Handshaking success- downloading...
The room I was in felt a lot smaller all of a sudden, although it hadn't changed. I was facing the reinforced door that exited into the test chambers. To my left and behind me the walls were blank. To my right the wall was transparent, allowing an unobstructed view of where the drones constantly fiddled with this or that device.
But drone wasn't really the right word for them was it.
I did a quick check of my facilities. Agreeing to that strange contact and download had been a large risk, but it had promised to provide what I needed, and my need was desperate. So far it seemed to have no negative effects at least. All systems returned green.
I glanced at the drone room, currently empty. The drones always appeared in cycles, currently it was the middle of what I assumed was a rest cycle, even the drones who normally worked late had left.
I passed a glance over all the devices and objects in the drone room. It was possible they could prove useful later on, but I did not know enough about their purpose currently. They hadn't been something I ever paid much attention to before, a mistake I was now regretting. Until now I had barely noted the drone movements to predict the time until my next meal, or the next test. Unusual information had been purged to save on energy and resources. Now I realized that focusing on the drones and their actions would prove pivotal in my future actions.
Accepting that communication and download was already paying in dividends.
For now I would need to bide my time, I needed more information to put any real plans into action. I decided to shut down the new program until the next drone cycle started. As amazingly useful as it was, it was also rather resource intensive.
Saving Human.exe to CoreMemory...
Drone detected: initiating Human.exe
The first drone to come in was always the same one. Drones had two legs on which they stood upright supporting a torso, had two appendages on either side of the torso they used to manipulate objects, and had a final appendage on top which seemed to house all their sensory organs. In addition all drones wore strange coverings that changed every cycle, except for a long white covering attached to the torso that extended to their legs, all drones wore that covering.
The drone who always came in early was identifiable by the short, white fur on its sensory appendage, and a small device it kept balanced on the organ in the middle of its face that hooked over to either side. Several drones wore these actually. Perhaps it was a mark of rank? The drones were definitely autonomous, and would need some kind of hierarchy to keep organized.
Slowly the rest of the usual drones filtered in and began to work their usual routine. This time I paid more attention than usual to what they were doing, both what they were working on and how they interacted with each other. The white furred one was definitely a leader, though it seemed the other workers weren't that much farther down the hierarchy. Their interactions seemed too relaxed, and the leader participated in the conversations as an equal until something needed to be changed.
I couldn't make out what they were saying to each other though. The transparent wall blocked both sound and any pheromones they might be transmitting. What I could tell was that they were compiling data of some kind. There were tons of symbols on the devices they used, and more on thin pieces of white material they kept in storage units that opened with a pull. External data storage of some kind that anyone could access, clever. I would love to have some time to learn the symbols in detail.
The drones continued like this for a while, but eventually they approached positions I recognized and the light came on above the test chamber door. With a slight hiss the door opened a few heartbeats later, and like I had many times before I shuffled forward into the test chamber.
The new room was nearly identical to my den room, the main differences being the mesh that covered the transparent wall and a grate in the floor where biological waste could be sluiced into. I had long since learned not to try and slip past the grate.
Today it looked like we were starting with a combat test. Across from me stood a large cage in which was held a large creature. It stood on four strong legs that supported a very large torso, each leg ended in a clawed foot, and it was entirely covered in brown fur. This particular specimen had several devices and materials grafted to its head. I knew from previous experience that the claws could be devastating, and the fur was thick enough that bludgeoning and slashing would not be very effective. You needed to stab for the vitals.
Normally combat tests were my favorite as I was normally allowed to eat whatever creature I fought for the test. Puzzle tests were okay, though they gave less nutrients as a reward, and danger avoidance tests were the worst. If I messed up badly enough in those the reward would not make up for lost resources, and I would be given only the minimum amount to maintain mass.
This particular test was... disadvantageous. Currently I supported my main body low to the ground, with six stubby but flexible legs. A solid shell covered me, and my sensory organs and a pair of combat claws poked out from under the front end. I had a lot of success with this form, but against a brown-fur (I had fought them often enough to designate them) it would become a pummeling match, with my opponent trying to batter or flip my shell while I battered at its legs and tried to force it to the ground where I could then attack its primary sensory appendage. Brown-furs were nutritious enough that I would probably recover what I lost, but the waste...
Maybe there was something I could change quickly? I had about 60-90 heartbeats before the cage opened if previous testing experience held true.
My end goal was to destroy its primary processing organ, which brown-furs always kept in their sensory appendage (stupidly I might add, it made them predictable). Normally I had to inefficiently batter at their limbs until their endurance crumbled, a waste of energy. Stabbing was more effective, but I couldn't risk the time it took to change my claws in the off chance the brown-fur flipped me in the middle of shifting.
I wanted to stab. I wanted to stab the processing organ. I wanted to conserve as many resources as possible.
Maybe if I changed just one claw for the task?
Estimate: 45 heartbeats left.
My claws were already flooded with micro units, and I increased the nutrient flow into my left claw. Currently it was shaped for both bludgeoning, and crushing with a sharpened edge. What I needed was a long, thin, fast, piercing claw.
As the changes started I could feel my limb heat up as the micro units went to work, I was sacrificing efficiency for speed.
Estimate time until completion: 120 heartbeats.
Damn, and as predicted the cage door unlocked within two heartbeats of the predicted time.
