a clownish smile on my face. Obviously taken by surprised, she blinked, her magnified eyes almost clicking audibly.

"That was fast," she said quietly.

"Oh, yeah, he's fast--aren't you Dicky?" Mike said, appearing behind her. He reached around the woman, grabbed me, and yanked me out of the bathroom.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said as he pulled me backward out of the apartment. "Like I said, most of his brain's gone. He does things without thinking because... uh... he can't... uh... think."

He dragged me through the apartment door. On the way out, I grinned clownishly at the woman, who still stood by the bathroom entrance, magnified eyes eclipsing most of her face. I gave her a finger-wiggle wave just before Mike slammed the door shut.

We thundered back down the stairs to fetch Mike's toolbox.

"'Both halves of his brain removed'?" I repeated. "You enjoyed that a bit too much, I think."

"OK, so I don't improvise as well as you do!"

We reached his toolbox. All throughout the apartment building, we could hear calls and shouts. Doors opened noisily and slammed shut. Feet ran.

"What now?" I asked him.

"The shepherds will start rounding up the nanobots in the apartment's plumbing. Then, they'll bring them all down to the rendezvous point I programmed. We'll need to be ready to pick them up there."

A door banged somewhere below us. I heard repeated thwack!s, as though someone were attacking something with a broom.

"It's going to take the shepherds a bit to gather all the... uh... colonies," he continued. "That should give us just enough time to get the equipment we'll need and get into position."

I was nodding quickly. "Ok, this is actually sounding good. Where is this rendezvous point?"

"Outside. Follow me. First, though, we have to get some things from my van."

He darted down the stairs. I followed.

* * *

I was sitting on a section of a cinder-block, holding a mop-handle that I had pulled out of the dumpster near where Mike had parked his van. A length of wire from Mike's toolbox had been duct-taped along the upper half of the handle, up to its end. From there, the wire hung down, so it looked like I held a fishing pole. One end of the wire led to a small junction box that Mike had quickly assembled and attached to his tablet. The other end of the wire--the end you'd find if you followed the part hanging down from the tip of the pole--was somewhere in the dark below ...

... down at the bottom of the open manhole I sat peering into.

Mike was crouched nearby, concentrating on whatever was displayed on his tablet's screen. In one hand, he held the wand that he had used to program the shepherd nanobots earlier. The wand's wire was connected to the same junction box as my pole's cable.

We were outside, in a small wooded area adjacent to the apartment's parking lot. The apartment building itself stood on the crest of a small hill, and we were about halfway down the slope. Another twenty or thirty yards below us, cars and trucks rushed back and forth on the highway.

Though it was after sunset, a nearby streetlight at the edge of the parking lot cast enough light so that you wouldn't bump into trees... or fall into open manholes.

"So at the other end of this wire," I said, jiggling the mop-handle and pointing to the cable that disappeared into the dark of the sewer-hole, "is another one of those wand-things. And the shepherds are going to bring all the nanobots down here to grab onto it."

Mike nodded, not looking up.

"They'll attach themselves," I continued. "I'll haul them out, you'll stick that other wand into them, and that will program them to disassemble themselves."

He nodded again.

"And that will be the end of them. All the nanobots will be gone."

This time, he didn't nod.

"I said: All the nanobots will be gone."

He looked up. He sighed. "Well, not all of them. I've got another bottle back at my place. But when we're done here, I'll get rid of those, too."

"You swear?"

He returned his attention to the display.

"I mean it, Mike. You promise to get rid of them all, or so help me I'll tie you to the roof of my car, drive to the Chinese Embassy in D.C., and dump your body on the front steps."

He sighed again. "I promise."

"Good." I looked into the darkness of the manhole. Its lid leaned against another portion of cinder-block just to my left. The crowbar we'd used to pry it off was nearby. I wrinkled my nose. The odor rising out of the depths in front of me seemed to be getting worse... and it had been pretty bad to begin with.

"You know what this looks like, don't you, Mike?" I asked.

"It looks like you're fishing in a sewer," a voice answered behind me.

We both started. I swung around, nearly falling off my cinder-block. Mike yelped.

The nearby traffic's noise had masked the police officer's approach. He stood behind me, arms crossed. In the dim light, I couldn't see his face clearly, but I guessed it held a classic what-have-we-got-here? expression.

"I can explain everything, officer!" Mike blurted.

I reached over, grabbed Mike's collar, and pulled his face toward mine so I could look him in the eyes. "No, Mike, you can't," I said firmly. I glared at him.

He blinked. I released his collar. He looked up at the policeman. "Sorry officer, he's right. I take it back--I can't."

"Well, that doesn't sound the least little bit suspicious," the officer said, moving around me to examine the equipment spread out about Mike's feet. I could see the man rubbing his chin.

"You fellahs wouldn't know anything about the reports of snakes and lizards we've gotten from the apartments up there, would you?" he asked, tilting his head toward the parking lot.

"Snakes and lizards?" I asked innocently. "Sounds dangerous."

Mike didn't say anything. He was staring intently at his tablet. From my vantage, it appeared that something on the display was flashing. The policeman leaned down and looked, hands on his knees. He pointed. "What does that flashing red --"

Mike looked quickly up at me. "Get ready!"

I gripped the mop handle with both hands.

The policeman looked from Mike to me to the display. "Say, what's going--"

The cable gave a mighty jerk. The mop handle's tip dove downward, nearly pulling the rig out of my grip. I switched the position of one hand to the handle's midpoint, as the weight on the wire began to strain the duct tape.

"Wait for it to attach completely!" Mike ordered.

The policeman had straightened. I saw his hand move toward the pistol at his side.

