The Future of Our Prosperity
by Dan Rice
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
I stood at attention beside my desk at the head of Mrs. Moorhouse’s fifth-grade class. My unblinking gaze was locked upon the framed 24 by 36-inch portrait of the President in the Oval Office. Behind her hung fifteen American flags, a forest of red, white, and blue.
At 9:05 a.m. the classroom’s loudspeaker crackled to life. Principal Thompson’s cheery voice boomed into the room: “Greetings, Patriots! Join me in the Pledge of Allegiance!”
Principal Thompson paused his speech long enough to allow me and everyone else to salute the president’s portrait.
When Principal Thompson spoke again, his voice rang with nationalistic fervor. “I pledge allegiance to the President of the United States of America. Under her leadership, we are united as one people protected by God. Our manifest destiny is to pursue our shared prosperity and strike down all who oppose us.”
With one voice my class repeated the words. The instant the pledge ended, I lowered my hand from my heart as did everyone else.
“Have a wonderful day of learning, Patriots,” Principal Thompson said, his tone jolly once again.
The loudspeaker silenced. Mrs. Moorhouse turned to face the class, her smile revealing sparkling white teeth.
“Greetings, class,” Mrs. Moorhouse said.
“Hello, Mrs. Moorhouse,” we replied in unison. “We are ready to learn.”
* * *
During recess, I met up with my friend Chris, a tall, gangly boy who was also a pupil of Mrs. Moorhouse. We both wore the school’s uniform, all patriotic colors, like the American flag.
“Did you finish the programming assignment?” Chris asked.
We walked across the concrete toward the big toys and tetherball poles. A huge red and blue map of the United States decorated the pavement. Superimposed upon the states in big white letters was the mantra: One People United in Prosperity.
“Yup. Already turned it in,” I said.
“You’re sure you aren’t an AI?”
“Nope,” I said, scanning the crowded and noisy playground. “Do you see Maggie?”
“Not yet. Will you help me with the programming assignment?”
“Yeah,” I said and grabbed Chris by the upper arm and pointed at a gang of boys surrounding Maggie just outside the play shed. “Oh, no. Roger and his buds have her cornered.”
I ran to my friend’s aid. “Get out of my way!” I yelled as I barged into the mean-spirited boys. They were all beefier than I was, but they gave way. Two months earlier I had received the Future of Our Prosperity award, a foot-tall facsimile of the Lady of Eternal Prosperity in New York Harbor. Mistreating a top student like me led to severe corporal punishment.
“Go back to Mexico,” Roger said. “Your kind isn’t welcome here. That’s why we built the wall.”
“I was born here,” Maggie said.
“Liar. You’re here to feed off our prosperity.”
“Leave her alone,” I shouted at Roger.
Roger glanced over his shoulder at me. “You going to make me?”
“Yeah, I will, you bully.”
Roger rounded on me. “Just how do you plan to do that, dork?”
“Gabe, don’t,” Maggie said.
Tears rolled down her cheeks, and her skin flushed. My senses sharpened and my muscles tensed. I wanted to punch Roger in his bulging stomach, but I knew that would end with me bloodied on the ground. Roger was a top student too, so we could resolve disputes with fisticuffs.
“Come on, Maggie,” I said.
Maggie stepped toward me, but Roger sidestepped to block her path with his broad frame. My face grew warm. I clenched my hands. Roger smiled and raised his fists.
“Stop!” Chris shouted. As the grandson of the local police chief, he trumped everyone. “Leave them alone. Get out of here.”
Except for Roger, the crowd dispersed at Chris’ command. Roger dropped his fists, screwing his face into a sneer. “What are you going to do, Gabe, when Chris isn’t here to save your ass?”
* * *
After school, I walked with Maggie and Chris down Cherry Hill to my house. We did our homework at the dining room table and scarfed down cookies.
Once Chris left for swim lessons, Maggie leaned over close to me and whispered, “Do you have the cables?”
I glanced around the dining room to make sure Mother wasn’t nearby. “Yeah, everything is in my backpack.”
“Will you get it, like, airborne?”
“Maybe. Let’s go.”
“Okay. I’ll grab my bike.”
* * *
“Make sure your back by 6:30,” Mother, her hands on either side of her baby belly, called from the front door. “We’re having lasagna.”
“I’ll be back on time. I promise,” I said, pushing my bicycle down the driveway.
Maggie waited for me on the sidewalk astride her pink mountain bike. A few puffy clouds dotted the sky, one blocking the sun. We raced our bikes to a footpath leading into a woodland on the side of Cherry Hill.
After stashing our bicycles behind a large rock, we followed the trail to a ravine and climbed onto a fallen fir, its trunk covered with green moss. Maggie scrambled down the tree trunk with the agility of a squirrel. I descended slowly. My backpack caught on a jutting branch. Jerking my shoulder forward, I tried to yank the strap free.
“Crap!” I exclaimed.
I lost my balance and fell, landing heavily on my back in the ravine.
“Ay, caramba, are you okay?” Maggie asked, standing over me.
I pushed myself up onto my butt, more embarrassed and startled than hurt. “Yeah. The backpack broke my fall. I hope the equipment isn’t broken.”
“Who cares, as long as you’re okay,” Maggie said, helping me up.
