The modest house at 1953 Pine St. in Elk Grove was like any other house on the block. A ranch built in the post-war period, it had the same off-white aluminum siding as all of its neighbors. A tidy and perfectly squared-off lawn led to a small staircase, a tiny porch, and a plain white front door. A large living-room window looked out over the street. As with every other house on the block, the shades were drawn. It was occupied by a husband, a wife and two teenage children. All in all, it was not a noticeable house.
On a street full of gossips, nobody talked about it.
The family did have the occasional visitors. Bland-looking men and women in bland-looking rental cars. They always came during the day, when the husband and children were out. But otherwise, nothing seemed the least bit amiss.
But on January 27th, 2010, all of that changed.
On that day, at 11:14am, 1953 Pine Street became the talk of the town. In a rush, a fleet of bland-looking rental cars with bland-looking drivers and passengers jammed the street. And one after another those visitors walked up to and knocked on the front door. It opened, they walked in, and it closed.
The rumors began to fly. Was the woman in the house dealing drugs? If so, why did she live in such a modest home? How did so visitors fit in such a small house? And how come nobody ever saw who opened the front door?
There was no way the neighbors could have known the truth.
Just that previous night thousands and thousands of small black creatures had appeared in various cities around the world. The creatures were just two inches long. They flew on micro-wings and appeared to be nothing more than over-sized flying cockroaches. But a few, in Cairo and Damascus, had been noticed by men and women who could tell something was different about them.
They recognized the creatures for what they were. Not insects, but robots.
Through secure communications channels that connected the spies of the world, their discovery laboriously traveled upstream. Notes were conceived, and hand transcribed on one-time pads. They were then transmitted by shortwave radio or satellite phone to central operations organizations in Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Paris and more. And in each of those stations, communications officers decoded the messages and rerouted them up the chain of command. Messages then flowed from intelligence bureau to intelligence bureau – trying to figure out which country was behind the micro-robots. Hours passed before they realized that none of them were. Within minutes of that realization, emergency protocols were triggered. Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world were informed that something was wrong.
However, try as they might, they had no idea what it was.
Of course, they all knew who it was. There were black robotic insects appearing across the globe. They didn’t know what the bugs did, they didn’t know who had delivered them. But every one of those intelligence agencies knew who had created them – the breadwinner of 1953 Pine St.
And so, in a rush of anonymous and spontaneous pilgrimage, they made their way to that address.
Group by group, they walked up to the white door and knocked. A camera analyzed their faces and determined their identities. Their backgrounds were reviewed and then, moments later, a servo pulled open the door and welcomed them into the home. Each group was ushered into the plain-looking foyer of the single story house. They would then stand on an 8-foot square carpet while the front door was closed and their faces were screened a second time, to insure no uninvited guests had snuck in.
Finally, the entire carpeted area began to sink beneath the floor level. It was an elevator, cleverly built into the fabric of the post-war ranch. Nobody acted surprised, because every one of the guests knew where they were headed. Beneath the home was the weapons laboratory of the world famous – if you worked in the right world – Amelie Bedeau. Of course, if you did not work in the right world, then she was invisible.
Even her family did not know what lay beneath the foyer.
Amelie was a woman with a fascinating history. Her specialty was micro-electronics. While Hamas hunted for collaborators, they knew nothing of the insect-like creatures that attached themselves to clothes, embedded themselves in cracks, and clung to curtains throughout the territories. Israel knew so much because Israelis were listening to everything. Amelie had created the devices that enabled it. Predator strikes in Yemen and Pakistan were driven by intelligence her devices had provided. Other high-profile terrorists had simply disappeared, injected with poisons by insects she had created. Countless other acts of violent espionage, unreported in any media, had been enabled by her.
When it came to watching, and when it came to killing, Amelie Bedeau, mother of two teenagers and a wife to a workaday husband, was simply the best there was.
And she was not surprised in the least by the sudden arrival of her visitors.
They, however, were in the dark. They’d known of dozens of her robots working at a time – but never hundreds or thousands. Before, they’d always known who she was working for. This time they did not. And they’d always known what she’d built – what purpose was to be served. This time they did not.
It worried them.
Amelie had broken her lab into two. One half of it was a viewing gallery, with rows of seats for the representatives of various intelligence services, State Departments and Foreign Ministries. All had contracted with her in the past. The other half, shrouded in darkness and protected by bulletproof glass, was her workspace. She knew who was coming and she waited patiently for them to arrive. And when everyone was seated, she raised the lights on her side of the room.
Her shock of red hair was her only flamboyance.
“Welcome,” she announced.
The crowd, not used to volunteering information or words, just sat silently.
“Obviously, I am aware of why you’ve come. Some of my creations have popped up on your radar. I believe,” she said, holding up an example, “These are the devices you are so curious about.”
Nobody in the room had actually seen one, they had only read reports. They craned forward for a closer look. But the insect was tiny, and nearly impossible to see.
“My visitors,” she continued, ignoring their curiosity about the device, “After years of work, and using funds you have given me, I am pleased to announce that I have created the perfect weapon.”
The fear was palpable. It was unsaid, but every man and woman in that room was wondering what, exactly, their funding had unleashed.
“It is small,” Amelie continued, “But not as small as some of my other creations. It can fly great distances. It can be sustained by solar energy. And it contains within it the unmakings of governments.”
A map behind her lit up.
The cities of Tehran, Rangoon, Cairo, Jeddah, Damascus and Minsk.
Agents and diplomats reached for their secure phones, eager to warn somebody, anybody of the impending geopolitical destabilitization. ‘Disaster!’ was the thought rushing through their minds. Even those who looked forward to the destabilitization reached for their phones. It would not be seemly to stand out.
“I’m afraid gentlemen,” said Amelie, “That your mobiles will not work here.”
Reluctantly the phones dropped back into waiting pockets.
“These devices,” said Amelia, “Are all part of a mesh network. A concept explored by the American government for their littoral naval vessels. Most of my devices have been small, and operate alone. But these perfect little machines work together f
or a greater effect than any one could possibly provide.”
She paused again.
“And in five minutes, I will turn them on.”
A man with a German accent blurted out, “What do they do?”
Amelie smiled, “Mr. Schwendtke,” she replied, “They communicate, and they hide, and then they communicate again.”
As confusion settled over the room, Amelie dimmed the lights and disappeared.
But a single red light remained on. And a timer next to it. And the minutes ticked by – feeling like hours. And then the timer hit zero, and the light turned to green.
Moments later, on massive screens, the images and words began to trickle in. Pictures of protests, messages of dissent – the baby steps of coordinated resistance.
Minute-by-minute the images and messages grew and multiplied.
Revolution was brewing.
And, somehow, Amelie had unleashed it.
Mr. Schwendtke blurted out again, “But what do they do!”
Every voice waited to hear the answer.
And then Amelie gave it to them.
“Every cell phone and every wi-fi connection, indeed, every wireless communications device in these cities, is now free. The robots are a network, a backbone of communications unhindered by tyrannical governments. Pictures and videos can be shared with the world. Opposition movements can coordinate their activities. And governments are unable to stop them. They communicate, they hide, and they communicate again.”
“My friends,” continued Amelia, “My little black bugs are the perfect weapon.”
“My friends,” she concluded, “My little black bugs are freedom.”