Riley was waiting for her at the airlock, with a bucket of paint in his hand for some strange reason. Of course, Riley would be the one to see her off. He gave her a wink and a smile, and she nodded back.
"Knock 'em dead," he added. "After all, what can go wrong?" With that, all of the tension leaked out of her body, and she found herself laughing in spite of herself.
He stepped aside, and Carrie saw what he had painted on the airlock door. "Fitting and appropriate," she said, as the door opened.
The laughter was gone before she cycled through the airlock, and she stepped out into the alien space station. Two aliens waited to escort her to the conference room. On her left was a heavy worlder, built like a Sumo but with tufts of green fuzz in odd places. The other alien looked like an oversized predatory bird, and the glare from those large eyes made her feel like it was sizing her up as prey. But they didn't threaten her directly, or even speak; they just turned and flanked her as they crossed the station.
The door to the conference chamber was guarded by a Gort. Towering, motionless, its very presence made her skin crawl. She pretended not to notice it as they passed within touching distance. Then she was through the door and looking out over the conclave. This was a "conference room?"
The room was huge. Semi-spherical, with a dome ceiling and level floor, the seats sloped up in the distance. There were several hundred representatives of the hundred or so worlds that made up the alliance. She couldn't recognize more than a handful of alien species, but she thought that nearly every planet had sent several representatives to hear the message she brought from Earth.
Either podiums were the same in any species, or they had studied enough Earth customs to understand the concept, because one awaited her. She stepped up to it, and the buzz of conversation grew louder. She stood silently, not demanding silence, but refusing to speak without it. After a few moments, the noise died away.
"I bring you greetings, from Earth," she began. She clasped her hands on the podium in front of her, but decided it was a sign of nervousness, and forced herself to leave them hanging at her sides. "My name is Carrie." She did the triple-blink that activated the chronometer in her contact lens; the numbers appeared in her vision, low and to the left, "5:00."
"Thirty years ago, an emissary from this council visited Earth. He brought death and destruction to our world. In my homeland, the cities of Philadelphia and New York were devastated, but the worst destruction came from an electromagnetic pulse that shut down most of the planet's power grid. Within days, the largest cities on the planet were smoldering wastelands. The death toll numbered in the millions...perhaps even billions.
"But humans are a resourceful people. Within a few short months, we had restored a small percentage of our power generation, and could actually start to rebuild. And some deep, shielded bases weren't destroyed by the pulse; they became beacons of civilization, the centers of new towns and even cities.
"We are grateful for the two gifts your emissary left us." There is a murmur through the crowd.
"First, the nanobots that destroyed New York and Philadelphia were collected and analyzed. With the devastation, it took years before we could even begin to pry their secrets free, and several years beyond that before we finally managed to bring one back to life." Carrie saw several of the crowd exchange nervous glances, so she moved quickly to allay their nervousness. "We were able to train the bugs to restore our environment."
She smiled. "You'll have to forgive me," she said. "Thanks to an inside joke a dozen years ago, our nano-robot programmers have taken to calling themselves 'Bug Wranglers.' And they don't 'program robots'--they 'train and teach bugs' to do things." The crowd seemed to relax a bit at the shared joke. Carrie hoped the humor made it through the translator, at least.
Less than four minutes remained on the timer.
"We were able to teach the bugs things that would repair our world," she said. "Robots could be trained to tunnel underground like worms, eating away at anything that would pollute the plants above. Others were trained to crawl through a human bloodstream, eating cancers, tumors, radioactive particles, anything that would harm that person.
"But the real benefit of training bugs came when we created a new generation--one that could not only eat, but deposit materials, too. One breed was designed to skim floating oil off the surface of water, and deposit it in a waiting tank. Another was taught to ingest carbon, but lay down carbon nanotubes. These bugs improved our world tremendously; bug wranglers were able to produce spider-silk threads that could support tons of weight, room-temperature semiconductor cables, and clothing that could withstand bullet impacts yet were as light as paper." She didn't mention that those same bugs had lined her bones with carbon nanotubes surrounding molecular titanium, making them practically unbreakable.
"With the advances the bug wranglers created in materials, we were able to restart our space program, making quantum leaps in technology every year. Our spacecraft are easily ten times the size of our old Space Shuttle, yet weigh a tenth as much and are hundreds of times more sturdy. One even survived a crash on our moon with no loss of life. The bugs gave us the ability to apply advances we already knew, but in the molecular world."
Two minutes left on the timer. Carrie gripped the podium with both hands. "The second gift was the 'space suit' the emissary arrived in. Most of it was placed in a supercooled deep-freeze before the disaster, and as our technology returned, we were able to thaw out portions of it and clone it. The healing properties of this material saved countless lives, and the things we learned from it have extended the average human lifespan by more than fifty years." Including mine, she added silently, but she didn't let the words escape her lips.
"And so, I am here today to thank this federation for the gifts delivered by your emissary, and to deliver a message from my people." There was still a minute left on the timer, so she would have to ad-lib a bit.
"Our people split into two factions. One wanted nothing more than to build an army, and lash out at the aliens who attacked us, while the other wished to take a more pacifist approach--heal our planet, improve our lives, make our world better--which is what we did." She took a step back from the podium. "When an entire species focus their will on the same goal, anything is possible. And the human race has been focused on one goal--this meeting--for a very long time.
"You might think I'm here to ask for membership in your federation, but my people do not wish to join." A surprised gasp is the same in any language, Carrie thought.
