A REMOTE CHANCE

                                            

The boy looked on as his father carefully squirted fuel into the engine of the bright red model aircraft. It was quiet at that time of the morning, only a few joggers puffing along the paths that stretched through Central Park. The trees on either side of the asphalt trails now wore a rainbow of colours as fall approached. The air was crisp and the sky a deep blue peppered with clouds.

 

High above a jet contrail stitched a white thread over their heads as the aircraft carried its cargo of travellers to distant lands. The boy watched his father remove the nozzle from the engine and stow it away in his rucksack. “What happens if it runs out of fuel before we can land it?” His father smiled. “That won’t happen. Remember I put an extra large tank on it last year.”

 

He shook the model. A sloshing sound came from within the small aluminium canister slung beneath the model’s fuselage. “Even if we lost control of it there’s plenty of fuel on-board.” The boy looked puzzled. “But how would it find us?”

 

His father pointed to the remote control unit that lay against the rucksack at his feet. “It has it’s own kind of sat nav. Whatever happens it will always come back to where it started.” The boy smiled, relieved. And then excitedly clutched his father’s arm. “Can I launch it?” His father laughed. Tousled his hair. “Of course you can. Just let me start it up and then you can operate the controls.” He connected a small battery to the engine and flicked the propeller.

 

The engine burst into life producing a high-pitched whine as it picked up speed. “Okay, I’ll just set her off and the rest is up to you. Do you remember how to gain altitude and steer?” The boy nodded, eyes gleaming with excitement.

“Okay, here goes.” The man hurled the model plane into the air and watched as it soared above the park. The boy moved the lever on the remote control and it banked around in a graceful curve. His father followed the plane’s progress keenly.

“Take it up higher. We can do some loop the loops.” The boy increased the position of the slider on the remote. The plane climbed steeply and then levelled out…headed across and above the tallest of the trees in the park. His father frowned. “Bring her round, we need line of sight for the remote to work.” The boy adjusted the controls. His face dropped. He tried another lever. The plane now a speck in the distance.

 

“It’s not working.” His father reached over and took the remote. Checked the battery level, tried all the controls. Nothing worked. The sound of the engine faded. Father and son looked up in confusion at the empty blue sky.

 

Drone pilot Johnson rubbed sleep from his eyes as he approached the end of a fifteen hour shift. His reconnaissance mission over the Afghanistan border had passed without incident and the data he’d collected was now in the hands of the Intel unit for analysis. He stretched and took another slug of his coffee. He knew that flying drones was an unenviable job and a drag on his training and promotion, but he’d just got married and wanted to keep his nervous spouse happy for a bit.

He checked his screens. There were thousands of drones in active service. They didn’t need sleep and many were entirely controlled by computer.

His screens cycled through the various heads up displays that showed geospatial information and the view from the on-board cameras. One large screen displayed all active drone flight paths. Like an air traffic control screen it was cluttered with the predicted courses of the various drones on missions throughout the world. As he prepared to hand over control to his colleague he noticed something odd. But before he could react alarms blared out from overhead speakers. He picked up the phone that linked him directly to his boss.

 

Commander Thwaites stared at the screen above Johnson’s head. He’d been summoned from a particularly enjoyable and very expensive meal and was not happy. The alarms had been muted and the screens were now full of red flashing tracking data. Collision warning icons flickered amongst the sea of red. Whatever was happening wasn’t good. “You’re telling me someone has hijacked a drone…one of our drones?” Johnson nodded. “A lot more than one.” The Commander turned to him. “How many are we talking about?” Johnson looked grim. “All of them.”

 

The man hunched deeper into his camo jacket. From his position of concealment he could see 360 degrees around him. He wiped his nose with the back of one of his fingerless gloves. The night chill was beginning to bite into his bones. The branches of the tree and their covering of leaves gave him some protection from the wind, but he’d spent many hours in his cramped position and his muscles ached.

He peered into the hooded screen of his computer tablet and watched as the culmination of many years planning began to take shape. The glow from the screen reflected in his cold black eyes. He remembered the long journey that had brought him to this situation. The indiscriminate use of unproven technology…the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians all as a result of their flawed foreign policies.

Powerless he could only watch as they concealed their murderous blunders from the public eye. And when he’d tried to point out what was wrong with the system they took the only course of action they knew; they destroyed his career, his reputation and his life. His fingers flew across the screen. Icons with code numbers, each a designated drone, swarmed across the screen like so many bees. He swiped at them with his fingers…drawing them to a specific location. The drones dutifully followed his bidding.

