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Swarm Mechanics

Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, Electric Spec, Mythic, and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.

The order was for sixty crates of machines, yet there were only fifty-nine in the truck upon its arrival. The location of the last container was a mystery, though few cared enough to solve it. There were robots in the container, yes, but not sophisticated ones--the simplest of machines that could still be called a "robot" in good faith, just a metal housing for a few basic sensors and a servo to turn its tiny wheels. Perhaps the crate had been stolen, to the thief's disappointment--the perpetrator, expecting some high-end laboratory equipment he could turn over to a less than reputable researcher, would instead be greeted with an agglomeration of machines that could be built by any clever 9th grader. Or perhaps, for a change, it had literally fallen off of the truck to land in a ditch beside some seldom traveled road. Either way, it was no terrible loss. The machines could be easily replaced at minimal cost and they posed no meaningful risk to the environment.
It was only by chance that any living thing discovered the lost machines--chance that the crate was jarred open enough to grant escape, chance that the blow of the crate hitting the ground activated the robots and, above all, chance that a set of compound eyes would rest upon them. Synthetic sensor crossed biological sensor, and none can say whether either truly registered what was before it. Yet some impulse awakened within at least one of them, for the machines began to follow the insects. They were only machines built up of protein, at least as far as the simple sensors could reckon, and there was a familiar cadence to their movements that had purchase in its simple circuitry. For their own part, the insects paid no heed to their new synthetic hangars-on, too single-minded in their purpose to take note of the metal bugs in their presence.
The insects returned to their programmed duties, scavenging and digging and otherwise giving their minute lives to the service of the hive. The machines followed in turn, blindly imitating the actions that the organisms around them performed. They were physically ill-equipped for most of these duties, but they imitated with enough skill that the hive was not distressed by their presence. In fact, the hive began to adapt itself to the new additions. Where the machines performed well, the insects moved aside and set themselves to novel tasks. With time, nature changed them to be better suited to those tasks, and the machines altered their own behaviors to better suit their newly-adapted partners. Thus, the organic and synthetic evolved in tandem, each moving into a new niche.
It was at this time that humans started to take note of this unusual hive, if only in a superficial manner. The insects were breeding and spreading with greater skill, constructing ever larger and more complex hives for their multiplying brood. They were a menacing new pest or a fascinating discovery, depending on one's outlook, but no one could yet assign a cause. No human eyes could see into those tunnels, into the chambers where the insects were at work on their inorganic counterparts, shaping them to better suit the hive. No one could fathom the quirk of nature and artifice that had pushed them--both of them, the man-made and the natural--down an unfathomable evolutionary line.
With the machines critical to the species, the insects had developed crude methods to repair them, but facilitating this demanded that the machines adopt a more familiar form. Repair cycle over repair cycle, the machines lost the characteristics given them by human hands and acquired new ones. Distinctions between them faded. In a sense, there were no longer machines and insects, but biological insects and synthetic ones, fully adapted to one another.
And still the hive grew, quietly, unnoticed by the greater animals above save for annoyance at the presence of ever larger numbers of pests. It acted as hives had for ages--scouting its surroundings, consuming, reproducing, founding new branches, encountering unknown hives and incorporating or conquering them--but did so with far greater success. Such success, in fact, that it could not help but catch the notice of the scientific community at large. No longer the domain of obsessive bug-watchers, this sprawling hive was a genuine biological curiosity. It was not the largest of its type, but none observed had expanded so rapidly or exhibited such emergent sophistication in its behavior, and beyond that no one had ever observed a complex species evolve in such a robust and rapid manner. There were new forms among their number that had never been observed in any other related species, the most magnificent of which were a strange, rare type that was larger than its kin, with alien movements and a peculiar carapace. This was what attracted the most attention.
The time will come when some enterprising entomologist captures one of these massive, seldom seen insects and returns it to the laboratory for further analysis. One can only wonder what his response will be when he goes to pin it to the tray.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Author Comments

Stories about robots tend to feature themes of dominance--who gets to be in charge of whom, who's better, who triumphs. There are few stories that place organic life and machines in more mutualistic relationships. Rather than go with humans and human-like robots, I went with something simpler. Swarm robots already exist, and while they're not as complex as most insects, their modes of behavior can be very similar. Could an ant-like machine be integrated into an actual ant colony? If so, what about higher forms of life? Questions for some future date.

- Andrew Johnston
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