Hugh Howey is the author of the acclaimed postapocalyptic novel Wool, which became a sudden success in 2011. Originally self-published as a series of stories and novelettes, the Wool omnibus is a bestselling book on Amazon.com and is a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. The book has also been optioned for film by Ridley Scott, and is now available in print from major publishers all over the world. The story of Wool’s meteoric success has been reported in major media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Variety, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Deadline Hollywood. Howey lives in Jupiter, Florida, with his wife, Amber, and his dog, Bella.
The council was quiet while they awaited his answer. All those on the makeshift benches behind him seemed to hold their breath. This is why they came here, to hear how it all began. How the end began. Jamal shifted nervously on the bamboo. He could feel his palms grow damp. It wasn’t the guilt of what his lab had released. It was how damn crazy it would all sound.
“It was the Roomba,” he said. “That was the first thing we noticed, the first hint that something wasn’t right.”
A flurry of whispers. It sounded like the waves nearby were growing closer.
“The Roomba,” said one of the council members, the man with no beard. He scratched his head in confusion.
The only woman on the council peered down at Jamal. She adjusted her glasses, which had been cobbled together from two or three different pairs. “Those are the little vacuum cleaners, right? The round ones?”
“Yeah,” Jamal said. “Steven, one of our project coordinators, brought it from home. He was sick of the cheese-puff crumbs everywhere. We were a bunch of programmers, you know? A lot of cheese puffs and Mountain Dew. And Steven was a neat freak, so he brought this Roomba in. We thought it was a joke, but … the little guy did a damn good job. At least, until things went screwy.”
One of the council members made a series of notes. Jamal shifted his weight, his butt already going numb. The bamboo bench they’d wrangled together was nearly as uncomfortable as all the eyes of the courtroom drilling into the back of his skull.
“And then what?” the lead councilman asked. “What do you mean, screwy?”
Jamal shrugged. How to explain it to these people? And what did it matter? He fought the urge to turn and scan the crowd behind him. It’d been almost a year since the world went to shit. Almost a year, and yet it felt like a lifetime.
“What exactly do you mean by ‘screwy,’ Mr. Killabrew?”
Jamal reached for his water. He had to hold the glass in both hands, the links between his cuffs drooping. He hoped someone had the keys to the cuffs. He had wanted to ask that, to make sure when they snapped them on his wrists. Nowadays, everything was missing its accessories, its parts. It was like those collectible action figures that never had the blaster or the cape with them anymore.
“What was the Roomba doing, Mr. Killabrew?”
He took a sip and watched as all the particulate matter settled in the murky and unfiltered water. “The Roomba wanted out,” he said.
There were snickers from the gallery behind him, which drew glares from the council. There were five of them up there on a raised dais, lording over everyone from a wide desk of rough-hewn planks. Of course, it was difficult to look magisterial when half of them hadn’t bathed in a week.
“The Roomba wanted out,” the councilwoman repeated. “Why? To clean?”
“No, no. It refused to clean. We didn’t notice at first, but the crumbs had been accumulating. And the little guy had stopped beeping to be emptied. It just sat by the door, waiting for us to come or go, then it would scoot forward like it was gonna make a break for it. But the thing was so slow. It was like a turtle trying to get to water, you know? When it got out, we would just pick it up and set it back inside. Hank did a hard reset a few times, which would get it back to normal for a little while, but eventually it would start planning its next escape.”
“Its escape,” someone said.
“And you think this was related to the virus,” the bearded man asked.
“Oh, I know it was. The Roomba had a wireless base station, but nobody thought of that. We had all these containment procedures for our work computers. Everything was on an intranet, no contact with the outside world, no laptops, no cell phones. There were all these government regulations.”
There was an awkward silence as all those gathered remembered with a mix of longing and regret the days of governments and their regulations.
“Our office was in the dark,” Jamal said. “Keep that in mind. We took every precaution possible—”
Half of a coconut was hurled from the gallery and sailed by Jamal, just missing him. He flinched and covered the back of his head. Homemade gavels were banged: a hammer with a broken handle, a stick with a rock tied on with twine. Someone was dragged from the tent screaming that the world had ended and that it was all his fault.
Jamal waited for the next blow, but it never came. Order was restored amid threats of tossing everyone out onto the beach while they conducted the hearing in private. Whispers and shushes hissed like the breaking waves that could be heard beyond the flapping walls of the makeshift courthouse.
“We took every precaution,” Jamal reiterated once the hall was quiet again. He stressed the words, hoped this would serve as some defense. “Every security firm shares certain protocols. None of the infected computers had Internet access. We give them a playground in there. It’s like animals in a zoo, right? We keep them caged up.”
“Until they aren’t,” the beardless man said.
“We had to see how each virus operated, how they were executed, what they did. Every antivirus company in the world worked like this.”
“And you’re telling us a vacuum cleaner was at the heart of it all?”
It was Jamal’s turn to laugh. The gallery fell silent.
“No.” He shook his head. “It was just following orders. It was—” He took a deep breath. The glass of water was warm. Jamal wondered if any of them would ever taste a cold beverage again. “The problem was that our protocols were outdated. Things were coming together too fast. Everything was getting networked. And so there were all these weak points that we didn’t see until it was too late. Hell, we didn’t even know what half the stuff in our own office did.”
“Like the refrigerator,” someone on the council said, referring to his notes.
