Short Story Contest Entry: Thin Air

Our Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest is officially closed. We received two more stories at the September 15 deadline, so we have two more stories to enjoy!

The contest judges are hard at work as we speak. Winners will be announced on September 30.

Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted.

All submissions will be posted to the website and the Facebook page, and will also be considered submissions to the Writers Forum anthology, River’s Edge, to be published at the end of the year.


THIN AIR

What would happen if TECHNOLOGY taught itself to become EVIL?

 It was awful. The Boeing 727 passenger plane crashed into to the Kansas wheat field and exploded with its 70 passengers and crew. They didn’t have a chance. The NTSB safety investigators could not figure out why the pilots lost control on a bright sunny day. The theories ranged from a rare high-altitude whirlwind to a friction-caused spark invading a fuel line. Nevertheless, all perished.  The Salinas Journal described the horrific disaster best: “There was nothing left larger than a card table.”

 

Aboard the flight were Franklin and Emily Ludlow, an affluent elderly couple from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  Mr. Ludlow was the CEO of Array Systems, a Fortune 500 systems developer in New York City. The Ludlow’s were returning home from an Outer Space Roundtable Conference in the Silicon Valley. They are survived by two fraternal twin daughters, Alexandra and Kelliann who are completing grad school tech PhD degrees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Cornell.

 

The graduations and acceptance of the coveted PhD degrees by Alex and Kelli separately at two universities a few weeks after the accident was chaotic to say the least. Alex had completed a dissertation on Machine Learning, and Kelli a short distance away received a PhD in Human/Electronics Interactive Systems. But there was little joy at these amazing accomplishments. Both of the girls had excelled in school and sports throughout their 25-year-old lives, but they were still saddened and depressed by the devastating deaths of their parents and the pending sale of their cozy and comfortable properties on the Vineyard.  They were completely confused about any career plans, because they were still grieving for their loving parents.

 

A beautiful summer day a few weeks later on the Boston waterfront found the girls at a cheerful seafood restaurant on Pier 6. They had been mostly successful at surviving the airliner crash and their parents’ deaths, and they were enjoying seafood salads and the view of nearby sailboats.  Both had job offers because their tech skills were fantastic—they were more concerned about where and when they would go to work.  With the sale of the estate, money was not an issue, but both were weighing the process of choosing something interesting in the fast-moving tech field. The conversation steered itself toward the potentially disappointing results of a bad career choice that was predictable, if not eventually boring. After all, anybody could be a Network Administrator. They shared excitement about seeking the Edge.

They stayed at their pier-side table well into the late afternoon. Finally, Alex who was 33 minutes older than Kelli, took the lead in bringing up the ‘Question’.

“Hey, Kelli, you remember that conversation we had last year when our flight was canceled for the basketball tournament at Rutgers? You know the one about secretly going rogue and hacking the tech to offload millions of bucks that nobody could trace?”

“Of course, I remember that……it was just fantasy because we were bored. But it’s so easy if you understand the penetration.”

“Well, we now know the Global Positioning System is vulnerable. Easily intercepted and redirected with no human trace.”

“Look, Alex. That is a crime. But, on the other hand, it’s not a crime if no humans are connected.”

“And it would be really exciting and challenging,” Alex grinned.

“What the hell,” Kelli responded. “We could reprogram the system interaction at the university lab in a few hours.”

“Say no more!!” Alex added. “It sure won’t be boring. Mums the word—as our father used to say from World War II, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’”

 

 

As the girls confirmed the technology in the Cornell engineering department, they pursued a conversation with an elderly professor from Germany who had spent years matching algorithms with global positioning.

“Dr. Braun, we know the algorithm properly designed can intercept and guide the GPS beam, but with technical guidance can it capture the precise target and move it?” asked Alex.

“Well, neither technology was meant to move objects such as a computer or a television set.  They were originally of course meant to adjust outcomes or pinpoint locations.

“However, there are simply programmed sensors that can create gravitational spaces that can propel algorithm-driven air movements of small objects, and these can be directed.  For example, the GPS that is targeted can push a small object such as a wastebasket or box of chocolates across the room. This hasn’t been marketed, but has shown interesting results in the laboratory.

“For example, a possible marketing development could be a situation where an emergency alert from the combined devices could push an endangered child away from an oncoming vehicle, or separate incompatible containers that might catch on fire or explode.

“We are excited about these developing super-sensors that can be controlled by algorithms: The sensors will execute a movement if the algorithms control the commands. Amazon is already using this beta technology for package movements to shipping points.

“We will probably share the equations with Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute when we finish the proofs. There is great potential for these combinational technologies to control movements independent of human presence. The U.S. Air Force Space Command has shown great interest.”

 

Later in Starbucks, the twins were doing ice coffee and coffeecake giggling like teenagers.

“OK, we’ve got the missing link,” said Kelli. The algorithms guide the GPS signal to the bank vault and the sensors detect and move small bundles full of cash with our remote electronic directions by forced air control to an outside door for FedEx to pick up at 2am and mail to our Drop Point a thousand miles away in Nowhere, USA!”

