“Good morning team!” The buzz in the room quietened down as the bulky man in the once-smart suit at the front of the room dropped his stack of files on the desk. “Day 1765. I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate how important it is that we don’t mess things up now–”
“But you’ve done it anyway,” Bhatt muttered to Hansen, as he did every day. As usual she smiled; it was as much a part of her morning routine as the boss saying how important the day was.
“We’ve all come too far for this to fail now,” their boss was still saying. “So keep your heads on straight, don’t get cocky, and double check everything.”
“Just like every other day then,” Hansen muttered back, getting a wry, if weary smile, from her colleague. 1765 days was a long time to maintain enthusiasm for anything, let alone maintain the strictest discipline.
“Everyone back to your posts then,” the boss said, wrapping up the morning ‘pep talk’, as he called them. “Minor crime unit, let’s not have any slip ups, okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Hansen and Bhatt said, along with the other two dozen people who worked in their department.
Hamish Brown looked at himself in the mirror, and wished he could see anything other than himself. There wasn’t much to say about the view; an ordinary face, with a straight-forward haircut, and slightly drab clothes. Safe, dull and plain. His appearance matched his personality, and his life.
With a sigh, Hamish grabbed his keys and left his flat.
“Anything exciting today then?” Bhatt asked as they sat at their adjacent desks.
“A few minor robberies. One car-jacking. What about you?”
“About the same. One case of minor forgery as well though, so that’s exciting.”
“Ooh, forgery. There’s something you don’t get every day.”
“Well, enjoy it while it's rare. Only sixty more days, and forgery will be the most interesting thing on the news.” Bhatt raised a toast to the idea with his coffee mug.
“Yeah, but that’s just going to keep us in a job for life, right?”
“You going to do this for ever, Hansen? Just sit and run the numbers on people’s chances to commit crimes?”
“Well, not forever, but… there’s going to be some credit in it, isn’t there? Part of the team that proved that crime could be eliminated. I’m going to stick around long enough to milk that.”
“I don’t know. You know there’s going to be lots of folks that don’t like their lives being run by algorithms. It’s not going to be straight-forward.”
“It’s not running people’s lives though. It’s just balancing the numbers, and countering crime before it happens. It’s all right for you Bhatt, you’re not a woman who’s had to cross a car-park at night. Trust me, everyone will want this soon enough.”
“If you say so.” Bhatt turned back to his monitor, blowing on his coffee till it was cool enough to drink.
Hamish thought a lot as he walked. It was a habit from his childhood, when his mother would be too busy talking to her friends to notice her children beside her. Most of the time Hamish day-dreamed about superheroes and warriors, strong and brave men who fought for what was right.
Today though all he could think about was how unlike all his dreams he had become.
All the pain and heartbreak he’d been through was bad enough, but now he had to see it reflected in his little sister as well. That hurt more than anything his girlfriend and his best friend had done.
As he walked he wished he could be someone else. Anyone else.
There was a cheery beep from Hansen’s computer.
“Got an active one?” Bhatt asked, leaning back and trying to peer over at Hansen’s screen, even as he kept typing at his own.
“Just a minor robbery. Shouldn’t you be focused on your own work?”
“Technically yes, but I’m just writing up reports. Watching a live case is far more interesting.” With a flourish he hit the return key and slid his chair closer to hers. “Any regulars?”
“No. Just a couple of teens who want the money for alcohol. Their target is a pensioner, plenty of money in the bank and several grandchildren. She’ll hand over her purse after some token fighting, just to see how serious the kids are.” As Hansen spoke the calculations for her predictions streamed down on half of her screen. The other half showed a camera feed to a one-way street, where the ‘target’ was already starting to make her way onto the stage.
“Any elements of chance?” Bhatt asked, with a hint of longing.
“None.” Hansen flicked a look at Bhatt as she clicked through the last of the sums. “You know, anyone would think you didn’t want this project to work.”
“Of course I do. I’m not blind to the benefits it’ll bring, even without an ovary.”
“Then why do you keep talking like you want things to go wrong?”
“Because it’ll be interesting. And it’s going to happen sooner or later, and wouldn’t it be better for it to happen sooner, when the public doesn’t know what’s going on?”
“You mean when we can’t take flak for it in the press?” Hansen said. “I see your point. But the five-year trial is almost up, and there hasn’t been a single wrong prediction so far. If anything our predictions are getting better.”
“I know, I go to the meetings too, thanks. It’s just…” He blew a breath out between his teeth, which Hansen felt on her ear. “Well, I guess it just bums me out that humans are so predictable. Who’d have thought, just plug all our personalities into one algorithm and it’ll tell us exactly what we’ll do in every scenario.”
“I find it reassuring. Like, I know that I can’t make a wrong decision. It’s the only decision I will ever make, so how could I be wrong?”
“That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.”
Had he ever made the right decision in his life? The question had been bugging Hamish for the past few weeks, ever since that fateful night his sister had turned up. Not much had happened in his life, not really, and certainly not much that he felt in control for. He’d just spent the time drifting from one thing to another, going where people suggested and doing what they expected.
A month ago he hadn’t cared about it, had just accepted it as his lot.
He hadn’t realised it wasn’t just his life on the line.
“Ooh, who’s that?”
“Relax, Bhatt. He’s been accounted for.”
“Hamish Brown, admin clerk. Currently lives alone, knows his girlfriend is cheating on him but hasn’t done anything about it. Used to let the kids at school beat him up, still takes daily verbal abuse from his boss at work. A through-and-through coward, wouldn’t say boo to a mouse. He’ll walk straight across the mouth of the alley, look down it for 2.3 seconds, then carry on walking, at .75 times his usual walking speed.”
