Storytelling I

From “Coming Soon Enough” Edited by Nancy Kress and Published by the IEEE in 2014

Shadow Flock
Natalie pointed down along the riverbank to a pair of sturdy-looking trees, a bald cypress and a southern live oak, about fifty meters away. “They might be worth checking out.” She set off through the scrub, her six students following.
When they reached the trees, Natalie had Céline run a structural check, using the hand-held ground-penetrating radar to map the roots and the surrounding soil. The trees bore gray cobwebs of Spanish moss, but most of it was on the higher branches, out of harm’s way. Natalie had chosen the pair three months before, when she was planning the course; it was cheating, but the students wouldn’t have thanked her if they’d ended up spending a whole humid, mosquito-ridden day hunting for suitable pillars. In a real disaster you’d take whatever delays and hardship fate served up, but nobody was interested in that much verisimilitude in a training exercise.
“Perfect,” Céline declared, smiling slightly, probably guessing that the result was due to something more than just a shrewd judgment made from a distance.
Natalie asked Mike to send a drone with a surveying module across to the opposite bank. The quadrocopter required no supervision for such a simple task, but it was up to Mike to tell it which trees to target first, and the two best candidates—a pair of sturdy oaks—were impossible to miss. The way things were going, they stood a good chance of being back in New Orleans before sunset.
With their four pillars chosen, it was time to settle on a construction strategy. They had three quads to work with, and more than enough cable, but the Tchefuncte River was about 130 meters wide here. A single spool of cable held a hundred meters, and that was as much weight as each backpack-size quad could carry.
Josh raised his notepad to seek software advice, but Natalie stopped him. “Would it kill you to spend five minutes thinking?”
“We’re going to need to do some kind of midair splice,” he said. “I just wanted to check what knots are available, and which would be strongest.”
“Why splicing?” Natalie pressed him.
He raised his hands and held them a short distance apart. “Cable.” Then he increased the separation. “River.”
Augusto said, “What about loops?” He hooked two fingers together and strained against the join. “Wouldn’t that be stronger?”
Josh snorted. “And halve the effective length? We’d need three spools to bridge the gap then, and you’d still need to splice the second loop to the third.”
“Not if we preform the middle loop ourselves,” Augusto replied. “Fuse the ends, here on the ground. That’s got to be better than any midair splice. Or easier to check, and easier to fix.”
Natalie looked around the group for objections. “Everyone agree? Then we need to make a flight plan.”
They assembled the steps from a library of maneuvers, then prepared the cable for the first crossing. The heat was becoming enervating, and Natalie had to fight the urge to sit in the shade and bark orders. Down in Haiti she’d never cared about being comfortable, but it was harder to stay motivated when all that was at stake were a few kids’ grades in one minor elective.
“I think we’re ready,” Céline declared, a little nervous, a little excited.
Natalie said, “Be my guest.”
Céline tapped the screen of her notepad and the first quad whirred into life, rising up from the riverbank and tilting a little as it moved toward the cypress.
With cable dangling, the drone made three vertical loops around the tree’s lowest branch, wrapping it in a short helix. Then it circumnavigated the trunk twice, once close in and then a second time in a long ellipse that left cable hanging slackly from the branch. The drone circled back, dropped beneath the branch, and flew straight through the loop. It repeated the maneuver and then headed away, keeping the spool clamped until it had pulled the knot tight.
As the first drone moved out over the glistening water, the second one was already ahead of it, and the third was drawing close to the matching tree on the far side of the river. Natalie glanced at the students, gratified by the tension on their faces: Success here was not a fait accompli. Céline’s hand hovered above her notepad; if the drones struck an unforeseen problem—and failed to recover gracefully on their own—it would be her job to intervene manually.
When the second drone had traveled some forty meters from the riverbank, it began ascending, unwinding cable as it went to leave a hanging streamer marking its trail. From this distance the shiny blue line of polymer was indistinguishable from the kind its companion was dispensing, but then the drone suddenly stopped climbing, clamped the spool, and accelerated downward. The single blue line revealed its double-stranded nature, spreading out into a heart-shaped loop. The first drone shot through the heart, then doubled back, hooking the two cables together. Then the second one pulled out of its dive and continued across the river. The pierced heart always struck Natalie as surreal—the kind of thing that serenading cartoon birds would form with streamers for Snow White in the woods.
Harriet, usually the quietest of the group, uttered an involuntary, admiring expletive.
The third drone had finished hitching itself to the tree on the opposite bank and was flying across the water for its own rendezvous. Natalie strained her eyes as the second drone went into reverse, again separating the paired cables so its companion could slip through and form the link. Then the second drone released the loop completely and headed back to the riverbank, its job done. The third went off to mimic the first, tying its loose end to the tree where it had started.
They repeated the whole exercise three more times, giving the bridge two hand ropes and two deck supports before breaking for lunch. As Natalie was unwrapping the sandwiches she’d brought, a dark blur the size of her thumb buzzed past her face and alighted on her forearm. Instinctively, she moved to flick it off, but then she realized that it was not a living insect; it was a small Toshiba dragonfly, its four wings iridescent with photovoltaic coatings. Whether it was mapping the forest, monitoring wildlife, or just serving as a communications node, the last thing she’d want to do was damage it. The machine should not have landed on anything but vegetation, but no one’s programming was perfect. She watched it as it sat motionless in the patch of sunlight falling on her skin. Then it ascended suddenly and flew off out of sight.
In the afternoon, the team gave their bridge a rudimentary woven deck. Each of the students took turns donning a life jacket and hard hat before walking across the swaying structure and back, whooping with a mixture of elation at their accomplishment and adrenaline as they confronted its fragility.
“And now we have to take it apart,” Natalie announced, prepared for the predictable groans and pleas. “No arguments!” she said firmly. “Pretty as it is, it would only take a party of five or six hikers to break it, and if they ended up dashing their brains out in the shallows that would be enough to bankrupt the university and send us all to prison.”
