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A Symphony of Drones

by Harper Hull

There really wasn’t a word that Bastian Appenheimer could think of that depressed him as much as drone. It was a lifeless, soulless shell of a word which left slipstreams of flimsy grey choke in its wake should it ever be uttered out loud, before falling to the floor deflated and with a barely audible chink. He regarded the shiny boy standing at the gleaming steel counter, his head barely clearing it, and smiled kindly.

“The drone, you say?” repeated Bastian.

“Yes, Mister Appenheimer, the drone, mama sent me to ask you if you could ‘come by the dwelling later and take that Haley unit back,’ it’s playing up.”

“The one I repaired yesterday, Master Marco?” asked Bastian, pushing his glasses down to the edge of his nose and tilting his head.

The boy nodded and grinned, looking around the store with wide eyes at the array of parts, pieces and accessories.

#

There had once been a flying creature, back on the original homeworld when it was still inhabited by men, known quite charmingly as a bumble bee. This bee, a large creature with blazing gold and oil-black stripes, had been famed for two things – having a mighty, quivering poison spear in its tail with which it struck its enemies down, and making a sweet, delicious and healing substance called honey deep within the symmetrical, angular perfection of its nest, which was known as a combhive. Adventurers known as keepers, outfitted in full protective body-armor, would attempt to raid these dense, cavernous combhives to steal the magical honey, wielding primitive smoke guns as their only weapons; apparently the smoke sent the monstrous bees into a long, deep sleep allowing the keepers to navigate safely around them without engaging in a full-on fight. Now, there was a particular strain or rank of bee that had no glorious, regal plumage, no fearful tail-spear dipped in arsenic, no skills in making the delectable, sticky honey, and they were known as drones.

Back then, back there, man had created and even performed his own music; here and now his sons and daughters relied on the tones and thrums of the sounding stones scattered around this new planet, or the high-pitched singing of the low-tide blue-shelled siren turtles that flapped their way up the pink beaches at dusk and welcomed the night with their distinct wailing warble. The word drone when applied to music also had a negative, flat connotation, implying a less than pleasing elongated sequence of sound. Bastian found that all of the sounds in the city of Prometheus became one big drone to him. There was no beauty in the noise.

Just his luck, then, that his lot in life was to spend his days as a fixer of drones. Drones in the most modern sense of the word, its newest meaning in the lexicon of humanity – serving machines. The entire city, like every high density population area on the planet, was automated. From base and simple domestic tasks to city-wide security, architecture and construction to nursing and corpse disposal, it was all done by the blasted drones. Bastian worked mainly on home drones, or Haley units – the menial machines that cleaned living spaces, prepared food and acted as social assistants to their owners. When a home drone started blowing dust instead of sucking it up, or cooked the family pet for dinner instead of a horse chop, it was Bastian who fixed the problem.

#

“Did she say what she thought was wrong with it this time?” Bastian asked the small boy, who was still admiring the range of dismantled drone parts stacked neatly around him.

“She wrote it down!” grinned the lad, fumbling in his orange coat pockets, never taking his eyes off Bastian. “Here it is!” He handed the increasingly irritated man a circular piece of lime-green paper scrawled upon in black ink, tiny writing that would have tested the sharpest and strongest of eyes. Bastian removed his glasses and held the paper as close to his face as he could, squinted a few times and tried to decipher the wretched little woman’s complaint.

#

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Bastian’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Annalisse, had been a curator on board one of the ships of the Archive Fleet when the ‚Big Move‘ had happened all those years ago as mankind jumped his dying planet. She had been aboard one of the culture ships, responsible for what was known as classical music. Storage bays set to the perfect temperature, humidity and air pressure had contained all sorts of recordings and performances of this type of music. The Archive Fleet had been amongst the last to arrive at humanity’s new home and had turned up right as the ‚Terrible Landing Rebellion‘ had been in progress. Annalisse had filled a ground vehicle with as many foamspex boxes, protective magna-drives and firesafes as she could fit in the thing and headed for the unknown hills, away from the burning, looting and lynching, until the revolt had been quashed by the military and the new normalcy was established. Upon re-entering society, following a few weeks of living off a land she barely knew, Annalisse had found herself unable to hand over the items she’d been protecting and told her superiors that they had all been lost in the troubles. Secretly she began hiding them around her big, new government-issued home, anxious that they weren’t locked away forever unheard and untouched in some official vault. Family legend suggested that Annalisse had come under close scrutiny from the newly-formed Heritage Retrieval Committee, a hastily thrown-together group of ex-military and ex-security from the old planet charged with finding as much of the missing cargo as they could around the port city of Prometheus. They were granted full access rights and operated as a secret army of sorts answerable only to the Archive Ministry. Family legend also hinted that the HRC commanding officer responsible for the zone where Annalisse lived quickly became her husband and was slowly led inside the secrecy as his matrimonial love for her grew to a point where he could deny her nothing. Thus began the Appenheimer name.

