by Eric James Stone
Part I: Finding the Boy
Maria's goggles synthesized a 3D perspective of the landing zone on her desk's viewing
area. The JumboRiver.com delivery drone software used a red circle to indicate a human in the
area. A boy about ten years old stood on the sidewalk at the delivery address, staring up at the
Maria smiled. Like many local pilots, she'd seen this boy before. He liked to watch drone
deliveries to his house.
"Please stay back as the drone lands," Maria said, her headset transmitting to the drone's
The boy waved and took a step back.
Maria reached toward the console button to start the autoland sequence, but hesitated as a
white van pulled to a stop at the curb. Better to wait. Make sure exiting passengers saw the
The side door slid open. Two people in gray coveralls jumped out. Were those ski masks?
One of them jabbed something into the boy's side, and his legs collapsed. They dragged
him into the van, which started moving even before the door shut.
After a couple of seconds to overcome her shock, Maria double-pressed the Emergency
Services button. An alert popped up: "Contact emergency services for this drone's location?" She
hit confirm, then took manual control of the drone and started following the van.
The ring tone sounded twice in her headset before a woman said, "Police operator 816.
What is your emergency?"
"I'm a drone pilot for JumboRiver. I just saw some men kidnap a boy. I'm following them
with my drone."
"You're sure it was a kidnapping?"
Maria bit back frustration at the stupid question. "The men were wearing ski masks, and
they grabbed the kid off the sidewalk and stuffed him into a van, then drove off."
"OK. You say your drone is following. What color is the vehicle?"
"White. No logos or markings I can see."
"Can you read the license plate?"
"I'll have to get in closer."
The drone floor manager, Teresa, arrived at Maria's console. "What's going on?"
Muting her phone, Maria briefly relayed the situation while piloting the drone lower.
"OK, you concentrate on flying. I'll do the talking."
After a few moments, Teresa said, "I'm the drone floor manager. So my pilot can focus
her attention, I'll relay any needed information and update you on coordinates." She must have
connected her goggles to Maria's drone, because she starting reading the GPS numbers, then
provided the original delivery address and phone number.
"The boy lives in that house--I've seen him there many times," Maria said. "About ten
years old. Brown hair."
Teresa passed that along as Maria looked at the map view, which flashed a red "Restricted
Airspace" a mile ahead. The drone's programming wouldn't let it fly into a No-Drone Zone, even
on manual, and if she detoured around, she would lose the van. She boosted the drone's speed to
maximum. Normally, that would get her drone pilot record flagged for recklessness, but these
were not normal circumstances.
As the drone neared the NDZ, Maria gestured to zoom in on the 3D display.
The drone's speed dropped. "Commencing forced landing," her console said.
Maria froze the image and zoomed it until she could read the plate. "It's California license
Olivia scrolled through the combined social media feed on her phone while the Hyundai
drove toward her parents' house for Mom's birthday celebration. In back, her two oldest children,
Aaron and Aidan, competed in a videogame, while the youngest pair, Alyssa and Alexander,
watched an old Pixar movie from their carseats.
Olivia's phone popped up: "Amber Alert: Child abducted by men in a white van, CA
license plate 9XVE921." With a pang of sympathy, she said a mental prayer that the child would
be safe. Then she pulled up the parental control app on her phone and froze the older boys' tablets
and turned down the volume on the van's screen.
"Mom! I was beating him," whined Aidan.
"Were not," said Aaron.
"You can get back to your game later, but now it's time for a special game," she said.
"We're looking for a white van with a license plate beginning with 9X. Whoever finds the van gets
double ice cream at Grandma's."
She doubted they would actually spot the van. So she was quite surprised when Aaron
said, "Hey, Mom! I see a white van with nine-x!" Looking out the back window, he read off the
A glance at her phone confirmed that was the correct license plate. Olivia wondered at the
coincidence for a moment. Several thousand drivers must have been looking. We just happened
to be the ones in the right place. She clicked to dial the Amber Alert contact number.
Pablo got off his bicycle by the freeway exit, then folded it into its carrying configuration.
He checked the company app on his phone--his assigned truck's autodrive said it was still fifteen
miles south on the 101. He wouldn't start getting paid until he was in the cab of the truck, but he
made a habit of arriving early. The boss was never happy to have a truck parked on the off-ramp
shoulder, waiting for its local driver. So he sat on his folded bike and listened to music.
