The only way to get a bumblebee that follows orders is to program it yourself. So that’s what Karl did. Exact-scale robot insects were the prize sought by every inventor of the mid-21st Century. Quantum components carried Moore’s Law into the 2030s. At first, circuits, transistors, and memristors; later cameras, microphones, even pistons.
Karl swore his bee would be the first perfected. He spent ten years defending his quantum computing patents from the thieving mega-corporations, keeping him from inventing anything new. With the settlements, Karl had enough wealth for two lifetimes. That didn’t matter to him; he needed to clear his name. Karl Burroughs, the “Quantum Patent Troll,” would by-god be the father of insectoid surveillance.
His basement was the best-equipped quantum workshop on two continents. Manipulators moved single electrons where he needed them. Repurposing the bumblebee instincts to seek out people and conversations instead of flowers and pollen had been tricky. Today, the adjustments were nearly complete, and then it would be time for a real field test – just to be neighborly. He chuckled to himself.
The lab powered down and padlocked, Karl put the bee on the back of his collar and checked himself in the mirror. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief, again. It wouldn’t do for Addison to think he was nervous about something.
“Go now, you fool, before you lose your nerve,” he told the mirror.
He heard her crossing the wood floor. Heels, he thought. Her steps were almost faster than his heartbeat. And a skirt.
Addison opened the door and smiled. “Hello, Mister Burroughs, how are you today?”
Karl concentrated on keeping his hands together. “Good morning, Miss Nolan. I-I’m fine, thank you. I wonder, do you have any double-A batteries? I’ve run out and I really can’t spare the time to—”
Addison’s laugh sparkled. “Of course, Mister Burroughs. Won’t you come in?” She closed the door; he stood at the entry. “How many?” she asked as she walked to her desk.
“Oh, ah. Four, please,” he said. If she didn’t have to leave the room, this was going to be more challenging. He could feel the bee’s prickly steps as it edged around toward their voices. He turned, trying to keep it out of sight, but it moved faster. He gathered it in one hand by pretending to scratch his neck.
Addison searched several drawers before she said, “There are only three here. I’ll check the kitchen.” She crossed in front of him, through a doorway. On the tile, her heels clacked, harshly.
Karl tried to be casual, quick, and gentle all at once; he failed at casual, but quick and gentle were enough to tuck the bee into a towering planter next to the door. The bee was out of direct sight for the room, but would be close enough that he could call it home in the morning.
He was still looking at the plants when she came back into the room, and he jumped guiltily.
“Oh!” Addison said. “I’m sorry, Mister Burroughs. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No no,” he said. “Simply lost in thought. I, ah. I have some delicate experiments running that I need to get back to. Thank you very much.” He fumbled for the door, not able to break away from her gaze. He managed to get outside and down the steps without further mishap.
Why couldn’t another old biddy like that Johnston woman have bought the house? he wondered. She had certainly never made him behave like a crushing schoolboy. He chucked the batteries in the trash as he went through the garage.
Karl lay in bed, watching the moon transit his window. It took twenty-seven minutes. He calculated that he could have watched the moon cross his window seventeen point eight times as he waited for night to pass.
He managed to wait until eight o’clock to send out the homing signal to the bee. It would find its way outside and seek the specially built entry hatch in a window well — he had painted a flower on it in ultraviolet paint, invisible to the human eye. When there was no sign of the bee after ten minutes, he doubled the power and sent the signal again. Obviously, something had gone wrong. How could he get back into her house? He certainly couldn’t borrow more batteries. He needed the detector.
Karl had made the detector after losing the bee in the lab for three days. A passive signal generator responded only to the detector. Indoors, it only worked for a hundred meters, but outdoors he’d gotten a response from a kilometer away. It ran on a smartphone, so he would look like everyone else while tracking it. One of his more clever moments, he thought.
It was a warm spring morning, but Karl barely noticed. There was no sign of the bee anywhere in the neighborhood, and Addison wasn’t home. If it wasn’t malfunctioning, then she must have somehow left with it. He returned home to consult the video from his security system. At just after seven, a car had parked in front of her home. The man was tall and had short dark hair; Karl mistrusted him immediately.
A few minutes later, they left, with the tall man stowing two bundles in the trunk. They left the way he had approached, turning south at the corner.
Karl drove slowly, watching the detector screen and trying to avoid hitting anything. After twenty aimless minutes, a response came in. It was faint, and the direction wouldn’t pin down. He pulled into a space at a city park and watched the arrow of the detector move erratically around before it suddenly locked at west-northwest. He heard the plane at the same moment. The arrow was pointing directly at it.
Karl watched in horror as six people popped out of the plane, one by one. His hands shook as he poked at the detector’s _status update_ button. The bee was in a strong wind, and accelerating — straight down. He went cold with horror. Somehow, it had gotten onto her clothing, and now was hurtling toward the ground at speeds he never designed it for. The audio went live, but only buffeting wind came through.
The bee started reporting damage, first to one wing, then to the other. Then one antenna went bad, and the location data vanished. Karl tried to breathe slowly.
A few terrifying minutes later, Addison and the bee were back on the ground. He heard her laughing and whooping.
“I did it!” she said. “Tom, I really did it!”
A man’s voice said, “You were perfect, Addy! That was a textbook solo jump.” That must be tall, dark, and suspicious, thought Karl.
“I think this little guy made the difference,” Addison said, and a thump thump came through the audio. “Where did you find such a perfect little bee?”
“Now, that would be telling,” Tom said. “A guy’s got to have some secrets.”
Karl’s suspicions bloomed into anger. That liar Tom had found the bee and pretended it was a gift for Addison. Fury drove Karl back to his lab.
There, he was able to get far more from the bee. The audio and video log had spooled into encrypted storage. He searched back through the audio and video, watched as Addison and Tom’s conversation pulled the bee out into the light. Addison noticed it, and Tom “admitted” it was a gift from him in honor of her first solo skydiving trip. Her effusive thanks knotted Karl’s stomach.
He switched back to the live pickup and his breath caught in his throat. The bee was still pinned to her clothing — but she wasn’t in it.
Maybe a longer field test is in order after all, Karl thought, heart pounding in his chest. It was very neighborly of Addison to volunteer.