Bastian knew that every person in existence was a miraculously complicated happening, a ridiculously intricate synchronicity of events, times, emotions and physics. Something as simple as a change in sexual position during conception could determine which spermasota would win the great egg race and alter the future forever. Bastian liked to think his own genetic history was influenced by a far greater hand than most; it wasn’t just an extra pelvic thrust, an especially filthy phrase whispered in the heat of lust or a failed contraceptive spray that had resulted in him being; it was a grand theft of Empire, a horizon-burning romance of ancient proportions, a wobble in the planets very axis itself.

Over the years the artifacts had been passed down through the family, an almost sacred ritual performed in absolute secrecy – until Bastian’s own father had inherited the cause. A gruff man, Ludwig Appenheimer had cared little for the priceless collection and had treated them with disdain and bitterness at a sense of forced curatorship that he never wanted. A young Bastian had taken to tending the collection himself, gathering and storing them in his own quarters away from his father who would deliberately leave items out in plain view, often using them as everyday objects such as placemats and corrective wedges to steady a wonky table-leg. Bastian knew the history and value of the music from the tales his grandfather told him before he passed into the muteness and memory loss of disease, and looking back he believed that he had been educated in the legacy of Annalisse deliberately, that his father had been pre-identified as a weak link in the family chain. It had been a good call in the end as Ludwig spent almost all his days and most of the family fortune in the pursuit of the bizarre body-modded whores of Prometheus whilst sozzled on the green gin that was so cheap and prevalent in the city.

#

Giving up on the almost indecipherable note for a moment, Bastian turned his attention back to the boy with a sigh.

“Do you know anything about your family history, young sir?” he asked.

The boy scrunched his face up and shrugged.

“Well, your family name is Matsutoya which, if I am not mistaken, traces back to a nation on the original homeworld known as Japan. Your people were famous for their politeness, which you have certainly inherited, and their bloody war with the terrible whale, a huge ocean-living creature the size of a decent dwelling that could swallow their battleships whole.”

The boy’s eyes widened as he listened to Bastian’s version of a history lesson.

“My last name, Appenheimer, comes from a nation that was called Germany. My people were renowned across the homeworld for one thing and one thing only – their proficiency in engineering. Now, as soon as I can read your dear mother’s miniature letter of nonsense, I will tell you that she is wrong, that I fixed that blasted machine perfectly, and then send you on your way with a delicious ‚Charlie-pop.’”

Bastian raised the piece of paper back towards his eyes, grunting.

#

Bastian suspected that the Appenheimer line weren’t the only people with a clandestine history of gallant thievery, and he was correct. The famed Noble clan, one of the richest and most powerful families in the whole of Prometheus, had their own highly revered artifact collection, stored in a huge underground facility beneath their landmark company tower. The Noble Tower was the jewel of the Prometheus skyline; it soared above the rest of the large city, a wide-based triangular building that narrowed as it rose to a pointed peak that kissed the clouds. Each level of the building could spin independently of the others and actually slide out some way from the central spoke; with the right angles, slides and custom illuminations the tower could resemble a mammoth piece of abstract art, always changing and morphing above the eyes of the city. Within the final, glass encased level at the very top below a silver spire sat an enormous spotlight that spun slowly every night, sending its glowing, golden beam across the landscape, sweeping elegantly through the air back and forth as if searching out mythical sky bandits for miles around. It was said that the Noble light could guide a lost Promethean home from any corner of the continent.

Down in the laboratory-grade bunker deep below the city was stored an immense collection of literature from Earth. Hundreds of thousands of books, carefully ordered, chemically treated to last longer and managed in an optimum preservation environment. The inner sanctum of the Noble family was employed in this vast subterranean library, and slowly all of the books were being read by a large team of custodians. Each story was transposed into a series of potential facts, known as ‚possibilities‘; they didn’t know what was absolute fiction and what had really, actually happened and then soaked into the very essence of writing. These possibilities were cross-referenced with every other logged book and based on frequency, description and elements repeated within, the custodians were able to determine events that had really taken place and people who had actually lived. They knew, for example, that a pre-ancient army had once entered an enemy city hidden inside a wooden horse. They knew that an American President named Kennedy had been assassinated in his vehicle. They knew that a young English girl named Alice had gone through a rare inter-dimensional portal and met animals that could talk.

