“She just went through another one!”
Everyone else in the room switched their attention to the technician.
“It’s not on the map, I think. Looks like an inner patio with exits to several streets.” He typed some incantations that the computer answered with an address.
“Which streets?” Asked another technician while the security manager entered the room.
“Good morning, team!” He had been less than a week on the job and still hadn’t learned the name of the technicians. It was his first incident response, so he thought it was important to show confidence, to control the situation immediately. “What’s the threat?”
“Samantha Pascoal, a former senior software engineer,” explained the technician, “got fired a month ago. Our instructions were to keep an eye on her and inform any suspicious behavior. Earlier today, she left her home with a big bag and has been moving around in the city without following a clear pattern. We suspect she’s up to something.”
“Why was she fired?”
“We don’t know.”
“And why were you asked to monitor her?”
“We also don’t know.”
“It’s beyond our security level.”
The manager logged into a terminal and tried to find out more, but he also lacked clearance.
“She left the patio through one of the exits and went into another Wormhole.” A fourth technician interrupted them.
“Wormhole?” Asked the manager. “What are you talking about?”
It was way past the time at which ordinary employees returned home. Farid entered the office with three pizzas, the only thing that could take him, Samantha, and Ramón away from their computers during late-night coding sessions. They entered the meeting room; Farid brought the pizza boxes and Sam, her laptop. Through the years, she had trained to eat pizza while writing code and proudly used that skill whenever the opportunity arose. But this time, she was looking at a map instead of coding.
“What’s with these cyan lines?” Samantha asked as she turned the computer around. Ramón and Farid squinted at it from the other side of the table.
The screen displayed a map of the city overlaid with dots. The color of each dot represented the amount of information that History, the database of everything that happens in the world, received from that particular location. That information could be anything: video feeds from doorbell cameras, conversations from mobile phones, autonomous cars’ LiDAR scans, or light levels from Bluetooth lamps. In short: anything that is possible to record, encode and send would end up in History.
Algorithms turned that information into facts and knowledge about the world in a process called historizing, the focus of Samantha’s work. It was then possible to replay this knowledge: History could show what happened in a particular place and moment as a three-dimensional, living reconstruction of the world. To some, it felt like magic, but it was just algorithms and math. It also required less space than storing the original sources of information, which was the reason for developing History: registering everything that happens in the world in the most space-saving way possible.
Historizing worked better the more information it received. The map used colored dots to show how much was available in different parts of the city, ranging from magenta (lots of it) to yellow (almost none). Replaying still worked where little information was available, but it was less detailed. It could also contain errors, like showing things that didn’t happen or ignoring others that did.
The map contained a few yellow dots. Most of them marked places hard to reach, like the middle of the river or the rooftop of a tall building. The city was mostly magenta at its center, the roads slowly turning red and then yellow as they ran outwards. Somewhere in the map, Samantha had found dots connected by lines in a color that was neither magenta, yellow, nor anything in-between.
“That’s not cyan,” said Farid, always one with an eye for aesthetics, “it’s turquoise.”
“Isn’t that what Keith was working on? He was trying to map places from which we acquire no information. Non-historized places.” Said Ramón.
“Nothing at all? Is that possible, Sam?” Farid asked.
“Yeah. The city is full of such places. That is why we still don’t use the automated search for monitoring History: the algorithm stops working when the tracked person enters a non-historized zone. What I didn’t know was that Keith was mapping those zones.”
The three of them stared at the screen for some time.
“I know this place. It is an alley. Can you zoom in there?” Ramón pointed at a cyan part of the map, then added: “It looks like a line from afar, but it is just a lot of points close to each other. Like a path made of dots.”
“An invisible path, ” Farid said, “that takes you out of History and brings you back inside somewhere else. Like a secret corridor connecting two space-time locations.”
“Like a wormhole,” Samantha said.
“So Pascoal is using those wormholes to move around without us detecting her?”
The manager was sitting at a table with two of the technicians. The other two monitored History from their terminals, looking for traces of Samantha.
“That’s what we suspect,” answered one of them, “she is the expert in History Wormholes, so to say, and she’s been walking through them all morning long.”
“Sometimes we find her again right after she goes through a hole. But not always. A couple of times, it took us an hour. She’s smart,” added the other technician.
“So, is it impossible to know where she’ll exit a wormhole?” Asked the manager.
“Well… technically not impossible, but some Wormholes have many exits. Too many. Theoretically, we could monitor all of them, waiting for her to show up again. But there are only four of us, and the whole process is laborious.”
