By Rad Leskovar
Copyright © 2017 by Rad Leskovar
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
First Printing: 2017
Table of Contents
A small model aircraft tilted forward and pitched nose-first off the cross-beam of an electric transmission tower. It had been nestled in its eyrie 150 feet up since nightfall, clinging unnoticed on top of the steel latticework. Now, as it plummeted towards the ground in the cool night air, the plane’s speed increasing every moment, the dark craft suddenly swooped upward and began soaring noiselessly over a suburban forest.
It leveled off, still gliding well above the treetops. Then it pushed propellers out from compartments in its nose and from the middle of the leading edge of each wing. A moment later, the small plane accelerated and climbed. It leveled off once again at 150 feet and flew straight ahead for several miles. Using a combination of GPS and cell tower signals to navigate the clear, starlit sky, it passed over a strip mall, several suburban neighborhoods, a church, and a school. As it approached its final destination, it climbed to 200 feet. The propellers abruptly stopped and retracted as the small craft commenced its final, unpowered approach.
Entering a neighborhood, it silently descended lower and lower, purposefully heading toward one particular house. It passed like a shadow over the backyard and rear slope of the roof. Then it abruptly flared upward, its momentum suspending it in mid-air ten feet above the peak of the roof. With switchblade suddenness, the center of each wing snapped backward ninety degrees and the wings themselves swept back until their tips touched the fuselage. As gravity began to reclaim the craft, the three propellers re-emerged, spinning horizontally this time, and joined by a fourth that popped out from behind the tail. The re-configured glider had become a hovercraft.
It gently touched down on the street-facing slope of the roof, shut down, and stowed its propellers once again. If anyone had been awake at that hour, they would have heard a momentary buzzing sound, as if someone had lifted the lid off an oil drum full of angry bees and had quickly covered it again. Grappling legs slid under the roofing shingles, securely anchoring the craft to the roof. The wings then slowly executed a final shifting, folding maneuver that, when completed, gave the craft the appearance of an ordinary, nondescript roof vent. Even the owner of the house would have been hard-pressed to say that it had not always been there.
From the underside of the faux vent, two pea-sized lead spheres – known to fishermen as split shot – rolled down the roof, trailing cotton threads that pulled out and drew taut a plastic sheet. Appearing as a portion of roof flashing, the sheet was actually a flexible solar panel, sixteen inches square. When the sun next rose in the sky, the panel would re-charge the battery.
Two tiny camera lenses peered from underneath the reconfigured craft. One, a wide-angle lens, was positioned closer toward the street. It captured everything from the front yard and sidewalk in front of the house it was sitting on, the street, and then the sidewalk and front yards of several houses across the street. The second camera had a very tight focal point and a ten-power zoom. It was set farther back, and was presently focused on a single brick halfway up the front of the house directly across the street.
In a hotel room ten miles away, a man sat at a desk. He opened his smartphone, thumbed to a page on the screen, and tapped on a small icon. A video window opened and began displaying a live feed from the roof of the house. Although it was about three in the morning, a few men were milling about on the front lawn of the house on the opposite side of the road. One man in the group was perpetually the center of attention. He mostly sat on a lawn chair in the front yard while the others stood. On the occasions when he seemed to say something, the others leaned in to listen. He lit a cigarette every so often, and got up from his chair only once to urinate behind some bushes in the yard next door.
On a small pad of hotel stationery, the man surveilling the group began taking notes about the activities transpiring on the video – the number of cars driving by and their direction; the number of people in the area – and noting the exact time of each observation.
He tapped the screen to switch to the second camera. He zoomed it out until he could see the entire group on the lawn. Then using his finger, he guided a set of crosshairs onto the one who appeared to be the leader. He tapped the screen twice, causing the man’s image to be highlighted with a thin green outline. Using off-the-shelf imagery technology, the software assigned him a “pixel signature” based on his body size and shape, as well as his clothing. Thereafter, as the man moved around, the camera automatically tracked him, always keeping him in the center of the screen, the highlighted area changing to match the outline of his shape.
The observer again dragged the crosshair symbol across the screen, this time tapping the man’s face. The video zoomed in closer, outlining only his face. When he turned his back to the street, the camera zoomed out, reducing the magnification by half. The tracking software monitored the resulting video until his face reappeared. It then re-acquired its target, highlighting the man’s face again, and returning to the previous magnification, always keeping his face in the center of the screen. The man in the hotel switched the video back to the wide-angle camera and glanced at it once more before shutting it down and turning in for the night. It was early Monday morning, and he had a big week ahead.
The man with the smartphone was attending a week-long biotech conference at the hotel where he was staying. Over the next few days, he attended seminars and socialized with academics and industry representatives. Throughout each day, he returned to his room to rest and to drop off any swag – a trade show acronym for “Souvenirs, Wearables, And Gifts” – that he had been given. During those breaks, he often sat at his desk, peered through his smartphone at the distant front yard, and took notes. He was especially busy in the evenings, often begging off dinner invitations in order to return to his room and dedicate additional hours of monitoring and jotting down more notes.
Thursday morning after breakfast, he went back to his room and reviewed the results of his surveillance efforts. On a fresh sheet of paper, he created four columns and labeled them: Time, Mon, Tue, and Wed. He then created twenty-four rows and, in the leftmost column, listed all of the hours of the day. In the appropriate day column, and at the time he observed some significant activity, he wrote a shorthand description of the event, including its duration. When he had finished transcribing all of his notes in that manner, he pushed back from the desk and studied it for a long while.
He then brought out a second piece of paper and put the same four columns on them. This time, however, the times he listed in the leftmost column ran only from 7:30pm to 8:30pm in increments of five minutes. He again transcribed his notes, but only for those activities falling within that time period. He included more detail and was more precise about the time. After studying his second page for some time, he opened his smartphone and created an appointment for 8:03pm that evening, with a five-minute reminder preceding. Then he thumbed over and tapped an icon to check the local weather forecast for the rest of the day.
The final dinner of the conference was held in the ballroom that evening. At the end of the meal, the observer remained seated, quietly sipping coffee and looking around. Most of his fellow diners had gotten up to mingle. Two at his table were engrossed with their smartphones. He casually reached into his sport coat and brought out his own device. Tapping an icon, he quickly studied the video feed from the wide-angle camera. He could see that, as he had expected, the man in the front yard was now all alone. He switched to the second camera and saw the man’s face in clear detail, once again defined with a thin, green outline. He zoomed in further so that only the man’s eyes and nose were visible on the screen. Then he tapped the man’s left eye, and only the eye was outlined in green.
The human eye involuntarily blinks every two to ten seconds, but when this man blinked, the camera never lost its target. And if he had turned his head or simply walked away, the camera would have patiently waited until it could reacquire his left eye, and would thereafter keep it in the center of the screen. But the man was stationary, just leaning against a lamp post, momentarily staring idly into space. The observer paused, waiting until he was certain that the man was completely still. Then he tapped a green square on his screen.
A small, soft lead projectile spat out from somewhere inside the faux vent. A person standing near the house at that moment would have described hearing an unremarkable noise like the sound a yardstick makes when slapped flat against a table top. But no one was listening, and the sound went unnoticed, absorbed into the usual night noises of the neighborhood. Known as a .22 short, and weighing little more than a twentieth of an ounce, the bullet traveled below the speed of sound, but flew flat and straight, instantly covering the distance to the man across the street.
The bullet easily passed through the man’s left eye, slightly deforming as it punched through the thin wall of bone at the back of his eye socket. Tumbling as it ripped downward through several inches of spongy gray matter, the slug shredded the man’s brainstem before crashing against the back of his skull. He instantly crumpled, his body spilling down the slope of the front yard into the darkness alongside the driveway. It would be a while before anyone noticed.
It was a sunny, cheerful day, just a few weeks after Labor Day. Boisterous, puffy white clouds drifted gradually across a clear blue sky. In the rustling leaves of the branches overhead, birds were moved to activity and song. On the ground below them was an orderly, but incongruous collection of stone and metal monuments interspersed with shrubs and evergreens on a well-tended lawn. Discolored white marble slabs lay flat on the ground, the cursive letters and numbers carved into their weathered surface attesting to their age. Newer monuments appeared as shiny, upright tablets of granite with rounded tops and terse inscriptions sharply carved into their polished surface. In a clearing, a kneeling white, marble angel held her hands over a parcel of grass, blessing it while lifting her face toward heaven.
Robert and Beth Kendall stood on the freshly-mown verge bordering the plain rectangular void that would be the final resting place of their only child, Ricky. It was next to the graves of Robert’s parents, who had passed away within months of each other only ten years earlier. As the bereaved parents quietly sobbed and held each other, the minister finished his service and motioned for the coffin to be lowered. Save for the minister and the two men from the funeral home, Robert and Beth were all alone.
They drove the short distance back to the house and locked their car in the garage. They then went inside and sat apart from each other in desolate silence. Neither bothered to turn on any lights. They remained that way for hours, occasionally breaking into fits of uncontrolled sobbing, and then lapsing into an impassive stare.
As the sun lowered itself toward the horizon and darkness began to fill the house, Beth finally spoke, “I’m leaving you. I’m going to my parents in Connecticut. I can’t stay. I can’t . . .” Her voice drifted off.
Hours after she had left, he remained seated in the dark house.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
They had met while volunteering at their church, assisting foreign refugees to resettle in the United States and adjust to life in their new surroundings. Beth was an oral hygienist for a dentist in town. Rob had just completed graduate school and was working at a government lab doing cancer research. When they were first married, they had lived in an apartment in town. But when his parents decided to move to a smaller house, Rob and Beth were happy to buy their house from them.
Rob had grown up in that neighborhood. All of the families were middle class, with modest houses, green lawns, and two cars in each driveway. Backyards were marked off with chain link fences, designed not to keep people out, but to stop toddlers and puppies from going astray. When a boy visited a friend’s house, it was not unusual for his dog to trot along with him and nap on the neighbor’s lawn while the child played inside. Children walked to school by themselves or in the company of their friends.
Towards the back of the neighborhood was a dead-end road with a barrier, and beyond that was a forest with a creek running through it. Ferns, skunk cabbage, and jack-in-the-pulpits imparted a pre-historic air to the low, damp ground through which the creek flowed. It was there that Kendall and his childhood friends were first exposed to the wonders of nature. The first time they had ventured into the wilderness past the dead end, a red-eyed box turtle lumbered out of the underbrush onto the dirt path in front of them, stopping and craning his neck to get a better look at them. The little boys had run home shouting hysterically. Quite soon, however, they were spending entire Saturday mornings exploring the creek and its surroundings, returning home with frogs, salamanders, and even the occasional snake.
The developers of the neighborhood had set aside as a park an odd-shaped lot with a grassy hill. Children idled away many an hour on that hill. In the springtime, they lay on their backs assigning shapes to the billowy clouds that passed overhead. In summer, they played king of the hill, or simply rolled down its green, neatly-mowed slopes until they were dizzy. They sledded down it in winter well past the point that they were numb from the cold. It had been a beloved part of every child’s life growing up in the neighborhood.