As Natalie started up the stairs to her apartment she heard a distinctive trilling siren, then saw a red shimmer spilling down onto the landing ahead. The delivery quad came into view, and she moved to the left to let it pass, catching a welcome cool wash from its downdraft, a sensation weirdly intensified by the lime-green tint of the receding hazard lights.
She tensed as she approached her floor, hoping she wouldn’t find Sam waiting for her. His one talent was smooth talking, and he could always find someone willing to buzz him into the building. Against her better judgment she’d let her brother wheedle her into sinking $10,000 into his latest business venture, but when it had proved to be as unprofitable as all the rest, rather than apologizing and going in search of paid work he’d started begging her to invest even more, in order to “tip the balance”—as if his struggling restaurant were a half-submerged Spanish galleon full of gold that needed only a few more flotation bladders to rise magnificently to the surface.
Sam wasn’t lurking in the corridor, but there was a small package in front of her door. Natalie was puzzled and annoyed; she wasn’t expecting anything, and the drones were not supposed to leave their cargo on a doormat. She stooped down and picked up the parcel; it bore the logo of a local courier, but water had somehow got inside the plastic pocket that held the waybill, turning the portion with the sender’s address into gray mush. A gentle shake yielded the clinking slosh of melting ice.
Inside, she put the parcel in the kitchen sink, went to the bathroom, and then came back and cut open the mailing box to reveal an insulating foam container. The lid bore the words “GUESS WHO?” written in black marker. Natalie couldn’t; she’d parted company with the last two men she’d dated on terms that made surprise gifts unlikely, let alone a peace offering of chilled crabmeat or whatever this was.
She tugged the lid off and tipped the ice into the sink. A small, pink object stood out from the slush, but it wasn’t any part of a crab. Natalie stared for several seconds, unwilling to prod the thing into position for a better view, then fetched a pair of tongs to facilitate a more thorough inspection.
It was the top part of a human finger. A little finger, severed at the joint. She walked away and paced the living room, trying to decode the meaning of the thing before she called the police. She could not believe that Alfonso—a moody musician who’d ditched her when she’d dared to leave one of his gigs at two in the morning, on a work night—would have the slightest interest in mutilating his own precious hands in the service of a psychotic prank. Digging back further she still came up blank. Rafael had smashed crockery once, in the heat of an argument, but by now she’d be surprised to elicit any stronger reaction from him than a rueful smile if they ran into each other on the street. The truth was, the prospect of the cops hauling any of these ex-lovers in for questioning mortified her almost as much as the macabre offering itself, because pointing the finger at any of them seemed preposterously self-aggrandizing. “Really?” she could hear the whole lineup of unlikely suspects demanding, holding out their pristine mitts. “You thought you were worth that?”
Natalie walked back to the kitchen doorway. Why was she assuming that the amputation had been voluntary? No one she knew would commit such an act—upon themselves or anyone else—but that didn’t mean she didn’t know the unwilling donor.
She turned around and rushed to the bedroom, where she kept the bioassay attachment for her notepad. The only software she’d downloaded for it was for personal health and pregnancy testing, but it took only a minute to get the app she needed.
There was no visible blood left inside the fingertip, but when she picked it up with the tongs it was full of meltwater that ought to be brimming with sloughed cells. She tipped a little of the water onto the assay chip and waited ten long minutes for the software to announce a result.
Chance of fraternity: 95%
Sam must have gone elsewhere for money, but it would have disappeared into the same bottomless pit as her own investment. And when his creditors had come for him with their bolt cutters, who else was he going to rope in to help him repay his debt but his sister?
Natalie wanted to scream with anger, but she found herself weeping. Her brother was an infuriating, immature, self-deluding brat, but he didn’t deserve this. If she had to remortgage the apartment to get him out of these people’s clutches, so be it. She wasn’t going to abandon him.
As she began trying to think through the logistics of dealing with the bank as quickly as possible—without explaining the true purpose of the loan—her phone rang.
“We don’t want your money. But there is a way you can resolve this situation without paying a cent.”
Natalie stared at the kidnapper, who’d asked her to call him Lewis. The food court to which he’d invited her was as busy as she’d ever seen it on a Wednesday night; she had even spotted a few cops. The undeniable fact of their meeting proved nothing incriminating, but how could he know she wasn’t recording his words?
She said, “You’re not a loan shark.”
“No.” Lewis had an accent from far out of state, maybe the Midwest. He was a dark-haired, clean-shaven white man, and he looked about forty. Natalie tried to commit these facts to memory, terrified that when the police finally questioned her she’d be unable to recall his face at all. “We’d like you to consult for us.”
“Consult?” Natalie managed a derisive laugh. “Who do you think I work for, the NSA? Everything I know about drones is already in the public domain. You didn’t need to kidnap my brother. It’s all on the Web.”
“There are time pressures,” Lewis explained. “Our own people are quick studies, but they’ve hit a roadblock. They’ve read your work, of course. That’s why they chose you.”
“And what am I supposed to help you do? Assassinate someone?” The whole conversation was surreal, but the hubbub of their boisterous fellow diners was so loud that unless she’d stood up on the table and shouted the question, no one would have looked at them twice.
Lewis shook his head. At least he hadn’t insulted her intelligence by feigning offense. “No one will get hurt. We just need to steal some information.”
“Then find yourself a hacker.”
“The targets are smarter than that.”
Targets, plural?”
Lewis said, “Only three that will concern you directly—though in all fairness I should warn you that your efforts will need to synchronize with our own on several other fronts.”
Natalie felt light-headed. When exactly had she signed the contract in blood? “You’re taking a lot for granted.”
“Am I?” There wasn’t a trace of menace in his voice, but then the stakes had already been made clear.