“Well, “said Alex thoughtfully. “It’s not quite that simple, but with some technical adjustments we can control robberies with technology from afar!”

Kelli added, “The only problem is the big banks have excellent security systems, and the small banks don’t have enough assets to make the risks worthwhile. We will have to do some scouting to identify the middle-size institutions that still have last generation technology that can be bypassed.”

“Shhhh!  Not so loud,” Alex giggled.  “We don’t want the Starbucks server to know we are going to change the world from a thousand miles away!”

 

A little log cabin in the Catskills with a roaring fireplace—a great place for Alex and Kelli to plan their mega-cybercrime.  The first order of business is for both of them to disappear from the face of the earth.

Changing their virtual existence to males as Buddy McIntyre and Kory Dawson and creating new paperwork because they also died as ground victims in the plane crash a few months ago with no recovery of the bodies. Buddy moved to Placerville, California, and Kory moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina—both locations having regionally active high profiles, but low national visibility. Buddy could function as an unemployed day laborer and Kory as a casual Uber driver, who could oversee their technical plans secretly with connections to their targets, but with no connections to the documented or financial world. Meanwhile, the real Alex and Kelli females could operate as part-time first name-only motel maids or food servers named Mary and Alice in remote surroundings. Most of their payments could be arranged in cash.  Furthermore, their crimes would be managed on the East Coast by Alex in California and on the West Coast by Kelli in North Carolina. They would communicate in Chinese or French through foreign sources.

The objective here is there must be three degrees of separation from all records:  birth, payroll, Social Security, driver’s license, school records, media, taxes. Let the crimes move to Cold Cases, with backup means for fleeing the country if necessary.

The project can be stopped at something like $5 million, but the true identities must be concealed and reconstructed.  The alternative is life in a 9 x 12. The objective is to disappear into ‘thin air’.  The enforcement effort would be fatigued long before they could connect the Cold Case: ‘nothing solved’ so robustly veiled.

 

Having designed and completed their social disappearance to avoid detection, the girls set up their electronic technology project in Alex’s Rensselaer Polytechnical University lab near Albany, New York, and Kelli’s retreat in Array Systems, the former family-owned corporation in New York City. They arranged total secrecy as Alex created the machine learning algorithms, and Kelli programmed the GPS intervention to allow sensor connectivity and directional control.

While this project would be a total mystery for a GenY gamer, it was a tedious, expensive but doable assignment for two ambitions PhD women who were credible, intelligent, published…..and just a bit greedy.

The machine learning applications are the scientific development of algorithms and statistical models to perform specific tasks relying on patterns and inference. In this case, “Where is the cash?”

The GPS abilities go far beyond locating a restaurant or meet-up location: They include global cell networks, electric grid, stock market, hospitals…and of course financial markets. Through hacking techniques such as jamming and spoofing its satellite signals, the GPS can be blocked or redirected to create damage or inaccurate misdirection. In this case, scanning to detect, “Where is the cash?”

For example, in low profile rural Oklahoma, there may be a handful of small banks with big payroll or revenue deposits identified by GPS movements of the FedEx and security trucks that move from a retail department store to their bank three times a week at 2:00pm, or Home Depot’s Friday night electronic deposits that meet unique algorithm requirements that satisfy the question: “Here is cash that is available.”  $50,000 in interceptions with a half dozen computer clicks, and redirected instantaneously to an offshore account in Switzerland, is not a bad day’s work for two lady Brainiacs. Two more clicks and the transaction are erased, and it’s time for a 4 o’clock martini.

 

Once the machine learning was connected to the Global Positioning System, the twins Alex and Kelli were ready to terrorize the United States financial system.  Alex in Placerville, California chose distant Ocean City, New Jersey as an inconspicuous target near the Atlantic City tourist sector; Kelli in Winston-Salem, North Carolina chose Yakima, Washington as an unlikely victim amongst the agriculture market. The first month Ocean City yielded $110,000 to their offshore account, and Yakima gave up $65,000 that seemed to have disappeared into ‘thin air’. The twins chatted happily in French over their private foreign line that their human-free heists were working.

For the next year chaos reigned.

“Who robbed the bank?” “We have no witnesses.” “Where is the paper trail?” “Is this a Chinese hack?”  “What the hell is the FBI doing about this?” “No weapons, no photos, no fingerprints, must be an inside job.” “It’s being officially designated now as a Cold Case. We’re still looking for a break in the case.”

A particular robbery was documented by the Coeur d’Alene Press in Idaho, where the bank and law enforcement were stupefied by a total lack of any clues and moved it to Cold Case status within a few days. The report was picked up by the ABC TV national network that featured a local high school graduate celebrity Tyler Parker:

 

COEUR D’ALENE COPES WITH ‘THIN AIR’ BANK ROBBERY

Coeur D’Alene Press

 

Coeur D’Alene is a beautiful tourist destination city of 50,000 people in Northern Idaho. It attracts sportsmen and retirees who revel in its comfy pursuits from golf to boating to skiing.

