The spire grew from a tight mesh pushing out of the deep cracks of the street, converging into a pillar that loomed above the squat buildings, clipping one at the side. Alice circled high over the rising structure and the abandoned remnants of Krakow while her ship spit out the usual scans with a faint hum and stutter. This nanotech Grey was polite for such a big one, it didn’t extend defensive barbs into the air and showed no obvious toxicity.
The other collectors preferred passive flare-ups like this, but Alice found it hard to destroy something that didn’t fight back. Jake never seemed to care, but she thought a passive collection skirted the edge of cowardice.
“No use waiting then, Old Pig,” Alice whispered to her ship.
Alice had Old Pig throw out one of its sample collection probes, a pointless ritual to confirm the nanite aggregate. But protocol was protocol, and part of the reason the Grey kept coming back.
The probe returned as the spire sealed the small dimple created by its offending distant cousin. Old Pig opened the probe’s collection pouch and spilled the twitching machinery into his quarantine chamber. Extending the remotely controlled robotic arms and manifold tools, Alice dove into the sagging handful. Such a small sample rarely revealed anything important, but this was one of the best parts of the job, to see the Grey’s newest evolutions in such detail. This first look was the only reason Alice didn’t skip the initial probing entirely.
The sample’s outer tessellating microstructure folded into layers of protecting tightness. Each surrounding sheet grew into shapes evolved from the simple patterns at their central sheet, convolving into a blossom of wild elegance. Tough skin growing into sensitive flesh.
The Grey often came up with unusual strategies among its twisting symmetries and convoluted molecular designs. She had seen so much over the years, but every time it was new and terrifying. Certainly useful to the few who bothered studying the Grey anymore. Occasionally even profitable, when she managed to squirrel away something novel for her Duster friends.
A Grey as complicated as the spire below would usually be much smaller, easy to corral into the ship’s small autoclave until Alice could haul it back to the Black Drop. But she doubted the autoclave’s pressurization assault would work even if she could pack it all in. This sort of Grey would just hyperevolve its way out. She had once nearly lost her ship when a much simpler Grey cluster managed to escape and veer Old Pig into an evacuated building.
Time for Protocol again, but this time a sensible one, land and extend the secondary sensors. Call for backup.
Old Pig yawned in relief as the burdens of flight slacked around him, turbines wheezing still and landing gear moaning.
“Central, I have a T-40 here. Request reinforcement.” Audio only, hoping Fabrizio wouldn’t open the visual.
“Sorry, Alice.” No such luck, there he was on the screen, grinning and vacant. “Everybody’s out, even the off-duty. Lots of big ones popping up all over.”
“Sir, I strongly suggest diverting to this location. My target exhibits advanced tertiary structure and exponential repair. Sending preliminary data over now.”
There was a pause in his crass attempts at a flirty smile as he read the report. Then he bit into his thumbnail. “Um,” he finally replied to fill the awkward pause. “I can send you Takashi and Krin in about an hour.”
“Their ships are not equipped for this category, sir. I need two other class threes, minimal.”
“Let me get back to you.” Of course, she thought, you go find somebody else to tell you what to do.
Not wanting to wait, she began the next data collection phase, reaching out to the growing spire with an uncoiling sensory proboscis. Slow and unthreatening, Old Pig’s snorting and snuffling nose touched the spire’s surface, then burrowed in when he encountered no adaptive resistance.
That was how you dealt with the advanced nanites, careful and deliberate. The old self-replicating identicals would just burn themselves out when they ran out of local resources. Sometimes they even encountered something that could wipe their whole population with surprising ease. Once, in Venezuela, she’d watched beetles by the thousands gorging on pink nanite nets that stretched over a full square mile of farmland.
“Unit 14, standby for emergency communication.” Startled, Alice adjusted the volume of the UN direct com channel. It was only the third time it had been used since she got Old Pig, and this didn’t seem to be just another transmission test.
“This is Commander Sherman of the United Nations Nanomachine Defense Commission. Multiple nanite flare-ups have been detected across the globe, many of similar composition. This appears to be a coordinated assault. Eliminate your assigned target at all cost. Reinforcement will be sent as resources become available. Repeat, eliminate target at all cost.”
So it was really starting, just like Jake had predicted. Alice sat back and tried to take in the spire, reach across the gap of chemical incompatibility, timeline, and scale. Plunge into the heart of the living machine, if only to ask what it was doing, what it wanted.