“I’m not refusing,” she replied. “I won’t help you to inflict bodily harm, but if you’re open with me and I’m sure that there’s no chance of that, I’ll do what you ask.”
Lewis nodded, amiable in a businesslike way. He, or his associates, had been cold-blooded enough to mutilate Sam as proof of their seriousness, but if they planned to kill her once she’d served her purpose, why meet physically, in a public space, where a dozen surveillance drones would be capturing the event?
“The targets are all bitionaires,” he said. “We don’t plan to touch a hair on their heads; we just want their key strings…which are not stored on anything vulnerable to spyware.”
“I see.” Natalie’s own stash of electronic pocket change didn’t merit any great precautions, but she was aware of the general idea: Anyone prudent, and sufficiently wealthy, kept the cryptographic key to their anonymized digital fortune in a purpose-built wallet. The operating system and other software resided solely on read-only media, and even the working memory functioned under rigid, hardware-enforced protocols that made the whole setup effectively incorruptible. “So how can I get around that? Am I meant to infiltrate the wallet factory?”
“No.” Lewis paused, but he wasn’t turning coy on her, merely hiding a faint belch behind a politely raised hand. “The basic scenario is the kind of thing any competent stage magician could pull off. The target takes their wallet from its safe, then gets distracted. We substitute an identical-looking device. The target commences to log in to their exchange with the fake wallet; we’ve already cloned their fingerprints so we can mimic those preliminaries on the real wallet. The target receives a one-time password from the exchange on their cellphone and enters it into the fake wallet, and we use it to enact our preferred transactions via the real one.”
Natalie opened her mouth to protest: Her understanding was that the message from the exchange would also include a hash of the transaction details, allowing the user to double-check exactly what it was they were authorizing. But she wasn’t thinking straight: To the human looking at that string of gibberish, the information would be invisible. Only the wallet itself had the keys required to reveal the hash’s true implications, and the fake wallet would blithely pretend that everything matched up perfectly.
She said, “So all you need to do is invite these people to bring their wall safes to a Las Vegas show.”
Lewis ignored her sarcasm. “The transactions can’t be rescinded, but it won’t take the targets long to discover that they’ve been duped—and to spread the word. So we need to ensure that these individual operations are as close to concurrent as possible.”
Natalie struggled to maintain a tone of disapproval even as her curiosity got the better of her. “How do you make all these people get an itch to buy or sell at the same time?”
“We’ve already set that in motion,” Lewis replied. “You don’t need to know the details, but in seven days and thirteen hours, unless the targets are comatose they won’t be able to ignore the top story on their news feeds.”
Natalie leaned back from the table. Half her experience, and all of her best ideas, had involved maneuvers on a scale of tens of meters by devices that were far from small or stealthy. Dexterous as a well-equipped quadrocopter could be, sleight of hand was a bit much to ask of it.
“So do you want me to program robot storks to carry the fake wallets down chimneys?”
Lewis said, “The fake wallets have all been in place for a while, concealed inside innocuous-looking items.”
“Like what?”
“Cereal packets. Once people find a brand they like, they stick to it.”
“I knew there was a reason I didn’t use my supermarket’s loyalty card. And the drones?”
“They’re on-site as well.”
“The wallets are how big?”
Lewis held his fingers a few centimeters apart. “Like credit cards. And not much thicker.”
“So…how many dragonflies?”
“Six at each site. But they’re not dragonflies; they’re custom-built, smaller, and quieter. From a distance they’d pass for houseflies.”
Natalie crushed the urge to start grilling him on detailed specifications. “So you have a plan. And you’ve got the tools in place. Why do you need me at all?”
“Our plan relied on real-time operators,” Lewis confessed. “The whole thing seemed too complex to deal with any other way—too many variables, too much uncertainty. All of the sites have countermeasures against radio frequency traffic, but we believed we could communicate optically; some people don’t consider that at all, or don’t make the effort to lock things down tightly.”
“In three cases, it looks as if our optical routes have gone from mostly open to patchy at best. Not from any deliberate blocking strategies—just minor changes in the architecture or people’s routines. But it means that a continuous link would be too much to hope for.”
Lewis’s team had been given the right advice: This was a job for humans. And now she was expected to program eighteen drones to perform three elaborate feats of prestidigitation, using nothing but their own tiny brains?
Natalie said, “Before we go any further, I want you to prove to me that my brother’s still alive.”
“I ran into your fifth-grade teacher last week,” Natalie remarked, once the pleasantries were over. “The one you had a crush on.”
Sam responded with a baffled scowl, too quickly to have needed to think through his reaction. “I don’t even remember her name. I certainly didn’t have a crush on her!”
However much intelligence the kidnappers might have gathered on the two of them—all the family pets and vacations they’d shared, all the confidences they might have exchanged—there was no proving a negative. Natalie was sure she wasn’t watching a puppet.
Someone else was holding the phone, giving the camera a wider view than usual. Apart from his splinted and bandaged finger Sam appeared to be physically unharmed. Natalie refrained from upbraiding him; she was the reason he’d been abducted, even if some idiotic plan to keep the restaurant afloat had made him easier to trap.
“Just take it easy,” she said. “I’m going to give these people what they want, and you’ll be out of there in no time.” She glanced at Lewis, then added, “I’ll talk to you every morning, OK? That’s the deal. They’ll have to keep you safe, or I’ll pull the plug.”
“Do you think you can check in on the restaurant for me?” Sam pleaded. “Just to be sure that the chef’s not slacking off?”
“No, I really can’t.”
“But Dmitri’s so lazy! If I’m not—”
Natalie handed the phone back to Lewis and he broke the connection. They’d gone into a side street to make the call; apparently Lewis hadn’t trusted Sam not to start yelling for help if he saw other people in the background.
“I get to call him every day,” she said. “That’s not negotiable.”
“By Skype,” Lewis replied.
