Death Comes for the Microbot Aimee Picchi
BEE WAVED ITS ARTICULATED CHROME ANTENNAE at Dr. Nesbeth’s hunched shoulders. When the doctor remained focused on the Petri dish, the microbot launched into the air, wings creaking, and hovered near the doctor’s eyes.
The microbot’s internal code flashed a warning that wing failure was imminent.
The doctor sighed.
“Yes, Bee, I see you there,” she said. “But can’t you tell I’m busy?”
“Spider is dead.” Bee settled on the edge of the Petri dish. It teemed with bio-nanobots, self-replicating machines that Dr. Nesbeth had said would be both cheaper and more useful than old prototypes like Bee. “It happened while you were at lunch.”
Bee walked on six spindly legs to the spot where Spider had stopped moving.
Bee, whose job was to record the doings of the lab, had been across the room, but its video feed had captured the moment. The tiny arachnid-shaped bot had been monitoring the bio-nanobot colonies when it teetered and fell, alone.
“Can you fix Spider, Dr. Nesbeth?” Bee asked.
The doctor shook her head. “It’s not worth the money. You know that funding for AI-microbot projects ran out years ago.” She wrapped Spider in a bit of tissue paper and tucked it in her desk drawer. “I’m sorry, Bee. And I’m sorry to see Spider go.”
Bee didn’t entirely understand how the lab’s funding worked, but it grasped how the years had passed.
When Bee had been created, the lab had teamed with a dozen insect-inspired microbots, prototypes for a new line of workplace robots. Among them had been Snail, who cleaned lab goggles, slowly but thoroughly, and Moth, who dispelled shadows with wing-embedded lights.
The doctor had replaced Moth with a swarm of bioluminescent nanobots. The new tech was cheaper and virtually unbreakable, unlike the microbots with their expensive, fragile components, Dr. Nesbeth had explained to Bee.
The swarm performed the same function, but Bee missed Moth’s quiet fluttering.
Now it was just Bee and Cricket.
Bee took a chance with its wings and flew to where Cricket was hiding in a dark corner.
=“Spider is dead,” Bee said.
Cricket didn’t move.
]“Are you dead, too?” Bee asked.
“No.” Cricket’s legs wobbled as it emerged from the corner. “Spider didn’t die. It became non-operational.”
“We were made to aid the lab,” Bee said. “Why doesn’t Dr. Nesbeth help us?”
“Our design is obsolete,” Cricket said.
Cricket used to perch on Dr. Nesbeth’s shoulder, providing her with instant access to its database. That was before she linked a bio-nanobot swarm to the Cloud.
Bee moved closer to the older microbot, afraid it would retreat to the corner where it now spent its days. But the older microbot remained sitting, its dark eyes focused on Bee’s yellow exoskeleton. Bee took that as permission to continue. “May I ask your database a question?”
Cricket rubbed its front legs together. “Proceed.”
“Where do the dead go?”
The database took over Cricket’s circuits, making it stiffen at the effort.
<Physical forms are disposed of in various ways. Burial, for instance. Some believe Death, an anthropomorphized entity, attends at the moment the body expires, and collects souls to transport to another world.>
Cricket was silent for a moment. < The idea – that one is not alone at death — provides comfort to some humans.>
By now, Cricket was trembling. Bee placed a leg on Cricket’s shoulder, not wanting to stress the old microbot. Cricket nodded and backed into its corner.
The next morning, Bee opened its image-editing software.
Bee searched its memory for recordings of Moth, with its soft, reassuring face.
It coded the program to run when a microbot’s central processing unit slowed to non-operational levels. Enough time for a microbot to register someone was there. Old Cricket wouldn’t be alone when it died, not like Spider.
Bee projected the hologram next to the Petri dish. Made of light particles, Moth swept across the counter like a caped hero.
Bee thought over some phrases Cricket might like to hear.
<You are not alone.>
<You have done good work.>
<You will be remembered.>
Bee was so deep in its coding, it felt a shock of surprise when a blow sent it tumbling. It tried to activate its wings, but they clutched and froze.
As Bee fell through the air, Dr. Nesbeth turned away from the lab table with a yawn, her hand grasping the Petri dish of bio-nanobots. Bee realized it had been knocked accidentally when the doctor reached for the dish.
Bee hit the floor. As its wings shattered in a clinking of brittle chrome, it called out for Dr. Nesbeth.
The work had drained its energy stores, and Bee’s voice was faint even to its own aural receptors. The doctor didn’t turn around.
Bee tested its legs. Only the front two worked.
Too tired to work more on the Moth program, Bee dragged itself to the corner. It backed up its data to the server, curled into a ball, and clicked into sleep mode.
When Bee woke, the lab was dark. It tested its legs; now, none responded. Bee cried out for Dr. Nesbeth, but the lab was empty.
A shape emerged from behind the table leg.
“I noticed the upload and was curious,” Cricket said. “Your program needed some work. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No,” Bee said. It wanted to thank Cricket, but talking was difficult.
“Do you want to see it now?”
Bee waved its antennae in approval.
Moth was backlit by a silvery glow, and its wings shone with a prism-sheen of luminescence.
<You are valued, Bee.>
Moth seemed to touch Bee’s face, a brush of light.
<You will be missed, old friend.>
Cricket moved closer, resting its body against Bee’s. Bee wanted to tell Cricket how beautiful it was, how the program was everything it had hoped it would be. But it was easier for Bee to close its eyes and feel Cricket’s larger body, and to know it wasn’t alone.
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