The Nanobots

The Nanobots are a rarely-encountered and greatly feared alien species; microscopic machines which operate in swarms remaking whatever they encounter.

Nanobots are one of the least known and most feared alien species yet discovered. They are a species of individuals about .08 μm in diameter. Although far more densely packed with information than human cells, Nanobots rarely exist by themselves. Instead, they form colonies that are capable of sentience under certain circumstances.

Apparently composed of silicates, Nanobots exist on the borderline between life and machine, so precariously so that we cannot say with any certainty which they are -- or even if such distinctions apply to them. What we do know is that they are highly adaptable, and capable of survival even on barren and airless planets.

But if Nanobots confound the usual distinctions on a biological level, they are even more of a challenge on the philosophical level. Among the Nanobots, sentience seems an emergent quality, coming into existence when a colony reaches a certain size and complexity of specialization. But to what extent do individual Nanobots participate in such sentience?

Nanobots challenge humans and more traditional lifeforms to wonder whether sentience can exist without a sense of self. Apparently intelligent Nanobot colonies frequently disband or merge with other colonies without any obvious unease about death or non-existence. Nor is it clear that Nanobots have any concept of self-expression, although they have sometimes produced artifacts and observed customs that might be considered artistic. Considering the impermanence of colonies, it does not even seem likely that Nanobots have any concept about surviving as part of a larger social context.

At the same time, we cannot even be sure whether Nanobots in any form have a sense of themselves as a distinct species. The name, needless to say, is a human label, coined in the absence of even a remote candidate for what the Nanobots might call themselves. It is possible that Nanobot concepts of themselves as aggregates are as non-existent as their concepts of individuals.

Such issues, as well as the unlikelihood of receiving definite answers make the Nanobots almost as alien as the Demons to other species. Even more importantly, their discovery sparked the greatest conflict in Imperial History since the destruction of the Crucians, and created a panic in Human society that still reoccurs periodically.

Biology and ecology

Whether Nanobots were created or evolved is unknown. Where they began is equally uncertain, all the more so since Nanobots would have long ago made over their home world in their own image. Some scholars suggest that they represent an invasion from another galaxy, perhaps through a spacefold between galaxies if such a thing exists.

Wherever Nanobots emerged, they have proven remarkably resilient. Studies of Nanobots have been few in number and, for medical reasons, often banned, but individual Nanobots can be thought of as sturdy, general purpose machines that can reprogram themselves in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the availability of raw materials.

Individuals and most colonies seem programmed to exchange information with other Nanobots and other life forms alike through a process that resembles mitosis in terrestial organisms, in which a group of nanobots pool their genetic material in order to modify all of them. This process can take a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the number of Nanobots participating and how different their information is. This process is often followed by trinary fusion of individual Nanobots, as though to preserve the new information by making backups.

To some extent, Nanobots can engage in the same process with other life forms if left uninterrupted long enough to discover their genetic coding. Whether they can do so with humans is uncertain, but remains a possibility. In this way they are similar to the compound organisms behind the Boliaran Plague.

Nanobots seem to have a tropism that drives them to create increasingly more complex colonies — although these colonies are abandoned at need. The size, shape, and behaviour of these colonies depend on the available resources of both materials and information, as well as natural selection. These colonies often start as mimicries of other forms of life, but it would be a mistake to view them as only imitations. Rather, the patterns are perhaps better conceived as a head start in natural selection when in a new environment. Nanobots can and frequently do improve on the initial forms they take on a planet, and with extreme rapidness.

At the most basic level, Nanobot colonies become parasites or symbionts of other life forms, gradually improving first their own structure and then that of their host. In either case, the purpose seems to be to transport the colony elsewhere, rather than simple feeding on the host to destruction.

As might be expected, this form has caused considerable alarm among Human worlds, and is ruthlessly eliminated whenever encountered. Most of the Human population of the northern continent on Twilight died when infested by Nanobot parasites in IY5667, and the entire Outer Red space station of the Mithridates system was destroyed in IY5941 to contain another outbreak that has since become a staple of popular entertainments. The most notable feature of the Mithridates Infestation was that it apparently occurred via a cloud of Nanobots that had undoubtedly been drifting for hundreds of thousands of years.

All the same, mystics and misfits deliberately seek out the experience in the hopes of a symbiotic relationship in which they sustain the Nanobots physically while gaining access to Nanobot memory, experience, and regenerative powers. And, in fact, some physicians suggest that Nanobots might be beneficial in regenerating or restoring select organims, if such research was not banned outright in most worlds. According to various mystical theories, great insights are to be gained from such encounters but, in practice, no one who has undergone the experience has managed to share anything coherent or even remotely interesting.

At the next level of complexity, Nanobot colonies assume the forms of flora and fauna that they have encountered at some time in the past. These forms are sometimes exact copies of the original lifeforms that are undetectable except by close examination.

At other times, they are improved versions with fewer of the compromises imposed by evolution or with adaptations suitable for environments foreign to the original. At still other times, these forms are a hybrid of several different life forms, as if the colony was practicing natural selection on itself. Biologists speculate that unsuitable forms or combinations are purged from the colony's catalog of possible forms, or else tagged as unsuitable.

