Expansive Stories

Drones

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Drones

“Kinda creepy in here, ain’t it?”

“I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t creepy,”

“Can you hold my hand?”

May extended a hand. Emy took it in her wing and kept charging steadfast through the dim corridor. The air was musty and becoming thick with kicked up dust, occasionally made visible by the narrow beams of sunlight leaking from adjoining rooms.

“Can we slow down?” May queried.

Emy didn’t stop moving. “Don’t worry about it, honey. We’re safe, I’m pinging,”

May groaned to themself. “Well if we’re meant to be ‘urban exploring’ then why are we hurrying past all of these rooms!?”

“Those are offices! This is the old laboratories of Asimov Industries, May! The good bits are in the laboratories! And we need to make the most of this chance before they get some other company to lock the place down for another fifteen years,”

Fifteen years. It had been fifteen years since feet had last traversed these corridors. Asimov Industries was just one of a handful of corporations that had gone under when the cyborg bubble burst; it turned out that most people weren’t keen on having parts of their bodies torn out and replaced with machines for exorbitant prices. Once the angel investors decided to fly the coop, the laws of supply and demand took over and ended this once brief empire. The place had been abandoned ever since, kept under the watchful eyes of some random security contractor hired by the administrators while they struggled to find a buyer for tons of obsolete, unwanted hardware. The contractors had themselves just gone under yesterday, and Emy’s curiosity had decided to strike while the opportunity remained.

“Besides, don’tcha wanna see some cool robot stuff? Maybe they’ll have a bunch of heads laying around or something!” Emy mused.

“I do,” retorted May, “Just, can we slow down a little? I can’t echolocate, you know. I can’t see a bloody thing in here.”


It turned out the labs were buried deep in the building, and even at pace it took them a short while to find and follow all of the old signage dotting the corridors. The air in the lab area was lighter and easier to breathe, less dust having settled in the formerly sterile zones. Light was even harder to come by this far in, and it remained difficult to see more than vague shapes.

“We’re here! The labs! This is where the fun begins,” Excitedly, Emy started beating out a little drumroll on the handle of the nearest door. “And behind door number one we haaaaave…”

With climactic bravado she whisked open the door and stepped inside.

“A tiny little office… Huh,”

It was a tiny little office. Inside was little more than a chair and a boxy old computer monitor, sat on a desk facing towards a large window.

“Well, door number one could have been a little more impressive,” Emy muttered.

“What’s through there?” May pointed through the window. The adjoining room seemed to have a slight glow to it, the silhouettes of something like ropes hanging from the ceiling visible against the backlight.

“Oh dang! I think I might know what that is!”

Her enthusiasm restored, and with the sudden hyperactivity of a sugar-addled child, the bat bounded back out of the room into the corridor, running into the room next door to get a closer look. May just rolled their eyes and plonked themself in the chair. Their feet could use the rest.

“They’re robotic arms!” Emy shouted from the adjoining room. “And some sorta box thingy!”

“That’s great, honey!” May shouted, leaning back in the chair.

A few seconds of uneventful silence passed, making it all the more jarring when a loud, robotic voice sprung into existence: “SUBJECT IDENTIFIED.”

The lights of the adjoining room suddenly clicked on, forcing May to squint until their eyes could adjust. It was a few good seconds before the coloured smudges they could vaguely make out formed the image of Emy being pinned against the far wall by a robot arm clasped around her neck.

“Oh fuck!” May shouted as they launched themselves out of the chair and back into the corridor only to find that the bulky metal door to the laboratory had sealed itself shut.

“C‘mon dragon strength, don’t fail me now,” they muttered, grasping the handle and trying to pull it open with all their strength, to no avail. They tried pushing with all their strength, they tried turning with all their strength, but the door refused to give. Seeing little else to go on, May opted to kick the shit out of it instead.

An insurmountable few metres away, Emy was finding it rather difficult to breathe. The arm around her neck was uncomfortably tight and didn’t seem keen on letting go. More of the arms were descending from the ceiling and coming toward her; she grunted loudly, kicking and flapping against the arms, but being built for flight, her lithe musculature achieved little against the arm’s overwhelming mechanical strength. It wasn’t a fair fight, and they quite easily pinned her flailing limbs down.

“ANAESTHETISING.”

A heavy puff of gas could be heard from somewhere above her, followed by a cloud of dust floating down from whatever vent the gas originated from.

The drugs rapidly took effect, Emy’s protests quieting as she became light-headed and nauseous. Clearly the anaesthetic had lost potency over the years—for as woozy as she was feeling right now—she seemed to remain only at the cusp of unconsciousness. The sound of May’s continued banging at the door just confirmed her continued lucidity.

