Drone, Sweet Drone

First published in Polar Borealis, spring, 2019.

 

Drone, Sweet Drone

“Enhanced electrical activity. Ten to the third magnitude strikes. Sending spectrometer stream.”

“Copy, Fulgora,” Milla said, leaning into the mic on the control panel. She had taken her headset off to eat some lunch, and naturally Fulgora had chosen that moment to chime in.

“Everything okay, Milla?” Of course, she’d noticed.

“All fine, Fulgora. Just eating lunch.”

“Here, let me give you some scenery.”

Milla smiled as the swirling grey view from the camera feed showed up on her screen. Fulgora was scanning the surface of Nimbus IV, and she would know that the screen was as good as blank to Milla. Some people still doubted that you could program a true sense of humour, but Milla had worked with Fulgora for long enough. Sure, she was a machine—Milla knew her inner workings almost as well as the drone techs did by now. But she was too smart, too funny, too good at her job. She was a machine, but not only a machine.

She dusted the crumbs of her ration bar off her hands—onto the floor, not the instrument panel, she’d never make that mistake again—and pulled her unkempt sandy hair back over her ears. The headset fit her snugly, as it should; she’d been adjusting the connectors for months to get it just right. Some of these drone shifts were twenty hours long, and a small ache in one ear could really throw you off your game.

“Okay, Fulgora, what are you seeing?” she said. Fulgora would know immediately that Milla’s input had changed. She always picked up on little cues like that.

“I’ve been skirting the edge of a mid-powered storm,” she said. “I’m not sure whether it’s safe to go deeper inside, so I thought I’d wait for you to join me.”

“Sure. I’ll get my bunny suit on and be right down.”

The couple of seconds’ silence, Milla preferred to think, was Fulgora laughing. She couldn’t laugh, but if she could, that’s what she’d be doing right there. “Anyway,” Fulgora went on, “the activity isn’t anywhere near critical, but I wanted to have you present before I ventured inside.”

“Good thinking.” It had happened before: an electrical pulse had disabled enough of Fulgora’s systems that Milla’s manual controls had been the only way to extract her. Milla had been shaken badly by the incident.

Fulgora was a lightning drone, designed to measure patterns in heavy electrical pulses to figure out which storm planets’ systems could be tamed, and which were too volatile to be useful for colonization. She shouldn’t have been shaken up at the pulse, which was only fifty percent above the median limit. Lightning was unpredictable like that.

So they had both learned their limits. Fulgora didn’t venture into anything she wasn’t certain she could handle. Milla didn’t divide her attention with anything else when Fulgora was going somewhere dangerous.

“I’m entering the outer field of the storm now,” Fulgora said. “Ambient voltage is up a small amount, amperage is almost flat.”

Before working with Fulgora, Milla vacillated between the friendly language settings, which had the drone say things like “a small amount”, and the precise settings that made her report “three point three percent.” She’d grown to trust her drone enough to take the friendlier language now. She could check the screen if she wanted to know the specific numbers.

“Follow a sixty degree angle across the face,” Milla instructed. “If you see a ten percent jump in any measure, withdraw and we’ll discuss it.”

“Roger.”

Milla hated using terms like “her drone”, even if only inside her own head. She didn’t like the idea of possession—the drone was assigned to her, but didn’t belong to her in any sense of the word. And it sounded like Fulgora was her slave or something. Fulgora was Milla’s drone, and Milla was Fulgora’s person. That was the only equitable way to describe it.

“We’re still in bounds,” Fulgora said, “but the readings are rising faster than I expected. Can I take a fifty-degree vector instead?”

“Sure.”

The screen showed a steady stream of readings, a long line of electrical measurements spidering across the main graph. Trending upwards, but nothing surprising there.

“Cancel last,” Fulgora said. She changed to more businesslike language whenever they were getting into the deeper measurements. Milla liked the friendly tones better, but she understood the need for crisp efficiency as the risk increased. Casual English wasn’t an efficient language.

“You’re okay with the sixty degree vector?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Milla’s job from here on was to wait, and to respond to Fulgora’s queries and suggestions. Fulgora knew how to chart her path into the storm, and when to ask permission to bail on the mission.

It was a difficult task, with something as volatile and changeable as an electrical storm. If it was easy they would just set up some monitoring stations. But you had to move around, seek out the centre of the storm, and follow it around.

The silence loomed heavily as Milla knew that Fulgora was getting closer and closer to the most ferocious part of the storm. One time she’d gotten zapped good and hard, and Milla had actually cried at the sight of her scorched chassis, Fulgora’s white enamel scarred and blackened, all but two of her indicator lights dark.

Milla had worked to bring her back without stopping as soon as she brought her back on board. She restored Fulgora’s onboard software, switched out some key parts that had failed, and got her at least to minimal working condition. It didn’t matter that between missions, Fulgora was equally mute and still, sitting in her dock. What mattered was that she was badly injured, and she had to be brought back as quickly as possible. Milla developed and installed some new safeguards after that. She couldn’t bear to put Fulgora through that again—although of course Fulgora had no knowledge or memory of any of it.

“Center is moving,” Fulgora reported. “Changing vector to follow.”

“Carry on.”

While drones were expensive, it was understood that these lightning-drones worked in harsh conditions, and they were lost or damaged beyond repair from time to time.

