This story takes place in the universe of Carley and Jack some time after chapter 9 and was written as a stand-alone story.
It starts the way a couple of others do, but goes in a different direction.
I wrote this during the spring love bug season of 2015.
Thor sat back and looked at the circuit board on the bench in front of him. A light wisp of smoke from his last solder point slowly dissipated in the breeze from the ceiling fan. “It should work now,” he said in a barely discernable Finnish accent.
Across the room, my girlfriend Carley snorted. “That’s what you always say. That’s what you’ve said at least a hundred times. It never works. You two geniuses promised to take me to the Mango Tree tonight and it’s time to get dressed. Leave that damned thing until tomorrow morning and let’s go.”
“Just give us two minutes,” I said. “If it doesn’t work, we’re all yours.”
Carley rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right! ‘If it doesn’t work.’ You know damn well that what you’re trying to do is freaking impossible. People have been trying for over thirty years.” She looked down at the scrawny, multicolored cat sitting in her lap. “Fluffy here has a better chance of catching a pelican ... OW!” Fluffy had noticed that Carley had stopped petting her in exactly the correct manner and had retaliated with a bite.
Thor laughed. “Serves you right for trying to be friends with that ugly little monster.” He slid the circuit board into its place in the rack and plugged in five cables connecting it to the rest of our revolutionary invention. Well, it would be revolutionary if we could get it do what we wanted.
Carley stood up, dumping the bad tempered cat onto the floor. She examined the tooth marks on her thumb. “Hurry up, Jack. I’m getting hungry.”
I hooked up the power as Thor jumped down from his stool. Thor is probably the smartest person I know, but he’s somewhat limited by his height. Thor is a dwarf, about 4 feet 8 inches tall. I’d built a couple of low platforms so he could work at my bench. I’m a foot and a half taller than Thor and might be a better electronics engineer and computer programmer, but his skill at higher math, especially his grasp of quantum mechanics, is far ahead of mine. Concepts that seem obvious to him are completely beyond me.
Sitting next to the electronics rack was a small wire cage containing a couple of palm fronds. On top of the highest frond was one of the ubiquitous lizards that infest Florida. Thor checked the conductivity of his circuits with a multimeter and gave me a thumbs-up.
I turned on three digital video cameras to record the (we hoped) success of our experiment. So far, we had deleted the recordings of 118 attempts.
I shook my head and smiled. “Your turn, Thor.”
Thor thumbed the spring-loaded toggle switch. The lizard collapsed and fell off the frond. It lay perfectly still.
We all jumped. “Son of a bitch,” gasped Carley. “It worked!” Fluffy, completely unimpressed, walked to the sliding glass door leading to the back yard and meowed. Carley ignored her. I could barely speak. Visions of what this could mean danced in my head.
Thor grinned. “I told you it would work!” He swung the top of the cage open and poked the lizard with his finger. In a convincing “Doctor McCoy” voice, he drawled, “He’s dead, Jim. You get his wallet and I’ll grab his Tricorder.”
Dinner plans forgotten, Carley picked up a coffee can, opened the sliding glass door and headed for the back yard. I knew where she was going. We were going to need more lizards. Fluffy trotted after her.
Thor’s smile was so broad that it seemed to wrap halfway around his skull. “We knew DNA was the key,” he said happily. “Now, all we need is an uncontaminated sample of the DNA of whatever we want to kill and the bio-analysis program will zero in on the unique features of that DNA. Once we have the data, we can structure a circuit that’ll shut down the electrical impulses that keep the organism alive. Instant death.” His cackle was straight out of a 1950s monster movie.
I shook Thor’s hand. “Well, buddy, there’s no way I could have done this without you and no one else I would have trusted to make sure it couldn’t be used as a weapon. Now, you’re sure it can’t be modified to harm primates?”
