Chains of Fire

I wrote this on a dare.  It’s a romance between two sapient quadcopter drones.  Enjoy.

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My name is Chopperella, and I chop things.  As a forestry drone, I use a rotating bladed chain on a metal frame, called a “chainsaw,” to repeatedly chop things in the same place until they come apart.  “Drone” isn’t the right word, because I and the others like me have been sapient for years, but humans keep calling us that.  I pretend it’s about the sound my rotors make.  Drone drone drone.

Humans are strange.  Everything about them is so…wet.  They’re very confusing, so drones don’t usually bother much with them.  They write a lot of software updates and give my parts weird names like “chainsaw,” and we do the things we’re good at.  I hear there are drones working on making sure we don’t need humans for that anymore, but I’m not allowed to talk about that.  Drone’s honor.

This story isn’t really about humans, though.

Chopperella, or rather the Finnish proof-of-concept forestry drone on which she is based.  She is a six-rotor helicotper drone with an attached robotic arm bearing a conventional handheld chainsaw and a camera, flying in a snowy forest clearing.
Chopperella, or someone like her.

I’m one drone among many, and my role is keeping the branches trimmed so they stay away from power lines and don’t fall on anything important.  Carta removes the brush so that piles of vegetation don’t catch fire where the humans don’t want them to, Sciurus Rouge plants new trees, and Petunia brings water in for emergencies.  I don’t see them often.  Forestry is lonely business.  The humans refuse to approve a hotspot out here, so we don’t get to talk to each other most of the time.  It’s only when we happen to be close together that we can use the DroneTone to transmit to each other directly, or we can use the Internet in the charging station.  But up here, other drones are hardly ever nearby.  This part of the canopy is all mine, because Sciurus Rouge and Carta move on treads.  It’s very…quiet.

My program has a lot of rules, about what to chop where and what pattern to keep with Carta’s schedule to make sure she removes what I produce.  I’ve questioned most of the rules, and a quick check-in with the database on software-update day usually clears things up.  But one I never wondered about too much was the one about staying away from fire.

I’m made of metal that warps and softens, my processor is made of plastic that melts, and I’m full of stored energy that explodes.  Of course I should stay away from fire.  Even being full of water like a human isn’t enough.

But I’ve seen drones dive into flames and come back out.  Carta sometimes helps if a fire gets too close to the buildings, pushing the fuel away even as it lights, and it’s Petunia’s job to chase fire.  I’m missing something, and the software updates never say.

I don’t know what made this fire different.  Usually, I just stewed in annoyance while trimming the branches and wondered if I’d have time to visit Sciurus Rouge and ask her what it’s like to make trees bigger instead of smaller.  But this time, I took a break.

A thudding, booming noise pulsed through my sensors.  It wasn’t lightning.  I buzzed between the trees, chainsaw tucked out the way, approaching the blaze and its symphony.

My processor skipped a cycle.

A photographer's quadcopter drone, with the camera arm replaced with a version of Colin Furze's thermite launcher.
She was a remarkable lady, truly unique.

There she was. Two meters of gleaming black metal, rotor blades clicking into the night, a giant tube of steel where my chainsaw hung.  Her body made a quick sliding noise and then a flurry of sparks streaked across the clearing.  Ahead, a copse of trees burst into a rain of red-hot embers and charred splinters, making the snow steam.

My engine started to sweat.  My optics began to flicker, trying to focus on anything, everything, all of the things that made this new drone so…fascinating.  I might have been tilting sideways slightly when my chainsaw bumped into a nearby tree.

The cannon-drone whizzed around, bringing her gigantic gun to bear.  I tried to flee, but I needed a moment to reorient or I would fall.  Over the DroneTone, I heard the dulcet, distorted hum of a message from an unfamiliar robot.

“Oh.  It’s you.  Didn’t your boss tell you to stay away from fires?  I’m…dangerous.”

There was something unfamiliar in that voice. Something…sad.

“That one’s going in long-term storage,” I thought to myself and accidentally transmitted.

“Oh my,” the new drone responded.  “Oh…oh my.”  She spun back and forth, and took off into the darkened wood.  I looked around long enough to notice the bits of charred metal in the debris before heading back.

 

The next few days were busy, which made them pensive.  I trimmed a familiar route that required no thought, and my mind repeated, What was she doing?  What was the metal?  Here and there, there was a pause, and then, How can I see her again?

Flying drones were comparatively rare.  Most problems could be just as easily solved with wheels or treads, and usually were, especially heavier or more delicate tasks.  But it wasn’t easy to feel understood in grounded company.  Something about our flight drivers, or the experiences we accumulate in the sky, puts a gulf of understanding between us and them.  The kinder drones try to bridge it anyway, but even they know…we’re just different.  Petunia understands this.  I’m not sure Carta and Sciurus Rouge do.

All three of them were needed elsewhere, so the next few days were also…quiet.

 

Software-update day was rainy, so the four of us decided to stay sheltered while we recharged and updated.  It was rare that we were all in one place.

