Object 68

The Old Drones

2044, Gaghma Kodori, Georgia, 2044

An extract from the memoir of Mohsen Rahimi, who became famous later in life as a Martian explorer:

My grandmother taught me two lessons. Lesson number one: Don't talk to strangers. You would have thought that glasses would have changed her opinion, but I guess people born in the 1970s have these hangups about privacy. Personally, I love talking to strangers, but I tried not to do it whenever she was around.

Lesson number two: Always thank a drone. Now, I could never get my parents to tell me where that one came from. Did she have a robotic carrier that I didn’t know about? Did she swap jokes and play cards with her service drone? Who knows.

As much as I wanted to avoid hurting her feelings, you just can't get through life these days without seeing a drone. How else are you supposed to get dinner delivered or have your kids taken to the doctor when you’re away? And what are you supposed to do, say thank you every time you meet one? There's only so much time in the day, frankly. But every time she noticed my lack of politeness, she'd always purse her lips in a disapproving manner.

Anyway, a few years after she died, I decided to go for a tour around Georgia, in Eastern Europe. I remember saying I was 'in between things’ and wanted a change, but I think everyone knew that my friends and family were getting tired of supporting my oddball projects on the Braid and wanted me to do something useful for a change — or at least, leave them alone for a while.

Why Georgia? I don't know. Probably I'd driven through it or blown it up in some game when I was a kid. I just remember that it had lovely scenery. When I stepped off that dirigible, I knew I'd remembered right.

Three weeks later, I was lying at the bottom of a deep well, looking up at a tiny bright circle of that lovely scenery, seriously thinking that this would be the last thing I'd ever see in my all-too-brief life.

Here's how it happened. My dirigible had moored in a field on the outskirts of Abasha, a place I knew precisely nothing about, so I asked around to see if there was anyone who might want stories told, music composed, services provided, that sort of thing, in exchange for bed and board. There was some laughing and rueful head-shaking, and they suggested I might have some better luck across the river in Gaghma Kodori. I made my way there in the morning in a rickety old Geely and met up with a woman I found on my lenses. I bought us drinks, we ascertained that neither of us was a murderer, and she put me up for the night and promised some work.

In the morning, my guide led me out of the village to an overgrown field to the south. There was nothing of note except for an old stone well. We stood about 50 metres back from the well and, for a good long minute, just looked at it. My lenses didn't show anything useful, but I figured that it had a hyperlocal cultural or religious significance, or something. Maybe they wanted me to write a poem about it.

I was trying to work out a diplomatic way of asking what the hell we were doing there when I was suddenly pulled down to the grass. Seconds later, a cloud of the dirtiest, oldest and just plain scariest drones you've ever seen zoomed over our heads and plummeted into the well, all the while making a horrible, scratchy, rattling noise.

Ever wondered what happens to old drones? They don't just ascend into heaven or get sent to The Five Winds to live out the rest of their lives as circus performers. When they reach a certain dignified age, and their diagnostics are showing too much red and not enough black, they fly themselves to the nearest recycling centre. A few are upgraded with new parts, but it's usually cheaper to get other drones to dismantle them. Big cities such as New York or Shanghai or Lagos have so many drones that they need four, five, even six recycling centres, but if you're in a more remote place, you might travel a hundred miles before seeing one. That’s too long a journey for most drones, especially the smaller ones.

Technically speaking, if a drone can't get reach a recycling centre under its own steam, it’s supposed to be transported there by its owner, but that's a hassle that no-one wants to deal with. You’re certainly not allowed to dump them either, but... who'd be surprised if an ageing drone's GPS and magnetometers got screwed up and it somehow ended up flying into a well?

Yes, this was literally a place where drones came to die. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that's how it had worked in Abasha for the past decade, until some enterprising villager named Nino had discovered a business opportunity in salvaging old batteries from drones and selling them as kitsch artwork for rich Asians. Nino usually sent one of her smart drones down there to fetch them, but the week before I arrived it had managed to join the pile by getting shrapnel stuck in its rotors, so here I was — a man sent to do a drone's job.

