Volume 1.9: 'Adaptations'
The skeletal building dissolved in front of Ellen's eyes, softening and shifting and sliding back into sand; she made a few notes and popped another sweet into her mouth, never taking her eyes off it. When the building was finally gone, she left the squat grocery shop that served as her hide, picked up her backpack and trotted smartly across the car park to where the strange construction had stood. As she got closer, she could see mounds of sand still shivering uneasily, as if the things inside were rousing themselves from a bad dream.
Ellen knelt and unzipped her backpack. For a woman dressed in primitive hiking clothes, the contents of her worn bag were more impressive. One at a time, she lifted out spherical beacons, each the size of her fist, and switched them on with a recessed toggle on the top. She imagined the data they were each transmitting through the air was audible: a high-pitched, chattering whine, perhaps. They would have to be her eyes and ears: she couldn't stay here, but they could.
She quickly scattered them all over the increasingly turbulent sand, just now beginning to crackle and spark with static electricity. The swarm had reached a decision and it was going to try again. The crackle of their activity, escalating to a roar, chased her back across the car park as she back to her hide.
Ellen settled back down in the fresh produce section of the supermarket, popped another sweet in her mouth and watched plumes of sand start spraying upwards in huge belches. A new structure tentatively began to rise from the ground, something slightly more sophisticated than the one just fallen. She made a note on her pad and checked that the data from the spherical beacons was reaching her computer. It was. She crunched down on the sweet in her mouth and made another note.
Days passed like this. Eventually, through much trial and error, the swarm decided what it wanted to build: a two-hundred-metre high helical cone, tapering to a structure at the pinnacle that was too indistinct to see from the ground. All in all, it was a job well done, Ellen decided, once they'd gotten it stable.
She was less pleased with her expedition partner, Gerek. He was late and he had the spare sweets: chewing on her pen lid wasn't cutting it. Also, the static discharges from the swarm were screwing with her computer and she needed Gerek to repair it. The main priority had to be the delicious jewels of sugar.
When he came through the door, she carried on with her observations, ignoring him utterly to show her irritation.
“Hello,” he said. “I got distracted.”
“You were supposed to be setting up an automated monitoring station around that swarm near the harbour,” she said. “Did you manage that before you 'got distracted'? More importantly: where are my sweets?”
Gerek settled into one of the camp chairs, opened his backpack and, after a minute of exploratory rooting, threw a bag of sweets in front of her as a peace offering. Finally, Ellen turned away from the spire and forgave him.
“Yes,” he said as she sat down. “ I completed my task well. I did. The harbour swarm's bigger than this one and highly aggressive: a different and more successful species. Best you stay away from them for now. What have you found here?”
Ellen jerked her thumb at a crude analysis table she'd set up on a checkout conveyor belt. From this distance, all Gerek could see were glowing lamps, a forest of pronged metal instruments and several boxes sprouting strange hairstyles of fibre optic cables.
He wandered over to take a look. Under the brightest lamp was a specimen of this smaller swarm: a small, metal cube an inch big. Each edge sprouted sensors and delicate manipulators and the logo “EZ-BUILD” was printed on every face. The font was soft and inaccurate, like it'd been copied from an original again and again by someone who had no idea what writing was supposed to do.
“Evolving?” he asked. “Aggressive?”
“Yes, they're evolving, but slowly. They've not done badly from where they started,” she replied, feeling strangely defensive of her little colony. “Four hundred years to go from non-sentient building blocks to semi-sentient creators isn't bad. No, they're not aggressive. They get agitated when I've go near a hive under construction, but that's about it. They remind me of honeybees in a lot of ways. What about your swarm near the harbour?”
“They're InstaHome, I think. Very rapid evolving and incredibly aggressive, but they've not built any structures of their own. They've just occupied some of the warehouses along the waterfront. If yours are honeybees, then we'll call mine wasps.”
She nodded and made a note on her pad. Ellen found this all intriguing. Centuries ago, the UV output of this planet's star had begun to spike, enough to completely sterilise the surface, simulations had shown. Everyone was evacuated but, in the end, the spike had been mild and short-lived. The abandoned planet had thrived, especially all of the automated systems now loosed from any oversight, but in the end no-one had wanted the planet back except scientific expedition teams. There were more modern planets now, ones without creepily independent robots.
