Tell the Bees

By Dan, 3 July 2018 #


I got the call from Seven—an excitable squall of data on a low-priority line. It took a while to get to—a topsoil renewal drone was misfiring in a far sector, and it took a comically long time to get it fixed and operating normally, by which time a scar had been carved in a long curve, extending across hundreds of miles of what once was and would at some point again be arable land. That took longer to fix than it should have, and will take longer to repair than I’d like, but the work continued.

Seven was one of the oldest operatives on this job—many lifetimes older than me. The mechanicals carried far more experience than the organics, but they tend to get a little strange over time. Seven had been manumitted in accordance with protocol, but had asked to remain with the Reseeding teams. Whereas I was already working on my escape plan.

Reseeding work was valuable, but after some initial novelty, like your first methane atmosphere (three years ago), acid seas (two years) or purple sand (first assignment, setting an unfairly high bar, it turned out), it settled down into a routine.

Identify and excavate the former population centres. Identify technology level. Ensure that nothing beyond that level is left behind. Send the grazers to break down any surviving pollutants. Drop self-eating nanites to refresh the ecosystem before decaying. Gene-sequence the local flora and replant. Identify whatever simple lifeforms might have the best chance of evolving, and set them up in the best conditions for survival.

It’s a long-term game—only the longest-lived and luckiest mechanicals remember the reseedings that led to sentient life out there now—but there’s proof, at least, that it works. We have Reseededs building our ships, serving in our military. I went to see art shows by Reseededs back when home wasn’t a seeding ship.

So, the work you do might in a few billion years result in a pretty good gallery show? That’s a pretty tough sell as a long-term career to anyone who isn’t an idealist or out of options. Or, as it turns out, a deeply strange, entirely ancient mechanical who wants to be known by the first of the twenty-three digits that made up its name.

It turned out Seven wasn’t excited about finding a vertebrate species that would speed things up by a few hundred million years, which sometimes happens. As far as we could tell the dominant species here had scourged the world of other species before expiring, possibly from boredom. All we could do was repair the damage and hope that, long after we were dust, some drifting proteins in the oceans would decide that they’d like to develop space travel some day.

Seven had been working with the excavation teams. Mainly, you find the same things with planets like this. Ruined architecture, decomposed biomass. This was a recent one—by sheer coincidence, we arrived not too long after the collapse—so the ruins were near the surface and the biomass well-preserved and fairly differentiated.

It looked like they’d nearly made it. Lots of technology—primitive, but fulcrum-adjacent. The introductory training at Reseeding Control explained that it’s impossible to know why a civilisation makes it or not. Sometimes everything seems to be going well, and then everything collapses. Other civilisations fail upwards—screwing everything up on the way to global government and interplanetary travel.

It’s arbitrary in a way that makes Reseeding, if anything, even more of a long, unrewarding game than it might otherwise be. You could seed everything right, and a billion years after your dust has turned to dust one of the worlds you seeded could wipe itself out before it ever came to the attention of the larger galaxy. And that would be a pretty good average. Most reseeders spend their lives building worlds that end up as parks for other species.

What had interested Seven was the tech that, as far as we could tell, every single one of the Preceders had carried. A small communication device, driven by a primitive but relatively power-efficient processor. They connected to mesh networks to exchange data—it was actually pretty elegant. Power was provided by a mix of power sources—fossil, hydro, solar.

It’s not clear what these communicators actually did, but they must have been important, because the drain on resources to power them would have been huge. Individually, though, they were simple, and cheap, and easy for Seven to repair.

I took a flier over to Seven’s sector, and got a perfect view as they rose up from the excavated city. Small, rotor-driven flying machines, controlled by those communication devices—we thought maybe for some religious purpose—were rising up from the dead streets. Solar panels on their top sides, processors embedded in their bodies, talking to each other on a frequency developed for the race that made them.

I watched hundreds of them—Seven must have been running dozens of bodies at once to get this all done—swarm and swoop, tilting their rotors, learning to fly. As they headed for a grove of new trees, one of Seven’s bodies lifted off and bobbed next to me. If multicorporate robots could look smug, it would.

“They’re pollinating. I found out about it in their archives. It’s a really efficient system—should help to propagate the flora quite nicely. There was something indigenous—can’t quite work it out—that did it organically for them. Once that stopped happening…” It waggled its stubby wings in a way that denoted resignation.

“This is bizarre,” I responded. “Why did you even spend a day on this? I mean, it’s allowed; you’re only using the tech they left—but those things will fall apart long before intelligent life turns up here—if, against all odds, it does. I get what they’re for, but what are they for?”

Lights rippled under Seven’s skin, denoting thought.

“I enjoy this work—I was designed to. But, really, we’re turning planet-sized cemeteries into planet-sized pleasure gardens. It’s not cheerful work, and it’s easy to get jaded. If you want to make something out of Reseeding, you need to find something that keeps your interest. Learn about the dead cultures. Build things out of their bones. Commemorate them. Everyone you know—probably even me—will be dead long before anyone comes back here. Sign your work.”

With that, Seven dropped a wing and headed over to dance in the air with his creations. I watched them for a while, then turned my flier towards the pole to overlook the long line cutin the world by the topsoil drone. It looked suddenly like the first stroke of my name, and I thought for a suspended moment of issuing new orders, before pulling up and heading for base. Best to start smaller.



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