His phone vibrated with a notification: "Alerta Amber: Niño secuestrado por hombres en
una camioneta blanca, matrícula 9XVE921 de California."
Pablo didn't have anything better to do, so he pressed the button to allow the Smart Posse
app to add his camera to the network. Idly twisting the phone back and forth to scan the passing
traffic, he tapped his feet to the salsa beat.
After a couple of songs, he'd almost forgotten what he was doing, but then the music
stopped and a synthesized voice repeated, "¡Alerta!" while the phone vibrated insistently. The
screen displayed a photo of a white van entering the northbound on-ramp for the 101. He looked
up in time to see it merge onto the freeway. It was too far for him to read the plate, but when he
zoomed the picture on his phone, 9XVE921 was clear.
Pablo pushed the button to confirm he wanted to upload to SPANCam. He hoped it
would help them find the boy.
"It's going to the Home Depot," D'Wain's said to the Amber Alert dispatcher as his Honda
Accord followed the white van into the parking lot. He took manual control and chose a parking
space with a clear view of the back of the van, then positioned his dash-cam so it could stream to
The driver's door opened.
"OK," D'Wain said. "A woman just got out and she's walking to the store."
"We'll contact the store to try to get access to their security cams. You're sure it's the right
license plate?" the dispatcher asked.
D'Wain read it off: "9XVE921." Then, so quick he just barely noticed it, the plate
flickered. He blinked and looked again. "Oh, no, you did not just do that."
The license plate now read 9XVB921.
"What?" asked the dispatcher.
"You're not gonna believe me, but I swear the E in the middle just changed to a B."
"What do you mean, it changed?"
D'Wain opened his door. "I mean like the whole plate flickered and then it was slightly
different," he said as he got out and made sure both his bodycams were uploading. "Rewind my
upload and watch. I'm gonna check it out."
"Sir, you should remain in your car," the dispatcher said, but he ignored her.
He walked to the back of the van and ran his fingers over the plate. It felt more like vinyl
than metal. He pulled at the edge, and the surface of the plate peeled away to reveal another
underneath, with the number 6HMT382.
Jeremy was watching replays from last night's Kings game on his Audi's screen as the car
headed to his favorite surfing beach. The audio suddenly muted and two pictures popped up: a
smiling boy, and a white van. The car's interactive persona said, "Jeremy, there is an Amber Alert
for a white van with California license plate 9XVE921. That vehicle is the one in front of us."
"You're kidding!" He looked up to see a white van like the one in the picture about forty
feet ahead. "Really? That's the one?"
"I have notified the police with our location. Also, there are several Smart Posses
collaborating under dispatcher control. Do you wish to join one?"
"Uh . . . sure!"
"Then someone wishes to speak with you."
"Put them on."
"Jeremy Sommer?" a male voice asked.
"Thank you for signing up with the Smart Posse Association Network."
Jeremy didn't recall doing that, but he had signed a lot of things when he bought the car.
"We're getting a lot of false positives," the man said. "Are you certain the van you see has
license number 9XVE921?"
Jeremy squinted at the van. It had been more than a decade since his LASIK surgery, and
he kept meaning to go in for a refresher but never seemed to find the time. With the autodrive car,
it didn't seem so urgent. "It's hard to be sure at this distance. Should I get closer?"
"No, we don't want to tip the kidnappers off. We'll route a patrol car toward your location
as soon as we can."
"What should I do, then? Just keep following?"
"I can't ask you to do that, sir."
"The lawyers won't let you, huh? For the record, I'm doing this of my own free will and I
assume all risk of injury to myself or damage to my vehicle." Jeremy had recorded enough waivers
for various extreme sports that he knew the routine. "Audi, follow that van."
"Following the van," the car said.
The van signaled for two tenths of a mile before taking a precisely controlled left turn onto
a two-lane road. Jeremy's Audi did the same.
"Hey," he said, "I'm pretty sure the van is on autodrive."
"Hold a moment," the voice on his phone said. "We're getting some news." The audio
muted for a minute, then came back. "The search for that license plate has been called off.
Apparently, the kidnappers put false plates on a bunch of vans to confuse the search."