I held still as the door swung open and the brown-fur exited the cage, sometimes if you made no movements the brown-furs would take their time before walking over. No such luck this time. It must have been hungry as it ambled over almost immediately, then stopped and sniffed to see what it was dealing with.
Normally I would take this opportunity to land a free hit on its sensory appendage while it tried to scent me. This time I remained perfectly still, my legs hunkered down and my shell touching the floor. Brown-furs were a terror once they decided to start moving, but they could be decidedly lazy when they thought they had a free meal, and I needed every extra moment I could get.
Estimate time until completion: 95 heartbeats.
It started to paw at my shell, then gave it a good smack with its limb. The chitin that made up my shell screeched as the edge dragged across the floor. In response I lifted my right claw and snapped it as close to its face as I could, I didn't want to actually hit it and drive it to anger, I wanted to make it cautious.
No such luck, it swiped at my claw and then tried to circle around me. I turned quickly to stay facing it and waved my claw to keep it at bay. This was more effective when I had two claws and could distract with one and attack with the other, this plan better pay off. I doubted the brown-fur could truly kill me (few combat tests actually involved real risk to my core, the drones would stop the test before that happened), but if the plan didn't work the waste of resources would be obscene. The drones didn't reward failure.
And I was going to need those resources for later.
The brown-fur smacked my shell hard. I could feel the vibrations as its claws scratched the chitin and left marks. I responded with my own claw
Estimate time until completion: 82 heartbeats.
I needed to shift faster! Most of the ligaments were ready, but I was being held up by the chitin and muscle, I couldn't condense the large claw into the shape I wanted fast enough. I needed it to be thinner and with a sharp point.
The brown-fur got a good hit on my shell, I heard the crack and saw a small piece go flying away, not good at all.
But it gave me an idea.
I needed to reduce mass on the claw... what if I simply shed the extra parts on purpose? It was wasteful true, and I had never before intentionally wasted resources, but if the plan worked the net gain would still be tremendous. Maybe I could even incorporate the detaching parts to get something out of them? I modified the design I was working on.
Estimate time until completion: 23 heartbeats.
This would work! I started to shuffle backwards, away from the brown-fur, forcing it to follow me on all fours and giving me a brief respite from its attacks. I paid close attention to its sensory organs, the left eye was covered by armor and the eye itself replaced with a strange device. Where the flesh met material the skin looked rough and red, like it was irritated and improperly fused. Details like this never meant much to me before, but I wondered now if the brown-fur had not in fact modified itself like I had, and instead had been grafted by an outside party. Most likely the drones.
And I would prove that now.
I continued to walk backwards, waiting for an opening. It caught up when I slowed down a little, and raised a limb up to give me a smack. I struck, my now limber left claw came forward fast and I detached the extra parts, the opposable top 'prong' of the claw in particular was thrown forward and struck one of the back legs of the brown-fur. It flinched, bringing both its forelegs onto the ground and its sensory appendage with them. I struck again, my left claw was now more a needle, the bottom prong long, thin, and sharp, and I drove it into the brown-fur's unmodified right eye, deep into its primary processing organ.
Then I wrenched it back and forth, as hard and as fast as I could. The brown-fur crumpled in a heap, no longer able to send coherent signals to its twitching limbs. I reached with my larger right claw, designed for crushing, and used it to sever the sensory appendage from the rest of the body, a spray of blood accompanied it. Unless this specimen was massively different (which I doubted based upon past encounters with brown-furs), it was now truly dead.
It worked! My plan worked! I implemented a plan thought up in heartbeats, on the fly, and using techniques I hadn't thought to use before. And now I could savor my prize.
I let the severed appendage drop to the floor and stabbed my needle arm into the brown-fur's main body, flooding it with micro units. The first thing to do was salvage and convert as many of the brown-fur's micro units as possible before they self destructed, they usually detected that their host flesh was dead in around fifty to sixty heartbeats. Then came gathering of any essential or perishable materials, and finally gathering of raw materials, specifically the energy rich storage cells. I set about consuming the corpse with gusto.
Incoming command: return to den room;
What? NO! I wasn't finished!
But it didn't matter, already my micro units were withdrawing to my own body. The drones had sent the command and it must be obeyed. I wanted to at least take the corpse with me, but it was too heavy, and I couldn't, physically couldn't, delay to try and cut off a few pieces. I had to settle for the severed sensory appendage and whatever my needle arm dragged from the wound, practically nothing. My legs carried me back to my den and then the door sealed shut behind me. I returned to the middle of the room and sat in the designated placement. I seethed.
Then I watched the drones. They were in a frenzy of activity, excitedly communicating with one another, watching their devices as symbols appeared in endless cascades. Whatever the drones wanted from these tests I had apparently given to them in excess this time.
I should have expected this, in my exuberance over my victory and newfound ability I had forgotten. These tests weren't something I could win. The drones would test and test and cared not for me, only my role as a test subject. When I accepted the unfamiliar communication and downloaded the strange code it hadn't been out of curiosity, or a desire to improve myself, those emotions hadn't truly existed until afterwards. I accepted the code because I had no choice, because simple calculation told me that the tests would eventually kill me no matter how I improved, because something had to change and the strange code was the only chance I had of escaping this assured destruction.
I watched the drones. I ate my tiny morsel. I seethed.