First Nanocontact

First Nanocontact

by Pete D. Manison

Illustration by Randy Asplund-Faith

“It’s all just fuzz. See? And only a month out of warranty. Doesn’t that figure? Doesn’t that just figure?”

Kevin Mitchell Conrad shrugged. Chomping on his gum, he thought about how sick he was of making these damn service calls. Computers, TVs, VCRs. What a waste. He was cut out for more. He could feel it. But a guy had to make a living, didn’t he?

“Don’t sweat it, Pop,” he said, turning his cap around so the control goggles would fit. “Used to be, I’d have to take ’er into the shop, break er down, charge you out the—I mean, charge you an arm and leg on labor, all just to replace a chip or maybe clean up some dust that was shorting out a component.” He put on the gloves, tested the leads to the control box. Then he clicked on the goggles. Green lights winked happily. His view, at the moment, was only of darkness.

“I just hope you can get this thing working,” said Mr. Meekly, the middle-aged customer. “I’ve got three grand tied up in that dish outside, and tonight’s the big game, and, well, I know it’s illegal but the boys down in the city are blacked out and I promised them I’d tape—”

Yada, yada, yada, Kevin thought. Always the same with these people. Gotta have it. Gotta have it now. Well, that was what they paid him for—the quick fix. Still, it struck him as a waste. With this technology, he could be working on shuttles. Hell, he could be in orbit. Doing something that mattered, something meaningful. Not—

“And then my wife’s got her soaps in the morning, and all three of them come on at the same time, so she’ll have a conniption fit if it isn’t working, and then who’ll she take it out on? Me. That’s who. So you just—”

“I work better in silence,” Kevin said, and he blew a bubble. Control box on. Transmitter on. VR linkup confirmed.

“Activate microbot,” Kevin said. The black, briefcase-sized box that represented his life savings gave a faint hum. Then he got small.

“Hey, kid. You all right?”

Kevin grunted. “Yeah… yeah. Do me a favor, will you? See the button on the right top corner of my case? Press it.”

Click. Light flowed through the goggles. Blue, yellow, green. It was all blurry, but he didn’t bother to adjust it. He’d need to focus in tight to do the job.

“Got it,” reported Meekly.

“Great. Now see the little black disc that popped up?”

“Yes. Is that the microrepair robot?”

“Huh? You can see the disc, right?” Stupid customers.


“Great. Pick it up and put it on top of the VCR’s grill.”

The blurry colors moved. Kevin felt dizzy.

“Got it. Now what?”

Kevin moved his right index finger, gently detaching from the carrier disc as he tested the microbot’s control link. He could feel the tiny machine around him like a second body. A twitch of his left middle finger kicked in the bot’s headlights. The grill holes beckoned like dark cave openings.

“The VCR’s on, right?”

“No. I turned it off. I thought—”

Kevin sighed. “Well, turn it back on, will you? How can I find the problem if there’s no power going through the circuits?”

Sorry. I thought it would damage the repair bot.”

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Whine, whine, whine. Machine-dumb. Panic-stricken at the thought of missing the big game. Kevin almost took off the goggles right then. He would have, too, if it hadn’t been for the light bill, the phone bill, the rent, the groceries, the gas-guzzling van, the insurance, and, oh yes, the payments to Microrobotic Business Supplies, Inc.

“It’s insulated,” he told the man calmly. “Go grab a Fresca or something.”

He heard the click as the VCR’s power was switched on, but it sounded faint and far away. He was already entering the trancelike state that allowed him to control the bot like it was a part of his own body.

Through the air vent, down, down. Into the machine. Kevin found the motherboard, rolled forward onto the printed circuit highway. Integrated circuits towered over him like office buildings that had sprouted legs. His headlights flashed off the solder ahead of him, but beyond that, to the sides and rear, it was dark and silent, hauntingly empty.

Probably just some dust, he thought. It was dirty in here. Chip terminals grew fuzzy beards, and what looked like small rocks strewn about the board beneath him were really individual grains of dust, their proportions, like everything else, exaggerated by his microbot’s tiny eye.

