“A Wounded Sky” by Andrew Johnston

The sky’s been running down my walls for the last week, just these weird regal purple trickles of oily space that squirm their way down any surface that can hold them. You can’t clean those up with a rag, that’s for sure – it’s dangerous just to touch them when they look like that, I can glean that much even without extensive testing. At least they aren’t slicing up my walls, and in fact the chemists on the news tell us that they’re very close to a solution to clean the atmosphere off of softer surfaces. Well, I’ll believe the bastards when they actually deliver. Meanwhile, I’ve got these big blotches of heaven matter all over my place that I don’t dare touch.

It’s like this all over the planet from what I’ve seen. You can’t see the Aurora Borealis anymore, not since it melted all over the Arctic. Down in Brazil, they dread the rain because each droplet of redeemed water carries some of the sky with it, and now heaven and earth are all mixed up. The runoff in Beijing is just this endless grimy loop in the air, but I’m told that it’s actually quite beautiful in Cape Town if you can manage to look at it without fainting dead away from the shock of the thing.

This is what happens when the builders get bored. I’m not talking about our human builders, those hulking men with tools who raised up those big, impressive things back in the day. I’m talking about our nanoscopic helpers, the ones that gave us this society and then decided that there was more work to do. We didn’t give them enough to do in the first place, and now the mountains are melting into mineral-rich slag, and our lakes are turning from water into more interesting but less useful liquids, and occasionally a vein of some precious metal just rips free of the ground and starts flailing like a huge snake in its death throes. Just the cost of doing business is how we saw it, at least until the sky started flaking and running all over our floors. Bad enough that the planet is disintegrating in front of us, we’ll still be there the next day trying to clean up the mess.

I know I should feel a lot guiltier about this, but it’s not like I actually designed the damn things, or built them, or gave them their orders. Yeah, I was there at the start, but what scientist – what human being – wouldn’t get a little excited about finding a shard of alien wonder in the middle of some field? We already hold our breaths for asteroids and things like that, but a chunk of something manufactured, with all the mysteries of its creators still locked up inside of it, is too much to resist. And yeah, when we found that strange goo inside the thing, we really should have left it alone, but…well, maybe you have to be a scientist yourself to fully understand that part. Goo is always exciting, especially when it looks biological. That’s life we’re dealing with – alien life, extraterrestrial life, or at least that’s what we thought at first glance.

You know what a biomachine is? Well, we thought we did until we put the goo into our machines and took a closer look. Designer cells, microbes made to order with gears and pistons fashioned out of proteins. Robots with genes and hunger, that’s what we found. We wasted no time in dissecting the little things – and you wouldn’t? You don’t get to judge any of us, especially since no one complained when they found out what those microbes could do. Yeah, there were the usual complaints, the social media campaigns, the threatening letters, the activists throwing mounds of their rotting garbage at our lab. We had a little fun with them on that last one – turned the microbes loose and let them eat the refuse, even the stuff that no living thing could digest. Then we did the same with some nasty radioactive isotopes left behind after energy testing. That shut them all up in a right hurry.

Destroying nuclear waste is great and all, but we really didn’t get the teeming masses on our side until we showed them what our little bugs could do for them in their personal. Hell, what can’t they do? I think every factory in the nation has a culture of our biomachines doing something or another. They turn industrial byproducts into useful materials, extract precious metals from stone…they spin trash into treasure, is what they do. That made everything a lot cheaper, but it was still too boring for us, too mundane, too of-this-Earth for something we dug out of an alien vessel. We went for medicine next – always a crowd pleaser. You ever see that video with that dog with the deformed heart, where you could watch the CT and see the damage fixed in real time? That was us. Materials scientists never got so much great press.

Then we got bored again – bored with saving lives, go figure – so we started thinking really big. You know those old stories where the nanoscopic machines built whole buildings from scratch? We wanted to do that, but not sheds or houses, we wanted something huge. We wanted our microbes in every building project, making everything stronger and bigger. Do you know that our biomachines thrive in anaerobic environments? Made them perfect for NASA’s automated construction projects. Buildings going up on the Moon – the damn Moon, friends – in half the time they thought, at half the cost. Life support down to pennies on the dollar.

Oh, the attention we got after that, the adulation – you’ve seen the press, naturally, but there was so much more. You wouldn’t believe the list of people who wanted to shake my hand. Scientists, yeah – big names at that – and presidents and prime ministers, but big stars, too. We made materials science sexy, and the sexy people wanted to catch a little bit of that reflected beauty. Imagine that, an eight-figure-a-picture actor thinking that a picture with me could boost his rep? Eh, but that wasn’t the important part, not to me, not to any of us. The important part was that we were finally satisfied with our work.

The microbes weren’t satisfied, though. They were still bored, still looking to fix things, looking for the bigger and better. Can a minute glob of protein feel useless? Am I seeing myself in these alien cells? I guess it doesn’t matter, not now, not that we can’t tell them to stop. In some ways, they are more ambitious than we ever were, thinking three and four steps beyond us, fixing things that we didn’t know were problems. I admire the little bastards, at least until I look to the skies and see that oozing wound where our atmosphere once was.

I’ve never seen something so ugly and so beautiful at the same time. The colors that bled out of that thing were beyond what I could imagine in my wildest dreams, a rainbow flood covering the place where we’d once worked miracles. Yeah, they put it right over the old lab – was that a sign? Were they sending a signal, or mocking us? That’s silly, these things are germs, they don’t think. They do have ambition, though. It took them all of six hours before they ripped open the next hole in space, this time over Washington. A bunch of Senators got a good look at what we’d done, got to muck up their shoes walking through it. That’s when the panic started for real.

Don’t say they’re out of control, though, that’s just not the case. All those people screaming about “gray goo” are missing the point – they could have killed us if they wanted to, I’m sure of it. How hard would it be for these miracle workers to change the chemical composition of the atmosphere and let us choke to death on our own hubris? No, those things are on a mission, one that’s a hell of a lot bigger than anything we ever dreamed up. Maybe they want to make a perfect world and weren’t happy with our stopping place, so they kept going. I look at the atmosphere bleeding into my wallpaper and I can’t help but think that this planet-sized impressionist painting must be some fiend’s idea of heaven.

It makes me wonder about that shard, that alien manna we found by chance. We took it for wreckage, or a probe, or some such other thing that met Earth by accident – what it we were wrong? What if there was intent there? What if some desperate species sent us this gift, knowing we’d tear it open, looking to master it? What if the machines were never listening to us, but to their creators? This could all be according to some greater plan. We might be the sheep here.

The funny part is that I’m not scared at all, even though it looks like the end is upon us. One of my technician friends speculated that the next step in whatever the microbes are doing is to change us. Some of them are smaller than DNA molecules, you know. It’s not outside the bounds of reason that they might be changing us, perfecting us, or just turning us into servants for the ones who are already perfect. Or maybe they’re just swimming around in our blood and toying with our biochemistry, putting fun little compounds into our brains so we won’t kick too much when the hammer comes down.

Maybe I am being controlled, but as a scientist I’m excited to see what comes next, even if we’re doomed. There are certainly less interesting ways to go than drowning in liquid sky.

Andrew Johnston is a teacher, writer and documentarian based out of China’s Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. He is also the producer of the documentary short A Crisis of Harmony, on the cultural gap between the United States and China. You can find more free, Creative Commons works available on his website, www.findthefabulist.com.

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