Ellen turned her attention back to the spire, feeling a little proud. Those little robots had gone a long way from assembling cheap houses. She slipped a sweet into her mouth and crunched it, as she always did when she was thinking hard, but her thoughts were interrupted by the flavour.
“Hey, this is a lime sweet!” she said. “You never leave me the lime sweets!”
“I've given them up.”
Ellen stared at him.
“Every weekly supply drop for the last year, you've stolen the lime sweets. Every single time. I used to dream about getting to one before you. And now...you've given them up?”
Gerek shrugged again, his broad face blank. Ellen wasn't really annoyed by his lateness - it was all part of an irritable little game they'd both played throughout their mutual isolation on this expedition - but his new passivity was disturbing.
“Tell me more about the honeybees,” he said.
Ellen gave him a long look before flipping back through her notes.
“Well, as expected, the fragments of core code I've managed to examine show heavy degradation over time. Those structures they build should be exclusively EZ-Build robots linking together, but they're using other materials now too. Even more exciting, they've cracked self-replication.”
She beamed widely, like a proud parent.
“They can copy themselves?” Gerek said evenly.
“Yeah. Construction minibots shouldn't be able to do that, but these ones can. I haven't decided whether they worked it out through experimentation or whether a code error unlocked something it shouldn't have, but this swarm has grown by almost three per cent in the last week. Did you see anything like that with your wasps?”
“No,” he said quietly.
“Good thing too, if they're as aggressive as you say,” she smiled.
Gerek did not smile back.
“Can we take a look at this corrupted code then?” he asked, nodding stiffly at the robot on the analysis table.
“Ah, there's a story!” Ellen smiled, popping another lime sweet into her mouth. “There's no code inside the minibots any more – I checked. It's all transmitted wirelessly from somewhere inside the hive.”
Gerek leant forwards.
“I think...” she said, pausing for dramatic effect. “That they've built themselves a 'queen': a code repository!”
Her colleague smiled thinly, a nasty expression that she'd never seen before. She looked away, unwilling to meet his gaze. Gerek was usually a happy man, perhaps a bit slipshod when he got too comfortable but jovial and convivial to a fault.
“Did something happen out there?” she asked, still avoiding his gaze. “Is there someone else on the planet? Did you have a near-miss with the wasps?”
“Have you seen the queen yourself?” Gerek asked, ignoring her question.
“No, but I've tried. Whenever I got close, they tried to chase me away with mild static discharges. It was unpleasant, but hardly life-threatening. Why are you being so strange? What's happened?”
It was then that she noticed that Gerek wasn't fidgeting. He always fidgeted when he wasn't out exploring, but now, he sat there precisely and exactly still.
Then she noticed that he wasn't breathing either.
“We thought it would be the impersonal speech that alerted you,” Gerek said, noticing her scrutiny. “It's so difficult to keep everything as it should be.”
“What?” Ellen said, alarmed and backing away.
Gerek's face rippled blockily, opening up geometrically perfect black lines across his skin, his eyes, his mouth. Each line revealed a glimpse of the interior: a black, chaotically twitching space. He stepped towards her and a cube dislodged from his chest body, falling to the floor, like the clatter of a dice. The colour of his clothes, the colour of his skin was only a fraction of a millimetre thick; inside was the erratic grasping of tiny claws and tools searching for their lost comrade. The cube on the floor flipped upright, before scuttling back to his foot on tiny pincers, climbing back up his leg and slotting back into its previous position. Once it was home, the join was seamless, the mimicry near perfect.
“The wasps got Gerek then,” she said, backing further away down an aisle. “You must've been very quick to get him; he was very good.”
Another thin smile from the loosening mass of shifting blocks. No wonder he hadn't moved much. This thing could barely hold together; every step prompted fresh black seams to open in the construction's façade.
“He underestimated us,” the shifting mass said. “He knew that we couldn't build structures for ourselves or self-replicate so he thought us stupid. He underestimated our intelligence and especially our ability to mimic what we sense. He underestimated our hunger.”
Ellen was almost at the door leading to the storeroom at the back of the shop. The door was centuries old, but it might...
“If you take another step backwards,” the mass said. “We'll deconstruct you. It will be neither neat or quick.”
