Luke debated whether or not to bother. What are the odds this geezer would leave something useful just lying around? With a pensive frown, he knelt on still-warm pavement and shrugged off his backpack.
The old pickle jar inside let slip a hint of dill as he lifted it gingerly. Luke swept a Maglite across the front, marveling at their natural appearance. This was not a pile of dead flies – these were micro-drones engineered to mimic some of nature’s most versatile fliers.
A weathered strip mall squatted across the road, air conditioners sighing as they cycled on and off beneath a half moon. Martin Scheffield had tottered out of his Suite K office ten minutes earlier, aluminum cane rattling with each stab at the dusty ground. Blithering fool. If you’re still working at 84, something’s wrong with you. Luke unscrewed the brass lid and spoke softly into the jar mouth. “Mode: Recon. Structure: Office, one-story. Security: Basic. Engage.”
The bug-shaped drones jerked to life. Unlike a jumbled heap of insects, these units launched into Phoenix darkness with fluid choreography. As they hummed in a stationary cloud, each member two centimeters from its neighbors, the fleet awaited the green light. In this case, a jade laser pointer Luke had slipped from a jeans pocket and aimed at the rear of Suite K. He squeezed a rubber button and the beam lanced its way to the old building.
Luke felt proud of his little buzzers, born in a quiet MIT lab eight months ago. Had it been daylight, he’d have seen the swarm morph into a narrow pipe of soldiers streaming toward their illuminated target. My little circus animals. He slipped the jar into his pack, faked a casual yawn and strolled away. Luke knew his troops would fly home to Daddy after completing their work, thanks to his phone’s homing signal. He sauntered off to his house.
Thirty-eight drones dispersed in a wide net as they approached, each searching for a point of ingress. Four crawled through a spot at the front door’s lower left corner. Seven squeezed into rotting cracks of window weather-stripping. Two slipped through an outdoor electrical outlet and made their way through metal conduit, while two others suffered navigation failure and dropped into the dirt. The remainder invaded rooftop heating and cooling units.
Once inside, the buzzers swept through dark office rooms. Units Apollo and Calypso wriggled around edges of locked file cabinet drawers and captured infrared images of four documents and two bank statements lying face-up. Other fleet members discovered pencil markings on the back of a painting and writing impressions left on a blank notepad. One encountered a small pink Post-it Note taped to the underside of a desk drawer.
The drones had translated Luke’s spoken parameters into an efficient use of their time, and within thirty-one minutes they were streaming toward his house. All except Galileo, which assumed a discreet position high on the back wall for surveillance purposes.
A mile away, Luke kicked off his black sandals and pushed them under a bill-cluttered kitchen table. Clutching a beer, he cracked it open and hurried to the living room before looking up. Ah, there you are. A single drone clung to the popcorn texture as two others crawled into assigned positions. He felt a guilt twinge, knowing he could have opened a window or provided some other simple entry point for the kids, but laziness had prevailed. Each had to find his own way into home base.
Luke grunted as he squatted on the floor and lay on his back. Black carpet tickled his calves as he watched artwork coalesce above him. Hours of programming had culminated in this image of wonder. Each unit knew to take its proper place upon return, and as they all settled in, a hooded cobra’s dark silhouette took shape.
The following morning, CPA Martin Scheffield watched his own arm reach for an “8 AM” pill holder near the office phone. The limb hardly seemed his own; the liver-spotted thing must belong to some old guy, not him. He chased the meds with tepid water and it all went down like liquid sandpaper. He yawned and flipped a computer switch as frozen images of Janet and Brandon smiled from a dusty frame behind his inbox.
Martin recalled his meetings with several customers the days before. He’d prepared their taxes, recommending not-solegal deductions and other creative techniques that might stay below the radar of possible auditors. His monitor bore small pictures of swimsuit models taped along the edges, and it flared to life. As he reached for the mouse, one eyebrow crept upward.
Hold the phone . . . I never sent anything to – Water sprayed from his mouth, droplets magnifying email subject lines as they slipped down the screen. Martin’s chest tightened, each mouse click squeezing his lungs further.
Festering in his SENT folder lay a break-up letter to his wife. A letter he never wrote. Someone had crafted a rude forgery complete with photos. Pictures he had snapped with his phone when their neighbor, Eileen, was harvesting radishes. On her knees. Wearing only flip-flops.