“Because we also don’t know when she will come out, not only where.”
“We don’t have the resources.”
“Aren’t there any tools for automating the search?” The manager was surprised by how handcrafted the processes seemed.
“Well… we could try to CRAP-MASH her.”
“Crapmash? What are you talking about?”
Samantha and Farid joined the other twenty or so in the big conference room. The director of technology had called for a last-minute meeting with all engineering leads.
The illumination was low; most of it came from a wall-sized screen. In front of it stood a woman in formal attire. Her professional smile and how she greeted the engineers entering the room stood in stark contrast with their relaxed attitude. The screen showed the first slide of a presentation titled “Crime Reduction And Prevention through History.”
The director opened the meeting after everyone took a seat and introduced Ms. Baptiste as an officer from the National Ministry of Security. He scolded some media and politicians for misunderstanding History and calling it a threat, which only prevented using this revolutionary technology to improve everyone’s lives. That’s why the NMS and the History Company had been discussing ways to unleash History’s potential for the common good, he said. Those talks resulted in a cooperation program, soon to be announced in public. He closed his speech by thanking all teams for their world-changing work. Then he ceded the word for Ms. Baptiste to explain the program’s core objectives.
“First, we want to ensure that law enforcement agencies have access to all necessary information for keeping our citizens safe. Working together with your infrastructure team will be crucial for accessing historized data. Second, we want to ensure that no bad actors gain access to such information.”
“Bad actors? Is this about crime or film criticism?” Samantha whispered to Farid.
“Third, we want to support the work of our law enforcement agencies with AI-powered tools to make it easier to detect and apprehend criminals after, during, or even before they commit a crime.”
Several engineers looked at each other when she said the word before.
“I understand your concerns. Previous efforts at predictive policing have not always been up to our highest standards. We have learned from past experiences and will not repeat those mistakes. We have the best technology, the highest quality data, and the best engineers. It’s our chance to make a difference, and we will make it.”
The director applauded as she finished; some engineers did too. A few of them even enthusiastically.
“We cannot yet predict even rainfall levels with History,” said Farid while he and Samantha walked down the hall, “and they want to predict crime? That’s crazy.”
“Sam! Could you come back for a minute?” The director called her from the conference room before she could answer.
Ms. Baptiste was still there. Also present was Hilgen, the director of company security, rarely seen around engineering. He always wore black suits, as if his job involved sudden invitations to funerals. His accent suggested an eastern European background, which he tried to suppress, most of the time by not saying anything unless strictly necessary. Few people had heard him talking; nobody had seen him smile. All kinds of rumors circulated about him. The most persistent one was that he was a secret agent for a foreign government who deserted and wanted to remain in the country; the History Company had saved him from deportation, but the price was lifelong services. If that was true, no wonder his lack of joie de vivre.
“Sam, Ms. Baptiste has expressed a special interest in your MASH algorithm. She would like to ask you a few questions.”
“The code for Monitoring and Automatic Search in History?”
“Ms. Pascoal, we would like to turn your code,” said Baptiste, “into a proper tool for crime reduction and prevention through automatic monitoring. Our national and local agencies are understaffed to detect all criminal activity in History. Without this tool, we face the threat of increasing unrest and civil disobedience. I am sure you understand how critical this is for our country and how much your work means to us.”
The implications of that last sentence made Samantha uncomfortable. She avoided eye contact.
“Director Hilgen will be in charge of this program. Your team will work exclusively on this from now on. His people will send you instructions.” Said the technology director.
Samantha returned to her office, where Farid was waiting for her.
“They want me to turn MASH into a surveillance tool. They want my team on it full time.”
“Crime Reduction And Prevention.”
“Let me get this straight.” Said the security manager. “Pascoal, the person we are following, was responsible for the CRAP-MASH tool, which we can use to find her in History.”
“Correct.” Said one of the technicians.
“And this tool has never been used.”
“Pascoal was fired just before it was about to be launched.”
“And it requires elevated security clearance to run,” added the other technician, “I think only director Hilgen can activate it.”
“Is there no other way to follow her?”
“Not really,” said one of them.
“Got her!” Shouted another one, looking at a terminal, “ten minutes ago. Now fast-forwarding her movements to… damned.”
“Another wormhole,” guessed another.
“How does she do it?” Asked the manager. “How can she know where these holes are?”
“She probably has a map of them.”
“And I wouldn’t be surprised if hers is better than ours,” said the technician who just spotted her, “it takes months before engineering sends us a new one.”