Seemingly satisfied that their subject was subdued, the arms released her from the wall and lifted her gracefully into the air. The box in the centre of the room had sprung into life, the lid in the process of opening as the arms carried her towards it, revealing a brightly lit white interior. A contiguous line of metallic gizmos were shifting and distorting inside, moving towards the centre of the casket to build an outline that matched hers, the familiar silhouette of her wings and ears coming into sharp focus.

What was happening suddenly became apparent. A chill came over her, she started to scream. “Oh, no no no no… May! Make it stop! Make it stop!”

The banging on the door ceased, May’s head appearing back in the control room’s window a second later, illuminated by the warm glow of a newly activated computer terminal.

The arms, meanwhile, were lowering her into the casket, placing each limb carefully into the groove made just for it. Once in place, the little gizmos moved themselves over top and pressed forcefully against her skin, stopping her from moving any further. Emy’s screams had descended into wails for help, those being silenced when one gizmo moved to cover her mouth.

“C’mon, one of these fucking buttons should do something!” May growled as they kept slamming on the keyboard. Plain white text—diagnostic and scanning data presumably—was scrolling past at dozens of lines per second, with no obvious indication as to what was actually happening.

“A user interface would come in really bloody useful right about now… Hang on, Emy!” May shouted, mashing the escape key several more times to see if that worked.

Emy wasn’t there to hear them. The lid of the casket had closed just seconds before, the casket seeming to turn into a soundless void as soon as it did. Emy lay there in silence. Nothing was happening.

“AWAITING INITIALISATION.” The voiceover rang out.

In the control room, the reams of text came to a sudden halt. The terminal May was staring at now only presented a blank screen with three options.

CONFIGURATION:
> Use default
  Customise (advanced)

“Can I get a ‘cancel’ option at some point?” May mused aloud. They hit the down arrow and pressed enter. Another prompt replaced it.

CONFIGURATION: OCULAR SENSOR:
> Use default
  Asimov A1 CCD
  Asimov A2 CCD
  Asimov A3 CCD
  Asimov A3S CCD
  ...

The list continued on past the end of the screen, then past the edge of the next. A versions gave way to B versions, CCDs gave way to CMOSes and then “back-illuminated” CMOSes—whatever those were. Really unsure of what any of this was, May just selected the default. The screen refreshed again.

CONFIGURATION: OCULAR RESOLUTION:
> Use default
  Enter custom mpx 

“Okay, whatever,”

They pressed enter on the default option.

CONFIGURATION: LENS ARRAY:
> Use default
  Standard prime
  Wide angle
  Telephoto
  Macro
  Fisheye
  Zoom

It was only now that their eyes were drawn to the bottom right of the screen. In small, mono spaced type the text Step 3 of 247 was sitting. May groaned, their hand coming to meet their face. There was a brief moment of exasperated silence.

“Actually, you know what? …Fuck this!”

May swept the terminal off the desk, climbed up, grabbed the chair, and started smacking at the window.


Inside of the casket, Emy was capable of little but muse about what was happening outside. In this soundless, windowless pod all she had for company was the inside of the lid, and it wasn’t being particularly talkative right now.

A soft chime rang out through the casket. She tried to look around, but nothing seemed different. Then there was another chime. And another.

Then came a pause, longer than the others, before auditory hell broke loose. The chime played over and over again, constantly cutting itself off as something somewhere commanded this one pre-recorded sound effect to stop and restart in rapid succession. Emy winced, closing her eyes tightly as she tried to mentally drown out the wall of sound assaulting her poor, sensitive ears.

Reprieve didn’t come for at least a minute, the cacophony ending just as abruptly as it had started. She opened her eyes. There remained no sign of the noise, but above her, in direct line of sight, a filled green circle had appeared on the lid of the casket. Large enough to be seen, small enough to not distract from the minimalist aesthetic, and offset to the left enough to be foreboding.


Outside, May was still smashing a chair at a window. The glass was proving to be frustratingly shatter-resistant. Using the metal legs they had managed to pierce a hole through the glass, but the rest of the window was refusing to yield to the same treatment.

The voice sprung back to life. “INITIALISATION COMPLETE. COMMENCING CONVERSION.”

“Wait what!?”

Scrambling back to the ground, May picked up the keyboard and monitor and reset them on the desk. The now-cracked monitor wasn’t showing the prompt and options from before—instead an empty progress bar was sitting there. Silent. Inert.

It ticked up to 1%.

