John A. Frochio
A card was smoking six floors up and Sam’s cell-link was rattling his brain. Sam Pennant engaged the fire control bots and deployed an inspection crawler up the side of the building to assess the damage after the fire was under control.
He picked up the link. It was Donawitz. Finally!
“Delivery should be next Tuesday.”
“Okay, but no later. There’s other suppliers out there, you know.”
Sam had to be tough or they’d roll over him like an out of control card carrier. He had a building to construct. He needed those cards or his target date would surely slip. It would probably slip anyway. Something always happened. Like what was happening now.
Sam was tall and muscular with hardened, aged features. The past glory of his full head of coal black hair was thinning now and graying at the edges. He wore a white shirt and dark jeans, topped off with a white hardhat.
Sam had been a construction supervisor for many years, long before the nano-engineered steel cards came around that supposedly reduced construction time significantly. He wasn’t so sure about that.
It used to be about getting into the nuts and bolts, getting down and dirty. It was about getting the foundation down and the support columns in place and fleshing out the steel skeleton. Now it was about software configuration, remote monitoring and playing with Legos or dominoes.
Cards came in all shapes and sizes and functions, some large, some small, many highly specialized. Some cards were primarily foundational, others structural, all with interlocking conduit for utilities. The cards could connect to one another in a multitude of ways, but all could communicate with each other. A single central processor card controlled and monitored all the other cards. Auxiliary controller cards managed a variety of subsystems. Damaged or obsolete cards could be quickly and automatically swapped out.
However, he had more trouble with card suppliers — missing orders, wrong orders, mislabeled cards, misprogrammed cards — than he ever had with any vendor in the past. And stricter government rules and regulations and tougher penalties gave him even more headaches.
To make matters worse, his relationship with his wife was deteriorating. Nothing he could say or do made any difference any more. He felt helpless, unable to do anything about it. Another headache came on.
He directed the carrier with the malfunctioned card down the side of the building and out to the scrapyard. A replacement card was transported by another carrier, which deftly snapped it into place.
Another call came in, this time his daughter Mary. At least her voice didn’t grate on his last nerve.
“I need a ride from school after play practice. Mom isn’t feeling well.”
“OK. I’ll be there.”
“Thanks. Love ya, Dad. Bye.”
He would have to leave work a little early, but Steve could cover for him. His headache was starting early anyway. He went into the warehouse looking for his assistant.
Precisely at 6:30, Sam pulled his silver BMW into the high school parking lot and turned off the engine. He looked around at the other parents waiting in their cars. All of them were chatting with someone on their cell-links. He chuckled to himself thinking they looked like a bunch of crazy people talking to themselves.
In a few minutes, Mary came strolling out toward the car talking nonstop with her friends. She was still chattering when she got into the car next to him, easily seguing from live conversations to cell-link chats.
Not even a simple “Hi, Dad?”
Mary was petite like her mother, but with long black hair instead of Maureen’s wavy brown. She wore a bright green blouse and a short black and white striped skirt. She moved constantly, like a bird trying to escape from a cage.
He pulled out of the parking lot and started driving homeward. A minute later, Mary turned to him and said, “Maggie can’t get in touch with Mom.”
“If she’s not feeling well, maybe she went to bed. What does your sister want your Mom for?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s a female thing, Dad.”
Sam suddenly remembered something he forgot to tell Steve before he left.
“Hold on. I have to call work.”
There was no answer.
“I’m sorry, Mary, but I have to run back to work for a few minutes. It won’t take long.”
He pulled up to the construction site and jumped out of the car. Mary waited in the car.
The skeletal structure of the office building, three stories high now, dominated the site. The temporary warehouse, also constructed from nano-cards, stood next to the building and was used as offices and storage for the cards, card carriers, maintenance bots and other equipment.
When Sam walked into the warehouse, he heard a great deal of clanging and banging, all metallic noises, no human sounds. A lot of card carriers and equipment haulers were on the move. He called out to Steve. A moment later, a card carrier moved past him carrying a foundation card.
Someone’s controlling that carrier, he thought. But where are they?
