Author : Stephen S. Power

Despite the miners’ diligence, a fleck of intellimetal again drifts away during transfer from the supply ship to the adit. Wherever it lands on the trojan an accidental tower will grow, and any tower is soon full of squatters, so the mine promptly deploys Diga.

Trudging from Tower 1 to 4 she receives coordinates where the fleck will probably alight. Her visual sensors, though, note the tower already corkscrewing above a small rise, its shape inspired by the trojan’s tumbling instead of a tunnel’s freshly-bored walls. Diga heads for the newly designated Tower 6.

She flares her scrubbers as she travels. Detritus wafts away. 1 was almost entirely consumed by squatters before the mine realized there even was a Tower 1, but at least the squatters’ resulting reproduction and mass migration demonstrated what a threat they could be to the adit’s integrity. Thus, Diga.

Not that Diga knows this. She wouldn’t know if the miners were suffocated as the mine’s atmosphere geysered from a compromised adit. She just wouldn’t receive any new transmissions. And to her silence means all is well.

The silvery corkscrew looms overhead, uncountable flecks of native rock reconfigured by the initial fleck of intellimetal into new intellimetal. Her biotic sensors pinpoint two squatters already, one near the base, one around the first curve. She climbs.

When she reaches the first, a beating red point in her targeting program, it jumps. This is unprecedented. The squatters move by letting go of the trojan so it spins beneath them until they’re grabbed by an outcrop with, hopefully, a patch of tasty ore. They don’t, however, let go of intellimetal. Diga notes the movement in her behavior log, then reacquires the squatter, flares her scrubbers and burns the tower clean.

She climbs to the second squatter and finds a third beside it. It’s unlikely another migrant would’ve landed that close. Could the second have replicated so quickly? No matter. Newborns are just as unwelcome as adults. Diga flares her scrubbers.

The third squatter jumps away. Diga reacquires. It jumps again and again and disappears around a curve. Her primary sensor bulb swivels to watch it go. Her programming lacks the code for an exclamation point.

She scrubs the second squatter, then follows the third. As she comes around the tower her targeting program lights up with points, eight now, no, ten, which is impossible. Squatters double in sync. Her infestation protocol kicks in, and before she logs she scrubs.

And scrubs. The points don’t vanish. More appear. Fifteen. Twenty-seven. Diga runs a diagnostic on her scrubbers. No deficiencies. Same with her sensors. Fifty-four. Ninety. They’re popping up all around her. Either the squatters are undergoing a mass migration and landing here or they’re emerging from the tower itself. She lacks the code to frame the latter possibility.

Squatters jump on Diga, but, made of plastic, she’s immune. She reports to the mine. Her bulbs swivel involuntarily, smoothly at first, then jerkily, before focusing on the third squatter. It beats brighter, as if staring back.

Diga receives a command: Immolate. She climbs on a carpet of points to maximize the sphere of flame. The tower expands. Diga arches her chassis and spreads her pads. She dumps her logs into the mine computer. She undoes her safeties. The tower throbs.

The point of the corkscrew, now as much squatter as intellimetal, reaches down, curls around Diga and catapults her away. The tower’s great sproing shivers her bulbs and rattles her pads. The trojan tumbles below. Diga, undaunted, flares her scrubbers. The adit appears beneath her.

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