A clay-sooted mishmash of bowl cuts, braces, and jean shorts huddled around a mysterious object baking under the Florida sun. Mark had taken a knee and, armed with a crooked, skinny pine branch he’d picked up earlier on their jaunt, he leaned in to give it a poke.
“No don’t touch it!” a voice screeched. Mark fell back and the huddle broke.
“Why not?” Mark barked back with rebellious instincts. “You ain’t the boss.”
“Might be dangerous. Might have fallen off the power lines.”
The kids all looked up toward the high-voltage distribution lines towering overhead. The thick cables and gigantic, 100-foot structures carved a sandy path through the dense loblolly pines from Mark and Aaron’s subdivision to the cluster of McMansions that made up the more affluent neighborhood where Kayla and James lived.
“Daddy told me those aren’t even dangerous anymore. Everybody’s got a Prius Box.”
“We don’t have a Prius Box.”
“Then what’s your house run on, stupid?”
“I don’t know. Never asked.”
“Our family shares a Box with the Sweeneys next door.”
“Well, whatever. Even if the power lines don’t work anymore, I mean, this thing could be dangerous.”
“You don’t even know what it is.”
“Ugh. Here.” Kayla cut through the argument and withdrew a slug of pink, brushed aluminum and glass from her dress pocket. She aimed it at the mysterious device and snapped a picture.
In an instant, the visual fingerprint calculated by Kayla’s digital device was encoded and streamed through the air to a Verizon East broadcast tower. The bits and bytes were then routed through switches and NSA-DHS domestic packet sniffers and miles of fibre-optic cable to a bunker-like data center far, far away.
Roughly ten different servers sitting in cold, dark rooms ripped through the data stream and began searching for pattern matches against other known visual fingerprints. Probabilities were assigned to each potential match. The visual fingerprint itself was saved for future matching. And, finally, a signal was shot back to Kayla nearly the same way it had arrived.
The result on Kayla’s end was a deflated error noise.
“Hm,” she grunted with her brow furrowed. “Let me try another angle.”
Again, the handheld sounded a shutter clicking noise— a mechanical sound that had no significance to the children— then quickly let out the same deflated doo-wah as before.
“What’s it say?”
“It says can’t find a match.” She flipped the handheld around and held it up for the other children to see.
Google Scan Results: No positive matches. Possible matches: Typewriter (28%) or Torsion Pendulum Clock (19%) or Scale Model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (6%). Buy It Now on Amazon. Hint: Try scanning again from another angle.
“Stupid thing.” Kayla begrudgingly pocketed her handheld.
They all gathered around the mysterious object again and just stared. Mark and Aaron both took a knee while James and Kayla looked on, standing. Each child would occasionally lean their head from one side to the other as they took in the fine craftsmanship and elegant clockwork nature of the device.
James asked, “What color would you call that?”
“What if it is gold?” Mark’s eyes were wide with excitement.
“Aaron’s family might be able to buy their own Prius Box.”
“Shut up, James.”
Kayla had her handheld out again.
“Search for Copper, Glass, Buttons, Gears, and... Old,” she spoke into one end with the sort of unnatural, precise enunciation that people expect computers to speak.
“Did you mean steampunk?” A cold, motherly voice replied from inside the handheld.
“Steampunk is a genre of fiction generally based on alternate histories beginning in the late 1800s in which certain popular technologies such as computers and telecommunication have been realized using mechanical and steam-powered means.”
“That’s it, then! This thing must be steampunk!”
“You retard. Fictional means not real.”
“I know that.” He didn’t. “Doesn’t mean it’s not steampunk.”
“Let me try,” James offered as he pulled a large black tablet from his backpack. He rubbed his dirty fingers across his shirt and gave the glossy glass-like screen a few taps. “Tell me about where I am.”
“Did you mean outside Niceville, Florida, or a more specific location?”
“More aspecific,” James replied. And barely two seconds passed before...
The children all gathered around James and his tablet, trying to block the midday sun’s glare with their diminutive shadows.
The screen displayed a bird’s-eye aerial view of the children perched around the mysterious device. Under the picture the text read “Last updated six minutes ago from Google LiveEye.” After taking a few seconds to pick out who was who in the photo, James gestured the photo away and a block of hyperlinked text took its place.
The text itself was written as prose by a very smart program running across hundreds of thousands of specialized servers. It had first cross-referenced James’ identity and search history and the body of written work in his Google Docs portfolio. The program then constructed the search results to suit his fifth grade reading level. Finally, it shuffled the paragraphs around into reverse-chronological order, recognizing that James didn’t traditionally care about things that had happened in the past.
The text told them some things they already knew and some things they didn’t. They were on a power line access road once maintained by the now-defunct Gulf Power Company. The adjacent land was now owned by the people who built James’s subdivision and had been owned by no less than seven different real estate development companies in the past twenty years.