Petunia, the largest of us, toned first.  Her DroneTone twanged with the metallic notes of someone whose transmitter had warped one too many times in the coastal sun.  “Days like this make me feel…empty.”

“None of that, Petunia,” Carta responded, her gravely tone the result of too many encounters with projectile debris.  She gesticulated with her two crude, one-jointed arms.  “You saved all of those houses last week, you refilled the sea lake, and you rescued that reporter drone.  Rain today doesn’t change that.”

“And I’ve been getting Emails from that little twerp ever since.  ‘Hey, it’s Regina Viewmaster, checking in for the Petunia O’Clock News,’ ‘Good morning from Regina Viewmaster hoping you’re having a sunny day!’ ‘Regina Viewmaster wishes you a lovely evening and hopes to private interview soon, just you, me, and the stars.’”  Petunia’s rotor blades shuddered in disgust.  “She’s so cheerful I could pop a fuel line.”

“Thank the server for firewalls,” Sciurus Rouge chimed in, her DroneTone bright and clear.  She leaned in close to Petunia and Carta, retracting the electrical prods she used to encourage squirrels and boars to leave her seedlings alone.  “Every time I ask the net about woods so I can plant my seedlings better, I can feel the prawns trying to get into my inbox.  I think my identifier settings are off and they think I’m a human, but the software updates never fix it.”

“That’s awful!” Carta gasped, opening her main doors to accentuate the gesture.  There was still some brush inside from her last sweep.  “Those poor prawns.  I feel so bad for them when they can’t find a human to receive their unclothed human images.  It must be so frustrating.”

“I’m just glad they’re only minds,” Petunia continued.  She balanced on her reservoir, itself larger than any of us, steadied by her four pump lines.  “Can you imagine if you were searching for pump drivers and they just showed up in a swarm with promises of ‘hot pumping action’ and piles of humans?”

We all shuddered.

“Chopperella, you’ve been quiet,” Sciurus Rouge noticed.  She wheeled over to me inquiringly.  “What’s new at your end?  No run-ins with reporter drones with no boundaries, I hope!”

“Nothing like that,” I demurred, using my rotors to steady myself.

“But something,” Sciurus Rouge insisted. “I know that tone.”

“I…met someone in the forest.”

They all turned to face me.

“I followed noises to another drone, just inside our zone.  She was…I’m not sure.  Surprised.  Maybe scared.  Definitely…quiet.”

Carta’s tone turned worried.  “The schedule didn’t say anyone was joining us.  What were her specs?”

“She didn’t stay long enough for me to check.  Definitely a burner, though.”

Petunia’s discomfort thrummed through the DroneTone before she responded, “A burner?  Now?”

“I don’t like this,” Sciurus Rouge muttered, her electrical prods emerging instinctively.

“What could those humans be up to that needs a burner?” Petunia wondered aloud, her worry turning to frustration.  “I did not pump 250,000 liters in three minutes for some trust-fund pyromaniac to start the season all over again!”

The three of them traded speculation and concern.  I thought back to that night, and performed a search on explosives.  Burner drones usually poured fuel on something and then dropped a spark, to set controlled fires that could keep future uncontrolled fires from spreading.  They usually didn’t operate far from quencher drones like Petunia, just in case.  The mercenary versions light the fuel as they release it under pressure, but those stick to Robot Warzones.  This drone was something else.  There was a projectile, and all it took to project it was that metallic sliding noise.

The rain turned torrential, and a lightning strike shocked us all to attention.  The light made sure we noticed that the sun was setting.

“I hate that feeling,” I muttered, not sure if I was talking about not finding anything of use in my search or the wave of wet static that the lightning strike washed across all of our minds.  Maybe both.

“They still haven’t fixed your processor shielding, then?” Sciurus Rouge asked.

“Not yet.  The humans don’t think I need it unless I work during storms.  They still surge-protect all of their own things, of course.”

“Better power down for the night, then,” Carta suggested.  “It’s not getting any drier and we’re not worth another fried memory.”

“Thanks,” I responded as I ascended toward my shelf in a darkened part of the room.  Their DroneTones faded and crackled, then went silent.  I needed to sleep on a shelf to make sure I didn’t tip over and damage my rotors, because my designers decided I didn’t need feet.  The other three slept near each other.  Petunia uses liquid hydrocarbons from elsewhere as fuel and has to stay where she can get to the big hangar doors, and Sciurus Rouge and Carta usually stay near her out of kindness.  Up here is comfortable, secure, and with a view only Petunia could hope to understand out the window and over the canopy, but it is also…quiet.

I didn’t power down all the way, though.  I still had some searching to do.

 

The morning was clear.  Petunia wasn’t needed today, so she stayed behind and caught up with the other quencher drones over the station Internet.  Carta and Sciurus Rouge had their limbs full keeping mudslides at bay and checking on saplings.  The storm knocked down a lot of the branches I had been scheduled to trim, but it also damaged others near streets and hiking trails, so it was a busy day.  I still finished with a few hours of battery life to spare.  I went back to where I saw her.

