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by Will Silver Hastings

“Hang on a sec,” said the police officer at the O’Hare passenger departure terminal. She was walking toward a blue APT. It didn’t look like anyone was inside.

“Hello!” the officer called out. Then she tapped on the fender gently with her side handle correction baton. “Anybody in there? Hello?”

The vehicle was functioning on standby.

“What are you doing here?” She asked, as if it could talk back. She engaged her communicator, “Be advised, we have an unoccupied APT in a restricted zone. Can we get a remote link for control?”

“Hold your position. Do you have a suspect?”

“Negative. There’s no one onboard.”

“Scan barcode.”

Only ten metres away, Stick and Marty casually watched the police officer check out their hijacked APT.

“There goes our ride,” said Stick. He watched the officer aim a scanner at the car. They’d only left it a few minutes ago.

“So we get another one,” said Marty.

“I’m gonna lose another board. They don’t give them back you know. They cost.”

“How much? 20? 30? That’s nothing. It’s not like you make them. You just buy them. Get another one. Why don’t you buy a bunch? You know you’re going to use them.”

“I need time to program them and link them.”

“You don’t program them. You just pick out the stuff you want to over-ride from a menu. Then you save it. It’s even wireless. You don’t have to actually, physically hook it up to anything anymore. You just need to get near it.”

“Yeah, but that’s still programming.”

“You call that programming? You think multiple choice is programming? You know it’s more complicated than that, right? Remember the guy, Geo-something, who hacked all the phones and wrote the Lemurian Escape Toolkit for cracking video games? He was good. That’s programming. He ended up running the big social media app way back when. He’s probably really old now, but a guy like him cracked the auto-auto program and wrote the AutoHack ToolKit to make the chip thing you buy. You’re at the bottom of the pyramid, man.”

Stick’s real name was Robert Hyde-Parker. He grew up in Port Washington on Manhasset Bay in an affluent neighbourhood in an 18 bedroom mansion. He was the only child of old money parents who spoiled him to the point of joining either a religious cult or a vicious street gang in order to rebel against the capitalistic social environment that produced him. His folks wanted him to go to University on a sports scholarship and hopefully join a major league professional team where each and every member was paid a preposterous salary even if they sat on the bench. Robert preferred days and nights of zero recollection. He’d wake up at unfamiliar dwellings of strangers with no idea how he got there. He stopped going home and eventually discontinued all forms of communication with his parents and relatives.

He met Marty at a secret party of former Nitro Street Drifters who liked to talk about vintage cars even though no one drove them anymore. These days, only special services and police were allowed to take control of their own vehicles. Stick tried to tell his new friends about the AutoHack ToolKit, but none of them wanted to listen. They had no interest in current autonomous APT vehicles. Only Marty shared his enthusiasm for stealing APTs and over-riding the control system. It sounded dangerous and radical.
Stick was more of an entrepreneur at heart. He still wanted desired money for what it could provide, but he had no idea how to actually do it. What he really wanted was to be a player in the hacking industry.
Meanwhile, he continued jumping between daydream careers. It seemed like he was always getting started. It wasn’t for lack of ability or intelligence. He just never acquired practical information due to a fundamental intolerance of authority. With years of detention at school, he inevitably stopped going and began hanging out at Comm Cafes. He associated with techie outcasts who accepted him as an enthusiast like themselves. He also supplied them with high-quality illegal hardware obtained through a network of dubious individuals who were accustomed to spending time detained in official custody. They got along really well.

“You were the one who left it in a restricted zone,” said Marty.

“I didn’t think there was any blue in the area. There never is, because nobody ever goes into restricted zones, because they can’t anymore. That’s why I thought it would be good. I do it all the time. It’s the best place to leave an APT short term, long term, or any term.”

“You do realize that sounds completely stupid,” said Marty.

“It’s logic.”

“You need a new processor on your shoulders. Have you noticed?” He pointed offhandedly toward the police officer standing next to their car.

“There are always exceptions. That’s a law in physics.”

“Physics? Put your gloves back on.”

Officer Louise Spengler walked over to the baggage porter who was working in the area. She held up her tablet with a photo of the APT’s owner.