The Space Shuttle program was in full swing back then. Robert’s father, an electrical engineer, regularly took him to the nearby school yard to launch model rockets that they had made together in their garage. They also built and flew radio-controlled, gas-powered model airplanes – the “gas” was actually wood alcohol. The many, noisy hours that they spent flying their airplanes inspired him to study physics with a view toward going into aeronautical engineering. When his grandfather unexpectedly died from cancer during his sophomore year, however, he switched his major and plunged headlong into biology and human anatomy. Rob went on to graduate school and then straight into cancer research.
About the time that his son Ricky was born, the neighborhood had begun to change. At first, the difference was imperceptible. Rob and Beth had been so absorbed with child care and the declining health of his parents that they had not noticed. Suddenly, many of the long-time residents had left, only to be replaced by strangers who spoke little or no English and who received public assistance. A few original residents remained, but they soon walled-off their yards with tall, wooden privacy fences, accompanied by short, squat security company signs planted in front of their houses like talismans. Very soon, the Kendalls’ suburban neighborhood began to take on the characteristics of a poor, urban, ethnic enclave.
The creek became a disconnected series of stagnant, foul-smelling pools choked with household trash and contaminated by the regular dumping of used motor oil, house paint, and cleaning solvents. A discarded mattress lay against a bank of the creek, one corner dipped below the rainbow of the water’s filmy surface.
The hill park had fared no better. Its formerly carpet-like slopes were now mostly bare, save for scattered clumps of weeds clinging to toe-holds in the hard-packed clay. A kaleidoscope of broken glass, cigarette butts, fast food wrappers, and plastic soda bottles littered its sides. The hill was used by children who aspired to become members of the street gang that had established itself in the neighborhood. One street over from the Kendall’s house, a flourishing drug market produced a steady stream of cars rolling in and out at all hours of the day and night. Children stationed themselves as lookouts on the hill’s crest, warning the gang of any approaching police well before a cruiser arrived.
Even the dogs in the neighborhood had changed. In Rob’s youth, neighbors had Golden Retrievers, Beagles, and loveable mutts. County leash laws were seldom enforced or even necessary. These days, the only dogs were Pit Bulls and Rottweilers. If a person walked past their yard, the dogs savagely threw themselves against the high, chain-link fences confining them. Their bared fangs and menacing barks leaving no doubts about their intentions.
The Kendalls’ son, Ricky, had been skinny, pale and bookish. He wore glasses at an early age, just as Rob had. Hoping to spark the same interest in science that his father had awakened in him, when Ricky turned twelve, Rob suggested that they build a model rocket together. Ricky thought that that would be a grand idea. They spent many enjoyable hours in the garage together, cutting, gluing, sanding, painting, and re-sanding until the rocket looked like a scale model of the real thing.
Early one Saturday morning, they went to the school yard next to the neighborhood to launch the rocket. Rob planned to use one of the picnic tables there to hold their launch equipment. But when they arrived, they found two teenage girls asleep on their backs on top of one of the picnic tables with a heavily-tattooed man slumbering between them. Empty and half-empty beer bottles were strewn about on the table and the ground around them. Ricky stared wide-eyed at the spectacle. Rob pretended not to notice them and instead led Ricky to the opposite side of the school yard where they set up their equipment in the grass.
When they had everything ready for the launch, they stepped back a few paces from the rocket to where they had a heavy battery, a launch key, and a launch button. When Rob gave the signal, Ricky turned the launch key, and a small light next to the button turned on. Then Rob counted down in an official-sounding voice. When he got to zero, he gave Ricky a thumbs-up, and Ricky pressed the launch button. After a moment’s pause, the rocket took off with a sudden whoosh! climbing over two hundred feet before popping out a parachute. Rob and Ricky spontaneously hugged and jumped up and down cheering loudly. There was pure happiness on their uplifted faces as they watched their rocket swing beneath its red-and-white striped parachute.
The rocket noise and their loud cheers combined to wake up the three on the picnic table. To Rob’s dismay, the rocket drifted toward the group as it floated back to earth. Ricky bounded across the field looking up, joyously shouting as he followed the rocket’s descent. When he suddenly saw that it was landing a few yards from the picnic table with its stirring occupants, he stopped short, the happiness drained from his face.
The tattooed man, whom Rob judged to be in his twenties, rose unsteadily to his feet and staggered a few paces toward the rocket. With a scraggily beard and wearing baggy blue jeans and an oversized tee shirt, he looked like an unkempt scarecrow. The man half turned and said something behind himself, and the two girls on the table sat up and rubbed their eyes. Rob, meanwhile, jogged past Ricky and retrieved the rocket, smiling uneasily at the glassy-eyed gang member teetering before him. The man said something that Rob didn’t understand, but that seemed to signal irritation. At that, the two girls shuffled over and sleepily stood next to the man.
“Just getting our rocket,” Kendall had explained, holding up the rocket and parachute for them to see.
With half-closed eyes and a bemused smile that flashed silver-capped, yellow teeth, the young man tilted toward one of the young girls and slurred something barely intelligible even in his own language. All three of them giggled like children, and then, putting an arm around each girl, the young man walked off with them.
Ricky had lost interest in model rocketry soon afterward.
The neighborhood continued to deteriorate. One day, Rob walked out of his front door in time to see a boy emerge from their garage with Ricky’s bicycle. He ran and caught him, but the youth was unrepentant. He threw the bike to the ground, spat obscenities at Rob, and insisted, in broken English, that Ricky had given it to him. Rob shooed the boy away and returned Ricky’s bicycle to the garage. Thereafter, the family kept their garage door closed and locked.
On another occasion, Ricky’s fourteenth birthday, the Kendalls had decorated their backyard for his party. While Beth was adding some last-minute touches, she discovered a local urchin furtively lowering himself into their backyard from a tree limb that spanned their privacy fence. The gifts on a table near the fence his apparent target. She screamed in alarm, causing the boy to retreat back up the limb and over the fence. The birthday party turned out to be a gloomy affair. None of the invited guests showed up; their neighborhood had become too dangerous. That evening, Rob sawed off the tree limb and pruned back all other branches that reached over the fence.
Every new incident reinforced the siege mentality that afflicted their household. After a while, to avoid tension, Rob and Beth both stopped discussing the neighborhood’s decline. The first week of High School, however, things got worse. Ricky was beaten up near the school by several other boys from the neighborhood. That night, Rob and Beth sat with him on the family room couch, Beth holding an ice pack to the back of his head.
Rob had had a run-in with a bully when he was young, and his own dad had encouraged him to settle his problems himself. He had had to fight the bully once or twice, but things never went very far before others broke up the fight. After that, the bully had left him alone.
“Five kids beat you up?” Rob asked. “Didn’t your friends help? Didn’t they try to make it a fair fight?”
Ricky just shook his head.
“But that’s just cowardly,” he muttered. “Five against one. Didn’t the other kids call those boys cowards? Didn’t they break up the fight?”
Ricky had looked at his father in disbelief.
“Dad! The guys that beat me up are gang members. My friends are too afraid of them. And now they won’t hang out with me because the gang threatened to beat up anyone who acts like my friend.”
“Did you even hear what Ricky has been saying?” Beth interjected.
“Kids used to hang out in little cliques when I was young too, honey,” Rob insisted. “But they grew out of it when they got to High School.”
“These aren’t little neighborhood children running around pretending to be tough until it gets dark outside. These are members of violent street gangs that have ties going back to their own country!” She continued. “Look at the news, honey! They get fifteen-year-old girls strung out on drugs and rape them. Then they beat them, prostitute them, and threaten to kill their family members if they don’t comply.”
Rob was incredulous.
“This isn’t the inner city! We live in the suburbs! There are families here!”
“Those gangs are in the suburbs. They’re in our neighborhood. They are our neighbors!” she shouted. “The other night, I heard gunshots down the street. Gunshots, Rob!”
“Honey,” he said, “I can’t count the number of times my friends and I set off firecrackers as pranks. It’s not gunshots: its kids having fun . . . or maybe someone was setting off fireworks to celebrate some festival in their culture.”
Beth was having none of it.
“Look around you! The neighborhood you grew up in is gone! Everyone we ever knew has left. We’re the last ones here and those people,” she pointed toward their front door, “want us to leave. We’ve got to leave. It’s only going to get worse.”
“Things will improve. Just give it a little more time,” Rob replied.
Beth continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “When I walk down the driveway to get the mail, they glare at me with hatred. It’s not my imagination.”
“When I went to pick up Ricky from the school clinic today, they made me first meet with a school guidance counselor and a woman from some community outreach group. That woman accused our family of being racist for blaming all of the theft and vandalism in our neighborhood on that gang that beat up Ricky. She said that we just didn’t appreciate different cultures. The school counselor suggested that we try to be more accepting of foreigners. Us!”
“Well,” said Rob, “we’re going to have a talk with the school principal and clear all of this up.” He tousled Ricky’s hair. “You hang in there.”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Rob had arranged for them to have an after-school meeting with the principal. As the two of them sat in the reception area waiting for their appointment, Beth pointed out to Rob the guidance counselor and the woman from the community outreach office who were both leaving the principal’s office. Rob and Beth were called in next.
The meeting began cordially enough, with the principal making small talk with Rob about how things had been at the school when Rob had attended. He also inquired about Ricky’s health and offered some idle observations about boys being boys. Then he cleared his throat and said, “I understand that there’s some history with your boy and some, uh, anti-immigrant sentiments.”
Beth’s patience snapped. She stood up and shouted, “There is no such thing!”
Pointing to the door, she continued, “Is that what that woman told you? Is that why she was here? To badmouth our family?”
The principal sat passively while Rob tried to calm Beth down, but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Our son is being bullied by gang members. They’re not students, they’re predators. We shouldn’t be talking to you. You’re just another apologist for these thugs.”
“Now that is simply not true,” the principal had said calmly.
“Where are the parents of the kids that did that to our son? How come you’re not meeting with them?” Beth had demanded.
“It’s just not that simple,” he had replied. “As you probably know, a lot of the parents don’t speak English, and in some cases, there are no parents.”
The meeting had ended with the principal promising to look into the matter more closely.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Ricky was beaten to death in the middle of his third week of High School by a gang of boys from his neighborhood. The following day, the Kendalls drove to the police station to meet with the chief of police. While they were there, the leader of the gang, a thug named Alex, voluntarily came and spoke with the police through a translator. He looked to be in his late thirties, was stout, muscular, and heavily tattooed. He wore baggy jeans, a loose t-shirt, and a flat-brimmed baseball hat which he took off when he stepped inside. Rob and Beth were ushered into a waiting area where they could see and hear the police interviewing him.
Alex spoke softly and meekly, showing great deference to the police and constantly looking to the translator for reassurance. He listened intently with a constant frown of concern as the translator described what had happened to Ricky. He kept shaking his head sadly and expressing what appeared to be words of condolence through the translator. He furrowed his brow like a simpleton when asked if he knew who could have been involved with beating Ricky to death. At the end of the interview, he looked into the Kendall’s faces and prattled sadly and unintelligibly, once again slowly shaking his head to emphasize the depth of his sorrow. Then he left the station.
Afterward, Rob had asked the police chief what Alex had told them.
“He said he heard your son wanted to join some gang in your neighborhood, and that the initiation involved some play fighting. According to him, someone said he fell down and hurt himself,” the chief said.
