"You have to go."
"I can't. They know which
websites I follow, the links I like, everything."
"But if you don't go that's
The kids burst into the room.
They were healthy, handsome, well socialized
little monsters. They loved school, excelled in
sports, played musical instruments and took
immersion classes in the languages of
international trade. They were groomed for the
future and eager for Seafair. Pirates! Boat races!
And the Drones! That was the best part and they'd
been pestering their beleaguered father about it
The father had been an
enthusiastic component of the system, right down
to home ownership (well, a half-paid mortgage), a
cube job with a global brand, and a marriage
predicated on a dating app’s Mutual Assured
Compatibility score of 93.
But something had changed. It
started with a single image, inadvertently
glimpsed, then internet searches and an
ever-widening spiral of conspiracy theories and
doubts not just about government but the quality
of his own choices. For the first time in his life
he was questioning how he'd come to be who he was.
He was unraveling the threads of his conditioning.
He didn't like what he saw but at least he was
beginning to understand. But knowing they knew he
was curious made him nervous.
"We're going, honey, with or
She knew he would go.
Attendance was mandatory. What choice did he have?
At least if they did pick him
it would be over quickly.
He surrendered to the passenger
seat of their new tri-brid maxi-min, an egg-shaped
mix of minivan and SUV that got 63 mpg. Not bad!
Everyone was there.
If you weren't in jail, ICU, or
dead on a slab you checked in at Lake Washington
by noon. Fail to do so and they’d find you and
take you somewhere less pleasant. The shoreline
teemed with five million fans, ten million eyes
turned to the sky.
The kids complained about how far
they had to park but he thought, "Good! Let 'em
walk." He used to walk just for the fun of it.
When was that? A different world ago.
It was a mob scene and that
gave him hope. He turned off his phone and wrapped
it in foil. Facial recognition couldn’t pick him
out of this crowd, could it? Not since he'd been
cultivating a bushy beard and long bangs, a
fashion that had gone completely out of style in
2019 but had come back around faster than anyone
expected. He blended in.
Some teenagers nearby were
sneaking sips from a flask.
Good, he thought. Those guys
are actually breaking the law. Get them, not me!
His family had disappeared from
his side. Amped for a good time they slipped
expertly through the shifting mass for a better
vantage. This was the main event!
It got quiet.
Mt. Rainier stood proud and
prominent beyond the south end of the lake. A
small shadow grew against its bare rocky face (the
last glacier having melted during a winter
heatwave despite the deniers).
They came like a cloud.
Gone were the Blue Angels,
dusty and outdated as open cockpit biplane
barnstormers. In their place was everyone's
favorite technology, along with a display of why
it was so loved and feared--the Drones!
Not a few lumbering ones like
old-fashioned planes, but a thousand lightning
quick small ones no bigger than toasters, bobbing,
weaving, and spiraling across the water in precise
aerial acrobatics, totally locked in. They
approached, slowed, and hovered--something the
Blue Angels could never do. Everyone got a good
look, moaned with vicarious pleasure, “Oooooooohh,
They admired the technical
prowess, but there was also a touch of hometown
pride as many of the components had been designed
right there in the Pacific Northwest. The drones
shuffled and circled, swirled upward, clockwork
mandalas of wing and rotor, flying in faultless
Or so the crowd thought, but
the announcer had news for them!
“Folks, unlike years past, this
year’s team isn’t running a pre-programmed flight
sequence. This year’s squad is autonomous! What
does that mean? Faster speeds, closer passes, more
surprises! They’re adapting to conditions on the
fly, making conscious choices of their own.
There’s nothing artificial about their
intelligence—it’s as organic as yours or mine.
Except these amazing machines are networked
together and never make a mistake. My wife wishes
she could say the same about me!”
The father had seen it all
before. The cornball jokes, the conditioned reflex
laughter. It made him sick to think how willing a
participant he had been. How he’d applauded and
felt safer as the drones neutralized threats
before his very eyes, culling suspects from the
crowd, delivering swift justice.
He wished he could go back to
that state of mind, the cheerful blankness that
had served his career so well. Now he had worry,
was no longer the blameless spectator he used to
be. He thought of his internet history, how no
matter how many times he wiped the deck it was no
good—the URLs and keystrokes had been recorded,
his profile processed by algorithms that knew him
better than he knew himself.
The machine anticipated what he
was most likely to do next. That’s what scared
him, not knowing whether he was capable of
committing the crimes he imagined, not knowing if
he’d already crossed a line just by thinking them,
not knowing if he’d been flagged for a pattern of
behavior he wasn’t conscious of, not knowing if
the moving red dot of the drone’s laser would
settle on his forehead or move on to a more
He was scared because he had
begun to think, and the lists were comprised of
people who asked too many questions. Or just the
wrong one. They used to be called terrorists, now
simply POI—persons of interest. If you were found
too interesting the sentence was death.
But he needn’t have worried
about himself. This year’s drones weren’t assigned
specific targets. They compiled data and drew
their own conclusions using the most rigorous and
foolproof analytics to date, no room for human
bias or operator error. He might’ve been relieved
to learn he wasn’t to be singled out. Maybe then
he would have enjoyed what happened next with a
lighter heart, because it really was miraculous,
more stunning than any fireworks ever.
No one expected it, which made
it more excellent.
Each of the one thousand Drones
suddenly separated into ten, and those ten into
ten, and those ten into ten more. How many now? A
million? And they split again, like a towering
thunderhead dissipating into fog. The giant swarm
blotted out the sun, a dark humming cloud that
drew familiar shapes in the sky that retold the
history of Seattle, from settlers to Space Needle
to antigrav, with a miles-long stars and stripes
for a finale, stretched like a shroud above the
multitudes for the full length of the lake.
It settled like a mist and the
crowd was surprised how small each drone was, no
larger than a dragonfly, one for each and every
person there with millions more to spare.
It was great! People put up
their hands, coo’d as the autonomous bots alighted
on their fingers, delicate as insects, almost
silent, miniaturized mechanical marvels of modern
science. Beguiled, few of those gathered
understood how something so small and seemingly
innocuous could be turned to lethal purpose.
But the father finally figured out
what was going to happen next. He laughed, eager
for the stinger, ready to say goodbye to all of