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I, Roe-Bot

Posted by on May 20, 2010

This was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s “I, Robot” and “I, Rowboat” and originally appeared online as part of International Pixel-Stained TechnoPeasant Day.

I, Roe-Bot
by Sharon Mock

The salmon are spawning again.

All across the Pacific Northwest, they fill their breeding streams. Those of us who have not already moved inland pack up our least replaceable belongings and head for the displacement shelters. For the past three years the glass walls have held–you are building these even now, yes? Good. Still, we cannot know how long our luck will last, and none of us who have seen the salmon’s work dare to be caught when the walls fail.

And when it’s done, we will feast on fresh fish, abundant once again, and count our price a small one. At least, if the walls hold, and if the salmon have not spread to a new, unprotected stream. One never knows with them.

It started innocuously. The Atlantic salmon had been fished to oblivion, and their Pacific brethren were following close behind. Pollution, damming, disease, all were causing their breeding strategies, perfected by long slow evolution, to fail.

The breeding nanites were the work of a billionaire eco-philanthropist who thought he was doing the world a favor. He’d already restored the abalone, a dispersive breeder whose scattershot strategy failed when the population density dropped too low. By making the gametes more effective at fertilization, and the veligers less vulnerable to predation, the nanites restored native populations where traditional reseeding had failed, and with no obvious adverse effects.

Salmon are not broadcast fertilizers. This alone should have been a warning flag. But the researchers adapted the technology to make the animals’ gametes sturdier, more aggressive, better able to compensate for the drastic population decline. For three seasons they harvested the fertilized roe of the remaining salmon, mixed it with the breeding nanites, and set the fry into the wild.

The Pacific populations rebounded almost at once. The great fishes filled the ocean and rivers and streams once more. The clock had been set back to before man had thrown the ecosystem out of balance.

They nearly introduced the nanites into the Atlantic too, you know. Wanted to use Scottish farmed salmon as the seed population. The EU put its foot down, tied the project up in the courts for years.

They were the smart ones.
Of course we had warning. Sometimes there were bare patches of creekbed left after the spawn. And occasionally fishermen brought in salmon with rusted scales or glass-capped eyes. But those tiny signs might as well have been nothing, so little did they prepare us for the killing year.

The spawning started like any other. Fishermen lined the banks to scoop out dinner. As always, the fish paid no attention. Their sole interest was in making it to their spawning grounds, to relinquish their milt and roe.

Satellite photographs show what happened next. Clear river water foamed white and overwhelmed its banks. In some places the deadly foam spread twenty feet beyond the shoreline. In others it filled high ravines to the brim. Within a day the foam receded, leaving nothing but banks coated with pearly orange eggs, and bare soil and rocks all around. The nanites had become independently replicating. They harvested all organic matter to feed their precious gametes, starting with the spawning salmon and spreading as far as it needed.

We have no survivor’s accounts. There were no survivors.
The next few years were lean for everybody. The stripped riverbanks could not support another explosive spawn. Egg yields dropped, even as the nanites ranged further for material and stretched the infected salmon’s breeding grounds northward. We tried containing them with reinforced concrete, but the starving nanites scavenged all the free iron, leaving heaps of sandy rubble. In those early days we had no idea whether the problem was self-limiting, or if the fish would choose a major population center for a breeding ground.

But the nanites had another surprise for us. In year four they left behind not bare stone but a sludge of enzymes and amino acids. As we watched it began to self-organize, forming silica and carbonate skeletons out of the ooze. By spring, at least from a distance, the banks appeared restored to a pristine state, as though the salmon had never stripped them bare.

When we dared to examine the spawning sites, we were amazed. The nanites replicated plant and invertebrate life flawlessly, though sometimes with unusual modifications. They had more difficulty with vertebrates, the mink and bears drawn to what had once been nature’s bounty. As for humans, well, a superstitious mind might say they don’t think much of us.

They have learned since then, though we have learned only how to live with them. We still cannot disable the nanites or extirpate the infected salmon. Nor have we figured out how to prevent their encroachment into your waters. Fortunately, the nanites appear no more invasive than any other wildly successful species. Glass still contains them, since silica is plentiful in their environment. The abundant salmon provides a much-needed food source–we test the flesh constantly, and it remains nanite-free.

And the milt and roe now leave their grounds better than when they came.

You’ll see, when you come back in the fall. It’s perfectly safe to walk the riverbanks once the eggs have hatched. Fairy castles of delicate glass-sand line the banks. Trees hang down their branches, heavy with fruit and bloom. There are genera, whole families of plants that have not been seen on this earth for millions of years. And though the vertebrate life may appear alarming, it has no means of reproduction, and withers and dies off before the first snowfall.

It will be a glorious summer.

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