“All right.” A Skype connection would be much harder to trace than a cellphone. Natalie was beginning to feel nostalgic for her previous nightmare scenario of loan sharks and intransigent banks. “What if I do my best, but I can’t pull this off?” she asked.
“We’re sure you can,” Lewis replied.
His faith in her was not at all reassuring. “There’s a reason your experts told you they’d need human pilots. I swear I’ll try to make this work—but you can’t murder my brother because I fall at the same hurdle as your own people.”
Lewis didn’t reply. On one level, Natalie understood the psychology behind his strategy: If he’d promised that she’d be rewarded merely for trying, she might have been tempted to hold herself back. She suspected that she’d be unlikely to face criminal charges, regardless, but sheer stubbornness or resentment might have driven her to indulge in some passive sabotage if she thought she could get away with it.
“What now?” she asked.
“By the time you get home, we’ll have e-mailed you briefing files. We’ll need the software for the drones by midnight on Monday.”
Natalie was so flustered that she had to count out the interval in her head. “Five days! I thought you said seven!”
“We’ll need to verify the new software for ourselves, then install it via infrasound. The bandwidth for that is so low that it could take up to forty-eight hours.”
Natalie was silent, but she couldn’t keep the dismay from showing on her face.
“You might want to call in sick,” Lewis suggested.
“That’s it? That’s the best advice you have for me?”
“Read the briefing.” Lewis paused, then nodded slightly. He turned and walked away.
Natalie felt herself swaying. If she went to the police, Sam would be dead in an instant. Lewis couldn’t deny meeting her, but he would have prepared a well-documented explanation in advance—maybe log files showing that they’d been matched up by a dating site. The e-mailed briefing could have come from anywhere. She had nothing on these people that would make them pause for a second before they graduated from fingertips to heads.
Three targets for her special attention, and many more in the whole blitz. The total haul might reach ten or eleven figures. She’d walked willingly into the aftermaths of hurricanes and earthquakes, but she’d never been foolish enough to position herself—in any capacity—on the route between a gang of thugs and a pile of cash.
Natalie spent five hours going through the files before she forced herself to stop. She climbed into bed and lay staring into the humid darkness, soaking the sheets in acrid sweat.
There was no information missing that she could have reasonably demanded. She had architectural plans for the victims’ entire houses, complete down to the dimensions of every hinge of every closet. She had three-dimensional imagery and gait data for every member of each of the households; she had schedules that covered both their formal appointments and their imperfectly predictable habits, from meal times to bowel movements. Every motion sensor of every security system, every insect-zapping laser, every moth-chasing cat had been cataloged. Navigating the drones between these hazards was not a hopeless prospect—but the pitfalls that made the whole scheme unravel would be the ones nobody had anticipated. It had taken her years to render her bridge-building algorithms robust against wind, rain, and wildlife, and she had still seen them fail when grime and humidity made a motor stall or a cable stick unexpectedly.
She dozed off for fifteen minutes, then woke around dawn. Somehow she managed to fall asleep again, motivated by the certainty that she’d be useless without at least a couple of hours’ rest. At a quarter to nine she rose, phoned the engineering department claiming flu, and then took a cold shower and made toast and coffee.
The call to Sam took a minute to connect, but then it was obvious from his appearance that his captors had had to rouse him.
“The job they’ve given me isn’t too hard,” she said. “I’ll get through it, then everyone can walk away happy.”
Sam replied with a tone of wary optimism, “And the ten grand they gave me for the restaurant? They don’t want it back?”
“Not as far as I know.” Natalie wracked her brain for another puppet test, but then she decided that she’d already heard proof enough: No one else on the planet could make it sound as if $10,000 sunk into that grease-pit would more than compensate for any minor inconvenience the two of them might suffer along the way.
“I owe you, Nat,” Sam declared. He thought she was simply working off his debt—the way he’d mowed lawns as a kid to pay for a neighbor’s window that one of his friends had broken. He’d taken the rap to spare the boy a thrashing from his drunken father.
“How’s your hand?” she asked.
He held it up; the bandage looked clean. “They’re giving me pain-killers and antibiotics. The food’s pretty good, and they let me watch TV.” He spread his hands in a gesture of contentment.
“So, three stars on Travel Adviser?”
Sam smiled. “I’d better let you get back to work.”
Natalie started with the easiest target. A man who lived alone, rarely visited by friends or lovers, he was expected to wake around seven o’clock on D-day morning and go jogging for an hour before breakfast. That would be the ideal time for the drones to break out of their hiding places in the spines of the first editions of Kasparov’s five-volume My Great Predecessors, which presumably had appeared at a seductively low price in the window of a local used book store. The fake wallet was concealed in one of the book’s covers, along with the sliver of whorled and ridged biomimetic polymer that would need to be applied to the real wallet. Thankfully, Natalie’s predecessors had already done the work of programming the clog dance of drone against touch screen that could mimic a human tapping out any sequence of characters on a virtual keyboard. The jobs they’d left for the pilots had been of an entirely different character.
The shelves in target A’s library were all spaced to allow for much taller books, leaving plenty of room for a pair of drones to slice into the wallet’s compartment, grab the hooks attached to the cargo, draw it out, and fly six meters to deposit it temporarily in a poorly illuminated gap between a shelving unit and a table leg. The safe itself was in the library, and prior surveillance had shown that it was A’s habit to place his wallet on the table in question.
The distraction was to be a faucet in the kitchen, primed to fail and send water flooding into the sink at full pressure. The house was fitted with detectors for any ongoing radio traffic—the bugs that had collected the latest imagery had used multipath optics successfully until a new sunshade had been fitted to a crucial window—but a single, brief RF pulse from a drone to trigger the torrent would appear to the detectors’ software as no different from the sparking when a power plug was pulled from a socket.