“That’s a lie!” cried Beth. “He hated them and they hated him. He would never have wanted to join their gang. They have been trying to kill him for weeks, and now they finally have. Have you seen his body? Have you?” she demanded.
The chief blinked defensively and frowned.
“That wasn’t play fighting!” she continued. “He was beaten to death! Beaten to death by a mob of cowardly hoodlums. Do something! Arrest those bastards!”
She collapsed sobbing in her husband’s arms.
After Beth had calmed down, the police chief explained to them, “Look, if we try to bring some of them in for questioning, that’ll discourage and even prevent the rest of the neighborhood from accessing police services. And that, in turn, will prevent us from the benefit of their cooperation in fighting and investigating crime.”
Wholly unaware of the absurdity of his words, he continued.
“They’re already wary of law enforcement authority. If we antagonize them too much, the community won’t come forward to report a crime and they’ll be less likely to offer information or cooperate with us, just as Alex did today.”
He concluded, “Surely, you can see that alienating this gang will only lead to increased crime and will decrease our intelligence and crime-fighting capability. You’re asking us to reverse years of police effort to gain the trust of this community.”
Beth replied in a jaded voice, “I’m asking you to do your job. I’m asking for justice.”
Afterward, the Kendalls had walked to their car in the police parking lot. Rob held the door for Beth, and closed it after she sat down. As he walked around the back of his car, he saw Alex standing on the far side of the parking lot. A car arrived to pick up the gang leader. He looked around before getting in, and as he did so, his eyes met Rob’s. Alex paused and then flashed him a broad smile of malevolent delight. As he climbed into the waiting car, he shouted something to the occupants. They all roared with laughter as they drove off.
The wake was closed-coffin because of the damage to Ricky’s face. Friends, colleagues, and even an old neighbor showed up at the wake and the church service. None attended the burial. Some simply left before the service was over. Others went to pains to awkwardly stress that they had a previous obligation and simply could not attend. The reason, however, was clear: word had gotten around that the gang would be waiting at the gates of the graveyard. Sure enough, as the Kendalls’ car followed behind the hearse, gang members were standing on either side of the cemetery entrance, hooting, laughing, flashing hand signals with grotesquely twisted fingers, and shouting “Bye! Bye!”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Now, all alone in the silent house, Robert could hear music blaring from passing cars and shouts of greeting in response to a honked horn. Revved engines. An occasional outburst of laughter. Shouting in a foreign tongue. His neighborhood was gone. His family was gone. He would go.
Rob rented an apartment and quietly had the contents of the house moved to a public storage unit. Then he hired a realtor to sell the house, but vandals got to it first. There was now a large mural on the driveway and gang graffiti on the fence and the side of the house. He told the realtor to sell it “as is”, but they declined the listing. Young people were soon seen entering and leaving the house at all hours from a broken-in side door. Two weeks later, it burned to the ground. Kendall took what little money the insurance company paid and sent half of it to Beth. The county sold the property for nonpayment of taxes less than a year later.
Aged forty-one, Robert Kendall felt twice his age. Everything he had ever learned seemed wrong, and everyone he had ever known was gone or had abandoned him. He felt like he was in a world of complete strangers. He decided to move to a place where he could get away from everything: away from people, away from pain, and away from everyday life. He just wanted to be alone.
Rob took a teaching position, for which he was overqualified, at a small state college in rural Idaho named Donald Mackenzie College. He moved there in the winter after Ricky’s death. He purchased a house with twenty-five acres on a mountain, paying considerably less than he would have paid in his old home town. Land and housing were cheaper in Idaho.
The mountain he lived on was not unique to the area. Seen from the air, it probably looked like one in a series of bumps along a 200-mile ridge that climbed out of the broad, low country in the eastern part of the state. The federal government owned most of the mountain as well as the surrounding mountains for miles. It was managed, but mostly ignored, by the Bureau of Land Management which seldom visited the area. A local contractor maintained the few gravel roads that existed, and Kendall lived off of one of those roads. It was a lonely, empty place with no neighbors, and that was the way he wanted it.
For his daily, one-hour commute to work, Rob drove a Subaru Legacy: a sensible all-wheel drive car renowned for its reliability on bad roads and snowy conditions. It was a necessity where he lived. Most of the roads on the mountain were originally logging roads – hasty affairs covered with baseball-sized gravel known as #1 gravel – that allowed heavy equipment and tractor trailer rigs to navigate the tricky terrain of the mountain. Some of the roads, especially those leading to private homes like his, had a top layer of fine gravel to create what passed in those parts for a smooth ride.
Alone up on the mountain, Rob was given to long periods of inactivity and introspection. He often stared into space for hours, unaware of the passage of time. When the weather permitted, he took long, solitary walks, trying to make sense of his loss. The only contact he had with people was when he was shopping or teaching.
Notwithstanding the small size and relative isolation of the college, Prof. Kendall’s students turned out to be sharp and inquisitive. They were mostly upperclassmen on a pre-med track. Rob often shared with them anecdotes from his former work in cancer research, and he challenged them to explore advanced topics, such as immunotherapy and tailored treatments, on their own.
One day, a student presented to the class her research and conclusions about a proposed treatment using microscopic robots to attack cancer cells. Kendall liked her presentation, but felt that it would have been better with some aids to help the students visualize the proposed solution. He learned that the college Computer Science department had a 3D printer that used paraffin to produce three-dimensional solid objects, so he asked them to create for him some scaled-up wax models of a cancer cell. He also contacted Q-Bot Corporation, a company she had mentioned during her presentation, and asked them for more physical detail about their tiny robots. They were happy to share that information with the college, and the Computer Science department was able to create scaled-up models of those as well.
The resulting wax figures of the cancer cell resembled hairy pomander balls the size of a grapefruit. The wax models of the robots, referred to in the literature as “nanobots”, bore a resemblance to fighter jets. They were slightly smaller than the cancer cell, but were accurately scaled relative to it. Prof. Kendall distributed one of each to every student in the class, and found that he had extras. On a whim, he wrapped up one of each model and mailed the package to the CEO of Q-Bot Corporation, along with a note of thanks for their assistance.
The package would pay unexpected dividends. The corporate head of marketing happened to be in the CEO’s office when they received the wax models of their tiny robot and a cancer cell, and he immediately saw their marketing potential. He contacted a supplier of promotional items and giveaways and ordered a thousand plastic models of each for his salesmen to distribute at trade shows and investor meetings. Interest in their product had skyrocketed in response. In gratitude, a few months later the Q-Bot Corporation would pay for Kendall to attend a biotech conference, which just happened to be held in a city near his old home town.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
It was cold and dry on the mountain even though that part of Idaho had gotten more than its fair share of snow that winter. One early March Saturday, with the sun hidden behind a grey sky, Kendall decided to go out for a drive deeper into the mountains. On a previous excursion up into the mountains, he had seen a weathered sign for a public reservoir and park, and this day he decided to go explore it. With a topographical map from the U.S. Geological Survey spread out on his passenger seat, he started driving. After about fifteen miles of twisting mountain roads and brief straightaways, he found himself turning off the main road onto a steep, gravel road with a lake visible well down on his left.
At the bottom of the hill, the road leveled out and turned left across the rock-and-earthen dam that created the lake. The gravel road ended in a cul-de-sac circumscribed by a dozen rough, small boulders broken from the face of the surrounding hills. The reservoir was built by the BLM in the 1950’s for the original purpose of providing firefighting trucks a reliable source of water up on the mountain. The Bureau had shortly thereafter added some picnic tables and a grassy area for a park. They had also stocked the lake with fish and built a concrete platform with a diving board.
Kendall nosed his car up to a boulder that had a sign behind it helpfully labeled “Parking Area”. A well-beaten path led past the sign to a pair of picnic tables nestled in a small grove of trees that looked much older than the reservoir itself. He got out of his car and looked around. The place was deserted. He walked to the concrete platform that began at the water’s edge and jutted out into the water about ten feet. There was a “No Swimming” sign in front of it, and the diving board was long gone. He hopped up onto it and walked to the end, stopping there to survey the lake and its surroundings.
He judged that it was about a fifteen-acre lake. Out in the middle, he could see a vertical drainpipe covered with a metal grate. There was a forest on the far end of the lake that grew right up to the shoreline and covered about a third of it. To his left was a steep hillside with large chunks of exposed, nearly vertical rock face. The right side of the lake was flat and grassy near the picnic area and park, and it rapidly transitioned to tall, dry weeds and bare saplings after fifty yards.
Kendall began hiking around the shore of the reservoir counter-clockwise. The going was easy and he followed a tenuous footpath that sometimes disappeared altogether. After about fifteen minutes of hiking, he entered the forest bordering the lake. Several minutes more of walking and he saw ahead of him the creek that fed the lake. There was not much of a flow, and he could have easily leapt across it. Instead, he crossed using a solitary, sturdy plank of wood that had replaced the long-rotted bridge that originally spanned the creek.
Rob continued through the woods toward the steep side of the lake, slogging through low, damp areas with matted, brown and black leaves and the occasional dead tree lying across the rocky path. As he progressed, the land began to slant upward and he was soon crunching through dead leaves on a dry dirt path. The path rose ten feet above the lake surface, and the slope down to the shore became precariously steep. Trees grew nearly sideways out of the side of the hill, pushing their trunks and limbs out and over the water. He emerged from the forest and found himself walking across a steep, rocky ledge.
Soon, the ledge became a sheer rock face. At places, the trail was little more than a seam where an upper and lower stratum of stone met. Any slip now and there was little to stop him from sliding into the icy water below. As he picked his way gingerly along the rock wall, a distant crunching sound announced the arrival of another vehicle to the reservoir. Rob leaned against the rock face and paused to watch the progress of a care-worn red pickup truck roll slowly across the dam and park alongside his car.
A man and a small boy got out and walked around to the back of the truck. The man lifted a white box out of the truck bed and handed it to the boy. Then he stood looking around while the boy carried the box to one of the picnic tables. He was obviously looking for the owner of the car he was parked next to. Rob looked back at the nearly indistinct path in front of him and carefully made his way to a better stopping point further along the rock face. When he looked back at the parking area again, he saw that the man had spotted him. The man raised his arm and gave him a wave of acknowledgement. Kendall awkwardly returned his wave with his left hand while tightly gripping the rock face with his right. Apparently satisfied, the man then turned around and joined the boy, who was at a picnic table unpacking the box.
Twenty minutes later, Kendall completed his circuit of the lake and was back on level ground. He walked noisily along the loose gravel road towards the parking area. As he approached, the man to whom he had waved strode into the cul-de-sac to meet him. He was tall and burly, wearing a red and black, plaid coat and a weathered baseball cap.
“Morning,” the man greeted him. “Nice day for a walk.”
“Yes,” replied Kendall. “I’ve been waiting for a good day to come down here.”
“Live around here?” the man inquired.
“Yes, about ten miles or so in that direction . . .“ he said, pointing at a vague spot in the sky over the wooded end of the lake, “. . . as the crow flies,” he added. “I moved in at the end of last year.”
Then he extended his hand and said, “By the way, I’m Rob Kendall.”
“Jerry Chapman,” the man replied as he shook his hand. “You the one that bought the old Wheeler place?”