I clambered down a rope ladder in the well and set to work. It was hard going at first, since most of the drones weren't designed to have user-accessible components. It wasn't dangerous, per se — I had the EU's paranoid health and safety regulations to thank for that — but it was plenty tedious. That evening I got Nino to print me up some new tools I found online, and I had a better go of it after that.

Over the following weeks, I got into a satisfying routine, arriving at the well at 10:00am, putting in a solid two hours’ work before lunch, resuming at 2:00pm for another two hours, a tea break at 4:00pm, and a final hour taking me up to 5:30pm. I fancied myself as one of the coal miners of yore that my great-grandfather would talk about, slaving away in the darkness with only my music and podcasts to keep me company. I mentioned this to someone in Gaghma Kodori and they told me to look up ‘coal mining’ on Wikipedia, and that shut me up.

Each day, drones arrived at the well to die, but each day I dismantled more. After three weeks I'd cleared almost all of the tech out and was posting 3Ds of old coins and gadgets I’d found to my friends back home.

On my final day, I clambered up the ladder for my very last tea break to discover to my delight that Nino's daughter had left a few bottles of beer for me there. We had had a little thing going since I'd arrived, and though I'd regretfully told her that I'd be moving on when the work was done, she'd taken the news well (only later did I find out that she had a high-powered boyfriend back home in Mumbai, so the joke was on me).

Now, I know kids today prefer using their laces to get a buzz, but in my opinion there's nothing quite as refreshing as a cold beer after a hard day's work, fashion be damned. In fact, I got a little too refreshed and ended up completely ignoring my daily 4:15pm alarm. Right on schedule, a cloud of drones thrummed around me, diving into the well.

Like a fool, I panicked and thought I was in one of those Skynet games where the drones had all come for us. I flailed around wildly and — you guessed it — tipped back over the edge of the well, falling 30 metres.

When I woke up, it was still light, but that was the only thing going for me. I was pretty sure I'd broken at least one leg, and even worse, I couldn't get any signal; my fall had ripped my jacket and the antenna had been torn apart. Usually that wouldn't be a problem since there'd be plenty of localisers around, but we were in peaceful, quiet, isolated Gaghma Kodori.

I felt pretty low, I have to confess. Was this really my fate, to die at the bottom of a well with only a dozen old drones for company? I may have even started crying, until I realised that Nino or her daughter were bound to figure out what had happened sooner or later, and the worst I was in for was missing dinner. But hell, I didn't want to cause people trouble, I didn't want to be embarrassed, and most of all, I was getting really hungry.

My first reaction to my predicament was to post a request for help with my lenses. Of course, that was impossible: like I said, my jacket was torn and there was no signal. My second reaction was to do a manual search of the net. Ditto. I guess what our parents said about our reliance on glasses and lenses is true, huh?

I reminisced for a while about my family, mentally composing a story that would paint me in a slightly better light than drunkenly falling into a well, when I remembered my grandmother's old words. Not the one about strangers; the one about thanking a drone! A few seconds later and I'd recalled the critical emergency command — you know, the one you're taught as a kid that can override any drone's orders in a life or death situation. The one that you are never, ever allowed to abuse.

I wasn't sure whether it'd work; the drones at the bottom of the well were the oldest, rustiest ones around, maybe even three, four years old. I was frankly doubtful they had enough juice left in them. But sure enough, I could see their rotors haltingly whir alive, and I don't think I'd ever heard a sweeter sound than their horrible rattling noise.

I designated myself as the person in distress, and like a cloud of angels — well, obsolete, unfashionable angels — they carried me all the way to the top of well in their arms and nets and manipulators, and laid me gently down on the grass outside. From there, I had just enough signal to make a call. Soon enough, Nino had arrived with her daughter, amid a lot of fuss and tears.

After my leg had healed a few weeks later, and I'd recovered from the enormous hangover resulting from the celebration of my escape, I resumed my vagabonding ways and moved on, carrying a couple of my saviours as souvenirs. I took one of them to my grandmother's grave, as a little thank you to her, and the other sits proudly on the mantelpiece in our flat in Mumbai. My wife hates it — she says it looks completely out of place. I think it just reminds her too much of where she grew up...