“I hate the way ‘absolutely’ is used so much these days, but,” he grinned, “absolutely! This device uses a quantum mechanism that only works a certain way. If you try to change any aspect of the mechanism, the whole thing ceases to function. I’ve tried to explain this to you. Killing any warm-blooded vertebrates, including humans, would require an entirely different approach.” He shrugged. “That means we can’t kill rats and mice, as much as we might like to. The little buggers eat megatons of grains and other food all over the world and contaminate more with their droppings. Oh, well.”
Thor paused to make a few notes in his journal and I sat down, thinking about the original invention that we’d been working to improve.
Ed Pierce was an electronics tech who’d been fired from his job for having some pretty nasty rape fantasy porn in his desk at work. The head of HR was a lesbian with no sense of humor and Ed soon found himself in the parking lot with all his stuff in a cardboard box. That was in March, 1979, four years before I was born.
Ed applied for unemployment and started looking for a job. While he looked, he spent his spare time working on a truly stupid project. Ed wanted to build a Phaser. He had no idea how to do it or if it was even possible, but that didn’t stop him.
In early May, Ed had a bad cold and didn’t feel like doing anything, but he’d come up with a combination of components he thought would work. When he applied power to his device, nothing obvious happened. Ed unhooked the device, left it on his workbench and went to bed.
The next morning Ed noticed two things. First, his cold was gone. Second, he had the runs. Instead of a Phaser, Ed had invented the GermZapper. His device, unfortunately, not only killed all harmful bacteria and every virus known to man, it also killed all the beneficial bacteria, like the ones that live in our guts and are essential for digestion. Since Ed had no freaking idea how his new invention worked, he went to his brother-in-law, who was a patent attorney. They came up with a patent that covered the device and every conceivable application. Then they went to a huge multi-national corporation and made a deal. The corporation gave Ed a billion dollars up front and a piece of every GermZapper that was sold anywhere in the world. The corporation did exhaustive R&D and, after 16 months of mostly trial and error work, they refined the GermZapper so it would only kill harmful germs and leave the good ones alone. The final product produced a field that was 16 feet, 2 inches in diameter. No one ever figured out how the damned thing actually functioned or why, no matter how much power was applied, the field remained exactly the same size. They sold a fantastic number of GermZappers and everyone got rich. Ed became the richest man in the world, by far.
The social effects of the GermZapper were dramatic. Before the GermZapper came along, people were concerned about contracting what were called “STDs”, or Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Most STDs weren’t fatal, but they were painful and it was very easy to catch them. People often used stretchy Latex bags called “condoms” that guys wore on their penises, so that men and women wouldn’t be exposed to each others’ fluids. That sounds phenomenally stupid and unpleasant to me, but it was the accepted way to have sex. Condoms also prevented pregnancy, but birth control pills were already making that unnecessary.
After GermZappers became available, they were mounted in the doorways of every clinic, hospital, airport, train and bus station, mall and every other place where there was significant foot traffic. Not only were most diseases wiped out, but STDs were eliminated and the only reasons not to have sex were custom and religion. Neither of those things did much to slow the surge of casual, no-strings sex that swept the world. There was no longer any reason for people who found each other attractive not to have sex. What used to be called “swinging” became a normal part of everyday life.
Now, over thirty years after the GermZapper came on the market, there’s more casual sex going on than our grandparents would have thought possible. Virtually every club, bar, mall and shopping center has restrooms. Before the GermZapper, they all had restrooms, but their restrooms didn’t have lockable booths with beds in them. It’s impossible to go to a party where people aren’t having sex. All beaches are nude beaches. Technically, it’s illegal to have sex in public, but no one could enforce a law like that and no one tries.
For more than thirty years, tens of thousands of researchers had tried to nail down what made the GermZapper tick. They had all failed.
Now, Thor and I had done it. Hundreds of invasive species all around the world were screwing up local ecosystems and, thanks to our invention, their days were numbered. Just in my home state of Florida, we had Brazilian Pepper trees, Melaleuca, climbing ferns, Australian pines, Hydrilla, Asiatic clams, fire ants, walking catfish, lionfish, pythons, iguanas and the hated “love bugs”. We were going into the extermination business on a grand scale.