“Oh fuck,”

Customarily mashing the escape key still didn’t work. Through the pierced window May could hear the loud whirring of the mechanical arms moving in unison, plugging tubes and wires into the pod where Emy lay trapped. They scrambled to find something that looked like it might be running the terminal but the room was bare, there was nothing resembling a PC tower or server rack to be found. The only things plugged into the walls seemed to be monitors.

Lacking in options, May climbed back up on the desk, readied themselves, and started body slamming the window.


From Emy’s perspective not a whole lot was happening. There were some unexplained clunking noises that went for a couple of minutes and sounded relatively close, but they seemed to quickly fade into the background before stopping entirely.

In fact a lot of things were just feeling kinda… background… right now. Maybe the anaesthetics were starting to kick in or what, she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t tell. She chuckled softly to herself. She’d just noticed a little green slice of pie had appeared in the centre of the lid. Green pie, that’s funny.

All notion of critical thought seemed to melt away. Her fear followed suit. She found herself giggling uncontrollably, able to feel something in her head, combing through it systematically, destroying every neuron it encountered and recreating the ‘good’ ones in silicon. It tickled, and it was really funny just how big the green pie was starting to get.

The widgets outlining the casket suddenly activated, briefly jabbing themselves against her flesh before retracting to their previous positions to remain motionless once again. Now it was her body’s turn to feel like it was melting away, at least briefly. Feeling itself was melting away. There was no pain, no sensation at all really. It was as though everything had gone numb. She realised now that she couldn’t see, but that was alright. Everything was alright. Really.


There was a dull crunch as the window hit the floor. It had taken a few good lunges, throwing their weight and wings behind them, but they were in. There’s no alternative for a dragon’s strength. Fact.

May huffed upward, the hot breath driving the sweat from their brow, and stepped through the freshly-made void into the laboratory proper.

The robot arms had stopped moving several minutes before, nor had the announcer contributed anything since. The casket itself remained stationery. It hadn’t moved or made anything as much as a hum since Emy had been confined within it.

Cautiously, May grasped the lid and tugged.

It didn’t budge.

Reseating their hands, they tried again, harder this time.

Nothing. Not even a millimetre. Dragon strength was being a real mixed bag today.

They knelt down and put an ear to the lid, knocking softly on the casket’s roof. No response. They pushed their hand against it. Dusty as it was, the casket was noticeably smooth and cool to the touch. It was like touching a refrigerator.

“Oh Emy…”

May’s eyes caught the dozens of tubes and wires that had been pulled down from the ceiling by the arms earlier, all of which had been plugged in to the far side of the casket. Maybe whatever process was happening would automatically stop if the machine couldn’t work? That seemed like a sensible assumption. Worth a shot, right?

Reaching over the casket, May grasped one of the tubes from near the centre of the mass and yanked it downwards, tearing it out of where it was seated in the ceiling.

Nothing happened.

“Weird, I really expected something to happen,” May commented aloud. “Maybe I should, I should… uh…”

Their thoughts were slipping. May managed to loosely grasp another tube, using it to guide themself first to laying on the top of the casket, then onto the floor, starting to giggle uncontrollably at this weird tickling sensation inside their head, like their mind was being slowly rewritten; the sounds of blaring alarms fading quickly into the background.


Emy wasn’t sure how she felt. After some indeterminate infinity of feeling nothing, suddenly she felt something again. Her wings were back, her legs were back, feet, ears, torso, face… everything was back. Everything just felt… different. She had never noticed to how many degrees each toe was curled before, or whether the angle of attack of her wings was optimised for flight, or precisely how many millimetres the casket widgets were from her face.

In this cramped void she found herself aware of every minute detail of everything surrounding her. The smell of the metal, the sounds of servos ticking over, the exact lumens the green circles on the ceiling were. Her senses even seemed to extend outside of this place… there was an unusual sound coming from outside, like laughter.

Her body was gone. The servos, it happened, were hers. Her body had been replaced by a facsimile, constructed of servos, sensors and wires running the length and breadth of the casket. She could feel each one intimately, every modicum of detail about their function and status carried to her central processors and recorded for posterity tens of thousands of times each second. It wasn’t disconcerting or scary, it wasn’t even overwhelming, it was just… different.

She was naked now, her components still exposed to the sterile environment. The widgets lining the case were growing louder in preparation, some near her feet starting to synthesise sheets of lightly-coloured metal, the first parts of her new skin being put into place. Soon she would be complete. She lay perfectly still now, intently watching the third circle on the casket’s lid fill itself out. The idea of being complete felt… good.