In the beginning, it was easy enough to toss Grey into the Black like so much inconvenient garbage. The Grey would clump and fray as they tumbled down before reaching the event horizon, their final throes fixed in timelessness.
The varied fireworks of the dying Grey became something of a show. People brought their children to crowd the stadium that was built below the miniature black hole. They sold hot dogs and booked popular concerts. It brought in some tidy revenue for the Commission and was great at advertising the need to keep funding nanite cleanup.
A report lit up from a holodisplay, a tumbling bauble of jagged edges over splitting bulges. It was a cross-sectional representation of the spire, its layers and inner folds. The bulky lower tiers were packed high-energy polymers, followed by skeletal struts thinning into to bewildering complexity at the top. Not just structure: the telltale whispers of function.
Alice began the analysis, extrapolating expansion rates, available intermolecular free energy and evolution probabilities. These used to be enough, but now they were often wrong, sometimes dangerously so. This time they made no sense at all. This spire shouldn’t be growing so quickly. At its current size it actually had a negative free energy score and should have collapsed by now.
Well, it was time to earn her pay.
“Old Pig, load the Thierry-Malt function.”
Alice struggled with the formatting errors that often sprang up with new functions like this, but soon enough she worked out the kinks. The program churned to detect the free energy of each compartment subsection at the molecular level, the streaming pentabytes straining Old Pig’s processors.
What would this Grey burn into when thrown into the Black? Perhaps it would flash with rainbow colors and abstract shapes to woo the crowd, or maybe leer down with blood-shot eyes extending from massive sheets of billowing flesh, arms and legs and mouths and sex, almost human.
Alice preferred the latter, the deathknell that thinned the crowds as people realized they were watching an execution. Only the hardcore Dusters watched anymore, but they knew from the beginning what they were seeing, didn’t need for it to be spelled out with the grotesque.
Fabrizio beeped at the com. Alice ignored it, hoping he would just give up, but it came up again, then again. She finally opened the damn channel.
“Alice, this operation is getting too hot! They are popping up all over, there’s even talk of Q-strikes if we can’t contain them all. Please, if you can’t get rid of yours just get out of there, I’ll cover for you, just get out!”
“Thank you for your concern, sir.”
Then he just stared, his mouth partially open as if there was something really important he wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words. He looked like a lost puppy.
“I have to go, sir.” She shut off the channel.
Always with the overreaction. The Grey showed up as something big and scary and it suddenly became a problem. People so easily forgot that nanites filled the air and seeped into the earth. Even in the fulldome cities, where nanite surveillance was maximally paranoid, every breath of air had at least a few hundred, if not thousands, of stray nanomachines. Remnants of true Grey dead-ended into particulate oblivion, sure. But still there.
Old Pig’s sensory extensions deep within the spire started to report large-scale shifts in isomerization and structural integrity. The gap between the high-energy compounds at the base and the complexity hubs above started to increase, filling with a tight honeycomb structure.
This was developing faster than she expected. Soon enough, nothing Old Pig had would touch it. Alice leaned forward and turned on the torches, but they didn’t even singe the outer shell. A burst of liquid nitrogen also had no effect, just slid across the surface and pooled into a slowly sublimating puddle on the cracked street. The sensory module died as the spire snapped against the umbilical wire connecting it to Old Pig, sealing the module within.
Alice ran through a few calculations and hedged guesses, then struck with a combination of acids and other caustic chemicals, again to no effect. She tried shooting the spire for good measure, Pig’s Gatling snout blazing red and yellow as it fired explosive rounds. The first barrage looked like it caused some damage, but the second barely scratched the surface.
The next option would be the PQB cannon. Alice wired Command for permission, but found it was pre-approved. She put some distance between Old Pig and the spire and unfurled the cannon from Pig’s underbelly. An invisible high-energy beam burst from it, tearing at the air, the ensuring thunder toppling the nearby three blocks of the dead city.
The spire listed a bit to the side as the building it rested on fell, but righted itself, the soft, melting surface that had taken the brunt of the blast clawing back up. Old Pig had enough charge to fire a second blast, but Alice decided to save the fuel.