Subsequent clicks filled his belly with bile. Martin’s credit union was alerting him in an overly polite way that his identity “may have been compromised.” No, I am well aware of who I am, you stupid sons of bitches. Another bank screamed in all-caps that he was suspected of impersonating someone else to obtain $800,000. Say what?
A final push on the mouse’s shoulder triggered a squirt of incontinence as he glared at three photos of nude children accompanied by suggestive text. It had been cc:’d to none other than the Phoenix mayor, Arizona governor, Better Business Bureau and the President of the United States. Martin paged
down. Oh, and to the wife, too. He cackled at the insanity of it all.
As a stabbing burn slid down his neck and shoulder, he pounded his chest as though he could knock his heart into lower gear. Everything went dim when he stared at an instant-message box with a dunce cap dancing around the frame. PASSWORDS TAPED UNDER YOUR DRAWER? REALLY? The gray carpet surrendered a whiff of stale cigarettes as he crumpled to it.
A week later Brandon sat stiffly at his parents’ oak dining table. Sparrows chittered and swooped at the seed-loaded feeder outside the window. Janet Scheffield pursed her lips as she scrubbed two breakfast plates over the stainless steel sink. She held the confident stance of a crow, silvery hair rippling at her waist. All Brandon saw was a frail mess.
“Ma, you know someone did this to him. Yeah, he had some issues, but he wasn’t that stupid.” Before his death, Martin had forwarded the incriminating emails to his home computer, hoping to perform damage control while Janet slept.
“Well, I can’t imagine who.”
“You think that Dear John crap really sounds like he wrote it?”
“I – I don’t know. It was too short.”
Brandon leaned forward on both elbows, nurturing a cup of Earl Grey. His father used to grunt at him for drinking it. Hot tea is for women.
“Maybe someone is still pissed about Trina,” he muttered.
SPANG! The dented muffin tin left a countertop mark. “We do not speak of that in this house, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to sully his spirit by dredging that up!” she warned through gritted teeth.
“I’m just looking for an explanation, Ma,” he sighed. His father had been caught admiring a swimsuit-clad girl last year. Age sixteen.
Brandon stood, lifting the chair to prevent cracked casters from scratching the linoleum. His tall frame lumbered up behind her five-foot figure, and he squeezed her shoulders, pressing his lips to the crown of her head.
“Someone threw him into a pile of bullshit, Ma. I’m gonna find out who.”
Janet gave him a wary glance. “You’re a high school Spanish teacher who spends his free time working su-DORK-u puzzles instead of finding a good woman. This makes you a detective now?”
Brandon had never parlayed his college robotics minor into real money, so his mother always ignored it. He winked at her and on his way out ducked beneath the avian food frenzy.
An hour later, Brandon fidgeted outside the door of his father’s Suite K. Six days ago he had watched from the stripmall parking lot as Phoenix police rolled away his father’s body and began their sweep of the office. Despite the lingering crimescene tape, the cops assured him that they were finished with Mr. Scheffield’s place of work. Brandon figured the office would be bare, but he had to take a look. He inserted the key and twisted, paused, then re-locked it. No, I can’t sort through his crap without a gin and tonic. The sun winked at him from something tiny in the tan dirt below the office window. It looked like a dark bug, legs in the air. Why so shiny? His curiosity always jerked him around on a leash; he wondered if support groups existed for such a thing.
His brow creased as he grabbed it. Whoa. College lectures on servomotors, microgears, intelligent metals, and C++ programming rushed back to mind. He stared at intricate joints, wing membranes, and a reflective battery case. Brandon cradled it in one palm and circled the building. My God, this is no toy. If it actually flies, it has to be the work of a top tech company or
government lab. Why is it here? His mouth fell open when he completed his walk and spotted a second bug eight feet from the first. Two of these marvels in the same area and they weren’t recovered? His stomach grew cold.
Brandon dashed to the door, whipped out the key, and rushed inside. Only the phone, some empty file folders, and office furniture remained. He found nothing on the floor or near the baseboards. Then he tilted his head and saw it. A fly on one wall near the ceiling.