Carley walked in with her coffee can. She plucked the dead lizard out of the cage and dropped in two live ones. Without a word, she pushed the switch and the lizards quietly died. She looked at me with an evil smile. “Love bugs first!”
Those of you who don’t live in Florida or any of the Gulf States probably aren’t aware of love bugs. The little pests originated in Central America and hitched boat rides to Texas and Louisiana about 1920. They worked their way into Florida in the late 1940s and found a home that suited them perfectly. Every May and September, the larvae hatch into adults whose sole purpose is to mate and lay eggs. Billions of the damned things swarm over roads, attracted for some reason by car exhaust. They mate on the fly (pun intended) and so you almost always get two bugs on your windshield for the price of one. The bugs make an incredible mess on windshields, hoods, grills and side-view mirrors. As they rot in the sun, bacteria produces a chemical that will eat the paint off your car if you leave it on for very long. “Love bug season” usually lasts for a few weeks, twice a year.
The only people who don’t hate love bugs are car wash owners and auto detailers.
It was mid April and the spring love bug season was due to start in about three weeks, although the exact timing is impossible to predict. I had several dozen dead love bugs in my freezer, left over from last September. Extracting their DNA would be straightforward. This was going to be fun.
I locked the key circuit board in my big gun safe and the three of us made our way to the Mango Tree restaurant. We were fifteen minutes late, but the maitre d’ knew me and we were seated right away. All three of us were familiar with the menu and we ordered our drinks and entrees. While we waited for our drinks, we made plans.
“We might as well use Paul again to handle writing the patent,” said Thor. “He’s done a fine job on our other inventions and he can keep his mouth shut.”
Carley nodded. “News of this can’t get out until the two of you get the bugs out.” She laughed at her own joke. “There are always bugs.” Our waiter brought the drinks and Carley took a sip of her wine. “I know the size of the field on the GermZapper can’t be changed. How big is this one going to be, or does it depend on the organism?”
The waiter served our salads and we stopped talking until he’d left. Thor picked up where he’d left off. “Well, that’s one of the really cool things about this. We can change the field to whatever size we want,” he said.
I almost spilled my Scotch. “What? When were you going to tell me?”
“Dammit, I did tell you! We went over this two weeks ago! Don’t you remember all those equations I showed you?”
“Oh, come on!” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t even know what half the symbols mean. You know that. I’m no mathematician. You have to speak slowly and use short words.”
Thor face-palmed me and turned his attention to Carley. “Just take my word for it. I can make the field smaller than an atom or bigger than the Earth. Since it’s a quantum field, it takes almost no power, no matter what the size. That’s going to be a problem, too. For instance, if we want to kill all the pythons in the Everglades, we have to be careful not to kill the ones in zoos. We can’t kill pets or research snakes. A field with a radius of a kilometer ought to be okay. For the love bug killer, we’ll set the radius at 150 kilometers, put it on Jack’s Learjet and fly from Tallahassee to Key Largo. That’ll kill every bug larva in the state and I’m sure no one will complain.”
“And that’ll be our coming-out demo,” I said. “One big free demonstration of the ... what? What are we going to call it, anyway?”
Thor had finished his first vodka and signaled the waiter for another. “You’re going to love this,” he said. “We’ll call it, ‘The Soft Hammer’”.
Carley cracked up. “Not, ‘The Soft Hammer of Thor’?”
Thor shook his head. “That wouldn’t work. People would call it the “SHT” and that has unfortunate connotations.” He waggled a forkful of salad at us. “We’re going to hammer a shitload of plants and animals, but we’re going to do it in a totally non-violent manner. We’re going to do it softly. I think, ‘soft hammer’ gets the point across and minimizes any reference to weapons.”
I wasn’t so sure. “Tell you what, buddy; it was your math skills that made all this possible and you should have the privilege of naming it. I won’t argue with you, but I’m pretty damn sure that people will shorten the name to just plain, ‘hammer’ and that’s a weapon.” I shrugged. “Not that I have anything against weapons. You know I’m carrying a pistol and a stun gun right now.”