Just last year, a routine geological survey broke into a massive cavern housing a Grey construct of over fifty metric tons. It fed off the magma flowing near its undulating edges, the fingers it dipped into the molten rock fine and glassy. It was written off as a fluke, but Alice knew better; the Grey probably extended into the very planet’s core. Imagining worlds upon worlds below teeming with Grey made her feel like a simple woodland animal staring at a busy campfire from the distance, the bustle of artificial tools and light incomprehensible yet strangely alluring.
Well, the UN did say at any cost. Alice touched the small metal circle at the side of her neck and called Smitha. Good old Silver, as she liked to be called now.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasure! Always glad to see you, my dear.”
“Hello, Silver, are you out?”
“Of course! Isn’t all this activity just wonderful? I’m in North Africa collecting an entirely unmolested quad growth, a neat little cube, harder than our best boson-tethered lattice.”
“I have something better here for you, highest complexity. If you help me take it out you can have the remains.”
“Now, now, are you finally switching sides? No longer Uncle’s nice little girl?”
“I have full leeway on this assignment. They’re a bit desperate.”
“I can imagine, I’ll break atmosphere and be at your position in a few minutes. Hold on tight!”
“Will do. I’m sending you the data.”
Together, they fired and cut. The unpainted metal bulk of Old Pig appeared crude beside Smitha’s sleek, jet-black Sagittarius. It was the newest model reentry collection and disposal craft, the kind the UN commission couldn’t afford to buy. Another product geared at Dusters selling illegal nanotech to companies too lazy to do their own R&D. Alice just hoped Smitha never tried to sell her wares off-world. Getting caught breaking the Earth quarantine net held a long prison term. Whatever it took to keep the colonies clean of the runaway nanites.
“Hey, Alice, this isn’t working.”
Alice agreed, so they paused to hover within sight of the spire, discussing which models to apply and calling on increasingly tenuous industry and academia contacts for advice. They were all aware of the coordinated Grey flare-ups. Everybody could smell something big, but, as usual, nobody knew what to expect.
“Silver, heads up.”
“Wow. So cool.”
The spire had started to shift, its top building in volume into a large sphere sitting on a narrow stalk. It looked like a starved fungal colony, dying cells rising into a suicidal pillar to elevate a bolus of spores meant to burst into the wind. The bolus quickly grew to almost a mile in diameter, by far the largest Grey Alice had ever seen.
A message came from the UN channel, not a general report like before, but a personal one.
“Unit 14, orbital satellites have detected accelerated growth at your location, we are sending a quantum-yield drone to your target, maintain pressure until it arrives.”
Another lifeless crater swallowing up the remnants of an old city. The responsible subcommittees claimed the fallout wasn’t so bad on the new Q bombs, but humanity would still lose more ground, crowding ever more tightly into the remaining fulldome cities with viable scrubbers. As if Earth was just a contaminant to be locked away and kept from spreading.
“Ouch. I’m sorry, Alice, but I should head out before they unscramble my serials.”
“Wait a minute.”
Alice hated going to him for help, but this had become more than just another collection. She took off her VR interface and got up from her immersion chair, calling out for Jake. Old Pig was no longer projected around her, replaced instead with her apartment’s small living room.
Jake sat at the kitchen table, a handful of books neatly stacked to the side, his computer terminal lowered as he looked up to Alice in the doorway. She squeezed past the oven and put her arms over his shoulders, letting the incredible heat of his body leak into her. He smelled of fresh coffee and pine.
“Hello, darling,” he said, “welcome home.”
She hugged his chest and neck until she could feel his skin shift underneath. Alice enjoyed how it wavered between resisting her pressure and giving in.
“You know what’s going on with the spire?” she asked.
“Yes, I saw. Do you need help?” He looked up with his pale blue eyes, trying to smile.
A pause as she considered what she was about to ask.
“The inner segment of the base is not a supporting matrix or compressed raw materials, it’s an explosive store, high density. I don’t know what the top is, it won’t speak to me. But if you detonate the explosive in an uncontrolled way, the structure will collapse. The rest is too far gone to revert and rebuild, so it will probably scatter. Want me to upload some suggestions to Old Pig?”
“Thank you, Jake, your insight is more than enough.” Alice got up and turned back to the empty doorway, letting her hand linger on his shoulder.
“I love you,” he offered as her hand slid off.
He lied, of course. Jake enjoyed the quiet study in her tiny New York apartment, the crumbling books and ever-amusing human knowledge he hoarded while building himself with all the awe and giddy joy of a child learning about sex for the first time. But it was a strangely captivating mimicry, pointless and obsessive in equal measure yet still exhilarating.