“Where are you guys?” he called out.
There should have been four working the late shift. Steve, Jamal, Joyce and Louie. None of them were slackers. Something was wrong.
He moved through the warehouse quietly, up and down the aisles between the tall racks. He turned a corner and stopped in shock. Steve and Jamal were lying face down in two large pools of blood.
“My God!” he whispered.
He slammed backwards into a rack.
“My God! My God!”
This can’t be happening! This can’t be real!
My God, who would do such a thing?
He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think straight. What should he do?
A card carrier popped around a corner with a ductwork connector card and rolled over the bodies.
Heart pounding, a cold sweat soaking him, he bolted back toward the front entrance. When he remembered his daughter was waiting in his car, he quickened his pace. He had to get as far away from there as possible.
When he burst through the doors, he sprinted toward his car. A noisy racket made him turn around and look. Two equipment haulers were following him.
Whoever was behind these murders was still on the site. And they were controlling the construction equipment.
He scrambled into his car and started the engine. As he pulled out, he glanced back. The haulers were equipped with large and ominous-looking guns mounted on all four sides. They were all swiveled and pointing right at them. He hit the accelerator.
Mary looked back and said, “Oh my God, Dad, what’s going on?”
“I wish I knew.”
After they had cleared the site, he called 911 and gave them all the details.
“Two of my people are dead. There should be two others at the site. They may be dead as well. Unless one of them is the murderer.”
He couldn’t believe what he was saying. It felt surreal.
The dispatcher said, “Police are on their way. Are you still at the site?”
“No. My daughter was with me, so I got away as fast as I could. I think the killer is still there.”
“We’ll need contact info since the police will want to question you.”
After he clicked off, Mary said, “Murder? That’s crazy, Dad. Did somebody flip out?”
“I don’t know.”
Louie was having family troubles lately, but he never wanted to talk much about it. There were rumors his wife might be having an affair. Maybe Louie snapped.
Sam was worried that whoever had done this was controlling the card carriers and equipment haulers. But to what purpose? I didn’t make any sense.
Then he said, “Call your sister. I’m going to drop you off with her and go back to the worksite. The police will need to talk to me.”
“It’s too dangerous back there, Dad!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll stay out of the way until the police have control of everything.”
Mary called her sister.
“Maggie will be leaving work shortly. She’ll meet us at the Proteus Gas Station, you know, the one close to her office building.”
They were silent for a minute.
Then he said, “Let me know how your Mom’s doing, okay?”
“I just tried. Still no answer.”
Sam arrived before Maggie. He pulled up to a pump to get some gas. Mary said she was starving, so he gave her some cash credits to get something from the convenience mart.
His throat was dry. “Get me some water, too.”
While he was pumping gas, he looked back toward the city. His eyes blinked in disbelief. A tall narrow structure was sprouting up from the center of the cityscape, at least nine or ten stories high. It glistened in constantly changing colors in the light of the setting sun.
He knew immediately that it was his building. That is, it used to be his building. Someone had taken over his commission and turned it into something completely different, taller, narrower, more like a tower than the original design. How quickly had it been transformed!
Who was behind this? And why?
After he gassed up, he joined a group of people who had gathered to stare at the odd structure.
One middle-aged woman said, “I don’t know whether I’m in awe or in fear of that thing.”
“What do you think it is?” asked an older lady.
A young man said, “One of those new nano-engineered buildings, I think. But not like any other I’ve ever seen. They don’t make them that high.”
An old man grunted. “I don’t trust them. I never get near one of them let alone inside one of them.”
“Why not?” asked the first woman.
“Too much high tech stuff. Too much can go wrong. Just like cars. They don’t make them like they used to.” He pointed. “I still drive my old ’09 Honda. Nothing wrong with it.”
Others in the group echoed his sentiments.
Sam returned to his car.
Maggie pulled up in her Audi and jumped out. She ran over to her father. “Mary told me everything. You can’t go back to that . . . murder scene. You don’t know where the murderer is.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t get too close. I promise.”