Whatever form these second stage colonies take, they are highly resilient, healing quickly and capable of repurposing one aspect of themselves -- say, a group of Nanobots operating as a hand -- to replace another, such as a heart. In addition, second stage colonies were said by psi researchers in the past to have a distinctive low-level psi pattern completely unlike that of sentient species and more like that of a hive mentality.

At this level, at least the appearance of sentience emerges, including the use of various borrowed and invented languages and even of cultures that exist for a century or two. In this form, colonies are sometimes known to resist exchanging information with other Nanobots, which leads some biologists to believe that at least a temporary sense of self emerges. Others argue that this appearance is simply the result of natural selection coming into play, since colonies generally do share information with their first generation child colonies.

In a few rare cases, including those on Blightworld, Holger's Dancing, Andavari and Gaia's Nightmare, a single Nanobot colony fills an entire ecosphere, mimicking all individual flora and fauna at all levels. On Blightworld, such a third-stage colony was sentient, but, on other worlds, only certain pseudo-species acted as though they were. Some Humans take such developments as the fulfillment of mystical beliefs about the sentience of planets, but it is at this level that Nanobots are at their most dangerous, capable of conducting interstellar war and even attempting the colonization of other planets.

Speculation abounds of yet another level of complexity that binds multiple planets into an even higher consciousness. In fact, some believe that the ultimate purpose of Nanobots is to make the galaxy sentient. However, these ideas are philosophical speculations, without any evidence to support them.

In any of the known forms, Nanobots are transported either by their own efforts or those of space-travelling species. Nanobots are a particular terror of the Forerunners, who are sometimes thought to carry them as parasites. In small colonies, they may also be capable of utilizing spacefolds too small for humans -- a possibility that has kept more than one government official awake at night.

What drives Nanobots to adopt any of these strategies is uncertain. For all the fear they inspire, Nanobots in any form seem less aggressive than opportunistic. While they have undoubtedly driven competing species to extinction on dozens of planets, their largest enemy is often themselves. More than one second or third stage Nanobot colony has caused its own extinction by multiplying faster than resources available to them.

But, whatever the form Nanobots take, the question remains whether meaningful communication with them is possible, or whether they would understand or abide by the terms of any treaty. Despite repeated efforts at communication, the only sure way to deal with them remains quarantine and destruction of their colonies wherever they occur.

History and Culture

We cannot talk with any certainty about the Nanobot cultures that have flourished in the past, because they tend to fall and vanish as rapidly as they emerge. The Rangoon II Infestation, the hives on Aristophanes, and the midden heaps on Quetzlcoatl have all tentatively been attributed to second stage infestations, although more research is needed in all three cases. And while we do know of six second stage infestations today, including the Ragnorak Culture, in which Nanobots assume a form that resembles a cross between lemurs and eagles, our communication has not been enough to give scholars any sense of history and culture except in the most indirect ways. For this reason, the history of the Nanobots is largely the history of Human contact with the species.

Humans first became aware of Nanobots in IY5681. First contact was by a Tauran ship out of Durriyah, captained by Rim Nasira Sameh. While conducting an exploratory survey beyond the farthest reaches of the empire, Sameh and her crew discovered a planet that was seemingly void of predators, yet packed with dozens of variations of each species. Moreover, as they took samples, they discovered that both flora and fauna not only lacked any sign of evolution, but were composed of the same basic structure -- that is, of individual Nanobots.

After taking extensive samples, Sameh departed for the University of Upland Timbuctu. Although the usual precautions against alien lifeforms were taken, researchers on Upland Timbuctu soon became infected with what we now know was a first level infestation. Planetary authorities panicked, destroying the university and quarantining the system. As the infestation spread, the truth became obvious, and was broadcast by the dwindling authorities on the planet.

The result was a public crisis that lasted through several imperial reigns. The Emperor Vassilys Ko I responded by a military quarantine. Participants in the quarantine were authorized to destroy any vessels -- or any matter whatsoever -- leaving Upland Timbuctu, and an abruptly expanded explorations program revealed the exact nature of the threat over the next few decades.

As the truth became known, the public on many worlds -- especially those with spacefold connections to Upland Timbuctu -- became uneasy. Numerous riots occurred, and several politicians on various worlds were massacred when rumours started that they either had Nanobot parasites or else were actually second stage Nanobots. The fact that none of these unfortunates were anything but human only increased the unease, as people started realizing that detecting Nanobots was possible only through microscopic examinations, and that they could be anywhere.

The pressure to safeguard Human worlds was immense, but hampered by widespread economic depressions that prevented the necessary mobilizations. Instead, both Vassilys Ko I and his successor of the same name preferred a media solution to the problem, trying to soothe the unrest with often poorly conceived propaganda. As several other Nanobots infestations broke out on Human worlds, matters came to a head, and Vassilys Ko II died when explosive devices were planted in his private chambers by a cabal of leading Spartans, Spacers, Taurans, and Founders.

For decades, the empire lacked an Emperor. Finally, in 5946, Simonides, a second cousin of Vassilys Ko I, assumed the throne on the promise of decisive action to end the threat of the Nanobots.