Before that, though, it had been a part of the once-sprawling Eglin Air Force Base.
“Uh huh! Uh huh!” Aaron felt vindicated. “Told you it might be dangerous,” he exclaimed.
“It’s a bomb. It’s totally a bomb.”
“They don’t drop things that look like that out of the sky,” Mark protested. “It would break.”
“Bombs are supposed to break when you drop them out of the sky.”
“Maybe it’s part of a bomb, like...”
“But they haven’t tested bombs out here in—,” Kayla interjected, then looked back down at the screen to check the date. “...fifteen years.”
“Maybe it was buried all this time.”
“Does it look buried to you? Or like it was buried ever?” The kids all glanced back up toward the device, with its slightly-faded sheen of copper and gold, and concluded it did not look like it’d been buried.
James, Kayla and Aaron continued reading through the limited history of the area: Testing of bombs. Appropriation of the land from rednecks who were none-too-happy to relinquish their property to the Federal government in the mid-20th century. Andrew Jackson driving Native Americans out of Northwest Florida. Except the article used the phrase “American Indians” because it was written for children, by machines.
Mark, meanwhile, walked back over to the device. He no longer wanted to be distracted by all the facts and figures on James’ tablet. It was all just noise to him. As the other kids continued to laugh and argue and stare at the screen, Mark took his dirty hands and flipped the heavy device over onto its side.
It landed with a ker-chang, like a bag of change hitting the ground. Tiny critters scattered from the damp mark where the device had been sitting for who knows how long. Mark took his arm and wiped it across his brow while the others all looked up to see what had happened.
“Hey, why’d you do that for?”
Mark looked down and saw writing on the bottom of the device. The others couldn’t see the writing because they were too far away.
About 70,000 feet in the sky on this cloudless summer day, an unmanned surveillance drone with a half-million dollar optics package protruding from its nose was watching and tracking and could definitely read what was written under the device.
The LiveEye UAV had been algorithmically dispatched to gather the information it needed from the bottom of the unidentified device, at the silent behest of Kayla, James, Aaron, and Mark. Google may, after all, improve your search experience by employing resources such as satellite and aerial surveillance, passive audio recording devices, psychological profiles gleaned from your browsing history, and information from its corporate partners. It was all written in the Terms of Service. And at that moment, Google was using that recognized text to identify the unrecognized object.
“Guys there’s writing on the bottom!”
“Did you break it?”
“What’s it say?”
“He probably broke it.”
The words had been etched into the bottom and looked like handwriting. Mark cleared his throat with a single grunt and spoke the words as they were written.
“For my son, Danny. There’s beauty in the bizarre. May 1983.”
“That’s a long time ago.”
Then, there was an awkward pause as the kids contemplated their next move. All around them, cicadas chirped the official theme song of a hot Florida summer day. The sun beat down on the trees and the kids and the unmanned surveillance vehicles and everything else, known and unknown. Sweat dripped out from under the boys’ bowl cuts and made beads of mud on the ground. Exhaustion and, to a lesser extent, defeat were lingering in the hot hair.
“Let’s take it back to my house.” Aaron suggested. “We can keep it in the garage,”
“How are we gonna get it there? It’s too heavy to carry.”
“Oh, I know!” James confidently replied with his tablet in-hand.
A few gestures later, a satellite map not unlike the view from the LiveEye displayed the location of James’ Radio Flyer Wagon, Tesla Motors Edition, as it not-so-slowly made its way from James’ backyard to the power line access road.
James was content as he sat and tracked the progress of the autonomous wagon. Mark ventured near the trees to look for a new walking stick. Aaron and Kayla were talking about their teacher and the upcoming school dance and the myriad of different topics that two generally-compatible fifth graders have to talk about. Fifteen minutes passed before the wagon finally arrived.
“Your chariot awaits, princess,” James said to his friends. He believed he was quoting a movie. The others were just confused.
“Aaron, come help me with this,” Mark said as he braced himself around the device, trying to find a hold. Aaron joined him and, straining, the two lifted the machine and placed it not-so-gently into the wagon.
In the sky, the LiveEye drone broke from its circular track about the kids and headed east, having gathered enough data to resolve all outstanding queries about the object.
The kids all walked together, dragging their heels and kicking up a dust storm behind them. Their laughter carried through the tall pine trees and reverberated up the tall, metal power line poles. Behind them they could hear the whurr of an overpowered electric engine effortlessly guiding wagon wheels over dirt clumps and the occasional ker-chang of the device as it bounced around in the wagon bed.
When they reached the end of the road, there was a dirty, mud-flecked white pick-up truck waiting. Leaning up against that pick-up truck was a man. He was a weathered, tan old man whose hair and beard matched the color of the soiled truck.
At first the kids were silent, having been told countless times to never talk to strangers except for policemen, firemen, TSA agents, and teachers on the first day of school.
