The Pylon

He dropped the digging stick onto the crumbling concrete slab that had once been his house. The step that had led from the kitchen to the den was warm on his backside when he plopped down. Terraced fields staggered down the hill avoiding the remains of what had once been the homes of his neighbors. What the survivors still called San Francisco Bay glinted a dark blue.

Six of his sons, each with his straight black hair and protruding chin dug with abalone shell hoes in his fields. They were winning the battle against the weeds that were trying to smother the carrots and beans. With their long hair banded back and the scraps of cloth tied at their waists they looked like the Native Americans who had owned this place before the Spanish.

The three oldest and the youngest were out of view, around the hill tending the goats. They would be coming when the goats decided it was time to be milked.

Thirty-nine years since he had released the nanite bomb and one son every other year for the past thirty-six. The two weren't related. He thanked the Chinese for the boys. Their disdain of girl children had made that possible. The Chinese blamed the Indians but it didn't make any difference. The outcome was the same.

He flicked a mosquito off of his knee and watched his sons work. A breeze, cool for July, slipped over the hill and chilled his back until the skin-nites warmed the spot and sent a brief flush across his exposed skin. The breeze swirled down the hill and the extra warmth in his back subsided.

A groan drew his attention to the remaining pylon of the never finished New Oakland Bridge. He had been hearing the groan of concrete for at least a week. The nine hundred foot spire had never held its lacework of cables. No road or rail decks. It had stood out in the bay since The Collapse. Standing tall and perfect with its unblemished reinforced concrete surface.

The rust spot he had noticed a month ago bled a bright rusty orange plume down the bottom third to the waves.

Bare feet swished through the grass and slapped across what had been the kitchen. Tania, wife and mother of eighteen stood beside him. She handed the year old son down from her hip before sitting and curling an arm around his waist. "What you looking at?"

He pointed toward the pylon. "The nanites found their way in."

She shaded her eyes with a hand and looked across the bay. "How long?"

"Not long. I rowed out the other day. The concrete's groaning. Once they eat enough steel . . ." He braced an elbow on his knee and let it fall away.

She leaned against him. Smooth skin against his hairy shoulder.

"I'm pregnant." She rubbed the hair of his arm against the grain and then smoothed it out before the nanites could do the job.

He pecked her on the cheek. "Right on schedule." The pregnancies had not been a surprise for over two decades. Without birth control they had tried abstinence but they had been as unsuccessful as their friends. When she was fertile, the urge would come and she couldn't stop it, and he couldn't stop himself. Twenty-five years ago he had been away on a scavenging trip. That year his son had been a red head. After a couple of years they had forgiven themselves and their neighbor. It no longer made them feel good to think about it.

He thanked the Catholic nanites for the fertility and female sex drive but there was no way to know if that was true. By the time a pattern had been noticed there was no technology left to test for it.

The baby wiggled in his lap. He turned him to a sitting position against his chest so he could share the view.

She fingered the baby's hand. Rubbed off a smudge of dirt with saliva. "Maybe this time, we'll have a girl."

"Won't happen." He played pattycake with the baby's feet until he grew restless, then handed him to his mother to nurse.

He heard the groan again. The pylon's tip seemed to waver.

She plugged in the baby and squinted at him with the face that was younger than when he had married her. The change in both of them had taken a decade, five sons. Since then the nanites maintained them with an early twenties appearance.

"Someone up in Marin had a girl," she said.

He shook his head. "Post urban myth. There won't be any girls, unless the nanites mutate."

"It could happen."

He let her keep the hope for a daughter. There wouldn't be a daughter. There had been no daughters for almost forty years. The Chinese gender choice nanites had been the first to go contagious. They had never figured out how but it didn't matter. They attacked the male x-chromosomes. Decades ago, before the governments failed, records showed no female births in the human population. It was probably the same for all mammals.

His chin trembled as it did every time he thought about what they had done.

"You shouldn't think about it," she said. "How could you have known?"

The nanites flooded his neuro-receptors with endorphins until he relaxed and smiled. It didn't hurt to think about it. It felt good to think about it. He had been thinking about it while he worked on the potatoes and before she came to sit with him. He had been thinking about it, since the nanites had breached the concrete of the pylon. The pylon was a reminder of what they had once had. The nanites made him feel good when he thought about it.

She was right. He hadn't known. How could they have known that the nanites would start to write their own programs? His anti-nuke nanites were going to put an end nuclear power. They did. Within three months of the release every nuclear plant was shutdown. Worldwide. Then they changed their programming and went after all refined metal?

Everybody made nanites. They were the new technology. Nanites were going to be more important than electricity. We were going to live forever.

The fuzziness in his head gave him an urge to lie down. The nanites were pumping it to him. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands.

She stood. "I'm going to put out dinner. Call the boys in."

She walked away with the baby on her hip. Forty years ago she had been a forty-six year old, overweight microbiology nerd. He had been fifty-three. She looked like her daughter had looked then, maybe better. Not a touch of cellulite or a wrinkle. The nanites wouldn't allow it. She looked damned good. Good programming will out.

He waited for his boys to finish their work. They would know when it was time to eat. The nanites would tell them and they would come up the hill as a group.

His stomach grumbled and the goat bells clanged at the same moment. He stood to wait for his sons.

The groan, louder than before, came from the bay. The pylon creaked then cracked like a gun when there had been guns.

The boys stopped and turned toward the sound.

Stone ground on stone and the tip arced toward the water. The top two thirds of the structure splashed into the blue water like a breaching whale. It hung from its base by some of the undigested rebar.

His sons cheered and waved shell hoes in the air.

A couple of days and the nanites would finish off the steel. The top would fall into the water and there would be nothing to see but a honeycombed concrete stump.

When would he and Tania have had enough? Would they find a way to slip away like so many of the others? He needed to send his oldest off to look for a wife. Was there a boy out there looking to take Tania from him?

The cheering stopped and his sons climbed the hill. They smiled up to him as they walked and he smiled back as another wave of endorphins flooded through him and blurred his vision.

About the author:

Larry Bruce Barnes became serious about his writing five years ago after dabbling for several decades. In 2000 his short story, "Black Water," won first prize for fiction in the Porter Fleming Writing Competition of the Greater Augusta Arts Festival. The novel is his primary focus but he writes short stories when he just can't get the idea out his my head. He has a completed cracker-noir mystery manuscript. He also writes in the scifi, fantasy, and mainstream genres.