John Ramos tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, staring at the line of red taillights ahead. He was stopped on U.S. 219, headed south through McHenry, a long line of traffic before him. John thought he could make out the orange flags of road workers fifteen or twenty cars ahead, but he wasn’t sure.
At least the view was great. He looked left at the lake, glittering in the rising sun. A few personal watercraft skimmed along the waves, making John envious.
He fiddled with the radio controls, trying to get the Pittsburgh station. His 2016 Nissan had standard satellite radio, but John liked listening to the Pittsburgh alt-rock station when he was in the area.
Odd–usually the station came in clear when he was in McHenry. He was hoping to hear more news about the explosion at Carnegie-Mellon Robotic lab earlier in the morning, but he couldn’t seem to beat the static. He finally gave up, plugging in his music player.
Cars drifted sluggishly forward, and John moved up ten or fifteen feet. The sun now shone directly into the passenger side of his car, the mountain ridge to the east drawing a black line of shadow across the empty seat.
John stretched his arms, yawning. He considered calling in late, but that would be admitting he hadn’t left himself enough time for the drive, something he was loath to do. As he closed his eyes and twisted in the seat, loosening tense muscles, he debated the matter. When he opened his eyes, something strange on the passenger seat caught his glance.
The shadow line was writhing across the leatherette seat. John tilted his head, puzzled for a moment until his brain interpreted what he was seeing.
He looked up to the east.
The tree-covered top of the ridge was gone. In its place was a sizzling, foaming mass of glittering green, gray and silver. It looked like sickly soap suds flowing over the mountain.
“What the–” John said, mouth open. He could see people on the lake stopping to stare at the sight.
The ooze slid down the mountain, trees toppling and disintegrating in puffs of sawdust. The leading edge hit a house, and the building started sinking into the foaming mass. John blinked — he thought he saw a terrified figure on the porch before the house was swallowed.
As the writhing mass covered the whole ridge and started to reach the water’s edge, John started to get nervous. Even though the lake was between him and–whatever it was–perhaps he should move. He looked forward, and saw the traffic, if anything, had become more congested. He weighed pulling into the north bound lane and heading out to the Interstate, when a sudden vicious hiss caught his attention.
The goo was running into the water, and the noise was terrific — although no steam was rising up. Instead, the water level seemed to be dropping, and the mass growing across the lake. The watercraft all started to life, darting in various panicked directions away. John watched a waterskier, floating in her lifejacker, get washed by a wake into the bubbling stuff. She shrieked horribly as her hand, then arm sank into the fizzing mass. Silvery popping bubbles crawled over her, eating her hair and skin, even absorbing blood, consuming her as her screams died away.
Gray goo that eats us all, John remembered suddenly. From that magazine essay years ago. Tiny little assemblers that did nothing but eat everything and replicate themselves. The end of everything, if the essay was right.
He jammed the Nissan into drive and yanked the wheel hard, pulling from a stop left across the double-yellow line and heading north as fast as he could. He was not the first driver to reach that conclusion. Other cars were jumping out in front of him into the north-bound lane.
The line of traffic raced north, and then suddenly squealed to a stop. John saw the cars ahead of him stop, and he unwillingly braked as well; the roadway here was crowded to the left with south-bound traffic, and the rising embankment had no room to pass on the right without getting stuck. John did not want to get stuck.
The delivery truck in front of him blocked his view, so he waited for a few long minutes. Behind him, horns were blaring impatiently. He grimaced at the idiocy of the drivers, as if the ones ahead did not want to get out of here also–
So why was no one ahead of him honking their horn?
He unbuckled and got out. To his left, to the east, the remorseless hungry tide oozed across, bubbling and popping like pancake batter cooking in Hell. It threw off little gobs which landed amongst trees and grass and began eating them away as well.
Before him, to the north, a bulging wave consumed cars and running, falling, screaming people. The nano swarm had eaten it way across the lake faster to the north, already cutting off U.S. 219 to the interstate.
He froze. Behind him a woman yelled, “Come on, you fool!” He turned, and saw a woman throwing her pumps to the ground and clambering up the embankment in her suit.
John followed her up the hill.
“If we follow this ridge–” she started to say, when a thrown splash of silvery molten goo, no bigger than a snowball, hit her in the back. She screamed, hands clawing at her back, unable to reach.
“Get it off me!” she yelled.
John backed away from her as gray started climbing her shoulders. She fell to her knees, sobbing, arms stretched out, as her chest vanished in a frothing surge of iridescent gray from inside of her. She fell forward, body jerking for a few moments as the nanos ate her alive.
John ran, panting, unsure of where to go or what to do.
The End of Everything, he thought again.
Ramon Rozas III writes SF and fantasy in West Virginia. He has appeared in Leading Edge Magazine, Aoife’s Kiss and previously on EDF. His flash story “Noobs” will appear in Atomjack’s February 2008 issue.