As Miles Beckermann watched, yet another huge chunk of pale-blue ice split off the glacier and plummeted into the ocean. The research vessel that he was on was far enough away to be safe, but still it heaved up and down when the ripple passed by.
Beckermann consulted the system which he was monitoring. Applying very clever video processing, it was able to closely estimate the volume of each chunk and shard it saw falling, and feed the results into the progressive log. It all went into giving accurate assessments of how quickly glacier movement was speeding up in Antarctica as global temperatures rose.
He glanced upwards. The sun would not set for another couple of months down here, but even in the daylight, he could see flickers of the vivid aurora australis dancing in the sky.
Pretty as the aurora was, Beckermann clucked his tongue as he looked at it. It had been playing merry hell with their communications for the last three weeks. There had been a huge solar storm, a torrent of charged particles belched out by the Sun, knocking out several key relay satellites and filling the Earth’s ionosphere with static.
He headed back to the mess room for a much-needed cup of coffee.
Bob Peters, their team leader, was sitting at the table, a steaming mug already before him. He was surrounded by several tablets, the screen of each showing a different data display. Though any one of the tablets could have shown him all of the data, Peters found it much easier to have several of the cheap tablets around him so he could easily compare several readings at once.
Peters looked up. “Ah, Miles! I think our CO2 sensor must be broken, or maybe the inlet has frozen up. Could you have a look at it?”
“Sure,” Beckermann said. “Why do you think it’s broken?”
“Oh, simple! The readings have been dropping all week, slowly at first, but now it’s just plain silly, dropping off a cliff. You can practically sit there and watch them go down. The inlet must be blocked.”
Beckermann started to reply, but before he could answer, Anne Sanders came in carrying one of the ubiquitous tablets. Its speaker volume was turned up, and they could hear some kind of news bulletin. She muted it quickly with a touch.
“You’ve got to listen to this,” she said in her clipped New Zealand accent. “You know how bad our comms have been lately?” Among Anne’s many responsibilities were those of their Comms Officer.
“Well, I’ve been trying a new filtering technique this week, and I’ve been able to get snatches of news from time to time. There’s been some big international hoo-ha going on. The Security Council is imposing some really tough sanctions on India for something they’ve done. But I wasn’t sure what that was, thought it must be some nuke they’d developed, though why they’d need one now since they annexed Pakistan, I don’t know.”
“So what is it that they’ve done?” asked Beckermann distractedly, not much interested in politics. His mind was still thinking over what could be causing the problem with the CO2 indicator.
Anne grinned in a kind of triumph. “Unilaterally done something about global warming, that’s what! Everybody else is totally pissed, but you know how much India has been suffering. Millions have been dying. That’s what they said in their statement.”
Peters looked up, his mouth slightly agape. “What? What do you mean? What have they done?”
“Seems they’ve been working on nanotechnology in secret,” she said. “They’ve released a cloud of nanobots which are using solar energy to crack carbon dioxide and methane back into their elements. The carbon is precipitating out.”
“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed Peters, “But…” He stopped suddenly. All three of them sat there, thinking through the consequences in silence.
Finally, Beckermann said slowly: “Those CO2 readings…”
Peters looked across at him in astonishment. “My God, you don’t think the sensor could be accurate, do you? That’s impossible, surely? How long would it…” He glanced sharply at Anne. “When did they do it, do you know?”
“Not sure, I’m only getting snippets of data from the net. But from what I can gather it’s been a few weeks now.”
“Nanobots,” said Beckermann, in a kind of daze. “They would have to be self-replicating, wouldn’t they? You couldn’t manufacture enough of the things otherwise. Self-replication would be the key, the first thing you’d need to crack.”
Anne smiled. “Don’t you see, though? This means our research project is out of date. We might as well head back home. This will put a stop to the warming. In a few decades…” Anne was a biologist by trade, her face was lighting up with relief that the species extinctions would be coming to an end.
Beckermann was an engineer, though, and he was starting to get a bad feeling. “What limits the action of the bots? What stops them?”
Anne was puzzled. “Stops them? Oh… Well, I got the whole statement put out by the Indian Foreign Ministry.” She touched her tablet a couple of times and they listened through the slightly bombastic statement, the threats against the main polluting nations, the targeting of the carbon precipitation over major Western cities. Then came the statement Beckermann was looking for:
These nanomachines will cease their operation once carbon dioxide levels reach pre-industrial levels, and will then auto-destruct…
“Bob,” he said to Peters with a sudden calm and steely tone, “what’s the ambient temperature?”
Peters laughed. “Come on, Miles, it can’t possibly…”
“What’s the temperature, and the trend?” Beckermann insisted.
Peters picked up one of his tablets. “Minus 25 right now, which is pretty cold for this time of year. And the trend… It’s been falling steadily all week, getting steeper. But that can’t…”
“It’s not the reduction in the greenhouse effect that’s doing it, not yet. That will take decades. It’s the solar energy these damn things are sucking up. Self-replication, remember. Their population is probably exploding exponentially.”
Anne said, a little hesitantly, “But that’s good, isn’t it? It means it will all happen quickly.”
“And then?” asked Beckermann savagely. “Anne, you’re the biologist, think it through!”
“Biologist…” she said in confusion. “What does…?”
Beckermann stood up angrily. “You’re thinking about these things as if they were just machines. But they replicate, Anne! Think of them as bacteria or as viruses. Replication with the occasional error, bound to be. What does that suggest to you?”
“Na… natural selection,” she stammered.
“Damn right. Out of those billions of bots, some of them are going to get replicated with errors. Maybe a different CO2 level to stop at, or none at all. The good little bots will self-destruct. But the bad bots… Which bots will be better at replicating themselves, do you think? Christ, it’s basic Darwin 101! The entities which are best at replication make the most copies of themselves!”
“You mean… they won’t stop.”
He nodded, and looked out the window. “They won’t stop.”
Outside, the ocean was beginning to film over with floating ice.
by David R Grigg
© Copyright David R Grigg 2012. All rights reserved.