He let out a cackle like his dad used to do in crazy moments. “I bet you’re just a real fly, huh? I’m going to climb on this stupid chair with wheels and you’re going to chuckle your little ass off when I fall. Right?” Brandon stretched, grunted, pincered two fingers, and plucked it from the textured wall. One tiny leg stayed behind, hooked into a teeny surface imperfection.
He lined them up in his left palm. Three machines. Son of a bitch. Military? Freed from the wall, unit Galileo defaulted into return-to-base mode and launched itself toward the window, wobbling like a drunk. Brandon swiped at it with his right hand, forming a cage with his left to avoid dropping or crushing the other pair. The drone bumped the glass like a confused bee who has lost his stinger, latched onto a dangling caulk remnant with five legs, and crawled into a gap between window and frame.
Brandon cursed, pointed, and yelled “No!” as if commanding a dog, then sped outside. He ran after the damn thing, but it flew off to a height at which his 47-year-old eyes could not follow. Yet one thing was clearit was headed toward a huge residential area, and he saw no way it could hold
enough power to fly for more than a few minutes. Somebody’s doing this nearby.
Brandon drove home and hurried to the flimsy desk in his apartment’s second bedroom, then swept receipts, Spanish grading keys, and two adult magazines into an empty copy paper box. He stripped off his t-shirt, reached for the closet door, and frowned while sliding it open. The floor-to-ceiling mirrored surface mocked his half-naked body and scattered grey chest hairs. These stupid fancy doors are the only freakin’ amenity that qualifies this place as a “luxury” apartment.
Grunting on his knees, Brandon stretched and groped for a box handle hiding behind ski boots. He swore at the effort it demanded but smiled as he sifted through its contents on the desk. Tools from another life. The electrostatic mat curled at the edges a bit, but it would shield his delicate subjects.
Wondering if he were the last under-sixty man on the planet to use handkerchiefs, he unfolded one and plucked out both robotic flies. With outdated probes and diagnostic gadgets from Cal-Tech days, Brandon was barely able to extract two things: a frequency to which the bugs were attuned and an identification of their power source. The batteries were impressive considering their ridiculously tiny size and the power demand for wings and processor. He scratched his belly.
A few hand swipes later, his smart phone fetched the Scientific American magazine article he remembered from four months ago. It featured this “barely out of design stage” battery concept and its specs. He scribbled a few calculations on scratch paper, then gnawed on a Slim Jim and wiped his mouth. That escaping fly could not have flown more than two miles from his father’s office.
Luke wriggled out of his faux-leather boots and size fifty two pants, tossing them onto black carpet. He snatched up a warm meatball sub, cradled it under one arm, and escorted it to his bedroom nightstand.
It was showtime.
Ten minutes earlier, he’d spotted the young Wilson couple down the road and heading for their front door. Mr. Wilson’s hand was on her waist, hers on his butt.
Slipping between flannel sheets, he tried to calm his excitement and make it last. As he gazed at the wall-screen TV, he released his shirt buttons and reached southward. Luke had dispatched Apollo and two others to penetrate the Wilson residence.
From their posts on the ceiling, bedframe, and wall, the buzzers returned wonderful video feeds. The tiny troopers could only transmit a hundred feet or so, but Luke was proud to have designed a solution – station them in a string configuration all down the street. Each relay would feed to the next drone down the line. Stupid newlyweds. You can’t hide your hot fun from a genius. I must supervise all – a planet full of dumb children monitored through troop delegation. He chewed a meatball and belched.
The following afternoon, Brandon prowled the streets within a two-mile radius of his father’s office, creeping along residential neighborhoods in his old blue Saturn. A foot-wide metal box sat beside him, tuned to pick up the signal used by the bugs. He’d been at it for two days and three nights. What the HELL am I doing? He could be anywhere…
“Hot tea is for women.” “Su-DORK-u puzzles.” He sighed. This isn’t TV. I can’t just hop in my car and expect fast – the receiver chirped at him like an insistent child. Umm . . . results. Brandon looked up at the Saturn’s ceiling and yelled,
“Seriously?” He felt his device was comparable to a Gilligan’s Island radio cobbled from coconuts. It boasted a single round gauge with a dancing needle, and masking tape strips were labeled N, S, W, E. Its beep screamed louder the closer he got to the signal’s source. As he pulled up in front of a neglected house with beige paint peeling from stucco, the receiver’s shriek became deafening. Brandon hoped he wasn’t detecting some old lady’s garage door opener.