“I just hope the old woman isn’t pinning any hopes on ol’ Hamish then.”
“She won’t. She’ll still be struggling at that point, won’t even see him.”
There were more ways to get to the shops, but this route went through what remained of the old town, and the architecture and rickety buildings reminded Hamish of the heroes of his childhood, and the old worlds they fought to protect. It was easier to ignore that he was a failure if he could blame his settings instead.
He was so wrapped up in his own self-loathing that he didn’t hear the disturbance at first. It was only when the old woman cried out that he looked up. Saw the woman, saw the youths around her, jeering and snarling, just as they used to jeer and snarl at him. Just as that sort still did.
Eyes up and down the alley. 2.3 seconds in total. Then he put his head down and walked on, just that little bit faster.
“See? It’s all under control.” Hansen flashed a smile at Bhatt and loaded up the next set of calculations, for her next robbery that afternoon.
“Yeah, all right. Show off.”
Out of sight of the alley Hamish stopped. He thought back to his little sister, sat at his kitchen table, her eye already black and her wrist swelling.
“You need to leave him,” Hamish had said.
“That’s rich coming from you. I’m only following your example.”
His example. Keep your head down, let people own you, and never cause any problems.
‘And what has that ever done for me?’ Hamish thought.
Out of sight of the alley, he clenched his hands.
“Oh shit,” Bhatt gasped.
“He’s come back.”
“Who has, Elvis?” Hansen hadn’t looked up from her calculations. There was a difficult line here, where it wasn’t quite fitting–
“Hamish Brown. He’s come back to the alley.”
“What? No he hasn’t, that’s impossible.”
Sure enough though, he was now walking down the street towards the robbers.
“What’s the back-up scenario?” Bhatt asked, keeping his voice as low as it was urgent.
“I didn’t run all of those…”
“Damn it, Hansen. You know that’s procedure.”
“He was supposed to walk on! He’s marked as 99.9 recurring for cowardice, there’s no way he’d interfere.”
“Mr Brown begs to disagree with you.”
Because it had never just been about him, had it? Everything he did affected someone else, in exactly the same way as his mother ignoring him had impacted his life. How many people did he connect to? And for each one, just as he was the touchstone for them, they were one for so many more friends and acquaintances. A spiderweb of interconnectivity, with every person the central hub for their own pattern.
When he lay down and took the teasing, it paved the wave for his sister to do the same. He was the older sibling, he was supposed to protect her and set a good example.
How could he do that if he was a coward?
The teens hadn’t seen him yet.
“Where’s the nearest intercept team?”
“About five miles away.”
“Damn it, they’ll never get there in time. How are those calculations doing?”
“I’m getting there, Bhatt. You just keep watching the screen.”
“He really means it you know. That’s a fighting pose right there.”
“Will you shut up?! I know, I know.”
“What are the number saying?”
“It’s… it’s not good.”
“How not good?”
“There’s a 78% chance that it’ll escalate in violence…”
“Shit! We need to tell the boss–”
“No, Bhatt! It’ll be my job if this goes wrong.”
“It’ll be the whole experiment if this gets violent! That’s the whole point, knowing which crimes will cost lives and stopping them. If even one minor crime becomes a major one under our watch, it’s proof that the system doesn’t work. You have to report this.”
“Damn it, Bhatt. It’ll be fine. It’s fine, Brown will walk away. He’ll walk away…”
“Stop that,” Hamish said. In his head he heard it as the voice of a hero, strong and confident. In reality it was a quiet, wobbly voice, only just loud enough to be heard.
“You what?” one of the teens jeered. “Or what?”
“Or else there’ll be problems, young man.”
All the teens started laughing, leaving the woman alone and coming to circle Hamish instead. It was half of what he’d planned to happen, at least.
“Or else what? What are you going to do to us?”
Years of being a failure, years of running, years of regret and shame welled up inside Hamish. The last percentage chance of him being anything other than a coward snapped.
He punched the nearest kid in the face.
“Oh shit! Bhatt, hit the button!”
The alarm – the ‘everything-we’ve-worked-four-years-for-is-under-threat’ button – was in the middle of the room, and by the time Bhatt reached it Mr Brown had landed another blow. By the time Bhatt was back five blows had landed on Mr Brown.
“Punching is fine though, yeah?” Bhatt asked as he leant over Hansen’s shoulder. “That still counts as minor, right?”
“It won’t stay as punching,” Hansen whispered. On the other half of her screen were the revised calculations, and all the other players in the piece were running by the numbers.
Right on cue, one of the kids drew a knife.
Hamish Brown didn’t even feel the wound that killed him. He thought it was just another punch, a blow to his stomach and nothing more. At the time he’d been more worried by the blows to his head. It was only when the stomach ache got worse and his legs started wobbling that he looked down, and only then that he saw the blood.
“Oh,” he managed to say, before he collapsed.
Across the street from him the old woman was stabbed as well, to remove witnesses to the murder. Robbery was one thing, but murder carried serious time. None of the teenagers were ready for that sort of commitment yet.
As his vision faded, Hamish thought of his sister. Would she be proud? Would this be a better example?
‘I hope so’.
The fuzzy figures on the screen stopped moving. Tears ran down Hansen’s face, not for the two dead people in front of her, but for all the time she and her colleagues had wasted for the past four years. They’d had two months left. Sixty days.
And she’d ruined all of it.
No. Hamish Brown ruined all of it.
How far would the ripples from his life spread? Hamish Brown. It would be a name she would hate until the end of her days.