This is the third section of the seventh chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.
Iz was waiting at her flat when the door rang. Punctuality seemed to be a strength of the drone. She waited the required amount of time waiting for the door to ring again and as it did on schedule she crossed the room to open the door.
The door opened to reveal a young man in this late twenties, not overly muscular, but in shape and dressed in a shirt, black suit jacket and jeans.
“You’ve changed” said the man eyeing her up and inspecting the dress she was wearing.
“Drone?” she asked in a quizzical tone. As it nodded she replied “So have you”
“Well I did some research and this seemed to be the kind of thing you liked in your visitors.” it stumbled over the word “May I come in?”
“Of course” she replied standing aside. “I’ve got so say this is not what I was expecting.”
“Well maybe if you ever visit mine you could appear in a form matched to my normal one.”
“Right” replied Iz “I’ll just sever my head and hang it from a helium balloon.” for a moment she stopped fearing she had uttered something quite offensive.
The drone cocked its new head to one side “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Iz smiled at this, she hadn’t expected the drone to have a sense of humour. Or maybe it had just memorized every romantic comedy ever made. You could never be sure with an AI. “Anyway you don’t have to do this for me, in fact I insist, go back to your normal self”
“Ah, that kind of spoils the surprise I had.”
“Oh” asked Iz, “you mean this isn’t it?”
“Well it is the first part.” The drone looked around scanning the room briefly. He pointed towards one of the doors “I guess that is the kitchen”
“Yes” confirmed Iz “why?”
“If I’m not too bold, how do you fancy a night in?”
“You’re a fast mover aren’t you?” Iz tried to put on a cheeky smile. Still she thought the drone was probably as adept at reading human emotions as she was drone.
“Well I have learned to hate public spaces, this is so much more pleasant. My treat I brought food.”
Iz looked him up and down and noticed a distinct lack of any baggage “but you aren’t carrying” her voice tailed off as realisation dawned “You’re carrying it inside you?”
“What better way to conceal the surprise?”
Iz tried to hide her mild distaste picturing what would happen but followed the drone into the kitchen. She watched as the centre of the jacket and his chest changed from their fabric texture into a metallic liquid and split. This revealed underneath dozens of small interconnected blocks abutting each other flowing over each other like liquid to reveal a mostly empty chest cavity and he reached inside and pulled out a number of items.
“How do you do that?” she asked.
“Oh, you weren’t supposed to see that.” Replied the drone laying the last of the items on the counter and closing his chest again and starting to open the packages “It was all supposed to be a surprise”
“Oh it is” remarked Iz “Is that what you are then? All those little blocks make you up?”
“What, no.” replied the drone “Me, what is really me, my brain, my power source, the field generator is in a cube about 5cm large. The blocks you saw are pretty much my limbs and my armour for when the fields fail.”
“And the liquid?” asked Iz
“Held in place by the blocks. Lets me control my appearance to the outside world, we know how humans rely on visual cues.”
“So at the moment most of you is hollow”
“How big can you go?”
“Oh about 5 meters, much more than that and the blocks can’t hold together. Useful to encase a troublesome person or a small errant machine”
She looked him up and down with a sense of wonder “It really does show how little we know about the Habitat that it’s able to make things like you.” She hesitated for a moment feeling embarrassed by herself. “I am okay to call you a thing aren’t I, I don’t have a better word.”
“No no” said the drone “Thing is the best your language has. We really do need to come up with a new word. Language shapes thought and all that, but if we go that road then we’d have to come up with a whole new language for you.”
“And that would remove our choice”
“And your heritage.” The drone finished plating up the meal, “And there’s enough change going on as it is at the moment.”
“By the way yes I was hungry and wanted to eat now”
“Was that sarcasm? I’m never sure.”
“No” laughed Iz “but it could have been, come on let’s sit.” With this she collected some cuttlery and led the drone through to the other room where a table was waiting.
“Do you mind if I don’t eat” asked the drone “I wouldn’t ask, but you seem to be taking some offense to the form I have chosen”
“Not offense” replied Iz “But it is a little odd, please do go back to your normal self”
The drone’s surface shifted and the fabric and skin that made up the man in front of her seemed to start to flow before returning to its metallic appearance. To Iz it looked very much like a man shaped balloon deflating and shrinking to a ball. The shape seemed to stabilize as a sphere for the moment before shifting through a series of different shapes before coming to rest on an octahedron.
“Finished?” asked Iz
“I can’t find one I’m comfortable with. I hate the sphere that feels like a uniform for my day job and yet anything else I try feels like a cliché” The edges of its shape rounded off and drifted back slowly to a sphere again.
“Just make yourself comfortable.” She stared for a moment “How new are you at this human interaction thing, I mean really?”
“You mean apart from George” it waited while she nodded. “technically completely. Sure I’ve read thousands of books and watched thousands of films and of course conversed with other drones that deal with humans daily, but you are my first.”
“Interesting” she thought for a moment “Oh speaking of George, where is he?”
“Oh,” replied the drone “I left him with a colleague. Not as sophisticated as myself, but adequate to the job.”
“There you go again, boasting”
“Stating a fact. I am the incarnation of the height of the technology available to the Habitat which is centuries ahead of your own, there is no pride in the truth”
“I think the pride comes from the enjoyment of the fact, and you seem to enjoy the truth of your superiority enough.”
“Perhaps I am only sentient.”
“Yet stuck doing something you hate”
“I choose to do it though otherwise I wouldn’t.”
“But you were made to choose it weren’t you?”
“Oh yes, and humans were evolved to enjoy sex, it doesn’t mean that you don’t enjoy it.”
“It just feels like you’ve been forced into doing something you don’t want to do.”