“I love you too.” Alice looked back with a smile, knowing what the word meant and not lying.
With a step through the threshold she was back at her ship, the small cockpit inviting and warm, as if Jake’s heat followed her back.
“Silver, check your com for my plan. I hope your PQB cannon beam is narrow.”
“As a virgin butthole. All right, let’s do this thing!”
Alice got near to the base of the stalk, where it expanded into a large rectangular square. She detached her incendiary blaster, but waited. Then Silver fired her cannon, focusing the blast on a meter-sized area on the Spire’s base, Alice’s craft barely shaking from the aftershock. Alice knew Silver’s newer model PQB would be much better than hers, but didn’t expect such a stark difference.
The hole it left on the Grey was rapidly closing, but Alice had enough time to shove her detached torch inside, right next to the remnant cord of the sensor module that had first entered the Grey when it was still a spire. She quickly reprogrammed the sensor so its transmission and motility wire grabbed onto the torch and drove it deeper into the Grey, right where the explosive reservoir met the stalk.
“Payload set! Back off!”
Old Pig and Sagittarius rose up several miles above the Grey, then waited as the remote program turned on the torch. Alice held her breath in a pregnant second of blind inactivity, then another of shiftless anxiety, then another of fear that something had gone wrong.
A bright flare erupted from the Grey, saturating all detectors, pushing against their ships with an angry shockwave.
“Is it down?” Alice asked Silver, knowing her sensors would recover faster.
“Yes! Yes! It’s keeled over and half-chewed up at the bottom, looks like it’s dispersing!”
Alice leaned back as Silver dove to start collecting the escaping Grey. In the distance, a small triangle turned and disappeared, perhaps the called off Q-bomb drone.
With no small sense of professional pride, Alice sent a summary of her strategy to the other collectors, directly as well as through Central. She even thought of forwarding it to the UN commission, but didn’t. That would be a bit too cheeky.
The UN channel beeped. Not a message, a live feed. She turned it on. A graying man in a tight military uniform leaned into the cam, displacing the young communications officer turning away from his station.
“Collector Alice, superb job out there, we appreciate your effort. Please collect as much of the remaining Grey for study as you can, particularly remnants of the large terminal sphere. An advanced collection team is on its way, but whatever you can get right now would be of great assistance.”
“Yes, sir.” She replied with practiced detachment, wondering what the devil was going on. The Commission would never stoop to debris study. But before she could rearrange her wits well enough to ask, the soldier shut off the transmission.
“Silver, I just got a very strange call from the Commission. They ordered me to collect some of the Grey.”
“Well, come on down, sister! There’s more here than I could ever pack in my rig anyway.”
“Silly, just load up the net, it’s all over the place. Things are going to get real interesting now.”
First Alice lowered Old Pig to begin the collection, but then she checked the public web. She immediately found what Smitha was talking about.
Hundreds of static and full-VR vids showed propulsion contrails rising from the ground with plumes of billowing orange and yellow. Each drove up a sphere similar to the one she’d just destroyed. Vid after vid showed dozens of spheres rising from multiple horizons to charge at the sky.
The reservoir was not a lateralizing explosive or digging apparatus, it was fuel. Alice stared at a leaked orbital video of countless Grey spheres spreading away from Earth, then personal snippets from Dusters and vacationers gazing at the comets passing their ships, drunk in the experience of the first extraterrestrial Grey excursion.
Several of the Grey spheres crashed into the quarantine grid and were destroyed, but most punched through. Layer after layer broke up in their wake, the shrapnel burning up in the atmosphere, leaving Earth naked again for the first time in almost fifty years.
Alice knew she was supposed to fear this and tossed that aside; she hoped the Grey would find a home for themselves. Not just in the asteroid belts and terraformed moons but in the places humans were too frail to enter. She wished for them to taste the far reaches of dark matter clouds, the burning atmospheres of gas giants and the very surface of suns.
Her hands trembled on Old Pig’s controls, not out of fear or apprehension, but at the sudden and overwhelming realization that she no longer wanted to be a collector.
The next day she would abandon her earthbound ship and purchase a Duster craft with her illicit savings from selling Grey on the side—one large enough for both her and Jake. They would chase after what they could only access through distorted mirrors and abstract mathematics, artifice desperate for artistry, Jake seeking the human and Alice the machine, each reaching out to distant fires not of their making.