What if target A broke his routine and did not go jogging? The emergence of the drones and the fake wallet’s extraction would not be noisy, so those stages could still proceed so long as the library itself was unoccupied. What if target A had an early visitor, or someone had spent the night? The drones would need to start listening for clues to the day’s activities well before seven. Loaded with neural-net templates that would enable them to recognize voices in general, doors opening and closing, and footsteps receding and approaching, they ought to be able to determine whether it was safe to break out.
But the surveillance images that showed the five books neatly shelved were three weeks old; it was possible that they’d ended up strewn around the house, or piled on a table beneath other books and magazines. GPS wouldn’t work inside the building, but Natalie used a smattering of Wi-Fi signal strengths collected in the past to equip the drones with a passable ability to determine their location, and then added software to analyze the echo of an infrasound pulse to help them anticipate any obstacles well before they’d broken out of their cardboard chrysalides.
The doors and windows—and even the roof space—were fitted with alarms, but in the library target A had no motion sensors that would scream blue murder every time a housefly crossed the room. Not even two houseflies carrying an object resembling a credit card.
Natalie put the pieces together and then ran simulations, testing the software against hundreds of millions of permutations of all the contingencies she could think of: the placement of the books, which doors were open or closed, new developments in the target’s love life, and his peregrinations through every plausible sequence of rooms and corridors. When things turned out badly from the simulator’s God’s-eye-view, she pored over the visual and auditory cues accessible to the drones in a selection of the failed cases, and refined her software to take account of what she’d missed.
By midnight she was exhausted, but she had the mission either succeeding completely or aborting undetected in 98.7 percent of the simulations. That would have to be good enough. The other targets were going to be more difficult; she needed to move on.
With every day that passed Natalie worked longer, but her short bouts of sleep came fast and ran deep, as if her brain had started concentrating some endogenous narcotic brew and would dispense the thick black distillate the moment she closed her eyes.
In the early hours of Monday morning, she dreamed that she was taking her final exam in machine vision. Sam was seated three rows behind her, throwing wads of chewing gum that stuck in her hair, but she knew that if she turned around to whisper an angry reprimand he’d only ignore it, and it wasn’t worth the risk of being accused of cheating.
She glanced up at the clock to check the time; just seconds remained, but she felt satisfied with her answers. But when she looked down at the exam paper she realized that she’d misread the questions and filled the booklet with useless non sequiturs.
She woke and marched to the shower to clear her head, trying to convince herself that she hadn’t merely dreamed all the progress she’d made. With the psychological momentum from target A, she had powered through the challenges related to target B’s spectacularly ostentatious beach house and the guests it attracted, and now target C was almost done. The ordeal was nearly over.
It was still early, but Sam had grown used to her schedule. Natalie confined herself to jokes and small talk; the more matter-of-fact they kept the conversations, the easier it was on both of them. Until he was actually free, she couldn’t afford to let her emotions take over.
Target C had a husband and two school-age children, but if their domestic routine followed its usual pattern they would be out of the house well before the trigger—expected at 11:00 a.m. in C’s East Coast time zone. The most worrying thing about C was not her family but the way she kept changing the decorative skins she’d bought for her wallet: The surveillance, going back twelve months, revealed no fewer than four different designs. Natalie could accept that anyone might have personal esthetic whims, even when it came to this most utilitarian of items. But it was hard to believe it had never once crossed target C’s mind that those unpredictable embellishments would make it much harder for her to mistake another wallet for her own.
Still, the last surveillance imagery was only ten days old, and it showed a skin that was no different from that on the planted fake. The odds weren’t bad that it would remain in place, and the changes in style on the previous occasions had been so clear that the drones would have no difficulty noticing if the fake had gone out of fashion.
Natalie started the simulations running. Target C had a strong aversion to insects, and every room was fitted with an eliminator, but even those low-powered pinprick lasers could not be unleashed on a human-occupied space without the rigorous certification that ensured their compliance with published standards. Insects followed characteristic, species-specific flight patterns, and the eliminators were required to give any ambiguous object the benefit of the doubt, lest some poor child flicking an apple seed off her plate or brushing glitter from her homemade fairy wand summon unfriendly fire from the ceiling. The drones didn’t need to imitate any particular benign airborne debris; they merely had to exhibit an acceleration profile a few standard deviations away from anything seen in the official laboratory studies of Musca, Culex or Aedes. Unlike target B’s cat, the necessary strictures were completely predictable.
With the count of trials rising into seven digits and still no atonal squawk of failure, Natalie let herself relax a little and close her eyes. The midnight deadline was still fourteen hours away. She’d sent versions of her work for the other two targets to her “Team Leader”—as the collaboration software would have it—and received no complaints. Let these clowns run off to the Bahamas with their billions, and let the victims learn to use banks like normal people. She’d done the only honorable thing under the circumstances, and she had nothing to be ashamed of. Whatever the authorities decided, she could still look herself—and any juror—in the eye.
She opened her eyes. Why, exactly, did she believe that Lewis’s people would let her live to confess her crimes? Because she’d been a good girl and done as she was told?
Lewis had met her in a public place, making her feel safer about the encounter and seeming to offer a degree of insurance: If she vanished, or turned up dead, the authorities would scour the surveillance records and reconstruct her movements. A judge was much less likely to sign a warrant for a trawling expedition if a living, breathing woman and her merely mildly mutilated brother went to the police with an attention-seeking story that positioned them in starring roles in the heist—and in any case, a shared meal proved nothing about her dinner companion.
But all of that presupposed that there really were records of the meeting, that the flock of benign surveillance drones that watched over downtown New Orleans had been as vigilant as ever that night—even in the places her adversaries had chosen to send her. Who was to say that they hadn’t infiltrated the flock, corrupted the software in existing drones, or found a way to substitute their own impostors?
If there was nothing at all to tie Lewis to her—save for the microscopic chance that some diner in the food court that night remembered the two of them—why would the thieves leave any loose ends?