 

Commander Thwaites looked at a large screen display of the drones. “Where are they headed?” Johnson punched the co-ordinates into a satellite view of the USA. The view zoomed down towards land. Swooped above New York and ended up above the Potamac River.   The Commander stared at the satellite picture. Johnson superimposed the drone co-ordinates.

“If this is a cyber terrorist why hasn’t anybody contacted us?” Johnson shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense.” The Commander made a decision. “That’s a busy shipping lane. We need to alert the Port authorities, emergency services and scramble some jets. We might be able to take some of them down if they alter course” Johnson nodded and picked up the phone.

 

Hulio strained against the pull on his line. He’d been fishing since dawn and this was the first bite he’d had. It was a big one. The rod bowed under the strain. He reckoned it was a striped bass. The roar of a 747 covered the scream of the reel as he gave the fish some slack. The belly of the plane passing overhead cast a dark shadow on the water around his boat.

 

Like his father before him Hulio had always fished for striped bass, or rockfish,

They had two major spawning grounds on the Atlantic coast. Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland and the Hudson River watershed. Every April, tens of thousands of fish swam into the mouth of the Hudson from the Atlantic, passing the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan on their way upstream.

 

After releasing their eggs in the Hudson’s headwaters, the stripers turned round and swam back out to the open ocean, heading up the coast to waters off Massachusetts and Maine. But before they made the journey, they fed at a common layover spot: Queens. Jamaica Bay’s waters warmed up before the Atlantic did, causing baitfish like bunker to congregate. The stripers followed. Hulio had caught bass before, but this one was far bigger than he had every encountered and he had no intention of letting it go.

The roar of the jet faded and he pulled at the rod, reeling in the powerful fish a few inches at a time. He didn’t want to jerk the line and have it snap.  He braced his feet against the side of the motorboat and heaved back. As he strained against the power of the striper he looked into the distance.

There was a cloud of what looked like birds headed towards him. They were approaching from every direction. A distant buzz grew louder. As they came nearer he saw that they weren’t birds…but aircraft.   Hundreds of different types, large and small. As they drew nearer he suddenly became aware that they were all headed towards one area. Directly above him. He released the rod and it went spinning across the water.

He dived for the starter switch of the motorboat and slammed the throttles wide open. The twenty-foot boat surged across the river. The drones, for that was what he recognised they were, screamed towards each other. They were so close Hulio could see the numbers on their fuselages.

He just managed to pull clear of the area when the first one hit. It exploded with a roar of flame. One after the other they impacted. Became one huge ball of molten metal and fire as hundreds of them collided. Obliterating each other in a fiery holocaust. Some of them were carrying rockets or bombs and they added to the ferocity of the inferno. Hulio ducked as the air filled with flaming debris which whistled past him.

White hot metal hissed into the water. The vast ball of tangled metal fell like a white hot sun through the air. The wash slammed into the side of his boat causing it to buck furiously as he fought to keep it on an even keel. And then it was over. Nothing but boiling water and pieces of floating plastic bobbing on the surface to show they’d ever existed. Hulio, hands shaking, headed for the shore. This time his story about the one that got away would have him in the central role.

 

The man looked down from his hiding place. The scream of police and emergency vehicle sirens echoed across the park. He smiled to himself. Already the news channels would be full of eye witness accounts and near misses. The government and the military would be peddling their usual smokescreen so as to not panic the general public. But it wouldn’t make any difference. Pretty soon even the most stupid citizen would be able to put two and two together. If someone could hijack hundreds of unmanned drones from right under the military’s nose then they could do anything.

 

The commander stared at the news reports that filled every screen. Witness’s gabbled into news cameras around the state. He’d just got off the phone with the President, it hadn’t been an easy conversation. Billions of dollars of defence budget sitting on the bottom of the Potomac and a city running scared. The President wanted to know what everybody was asking. How? And why?

 

The Commander had assured him he was doing everything possible to track down the hacker, but as to the why, well that was still up in the air…which is more than could be said for the drones. They didn’t have long to wait. A video file arrived on the CNN server and pretty soon everybody was left in no doubt what the attack was all about.

The masked man stared into the camera. His voice electronically altered, and nothing in the background but sky. His message was clear. Destroy all drones, shut down the program and go back to accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. A shaky video clip of civilian casualties, a distraught father carrying the body of a child.   The military had two hours to comply…till midday to be exact.

