Tomik’s cavity is hot. The gum and the space around it absorb the heat. Now, when she tongues the hole, warmth spills out.
By genetic programming there is no pain. The heat is meant to irritate.
There are no academics where she lives. The meat sets painlessly. Bodies gradually become functionless. Decaying the same way that foam left out in the air becomes something dry and hard and spindly.
Down a long hallway and through the gel insulation cap of her home. And along a dusty paved path twisting between stalklike towers, life hidden inside. It’s quiet on the way to the hives.
The sky is taupe and gritty, particles of dust eddying between the stalks. Swarms loop and dive in sequence. At the entrance to the hive building the gel cap feels refreshingly cold. The air inside is kept chilly and thickened with some aerosolized calming agent. The bees are docile. It makes Tomik feel calmer, too, when she visits them.
She walks in circles around the hives and looks up into the darkness. A huge hollow shell, maybe a storage container or missile launching site from a war long since forgotten. Dim and angled walls and the hives in the center under soft white lighting like pastries smothered in cream.
At one of the newer structures, she rubs her finger along the sealed seam where the builder left space between the beams. The bees have filled it with one of their miraculous substances. Something they create from saliva and beeswax and sap: propolis. She takes some of the resin and slathers it along the offending heat of her inner jaw.
Tomik grew up keeping bees. Maintaining these hives. It’s hard to know about bees without really wanting to. Her father told her once that the bees use propolis to seal cracks in the structure but also for something else. For invading creatures that enter the hive and are killed and are too large to remove.
To prevent the corpses from putrefying in the hive, the bees mummify them. And leave them.
The drones here struggle, bash heads, confused. They have been drugged by their minders. There aren’t supposed to be so many in one place. But the honey is made.
Tomik walks past again, dragging her fingertips along the rough surfaces of the hives, clicking her nails against the stacked interstices. Should I cut my nails? she wonders. She likes to feel them against her palms when she makes a fist.
Out shivering through the gel and back up the path to the stalks.
you dream about the game.
your consciousness a quantum vibration
spraying blood as you spin up.
The man, Kirt, lies in bed with open eyes. He waits for the machine to finish.
The room is hot. Lost power overnight, or maybe he forgot to turn the cold air on before going to sleep.
The ceiling has a grey adobe texture. On his back, he can really only stare straight ahead at the tiles, just barely making out the lines where the walls meet the ceiling if he peers hard into the corners of his eyes. It hurts to do so, and he’s seen this ceiling enough times before. So he lies still and waits for the machine to finish.
Forced meditation. The machine whirrs.
A lot to do today. It’s near the end of the month and he lost a couple workdays when the bed’s battery gave out. Might miss Tomik on the nanobots tonight.
The sound changes and a yellow light blinks on below.
Creaks and pops as the bed ratchets upward into a sitting position. Kirt flexes his neck forward, draws in a long, full breath, then relaxes. The machine stretches his muscles, tries to help them remember what they’re for. When he was born, he could flex his own little arms and legs. He’s been told. Since he can remember there have been beds and machines.
Before he logs into work, Kirt goes to his household management application and fiddles with the temperate control. It’s glitching, dropping clicks from his sight cursor. The app’s design is thoughtless, especially unwieldy for disabled users. Perhaps he’ll lodge a complaint. The idea makes him smile.
The app’s got his employer’s logo. So does his computer. So too does the exo on his personal account’s wishlist. At his job, individuals or companies crowdsource processes like selecting certain objects from an array or surveilling shops or filling out questionnaires; tasks that cannot yet be accomplished effectively and efficiently by artificial intelligences. They pay pennies, usually, but Kirt can do a lot of them in one day, and they add up. He's got a little ticker in the corner of his window with his total earned amount and another below it in green; his expenses, deducted directly from his pay: rent, food, care for his condition.
When he closes the app, there’s a targeted ad for an exo. A little more expensive than the one he’s saving up for. Encased in grey metal, the user walks effortlessly down a flight of stairs, eschewing the railing. He sits with an attractive woman at a cafe and raises a nontrembling mug to his too-pink lips. With a snappy suit bunching up underneath the exo’s straps and aluminum bars, he drives a pod into a bustling city. The camera zooms out and the company’s logo appears, composed of skyscrapers and cranes.
The ad ends, and with a grinding sound, the room’s air conditioner comes on. Settling in, deliberately relaxing his neck, Kirt enters his login info.
That night, after work, finished with dinner, Tomik logs into the nanobot game. It’s a curious thing, knowing you’re being swindled by a corporation and submitting willingly. Because you’ve subtracted their evil from the happiness it gives you and the total’s high enough.
Like most games, it resembles work. Tomik plays as a drone. Or rather controls a drone, because the drones in the game exist physically in the real world. What she sees in the headset, the terrain she explores exploring, all of it is real.
Originally, the swarm was built with intentions to automate it. A map of the composition of the universe that ran by itself. Ran itself. But the drones were inefficient. Their tangents were unintuitive. They gave the same concern and deliberation to inert debris that they would a shimmering mineral deposit. Their maps were detailed depictions of barren wastelands.
The goal, ultimately, was to find spaces suitable for human life, for physical settlements and virtual vacations, and the emotional component was not present or even anti-present. Using machine learning and a database of travel reviews, the drones described their findings almost exclusively in disgusted and depressed terms. The most popular descriptor in the early months of the project was “nondescript." They learned, and then used ad nauseum, the term "bleak.” Data analysts found that once one drone described the quality of a location a certain way, the others were often influenced and would criticize the same elements of other space rocks with the same descriptors. They were, after all, partially composed of extracted biological material.
Humans, though, are not content trawling desolate craggy valleys and dully reporting. They seek out what interests them, and these qualities are difficult for programs to recognize: unique formations, particular combinations of colors in bands of rock sediment, cozy partially enclosed spaces, views containing different points of interest to draw the eye.