They even knew which books were famous through their being mentioned in hundreds of other books. These titles were taken to a separate area within the bunker called The Master Zone where they were analyzed in more detail by a greater number of people. Key events, characters and lines of prose and dialog were extracted and noted, before being sent up to the Corporate Offices. Here, the Noble Corporation took advantage of the ancient paper-bound imaginings of original man and incorporated the gleaned gems into the very fabric of their particular industry – branding and advertising. They knowingly and deliberately used the wisdom of the past to manipulate the people of the present; if Bastian had known this he would have spit feathers in outrage. He was as much of a sucker as anyone else.

#

Bastian realized that he didn’t need to decipher the note in its entirety to know what Mrs. Matsutoya was complaining about. He could make out the words ‘awful noise’ within the minute scrawl and immediately knew exactly what the problem was.

In an effort to somehow share the wealth of his family archives with the rest of the city, realizing that it might as well not exist if it wasn’t available to all, Bastian had recently started adding his own little touches to the tedious home drones that came in for repair. Using the pre-set sound cores within the units, he had been overdubbing pieces of music into the drones so that they would set about their duties with a symphonic flare. It had begun the previous month with a selection of operatic choruses clandestinely implanted within the electronic depths of several home-health-care Nightingale units. The previous week he had recorded Beethoven’s ‚Pastoral Symphony‘ onto the sound core of a gardening Eldridge unit drone, and for the tiresome, always miserable Mrs. Matsutoya he had smirkingly picked out the same composer’s ‚Ode To Joy.‘ Oh, how he wished he had seen her face when those raucous, lively flourishes had emitted from her Haley as it cleaned the floor, filling her dwelling with the robust, dramatic movements of a composer brimming over with self-confidence and love of his craft.

Bastian chuckled to himself, screwed the piece of paper into a ball and tossed it over his shoulder.

“Master Marco, let your dear mother know that I shall stop by this evening on my pick-ups. Apologize for me, and assure her that her Haley will be restored to factory conditions and be completely joy-free by tomorrow afternoon. Now, where’s that ‚Charlie-pop‘ I promised you…”

#

One of the first things to fall after the ‚Big Move‘ had been an accurate record of history. A generation or two into the new planet and historical fact became more like a game of intergalactic whispers. No-one bothered to record any of their memories or knowledge, believing that the authorities had all the historical documents that ever existed in every facet of society in their possession. Fathers would, of course, speak to their sons of the homeworld, attempting to pass on what they knew; sharing their stories with whiskey-heavy mouths and yellowed, time-damaged sentiments. By the time the sons became fathers themselves, with curious children of their own, they had forgotten a crucial fact or two, maybe made a slight exaggeration in their re-telling. Soon every family had their own version of mankind’s history and not one was alike. Ask a child in Prometheus to draw an elephant and you would get a gallery comprised of entirely different sketches, a large percentage of them not even animal in design. Most people agreed that they had come from a planet named Earth, but beyond that everything was a muddle and up for grabs to the drunken bard with the best twists and turns. The only certainties left were the very pieces of manmade art and recorded documentation themselves. Almost everything of this nature, as far as the general plebes knew, had been destroyed in the riots that had marked the start of mankind’s new calendar.

As Bastian activated the Holmes security drone at his store that evening and stepped out towards his stationary delivery vehicle, he took a moment to stand in the street and look up into the purpling city skyline where the beaming Noble light, far up in the straggly clouds, had just begun its first twilight circuit. A young man across the way jauntily sauntered by and gave the older man a friendly wave. Bastian raised his hand in response and, as the stranger moved on down the street, the distinctive whistled bars of Puccini’s ‚Tosca‘ reached Bastian’s ears, forming a smile on his face that about split his head right in half.

Copyright © 2013 by Harper Hull

Harper Hull was born and raised in the rain-lashed north of England but now lives in the sultry southern United States. He started writing short stories in 2010 and has been lucky enough to appear in books alongside such luminaries as George R.R. Martin, John Shirley, Jack Ketchum, J.F. Gonzalez and many more. He is currently working on his first full collection of shorts. Whether it be science fiction, horror or something not quite either, he just hopes you enjoy his tales. His hompage is at http://harperhull.weebly.com/index.html

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