"The deadline's too close," I snarled. "I don't have the time to listen to your inane babbling..."
"Time is just what keeps everything from happening at once." Ginger arose, laughing, from the poolside lounge. Her skin, a brighter green than even her miniscule bikini, faded to aqua, then almost to pink as she stretched lazily and moved deeper into the shade of the cabana. Outside of our shaded area, the grass and trees glistened under a hard blue sky. "You're the one who taught me that, remember?"
"Very funny. This could kill all of us," I snarled at her, but Ginny didn't even have sense enough to look worried. She'd been a bubble head when I met her, and she hadn't gotten any smarter in all the years we'd been married. Not even a nanorejuve could help with the way she thinks. "Heinlein picked the wrong decade; this is going to be the real 'Year of the Jackpot' if Project Lucifer doesn't work out."
"Pooh!" She ruffled what was left of my hair. Somehow, the nanorooters hadn't done much for me in that respect. Not yet, anyway. Oh, well. Maybe next year's model would do the job. Give them time. Time! That nasty word again.
"Admit it, Jared. You're just a natural worrier," she continued. "The world has never..."
" ... Has never come to an end," I parroted the phrase along with her, overriding her softer voice. "Therefore, it never will come to an end. That's bullshit, and we both know it!"
Ginny shrugged her delectable shoulders, refusing to argue. Only one of her less endearing traits. Taking a sip of my sugared juice, she turned back toward the pool and the filtered sunlight. Her color shifted back through a kaleidoscope of shades, and as she dove into the cool blue waters of the pool she was once again a brilliant green.
I stayed in the deep shade, content to remain my natural color since I wasn't really hungry. The nanobots might have given us the ability to chew leaves and soak up sunshine, cutting away down on Earth's ecoloading from too many bodies, but natural food was still available and Ginny and I could easily afford it. People had panicked when they'd suddenly turned green, but then they'd realized how much that one change to their bodies had helped the ecology. The famines were at an end, for a few years at least, now that we could eat almost anything organic. Then had come the second round of riots when they realized that the same controlled mutation by the nanobots had cut the fertility of the race down to a manageable level. The various God Gurus had thrown a whole series of shitfits, but the people would learn to live with that aspect of the nanotech revolution, too. Mankind would eventually adapt, if only I could buy them the time...
Nanorooters to regenerate our failing, aging bodies. Nanobots to rebuild those bodies and adapt us to shrinking diets. Thousands of nanodevices, protecting us from a whole range of disasters that ranged from the population explosion to rising UV levels. Nanoassemblers to build for us, and nanocomputers to do our thinking ... No, not thinking. Computing, calculating, pragmatic designing, but not thinking. The energy densities required to make nanosentience possible were still too high. Even with the fantastic construction materials made possible by molecular technology, a nanosentience would cook itself into a puddle of slag as soon as it was turned on. The crab apple sized CPU of my Mac XVII had to have a steady stream of water running through it to keep it from burning up. A nuisance, though it helped to keep our pool warm in cold weather.
Not even the latest nanobots could do everything. They could do almost nothing about the worst problem to face us, the continuing rapid breakdown of the ozone layer. All that we had done with them so far was to change our melanin cells to chloroplasts, seeding our skins with chlorophyll to convert some of the too plentiful ultraviolet into food energy, while other nanobots migrated to the outer layers of plants and animals to shield them from too much UV. We still survived, but in today's hard sunlight people and animals were bright green, and plants glittered with a metallic luster.
Crushing back my anger at Ginny's frivolous attitude, I picked up my stylus and turned back to the sketch pad of my Mac XVII. The image on the holographic wall screen moved and turned, growing into a crystal bird with outstretched diaphanous wings. I was damned proud of that design! I changed its shape, subtly lengthening and rounding it to accommodate the elements I added to its interior. The wings spread wider, narrowing until they resembled something out of an El Greco painting. I made a few more slight changes, but erased them when they didn't add anything to the efficiency of my design. Finally satisfied, I pressed the tip of my stylus against a corner of the pad. The bird changed color, becoming silver on the bottom, turning to inky black on its upper surfaces.
"Proceed with the simulation," I commanded, marginally aware that Ginny, fading now to a delicate emerald as she stood at the edge of the cabana's deeper shadow, had come to peer over my shoulder. The image on the screen receded, lifting and wheeling until it seemed to hover high above the computer's point of view. The wings shifted and beat, lifting the crystal bird ever higher as it reached for the fringes of the atmosphere. Night came and the bird rested, drifting slowly downward, gliding on unmoving pinions. Sunlight, and the wings moved once more.