He rapped at the gray front door, staring at a mudwasp nest high on the wall. What am I going to do? Barge right in?
A twenty-something man answered the knock, clad in a thin black robe. Fake silk barely concealed hairy bulges. What smelled like Gin sloshed from his sweaty glass.
“Dios, mio,” Brandon muttered, dismayed by their mutually appreciated drink of choice.
The man frowned.
Brandon smiled. “Hi! I’m Brandon. Just moved in a few houses down. Thought I’d stop by.” He offered a hand, but the man in black refused it and retreated a step.
“I don’t give a crap who you are,” he said.
Brandon eyed the dark living room ceiling and dropped his hand. “Is that a cobra painted up there?” Luke glanced up at it and grinned, the rushed forward to close the door, spilling his drink. “Thanks for stopping by. Don’t do it again.”
Boozy air hit Brandon’s face as the door slammed. His heart raced.
The cobra had moved.
Eight days later, Luke rolled a bicycle into his driveway and shut his garage door. As he headed north on the sidewalk, a blue Saturn’s engine started at the southern end of the road. After two minutes, Luke was sweating; his driver’s license had been revoked the previous year after serving jail time for a DUI.
He turned left from Gardenia Drive onto 35th Avenue, rode three miles, then stopped at a large oleander bush and shoved the bike inside it. Luke walked around the corner and slipped off his backpack in the ally near the Stellar Jewelry store. He figured a few buzzers posted inside could catch the pass code to the vault. He had just completed his pickle-jar-and-laser routine when his phone warbled a two-tone alert. Luke snatched it from his pocket and swore—it flashed a vivid red skull and crossbones.
Four buzzers down? Ten? Eighteen? This can’t be right. They would all have to lose communication with each other and that can’t happen…unless…
Brandon stepped around the corner, holding a shiny metal box with a telescoping antenna from a 1980’s cordless phone.
Luke swore again, dropping the jar with a crash. He felt like someone had just murdered his dog. “You! You’re jamming them! Who the shit do you think you are?”
“You killed my father.”
“What? Are you high?”
Brandon’s grief welled up all at once. He pointed and yelled: “Martin Scheffield! First you destroy his life with lies and disgusting photos. Oh, but that wasn’t enough—then you had to kill him! You drove him to a heart attack!”
Luke’s face morphed into something stricken. “I – I didn’t! It was just a prank. Something to piss him off, mess up his life a little after he cut me off in the Target parking lot.” He stood up taller. “I’m not responsible for what happened later, dumb-ass.”
Brandon slammed him with an uppercut and Luke wheeled around, blood sprouting from the wall.
Luke felt the neck slash.
“Oh. Sorry. Box cutter.” Brandon’s arms went cold. His reservoirs of friendship, hope and laughter, the tools with which he navigated life, had just drained onto the street. Old people have always fretted over the younger generation. The evils of rock-and-roll. Long hair. Too much time on the phone. Dios mio.
Brandon proceeded with the cool tone of a bored lecturer. “I hired two hackers to pull the same crap on you that you that you threw on my father. Photos. Identity theft. Bank scams. The dudes got a little overzealous in their hacking, though. Israel and China are now looking for you. The question is, what happens first?”
Luke peeled off a black sock, held it to his neck and sneered. “I can be out of this country faster than you can blink. I don’t give a damn . . . What do you mean, ‘first’?”
“Police or FBI. But will they make it here before you get to know your new drones?” Brandon sprayed him with a muskysweet fluid from a small squirt bottle slipped from his pocket. Luke sputtered and cursed as Brandon stepped away and disappeared down the street.
In concert, five-gallon buckets were hurled into the ally. Glass shattered. Flimsy bucket lids slipped off. Eight thousand Africanized bees raced with excitement toward the pheromone attractant. Luke’s nerve endings lit up like the Phoenix electrical grid in July. One brain area peeked through the agony at several dead buzzers beneath Stellar Jewelry’s window. Then he collapsed, blindly twisting one hand around his bright laser pointer until his heart seized.
Brandon’s Spanish students had sped away after releasing the buckets, and he cackled inside his car.
I have no idea how to contact a hacker.