"I hope this wire holds!" I said through gritted teeth, struggling with the increasing weight.

"Ok, that should do it!" Mike yelled. "Pull it up!"

I suddenly realized that my makeshift fishing pole had no reel. How was I supposed to pull it up? I quickly reached out and grabbed the cable in one hand. Pulling it toward me, I let go of the mop handle so I could grasp the wire with both hands. I stepped out, straddling the opening of the manhole, and began to pull, hand-over-hand.

I stood, legs spread wide, looking down into a shaft of noxious-smelling darkness as I hauled up toward myself an unknown and struggling mecha-creature--from a sewer.

In between straining heaves, I looked over at Mike and hissed, "In case I forget: I don't like your idea anymore!"

I became aware of a strange whirring and buzzing noise rising up from the manhole. I heaved again.

"Mother of God!" the policeman yelled. He drew his pistol.

Mike gasped.

I looked down.

What hung from the cable looked like a cross between a large snake and a large sturgeon, made out of moving chain-mail. It had no mouth. Where its mouth should have been was an array of multiply-jointed arms. But, at their tips, the arms became tentacles, and had wrapped themselves around the cable. It didn't have a face. Encircling the mouth--or, rather, where the mouth should have been--was a ring of what I would swear were tiny dish antennae, all moving and turning this way and that.

Its body was silvery, and appeared to be constructed of interlocking components... that moved... independently of each other. It seemed that its whole body was liquid. And here and there along its length were strange little fins and rudders and--I am not making this up--spinning propellers. They were all buzzing and twirling and moving. It was like a clock mechanism turned inside out.

I looked at Mike and the police officer. Both were frozen in awe. The officer's gun was drawn.

"Don't shoot!" I yelled at the policeman. Then, "Mike!!"

Both men blinked. The officer kept his gun raised, but took a step back. Mike shook his head quickly, roused himself, leaned forward, and plunged the wand into the thing's side.

Two heartbeats followed. In the first heartbeat, the creature stiffened. In the next heartbeat, it burst into a cloud of sparkling metallic powder. Seriously... just poof! and it was gone. The weight on the cable vanished, my arms flew up, and I fell backward, landing tailbone first on the cinder-block. I yelped, rolled sideways onto the ground, and climbed painfully to my feet.

The two men were a tableau. Mike leaning forward, holding the wand in what was now empty air lightly dusted with glitter; the police officer slightly behind him, crouched, his weapon in firing position. As I watched, they slowly thawed. Mike leaned back, bowed his head, and let out a deep breath. The policeman rose out of his crouch, holstering his pistol.

"I don't ever want to have to do that again," I said to Mike.

"What the hell WAS that?!" the policeman whispered.

"Coelacanth," we both said quickly.

Head still bowed, Mike began chuckling. He lifted his head, shaking it and smiling, and reached forward to begin winding in the cable.

The officer was still looking at the spot in the air where the thing had been. "It blew up! Just... blew up!"

"They do that if you puncture them," I said matter-of-factly. "High internal pressure." I got the policeman's attention, and motioned to the manhole cover. "Help me get that back on?" He nodded.

As we grunted and heaved, Mike continue to collect his gear and stow it into his toolbox. The manhole cover clanged into place.

"What'd you call that thing?" the policeman asked, dusting his hands off.

"Coelacanth," Mike answered.

"Never seen anything like it," the policeman said. "It was like something from that TV show, 'Monster Chasers.'"

I detected an emphasis in the man's voice, and a thought struck me. "You like the show?" I asked.

"LOVE that show!" he answered enthusiastically. "Seen every episode!"

"Well, then, officer, I hope you can keep a secret, because this IS 'Monster Chasers'."

"It is!?" His eyes grew wide. He began searching about himself. "Where's the TV camera?" Then, he pointed at the two of us. "And how come you guys aren't wearing the leather jackets with the symbol-thing on the back?"

"Oh," Mike said, standing up. "I thought you'd figured that out. We're the reconnaissance team."

"Reconnaissance team?"

"Yeah," I jumped in. "Show's so popular, we get hundreds of monster sighting calls every week. No way they can investigate every one, and most are fake. They send us out to investigate the ones that look promising."

The officer gestured to the now sealed manhole. "I'd say THAT was pretty promising!"

Mike shrugged. "I've seen worse. Besides, I doubt there's more in this area. Coelacanths are very territorial; only one or two on a continent."

"Still," I said, looking intently at Mike. "We should go report in."


We turned and started to climb the hill to the parking lot.

"Say, guys!" the policeman called.

"Yeah?" I asked, turning my head slightly, but still climbing.

"Mention me in the report?"

"Absolutely, officer."

We reached the edge of the parking lot. A distant voice called: "Name's Belcher, by the way!"

"Right, Bachelor! Got it!"



* * *

The next morning, I was at the breakfast table when my wife called down from the upstairs.

"Guest room bathroom sink's clogged! I'm going to call Uncle Mike!"

I spat out my cereal, then yelled back, "No, no! I got it!"

"You'll fix it?"

"Yeah. I'll buy a new sink! Trust me, that'll be easier." I got a paper towel and wiped the table clean.

"You're hilarious. By the way, some men came by the house looking for you yesterday."

"Really? Who were they?" I scooped up another spoonful of cereal.

"Didn't say. All I know is they were Chinese."

More cereal sprayed across the table top.


2013 Rick Grehan

Bio: Mr. Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here: Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's.

Mr. Grehan's most recent appearances in Aphelion were Good Night, Timmy, in the April, May, and June 2013 editions and The Light From Below in the July 2013 issue.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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