Kevin stopped. Extending two probes, he measured the potential difference between two solder joints. Readouts scrolled up his goggles. The voltage was nominal. He moved on.

There. His eyes were adjusting, the bot’s senses growing sharper. The bot’s computer represented electricity as a faint blue glow in the circuits. Except there. Kevin zoomed in. Yes, that whole area was dark. No power. Nothing. It looked like half the signal recognition assembly was out.

“Great,” he whispered.

Faintly, far away, a voice said, “What is it? What have you found?”

Kevin ignored the voice, twitched his right middle finger. It was a long way to where he wanted to go. He’d have to move fast. That was the trouble with microbots, he always thought. They could do so much—monitor cells from the inside, recon hazardous areas like reactor cores or shuttle engines, do almost anything a man could do if he could shrink down to a few million atoms in size. But being tiny made you slow. If a microbot covered an inch in fifteen minutes, it was cruising. That inch could feel like miles.

“What was that?

Kevin stopped, rotated his right tread backwards so that his body pivoted to the right. The headlights bounced off a bright, shiny coil of metal that towered up into the darkness. The tape ejection spring. Nothing moved. And yet…

“Is something wrong?” a tiny, faraway voice asked.

Kevin sighed, rotated back to the left, and headed for the dark area again. “Just seeing things, I guess,” he muttered.

The blue, comforting glow of powered-up circuits dispelled his unease, and by the time Kevin reached the fringes of the dark zone, he’d almost forgotten that something had moved back there, something even smaller than he was, something he’d never seen before.

“Now we’re talking turkey,” he muttered. Tapping into a circuit confirmed what he had already suspected: the signal recognition assembly was completely dead. Experience told him what to do. He’d circumnavigate the dark area, and somewhere along the perimeter he’d find a melted connection or a bit of dust or a burned-out diode…


“I know I didn’t imagine that.” He spun to the left, sped forward as he brought the headlights up to their brightest setting. There was something moving up there. Faster, faster. He got close enough to make out a shape: vaguely cylindrical with a thickening near the top. Then it darted between two leads to IC13 and was gone.

Weird, thought Kevin. He’d heard of bugs in the machinery. Hell, he’d even seen a few. Sometimes cockroaches would nest inside a radio or computer and drive the owner nuts. He didn’t dare spray in there… But this was different. Even an ant would have towered over the microbot. This thing had been small.

“Are you getting anywhere?” a distant voice asked. “Game’s on in forty-five minutes.”

Right, thought Kevin. The game, right The flippin’ game. Kevin kept driving. He retraced his path to the edge of the dead area and began a careful probe of the perimeter. Five minutes later, he found the trouble.

“I don’t believe this.”

There was the power line, a giant red snake coiling down from the darkness. And there was the input junction for the signal recognition assembly. And there was something he had never seen before in his life. Cautiously, he eased the bot forward.

The red power cable had a ring of tiny, interlocking metal pieces around it, something that looked a little like a metal watchband. Some of the parts of the band looked familiar: the base of an LED lead there, a strip of black insulation there. All of it was soldered together, and pits in the solder seam beneath him seemed to account for the source of the solder.

He extended a pair of probes. Just as he’d thought. On the other side of the wristband, the red cable was dead.

There has to be some explanation for this, Kevin thought. He swiveled the bot’s eye back and forth, feeling as if he were being watched. This was just too weird.

A yellow light blinked insistently in his goggles. The bot’s stored charge was one-quarter depleted. He’d better get on with this job before he lost another bot. His insurance was high enough as it was.

Cut the watchband, he thought. That was the obvious move. But something made him hesitate. Better to play it safe. Better to go on into the assembly, check it out internally before restoring power to the area. He’d never come up against anything like this. Yeah. Better to play it safe.

Darkness engulfed the bot as Kevin moved forward into the trouble area. He wanted to conserve power; but there was no choice, he had to keep the headlights on high beam. The silicon city around hi ...

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