“That’s me,” said Kendall. “Sounds like you know this area pretty well.”
“Born and raised here,” Chapman replied, adding “We live about five miles in that direction,” and pointing over the hillside where the lake road descended.
Nodding at the rock face Rob had just traversed, he smiled and said, “Can’t say I’ve done that lately.”
“Well,” Rob replied sheepishly, “it looked easy starting out.”
The boy had left the picnic table and was now walking towards them.
“This is my son, Ethan,” he said.
With a dejected look on his face, and avoiding Kendall’s gaze, he took shelter behind his father and tugged on one of his back pockets.
“It’s still not working,” he said, pouting.
“This is Mr. Kendall,” his father said. “Say hello to him.”
“Hello,” Ethan said, sullenly staring at the ground.
He was carrying a white, plastic quadrotor: a radio-controlled toy that flew like a helicopter, but had four equal-sized propellers that provided both lift and aerodynamic control.
His father turned to Rob and explained, “He got it for his birthday a few weeks back, but we’ve only flown it a few times. We brought it out here because it drives our dog crazy.”
Ethan set it back down on a patch of dirt and used the controller to try to launch the quadrotor. Three propellers spun, giving off a high-pitched buzzing sound, but the fourth did nothing at all. As the small craft began to lift off, it spun like a top and ignominiously tumbled into the nearby grass.
“Dad!” he cried plaintively. “See? It won’t work!”
“Here, let me have a look,” Kendall offered. “I used to build and fly model airplanes when I was a kid.”
Ethan picked up the toy and handed it to him. They all walked over to the picnic table and sat down. He used the Chapmans’ screwdriver to remove the entire lower half of the quadrotor. He looked over the exposed circuitry doubtfully. The non-turning propeller was obviously the problem.
“Hmm. The motor looks fine. So do the wires,” he said almost to himself.
Then he peered at a small, thumbnail-sized circuit board.
“Here’s your problem,” he said, using the screwdriver to partially lift out of the plastic frame a red wire that terminated in a shiny, metallic bulb. “Bad solder joint to the E-S-C . . . the . . . ah . . . electronic speed controller.”
Setting it back on the picnic table he looked up at them and explained, “That’s essentially what makes it possible for a quadrotor to fly: each of the four motors needs to rapidly adjust its speed to keep the aircraft in balance. The E-S-C makes those adjustments. There’s one for each propeller motor, and this one is not working,” he said, pointing to the now-protruding red wire.
“Can you fix it?” Ethan asked, looking imploringly up at him.
Rob looked back into the boy’s eyes, and, at that moment, he recalled looking into the eyes of his young son, Ricky. He noticed how Ethan clung to his father, just as Ricky had done with him when still a child. That memory, forgotten for so long, now seemed like yesterday. Rob took a deep breath and suppressed a sigh of grief.
“I think that we can jerry-rig it for now and get you flying,” Rob assured him. “The wire and the controller are not moving parts, so all they need is something to force them together to maintain that contact.”
Kendall went to his car and returned with a tablet of notebook paper. He tore off a piece of a blank page and crumpled it into a small ball. He pressed the red wire back into place against its contact point with the tiny circuit board, and then he wedged the small paper ball on top of the wire. Reaching over to the remote control, Rob gently nudged the accelerator and all four propellers responded instantly. There were smiles all around.
Rob snapped back on the lower portion of the little aircraft and screwed it securely in place. Then he handed it back to Ethan, saying “Let’s give it a try.”
The two men stood back while Ethan proudly carried it to the grass nearby and gently set it down. He returned to them and picked up the remote.
“Ready?” he asked excitedly.
“Ready!” they both replied.
Ethan gave the quadrotor power and all four propellers began buzzing loudly as they spun. Next, as he worked the remote control, the craft lifted off the ground and hovered steadily at eye level. Ethan had a broad smile on his face.
“Show Mr. Kendall what she can do!” his father encouraged him.
For the next few minutes, Ethan sent the quadrotor to the lake’s edge and back, and had it trace circles and then a square around the grassy park area. Then he sent it straight up, higher than the treetops, and brought it back down again to hover in front of them at eye level. Finally, he brought it gently down for a landing and then walked over and picked it up.
“If you fly it gently, that fix should hold for a little while,” Kendall said. Then, without realizing it, he heard himself add, “Bring it over to my place this afternoon and I’ll give it a proper soldering job.”
Ethan beamed at Kendall and turned eagerly to his father. “Can we dad?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “Mr. Kendall here’s probably a very busy man. We’ve already taken up enough of his Saturday morning.”
“Oh no!” Rob insisted. “It would be no trouble at all. Besides,” he added, “I don’t like leaving a job unfinished.”
Jerry Chapman looked out over the lake and then looked back into his son’s pleading face.
Turning back to Kendall, he said, “Well, alright!” and warmly shook Kendall’s hand. “Ethan’s got some chores to do before lunch, so how about we come by sometime after one?”
Kendall agreed, and they exchanged telephone numbers before he drove off.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
The old Wheeler place had a detached garage with a wide overhead door and a side door leading to the house. Kendall stood in the entrance where the concrete slab met the gravel driveway, and the pale afternoon sunlight fell deep inside the garage. Beside him, on a sturdy work table, was everything he thought he needed to repair the drone: a soldering iron, a few spools of solder, and a collection of screwdrivers. Kendall had placed three chairs around the table, and had run a heavy-duty extension cord from a wall socket at the back of the garage to a neat coil underneath the table.
He watched the Chapmans’ truck turn off the main road and onto his long gravel driveway. Smiling and waving as they approached, he motioned for them to pull all the way up. As they got out of the truck, he stepped forward to meet them.
“How did your quadrotor get on with that fix?” He asked.
“It worked great!” the boy replied excitedly, but then he stopped with a quizzical expression.
Ethan was staring at Kendall’s red, swollen eyes.
“Oh, don’t worry about this,” he said breezily, waving a hand toward his face. “I was testing the soldering iron with the garage all closed up, and I’m afraid the smoke stung my eyes pretty bad.” He continued, with a sweep of his arm, “But as you can see, my work area has plenty of ventilation now.”
The boy took his explanation at face value and began looking around. But when the elder Chapman stepped forward to shake hands, it was clear to him that Kendall had been crying. Jerry put a hand on Rob’s shoulder while shaking his hand.
“You sure you’re all right?” he asked, with a look of concern.
“Fine. Yes, thanks.” Rob answered hurriedly.
Turning back to Ethan, Rob said, “Why don’t you bring your quadrotor over to the table and we’ll patch her up with a real fix.”
Ethan ran to the truck and was soon back, carrying the toy and a little manual that came with it. All three sat around the table and Rob leafed through the manual until he came to a schematic of the quadrotor. He ran his index finger across the drawing, saying to himself “Um hmm . . . Um hmm,” as he traced each part to its description.
Finished, he looked up at Ethan and asked “May I see it?”
Ethan handed him the drone. Kendall turned it over in his hands, comparing it with the drawing in front of him.
“Well, it seems fairly straightforward,” he said.
Handing a pair of safety glasses to each of them, he set the small craft down and picked up a Philips-head screwdriver that perfectly fit the chassis screws. He expertly loosened the screws and, once again, removed the lower plastic housing. Then he gently dug out the paper wad that he had earlier wedged in, and he blew on the tiny circuit board to remove any dirt or dust.
“Ok, now we begin,” he said.
He leaned over and plugged the soldering iron into the extension cord lying under the table, waiting while the tool’s metal tip heated up. Then, with the copper wire making proper contact with the ESC, he rested the chisel-shaped tip of the hot soldering iron on top of that point. Next, he pushed one end of a length of solder against the chisel tip. A small line of smoke with a faint pine smell rose from the solder as the hot tip turned the end of the solder into a reflective silver blob resembling liquid mercury. He lifted the iron and used its tip to lightly tap the metallic blob flat, and then he gently blew on the hot joint, solidifying it instantly. That fixed the immediate problem, but for good measure, he checked and re-soldered the other three ESC’s before reassembling the toy.
“There,” he proclaimed. “Better than the day it left the factory! Shall we try it out?”
Ethan eagerly nodded while his father and Kendall smiled. Ethan carried it out to the lawn next to the driveway and turned on the radio controller. When he gave it power, all four propellers turned uniformly strong. Ethan had it lift off and was soon putting it through its paces.
“You wanna try it?” the boy offered.
Kendall was delighted. He flew it back and forth at eye level, then he sent it as high as the treetops and brought it back down to the ground.
“Shall we see how well it maneuvers?” he asked, already sending it aloft again.
They all turned and watched as he sent it slowly hovering at eye level along the outside of the garage.
“I’d like to try flying it through the side door,” Kendall said. “But I don’t want to risk damaging it.”
“Oh, don’t worry about hitting anything”, Jerry said. “They think of everything. This one comes with some technology, where you can tell it to fly straight through a wall, and it will fly over or around it.”
“Collision avoidance?” Kendall suggested.
“That’s right!” Jerry said brightly. “They’ve got all kinds of cool built into this thing.”
Kendall left the quadrotor hovering at eye level and set the controls down. Then he tried to walk into it, face-first. The craft immediately moved back. He advanced again and, this time, he tried to swat it backhand. It buzzed noisily away, just out of reach. When he dropped his arm to his side, it rushed right back like a friendly carpenter bee and hovered in front of his face.
Leaving the quadrotor buzzing in place, he walked back to Jerry. “What happens if you fly it over a hill and you lose contact with it? Won’t you lose it?”
“No,” replied the father. “If it gets cut off from the radio controller, it’ll use GPS to return to the place it started from. It can also be pre-programed to return to a specific GPS waypoint. You can even tell it to fly a route just like it was on a compass course.”
“Um hmm,” Kendall continued a while in thought. “And what happens if you cross paths with a moving truck?”
“You saw for yourself,” he replied. “Trying to hit that thing in flight is like trying to open the refrigerator door before the light turns on – you just can’t do it.”
They spent another half-hour flying it around Kendall’s house, then Ethan’s father announced that they had better get going home. Kendall walked them to their pickup. Father and son thanked Kendall again, and Ethan even gave Kendall a hug before climbing into the truck. He stood and waved until they went out of sight, then he closed up the garage and went to his house.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Kendall had just had a nice dinner with the Chapman family. It was the best home-cooked meal that he had had in ages, as he told the lady of the house, Suzie Chapman. After dinner, while Suzie cleared the table, Jerry invited Kendall to stroll around the field behind their house. Ethan and a chocolate Labrador retriever tagged along until the father turned to his son.
“Ethan,” he said, “would you mind helping your mother clean up while I show the professor around? We’ll be back in time for dessert.”
The boy called his dog and the two of them ran back to the house.
As they walked, Jerry put a brotherly arm around Kendall’s shoulders and leaned in to talk to him.
“Hey listen, a friend of mine works maintenance down there at the college. He told me he heard what happened to your boy last year. I just wanted to tell you that I’m real sorry about it.” Then he added, “I don’t know what I would do if anything like that happened to Ethan.”
Rob looked into his eyes, and then glanced questioningly back towards the house.
Jerry shook his head, “Don’t worry, I didn’t . . . I . . . I couldn’t tell her or my boy. He’s too young to understand and she would just be too upset.”