She hugged him. Maggie looked less like her mother than her sister. She was tall and slim. She wore an office casual white blouse and blue skirt. Her hair was light brown and wavy like her mother’s but she kept it cut shorter. She was the calmer and more serious of his two daughters.
“Just be careful, Dad. We don’t want to lose you.”
Mary came out of the store swinging a bag of food. She handed her father a bottle of water. He took a long drink.
He said, “Listen, I’m no hero. I’ll be careful. Now go home and don’t worry about me.”
They hugged him and left.
On his way back, Sam called his friend. Andy Zernich was one of the best card programmers in the business. Sam affectionately referred to him as Card Shark Boy. He explained the situation.
“Well, the only way for a card building to override its programmed design parameters is for someone to breach the central controller’s operating system. It might even be under the control of a remote source. If I can break into its internal network through one of the auxiliary processors, I can try to take control away from the central processor.”
“How can you do that?”
“I need you to get an auxiliary controller card that’s scheduled to be installed in the building. I can download my modified operating system into it and you can make sure it gets installed in the building. Then I can connect remotely.”
“What do you think is going on, Andy?”
“Industrial espionage? I don’t know. Whatever is happening, it doesn’t sound good.”
As Sam drew closer to the construction site, he grew more amazed at what was happening. The apparent sparkling effect was caused by many card carriers crawling up and down the structure, quickly placing cards and retreating to obtain more cards. The operation was being done much faster than normal construction speeds. It looked creepy, like bugs crawling up and down the building.
Sam approached the site slowly. The place was buzzing with activity and a large area was cordoned off with yellow and black tape by the police. Sam parked his car as close as he could and approached a policeman standing guard outside the enclosed area.
“I’m the supervisor of this construction site. I made the 911 call. Can I talk to someone in charge?”
The policeman led Sam to a tall, heavyset man who was scowling and pacing back and forth while grumbling into his cell phone. When he saw Sam approaching, he said, “I’ll call you back.”
“I’m Sam Pennant. I called.”
“Captain Howard Miller. Stand still.”
The police captain scanned Sam’s eyes with a handheld device. A moment later, he said, “Now tell me what you know.”
Sam repeated the events leading to his decision to get his daughter as far away from the scene as possible.
“But I had to return to the scene. These were my friends.”
The captain said bluntly, “We think this might be a terrorist attack.”
Sam’s jaw dropped.
“Terrorists constructing a building instead of knocking it down? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I know it seems ironic, but think of this giant steel construct as a fortress with hundred of weapons mounted and aimed at targets around its central location. Notice the suspicious round openings evenly spaced all around the building. Imagine what damage they could do to a city. And from what I’m told, these new nano-steel buildings are not easily taken down.”
Sam nodded. His face grimaced as he considered all the unpleasant possibilities.
“They’re clearly not hesitant to kill anyone who gets in their way.”
They killed Steve and Jamal and probably Joyce and Louie, too. Sam’s stomach tightened when he thought about each one of them. He’d worked with them for years, knew their families well. The reality of this unreal situation was sinking in.
The captain scratched his chin and nodded. “We can’t get too close to this building without getting fired at. Two of my men are dead and three are wounded. I’ll have to contact the Feds.”
“There’s something I might be able to do. I have a friend — a card programming expert — who could remote in and maybe stop it from within. I just have to get inside and reprogram a controller card.”
“How are you going to get inside?”
“There’s underground access for utilities. I know this construction site like the back of my hand. If anyone can avoid detection, I can.”
He shook his head and stopped, then paced. He stopped again. “OK, but I need information on this friend of yours. And I’m sending someone in with you. I don’t like this at all, but if there’s any chance at all to avoid a blood bath . . .”
Officer Arun Lakshmi joined Sam at the South entrance to the site. According to the Captain, Arun was their best marksman. Arun smiled slightly when he met Sam, but did not say much.
Arun Lakshmi was a lightly dark-skinned Indian, short and stocky, with dark curly hair. His features were soft yet somber, accentuated by a long faint scar on his right cheek.
Sam pointed. “The entrance to the underground tunnels is through that shed. Follow me.”
