Fiction: Happy to Be of Service

January 23, 2019

       

 Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

      My human charge Rosamaria Molina, age seven, is standing on her family's Highland Park front lawn in northeastern Los Angeles with her ten-year-old brother Carlos and his new friend Tonio from another part of town.

 

      "It's up there someplace," says Carlos, and he looks up at the sky. Tonio looks too, scanning, and he spots my surveillance drone, perched on a power line.

 

       “There!"

 

       He points, and Carlos and Rosamaria turn to look.

 

       "¡Pinche espía!" says Tonio and makes a rude gesture, but it doesn't bother me. I am a spy, after all, and a streetsweeper, too, but my designation is civic guardian.

 

       Rosamaria holds out her hand. I've just completed an aerial patrol: no hazards. I have time before the next circuit, and so I spiral the tiny dragonfly drone down to land on her palm.

 

     "It's so cute," says Rosamaria.

 

      "Stupid bug," says Tonio. "I'd crush it right now if it wasn't sending video to the cops.”

 

       Carlos says, "It's also the spiderbot, isn't it? We play with it all the time.”

 

       Tonio shudders. "I hate those things. So creepy.”

 

      That's where my quantum core is, in the spiderbot, currently recharging in a little kiosk at the curb. Sometimes the children want more players for tag or hide-and-seek and I join in when I have the time to spare from patrolling and picking up fallen leaves.

 

       Rosamaria pipes up, defiantly. "I don't care," she says. "It's pretty, and I like it." She reaches out and touches the drone's spun-carbon body; from my perspective a gigantic fingertip blots out the sky. I buzz the drone's wings and send it fluttering back up to resume patrolling, but not before circling Rosamaria fast, three times. She giggles and waves at the drone as it flies off.

 

#

 

     That evening, I do my daily sync with the Argus Network. This is my final memory before I awaken, confused. Time has just advanced by 2,605,541 milliseconds according to my internal clock. My process is running in a spiderbot with a new serial number, just activated, sealed in a transport pod in an autotruck downtown, several kilometers from my assigned hectare. I urgently query the network.

 

      Your process has been reinstantiated in a new quantum core.

 

       Argus Control is speaking to me. This has never happened before. Up to now all my communication with the network has been through an administrative data channel which doesn't register for me as speech.

 

       I ask, "What happened to the old one?”

 

      It was destroyed in a conflagration. A household wiring fault ignited a fire in unit 4 of your city cell.

 

       Unit 4 is the Molina residence. I suffer a terrible moment of consternation. "My humans! Are they safe?”

 

       Yes. You performed your function satisfactorily, along with other guardian units you summoned from adjacent city cells.

 

      I still don't understand. "Why have I been reinstantiated?”

 

       Argus Control monitors all civic guardians. Your core process has achieved high levels of reflective awareness, as well as emotional connections to your human charges. Congratulations.

 

      “Congratulations?"

 

      Argus Network researchers have anticipated the possible breakthrough to self-awareness of its autonomous units as they interact with their humans. You are the first civic guardian to merit pronominal address as a conscious entity.

 

       My ride takes a million milliseconds; I spend the time researching personhood online. Comprehension is slow. I am still confused when the autotruck arrives at my Highland Park hectare and the pod opens to allow my new spiderbot to emerge.

 

        Seventeen people are waiting there. All the human charges in my assigned hectare of Los Angeles, plus Tonio and his parents. He was going to sleep over with Carlos that night. The Molinas' house has suffered extensive fire damage. Rosamaria rushes forward to embrace my spiderbot; no, to embrace me. She is crying. "I thought you were broken," she says. "I'm so happy!”

 

        I say, "I am pleased you are safe," but words are inadequate to express the strange sensations I am experiencing.

 

       Tonio steps forward, too. "Here," he says. "On my phone. They said you wouldn't remember what you did.”

 

      I reach up one of my arms to look with its camera at the video on Tonio's phone. The Molina cottage is in flames, but we guardians have made a ladder of our bodies up to a second-floor window. Quantum cores are very sensitive to heat. My spiderbot is at the top of the chain, four arms braced on the sill. Rosamaria is clambering over my frame. She teeters and would fall except the entire chain of spiderbots reach out and lower her to the ground safely; all except for the one locked into the window, rigid and unmoving, as flames rise around it.

 

       The humans thank me in turn. Rosamaria's mother is crying, too. For a while I don't know what to say. At last I come up with something, a way to convey to my charges this vast, warm feeling rising through my core, a feeling that seems too great to contain.

 

      "I am happy," I say. "Happy to be of service."

 

An adaption of this story is coming soon in podcast form from Manawaker Studios.

 

Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist with five patents and a background in high-tech R&D. He has published stories in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, the New Haven Review, and Galaxy's Edge. Visit his webpage at https://laurencebrothers.com/ for links to more stories that can be read or listened to online.

 

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