Natalie tried to keep her face locked in the same expression of exhaustion and grim resolve that she’d felt being etched into it over the past five days; the whole apartment was probably full of the same kind of microcameras that had documented the targets’ lives in such detail. And for all she knew there could be hidden drones too, far more dangerous than anything the targets were facing: robot wasps with fatal stings. A week ago that would have sounded like florid paranoia, but now it was the most reasonable thing she could imagine, and the only thoughts that seemed truly delusional were those of walking away from this unscathed.
She went to the kitchen and made fresh coffee, standing by the pot with her eyes half-closed. Apart from any cameras on the walls, her computer was sure to be infested with spyware. They would have done the same to the one in her office at the university—and in any case, she doubted that her criminal overseers would be happy if she suddenly decided to show up at work.
When the coffee was ready she stirred in three spoonfuls of sugar; before the crisis she’d gone without, but now she’d been escalating the dose day by day in the hope of shoring up her flagging powers of concentration. She carried the mug back toward her desk, squinting wearily at the screen as she approached, hoping that she wasn’t overplaying her frazzled sleepwalker’s demeanor.
She tripped and staggered, spilling the sticky, scalding brew straight down the air vent at the top of her workstation. The fans within blew out a geyser of mud-colored liquid for a second or two, with specks reaching as high as the ceiling, then the whole machine shut down, plunging the room into silence.
Natalie spent half a minute swearing and sobbing, and then she picked up her phone. She made five calls to local outlets that might—just conceivably—have supplied a replacement, but none of them had a suitably powerful model in stock, and the ones they could offer her would have slowed the simulations to a crawl. She pushed the last salesperson hard, for effect, but not even a premium delivery charge could summon what she needed by drone from the Atlanta warehouse in time.
Finally, as if in desperation, she gritted her teeth and availed herself of the only remaining solution.
“I’d like to rent an office for twelve hours.”
“Any secretarial services?” the booking bot asked.
“Any IT requirements?”
“You bet.” She reeled them off, but the bot was unfazed. The firm she’d chosen was accustomed to catering to architects and engineers caught out with some processor-intensive emergency that was too commercially sensitive to be run in the cloud or simply too awkward to refactor for a change of platform. It was the most logical place for her to go, given that the university was out of bounds—but it would have taken extraordinary prescience for Lewis’s gang to have bugged the place.
Natalie caught a bus into the city. A fly with an odd bluish tint to its body crawled over the windowpane beside her; she watched it for a while, then reached out and squashed it with the side of her fist and inspected its soft remains.
At the office complex, the demands of security and climate control had her pass through half a dozen close-fitting doors. Between these welcome barriers she ran fingers through her hair, brushed her arms and legs, and flattened her back against the nearest wall. The security guards watching on closed circuit could think what they liked, so long as she didn’t look quite crazy enough to be thrown out.
On the eleventh floor, she entered the tiny office assigned to her, closed the door, and started loading the most recent hourly backup of her project from the flash drive she’d brought. This version wasn’t quite the one that had been doing so well in the simulations, but she remembered exactly what changes she’d need to make to bring it up to that level.
The gang’s roboticists would run tests of their own, but if she held off delivering the software until just before midnight they would be under enormous pressure. In a finite time there was only so much checking her fellow humans could do, and not a lot of point in them trying to wade manually through every line of code and every neural-net template included in the package. Like her, in the end they would be forced to put their trust in the simulations.
As instructed, Natalie had programmed her drones to wake and commence their mission, not at any predetermined time, but on receipt of an external infrasound cue. It made sense to allow that much flexibility, in case the news that was meant to prompt people to reach for their wallets came later than expected.
One side effect of this decision was that for targets whose schedules were different for every day of the week, simulations had to be run separately for each day. But where there was no difference except for weekdays versus weekends, the simulated drones were fed no finer distinction, and the millions of permutations to be tested could play out much faster by limiting them to that simple dichotomy.
Target C stuck to a single routine from Monday to Friday, so as far as the simulations for her were concerned, they were taking place only on a generic weekday. Anything in the software that relied on it being a specific day of the week wouldn’t come into play, in the simulations.
In the real world, though, Thursday would still announce itself as Thursday in the drones’ internal clocks. And that very fact would be enough to tell the drones’ software that they were out of VR and moving through the land of flesh and blood.
Natalie couldn’t be sure that D-day would arrive on schedule, but she had no choice but to trust the swindlers to accomplish their first, enabling feat exactly as they’d planned it all along.
“This should be our last call,” Natalie told Sam.
“There are two ways I could take that,” he joked.
“Take it the good way.”
“So they’re happy with your work?” Sam tried to make that sound like a joke, too, but he couldn’t quite pull it off.
“I’ve had no complaints.”
“I always knew you’d end up as a mob accountant.”
“Ha!” She’d had a summer job once that included bookkeeping for a small construction firm with a shady reputation, but every transaction that had crossed her desk had appeared entirely legitimate.
“Stay strong,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”
Sam just nodded and lowered his eyes. She cut the link.
Natalie waited five more minutes, for six o’clock sharp. If a market-moving trigger was coming, Lewis’s people would have recognized the early signs of its onset hours ago, but she’d had no idea what to look for, and she hadn’t wanted to attract suspicion by trawling the financial news. It would be impossible to load an entirely new copy of the drones’ software via infrasound in less than two days—but in less than an hour, an experienced team might be able to write and deliver a small patch that neutralized the effects of her sabotage.
There would be no moment of perfect safety. Natalie used the collaboration software to send a message: Flaw in the code for target C. Need to discuss urgently.
Twenty seconds later, her phone rang.
“What are you talking about?” Lewis demanded angrily.
