A short story
On November 1, 2027, five-month-old Lily Carter became the first child snatched from the sky.
As her autonomous stroller rounded the corner at Lexington Avenue, Lily’s seventeen-pound body slipped out from the shadow of the tall apartment building and into the golden sunlight streaming down Seventy Second Street. She had just begun to smile when a new shadow loomed overhead: a food delivery drone.
The food delivery drone, capable of carrying up to thirty pounds of everything from multiple jumbo pizzas to party-sized bags of Chinese food to six six-packs of beer, hovered a foot over Lily’s AAI Seven Bugaboo stroller. (A for autonomous, AI for artificial intelligence, and Seven for seventh generation. The few antediluvian luddites who thought parents should push their children chided that the “Seven” in the Bugaboo stroller’s name was a reference to Seven of Nine, the half-human, half-cyborg in the Star Trek television series.)
The food delivery drone’s camera, infrared, and ultrasonic sensors scanned the Bugaboo and its occupant as its blades whirred an octave beyond the edge of human perception. One-tenth of a second later, the machine’s grappling claws opened, lowered, plucked the baby, and whisked her into the sky.
Lily cooed, then wailed, and a hundred pairs of New Yorkers’ eyes witnessed her disappear into a cloud.
By the time Lily’s parents, Juliette and Harrison Carter, reached the police station to report their daughter’s kidnapping, the police knew about it. New York and the entire world knew about it because traffic cam video footage had leaked to CNN.
“What are you doing to get Lily back?” Juliette demanded, tears breaking her words apart. “Lily’s only five months.”
“We’re reviewing all the traffic camera footage to determine where she was taken.”
“Who took her?” Harrison asked.
“We don’t know,” Detective Summers replied.
“Why was she kidnapped?” Harrison then asked.
Summers simultaneously shook his head and shrugged.
“Is this a gang? Have they done this before?”
“We don’t know,” Summers replied. He scribbled in his notepad with a yellow pencil.
“What do you know?” Juliette asked.
“We know that this is the first time a child’s been taken by drone.”
The next day, food delivery drones abducted Justin Marcal, aged two months, Petro Saly, six months, and Candice Hall, nine months. As with Lily Carter, the drones swooped swiftly from the sky and then darted away into clouds.
From that day on, whenever parents looked skyward, there was no beautiful blue sky; just terror.
The abductions continued at a rate of ten to twelve children a week. The police puzzled over who was behind the kidnappings, how the drones were hijacked, or if they were built from scratch. They found no clues that revealed where the infants went.
Juliette, a bookbinder with Manhattan Handmade Books, put her considerable manual skills to work and built an automated shield for the autonomous strollers.
“How can you work?” Harrison asked. Distraught, he had quit his job as a television reporter for the local CBS news channel and spent his days in sorrow, hardly getting out of bed, moving only to reorder more tissues from Amazon. “I miss Lily so much. I want her back, sweetheart. I never knew how much I loved our baby until she was gone.”
“I’m working for all the other parents, to keep their children safe. I hope that one day Lily will return to us, but until that time, I will do everything I can to make autonomous strollers safe for babies. I feel like fate chose me.”
“Maybe parents should push strollers, like they did before? That's the simplest solution. If parents accompanied their children rather than an autonomous, electronic stroller taking them for walks, the drones wouldn’t be able to snatch children.”
“You don’t know that,” Juliette said.
“I know it and you do, too. Food delivery drones can be easily defeated with a single swat, or parents merely need to hold and hug their babies whenever a drone appears. Worst case scenario, always carry an umbrella and clobber the drone with it.”
Juliette shrugged. “Maybe, but that’s never going to happen.”
“All strollers were parent-powered before twenty-twenty-five.”
“Parents are never going back to the old ways of strolling their kids. What’s important now is that there be a way to keep infants safe from drones and by God, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Twenty-one hours later, Juliette shouted, “Eureka!” She had done it.
Juliette’s device, which she built on their dining room table in their tiny Manhattan apartment and which she dubbed “Infant Shield,” was easy to add to existing strollers, and most importantly, it successfully thwarted all drones. As a plus, the shield came in eight different colors. Within a week, she had sold a million, and by the end of the month, tens of millions.
Juliette became the most loved person in America, the most famous, and one of the richest. Tens of thousands of emails and direct messages streamed into her inboxes: “You made the world safe for Baby George,” “Little Leslie isn’t in lockdown any longer—thank you!” “Our two-month-old baby can see the sunshine once again.” Juliette’s Infant Shield earned her the Nobel Peace Prize nomination, as well, but before the Committee awarded the prize, the drones developed a laser drill that sliced through the Infant Shield in 2.5 seconds.
Juliette and Harrison sat glum-faced at their dining room table, herding their peas around their plates, taking occasional bites of mashed potatoes, and leaving their Wagyu steaks untouched because neither possessed the energy to slice.
“I’ve failed,” Juliette said. “I wanted Lily’s abduction to mean something, but all I did was give parents false hope.”
Harrison reached across the table and took Juliette’s hand. “You did the best you could, love. Whoever or whatever made those drones adapt is a formidable foe with great resources. Maybe there was never a way to thwart the drones.” Harrison gulped air and added, “We still don’t know where the children went or who’s behind this madness.”
As Juliette sobbed, Harrison tore his napkin in two, passing half to her.
She dabbed her eyes with her napkin half.
He wadded his part into a ball, rolled it tight, and hurled it across their dining room, where it struck a framed photo of Lily with a booming thunk, knocking it onto the floor, the glass shattering.
“Oh no! I’m so sorry,” Harrison said.
Juliette glanced at Harrison, then the frame, and smiled. “You’re a genius!”
“I’m really sorry.” Now Harrison cried.
“It’s great, it’s fine. You gave me an idea.”
“An idea for how to defeat the drones once and for all.” Juliette stood, walked over to Harrison, and kissed him on the forehead. “Gotta go. I’ve got to work.”
Forty-eight hours later, Juliette emerged from her workshop in their new Park Avenue penthouse apartment, carrying a contraption that resembled a rocket launcher with a radar dish on top. “It’s a radar-controlled rocket-launcher,” she said. “We’ll knock the drones out of the sky before they get anywhere near a stroller.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Homeland Security, and Amtrak (because falling debris could affect trains) issued the required permits three days after Juliette presented a sample weapon to them.
Two days later, production started, and within a week, nearly every autonomous stroller was equipped with the Juliette Mark I, an artificial intelligence-controlled defensive system. The sight of thick, white contrails and the sound of whistling missiles as they soared through the sky comforted the entire nation. The exploding drones were a daily 4th of July celebration.
Until the first drones with chaff and flare anti-missile systems appeared. Almost overnight, the Juliette Mark I went from the most beloved and vital technology in America to worthless junk that only drained the autonomous strollers’ batteries faster.
But that night, as Juliette and Harrison dined in their New Canaan, Connecticut Mansion, the television in the background reporting about how the drones had gained the upper hand, Juliette shed no tears because she knew she’d find a way to defeat the drones’ anti-missile system. She’d done it before and would do it again. She wrote in her notepad.
Ultrasonics? Electromagnetic pulse weapon?
She snapped her fingers and suddenly stood, sending her wine glass flying across the room. “Faster motors!” she said, jumping up and down like a ten-year-old who had eaten all her Halloween candy in one sitting. “I’ll build a faster stroller motor that will outrun the drones!”
“That’s brilliant, my love.”
If you enjoyed Strollers, I think you’ll also like my story, The Liberation Gang.
Fiction by Bill Adler is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.