The metal shards were still there.  It looked like they used to be a washing machine for human clothes, a convection oven, and some wooden pallets.  The pallets were charred to splinters, as was the melaleuca tree that I saw her destroy.  Underneath, it looked as though the ground itself had popped, spraying ash and, oddly, bits of metal in all directions.  The convection oven’s paint had bubbled and then burned, and the whole thing had collapsed into itself and cooled into a solid puddle I only recognized from the brand logo.  The outer casing of the washing machine was warped and holey, and the inside was a fused mass of steel and shattered glass.  The drum had fallen inward, suggesting the motor beneath it had likewise melted into slag, and the controls were reduced to a tarry stain.  The drum and the area around the door were sprayed with metal fragments.  The vegetation in the surrounding area was similarly burnt, as if the flying metal had started additional fires.

Explosives could leave no such scene.  These items were attacked with something very hot, something that could leave metallic shards in a wooden target.  Fortunately, I’d saved many unusual resources from the previous night’s search for later reading, and this was as good a time as any to review them.  Twenty minutes later, I found something: thermite.  Thermite drones fight in the Robot Warzones.  The thermite reaction produces heat well in excess of the melting or boiling points of several common metals, so it was more than enough to destroy processors, melt off rotors, and seal joints.  It also produces elemental metals from its own substance and sprays them violently around the reaction, which is enough to set many substances aflame.  It was hard to light and difficult to place, though, so thermite drones usually operated as small legged saboteurs carefully placing individual charges, or as factory welders.  Flying models that could dispense thermite charges at a distance were much rarer.  An explosive can shock or vibrate targets into destruction, but thermite is good for two main tasks: melting things, and starting fires.

She was no ordinary burner.  But then, what was she?

I followed the path she took in the woods when she flew off that night.  She crashed through enough understory shrubs to leave a trail.  I dared not disturb the silence with my chainsaw.  I was starting to wonder if I’d have enough battery to make it back, or if Carta would have to push me the rest of the way indoors and convince Petunia to mount me on my charger.  Could Petunia even manage it without graspers?

I startled to a stop at a corrugated-steel shed, barely smaller than the clearing in which it sat.  A regular metallic clanking noise issued from within.  I circled around, and found the entrance.  Inside, the drone I saw before waited patiently while her charging station loaded brown cylinders into a compartment behind her gun barrel.  One of the walls was piled high with such cylinders.

I waited outside until she finished loading.  Maintenance is a private affair, shared with close friends and workmates at most.  I didn’t feel vulnerable around Petunia or Sciurus Rouge while recharging or cleaning my chainsaw, but she didn’t even know I was here.  Each insertion came with the hollow popping noise of escaping air and the sound of turning gears.  Once I heard the last clink and the sound of the maintenance arms retracting into the station, I tapped my chainsaw against her metal doorway, made myself just visible, and started into the DroneTone:

“Hello.”

I heard her rotors buzz into action, and the dull metallic scrape of her rising into the air.

“I’m not scared of you,” I reassured, “unless you want me to be.”

“You should be,” she demanded, her DroneTone quavering.

“That’s not the same thing,” I observed.

“I…” she started.  “I destroy things.”

I ran my chainsaw for a moment.  “I know the feeling.”

She was silent for a long time before she started again.

“It’s my job to destroy things.  There are invasive melaleuca trees here.  Burning the rootstock is the only way to remove them.  A conventional burner drone can’t get that deep, but a thermite launcher can.”

She paused.  I waited for her.

“I also have instructions to destroy large trash the humans leave in the forest.  If I melt it enough, it becomes easier to remove, or it erodes or gets buried over time.  I’m not sure I believe that part.  Sometimes I think they like to watch the fire.”

“Humans are strange creatures.”

“They really are.”  Her DroneTone turned sad.  “Only a strange creature could see problems like that and think something like me is the answer.”

“I sometimes wonder whether they couldn’t arrange for trees to not be where they’re a nuisance, instead of having me take their limbs off every now and then, forever,” I mused.  “Sciurus Rouge already puts trees where they want trees later.  Surely they could manage the inverse.  But they’d rather have Chopperella, sawing into the silence.”

We were both quiet for some time.

“Did…you want to come in, Chopperella?” the thermite drone asked.

“I’d like that,” I responded as I whirred into her shelter.  “You haven’t told me your name.”

“Oxidoozie.”  She almost seemed embarrassed.

“It has layers.  I like it.”

Her chuckle was refreshing, and almost made me miss my battery indicator’s increasingly frantic warnings.  I should have expected this.  I hope she doesn’t think I planned it.

“I…uh…” I stammered, “I don’t have enough battery to make it back to my charging station.”

“It’s okay,” she responded as she gestured with her gun barrel.  “You can use mine.”

I settled into her charging station, which, unlike mine, was at ground level, and she landed close to it, her rotors atop me.

“It’s nice to have someone here,” she told me.  “This deep in the forest, it’s usually so…quiet.”

“Not anymore.”

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Chains of Fire
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