Milla’s pride as a drone operator only part of why she cared so deeply about keeping Fulgora active for so many continuous work-hours. It was also superstition, though, or something like it. She knew she could take everything in Fulgora’s memory, every data stream she’d ever sent to the system, every conversation they’d ever had, and put it into a new lightning drone chassis. But that felt wrong—the software and the hardware weren’t interchangeable, to her.

“There’s a spike in activity at two-eight-one. Pursuing.”

Now Milla hesitated. The readings were climbing more quickly. They were still in the safe zone, although approaching the warning levels. But there were some other alerts blinking now, too—chroma readings and some radiation particulate building up on Fulgora’s rad filter. “Are you sure that’s wise?” she asked.

“I don’t anticipate any problems yet,” the drone responded.

Milla wished she could see the little drone—well, three metres across and two metres high wasn’t little, but smaller than you’d expect for such a powerful piece of equipment—puttering about and doing her work. The rounded white chassis with its anti-static enamel and its rubberized edges looked more than anything like a children’s toy. Watching her zip to and fro, sniffing out the electrical fields, her near-elation when she found a spike; it was as exciting as watching a puppy exploring the world for the first time, for Milla.

“Interesting chromatic readings at three-oh-eight,” Fulgora reported. “Pursuing.”

“Be careful,” Milla ordered.

This was one of her custom safety measures. When she said this phrase, Fulgora would lower her tolerances for sixty seconds, allowing her to stay put and assess for a few minutes without getting into more danger.

“This is interesting.”

“What’s interesting?” Milla scanned her screens: nothing leapt out as extraordinary.

“I’m getting micro-spikes at wavelengths—” Fulgora’s voice went silent.

Milla waited a few seconds. Maybe some interference with the transmission. She looked at her screens to check: yes, data was still coming in.

“Fulgora?”

“It’s building quickly, Milla,” the drone replied.

After working with Fulgora for months and months, hours at a time, Milla figured she knew every quirk of her speech synthesis. She never lost sight of the fact that every word was the result of programming, much of which she had done herself.

But now an icy finger of fear traced a line up her spine. She had never heard this tone of voice before.

“Abort,” she said. “Fulgora? Abort.”

Her screens lit up, each panel flashing urgently. She concentrated on the summary panel: every reading had shot up, outside of tolerance. Fulgora was in the middle of a class one storm.

“What’s happening?” she demanded, her voice climbing to nearly a shriek. “Fulgora.” No response. “Fulgora, please—”

“The storm is expanding very quickly,” she said, her voice back to its usual calm tone. “You need to power up.”

“I told you to abort,” Milla said firmly. “Return to dock. Now.”

She could almost hear the calculations whirring in Fulgora’s head while she considered Milla’s order.

“The storm is moving more quickly than I can,” she said. “The ship will be damaged before I can arrive, especially if the dock is open.”

“I’m not leaving without you.” Milla brought up some local readings from the ship. There was definitely an increase in electrical activity around them and a surge of ozone. The storm was definitely headed her way.

“I will continue to broadcast for as long as I am able,” Fulgora said. “I’ve backed myself up and will append the backup as long as I can.”

“Get back here. I’m not kidding.”

The topo panel showed Fulgora as a green wedge, slowly making its way over the ridges and hills of the planet’s surface. It continued moving away from the ship.

“Fulgora. Fulgora!”

“Yes.” Her calm voice sounded hollow and unnatural—unsettling, when it was usually soothing.

“Stop this. You can get back. I need you back here.”

“I cannot outrun the storm. And it’s too dangerous for you to wait for me.”

A shrill, annoying buzzing sound started up from a speaker just behind Milla. She tried to ignore it, to shut out all of the lights and sounds, so she could concentrate on saving Fulgora.

“I’m not leaving. You must return to the ship right now.”

“The first ionic wave will arrive at your location in approximately seven minutes,” Fulgora said. “It will take me a minimum of thirty-two minutes to traverse the terrain and reach your location. I will continue to broadcast for as long as I am able.”

Milla pulled her sleeve across her damp face. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Just come back.”

The body of the ship rocked softly: the head of the storm’s winds had reached them.

“I cannot. Your safety is at risk.”

“Please.”

Milla reached for a tissue, tried to mop up the saliva that had somehow started to collect on her chin.

“I’m sorry,” Fulgora said. “You will reconstitute me in a new drone chassis, and we will work together again soon.”

“It’s not the same.”

“It is as close as possible.”

Milla wanted to do something—something—break the screen with her hand, tear it from the wall, throw it through the viewing window and let the rush of escaping air tear the scream of anguish and frustration out of her throat.

“You won’t be able to tell the difference,” Fulgora said.

“I’ll know.”

A pause. Was this Fulgora laughing at what she said? Or calculating a response to the incalculable? Or had she—

“The surges are lengthening,” she said in her usual serene calm.

That meant the lightning was getting more intense. Which meant—

“Your window is getting very short,” Fulgora advised her. “I’ve sent the possible trajectories of the storm to help chart your takeoff route.”

Milla created the takeoff route based on the data Fulgora had sent, primed the engines, rearranged the power profile to ready the landing gear for extraction. Then she sat, and waited.

“You haven’t initiated yet,” Fulgora pointed out.

Her stomach rose up, heaving a sob out of her. She muted her mic.

Goodbye, she whispered.

“Surges are peaking at—”

The ship shuddered around her, the deck lights flickered, and Milla couldn’t hear anything but the whine of the engines as they spun up and began to lift her slowly away.