Rob silently nodded his gratitude.
“I can tell you, I’m pretty upset,” Jerry continued. Then he looked at Rob with burning resolve. “You know, my daddy always told me, if there are snakes in the backyard, you go out back and stomp on ‘em.”
Kendall took a long weekend, traveling away from his house for four days. He left behind his cell phone, but brought with him a notebook with a checklist – and several thousand dollars in cash. He returned the evening of the fourth day with a number of boxes in his car. He backed into his garage and unloaded and stacked his acquisitions on the workbench.
There was a pile of four different brand name, ready-to-fly quadrotors in their original packaging. Next to these were two unopened boxes containing radio-controlled model airplanes: one, a glider; the other, propeller-driven. Accompanying them was a shoe box with an assortment of hard plastic propellers.
There was also a box holding a jumble of electrical parts and supplies: spools of fine, insulated wire, radio-activated electric motors called servomotors or servos, and actuators, devices which move in response to an electric current.
The last box had no lid. It held a dozen used smartphones from a number of different manufacturers. Included in this box were two tool kits for disassembling and repairing smartphones. Each kit contained tiny screwdrivers, tweezers, plastic sticks to safely remove components without damage, and suction cups to remove glass screens.
Kendall threw a heavy tarpaulin over everything on the workbench and closed and locked his garage.
Every evening for the next few weeks after work, he went out into his fields and flew one of his new model aircraft. He methodically logged how each performed under a variety of conditions, keeping track of speed, battery endurance, maneuverability, and maximum take-off weight. The last factor he measured by attaching small, heavy loads to the aircraft, eventually adding an extra battery to determine its effect on performance and flight duration. Towards the end of that period, he also began to experiment by swapping in different propeller sets on each of the aircraft.
One day at Kendall’s office, a large, heavy cardboard box was delivered from a business named Creative Candle Supplies. He set it aside without comment, taking it home at the end of the day. That evening, he carried the package out to his garage. He cut open the box and scooped out the packing peanuts to reveal eighteen candle molds. He took one out and set it on his work bench to examine it. It had a square base, a cylindrical body over a foot tall, and a cap on top. There were small holes in the base and cap, used to center the wick while a candle was being made, and there was a funnel-like opening on the side of the cap for pouring hot paraffin into the mold.
He had in his hands the largest mold in the package; it would produce a candle that was exactly a foot long and thirty millimeters in diameter. The other seventeen molds were the same height and shape, but descending in girth. Each would produce a cylindrical candle with a diameter one millimeter smaller than the previous one, giving him a range of thicknesses from thirty millimeters down to thirteen. He removed all of them from the box and lined them up against the back of his workbench. Then he stuffed all of the packing material back into the box, which he put back in his car.
Kendall enjoyed a measure of prominence at the college, and so, the next day when he asked the Computer Science department for the loan of their 3D printer for a week, they were happy to set it up in his office. He had earlier combed through many websites with free downloadable STL files – the universal file format for 3D printing – and he had put on a disk a file describing the object that he wanted to print. He stayed in his office after hours several nights that week, printing the same thing over and over again: a thin rod with raised, twisting stripes running its full length. As each was completed, he placed it in a tray in a cooler, and every night he took the cooler home. When he was finished printing, he had two dozen paraffin rods on cookie sheets in his refrigerator at home.
The rest of the week, he spent his evenings modifying the candle molds. Using a vise and a drill press, he carefully expanded the wick holes in the molds so that each could accommodate a paraffin rod instead of a wick. By Friday, he was ready to put everything together.
Kendall spread out the heavy canvas tarpaulin on his garage floor and assembled on it a smelly collection of cans and bottles containing liquid polymers, solvents, hardening agents, and a release agent, used to simplify removing the finished product from a mold. On the work bench he had a cookie sheet with his paraffin rods.
He went to his work table, picked up a mold and sprayed a light coating of the release agent on the insides of the mold and cap. Next, he selected one of his striped wax rods and seated it in the base of the mold. After centering the rod in the cap, he secured the cap to the top of the mold. He did this with each of his eighteen molds, using up most of his paraffin rods.
With the garage door wide open and the side door and window opened as well, Kendall poured a white-yellow polymer solution into a small, metal pail. To this, he added another liquid, a hardening agent, and as he stirred the mixture, the fumes stung his eyes and burned his nostrils. Stepping back, he consulted a timer and then poured the pail’s contents into a mold, filling it to the top. Then he went back to his collection of chemicals and began the mixing process anew. He repeated this for each mold, taking long breaks outside the garage to give himself some fresh air. After two hours, he had filled all eighteen molds.
Early Saturday morning after breakfast, Kendall pulled apart the candle molds and extracted eighteen hard plastic cylinders, setting each in the bottom of a metal wash tub. Then he started water boiling in four large stew pots on his stove top. While he waited for them to come to boil, he carried the wash tub outside in the yard and set it on the ground next to a picnic table. Once the water was boiling, he made several trips from the kitchen, retrieving the large pots with oven mitts and pouring them, one after the other, into the washtub.
When he had emptied the last pot of boiling water and all of the plastic cylinders had been submerged for a few minutes, he used a pair of metal tongs to pick one of them up. He held it vertically over the tub to let it drain out, and then he set it on an old towel on the picnic table. Still wearing his oven mitts, he picked up the cylinder, pointed it towards the sunlit horizon and looked through one end of it. The striped wax rod at the core of the plastic cylinder had melted completely away, leaving in its place a hole running its full length. Kendall closed one eye as he looked through the void and he saw that the walls of the hole had a twisting, spiral pattern. He put it down and began fishing out the rest of the cylinders, setting each one on the table to dry.
Later that morning, he picked up the thickest cylinder – thirty millimeters in diameter – and walked it through some tall weeds to the base of a small hill on his property. There, he had set up a lawn chair and a folding table as well, along with some other tools and supplies. The tarpaulin he had used in the garage was now spread out as a ground cloth, its dense, heavy canvas easily flattening the weeds. A second tarp, a sand bag, and an eight-foot sheet of 3/4-inch plywood, sat on top of the first tarp.
Kendall held the rod up to the sky and looked through the hole to satisfy himself that it was free of obstructions. Then he used a bungie cord to secure it to the sand bag, which he set on the ground cloth with the rod on top. Making certain that the far end of the rod was pointing at the base of the hill, he pushed a .22 rifle cartridge into its back end and snapped a thick, hard plastic cap behind it. Two electric wires ran from the cap back to his lawn chair. Buried inside the cap was an electric actuator called a linear accelerator, an electric motor that creates motion in a straight line. In this instance, when the actuator received a current, it would drive a tiny steel rod against the lip of the cartridge with seven pounds of pressure – just enough to discharge it.
He draped the second canvas tarp over the entire cylinder-and-sandbag assembly, so that the open end protruded less than an inch. Then he walked back to the lawn chair, dragging the plywood with him. He leaned the heavy board against the chair with its long edge on the ground, putting a barrier between himself and his experiment. There was a heavy battery on the ground in front of him, and a model rocket launch system on the seat of the lawn chair. Kendall turned the key on the launch system and the launch button lit up. Then he crouched over a little more and pressed the button. He was instantly rewarded with a muffled pop!
He had built a battery-powered plastic rifle.
He stood up and walked over to the sand bag. Everything was where it had been before, but when he pulled back the canvas cover, he saw that the cap at the back end of the barrel – the breech – had popped off, and was lying on the ground cloth with an empty brass casing nearby. He picked up the empty shell and rolled it in his fingers, examining the back of the rim. He was pleased to see a deep dent where the firing pin had struck it. Then he pulled the barrel out from the bungie cord and looked through it. He saw light at the other end. Since the bullet was not on the ground cloth, he surmised that it must have gone through the barrel. He would have to work on a better way to secure the breech.
Kendall took the breech back to his folding table and tried a different configuration, but a few minutes later, his test yielded the same result. He spent the rest of the of the morning testing: firing, retrieving the breech, and returning to his table. Sometimes he walked all the way back to the garage to get other materials. Finally, he hit on a reliable, sturdy way to secure the breech fast to the end of the barrel, and when he fired it, he heard the report one would expect from a regular rifle. He fired fifteen shots, each time removing the breech and the empty shell, and reloading. He found that the breech held. Satisfied, he went in for lunch.
He returned a few hours later pushing a wheel barrow lined with an old towel, bringing the whole collection of plastic gun barrels to his test area. He picked them up and arranged them on the folding table, lining them up from thinnest to thickest. This time, he started with the thinnest barrel, the thirteen millimeter one. Crouching behind his plywood shelter, when he pressed the launch button, he heard a muffled pop! Examining the barrel, he found that it had completely shattered just forward of the breech. Kendall had fully expected that, so he was neither surprised nor disappointed. He simply removed the breech from the remnants of the back of the barrel, tossed the pieces of the shattered cylinder into the wheel barrow, and picked up the fourteen-millimeter barrel for testing.
Kendall blew through several more barrels before one finally held, firing its bullet with full force into the side of the hill. On close examination, however, he found a sizable crack in the barrel. He tossed it into the wheelbarrow and then went through two more sizes before he had a barrel that would consistently fire without cracking.
A narrow, smooth sable road wound gently through verdant, rolling meadows sprinkled with tall shrubs and punctuated by copses of mature trees. It was a municipal cemetery that had been established over 100 years earlier, comprising more than twenty acres of landscaped and well-tended park land. Six-foot tall brick walls separated it from a surrounding forest which would never be built into homes; nobody wanted to live next to a graveyard no matter how quiet the neighbors.
Kendall’s car followed the road, taking a fork to climb a broad, sparsely-forested hill. He had not been to visit his son’s grave since leaving town, and what he found distressed him. In contrast to the neatly-kept plots in the rest of the cemetery, Ricky’s grave had been vandalized and neglected. Cigarette butts, bottle tops, and brown and green shards of glass littered the patch of grass over the grave. Kendall saw fragments of the milk-white vase that he and his wife had lovingly placed there the day of his burial. A foil label with shattered glass still attached was draped across the headstone where a beer bottle had been smashed.
Gang graffiti had been spray-painted on Ricky’s gravestone, as well as those of Kendall’s parents. Their names and epitaphs were obscured by grotesquely-smiling faces and drawings of hands flashing gang signals. Scrawled words and short phrases accompanied the vandalism. Kendall did not understand them, but he understood that they were taunts directed at his dead son.
Rob distractedly brushed the broken glass and litter off of Ricky’s tombstone with the same tender affection he used to brush mulch out of his son’s hair at the playground. Then he got back into his car and headed to his hotel room.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Kendall looked up from his smartphone and noticed the Q-Bot sales representative approaching his table in the hotel ballroom. He glanced at his screen, taking one last look at the body of the gang leader sprawled lifelessly on the dirt yard of his old neighborhood, and then he turned off the phone. Tucking it inside his sport coat, he stood to greet the Q-Bot representative.
“Professor Kendall! Good to finally meet you in person! Are you enjoying the conference?” he asked.
“Yes, very much so. Thank you for arranging for me to attend,” Kendall replied.