“It hasn’t started executing yet, has it?” Natalie did her best to sound businesslike: She was acknowledging her screwup, but she was still the voice of authority when it came to these drones, and she was asking for the state of play in order to salvage the situation as rapidly as possible.
“Of course it’s executing!” Lewis snapped.
Natalie couldn’t hold back a smile of relief. The software would be impossible to patch now.
“Why did you think it wouldn’t start?” Lewis was baffled. “We got the confirmation hum. The drones are wide awake and running what we loaded. What’s this about?”
Natalie said, “If the drones in target C’s house don’t catch sight of me and my brother—fully ambulatory, with our usual gaits—alone in a room with that woman before 11:00 a.m., things are going to play out a little differently than they did in the simulations.”
Lewis understood immediately. “You stupid bitch—”
“No,” Natalie cut him off. “Stupid would have been trusting you.”
“We’ll kill you both,” he said coldly. “We can live without the yield from one target.”
“Can you live without the yield from all the targets who’ll be warned off when this woman raises the alarm? When the drones fly up to her and drop the fake wallet right in front of her face?”
To his credit, Lewis only took a few seconds to give up on the idea of more threats and bravado. “Be on the street outside your building in five minutes.” He cut off the call.
Natalie put the phone down. Her whole body was trembling. She went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face, then left her apartment and sprinted down the stairs.
The black car that came for her had tinted passenger windows. Lewis opened the rear door and motioned for her to join him. Sam was sitting by the left-side window; he glanced across at her anxiously.
“This is what will happen,” Lewis told Natalie as they sped away. “You’re going to drive a car toward the target’s house. Another driver will rear-end you in a hit-and-run: plenty of noise and crumpled panels, but you won’t be hurt. You and your brother will walk from the wreckage, knock on the target’s door, and ask her to call an ambulance. We’ll spoof the 911 connection, so no ambulance will come until we put in the call ourselves. You’ll play a wilting Southern flower, and at some point you’ll be invited in to wait.”
Natalie was incredulous. “She won’t invite us in straight away?”
Lewis clenched his teeth, then spoke. “Have you ever been to Nassau County, Long Island?”
“Can we fly business class?” Sam wondered.
Lewis reached into a sports bag on his lap and drew out a pair of blindfolds.
Minutes later, the traffic sounds around them receded. They were bundled out of the car and led across the tarmac and up a set of stairs into what must have been a private jet. Natalie felt the plane taxiing before she’d been guided to her seat, and ascending before she’d fumbled the belt into place. It would take almost three hours to reach New York; if they hit so much as an unexpected headwind, Lewis might decide to cut his losses and drop them from the plane.
“I should have told them earlier,” she whispered to Sam. “I’m sorry.” She’d been fixated on the risk that she’d spring the revelation too early.
“Why do we have to visit this woman?” he asked.
Natalie talked him through the whole thing, from the heist itself to the dead-man switch she’d installed at the last moment.
“You couldn’t have found a way to get us to Paris instead?” Sam joked.
“They set you up,” Natalie stressed. “They only lent you the money so they could rope me in if they had to.”
“I know,” he said. “I get it.”
“So whatever happens now, it’s not on you.”
Sam laughed. “Seriously? You thought I was going to blame myself?”
As soon as the wheels hit the ground, someone grabbed Natalie’s elbow. “How’s the time?” she enquired.
“Local time’s 10:27,” Lewis replied.
The blindfolds stayed on as they got into a second car. When it screeched to a halt and Lewis tugged the dark band up from Natalie’s eyes, she squinted out into a fluorescent-lit mechanics’ workshop. Half a dozen men in overalls were standing beside a hydraulic jack, watching the new arrivals.
Lewis motioned to her to leave the car. “This is what you’ll be driving.” He gestured at a white sedan a few meters away. “You rented this at the airport; there are used boarding passes in the glove compartment and some luggage with clothes and toiletries in the trunk. I don’t care what your cover story is—why you’re in New York, where you were heading—but you should give your real names. And make sure you don’t distract the target from the trigger, or do anything else stupid. Don’t even think about driving away; we can immobilize the vehicle remotely, and the crash that follows would be a whole lot worse than the one we’ve discussed.”
“I don’t have the address,” Natalie realized.
“The GPS has already been programmed. The house number is 107; don’t get confused and knock anywhere else.”
“What if someone else offers to help us?”
Lewis said, “The street will be as good as empty. The crash will be right outside her door.”
Natalie turned to Sam, who’d joined her on the floor of the workshop. “Are you OK with this?”
“As opposed to what?”
Lewis walked up to Sam and put a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry about the déjà vu, but it will make the whole thing more authentic.”
Sam stared at him. Natalie felt the blood draining from her face. The waiting men converged on Sam, one of them carrying a wrench.
Sam didn’t fight them, he just bellowed from the pain. When everyone separated, the bandage was gone from his finger and his wound was dripping blood.
Lewis said, “Better put that in your pocket for the drive, so no one sees it before the crash.”
The figures on Natalie’s watch had turned blue to remind her that it had auto-synched to the new time zone. It was 10:46. The GPS estimated two minutes to their destination. They’d be outside the house in plenty of time—but they needed to be seen by the drones, indoors.
She glanced over at Sam. He was still pale, but he looked focused. There weren’t many cars on the tree-lined streets, and Natalie had yet to spot a single pedestrian. The houses they were passing were ostentatious enough, if not exactly billionaires’ mansions. But then, half the point of putting assets into digital currency was keeping a low profile.
“Destination in fifteen seconds,” the GPS announced cheerily. Natalie resisted glancing in the rearview mirror as she braked. The red pickup that had been following them since the garage slammed into the back of the sedan.
The airbags inflated, like giant mushroom caps sprouting in time-lapse. Natalie felt the seat belt dig into her shoulder, but when her ears stopped ringing she took stock of her sensations and found no real pain.
“You OK?” she asked Sam. She could hear squealing tires as the truck did a U-turn and departed.
