“Best not let ’em disarm ya. They ain’t so cuddly as they look. ‘N don’t let a pup in. It all starts with one.”
Wrangler shifted her eyes across the battlements. First, a long line of cylindrical steel rods placed at close intervals to slow down the big ones. Then, a makeshift moat to slow down the little ones. Third, a ramp of sandbags leading up to the gun emplacements. Not traditional ballistics, of course. Swarmlings didn’t slow down for bullets. Swarmlings only slowed down for lots and lots of data.
The concept was simple, if unwieldy. The “Trojan” launchers were loaded with physical, spherical capsules, about the size of an apple. Inside each and every capsule was a terabyte hard drive, as cheaply assembled as possible. In every hard drive was exactly one terabyte of absolutely nothing but complete junk data. Endless strings of encrypted characters for as far as the eye could see.
It was effective – swarmlings almost always had their mouths open, looking to chomp into whatever material they could find. If a shot didn’t land right in their mouth, it’d usually bonk them on the head and then immediately end up in their grasping jaws anyway. As soon as they bit into the capsule, boom. Total overload. A terabyte of junk would knock out the lucky ones. The rest of them exploded into purple goo, literally biting off far more than they could chew.
“The checks are complete, ma’am. Every gun’s been run down the list,” said the sheriff. Wrangler nodded. “Have everyone get their miscellany sorted and their launchers primed. Oh, and double the per-launcher stockpiles. This is going to be quick and dirty,” she declared with a gesture towards the purple mass on the horizon. “It’s one hell of a swarm today, alright.”
The officer turned to loudly relay the order to the local militia – hard-working blue-collar folks mingling with police. It was all the force the town could muster, but this also wasn’t the first time this particular town had to raise arms against the swarm. It probably wouldn’t be the last.
Wrangler’s jetpack ignited, a blast of heat running down the back of her legs as she leapt into a hover over the steel barrier. There was one last fortification to set, though her hand hesitated in her pack. Wizard had developed this one, and Wizard scared her just a bit. He’d told her to think of it as a firewall, and the details as he expressed them flew well over Wrangler’s head. She wasn’t all that technically-minded, not when guns had done her so much more good than magical blockchain ‘scripts’. Still, she reasoned that she’d have him court martial-ed, or something like that, if his shenanigans did more harm than good. She put in the back of her mind just how loathe she was to take such liberties with the protocol – it was honest citizens defending their homes and livelihoods, after all.
She tossed the device to the ground. The metal disk rooted itself in the cracked ground, then extended two slim, metal arms to either side. It extended for hundreds of feet in each direction, roughly matching the width of the steel barrier. Then, a wall of numbers sprung up like a fissure bursting from the earth. Murmurs scattered among the defensive line as Wrangler gaped. Was it… data? She’d seen Wiz and a couple of the other Heroes do truly strange things with blockchain, but data projected into the physical world without a physical medium – like a hard drive – was a radical notion.
It was what it was. Wrangler held to her justifications and boosted over that wall, too. She wasn’t about to touch the stuff, not with mental images of her body dissolving into numbers dancing around her consciousness… not that she had any idea whether that would actually happen.
The rumbling of the approaching horde grabbed her attention. Wrangler belted at the defensive lines, “ready weapons!”. A click rose from every gun, and she turned back towards the swarm. There had to be five hundred of them, this time. All gnashing and bumbling and stampeding mindlessly towards the town. Their hungry yelps rippled over the fortifications as they chomped at the air. Wrangler held a fist up, showing the back of it to the men for a standby gesture as she hovered back over the wall of numbers. The purple mass collided with the wall – not in a solid way.
The scores of swarmlings that touched it weren’t transmuted into data, but the biggest swarmlings – those standing up to five feet tall – stopped to gobble up all the data they could set their jaws upon. They pushed the smaller scambeasts out of the way, leaving them no option but to run up the backs of the bigger ones. With the stream of data intercepted by all of the most dangerous swarmlings, the smaller ones leapt through the gaps, many landing clumsily on their faces on the other side. Wrangler thrust her signal arm forwards. “FIRE AT WILL!”
The defensive line was immediately set alight as every last launcher sent its junk data payload swarm-ward with a cacophonous “shoonk”. The makeshift mortar teams buzzed into action with practiced motions, reloading and priming the launchers for another volley from the moment the back-blast settled. The front end of the swarm was thrust into chaos in an instant.
Some swarmlings set their ravenous eyes on capsules that made it through the steel bars. They slowed down everything behind them, either getting stepped on, blocking the way forward for their companions, or chewing into the capsules and exploding into slime on the spot. Some swarmlings foolishly attempted to chew into the steel bars. They’d eventually saw through, if given the time, but with the pressure of hundreds of fellows at their backs, it turned into more of a feeding frenzy. Some swarmlings got their fat little bodies wedged between the bars, causing even more difficulty to the horde. Only the smallest got through the bars with little trouble, and they immediately set to gleefully gnawing on the launcher capsules that had bounced off the barrier instead of making it through. Strong as their jaws might have been, their size proved insufficient for the protective shells.
The gunners chewed through their ammo supplies in kind, steadily depleting the pyramids of spherical projectiles assigned to the guns. Reluctantly, those most skilled crews picked up their contingency weapons: stun guns and batons. Electricity wasn’t nearly as reliable as data for shutting down swarmlings, but it was still better than bullets. Still, the steel barrier had proven incredibly effective. The swarm was badly stymied between the ‘firewall’ and the metal poles, and an increasing supply of capsules waited for them on the other side. Already, many a chain reaction had been set off in the horde’s central mass, with data-engorged swarmlings popping like water balloons. The best detonations always cost the swarm more than one member, even if the militia didn’t quite understand why.
As the smallest swarmlings struggled to kick their way across the moat and put distance between themselves and the slimy, deteriorating bulk of their swarm, their exhaustion was clear. Some part of the rush had sapped their energy, and a good ol’ swim was excellent for draining their reserves. The stragglers meandered towards the defensive line, worn out and no longer caught up in the joyous chaos of the charge. They’d been denied their food, which served as a powerful deterrent on its own. Boots proved effective for the little ones, with a swift kick the best way to ensure a small swarmling wouldn’t come back for more.
Then, the noisy detonations came. The biggest swarmlings had gotten caught on the data wall. Being fed endless, procedurally generated information was far too much for their limited stomachs, and when they burst into purple goo, it send a resounding BOOM over the town. Even better, when the largest ones were slain, that opened up the data flow for new prey, and the next heaviest swarmlings were all too happy to eat up the delicious stream until they met the same fate.
As the battle wound to a close, with Wrangler and the men moving forward to sweep the battlefield clear of survivors, a teenaged member of the militia sneaked away from the action, and back into the town. “I don’t see why you gotta get punted too, little guy,” he said to the teeny swarmling cupped in his hands. It nibbled unsuccessfully on his fingers. It was too darn cute. Surely, just one tiny swarmling would be harmless… maybe he could even domesticate it, he thought.
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