“It’s our way of saying thank you! That was a great idea, and it’s helping us to attract a lot of attention for our product line. It is also attracting some venture capital people who may want to get involved in our second-round financing,” the man continued. “You know, our founders still have very strong ties to academia, and they understand that many good ideas are born and sometimes die before they get some traction. We want to encourage it where we can.”
“Well, the college shares your views,” Kendall replied.
He and Kendall went on to discuss the day’s events at the conference.
“You know what?” the salesman said as if a new thought had just struck him. “The company has a hospitality suite set up. I’ll come by your room and get you after things settle down, and I’ll introduce you around.”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
After he had said his good nights at the Q-Bot hospitality suite, Kendall rode the elevator down to his floor and went to his room. He thought about checking his telephone, but he instead turned on the television in time to catch the 10 o-clock news. The top story was a shooting in his old neighborhood. A reporter was standing in front of crime scene tape. Over the man’s left shoulder, a squad car with flashing lights was parked diagonally across the road, blocking traffic. Small groups of police in reflective vests were huddling in different parts of the street and yard. The television camera swung around to show a line of officers walking abreast in the street, conducting what would be a fruitless search for shell casings.
Kendall turned off the news and went to bed, sleeping soundly. The next morning at breakfast, he opened his telephone app and brought up the live feed from the wide angle camera. The yellow-and-black crime scene tape was still strung around the yard and attached to orange traffic cones in the road. A police car was parked against the curb in front of the house where the body had been discovered. Traffic crept past. A knot of unkempt young men sporting gang tattoos and looking sleep-deprived stood on the street corner a few houses down from the scene of the shooting, waving or walking up to speak with cars they knew; glaring with suspicion and hostility at those they did not recognize. Kendall turned off his telephone.
Kendall had a full day of presentations to attend, but he first decided to take a stroll around the hotel. He picked up a local paper in the lobby. The death of Alex, the gang leader, was front-page news. There was a photo of him – a very generous depiction of a man who had risen to the top of a violent street gang involved with murder, drugs, prostitution, and the protection racket. Kendall tossed the paper aside and headed to the conference hall.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
The cell phone alarm awakened Kendall at 3a.m. He did not bother to turn on the lights, but put on his glasses and tapped the glowing smartphone screen in front of him. He once again studied the video feed from the wide-angle camera. The police were gone, as was the crime scene tape. On the crest of the hill, at the base of the lamp post in the front yard, he saw flickering lights surrounding what looked like a large white sign.
Switching to the telescoping camera, Kendall zoomed in to the white square, and Alex’s face suddenly filled his screen. It was the same friendly photo that the local paper had run with its coverage of his death. Someone had had the photo enlarged, printed on poster board, and taped it to the lamp post. Kendall zoomed out a little and saw the source of the flickering light: a haphazard collection of candles arranged at the base of the photo, along with flowers, balloons, cards, and a teddy bear. A solitary gang member stood vigil over the shrine – actually, he was dozing in an alcohol-induced nap in a lawn chair on the driveway.
Kendall closed the video feed and opened another application. He saw that the battery on his aircraft was fully charged. He tapped on a “home” icon, and was prompted by the question: “Clear to execute return?” He tapped the “Yes” button.
On top of the house opposite the crime scene, tiny blades clipped cotton threads, and the two round, lead split shot rolled down the roof to the rain gutter. Their release caused a coil spring inside a roller mechanism to retrieve the flexible solar panel like a window shade. With a soft, electric whine, the faux vent then unfolded itself into its hovercraft configuration. The propellers began whirring and the anchoring legs retracted. The craft lifted and instantly flew back the way it had come, passing over the backyard as it increased speed and altitude, and was soon hurtling through the air comfortably above the treetops. The wings then swung forward and locked, and the three front propellers tilted forward ninety degrees to provide horizontal thrust. The rear propeller retracted into the tail, and the craft transitioned to a fixed-wing aircraft.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Sitting at his office desk back in Idaho the following week, Kendall used an electronic tablet to watch his hometown evening news broadcast. A news anchor somberly introduced the top story of the evening. “Family, friends, and the community are coming together to remember a man known to many simply as Alex. He was killed in a shooting in his own neighborhood last week. News 8’s Howard Wilson has more on the emotional gathering at the very spot where Alex’s life was taken.”
A video clip showed an old woman standing near the front yard shrine to Alex, her shoulders wrapped in a dark shawl, speaking in a foreign tongue while subtitles flashed a translation across the bottom of the screen: “I love my son. I miss my son. I am hurt.”
“The mother of Alex, here for a candlelight vigil,” Wilson began. “She had a message for the young people in the community.”
Subtitles again ran as the woman spoke: “I want people to pray for my son.”
The reporter continued: “Alex was killed Thursday evening sometime after 8 o-clock here on Elm Street. No arrest has been made.”
The man then turned back to the grieving mother and asked, “What would you say to the person who did this?”
Subtitles again as she spoke: “God will judge you harshly.”
Looking back at the camera, the reporter said, “Alex was remembered as a caring father figure to the young people in the community.”
The news showed another person being interviewed. Subtitles: “He was always smiling. The community is devastated. That is why you see the outpouring of love and support.”
The reporter described the gathering, “Dozens of people from the neighborhood stood holding balloons, crucifixes, and candles. There were prayers and a moment of silence. His mother is dealing with the harsh reality that her son is gone.”
A tearful, heavy-set woman in the crowd was speaking into a megaphone that someone had brought to the vigil. The news report broadcast her voice while subtitles translated her words: “Alex didn’t deserve this. Nobody deserved this . . .”
Left unmentioned by the news was that Alex had risen in the gang ranks by killing a government witness. The victim and his family had just pulled into their driveway after a dinner at the grandparents’ house, and the children were playing with toys in the back seat. Alex had stepped out from behind a bush and shot the man several times. As his victim stumbled out of his car and onto the ground, Alex shot him fifteen more times while the man’s horrified children, a four-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, screamed inside their car. That accounted for one of the teardrop tattoos on Alex’s face.
Those were his early days. Back then, he and his gang killed for notoriety and territory, they killed over drugs, and, as with the government witness, they killed to eliminate those cooperating with law enforcement. By the time Alex and his gang had settled into the relative paradise of Kendall’s suburban neighborhood, their reputation alone served to maintain their territory and to advertise their drug and prostitution market.
Kendall stopped the news report and looked at the rest of the web page. Under the heading “Related Stories”, he clicked on the link entitled “Community Leader Laid to Rest”. A video began to play.
There was a woman standing at the gates of the cemetery where his son, Ricky, was interred.
“We’re here, reporting live at noon, outside the gates of Cedar Hills Cemetery, awaiting the funeral cortege of a man most people in this community knew simply as ‘Alex’. Out of respect for the family and friends of the deceased, this is as far as the police will go, and as far as we will be allowed to go as well. The funeral mass for Alex went off at eleven this morning. While we’re waiting for the procession to arrive, we’re going to play a short clip of the Mass. It was an outpouring of love and remembrance by a community in need of healing…”
Kendall skipped over that video and went to the next. The local television station had had their national affiliate send a reporter to Alex’s home country to do some interviews in the village where he grew up. In the town square, there was a shrine with the same photograph of Alex displayed at the scene of his shooting. Surrounded by candles, a small table held a votive offering of a cup of strong liquor and a chicken leg – his favorite meal, the reporter sympathetically explained.
Kendall turned off the tablet, stunned. His son’s death had been cruelly anonymous; it had not even made the evening news. Yet, this pusher of drugs, this trafficker of teenage girls for sex, this destroyer of lives, and this murderer was being remembered fondly by the news media. The community of miscreants who had destroyed his neighborhood, murdered his son, and burned down his house was celebrating the memory of this gang leader. After they killed Ricky, they had laughed and waved. All of them. Kendall thought back to Chapman’s words: Snakes in the backyard. Rob hadn’t stomped on them; he had only stomped on one.
Fuzzy aquamarine orbs, suspended in a nearly transparent, grey liquid, moved lazily across a giant video monitor at the front of a darkened conference room. The motion of the spheres was reflected in reverse on Kendall’s eyeglasses at the back of the room as he stood watching in the semi-darkness. He and his graduate assistant, Alan, were there to assess the clarity and response rate of their newly-installed video equipment.
The tiny campus of Donald MacKenzie College couldn’t believe their luck. Just the previous year, the biology department had hired Professor Kendall, an overqualified introvert who inspired his students to excel. Now, their newest professor had landed a fully-funded, multi-year private research grant from a west coast biotech firm named Q-Bot Corporation. The college would be working in cooperation with them to test the proposition of employing microscopic robots in the fight against cancer. Over the winter break, an entire floor of an academic building was renovated. There was now a modern laboratory with a full complement of precision instruments to support cancer research. There was also an interactive conference room with advanced video teleconferencing capabilities, including a monitor at the front of the room that was capable of displaying 3D content.
The benefits of the grant inured to the entire community as well. Q-Bot ran several hundred miles of fiber optic cable, connecting the college town directly to a main internet artery that would facilitate rapid data exchange and real time video teleconferencing. In the spring semester, Prof. Kendall would be leading a team of students on their campus and two rural, satellite campuses doing basic research on nanobots interacting with blood and cancer cells.
“Our software displays action in a three-dimensional area without reference to anything outside of that space,” explained a disembodied, omnipresent voice. “We start with the premise that it is an empty universe, and you provide the stars and planets and their locations. It will accept any data feed, which, in this case, means your cell and nanobot data.”
The voice belonged to Toshiro Himura, who went by the name Tosh. He worked for VR128, a Boston-based software company specializing in virtual and enhanced reality software for the biological sciences. Tosh was the leader of a team tasked with interpreting and visually rendering scientific data across multiple video devices. His voice was being broadcast over the theater-quality “surround sound” system that was integrated with the immersive video experience he was demonstrating to Kendall and Alan.
Kendall glanced at Alan to see that he was following along with the demonstration.
“Could you expound on the data feed, Tosh?” the professor asked as he walked toward the front of the room.
Microphones installed throughout the room easily picked up his voice and transmitted it back to Boston.
“Okay,” Tosh said solicitously, “here’s a down-to-earth example: Let’s say you have a bunch of hens in a fenced-in yard and you want to keep track of both the chickens and the eggs they lay. You would just need sensors that track the chickens as they move and could also spot the eggs as they were laid.”
He continued, “The data would just be a data stream – or actually, several simultaneous data streams – of three-dimensional coordinates. Our software can take those streams and display in real time and in three dimensions the action in your chicken yard.”
“Tell us again how you think your software can help us,” Kendall asked, now walking to a corner of the conference room.
“Sure,” came the confident reply. “In your case, you’ve got a lab sample with some healthy cells, some cancer cells, and a group of nanobots all swimming in a couple droplets of blood. Right?” he continued. “Now, your sensors aren’t going to take video of that action. Right? They’re just going to report the presence and location of any of the cells and ‘bots several times a second.”
“Ok . . .” the professor said as he walked to another corner.
“Right! So, what our software does is it takes all of those data streams – which come from a three-dimensional system – and it projects them into our own three-dimensional system that can represent the individual players any way you want.”
“For example . . .” Kendall prompted as he rejoined Alan at the back of the room.