And if not? There was always an ultimatum, but this one was in the shape of an internet link. The Commander stared at the screen. Like everyone on the planet they’d followed the link. Servers had crashed around the globe. Overloaded by billions of users trying to log on. At first they’d thought that that was the point…to show how fragile the information infrastructure was. But once things had calmed down and more bandwidth had been released it became clear exactly what the masked man had planned. The link led to a site called Flightaware a piece of commercial software that showed the position of every flight in the air in real time.

As peak hour approached the screen became crowded with aircraft icons like tiny insects spread across mid America and Europe. The Commander felt the sweat pooling in the small of his back. “Give me some figures.” Johnson looked at him, they both knew it didn’t matter, the bottom line was there were too many.

“We’re looking at around three quarters of a million passengers in the air…and that doesn’t include military and private.” The Commander ran his fingers through the sparse hair that clung damply to his forehead. “Tell me it’s not possible.”

 

Johnson tapped some projections into his computer system…a two hour advance simulation. “Three quarters of the air traffic control chiefs have already reported they do not have full control of in air flights. Based on real time co-ordinates and what could happen if we do not regain control or agree to his demands this is what we’re looking at.” He tapped his control pad. The aircraft icons spiralled towards a location in the middle of the Atlantic ocean…the identifiers flashed red as they overlapped each other in a crimson ball of electronic mush.

Johnson turned to the Commander. “We know it can be done, the pilots can’t even take their aircraft off autopilot.” The Commander shook his head. “We don’t give in to terrorist demands, that’s always been our position.” Johnson turned from the screen. “The Presidency won’t survive that. You’re looking at four times the death rate of Hiroshima. Three quarters of a million people gone in minutes.” He paused as the significance sank in. “And that’s only in the air. Many of them will run out of fuel over land, there’ll be thousands more civilian casualties.”

 

The Commander reached for the phone. Paused. “How long would it take to plan something like this?” Johnson shrugged. “Years. Remember the air traffic systems failure last December in England?” The Commander nodded. “They tracked it down to one line of code that caused the system to shut down.” Johnson continued. “And the LAX shutdown in May. They blamed that on a U2 spy planes flight plan overloading the software.” The Commander bit his lip. “You think it was him testing out his plan?” Johnson nodded. “Too many coincidences.”

 

The Commander put the phone down. “If the President refuses to deal with terrorists and we can’t shut this guy down, what the hell’s left.” Johnson looked at the cluster of icons swirling towards the Atlantic. He pointed upwards “You’re going to have to believe in something up there.”

 

The man slid down from the tree. Shouldered his rucksack and moved over to a park bench. No one paid him any attention. Everyone was more concerned with what was going on above them.

With three quarters of a million people headed for certain death that made for a lot of anxious relatives and civilians on the ground frightened for their own safety. The man flipped open his tablet. Still nothing from the idiot in charge. It seemed they would rather stand on a point of principle and let a million people die than change a murderous policy.

He looked at the flashing icons on his control system. A red icon marked COMMIT winked at him. Once he selected that nothing could override the command. It was a few minutes to midday. The whine of a distant leaf blower carried to him as his finger hovered over the screen. He smiled wryly. Typical of the human race to worry about a few fallen leaves rather than fifty-thousand aircraft dropping into the ocean. The sound of the leaf blower was getting nearer, he looked around but couldn’t see it. He shrugged and raised his finger.

 

The jogger came to a halt by the sprawled figure on the path. He saw the cracked screen of the tablet lying on the ground next to him. An icon winked SHUTDOWN? On it’s display. A damp leaf drifted onto the surface of the device…completed the circuit and shut down the program. The jogger bent down and turned the man over and onto his back. Pieces of the bright red model plane were scattered around him. The force of the impact had driven the plane’s engine deep into his skull, killing him instantly.

The jogger used his smartphone to call for help. He noted the newsflash on its screen as he did so. The threat to airborne traffic was over. There’d been one emergency landing by a plane running out of fuel, but no casualties. The Jogger opened the man’s rucksack to see if there was anything to identify him.

He saw the mask and a gun. A man and his child came running over. They stared at the remains of the model aircraft and the dead man. Police and paramedics raced down the path towards them. The man turned to his son. “Come on son. Let’s get you home. We have to pick mummy up from the airport later.” The boy looked back at the sprawled figure on the ground. “Our plane did come back didn’t it daddy?” The man nodded. “Yes son it did.” They walked quickly away from the scene behind them. As they headed across the park, Jet trails began to criss-cross the deep blue winters sky above them.