They had a clear view of the building and the frantic activity going on around its base and up its sides. The area behind the warehouse, however, was deserted. They moved quickly and quietly across the open space. When they arrived at the shed, Sam used his key to unlock it. They hurried inside.
Sam unlocked and opened the floor access. He grabbed two flashlights, handed one to Arun. Both descended a set of wooden steps. At the bottom he began weaving through the ductwork and columns and stacked crates. He went to a door painted with a large white “A” and stopped.
He turned to the officer. “This is what we have to do. I need to go into the warehouse and get an auxiliary controller card. Card carriers will be constantly moving in and out of the warehouse. There are also security cams which may or may not be monitored by . . . well, whoever they are.”
“My guess is they haven’t taken over the security system. They would only be concerned about people outside the site. They wouldn’t expect anyone to attack from within.”
Arun said, “Regardless, we have to assume we’re being monitored. Do you know where all the cameras are?”
“Show me.” Officer Arun took out a pad. “And show me where we need to go. We’ll plan a route based on minimal exposure to the cameras.”
Sam sketched a quick layout of the warehouse and they reviewed their best options. No option was perfect. They selected their best route and went in.
The interior of the warehouse was noisy. Card carriers were constantly moving up and down the aisles and in and out of the main doorway.
Controller cards were at the opposite end of the building. They worked their way around the outer walls until they got close to their destination. They snaked around crates and ducked below racks until Sam indicated the closets which kept the controller cards protected from dust.
When they arrived at the first closet door, Sam unlocked it and slid one of the modules out. Then he called Andy while Arun kept watch.
Andy told him, “Plug your phone into the USB port.”
Sam extracted a cable and plugged his phone into the card.
“OK,” said Andy. “I’m connected and downloading. Hold on.” A moment later he said, “Okay. You can disconnect.”
Sam unplugged the cable. “So now I have to plug this into a data port in one of the structural and conduit cards, right?”
“You got it. I’ll be monitoring, so I’ll know when the card gets connected to the building.”
Under his breath, Sam said, “Easier said than done.” Then louder: “Okay. Thanks, Andy.”
He scanned the high-ceilinged warehouse, with its endless racks full of cards stacked to the ceiling. Carriers crawled up and down the racks like fearless mountain climbers, never stopping to rest. If he could only figure out which cards would be deployed next. There had to be a pattern to their seemingly aimless wanderings. He stared at the moving carriers for a long time.
Arun said, “What are we doing now?”
Sam pointed at a far wall. “Racks A, B and C. Those are all structural cards. I have to figure out the most likeliest structural and conduit card I can plug this into that will be added to the building sooner than later. I’m trying to determine a pattern.”
Sam studied the shuttling carriers for several minutes.
Finally he said, “I know where we need to go. Follow me.”
They worked their way over to Rack C. Crouching behind some crates, they watched as card carriers crawled up and down the rack and hustled up and down the aisle.
Sam said, “See those high-rimmed cards with the blue letters? I have to replace the controller module in one of those cards with my modified module. I need a carrier to stop for a minute while I make the swap.”
Arun stared for a moment, then said, “What would happen if I disabled one?”
“All of the carriers behind it would stop and a maintenance bot would be called. An empty carrier would be dispatched to replace the disabled carrier. An auto fork truck would remove the carrier from the queue so that the new carrier could retrieve the controller module from the disabled carrier and take its place in the queue.”
“How long would all that take?”
“About a minute.”
“Enough time for you to make the swap?”
Sam hesitated. “I think so.”
Officer Arun retrieved a crowbar from a nearby supply shelf. He looked at Sam and said, “Ready?”
He took a deep breath. “Do it.”
Officer Arun ran into the aisle and roughly jammed the crowbar into the gap behind the carrier’s right front crawler arm. A loud crack sounded over all the other noises. The carrier stopped instantly. Arun hurried back behind the crates.
As the other carriers came to a halt, Sam sprung into action. A maintenance horn blared. The flashing yellow lights of a maintenance bot appeared at the end of the aisle. Sam unplugged and tossed the original module into the aisle. After he seated the new module, he jumped off the carrier. The maintenance bot stopped and turned toward Sam. Sam held up his access card. The bot continued toward the dead carrier. Sam hurried out of sight. He was covered with sweat and trembling.
