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Chaos Theory

Leonard Donne is a part-time writer, part-time student and full-time soldier, hailing from the west coast of Ireland. He likes to write anywhere and everywhere that his work takes him, but his favorite spot is from his small Victorian red-brick house in the heart of Dublin city, where he lives with his wife and border collie. The former supports his writing hobby, the latter actively undermines it. This is his first published work of fiction.
Maria stood at the lake's edge and gazed at the glassy expanse of water. Impulsively she picked up a smooth, disc-shaped stone and flung it in a flat trajectory. It bounced twice before sinking. She sighed, and knew she could do better. She would have to try again.
"What are you doing, Maria?" asked Daffy. Her robot companion had adopted a roughly humanoid configuration for this evening stroll, albeit with four legs instead of two in case of rough terrain. Now he stared, impassively, as she skimmed the second stone. He watched it bounce off the water three times before losing enough energy to sink properly. Maria turned and smiled at the robot.
"I'm skimming stones. It's fun. Do you want to try?"
Daffy reached down--a very alien-looking gesture in which his four legs folded out, lowering his torso towards the ground--and picked up a rock. He tested the weight for a second, then drew back his arm and hurled it in the same direction as the ripples from Maria's rock. It lofted upwards and then dropped with a faint plop into the water, a little further than Maria's. The hydraulic servos in his arm had enough oomph to send it much, much further, but he was trying to be competitive. He lived to serve, after all. He turned to gauge her reaction, but to his surprise, she was laughing and shaking her head.
"You have to keep it low, and bounce it off the water. The more bounces, the better."
"But it loses energy that way," the robot said. "If you used a higher trajectory, you could throw it much farther."
The girl just laughed, and picked up another stone.
"Watch."
More bounces, more ripples in the water.
Daffy knew that Maria was in a melancholy mood this evening, because of what Jeff had said to her this time. They had been talking about it before she stopped by the lakeshore. Daffy held strong opinions on Jeff's failings, but had long ago learned that Maria did not always want to hear them. He always trod carefully when Jeff was the subject of conversation. He wondered whether the stones had something to do with this, and decided to try to be as diplomatic as possible.
"I don't mean any offence, Maria, but what's the point of this? I mean, throwing the stones in this particular way?"
"No offense taken Daffy. It just... It just feels nice. You know? It's satisfying."
He pondered this silently for a moment, while Maria threw another stone. Again, she was getting it to bounce deliberately off the surface before sinking. Daffy wondered whether the draw was visual, or aural, or perhaps tactile from the feel of the stone being thrown in that particular way. Sure, the ripples made a nice pattern as the waves moved outwards and intersected--was that all there was to it? Was 'his human' that easily amused?
"Try it," Maria said. "Throw it just like I did, to make it bounce a few times."
Daffy shrugged, and bent down once more. This time he carefully selected a more disk-like stone. He tried to calculate the required spin rate and launch angle and velocity for optional results, but, to his great surprise, he came up short. That's when he realized that it was a chaotic system. He could figure out the first strike, and maybe the direction of the first bounce, but everything after that got unpredictable. He visualized several very different scenarios, but there was no convergence towards a stable answer. He was standing poised, still thinking, when Maria shouted again.
"Just throw it, Daffy!"
He threw it, and as it spun away from him he realized that he didn't know what was going to happen. For the first time in a very long time, he was doing an action without knowing exactly what the consequences would be. The rock bounced, glanced, and bounced again another four well-spaced times. It was satisfying! Maria whooped and threw a stone, three bounces. Daffy went again, once more blind to the immediate future of the stone after he threw it. This one only bounced once before hitting the water steeply and sinking. He felt a mild frustration, and determined to make good on his next one. Maria skimmed one six times, putting it up to Daffy.
The robot stood at the edge of the lake, still operating on pure instinct. He fired the stone low and fast, and this time it bounced it seven times before sinking. He couldn't help himself, and he threw his arms up in celebration.
"Thanks Maria," he said, with a smile. "I'm starting to see the attraction."
"Good for you," she said, and flung another one. "And fuck Jeff!"
The robot laughed, and skimmed a stone.
"Yes, fuck him!"
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 8th, 2018


How would an all-powerful robot AI amuse itself? When your mind can predict the future with electronic precision, how thrilling must it be to find a chaotic system that leaves you guessing? This story was conceived in a single thought that came to me on the train: can a robot skim stones? It gestated and was born in short order thereafter, and with a lot less effort and toil than many other stories I've written. To strain the metaphor further, I think it's a quietly self-assured and self-contained little story, which exceeded my initial ambitions for it. I hope you enjoyed it.

- Leonard Donne

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