"You might think I'm here to ask for forgiveness for our very existence--but you couldn't be more wrong." The aliens began shifting in their seats; this was not the humble and humiliated speaker they had been led to expect.
"We weren't bothering you," she said, with a hard edge to her voice. "Your emissary attacked us without provocation. This federation launched an attack on our planet that left millions dead, and left millions more to starve and freeze...and bleed...and die. I watched my father vaporized, eaten by the bugs." There was a murmuring of discomfort and nervousness in the crowd, and several of the aliens were standing now. 10...9...8...read the timer.
"I am here to deliver a very clear message from my people," she said, as the timer reached 3. "And that message is this: DON'T F**K WITH THE HUMANS!"
The conference room erupted in total pandemonium.
"Look," Riley was saying. "They would scan for active nanobugs, so you're not going to take any active ones in with you."
"But if they're not active, then how are they going to do anything?"
"Easy. You're going to activate them. The ring on your left hand holds a dozen offensive bugs. They won't activate until you feed them, and their food source is in the ring on your right hand. Got it?"
"So, I just clap my hands or something and they wake up?"
"Exactly. And everything I just said? Flip it around for the defensive bugs in the ring on your right hand. Same rules." Carrie stared at the two rings.
"Then you wait, five full minutes. All of the bugs are programmed with an inheritable stealth timer. Mommy bug will drop to the ground and start multiplying. The time left on her timer will be passed on to the munchkin bugs, so they'll all end at the same time. They will not fly, and they will avoid organic material until the alarm clock wakes them up.
"That's when the fun begins."
A cloud of millions of angry nanobugs swarmed up from the ground. The front row of the audience disappeared almost instantly, while the aliens in the rows behind that screamed in fifty languages and scattered in all directions. Carrie calmly began working her way back to the door.
One of her escort guards--the hunting bird--moved to block her path. It held some vicious looking combat blades and glared at her like an owl contemplating a mouse. She gritted her teeth, and stepped forward.
"Offensive bugs go after targets. They're programmed to recognize human DNA, so you shouldn't have to worry about them. They will prefer a moving target to an immobile one, and an organic target to an inorganic one. After 12 hours with no organic targets, they'll go into sleep mode."
"How the hell do you tell the difference between an offensive and a defensive bug? They're just microscopic robots."
"Well, the defensive bugs take their job seriously," he said. "Once they identify human DNA, they'll take up a holding pattern in orbit, ten to fifteen feet away. They'll hold this orbit until destroyed, or until the human DNA source is the same temperature as the surrounding environment--at which point they'll revert to offensive bugs."
"That's an encouraging thought," she said.
Her orbiting bodyguards encountered a target--and dissolved it into its component molecules. A few stray feathers floated to the floor. Four other aliens made the same mistake of coming between her and the doorway, and then she was through.
...and the Gort blocked her path. Her heart in her throat, she found herself looking right into that gleaming red eye.
"Now, the Gorts will be the real challenge," Riley said. "Assuming they don't just try to disintegrate you with a laser, anyway. We think..."
"You're not sure?"
"Well, based on what we've been able to piece together, the Gort in New York always preferred to take control of attacking craft remotely as a first option, and actually attacking something personally as a final option. Think of it as alien judo--better to turn the attacker's strength back against it. We think," he repeated, over-emphasizing the word, "that any Gort would try to take control of your bugs.
"We told the bugs to check their parity bits every tenth cycle, and reload their operating instructions if it didn't match."
"That didn't make any sense. English, Riley, English!"
"Okay, okay, the bugs will recognize when their programming has been changed, and try to change it back. If they find that they're changing it back more than once, then they start calling for help."
"They will send out an alert to all of the other bugs in the area that something is changing bug programming. The chance of a bug answering that call is based on distance. The actual equation is distance over a hundred as a percentage chance, modified by the number of times the alert--" The look in her eyes could have melted nanosteel.
"Look, if a Gort tries to take over your swarm, nearby bugs will join it. The harder the Gort tries, the more bugs will arrive."
Carrie dove for cover as the Gort launched a laser bolt at the spot she had been standing. So much for taking control first, she thought. As the giant stepped forward, it encountered the edges of her swarm in the conference room, and focused its attention on them. The beam from its eye scattered into dozens of tiny pinpoint beams.
...then hundreds of pinpoint beams.
More and more bugs swarmed out of the room to join in the attack on the Gort. It raised one massive hand, the huge head swivelling back and forth, and took a step backwards--and broke apart into its own swarm. The air was alive with nanobugs fighting for air superiority.
Carrie made a dash for the airlock.
"And thank you for playing! We have a lovely parting gift to take home with you! One bug in a thousand will go into assassin mode," Riley said. "It will find organic material, hook on, and go to sleep for thirty to three hundred days. Then it will go into stealth mode, crawling around and multiplying, for anywhere from ten minutes to ten days, and then it will go on the attack. That way, any survivors from the station will still carry your 'message' even if they didn't get a chance to hear it in person."
Carrie dove through the airlock, pounded on the button to get the door to close, and signalled the bridge to disconnect and get moving. Riley was still there, waiting for her with a gun in his hand. He holstered it, pulled out a remote control, and deactivated any nanobugs that had made it onto the ship. They felt the thump of docking connections clearing and the press of acceleration as the ship rocketed away from the station.
"You realize you just declared war on the entire galaxy," he said, with half a smile.
"No," she answered. "They declared war on us thirty years ago. But they made the mistake of not finishing us off like they should have."
The two of them headed for the bridge, stepping away from the letters he had scribbled on the airlock. The words "Enola Gay" shone bright and clear behind them.