Glancing at his screen, Jeremy saw the Amber Alert no longer included the license plate
"But what if one of them is the real van, with the kid inside?"
"I don't know. I guess the people in charge think the real van's plates were changed so it
would be ignored. We're now looking for vans without that number. Thanks for being part of the
Smart Posse Association Network. Have a nice day." The call disconnected.
Jeremy frowned. It felt wrong to just let this van go without at least checking.
His speedometer read 45 mph, right on the speed limit. The van was, too. It had to be on
autodrive. So, how to make a van on autodrive stop?
Get in its way.
"Audi, I'm taking manual control of the car." He put his hands on the steering wheel, but it
was still locked into the autodrive.
"Reminder," the car said. "Audi AG's liability insurance does not cover you while you have
The steering wheel unlocked, and Jeremy stepped on the accelerator. The electric engine
quickly pushed the speedometer needle over sixty. He pulled into the left lane and passed the van.
As he'd suspected, no one was in the driver's seat.
"Audi, if it looks like there's going to be a collision, take control."
Jeremy took a deep breath, then swerved toward the curb, veered back toward the middle
of the lane, slammed on his brakes, and wobbled the wheel till the car came to a halt. If anyone
was watching from the van, he hoped it would look like he'd had a tire blowout or something.
The van glided to a smooth stop behind him.
Jeremy hovered his foot over the accelerator, ready to punch it if guys with guns got out
of the van. But nothing happened.
Heart pounding from adrenaline, he got out of his car and walked toward the van.
Jeremy peered through the windshield. He couldn't see anyone in the van. He went around
to the side and tugged on the door handle. To his surprise, it opened.
He immediately spotted the only occupant, a boy lying on the floor of the van, eyes closed.
He saw the boy's chest move, and felt a wave of relief.
Jeremy pulled out his phone and called 911.
Part II: Finding the Criminals
Victoria took her position on the neighborhood watch seriously. Too seriously, her wife,
Tina, said. But in the five years since an idiot driver on manual left her paralyzed from the waist
down, the watch kept her busy. Tina called it "Rear Window Syndrome," but she'd recorded the
video evidence that had helped convict two burglars, six vandals, and a peeping tom.
When the Amber Alert popped up on her screen, she read all the information available.
The victim, nine-year-old Brady Jacobs, had been taken just two streets outside Victoria's
neighborhood boundary. Maybe they'd come this way? Victoria set her license-plate scanner to
check through her recorded video for the last hour.
While the scan ran, she texted Ilya, the head of the neighborhood watch where the
kidnapping had taken place.
Victoria: You see the alert?
Ilya: Yea. Is good kid. Hope they find him quick.
Victoria: Can I help?
Ilya: You are on wrong side. They drove away from you.
Victoria: You got video of the kidnapping?
Ilya: Yes, but I was not first. Drone pilot got it live 30 minutes ago. Uploading mine to
SPANCam now. I post link on forum.
When Victoria looked back at the scan results, there was a hit. She pulled up the video,
from a home security camera tied into the neighborhood watch's network. It showed a white van
parked along the sidewalk, with a logo on the side for Luck o' the Irish Lawn Service. The Amber
Alert hadn't mentioned a logo. Maybe it was one of the new e-paint ones that could be turned on
Victoria set her scanner to look back to see when the van had arrived. After a few
seconds, a result appeared.
The van had waited more than two hours before going to the kidnapping. That was
strange. Had the kidnappers waited for a kid to be alone on this street, and finally given up and
happened across Brady Jacobs?
She then ran a back search on SPANCam for other times that van had been in the
neighborhood over the past month.
There were a bunch of hits, but when she pulled them up, they were for an older, beat-up
van. Had the lawn service bought a new van and transferred plates?
On a hunch, she ran a search for white vans without specifying the license plate. One that
looked very much the same as the kidnapping van, except with a plumbing logo, had parked on a
street in the neighborhood for several hours yesterday. And one with an HVAC logo had been
parked the day before. Matching their plates pulled up earlier instances of different vans with the
The kidnappers had been camouflaging their van with the logo and license number of
legitimate visitors to her neighborhood. She had probably seen them on her monitors over the past
couple of days without noticing them.