In this way, Humanity's greatest conflict since the Great War began. However, unlike the struggle against the Crucians, the struggle against the Nanobots was not often a matter of fleet movements, or even individual ship actions, Most of the time, it was a matter of cautious exploration and efforts at containment, marked by the permanent establishment of armed stations near all spacefolds known to connect anywhere near the Nanobots — and, very occasionally, planetary bombardment to destroy worlds where the Nanobots had established a foothold. Only a few cases of combat with Nanobot ships are known, and these encounters, while inevitably won by Humans, seem to have done next to nothing to contain Nanobot infestations.

Efforts to neutralize or contain the Nanobots were partly hampered by the political influence of the Empaths (who argued that a repetition of the destruction of the Crucians would only prove human savagery and insensitivity), the relative non-aggressiveness of the Nanobots, and the relatively small number of Humans who had ever encountered them. Despite the lurid tales surrounding Nanobots, Humans seemed reluctant to finance with any regularity the expensive efforts required to neutralize them. Often, the efforts limped along with inadequate funding and supplies, only to be further hampered by demands for quicker results by the same public that failed to support them.

It was not until IY6492 that Simonide's remote descendant, John XV, announced that the Nanobots were contained -- that is, kept a minimum of two spacefolds away from any human world.

In practice, the announcement was more of a public relations exercise than a reality, given the expense and difficulty of successfully patrolling countless systems. So far as John XIII's announcement had any meaning, it meant that experts believed they had identified either all the Nanobot systems closest to Human ones or the spacefolds through which further infestations might occur, and that the frequency of infestations was now low enough to minimize alarm among members of the public.

Whether the average person realized the limits -- even the hypocrisy -- of the announcement is uncertain. However, many were quick to point out that the announcement amounted to a stalemate, not an outright victory. Numerous local politicians made their name as populists decrying the fact that the spirit of The Great War seemed to have deserted the species. However, in the ensuing centuries, the threat usually seems to have remained at an acceptable level.

True, periodic outbreaks and rumours of outbreaks have become a common feature of the systems nearest the Nanobots. Also, at least three times, Nanobot activity has been detected in systems once thought well out of their range. Yet, for the average Human today, Nanobots remain largely the stuff of legend and Spacers' tales, rather than an everyday reality.

Nanobots Today

The Disappearance has only heightened the fears about the Nanobots. For one thing, the removal of many high-level psionists from Human culture has removed one of the easiest and safest means of detecting a Nanobot colony. Perhaps even more importantly, observers worry that the chronic shortage of funds among the many pretenders to the Imperial throne may tempt some rulers to reduce the patrols that keep the Nanobots at bay.

To some extent, these fears have been tempered by the emergence of the MarchWardens, a group that seems to be a new Clan in the making. The MarchWardens are idealistic volunteers whose purpose is to ensure that the established patrols of Nanobot systems are kept up. To carry out these endeavours, the MarchWardens rely on donations and the profits of what little trade they can establish. Some, it is said, are not above extorting systems for protection in the name of Humanity's greater good. Yet even with these efforts, the patrols are stretched thin, and many worry that a major outbreak of Nanobot activity is only a matter of time.

So far, that has not happened. The one major outbreak of Nanobot activity since The Disappearance was an attack on Helios Minor by a Nanobot culture with space flight, and that ended with the destruction of the entire Nanobot fleet at the edges of the system. A few years ago, too, the Governor of Gravity Well VI received a request to exchange ambassadors with a Nanobot culture that called itself the Exile; the offer was refused, remotely, and the governor stepped up patrols of the outer reaches of the system.

The reduced communication caused by the Disappearance has also caused a variety of rumours to flourish. According to one much favoured by conspiracy theorists, one or more network of systems has already been replaced by second stage infestations that have either taken over the government, or managed to bribe it into silence. Other versions of this theory are that Nanobots are slowly infiltrating lobby groups on various systems to encourage the passage of legislation that would permit a Nanobot attack, or that many exotic pets on wealthy and influential worlds are really Nanobot colonies biding their time for a revolt.

Still other stories talk of governments or corporations who have established trade routes with the Nanobots, and are wittingly or unwittingly helping them to spread. Another story tells of two adventurers who have seized control of second or third level infestations to become rulers of non-human empires.

Such stories would be laughable, except that they often result in riots and the deaths of supposed Nanobots. On many worlds, paranoia has been raised to such a pitch that all strangers are viewed with deep suspicion. Those travelling to these worlds should expect long delays and quarantines before they are allowed to go about their business.

The average commercial, military or tourist traveller is highly unlikely to encounter Nanobots on their own, particularly if they remain on the major trade routes. However, they are strongly advised to pay the tolls requested by the MarchWardens if they are travelling in systems that connect with Nanobot systems.

Should travellers suspect that they have encountered Nanobots, they should avoid meeting them at face-to-face at all costs, even if all members of their party have quarantine gear. Instead, suspected Nanobots should either be destroyed at distance, or their flight paths charted and reported to the nearest military and medical authorities as soon as possible.