“You see this individual today?”

“No officer, not today and I would remember. He's well-known. He’s a regular flyer. Everybody knows him here. I’ve seen him on the web.”

Officer Spengler was receiving an audio alert. New data arrived on her tablet. As she read it she said, “There’s something you don’t get everyday. We’ve got a vehicle in a place it must not go with the owner a thousand miles away in a casino. The ID just got confirmed.”

“What?” asked the porter. “It wasn’t him. He wasn't here. He didn’t leave it.”

“That's’s happening more and more.”

“What is it?”

“Hacking autonomous personal transport vehicles. Initially, the idea was great. No crashes. No accidents. No speeding. Nobody could run stop signs, red lights. Nobody was cutting each other off. It cut down on aggression. Nobody could run stop signs, red lights, change lanes improperly or block emergency response vehicles, let alone tailgating, running into pedestrians or parking illegally. It was supposed to be our new era of safety. Problems of personal transportation went away at one fell swoop. It crippled the insurance companies for a while, but that didn’t last long.

The only thing is, the car guys should have talked to the banks about securing their systems better. With all the patches and modifications for encrypted interactions, it was supposed to make cars really smart to eliminate driver-controlled operation. Everything would be auto, but now we’ve got ‘over-ride boards’ on the black market. There’s servers outside the country selling kits where we have no jurisdiction and it’s out of control again. It doesn’t matter how expensive it is or not.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. High or low, money doesn’t matter. Some kid comes along and backward engineers it and puts their version online for free and it goes viral.”

“The world’s out of control,” said the porter. His face scowled with dismay.

Stick and Marty gave up on the APT. They went and grabbed a different one a few hundred metres away.

“Get in,” said Stick.

“Is it ready?”

“Of course. Get in!”

“But it’s still moving.”

“Then I’ll see you later.”

“How did you get the doors to open?”

Stick winked at him.

They climbed in as the APT was slowly navigating toward a couple returning from vacation. They were standing by the curb along with their luggage, waiting for their car. When they saw the two men jump inside their vehicle and pull away, they didn’t say a word. They just watched it drive off in speechless wonder.

“Take the joystick,” said Stick.

“No! I’m no good at Nav. I’m dyslexic with those things. Up is forward, Down is backward. You drive it, man!”

“I can’t do it all. I’m trying to execute and it’s giving me grief. There’s something wrong with the link. It was OK a minute ago. Now it’s not responding. Take the stick! Come on! Help me!”

“What’s it doing? It won’t steer!”

“Go left, left, Left, LEFT, LEFT!”

The vehicle swerved hard to the right and ran into a row of luggage carts.

“What are you doing?” yelled Stick, exasperated.

“It’s not me! I’m not doing anything! It’s like I don’t have control of the car.”

The car shot back out onto the road and began picking up speed fast. Stick grabbed the joystick from Marty and tried moving it and clicking on actuators. There was no response.

“Are you sure you’ve got the right remote?” asked Marty. He reached for the door release switch.

“You can’t get out now. The door won’t open when it’s moving. It’s programmed not to.”

“So over-ride it!”

“I can’t! It won’t listen!”

“Shut it down! Do something!”

“It’s not responding!”

The car continued to accelerate. It narrowly missed pedestrians crossing at a crosswalk who never saw it or heard it go by. They jumped back after it was long passed. People who saw the near miss, yelled out in anger and disbelief.

Stick grabbed the red emergency handle between the seats and yanked on it so hard it broke off. The vehicle showed no signs of slowing.

On the balcony of the 64th floor of the Weyland Plaza Condominium building across the street from the airport, a four-year-old prodigy programmer hacked together her own remote control with a few modular micro-boards left on the work bench by her big brother. When she scanned the area for control signals, she found one that had been cracked for an APT. She synchronized frequencies and uploaded protocols with her own custom device and over-rode the over-ride. Then she went out onto the balcony to see if she could spot it and began navigating the vehicle out of the maze of roads surrounding the complex with her tiny little, uncoordinated, four-year-old fingers. She was bringing it home. It was exactly what she had always wanted her whole life.