“Are you a policeman, a fireman, or a TSA agent?” James asked naively.
“I’ve known a few. Had words with more. But no sir, I am not.”
“Are you a cowboy? Do you fight American Indians?” This made the stranger smile.
“We shouldn’t talk to you,” Kayla let out with an air of confidence. The man took a few steps back. Kayla turned to the others and said, “We shouldn’t talk to him.”
“I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have come out here like this if I’d have known y’all were just kids. Not tryin’ to scare nobody.” He drew the large, ten-gallon hat from his head and held it against his chest. “The name’s Daniel, and y’all have something that belongs to me.”
Everyone, including Daniel, looked over to the wagon. Mark was the only one who saw the man’s face light up with earnest joy when he set eyes on the device.
“You’re talking about the thing we found,” Aaron said.
“What’s it mean to ya?” Mark asked defensively.
“It means a lot to me,” Daniel replied. He took in a big, controlled breath, then continued simply. “It was a present.”
“Growin’ up. Graduatin’ college. Showin’ him I was worth the price he paid to raise me right.” The initial excitement in Daniel’s face and his voice having faded into a melancholy that the kids perceived as lethargy.
“You’re a little old to be graduating from college,” Aaron challenged.
“It was a long time ago.”
“Look. First, tell us what it is,” Kayla demanded.
Daniel took a few steps closer to the wagon as the kids all backed up a few steps to give him space.
“Ma’am, I just told you,” he said not looking at Kayla but deeper into the finer details of the device.
“No, you told us that it’s important and that your dad gave it to you because you grew up or whatever.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“Look mister,” Mark began. “Mister Daniel. We went through a lot of trouble trying to find out what this thing is. Or was. If you’re trying take this thing back from us, the least you can do is explain it to us.”
“Google didn’t even know,” James said with disappointment in his voice.
Daniel looked down at the kids then back to the device again.
“What do y’all think it is?”
“I think it’s a bomb!” Aaron shouted first. The other kids looked back at him with mixed looks of embarrassment and puzzlement. Daniel laughed.
“Well I can imagine why you might think that. Y’all know they used to test bombs out here?”
“We read about that,” James replied confidently.
“Glad to hear that kids are still reading these days. But no, my father did not give me a bomb as a present.”
“Well I think it’s some sort of clock,” Kayla suggested.
“Then what’s this thing do?” She pointed at a dial connected to a rotating set of gears that would tick when one button was pressed.
“Well, uh,” Daniel started.
“Just tell us what it is!” Mark interrupted with an uncharacteristic look of urgency painted across his eyes.
Daniel smiled and gave a sage nod. He reached into the wagon and cradled the device with both hands next to his chest. The kids watched.
“This. This is art. This is craftsmanship, attention to detail, and countless hours of hard work.” He turned the heavy object around as to show it from each and every angle. “Its purpose, its meaning, are all in the eyes of the beholder.”
“So it doesn’t do anything?” Kayla asked.
“It does all sorts of things!” Daniel replied with excitement in his eyes.
He propped the device up against his arm and, using the other arm, pressed one button turned five gears and caused two hidden buttons on opposite sides of the machine to become exposed. He then pressed one of those buttons, which cascaded into hundreds of different permutations and possibilities. The excitement became infectious as the kids’ curious eyes widened with each new knob-pull or switch-flip.
“That’s really cool,” Mark said.
“I think so,” Daniel replied. He turned and ambled back to his truck, device in hand.
He paused when he reached the passenger side door. With instinctive selflessness, Mark ambled over and yanked the door open. Daniel delicately set the puzzling device into the seat, pulled the seat belt across it, and turned to face the kids again.
“Thanks, son. I guess I owe y’all for diggin’ this thing up out in the middle of nowhere.”
“We didn’t have to dig up anything,” Mark replied. “We just found it in the middle of that old dirt road, like someone had left it there to find.”
“Hm,” Daniel let out with a single chuckle. “That makes sense.”
“How?” Kayla asked out of earnest curiosity. “How did it get out here?”
“Same way as the rest of us, I reckon.” The others smiled at this.
The old man slammed the truck door and withdrew his wallet.
“Here,” he said as he leaned in to give the kids their well-deserved reward.
“Wow, that’s a lot, sir!” Aaron replied.
“A token of my appreciation.”
They took the money, and the old man bid them adieu. He slinked off into his truck and the children were startled when his old, barely-legal diesel engine pushed black exhaust out of its ancient and rusting tailpipe.
“Wait!” Mark screamed as the truck shifted out of park. Daniel leaned his elbow out of the driver’s side window and looked down to face the boy.
“How’d you find us? How’d you find us and your present and how’d you know where to meet us?”
The old man shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“I Googled it.”
-Kyle Barnhart, 12 Apr. 2012