She emailed what she'd found to her contact at the police department, then posted her
findings on the larger Smart Posse Association Network that her own neighborhood watch
belonged to. Activity was climbing on the online forum.
When she read about the spoofed license plates, she had a moment of doubt about her
findings. But no, the timing of when the van left, and the direction it was driving, meant it almost
certainly was the kidnap van.
Arnold finished reading the article about Brady Jacobs being found alone in the van. The
initial video of the kidnapping had shown two people grab the boy. So where did they get out?
He logged into SPANCam.org. From the starting point of the kidnapping, Arnold was
able to track the van's route as it passed various cameras. Fortunately, the Supreme Court ruling
excluding evidence from warrantless remote surveillance did not apply to privately-owned
cameras, so many private and commercial cams had dropped their privacy shells and were
donating their records.
Camera density was lower once the van entered the No-Drone Zone surrounding the
airport, and soon he lost track of the van for three minutes. He picked up its trail again a mile
away, but that gap was large enough the kidnappers could have exited unseen. They had almost
certainly planned it that way--that's what Arnold would have done in their place.
Still, he couldn't ignore the possibility that the kidnappers exited the van later, so he
meticulously tracked it all the way to where that Audi driver stopped it--pretty nicely, in fact. But
Arnold only watched that footage once. It was old news, so he backtracked. There were several
breaks in the trail, but none as big as the three-minute gap in the airport's NDZ.
Now all he had to do was track every vehicle that left the area of that gap after the van
He was going to need help. So he logged into the SPANCam forum to post what he'd
found so far.
And that's when he heard about the GoldESafe.com robbery.
A knot in the pit of his stomach, Julius stepped into the glass-walled office of Steven
Shimizu, CEO of GoldESafe.com. Mr. Shimizu gestured him toward a chair next to Doug Park,
the Chief Technical Officer, so he sat down. Julius planned to resign as head of company security,
but first he needed to explain to Mr. Shimizu the extent of the breach.
"So, what's the situation?" Mr. Shimizu asked.
"It's far worse than I originally thought."
Mr. Shimizu frowned. "You mean they actually got into the vault?"
Julius shook his head. "The attempt to steal the gold was a distraction, and slow police
response helped stretch out the time before we realized that. Their real goal was to cause an
evacuation of the building, during which they found an unlocked computer with server access and
uploaded a custom program. Before we found it and stopped it, the program transferred over
three billion GoldEs through millions of separate transactions."
"Three billion?" Doug's voice was incredulous. The GoldE had been bouncing around the
two-dollar mark for the past several months.
Mr. Shimizu tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling. "And, of course, thanks to our
privacy protections, there is no way to trace which accounts the money came from or went to, is
"Nope," said Doug. "The amounts would be logged, but the transactions in each account
are encrypted so only the customer has access."
"OK, here's what we do." Mr. Shimizu looked at Doug. "Use the daily backup to
determine the amount in every account yesterday. If their account balance is lower now, use
company assets to raise it to what it was yesterday. If it's higher now, leave it as is. That way, we
can ensure most customers have not lost money due to the theft. We'll handle the rest on a case-by-case basis."
"Our stock price will nosedive," Doug said, "but I don't see a better option."
Mr. Shimizu turned his gaze to Julius. "As for Security . . ."
Feeling a desperate need to resign before being fired, Julius said, "Mr. Shimizu, I resign."
"No, you don't. Nobody's losing their job over this unless they deliberately helped the
thieves. I need you to track down every security flaw that led to this, and if people are scared
they'll lose their jobs, they'll just cover their asses. Clear?"
Overwhelmed with relief, Julius couldn't speak, so he nodded.
"And," said Mr. Shimizu, "I'll offer the public a ten-million-GoldE reward for information
leading to the arrest of the thieves."
Many people on the SPANCam forum speculated the Brady Jacobs kidnapping was an
intentional distraction for the police during the GoldESafe.com robbery. But McKinzi was proud
to have been the first to post actual evidence: plotting out the Amber Alert sightings of the vans
with fake plates, and showing they were mostly in the same police district as GoldESafe.com
headquarters, but scattered around parts of the district away from it.