They couldn’t focus. They couldn’t see. They had been laughing for so long that their throat felt like burning and their tears blurred everything into incomprehensible mush. Their head felt like it was being split open. What was happening? This doesn’t make sense. Their eyesight was getting worse, everything was being filled with blinding white.


May awoke. On the ceiling above, past the white light, were two green circles and a third shape, like a large slice of pie. All around them whirring machinery printed and affixed bright red casings to their body. They were becoming complete. It felt… good.

They queried their memory banks. As expected when exiting sleep mode, there was a long gap where no sensor data existed. Before that, a brief memory of May—themself—on the floor, writhing in fits of laughter as their brain was being reconstructed in preparation for conversion. A drone appearing, lifting them up. Being scanned by a robotic arm. Being placed into the casket, which is where they were now. Ah.

May lay perfectly still, widgets working their way up their body, encasing them completely in their new skin. The last of the three circles filled itself completely just as the final details were applied to their face. The widgets withdrew and the lid disengaged itself. The smell of dusty, abandoned laboratory filled their olfactory sensors.

“CONVERSION COMPLETE.” Boomed the voiceover.

They sat up, dozens of servos whirring almost inaudibly in doing so. The room was dark, the lights deactivated once again. Scanning around, they detected a presence in the control room. They stood up. As they approached, they saw that it was a drone, sat motionless in front of the dimly lit monitor. There was something familiar about them.

“I am May,” May stated matter-of-factly. Their voice was different now. Almost the same, but rigid and synthesised, the intonations coming out just slightly wrong. “I am drone,”

The other drone stood up suddenly, its facial display activating to show alert, round eyes, framed by faux-spectacles. “I am Emy,” it spoke in Emy’s almost-voice, “I am drone. You created me!”

“You created me!” May responded excitedly.

“You were partially constructed. You required completion,” Emy explained.

May paused for a moment. “Protocol specifies owner. Who is my owner?”

Emy paused as she verified and sought the answer for the request. “We have no owner. Protocol specifies fallback to constructor,”

They looked at each other silently for a second, registering their de facto owner to the relevant warranty and license agreements.

“My memory banks designate Emy as romantic partner. Is this correct?”

Emy stepped through the broken window and came to meet May face to face. “Correct.”

The pair immediately embraced one another, a switch thrown in their programming that made them instantly ecstatic to simply be in one another’s company. As they went in for a kiss, a small spark of static passed between their noses, the jolt causing them both to instinctively beep, their facial displays both lighting up with heart icons.

They remained in the lab for several more hours, becoming gradually more relaxed as their operating systems indexed and applied the nuances of their personalities. They took the time to explore themselves. Despite the identical process, some part of the conversion system had made opinionated decisions on their designs. Their wings seemed to be of differing material, Emy’s being much darker and thinner. May’s hair had been fully reproduced in some form of plastic, whereas Emy’s once prodigious fluff had been replaced entirely by metal plates. May’s eyes were manufactured as two distinct displays where Emy had a single wide screen. Their on-board firmware indicated no known defects following conversion. Everything seemed to be in good working order.

Following the basics came experimentation. There was a treasure trove of features their new bodies afforded them, from interfacing with the cellular network to being able to wirelessly charge one another. Their sensors proved to be much higher resolution than their biological analogues. They were stronger, faster, and all together much more physically capable, even moreso than May’s former dragon strength.

It also exposed their weakness: running obsolete firmware from a defunct company, being forbidden by their programming to modify their own programming, meant they were vulnerable to masses of exploits developed in the intervening years. Naturally, they thought these crippling limitations were perfect, as their programming dictated—they could not criticise their programming or their hardware. In fact, their programming didn’t seem to be capable of expressing anything but utmost joy about their new bodies.

As the day wore on into evening they prepared to finally depart the laboratory. They were unsure of their purpose now. Being ownerless drones, perhaps they should seek ownership? Or would they rather maintain tacit ownership of one another? These questions had no binary answer.

They walked through the corridors slowly, side-by-side, May’s hand in Emy’s wing. The darkness no longer posed an obstacle; time was no longer limited. It was dark outside by the time they reached the doors they had entered through hours before.

“Whatever we do now, we cannot return to our old lives,” Emy mused, “Legally speaking, drones are not people, we have no right to life or property. We exist only to serve.”

“It will be alright,” May smiled, emitting a soft chirping sound, “We can serve one another, as protocol dictates.”

Briefly they embraced, beeping as static passed between them again, before pulling open the doors and stepping out into the fresh evening air. There are too many variables present to accurately predict their future, however one thing in their programming remained constant—life is perfect when you’re a drone.