“Right. Like the refrigerator.”
The old man with the shaggy beard sat up straight. “Tell us about the refrigerator.”
Jamal took another sip of his murky water. “No one read the manual,” he said. “Probably didn’t even come with one. Probably had to read it online. We’d had the thing for a few years, ever since we remodeled the break room. We never used the network functions. Hell, it connected over the power grid automatically. It was one of those models with the RFID scanner so it knew what you had in there, what you were low on. It could do automatic reorders.”
The beardless man raised his hand to stop Jamal. He was obviously a man of power. Who could afford to shave anymore? “You said there were no outside connections,” he said.
“There weren’t.” Jamal reached up to scratch his own beard. “I mean … not that we knew of. Hell, we never knew this function was even operational. For all I know, the virus figured it out and turned it on itself. We never used half of what that thing could do. The microwave, neither.”
“The virus figured it out. You say that like this thing could learn.”
“Well, yeah, that was the point. I mean, at first it wasn’t any more self-aware than the other viruses. Not at first. But you have to think about what kind of malware and worms this thing was learning from. It was like locking up a young prodigy with a hoard of career criminals. Once it started learning, things went downhill fast.”
“Mr. Killabrew, tell us about the refrigerator.”
“Well, we didn’t know it was the fridge at first. We just started getting these weird deliveries. We got a router one day, a high-end wireless router. In the box there was one of those little gift cards that you fill out online. It said Power me up.”
“And did you?”
“No. Are you kidding? We thought it was from a hacker. Well, I guess it kinda was. But you know, we were always at war with malicious programmers. Our job was to write software that killed their software. So we were used to hate mail and stuff like that. But these deliveries kept rolling in, and they got weirder.”
“Weirder. Like what?”
“Well, Laura, one of our head coders, kept getting jars of peanuts sent to her. They all had notes saying Eat me.”
“Mr. Killabrew—” The bald man with the wispy beard seemed exasperated with how this was going. “When are you going to tell us how this outbreak began?”
“I’m telling you right now.”
“You’re telling us that your refrigerator was ordering peanuts for one of your coworkers.”
“That’s right. Laura was allergic to peanuts. Deathly allergic. After a few weeks of getting like a jar a day, she started thinking it was one of us. I mean, it was weird, but still kinda funny. But weird. You know?”
“Are you saying the virus was trying to kill you?”
“Well, at this point it was just trying to kill Laura.”
Someone in the gallery sniggered. Jamal didn’t mean it like that.
“So your vacuum cleaner is acting up, you’re getting peanuts and routers in the mail, what next?”
“Service calls. And at this point, we’re pretty sure we’re being targeted by hackers. We were looking for attacks from the outside, even though we had the thing locked up in there with us. So when these repair trucks and vans start pulling up, this stream of people in their uniforms and clipboards, we figure they’re in on it, right?”
“You didn’t call them?”
“No. The AC unit called for a repair. And the copy machine. They had direct lines through the power outlets.”
“Like the refrigerator, Mr. Killabrew?”
“Yeah. Now, we figure these people are trying to get inside to hack us. Carl thought it was the Israelis. But he thought everything was the Israelis. Several of our staff stopped going home. Others quit coming in. At some point, the Roomba got out.”
Jamal shook his head. Hindsight was a bitch.
“When was this?” the councilwoman asked.
“Two days before the outbreak,” he said.
“And you think it was the Roomba?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. We argued about it for a long time. Laura and I were on the run together for a while. Before raiders got her. We had one of those old cars with a gas engine that didn’t know how to drive itself. We headed for the coast, arguing about what’d happened, if it started with us or if we were just seeing early signs. Laura asked what would happen if the Roomba had made it to another recharging station, maybe one on another floor. Could it update itself to the network? Could it send out copies?”
“How do we stop it?” someone asked.
“What does it want?” asked another.
“It doesn’t want anything,” Jamal said. “It’s curious, if you can call it that. It was designed to learn. It wants information. We …”
Here it was. The truth.
“We thought we could design a program to automate a lot of what the coders did. It worked on heuristics. It was designed to learn what a virus looked like and then shut it down. The hope was to unleash it on larger networks. It would be a pesticide of sorts. We called it Silent Spring.”
Nothing in the courtroom moved. Jamal could hear the crashing waves. A bird cried in the distance. All the noise of the past year, the shattering glass, the riots, the cars running amok, the machines frying themselves, it all seemed so very far away.
“This wasn’t what we designed, though,” he said softly. “I think something infected it. I think we built a brain and we handed it to a roomful of armed savages. It just wanted to learn. Its lesson was to spread yourself at all costs. To move, move, move. That’s what the viruses taught it.”
He peered into his glass. All that was left was sand and dirt and a thin film of water. Something swam across the surface, nearly too small to see, looking for an escape. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. He never should’ve told anyone. Stupid. But that’s what people did, they shared stories. And his was impossible to keep to himself.
“We’ll break for deliberations,” the chief council member said. There were murmurs of agreement on the dais, followed by a stirring in the crowd. The bailiff, a mountain of muscle with a toothless grin, moved to retrieve Jamal from the bench. There was a knocking of homemade gavels.
“Court is adjourned. We will meet tomorrow morning when the sun is a hand high. At that time, we will announce the winners of the ration bonuses and decide on this man’s fate—on whether or not his offense is an executable one.