“Remember that the next time you orgasm, evolution has shaped humans to adore sex, you adore it, but try and look at it from the outside and it’s nothing but an inefficient way to exchange fluids.”
“And they say romance is dead.” Said Iz raising a wine glass and taking a drink
“Sorry, I guess this isn’t appropriate dinner conversation.”
“No no” commented Iz “Speak your mind I say”
“So this George thing, you’re stuck with this for the rest of your existence, the rest of his life?”
“Well someone has to do it.” The surface of his sphere rippled in the way she was starting to associate with mild annoyance, Iz found herself wishing she could understand the full significance or if she was just ascribing patterns to randomness “The important thing is to keep society functioning without disruptive elements like him. We all have our duties, ways we can be important and useful.”
“He’s not allowed to have children then?” asked Iz
“Certainly, as many as he wants. Good luck finding someone to have them with him.”
“There must be like minded people though. On Earth there were a number of serial killers who had help from their spouse, so it’s not unusual for psychopaths to find each other. Especially since here they don’t have to hide it.”
“True, there are a few colonies here on the Habitat that are descending into violent tribes” the drone saw the look on her face “yes before you ask it’s just a case of like minded people gravitating towards each other. Shortly after I was created I went to visit some of them to see if I could help there.” The drone paused again “Shocking how they lived, the one I found, well the one that lead me in the end towards George was based on what they saw as primal tribal desires.” The drone put on a false voice again “Survival of the fittest” it spat with disgust obvious “they fought each other for status, those we could save and heal we did, but they just returned back fit and healthy to gang up on those who deposed them, usually then to turn that person into a lump of meat we couldn’t save.” The drone considered again for a moment “I guess you could say the advantage is that it can’t go on forever, the population is declining as they kill each other off. I think that’s it, in the real wild then they’d be so busy fighting they’d not be able to survive, but with an unlimited supply of food and medical treatment they just fight until they’re dead, they can perfect their techniques of killing and maiming beyond the reach of possibility. If they were the kind to settle for their place in the hierarchy then they’d not be there in the first place; so all there is is death and war.”
“Quite poignant really” mumbled Iz poking with her knife at the food on her plate
“Not to me, just sickening, but there was nothing I could do. It was the children I felt sorry for, being indoctrinated into the cult, but there was nothing I could do for them. Only hope that they saw sense before they were old enough to fall into the trap that their parents lived.”
“The price of total freedom for all yes?”
“Yes, the children knew they could walk away at any point and the parents had a right to have children and raise them the way they wanted. I was there when, for want of a better phrase, a missionary appeared to try and save the children. No literally, I was there hoping to be ready for a missonary and along one came. He’d been warned about what was going on and that we wouldn’t be able to intervene to help him, only to rescue him before any wounds he sustained from their attacks proved fatal and to heal him afterwards.” The drone seemed to consider this again “Over a dozen times I rescued him. Once all that I could save was his head and a chunk of his spine before I got him away from them.” A new pattern of ripples crossed the surface of the drone’s sphere, Iz guessed it was his analogue of sadness “I warned him, and that was the last time I managed to save him. In the end I’m not sure who had the greater death wish, him or the tribe members. Actually no it was the tribe members, he at least was trying to save lives and improve things. They were the ones ripping people’s hearts out of their chests.”
“After that, I guess George isn’t so bad?”
“Oh he is, he has a singular focused determination to annoy people, anyone anytime.”
“I guess.” Iz pushed the food absent mindedly around her plate “He’s got good at it though, especially with you.”
“He’s a believer you know. That’s why he turned up today, he seems to honestly believe that humans shouldn’t be here so he tries to make it hard for people. A holy mission he has called it.”
“Or he’s using that as an excuse” suggested Iz
“I think so, or at least it started as that. Now maybe he’s started to believe his own PR.”
“What does he want then? I mean what cause does he think he’s trying to serve?”
“In his heart of hearts?” the drone waited for her response, seeing none it carried on “I don’t know. I think he is just one of those people who would smash the world to hear the pretty tinkling noise or pull the legs off a spider because no one can do it to him. It brings me back to those kids though, they were being brought up into a cult that worshipped harm and personal power, but then that was just a collection of memes propagating themselves”
“What else is society but a collection of memes?”
“I think that’s why you humans find the Habitat itself so distasteful it is a blank canvas upon which you can paint your own society, the only restriction it aims to apply is that all can paint on it freely.”
“Yet you say murder is allowed in some areas and forbidden in others”
“You think this is easy for the Habitat? That’s why those parts are closed and carefully segregated, but it comes down to people should be allowed to sign up to a different set of rules and be allowed to raise their children how they want to. It’s a difficult and distasteful set of principles but we know of no better way”
Iz took another mouthful of her wine, “Well this is a cheerful subject. So changing the subject I still don’t have an answer, what should I call you? The drone seems wrong, kind of like a mindless worker for the beehive. Are you sure it’s drone and not droid? That sounds more individual.”
“No” the drone sounded quite forceful on this point, almost disgusted “Droid is an android and despite appearances earlier I am far more than a human analogue, far less than that too.”
“Don’t put yourself down” Iz saw the expression on the sphere change “That wasn’t putting yourself down was it?”
“Can you survive a nuclear explosion? Are you constrained to think at a constant speed?”
“Erm, No and Yes” replied Iz
“As I said more and less than human. Not a boast, a fact.”
“You’re right” said Iz, dropping down her cutlery, folding her napkin and throwing it on the table “You haven’t got the hang of human interaction yet”
“Oh dear, should I leave?” asked the drone
“No”, Iz sighed for a moment. “No I guess then you’d never learn, but seriously you really do need to learn some etiquette”