The block-mass snapped its millions of minuscule pincers shut en masse to make its point crystal clear; she froze instantly.
“If you do not assist, we will dissemble you like we did the man. We want your help,” the shifting mass said, extending an appendage to point at the towering spire. “We want their code.”
Ellen stumbled across the car park, concentrating so hard on the mass behind her that she seemed to trip over every pothole, provoking an angry crackle of millions of tiny claws at her heels. Every time she heard that, she imagined poor Gerek's fate.
It needed to know the way to the 'queen' because it needed to steal their self-replication code; once they succeeded, the wasps would replicate uncontrollably and spread and attack. There would be no other new species, no new cultures, no new architecture: everything not wasp would be smashed apart, leaving a world-spanning monotonous grey sea of tumbling blocks.
The hive loomed closer, revealing new details. The honeybee swarm were filling in the gaps between the two spirals of the helix with incredibly intricate geometric patterns, some of them changing colour whenever the wind blew.
It was art, she released, hairs on the backs of her arms standing on. They were independently creating their own art.
“Faster,” the cubes behind her said mechanically, all pretence at a human voice now abandoned.
Ellen complied. What else could she do? Really, the wasps didn't need her at all. Once they were inside the hive, they could easily murder their way through millions of docile EZ-Build minibots until they found the code repository by themselves. Keeping her alive would cut down on the time it took to find the code, but that was all.
They were almost at the hive's entrance now: a tide of tiny cubes surged in and out, retrieving all manner of resources. The human buildings here weren't being torn down like she'd predicted. They were being very delicately harvested: walls were shaved down to a fraction of their former thickness, but remained standing; copper wires were gently pulled out of conduits, like someone handling an overcooked spaghetti strand and paints were delicately scraped off and the flakes collected. Any writing or words were completely ignored, completely undamaged.
Was this intelligent behaviour emerging?
She couldn't let them die.
Ellen turned to face the wasp mass behind her but before she could move, it hit her in the chest as hard as a tonne of dice. The impact knocked her off her feet and onto her back; she felt something crack.
“Weak species,” it said, managing a passable sneer. “Poorly evolved.”
It stomped towards the hive's entrance and all she could do was watch. Her body was a broken machine; it wouldn't move.
“Don't!” she cried weakly.
As the vaguely humanoid shape reached the hive's entrance, there was a bright flash on its face: a small static discharge. The shape slapped a club-like appendage against its cheek and a little EZ honeybee dropped to the ground, smashed beyond repair.
The shape roared with a crude approximation of human laughter and, though it was an alien intelligence, Ellen knew what it was thinking. This was it? This was the best defence they could muster?
It took another few steps forwards. There was a flash against its head again and two more against its chest. Three more EZ honeybees fell dead, crushed. Another step. More flashes. More and more. An increasing number with every step. More dead. More and more. Piles upon piles. EZ honeybees were pouring out of the hive in a tumbling tidal wave. A surging arc of hundreds hit the wasp cluster in the chest in a barrage of tiny lighting strikes which forced it back a step, but they all fell dead at its feet.
Ellen levered herself up on her elbows to watch. Pain flayed her side.
The wasp human was covered in tiny minibots now, each shocking the construction furiously with no regard to their own safety. The pile was sparking with energy. The wasp conglomerate slipped and stumbled on the heaps of dead bees. More minibots struck the crackling mound, building it higher and thicker until the interloper couldn't be seen at all.
The growing mountain pulsed and flashed and surged; spent minibots were snow tumbling down its flanks.
The mountain sagged.
The mountain was still.
The pile of EZ honeybees started to move away, back to their business as if nothing untoward had happened. Little by little, the body emerged as if from a retreating tide.
It looked like Gerek, but vaguely, as if rendered by a clumsy artist in wet clay.
It didn't move.
A small swarm of EZ honeybees crept up on the wasp conglomerate, seized it by the heel and, with the greatest of care, pulled it into the hive. That familiar, yet unfamiliar face slid away into the shadows, inch by inch, as if it was a piece of driftwood being coaxed away by the tide. Behind the fallen aggressor, little EZ honeybees formed a little procession, each holding aloft one of their fallen comrades. Everything would be reverently dismantled, studied and used again. Ellen smiled and sank back to the ground. They would learn and adapt; they would survive; they would create.