“Our phones were in the hands-free docks,” she reminded him. “The airbags are blocking them.”
“We’ve just been in a crash,” Sam said. “No one’s going to ask us where our phones are.”
Natalie got her door open and clambered out. They were right beside the mailbox of number 107.
As Sam joined her, his severed finger exposed, the front door opened and target C ran out toward them.
“Are you all right? Is anyone else in the car?”
Natalie said, “I’m OK. It’s just me and my brother.”
“Oh, he’s bleeding!” C was carrying her phone; she hit some keys then raised it to her ear. “A traffic accident. The other driver’s cleared off. No…they’re both walking, but the young man’s hand…that’s correct.”
She lowered the phone and motioned to them to approach. “Please, come inside. They said the ambulance will be a few minutes.”
Sam pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped it around the stump of his finger. He couldn’t quite look their Good Samaritan in the eye as he stepped through the doorway.
Target C led them into her carpeted living room, unfazed by Sam’s blood. “Please, take a seat. I’ll bring you some water.”
“Thank you.” When the woman had left, Natalie checked her watch. It was 10:53. The six drones would be performing sweeps of all the rooms where she and Sam might plausibly have ended up, mostly staying near the ceiling, out of people’s normal lines of sight. She looked up, and after ten or fifteen seconds she saw it: her own tiny, loyal slave, confirming her safety before fetching its brothers to resume the original plan.
“Are we safe now?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should warn her,” he suggested.
Natalie was torn. Lewis’s people might still come after them, whatever they did. But which action would nudge the odds in favor of survival—enraging their enemies but weakening them by depriving them of part of their haul, or placating them but making them stronger?
“We can’t risk it,” she whispered.
Target C came into the room with a pitcher of water on a tray. She poured two glasses and handed them to her guests. “I can’t believe that maniac just drove off,” she said. She gazed forlornly at Sam’s hand. “What happened?”
“I was opening the glove compartment,” Sam replied. “The doors on those things are like guillotines.”
Target C’s phone beeped, not a ring tone but some kind of alert. She spent a few seconds trying to ignore it, then lost the fight and examined the screen. Natalie could almost read the woman’s deliberations from the movement of her eyes and the changing set of her jaw. This was the trigger: either a grave threat to her wealth, or an irresistible opportunity.
The woman looked up. “I’m so rude. My name’s Emily.”
“Are you folks from around here?”
“New Orleans.”
Emily nodded, as if she’d guessed as much already. “Where is that ambulance?” She turned to Sam. “Are you in agony? I have Tylenol. But maybe you’ve suffered some other injury that could make that the wrong thing to take?”
Sam said, “It’s all right. I’ll wait for the paramedics.”
Emily thought for a few seconds. “Let me just check in the medicine cabinet, so I know exactly what I’ve got.”
“Thank you,” Sam replied.
Natalie watched her leave, and saw her take the turn toward the study where the wallet was held in its safe. The fake would already be waiting on top of a bookcase, invisible to anyone of normal height. The drones would be watching, parsing the scene, determining when the safe had been opened and the wallet taken out.
Water began drumming against stainless steel, far away in the kitchen. Natalie heard Emily curse in surprise, but she didn’t run out of the study immediately.
Three seconds, four seconds, five seconds. The sound of the torrent was hard to ignore, conjuring images of flooded floors and water damage. Most people would have sprinted toward the source immediately, dropping almost anything to attend to it.
Finally, Natalie heard the hurried footsteps as Emily rushed to the kitchen. She could not have had time to execute whatever actions the trigger had inspired—but she had certainly had time to put the wallet back in the safe. Nothing else explained the delay. With strangers in the house—and more expected soon, from the emergency services—she wasn’t going to leave the keys to her fortune lying around unattended.
It took Emily a few minutes to assess the situation in the kitchen—unsalvageable by merely tinkering with the faucet—then go to the water mains and shut off the flow at its source. She returned to the living room drying her hands on a towel.
“That was bizarre! Something just…burst.” She shook her head. “We’ve only got Tylenol,” she told Sam. She took her phone from her pocket. “Do you think I should call them again?”
Sam said, “It’s not like I’m having a heart attack. And who knows what else they’re dealing with?”
Emily nodded. “All right.” She waited a few seconds, then said, “If you’ll excuse me, I just need to clean up. Before it soaks through…”
Natalie said, “We’re fine, really.”
Emily left the room to avail herself of the opportunity to move some of her money around. Whether the market signal proved misleading or not, the outcome was unlikely to ruin her. But the drones were helpless now; there’d be no prospect of them making the switch.
Natalie stared at the carpet, trying to assess the situation. She’d shafted Lewis’s gang—entirely by mistake, and only partially: Emily would have no suspicions, no reason to raise the alarm and derail the rest of the heist. Lewis might well deduce exactly what had happened. But what would that lead to? Leniency? Forgiveness?
After half an hour and still no ambulance, Emily phoned 911 again. “They said there was nothing in the system!” she told Natalie. “That fills you with confidence!”
The paramedics declared that Sam needed to go to the emergency room. One of them spent a couple of minutes searching the wreck for his severed fingertip while the other waxed lyrical on the wonders of microsurgery, but in the end they gave up. “It must have gotten thrown out and some dog took it.”
An hour later, while Natalie was dealing with paperwork at the hospital, two uniformed police approached her. “We had a report of a hit-and-run,” the older cop said.
“Can you protect us?” Natalie asked him. “If we’re being watched by someone dangerous?”
The cop glanced at his partner. “You’re shaken up, I understand. But this was probably just some drunken fool too cowardly to own up to what he’d done. Nothing you should be taking personally.”
Natalie’s teeth started chattering, but she forced herself to speak.
“They kidnapped my brother,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything, but I need to know: If they can see everywhere, and reach anywhere, how are you going to protect us?”