Maggie led the way to a pile of broken branches. Together we shifted the bigger limbs and threw aside the smaller ones, revealing the molted gray of our prize, an American Prosperity Force (APF) Autonomous Surveillance Unit (ASU). The aerial vehicle was about the size of a super-sized pizza delivery box with a heavy-duty rotor at each corner.
“You’re sure we should do this?” Maggie said. “I mean... we can get in like real trouble for this.”
“You’re chickening out now?” I said, unslinging my backpack. “It’s been out here for at least a month. It’s not transmitting. We checked for that weeks ago.”
“I know,” Maggie said. “Belo, my grandfather you know, was mistaken once for an illegal. He spent six months in detention. They tortured him, Gabe. I don’t want us tortured.”
Maggie broke down into tears. I set my backpack on the ground and awkwardly wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. She leaned her head against my chest and sobbed. My skin tingled. I had never hugged a girl outside of my own family.
“We can report it.” I didn’t want to say those words. “You decide.”
Maggie freed herself from my arm and met my gaze with a hard stare. “No, you’re right. What we learn might help the Resistance.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk about them.”
“People weren’t always afraid of the government and their neighbors,” Maggie said, her voice rising. “The Resistance is trying to change that.”
Maggie stared at me, her expression unreadable. Despite planning to hack the ASU, I viewed myself as a patriotic American, and I didn’t want anything to do with the Resistance.
“Ready to do this?” I asked.
Maggie nodded. We knelt over the ASU, and I rummaged through my backpack. I pulled out a plastic bag containing a set of special-purpose screwdrivers and cords borrowed from my father without his knowledge. I set the bag on the ground next to the ASU. With any luck, one of those cables would match the vehicle’s communication port. Last, I grabbed my tablet, its slick metallic case cool to the touch.
“Oh, no,” I said, flipping the tablet around so Maggie could see the spider web of cracks crisscrossing the screen. “This broke my fall.”
Maggie sighed. “Will it start up?”
“Cross your fingers.”
Biting my lower lip, I turned the tablet around and pressed the power button. The screen flickered as the computer came to life.
“Is it usable?” Maggie asked, squatting next to me.
“It’s responding. DroneCom opened. Looks like the command-line and pop-up keyboard are working. It’s hard to read, but good enough.”
“This is so exciting,” Maggie said.
In the center of the ASU’s top was a rectangular panel secured with four small screws. If the military version had much design overlap with its civilian cousins, a communication port was behind the plate.
Maggie quickly determined the proper screwdriver. After some struggle, she removed the plate, revealing a communication port. I tried the cables until I found one that fit the port and connected the other end to my tablet.
“Does the auxiliary battery have power?” Maggie asked.
“Give me a sec,” I said, typing out commands.
“Well?” Maggie asked, leaning close.
“I’m connected. Doesn’t mean the auxiliary battery has power. Just means the lithium coin cell on the motherboard isn’t dead.”
I punched in the command to activate the auxiliary battery.
“Shoot,” I said and chewed on my lower lip.
“Password challenge. I could try to break the password, but I bet a military ASU like this will power down after a few failed attempts.”
“Maybe the password is blank or something stupid,” Maggie said, her tone becoming more excited as she spoke. “Some kind of low-level software on the motherboard is challenging you, right? You need physical access... like with a cable? It’s not something you get to with Wi-Fi.”
“Yeah. So what?”
Maggie playfully socked me on the shoulder. I looked at her. Her expression was smug.
“Didn’t your class watch that video of a couple of weeks ago, during technology?”
“I don’t pay attention to those videos.”
“This one was about security. About how many of these hardware passwords are blank.”
“Blank?” I said doubtfully. “Okay, I’ll try.”
“Did it work?” Maggie asked.
“I guess I’m a hacker too.”
“You are,” I said and flashed her smile. “A blank password. That is so stupid. Too cool! It’s got power.”
We waited in rapt silence as the ASU booted up. I stared at my tablet with unblinking eyes as text filled the command-line window.
“How long is this going to take?” Maggie asked.
“A few minutes. A diagnostic check runs when switching to the auxiliary battery. Yes!”
“I’m downloading the operating system files. I can decompile them and study the code. This is so cool. Wait a minute. Oh no,” I added, typing the command that should have stalled the boot procedure, “the emergency beacon started.”
“Can you stop it?” Maggie asked, her tone anxious.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m trying.”
Maggie put a hand on my shoulder. “Gabe, we need to go.”
“I can stop it.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s already on.”
“I haven’t finished downloading the operating system files. I’ve just shut down the beacon. No worries.”
I was vaguely aware of Maggie throwing our equipment into my backpack.
“We have to go, Gabe,” Maggie said and reached for the cord attached to the communication port.
“Wait,” I said, brushing her hand aside. “Got all the files. Okay, I just sent the command to power down the ASU.”
We finished packing up and scaled the fallen tree to the trail and ran the entire way back. When we reached the end of the path, we hid in the shadows cast by the trees.
“No APF. I told you I turned off the beacon,” I whispered.
“If you’re so sure, why are you whispering?”
To prove I wasn’t afraid, I stood and sauntered to my bike. Maggie slunk along beside me. The sun hung low in the sky.
“What time is it?” I asked.
Maggie checked her watch. “Seven o’clock. You’re late for lasagna.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Dan Rice