So the drones do drone work, and the humans do whatever they want. The drones are so cheap to run, the manufacturing and power fees are negligible compared to the value of the data. Users pay a nominal fee for control of their drone, and they collect achievements as they go. There’s a leaderboard.
The drone effort’s human component began as a curiosity, but after a clever strategist suggested adding elements of a social medium, with friend tracking and messaging, it exploded into a sort of vastly open world public chatroom. That’s how Tomik met Kirt.
When her headset loads, she’s back where she was last night.
The surface is almost green. Or maybe it’s the light, or the lens. But it seems slightly green in the shadows, an unhealthy dead shade.
Tomik floats along quickly, maybe a meter above the ground. Quicker than she should be moving. To record high quality observations requires patience. She usually has more.
She's turned off the surface audio. Music comes from somewhere in her room, soft and aerial with no beat to nod along to. She is neither bored nor really interested by the video feed on her headset.
Far away, an illuminated username skims past through sharp rivulets and around small mounds of frozen nitrogen on the ground. Tomik pauses and checks again that she has switched off her username display. She feels unnatural and horrifying. Personally, in her room, horrifying, since the nanobot she is piloting has no discernible features.
She glides into a hole in the ground and shines a thin laser at a mineral deposit. The deposit glows gold, adds to her score, and its outline translates into machine language. The nanobots still must be taught what to be curious about.
Her breathing slows, and she gradually relaxes into it.
Kirt logs in. While the game loads, a mechanical arm dabs sweat from his face, twirls its multitool appendage from damp cloth to utensil, and carefully shovels a spoonful of sprouted beans into his mouth.
The halo on the screen spins, dissolves, and is replaced by the company’s name in glowing golden script. Kirt chews, remembering when he cared enough to be sick of corporate ubiquity. Now it’s just a facet of his life, totally unchanging, barely worth thinking about, like the walls of the room or his petrified hands, strapped to the arms of the bed.
Tomik isn’t there. He scans the horizon. He hardly remembers where he goes, most days. He just follows her.
k: are you online?
There’s a moment where it’s just Kirt, mindful, waiting, staring up from his bed in Canada at deep space, unrenderable blackness and lightly pixelated clusters of twinkling light, and then Tomik responds with her coordinates. He pivots and glides over. The motion is effortless and clean. Tomik’s movement is more jerky, self-aware. She has a harder time settling her consciousness into the body of the drone.
Kirt arrives but keeps his distance while she finishes up with her mineral deposit, a darting micro-LED, gaze fixed on hazy clusters in the rock. After a little while she’s done, and the twinkling light goes still while she types.
t: went to see the bees today
k: did u feed them?
t: someone else does that now. they dont let me do anything with them. just come visit sometimes
k: im sorry.
She glides away and he follows. Away from the asteroid they’d been surveying for the last week or so, she’s pinpointed something on the map. Kirt latches onto her bot’s signal and lets the AI take over driving.
He grasps for something to say.
k: what is it you love about the bees?
She’s silent for a long while. Maybe engaging autopilot herself. The two drones are now in basically total darkness, just little pinpricks of light against the void like holes in a sheet.
t: it feels good to care for something
k: could you get a plant?
t: its not the same. a plant doesnt know its being cared for.
They approach a twirling, jagged asteroid. Kirt hates these; landing on them and matching their motion makes the field of stars spin nauseatingly, but he settles down with Tomik.
t: hows life as a mechanical turk
k: fine. getting closer every day
t: how many months until you can afford the exo now?
k: fourteen and some days. might be more if they move me again. always expensive to be moved.
Her nanobot darts into a crack in the rock, and he follows. Her LED brightens and the light grows to fill the little rivulet. It’s a couple inches deep. The rock has an angular pattern like overlayed carrot brackets.
As she works Kirt’s eyes grow heavy.
k: there’s a little farm here where i order produce sometimes. i could mail you an orange.
t: citrus makes my throat swell up :/
He chuckles. There they are, somewhere in the universe, talking about fruit. Little pilots, little flitting machines.
Sleep comes on quickly, but the dream comes slowly, in pieces. He’s had ones like it before. Each time it feels like new details are added.
His drone scuttles, legs clicking, contorting to open the door. Inside is like a cave, grey pixelated rock walls and a small bed with black sheets. She’s there, sitting with her legs crossed. He has never seen her in real life. In the dream, she’s got short black hair, smooth shoulders, her face a rippling puzzle, hard edges rolling over into soft lumps, taken in somewhere invisibly and spit back onto the surface.
Kirt climbs up on top of her and they begin, the room pulsing, his head full, thoughts trickling through thickly like plasma on limestone, like a person falling through a gel door. Time moves in dizzy bursts. Finally, with a silent gasp, the drone’s endophallus bursts out and an ecstatic rift opens up in his intestines. He fades in and out of consciousness, in and out of control. In one moment shivering and in the next immobile, eyes darting at a dead interface.
The last part of the dream is unfamiliar. Kirt’s still in the drone as it dies, legs retracting and curling up toward its body. He’s on his back in a room of curving corridors like a server farm, walls composed of gleaming, dripping hexagons. Now, in the corner of his vision, he hears the humming accumulation of his brothers and sisters around him. They’re drones like him, bristling with yellow and black-striped fur, six legged, with shimmering metallic planes and angles and blackly reflective compound eyes.
He feels the warmth of their bodies as they press their feet against his withering corpse. Something red and wet falls on his back. Then more, dripping into his lidless eyes. The bees’ enamel locks his limbs in place and entombs him.
Soon no light can get through.
Then he just lies there, breathing cimicine darkness, waiting to wake up.