Now McKinzi was helping with Arnold Chiu's project--leading a Smart Posse of
volunteers following the camera trails of every vehicle coming out of the blind spot he found in
the No-Drone Zone. As each volunteer reported the results on the vehicle they had traced both
forward and backward from the blind spot, McKinzi plotted the trail on a map to see if any kind
of pattern emerged.
For now, she eliminated vehicles if the occupants had been on camera getting in or out.
Whoever planned this had known about the blind spot, so they were obviously trying to avoid
That left three: a green Ford SUV that had come in on the 101 from the north and
eventually left on the 101 to the south, a red Toyota sedan that had come in on the 101 from the
south and had eventually gone back to the south, and a white ElectroCar hatchback that had
begun and ended its journey in a private parking garage.
Maybe something would turn up later on the other cars, but she had a hunch the
ElectroCar was the one. The manufacturer had been notoriously bad at security; a good hacker
could break in and drive one remotely--which was why less than fifteen thousand were sold
before the company went bankrupt. The car's owner might not even know it had been used to
pick up the kidnappers.
McKinzi sighed. Another dead end. But she posted her findings and speculations on the
Between drone flights, Maria read everything she could about the kidnapping and safe
recovery of Brady Jacobs. After she read McKinzi's CAMSpan forum post about the ElectroCar
probably being involved, she felt a nagging sensation it was important, but couldn't think why.
Several people on different forums congratulated Maria for calling 911 and getting the
license number, but she always played down her part--besides, the kidnappers had wanted her to
get the number, so she had accidentally been helping the GoldESafe robbers.
But some forum posters were suspicious. Victoria Montalvo's footage showed the
kidnappers' van had been parked and waiting in another neighborhood, and then had driven off to
do the kidnapping. Several people asked how could the kidnappers have timed it so well, to be
sure Maria's drone would be there to capture the license plate number? One poster even went so
far as to accuse Maria of being an accomplice to the kidnappers.
That made Maria curious, so she went back and looked at the logs of the flight. She
checked her flight path relative to the kidnappers' waiting position. They couldn't have seen the
drone. Somehow, they must have gotten access to the drone's location.
Had they hacked in? Or did they have someone inside JumboRiver.com? Maria pulled up
the drone's log of that flight and watched it again. As the drone took off, down in the bottom left
corner of the display there was a status line that said "Connected Users: 2". It stayed like that as
the drone flew toward its destination.
Having someone monitor a whole flight was normal for new employees, but Maria had
three years of experience. Unfortunately, the log didn't show who the other connected user was.
But maybe one of the tech guys could find out.
She watched the kidnapping again and was proud of how calm her voice sounded when
talking to the emergency dispatcher. When Teresa joined the call, Maria's eyes flicked down to the
connected users status.
It still read two.
Teresa had been watching the whole flight. She knew what was going to happen all along,
then pretended not to know what was going on when she came over to my desk. She used me. But
Then it clicked: she knew from office gossip that Teresa's husband had been a programmer
for ElectroCar before it went out of business, and after that had worked for GoldESafe until
getting laid off several months ago.
It all made sense. She had a chance at earning a share of that ten-million GoldE reward.
She wrote up her suspicions in an email to one of the police officers who had interviewed her and
attached the drone's log file, but hesitated before clicking send. Teresa had always been a good
boss, even a friend, and Maria felt she should at least give Teresa a chance to explain herself.
Maria doubted Teresa would get violent, but she set the email to send automatically in one
hour, just in case, before going to Teresa's office.
"What's up?" asked Teresa.
"I think it will be better for you if you confess to the police," Maria said, "instead of
waiting for them to arrest you."
The stricken look on Teresa's face was the final confirmation Maria needed. Teresa's voice
faltered as she said, "Confess what?"
"The log shows you monitored the whole drone flight. You knew what would happen.
And your husband used to work for GoldESafe and ElectroCar. The police will put it all together
eventually, so your best chance is to confess now." She held out the police officer's card.
With a trembling hand, Teresa took the card. "I knew it was a bad idea, but Brad and his
friends were so sure we could get away with it . . ."
"Maybe a few years ago," Maria said. "Used to be you could get lost in a crowd. But now,
with so many cameras, the crowd finds you."
Teresa nodded. And Maria was glad that at least no cameras were here to record her
former friend's shame. Tears glistened on Teresa's cheeks as she dialed the police.