“Sure! So, to give you the funny example that we use at tech conferences, we can display the chickens as little Pac-Mans – you know, those little circles moving around with mouths? Right? And the eggs are actually not gobbled up, they’re left behind. But anyway, we represent the eggs as little cherries or something like that.”
“But Pac-Man is a two-dimensional game,” Alan protested.
“Well, it’s actually now a three-dimensional game,” Tosh corrected him.
“I think my assistant’s point is: we need to be certain that we can track and display everything in three dimensions. And in real time,” The professor added.
“Right,” said his assistant.
“Not a problem,” said Tosh.
“And your program will also control the ‘bots,” Kendall added.
“What?” came the startled reply.
“It is not going to be a very interesting display in two dimensions or three if all our nanobots do is just sit there while the healthy cells and the cancer cells move around.” Kendall pointed out.
“But you already have the manufacturer’s software to control the ‘bots,” Tosh protested.
“True,” said the professor. “But what sense does it make for us to use one program to drive the ‘bots and another one to see where we are going?” he asked rhetorically.
“Why doesn’t VR128 and Q-Bot Corporation get together and give us one, easy-to implement program?” Kendall continued. “It should be able to simultaneously send, say, a dozen data feeds out – to control the ‘bots – and at the same time, should receive and process, I don’t know, maybe sixty-four data feeds in. What do you think?”
“I dunno . . .” came the doubtful reply. “That might take some doing . . .”
“Tell Q-Bot that’s what we want. What they need,” Kendall corrected himself. “I’m sure they’ll work with you to make it happen.”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Kendall had his entire student team assembled, five in the conference room, and three working remotely from the MacKenzie College satellite campuses in other parts of the state. They had all studied the problem in theory, and the professor now explained the actual mechanics of their task.
“It would take up too much bandwidth to stream actual video of the ‘bots and the cancer cells – that would be like pulling an elephant through a garden hose. So, instead, what we do is stream their positions. The sensors surrounding the slide send the coordinates in three dimensions of both the cells and the ‘bots. The software projects single shapes – triangular solids for ‘bots and different types of spheres for the cells.”
He turned on the monitor to reveal the universe in which his students would be working. The software had assigned colors and shapes to their three items of interest. As in the initial demonstration, cancer cells were represented by spiked, aquamarine spheres, resembling the unripe fruit of a sweet gum tree. One cancer cell had just completed the process of dividing and the two resulting cells had commenced drifting away from each other.
Red blood cells were depicted slightly smaller than the cancer cells, and looked like tiny, red inflatable wading pools. Plasma, the liquid portion of blood that the cells were floating in, was represented by a light grey that was ninety-five percent transparent, allowing all of the action to be clearly observed.
Kendall went on to explain that, while they did not need precise dimensions for the cancer cells, the center of the spiked blobs marked the main concentration of the cell and where they should direct their efforts. He added, “The sensors are also able to loosely gauge the vitality of the cancer cell, so when a bot injects it and weakens or kills it, the fuzzy blue-green ball turns grey.”
Each nanobot was displayed as a black space ship in the shape of an isosceles triangle, slightly longer than it was broad. A short, red line protruded from its prow, representing a hollow lance. When its operator gave the command, the nanobot’s lance would snap forward to impale a cancer cell, inject it with a toxin, and then retract to its original position. A letter combined with a number in parentheses was superimposed over each nanobot as it propelled itself across the screen:
The letter identified the pilot, and the number indicated the amount of poison doses remaining in the nanobot.
After some last minute adjustments, they were ready for their first session.
“Okay, everybody! Here we go!” Kendall announced.
“Woo-hoo!” came a yell over the new conference room sound system. “Let’s kick some cancer cell butt!”
Instead of looking at the monitor at the front of the room, the professor sat at the back of the room using an electronic tablet, rotating his view of the simulated video to watch the action from different angles. A black delta moved tentatively toward one of the cancer cells, but moved past it. Then it backed up, adjusted, and moved forward again. This time, it moved right up next to a cell. The protruding red line momentarily flashed, indicating that the nanobot had injected a cancer cell with the toxin. The cell visibly shuddered and transitioned to a motionless, dull grey.
“Yes!” a voice from one of the satellite campuses exulted. “First blood!”
The unmistakable voice of the actor, Robert Duvall, crackled throughout the conference room: “Outstanding red team. Outstanding! Get you a case of beer for that one!”
The students laughed and cheered.
Prof. Kendall permitted himself a brief smile before frowning and clearing his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are trying to save lives here. Let’s try to give this exercise the dignity it deserves,” he admonished them. The students in the room quieted down and quickly assumed a more serious demeanor.
The rest of the session continued with the occasional outburst of victory, but mostly with curses as the students vainly tried to maneuver their nanobots in for the kill. Some ran off the screen, never to be seen again. Others clumsily ran into healthy cells, or into each other, breaking off the lance or leaving it bent at a crazy, useless angle. Many released the injection too soon or too late. After a half hour, the professor ended the session.
“Alright team. That’s all for now. I’m going to tally the results over the weekend and on Monday we’ll go over it.”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Kendall returned from another multi-day trip away from home, again carrying packages and boxes of things that he had purchased while he was away. He now had a small squadron of quadrotors. He had also purchased a second-hand nail gun. Called a powder-actuated nail gun, it used a .22 caliber cartridge to drive nails into concrete and stone.
Kendall disassembled the device and removed the mechanism for feeding and firing the cartridges. Opening the owner’s manual, he compared the exploded view of the parts on the manual to the parts in front of him. Satisfied that he was not missing anything, he began carefully measuring and jotting down the dimensions and thicknesses of the mechanisms.
He retrieved the candle mold with which he had created his electric rifle, and every evening he mixed and poured a single cylinder. This time, however, he made the hard polymer gun barrels only four inches long, and with a smooth bore, not rifled as before.
On his workbench were several shiny cardboard boxes, each the size of a building brick. Writing on the sides of the boxes described their contents as .22 short ammunition.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
His team had just finished another simulation.
“Well, what did you think of that one?” Prof. Kendall asked.
“Not bad,” said one.
“We’re getting better,” said another.
“We can use any data stream we want, as long as it’s a three-dimensional coordinate system. Isn’t that right Tosh? . . . Tosh? Are you there?” Kendall asked, directing his voice toward the ceiling of the conference room.
A distracted voice came over the conference room speakers. “Oh! Sorry. . . . Uh . . . what was the question?” Tosh asked.
“What did you think of the action this time?” the professor asked.
“Uh . . . good! It was good. Ah . . . but it was strange. . .” he observed. “The cancer cells kept moving even after they were zapped.”
Turning to the students in the conference room, Kendall asked “Would you all like to see some actual video of your ‘bots interacting with the cancer cells?”
“Sure,” was the collective reply.
Kendall tapped a command to change the video being projected across the monitor and all of their screens. To everybody’s surprise, they saw a fenced-in chicken yard with eight radio-controlled toy pickup trucks chasing the birds. When a pickup got close enough to a chicken, a little tube protruding from its top sprayed the chicken with a short spurt of bright dye. They all laughed. Each truck had its own color.
“Awesome!” exclaimed Tosh.
A hen strutted past the video monitor with an affronted air and a riot of bright-colored spots on its white feathers. “I guess that cancer cell is particularly resistant to treatment!” a student chimed in, to raucous laughter.
“How’d you do it?” demanded another.
“Data streams,” replied the professor. “Right Tosh?”
“Uh . . . yeah,” Tosh replied vaguely, still watching the multi-colored, spotted hens moving warily around their enclosure.
Kendall took control of the camera in the yard and swung it around.
“Do you see those things on the four corner posts of the yard that look like they have shiny black marbles attached to them?” he asked. “Tomographic motion sensors on each corner post and 360-degree IR sensors on each RC truck.”
“Tomo what?” one of his students asked.
“Tomographic motion detection,” he enunciated. “Or T-M-D. It uses essentially Wi-Fi gear broadcasting at 2.4 gigahertz to create a mesh network of nodes. Anything moving inside those four corner posts disturbs the radio signal and can be pinpointed to within a millimeter of its location. Not only that, the radio waves go right through walls, so a chicken moving inside the hen house is rendered completely visible when the data are sent to VR128’s latest software.”
There were murmurs of wonder.
“Our Q-Bot contact told me that this month’s shipment of nanobots was being delayed,” Kendall went on. “The new software can supposedly handle hundreds of parallel data streams, and I didn’t want your skills to get rusty while we waited, so I rigged up this system as a proxy.”
He continued, “I sent simultaneous streams of TMD data from the posts and sensor data from the toy trucks. That enabled you all to use the software to navigate in real time and inject – in this case, paint – the chickens.”
Turning back to the ceiling to speak to Tosh he concluded, “So . . . good job on tuning the software and the data streams.”
“Uh, thanks . . .” said Tosh. “Thanks, I’ll pass that along to the team.”
“Alright everyone, that’s it for today,” Kendall concluded, and then added. “By the way, for those of you on-campus, there are over three dozen free-range, hard-boiled eggs in the faculty lounge. Drop by and help yourselves.”
The conference room filled with laughter.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Addressing his team of students at the beginning of yet another session, Kendall announced “The good news is that you all are showing a lot of improvement. The bad news is, we are only fighting cancer on a slide. In the blood stream, it will be an entirely different proposition. You all need to work together to establish practices for prioritizing some targets first, for example, the ones that are moving away faster, and leaving others for later.”
He continued, “With the assistance of the software team, we have added a targeting feature. We are highlighting a suspected vulnerability in the cancer cell with a black spot. If a black spot appears on a cancer cell, make that your primary target; otherwise, go for the center of the fuzzy ball, as usual.”
The team then started another cancer-killing session. As they maneuvered their nanobots, they found that they could move over the cancer cells, but not under them. There were close to a hundred cancer cells this time, but they managed to get them all in a little over two minutes.
“Can I ask a question?” a student asked.
“Go ahead,” replied Kendall.
“Okay, so we just killed off, what, about a hundred cancer cells?”
“Looks that way,” Kendall replied, quietly nodding.
“Okay, but there are millions of cells. There’s no way we can get them all.”
“That is a very good question, and you’re right, we couldn’t possibly get a team big enough to save even one patient.”
“Yeah!” added another mystified voice.
“Yeah. Then what’s the point?” the questioner persisted.
“You are creating a baseline,” Kendall began slowly. “Sometime next year, the Q-Bot Corporation hopes to field wholly autonomous nanobots that will learn to maneuver through the bloodstream on their own and will coordinate their actions with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of other ‘bots.”
He paused before continuing.
“They need a baseline so that they can judge how well their autonomous, self-organizing ‘bots function. Your team is that baseline. The company is going to compare their results to how a group of humans coordinate and do the job.”
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Kendall was driving down his mountain road when he recognized the Chapmans’ old red Ford F-150 traveling toward him. He waved, intending to keep going, but Jerry stuck out his hand, signaling that he wanted to talk. The dust cloud he had been churning up behind him caught up as the two men stopped with their windows opposite each other.
Looking down over the boxes stacked in the back of Kendall’s car, Jerry asked, “Headin’ out?”
“Yes. I’m going to be out of town for about a week. I’ve got to take some things that belong to my wife . . . my ex . . . “ he corrected himself. “And pick up some other things.”