“She knows it, and she’s playing with us.”
“Like a cat and mouse.”
“But who is the cat, and who is the mouse?”
“Rather, she’s playing a game of wormholes. She enters one, and we must guess where she will come out next.”
“Alright, stop the chatter. I will inform director Hilgen,” said the manager, “and he will tell us how to proceed.”
He went out of the room and came back two minutes later.
“Director Hilgen is coming.”
He regretted having chosen the morning shift.
It was Samantha’s turn to bring the pizzas from the cafeteria. Instead of heading to the meeting room, she left the boxes over the big desk she shared with Farid, opened a box, and grabbed a slice.
“Still working on the adaptations to MASH?” He asked.
“Hmmmm.” Was her answer, meaning “yes” in pizza-chewing language.
“Still not ready for release next week?”
“Hmmm hmmm.” (no)
“Seriously? Baptiste will be furious! And Hilgen will want your head.”
“Sam… you know they will fire your ass if you don’t release next week, right?”
Samantha finished chewing the slice and continued eating one after the other until the whole pizza was gone.
“You bet.” She said as she threw the empty boxes in the trash, turned off her computer, and left the office.
The technicians went mute as soon as Hilgen entered the room. He approached one of the terminals without saying a word, manipulated the search parameters, and zoomed into Samantha’s last known location. It was less than ten streets from one of History’s data centers.
“At first, we thought she was moving randomly. Now we suspect that she is approaching one of our Data Centers.” Explained the security manager.
“Her movements are not random,” said one of the technicians, “she is just too smart for us to figure out what she’s up to.”
Hilgen stared at her. She went back to her desk without a word.
“She’s moving through un-historized parts of the city,” continued the manager, “the so-called wormholes. Following her is difficult. We think that only the CRAP-MASH can track her.” Cold sweat ran down his back as he proposed using the tool.
Hilgen tapped the keyboard. The room went mute for an entire minute while he browsed Samantha’s previous locations. He then nodded to the manager, entered his security credentials to authorize launching CRAP, and let a technician take control of the computer.
The software needed some minutes before being operational as it connected to all servers in History. Its main interface appeared on the screen, showing several search options and modalities. Among others, it was possible to filter for known suspicious behavioral patterns or to input the physical appearance of a person of interest. It also accepted someone’s identification number or full name. The technician found Samantha’s ID in the company’s HR database and fed it to the tool.
A few moments later, a second window popped up with a result. Hilgen, the manager, and the other technicians approached the screen to see the contents of the replay: an empty street. After a few seconds, a car drove by, and a woman walking a dog turned around the corner.
“That’s not her. Where is she?” Asked the manager.
“It’s probably a mistake.” Said the technician. Closing and opening the result only showed the same replay. Samantha was nowhere to be seen.
Another result showed up. The technician tried to click on it, but more result windows popped up, preventing him from doing so. Soon, the computer screen with full of result windows. They watched a handful. Some contained empty streets. Some showed people eating at a café, or walking in a park. There was nothing out of the ordinary in any of them. Most important, they did not include Samantha.
“I cannot believe it… this doesn’t work!” The manager was holding his head.
The technician tried to stop the search, but it was impossible while new results windows kept popping up. He opened the software settings and shrieked: “It’s sending the search results to the Ministry!”
Hilgen’s phone rang: it was Baptiste. He picked it up and remained silent for a few seconds before the call finished.
“Shut it down.” He said.
“I cannot! It’s not responding!”
“The process is running with the highest security level.” Said another technician while checking from another computer. “It has spawned sub-processes all over the network and is now active in all servers. We cannot shut it down manually. We need to reset the servers.”
“That would be catastrophic,” the manager pleaded Hilgen: “It will kill replaying until we start the servers again. We cannot do that!”
“Shut. It. Down.”
The manager let himself fall into a chair as if his spirit had just left his body. He watched speechless as the technicians initiated the servers reset process. He found himself wondering about Hilgen’s accent. Is it Eastern European? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore.
The computer running CRAP turned off, beeped twice, and returned to life. Hilgen left the room.
Half an hour later, the last server was up again. Everything seemed fine, except that CRAP was no longer there.
“It’s gone. No trace of the software, no trace of the code, no trace of anything at all.” Mustered one of the technicians as he turned around to face the manager. But the manager had also left the room.
“Have a nice trip,” said the stewardess as she returned her passport, “and remember to take enough pictures and videos from your trip: historizing doesn’t work in your destination!”
Samantha smiled back, stashed the passport, and walked through the boarding gate.