When it could climb no higher, the bird changed. Still absorbing the sunlight, it began making different use of the radiant energy. Its mouth opened into a trumpetlike scoop, and the thin air streamed through the organs of its body and out beneath the tail. Oxygen and nitrogen were breathed in; nitrogen and ozone breathed out. Stray molecules of flourocarbons were filtered out of the air stream and stored, made harmless. This was the heart of Project Lucifer, a valiant attempt to patch the holes in Earth's ozone layer. It was facetiously named for Lucifer, the Light Bearer; an attempt by mere mortals to stem the flood of unbearable light. Night came, and day, and night again in an almost endless cycle until at last something went wrong, a carbyne thread snapping from too many cosmic rays, too prolonged a strain. The tip of one wing folded into an unstable configuration, and pieces of my crystal bird spun slowly back to earth.
"How ... how long?"
The Mac's tenor voice answered Ginny's question: "137 DAYS 15 HOURS TWENTYTWO MINUTES ... NINETYTHREE PERCENT OF ACCEPTABLE MINIMUM..."
"Ninetythree percent of the one hundred and fortyeight days we have to have!" I threw down my stylus. "Seven percent more, just seven percent!"
"Poor Jared." Her fingers wove through my hair, massaging the back of my neck in the familiar way that I loved. Loved and hated. "Only seven percent away from the solution to saving the world. Oh well, the day before yesterday it was nine percent. Come on, Jarryboy. Time to stop working for the day. You've put in your four hours for good old NanoSoft Corporation, and then some. It's nearly time for us to go."
"Go?" I shook my head, still intent on the columns of figures that marched across the screen. "Go where?"
"Jared! Turn that stupid thing off. You don't even remember, do you? You promised you'd take me to Frascatti's for dinner. Now, turn that silly damned machine off and go get dressed."
I clicked on SAVE and BACKUP. The holographic screen on the wall cleared, fading to a painting of fields and trees under a softly clouded sky. I didn't remember making the reservation, but I was too beat to argue. "All right, Frascatti's it is. Twenty minutes?"
Our sleek black Celica coupe took the curves easily as we headed west on I90, its electric motors almost silent as its skin drank power from the sunlight. The sun was nearing the horizon, glaring down out of a sky that was too clear, too blue. Along the sides of the road the plants were losing their metallic sheen as the level of UV dropped. In the distance, Seattle's slender towers stood like battlements, kilometers high fingers holding onto the sunset's glow, keeping back the darkness for a few more minutes. Not that they would prevail for long; the cities were finally doomed. Doomed by the same forces that had brought them into being, the forces of growth and commerce. Those same needs that had drawn people together in such unwieldy masses were now operating to drive them farther apart. Nobody needed, nobody wanted to live cheek to jowl with a thousand thousand neighbors, not when nanoassemblers could build whatever was needed from rocks and soil, from air and local vegetation. Not when workers could toil at their jobs without leaving the sanctuary of their shielded nests.
The food at Frascatti's was superb, as always; delicate salads, followed by meaty textured protein in a myriad of forms. Pale wines complemented each course, and a hidden instrumental group wove a background of melodies in the candlelight. For a few precious moments I was able to lay down the burden of Project Lucifer, forget the coming Death...
"Jared, why isn't ninetythree percent good enough?"
I winced as Ginny's question brought me back to sanity, landing in the real world with a resounding thud!
"You would have to ask." I gulped the remains of my glass of wine, holding it out for the mechanical steward to refill, but suddenly the taste was flat. "You do realize that the ozone layer is failing, don't you? That we'll all be dead if nothing is done to repair it?"
"Of course I do. I'm not stupid, you know!"
That was the problem. She wasn't stupid. Frivolous, bubbleheaded, not too interested in how the world survived, but not stupid. She had a decent enough brain, if only she would use it. I was the plodder, she was the butterfly...
"My birds are too expensive to build," I explained. "Their production, even using nanoassemblers, will take more resources and energy than we can spare if we are to survive long enough for them to do their work. The big computers at NanoSoft's Redmond headquarters have calculated how much each bird must do, how long it has to last to do the job efficiently. There are several hundred of us, all working on this one project, but so far my birds are away ahead of our next best bet."