“Yeah. I suppose that’s how it goes . . .” Chapman muttered as his voice drifted off sympathetically.
“Yes.” Kendall replied quietly.
“Hey, listen!” Jerry said, switching to a more cheerful subject. “We were driving by your place the other day and we drove through a lot of smoke. Smelled great!” he said. “You must have had some barbecue!”
Kendall gave him a tight smile.
“That was no barbecue,” he explained. “A mink got into the chicken yard and slaughtered them all.”
“Damn!” Jerry exclaimed, looking out his windshield and shaking his head in disgust.
Turning back to Kendall and raising his eyebrows, he said, “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You did. You did,” Kendall conceded. “So, anyway, I collected and burned all of their bodies in case the mink was rabid.”
“I doubt it was,” replied Jerry. “Those animals just like to kill. Me and Ethan can set some traps around your place and try and get him,” he offered.
“Feel free,” replied Kendall. “But I’m out of the chicken business for good anyway. It’s a little too much trouble – and too many eggs,” he added.
Chapman snorted and smiled.
“I understand . . . well, listen. You have a safe trip and we’ll see you when you get back.”
“Thanks,” Kendall replied. “You and your family take care.”
They then drove off in opposite directions.
– ∙ ∙ ∙ –
Very soon after the demise of Alex, a new gang leader had emerged in Kendall’s old neighborhood. Named Chi, the new leader had soon settled comfortably into the routine of his predecessor, holding court on the same front yard a respectful distance from the shrine to Alex. Kendall had recently spent a long weekend in his hometown, mostly going to the cemetery and his storage locker, and then heading back home. Now, sitting quietly in a motel room still a day’s drive from Idaho, Kendall could see Chi’s face quite clearly on his smartphone screen, highlighted with a thin, green outline.
Two days later, Kendall was back in his office, browsing news articles in his hometown paper on the web. He read that Chi had met what the press was calling an eerily similar fate to that of Alex: shot through the eye by an unseen assassin.
Checking the obituaries the next day, Kendall saw that services for Chi would be held that Friday at 11am, burial to follow immediately thereafter. He composed an e-mail to his research team, scheduling another nanobot session for that Friday at noon.
As with the burial of Alex the previous year, the whole neighborhood turned out to show their support for the departed Chi, and for the gang. There was a large crowd for the graveside ceremony, with over 300 people pressing toward the center to hear the words of the priest. Some stood respectfully to one side of nearby graves, while others leaned against or sat on the gravestones. On the periphery of the crowd, new gang recruits and children too young yet to join milled around, bored.
A young gang member pushed through some bushes, stepped across a few graves, and idly kicked a display of plastic flowers lying in his path. He and some of the younger members had been drinking beer in church during the long funeral mass, and he had found it necessary to relieve himself behind a convenient crypt. As he walked back toward the burial ceremony, he paused to take in the scene.
A priest, conspicuous in his white robe, was standing beside the bier, reading from a gold-embossed bible. A long metal pole with a crucifix atop stood in a stand next to him. The mother of Chi, the deceased, stood before the priest, clutching her two grown daughters while her remaining adult son stood alongside them. He was shifting his gaze between his brother’s coffin and the other gang members standing close by. Several of his late brother’s trusted lieutenants were scattered among the somber crowd facing the priest. Their thoughts, like those of the brother, were occupied not with heavenly concerns, but with the question of who would be the new leader of the gang.
Bored with the graveside activity, the now-refreshed youth surveyed the assorted works of masonry arrayed around him. Many were traditional slabs with rounded tops. Among them was a white stone sculpture of a tree trunk with stone vines wrapped around it. Farther off was some kind of a monument, a chest-high black cube with a brass plaque on one face. The cube was topped by a black obelisk nearly seven feet tall, making the entire structure close to eleven feet high. As his eyes traced its length, he noticed something odd at the top. There was a black, plastic toy perched on top of the obelisk with insect-like legs holding it in place. Rounded, shiny knobs like black marble eyes protruded from all sides of the device. It even appeared to have small propellers. The youth stared at it a moment, shrugged, and then started back toward the crowd. Maybe he would have a look at it when the burial ceremony was over.
The priest was sprinkling the coffin with holy water, and those hit by stray drops crossed themselves and genuflected. The youth pushed into the crowd, working his way back to where he had been standing before. As he did so, he caught sight of another black plastic toy, identical to the one he had just seen at the top of the black obelisk. This one was perched on top of a blocky, stone crucifix that adorned the roof of a light-grey mausoleum on the opposite side of the crowd. He turned around to compare it with the one he had first seen.
At that moment, the priest began to lead the crowd in prayer. The people bowed their heads, and as they knelt, the youth saw behind them a wave of large, black quadrotors sweeping low and fast across the graveyard toward them. The voices of the faithful momentarily drowned out the approach of the machines as they bore down on the pious crowd.
Hunched over his electronic tablet in the back of the darkened conference room at MacKenzie College, Kendall looked up at his students and intoned, “Alright team, you may commence.”
Eight armed quadrotors encircled the crowd and descended on the young gang members and small children on the periphery. There was initially some confusion among the mourners, and they did not immediately understand that something was amiss. The drones flitted efficiently and methodically from target to target, shooting each in the head or chest at point-blank range. Their operators were averaging a fatal shot every two seconds, so that after ten seconds over forty victims lay scattered on the ground, groaning and writhing, or motionless.
Like malignant Border collies, the drones relentlessly chased down and fastidiously dispatched any outliers while herding the other mourners more tightly together. Every so often, a person made a run for it, but a drone easily zipped in front of him and brought him down with one or two shots. All around the edge of the crowd, bodies were dropping, creating a grisly ring of dead and wounded, the sight of which drove the rest backward and inward. The quadrotors advanced on them remorselessly, always shooting the closest person while inexorably drawing the noose tighter around the remaining targets.
“This seems pretty easy,” an operator back in Idaho murmured. “They’re all bunched up.”
And, indeed, the monitor at the front of the conference room displayed scattered, spiked aquamarine spheres coalescing while black triangles, their tiny red lances flashing, hemmed them in. Motionless, grey fuzzy spheres were strewn across the giant screen.
“Just stay sharp and be as thorough as you can,” Kendall coached. “We want Q-Bot Corporation to get their money’s worth.”
Glancing at the actual video feed on his tablet, he watched indifferently as a horrific storm of mayhem released its fury on the crowd of mourners. A hysterical woman clutching a crying infant was shot dead; seconds later, the drone returned and fatally shot the wailing child as it struggled to wriggle free of its mother’s limp body. A gang member struck in the face fell to his knees with his face in his hands. The quadrotor lowered itself to the level of his face and placed a second shot through his forehead. The drone was already closing in on its next target before his body hit the ground.
As the mourners finally appreciated the certain death they now faced, panic-stricken people in the center of the crowd clambered over each other, knocking the coffin off its stand, and spilling its contents onto the ground. Kendall recognized the woman from the community outreach house in their midst, and the police station translator as well. They did not look happy, he noted in passing.
There were individual acts of heroism and bravery. The priest strode fearlessly forward and, holding his bible with two hands, he lifted it, brandishing its white-and-gold cover toward a drone while commanding the attacking machines to cease. Miraculously, a bullet intended for his head was stopped by the pages of the bible. An instant later, however, the next shot hit him in the chest, felling him. A gang member, moved to the desperation of a cornered rat, pulled the priest’s crucifix out of its metal stand and used it to try to swat the drone out of the air. Each time he swung the cross, the craft deftly moved away and instantly returned, firing into his face as it arrived just out of arm’s reach. He only swung twice and then collapsed on his back, mortally wounded, the cross falling across his chest. Heroism and bravery were for naught.
Downhill from the graveside service, the two men from the funeral home were standing next to the hearse, quietly talking and smoking. The burial ceremony was taking place some distance away, uphill and through some trees. They cast occasional glances in that direction with questioning looks. They had worked many funerals in their time, and had heard crying before: crying, cursing, screaming, singing – even laughing, but this was different. First of all, they heard a steady, high-pitched buzzing sound along with something even more peculiar: almost as if a team of roofers was up there at the grave site, frenetically nailing shingles into place. Stranger still, they heard moans, screams and cries: a commotion that sounded more like terror than mourning.
A moment later, they were startled to see a tattooed teenager with baggie shorts and an oversized t-shirt suddenly stagger into view over the rise, and struggle down the flagstone path toward them. A dark, wet stain was spreading on his t-shirt, which was matted to his chest. His eyes and mouth registered a look of urgent desperation, but he seemed unable to speak.
As the men watched agape, two black quadrotors appeared through the trees with the suddenness and agility of hummingbirds, hovering momentarily just a few feet above the youth. Instantly, there were two flat, slapping sounds, and twin fountains of crimson spray erupted from his head as he pitched, face-first, off to the side of the path.
Then the undertakers heard the propellers increase in speed and saw the drones tilt toward them.
Back in Idaho, a voice cried over the sound system, “Hey! I found some strays!”
“I’m in on that!” a student in the conference room cried.
“Save some for me!” chimed a third.
Kendall was puzzled. He glanced down at his tablet and immediately understood the situation. He also saw that there was nothing he could do; the drones were already upon the two men who were futilely waving their arms over their heads, ducking and trying to run away. Moments later, their contorted bodies lay twitching on the pavement next to the hearse.
“You three get back to the main concentration of cancer,” Kendall ordered them. “We’re going to lose your ‘bots if you stray any farther.”
The machines returned to the burial site and resumed killing the remaining mourners.
“Be thorough now,” he prodded them. “We don’t get points for leaving the ‘bots loaded.”
The Sioux in a frenzy of bloodlust could not have been more devastating. The quadrotors angrily swarmed around the last few still standing until there were no more active targets. They then roved low to the ground, seeking out and shooting the wounded again and again.
Four minutes had elapsed since the attack began.
Kendall tapped a button on his tablet and the screen at the front of the conference room froze. The operators looked up from their monitors. Disappointed cries rang out across the room. Meanwhile, four sensor drones and eight attack craft each executed a pre-programmed “return home” sequence, flying up to treetop level on the far side of the graveyard and disappearing into the forest.
“Sorry,” Kendall said calmly, almost bored. “It looks like we had another outage. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure we’ve got the whole thing on backup.”
“You guys did well this time,” he continued on an upbeat note, “and I’m looking forward to seeing how the autonomous ‘bots perform compared to you guys.”
Back at the cemetery, a calm breeze blew gently through the treetops. Songbirds fluttered fitfully about their business, wholly unconcerned about the human wreckage strewn on the ground below them. Nobody outside the graveyard was aware that anything was amiss, and nobody inside its walls was alive. A white marble angel blessed the ground and a peaceful serenity pervaded.
Rad Leskovar was born in 1974 and grew up in the Dalmatian region of Croatia in what was then the Jugoslav federation. He was a teenager in 1991 when Croatia declared its independence. Involuntarily inducted into the Yugoslav People’s Army that same year, he deserted and, along with his parents, fled to the United States, settling in Indianapolis.
He attended Indiana University Bloomington where he studied contemporary fiction, drama, and poetry as well as creative writing and composition. His favorite authors are David Sedaris, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Conrad. He presently lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.