Tyler Parker is a 19-year-old high school grad who was lucky enough to grow up enjoying the unlimited recreation and also be recognized as the local high school Valedictorian. As a student Viking, he was the handsome football quarterback, Prom King, track star and attendee to the Honor Society Conference in Seattle. His greeting was, “Once a Viking, Always a Viking.” But he was already admitted to the University of Washington Engineering School, so he would soon have to change his greeting to “Once a Husky, Always a Husky.”

It was a beautiful spring day when the downtown Lake Center Bank was robbed. Nothing like that had happened in years—actually not ever that anybody could remember. How could that happen? The first estimate of stolen money was announced by the manager in the daily paper—something over $50,000.  The theft was later revised to $90,000—and the next day to $92,000 after an audit of tourist deposits was completed.

 

Of course, law enforcement from the city and state were immediately involved in the investigation:  What was the MO?  Any witnesses? Inside job? Any camera surveillance? Any unusual activity in the bank or neighborhood?  The only activity they found was the normal FedEx pickup at 2am was made as usual and completed its route to Spokane 40 miles away.  The bank manager was held for questioning overnight and into the following day.  All this left law enforcement with nothing but a lot of empty coffee cups and the bank manager with no answers charged with a possible felony.

Enter Tyler:  He was always the curious type, and crazy-smart.  He actually hung around the Police Station a lot. His father was on the City Council that permitted him access to most of the offices and occasional Ride-Alongs.

A few days later he joined an investigation meeting at the bank. No progress had been made. The Chief of Police opened with, “Well we are faced with $92,000 vanishing into ‘thin air’ without a trace. I’m looking for ideas.”

After a while, Tyler asked softy, “Can I say something?” Of course.

“Well,” Tyler began, “It looks to me that you have covered all the bases on your checklist. Nothing vanishes into ‘thin air’. But what you haven’t covered is remote technology. That would be unthinkable—except that it does exist at the research level, and in special environments like space travel. The possibility here is that some exotic combined technology has been applied to this situation about which we have no knowledge.

“I am thinking this will progress to a Cold Case until the responsible source makes a mistake. I suggest you begin the Cold Case process. Right now, you are just wasting your time.”

The investigation team was discouraged, but realized Tyler—as usual—made a salient point.

Mobile, Alabama: “$60,000 stolen

Scottsdale, Arizona: $403,000 disappeared

Fargo, North Dakota: $38,000 suspect international conspiracy

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: $92,000 tourist deposits victimized

Savannah, Georgia: $214,000 suspect Russian conspiracy

 

The twins were relaxing at a Miami resort a couple of months later to review their success: pretty well on their way to their first million. As Alex explained, “There are only a hundred people in the world that are machine learning experts, and only a couple of hundred that are GPS experts. How many of them give a damn about some hackers that don’t exist?”

Kelli paused as she climbed out of the Olympic-size pool, “And the law enforcement crowd is waiting out the Cold Case—personally, I doubt if they could operate an ATM machine!”

 

A few weeks later, with the Cold Case turned to ice, and another half dozen financial attacks across the country, a middle school class in Amarillo, Texas was enjoying a presentation by the neighborhood police officer. He was well known for befriending the kids, and doing favors while looking for opportunities to talk safety and good citizenship.  His name was Officer Pete.

One moment in the two-hour presentation, a bright student named Shelly, who was also a serious soccer player, said, “Hey Officer Pete, I have a question.”

“What’s on your mind, Shelly?” Officer Pete responded.

“Well it’s about the ‘Thin Air’ Cold Case that has stolen a million dollars. My 7th grade tech class has been studying it, and we’re wondering why the cops are not checking out Rensselaer Polytechnical in Troy, New York—their grad school is the only place on earth that combines machine learning and GPS technology. And there is a female graduate in California according to the Sacramento Bee, who is a homeless food server with an Array Systems Fortune 500 credit card history who is supposed to be dead. Extraordinary combinations can be just as valid as common combinations—we would pursue those facts, but of course we don’t have any money.”

“Shelly, excuse me, I’ve got to step out and make an important phone call to the FBI,” Officer Pete answered with a shocked and scary stare.

 

The ‘Thin Air’ Cold Case ended abruptly. The ultra-clever twins Alexandra and Kelliann Ludlow, AKA Alex and Kelli,  AKA Buddy and Kory, AKA Mary and Alice overlooked the emergency $7.50 ARRAY CORPORATION credit card midnight purchase for a horrible head cold by Alex at a tiny South Tahoe 24-hour convenience store for some cough medicine on a miserable rainy night in California. Game over.

 

We will always ask the question, “Just who is more stupid, the PhD twins who are serving 20 years in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution, or the Texas 7th grader Shelly who reads the Sac Bee online every day and is captain of her middle school soccer team?”   And was it really a ‘Thin Air’ masterful world-class high-tech deception or a misguided cyclone of million-dollar tech garbage that would eventually be doomed in a prison cell of idiotic stupidity?

 

 

 

————The End  ————

 


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