A few moments later an empty carrier crawled up to the dead carrier and extracted its controller card. The dead carrier was quickly scooped away with the maintenance bot following. The new carrier took its place and soon all were moving again as though nothing had happened.
Sam said, “Let’s get out of here.”
They weaved their way back to the tunnel entrance.
They burst outside and ran. From around the front of the warehouse, a large equipment hauler popped into view and rolled toward them. It was equipped with four non-standard attachments that looked like gun turrets.
Sam spotted it first. “Over there!”
Arun looked back. “Damn!”
The guns began firing. They dove behind a stack of pallets. Several pallets were blasted into fragments that sprayed them as they covered their faces.
Officer Arun pulled his gun and fired several shots. “What should I aim at?”
“The control box. It’s under the front bumper.”
Arun hit it with one shot. Sparks flew and the hauler hissed and stopped in its tracks.
More equipment haulers showed up. Sam and Arun took off on a dead run back to the construction site entrance.
When they saw Captain Miller, Sam shouted, “We stirred up a hornets’ nest.”
Arun said, “They’re following us, sir. Have the men aim for the boxes under the front bumpers.”
Several police officers formed a line. Arun joined them as Sam hurried past, ducking behind a police car.
Sam took a moment to catch his breath. Captain Miller approached and asked him if he was alright.
“Yeah. Just out of shape. We got it in. It’s up to my friend now.”
“Keep me informed. We’ll hold these machines off as best we can.”
Sam called Andy. “It should be plugged into the backbone very soon.”
Andy said, “I’m in. Wish me luck.”
At that moment the wall of policemen exchanged gunshots with the approaching equipment haulers. Sam ducked down and covered his ears.
The Captain shouted for backup.
Realizing he wasn’t going to be much help, Sam ran back to his car. To his shock, he discovered his daughter’s car parked behind his car. And his daughters were nowhere to be seen.
His heart began to beat rapidly.
Then he did something he hadn’t done in a long time. He prayed.
Then he called Maggie’s cell.
“Where are you?”
Explosions and more gunfire shook the air behind him. Sirens blared in the distance.
Maggie and Mary came running from an alley. Sam ran over and hugged them.
He said, “Don’t scare me like that.”
Maggie said, “We hid when we heard all the gunshots.”
He said, “What are you two doing here?”
“Mom’s gone. All of her clothes and stuff. All gone.”
He couldn’t speak. On top of everything else going on, why this? Why now?
He turned away from their questioning eyes and said, “She’s been stressed a lot lately. Maybe she needed to get away for a while.” His voice cracked.
“Why didn’t she tell us?”
He didn’t know how to answer that question.
The sirens grew louder. Flashing lights came in their direction.
He said, “Let’s get back.”
Several police cars sped past them, sirens blaring, lights blinking furiously. Moments later ambulances and fire trucks rushed by.
Maggie said, “What’s going on, Dad?”
“I’m not sure. Someone’s taken over my construction site.”
Mary said, “Why would anyone do that?”
He sighed. “The police think they’re terrorists.”
Sam led his daughters down the street, away from the melee. He stopped momentarily at a familiar intersection and looked up at his first nano-card construction project from three years ago. He was disturbed to see a cobweb pattern of cracks along one side of the building.
He had never seen anything like that before.
Sam always wondered whether this technology had been pushed into the marketplace too soon without sufficient proof of concept testing.
“Somebody’s getting a call tomorrow.”
“Just talking to myself.”
All the gunfire and explosions stopped abruptly. Sam looked back. Smoke curled up from pockets of fires scattered around the construction site. The building was no longer crawling with carriers.
Had Andy gotten control?
Sam noticed a faint rumbling sound. The sound grew steadily louder. Suddenly a horde of carriers poured out from the construction site moving rapidly in all directions.
He looked around. “The alley. Fast!”
He ran into the nearby alley and ducked behind a dumpster.
His daughters followed him and then stopped.
Maggie said, “We’re not going back there.”
“It’s yucky,” said Mary.
“Look behind you.”
They turned and saw the stampeding card carriers. Screeching, they scurried behind the dumpster and crouched down. Sam leaned over them from behind, covering them with his arms and body.
Carriers and haulers of all types and sizes stormed past them, some loaded, some empty. The noise of their passing was deafening as the machinery pounded the cement and battered against the dumpster. His daughters covered their ears and closed their eyes.
Minutes later, as the rumbling died down, Sam cautiously peeked around the dumpster. A couple of broken carriers were lying unmoving on the street. Otherwise, it was deserted.
“We’ll wait a few minutes—just to be sure.”
Several minutes later they emerged from their hiding place and approached the construction site. They were astonished by the scene before them. It looked like a battlefield, scarred and ruined. Police cars, ambulances and fire trucks cluttered the scene. Police officers and medics were caring for the wounded. Fire fighters were putting out scattered fires. Bodies were being carried off on stretchers. Several bodies were left unattended, probably the dead.
Sam’s cell-link woke him. It was Andy.
“I got control for now. When I was detected, the controller sent out a directive to all the machinery to go out and crush everything in their paths. I couldn’t warn you because it took all my resources to fight this thing. It was strong. I finally found a back door, disabled it and stopped all the machinery.”
“Great job, Andy. Did you find out who was behind this?”
“Not yet. It probably wiped out all traces of its origin.”
Captain Miller approached.
“Thanks for your help, Sam. We couldn’t have stopped this thing without you and your friend.”
“We’re glad it worked out.”
“The Feds will be here soon. They’ll want to talk with you.”
“I can give them my full vendor list. One of them might be a cover for a terrorist group.”
The Captain returned to help with the wounded.
“Let’s help, Dad,” said Maggie.
As the mayhem at the construction site settled down, another call came in. Sam stared at the phone for a moment; then looked up seeking privacy before he answered. His eyes met Maggie’s as he passed. She stood from speaking to an injured fireman to follow.
“Maureen, where . . . ?” he listened a moment.
Maggie asked, “Where is she?”
He clicked off. “She’s leaving me. I guess that’s it.”
He felt tears welling up in his eyes and looked down.
“She didn’t say. I didn’t ask.”
Maggie hugged her father and sobbed.
“I’m sorry. I should have seen this coming. She’s been pulling away for a long time.”
Mary finished bandaging Officer Arun who smiled and nodded at Sam. Then she came over to them.
“What’s going on?”
Maggie said, “Mom’s leaving us.”
Mary said, “She didn’t even say goodbye. I hate her!”
Sam said, “Don’t ever say that. She loves you and she’ll always be your Mother. She’s just going through some difficulties. She’s leaving me, not you. You’ll see her again.”
But he wasn’t sure about any of the words of comfort he spoke to his daughters.
Today he had done some things he never would have dreamed he could do. He unearthed a strength and courage he didn’t know he had in him. That’s what he needed to face this latest upheaval in his life. Maybe he could fix it, turn it around. At least he could try. In his heart he knew his house of cards could be rebuilt.
Another call came in.
“Andy, what’s up?”
Andy’s voice was frantic. “I can’t stop it. It had a self-destruct mechanism. The whole thing is coming down. Get everyone out of there.”
Sam ran over to Captain Miller. “Get everyone out! The building is collapsing!”
Fortunately most of the workers and wounded were already gone. The rest hurried to their vehicles as quickly as they could. Cars and trucks sped off. Sirens blared.
Sam and his daughters ran toward their cars. They froze when they discovered both cars had been demolished by the rampaging machinery.
Sam said, “Keep running.”
Captain Miller was the last to leave. His lights flashing, he pulled his car up beside them.
They got in and he sped off.
Sam turned and watched the stack of steel cards tremble. The earth shook. Moments later, in a sudden violent climactic act, the tower collapsed into a heap of broken cards.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times, Aurora Wolf and Kraxon Magazine, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years. His author’s webpage is https://johnafrochio.wordpress.com/about/