The Program — White Algorithm’s burden - part I

White Algorithm’s burden - part I

ANNOUNCER: Recorded shortly after the events it covers took place, the following investigative report serves as an example of the true crime genre. Once a hugely popular form of audio storytelling, it has since fallen into obscurity. Recurring musical motif is “Chaconne in F minor” by Johann Pachelbel performed by Burghard Fischer and Tibor Pinter.

MAYOR: When the truckers disappeared, Program's gigs saved us. Back then we were a transit town, the last one before the desert. Any trucker heading east would stop here to fill up his gas tank and his stomach. But then electric engines appeared and gas tanks disappeared... And then self-driving trucks appeared and the truckers disappeared. And we would have disappeared too if it weren't for the Program and the gigs that it brought us. So it ain’t surprising really that when the government attacked the Program, people of Neumat rose to defend it. You could say that without the Program, Neumat wouldn't be on the map - both figuratively and literally! [laughs]

REPORTER: Neumat might have been saved from removal off the map, but it’s still at its heart a sleepy town of a few hundred people. Mayor was the first person I interviewed upon my arrival. That's one of the benefits of reporting from small towns - officials are ready to talk to whoever shows up and happens to carry a microphone. Then again it's not likely she had a better way to spend the afternoon - just like officials elsewhere, Mayor's role is largely ceremonial, and all real decisions are made through the Program.

Being the de facto birthplace of the system change, events at Neumat occupy almost a mythological place in the public imaginarium. And just like all myths, it doesn’t compare favourably with reality. The only remnants of the revolution still standing are a run-down museum and a plaque celebrating the Update. Which is just as well - I was interested in a much more recent event. One that happened less than two years ago and would under no circumstance get a commemorative plaque. But, for the time being I was keeping the real reason behind my arrival a secret, as I wasn’t sure Mayor would be equally welcoming if she knew I wasn’t in Neumat to write a history report, but a crime report. And, as events would soon show, a medical report as well - a probe in what happens to the human psyche when preadolescent children in the community start disappearing... One by one.

MAYOR: You know, this whole area was originally inhabited by German speakers, which is how Neumat got its name. It’s actually a contraction of “Neue Heimat”, meaning “New Homeland”.

REPORTER (LIVE): Could you talk a bit about life in Neumat after the Update?

MAYOR: [laughs] What you really want to ask is, how was life in Neumat during Karmageddon? [chuckles]

REPORTER: I was surprised to hear Mayor refer to Karmageddon so openly. It was one of those things that was taught at home rather than at school; something parents would talk about among themselves after children were put to bed. They would then exchange stories how after the Program's forces finally prevailed and the war ended, credits and reputation score got combined into one. How this made it possible to lower someone’s score to zero and eliminate them from society. And how it led to a period now known as Karmageddon in which whole communities exterminated each other.

REPORTER (LIVE): Could you tell me how the whole ordeal ended?

MAYOR: Literally overnight. One day we simply woke up to discover that the way an individual’s credit score was calculated had changed, and that it was now much, much harder to drive someone down to zero. You know that feeling you get when you’re huddled under a blanket for a long time, and then you take it off, you all of a sudden feel how fresh the air is? It was like that, times a hundred.

REPORTER (LIVE): But who changed the way the credit scores were calculated?

MAYOR: Whoever’s behind the Program! Tell you what, if you’re interested in these things I’d suggest you go and talk with Professor. He’s made it his life’s work to study the Program. Even if the ol’ Professor’s got a bit of a bird in his head. [chuckles] You can also try talking with Philosopher and Engineer, even though I have to warn you - if Professor’s got a bird in his head, these two have a whole henhouse! [laughs]

REPORTER (LIVE): Thank you.

REPORTER: I should probably mention at this point that residents of Neumat do not address each other by their utility. Having said that, there is a member of Neumat’s community who is known primarily by his title. Which is why when Mayor said they’ve got a professor here, there was no questioning who she meant by that.

Professor lived at the edge of the county, which was emblematic of his relationship with the townspeople - both by his residency and his views, he was an outlier. He lived alone in a small house surrounded by a vast garden, peppered with fruit trees and vegetable sprouts - seems that Professor was growing his own food. What dominated the whole scene however was a massive white oak, or better said what I later learned used to be a white oak, and was now a large, charred trunk with black branches sticking out. Kinda looked like a burned scarecrow.

PROFESSOR: Shame, isn’t it? It was such a magnificent tree. But unfortunately last year it was struck by lightning. I’m not sure it will recover.

REPORTER: Professor must have seen me approaching, as he greeted me at the door without me knocking. He didn’t look like I imagined - his hair reached his shoulders, which were broader than you’d expect from a scholar. A trait by which Professor did not defy expectations was his hospitality. Inherently curious and convivial, he cordially welcomed me into his home and was happy to talk to a reporter - even after I told him the real reason I was there. He spoke in a disciplined, erudite style, making me feel like I was an audience of one.

PROFESSOR: I'm a scientist. You wouldn’t believe there are any of those left, eh? [forced laugh] I obtained my phD in neural networks at a rather prestigious university - no point in telling you which one, it no longer exists. But I was there until the very end, teaching courses on artificial intelligence and machine learning. I still research these subjects - nowadays it is of course a job outside the gig system, so I subsist on the Program's basic credits. I guess you could almost say we are in a symbiotic relationship! [forced laugh]

REPORTER (LIVE): So what did you learn about the way the Program functions?

PROFESSOR: My child, the totality of the Program’s code is too vast for any individual to fully understand. My specialty is in one of the Program’s algorithms.

REPORTER (LIVE): Only one algorithm?

PROFESSOR: What I research is a set of instructions that regulate how individuals’ credit scores are calculated. It is arguably the most important of all algorithms that govern the Program - and by which it governs. It is known as the White Algorithm.

REPORTER (LIVE): Why white algorithm?

PROFESSOR: The name is of no consequence. What’s important to understand is that the White Algorithm is vital for our survival as a species on this planet.

REPORTER (LIVE): How so?

PROFESSOR: Let me tell you a story. At the beginning of my career, my colleagues and I analyzed a piece of software programmed to find the optimal route for a naval commander shepherding a convoy in enemy waters. When we simulated convoys from the second world war, we found that the software achieved far fewer losses and faster travel times than any actual convoys. So we were confused - how was this possible? Then we realized, that in each case, the software would instruct a destroyer to sink the slowest ally civilian ship, as it was the vessel that would hold the entire convoy back. The logic was flawless, saving more ships and their crews. And it was also effective - precisely because it was not something a human commander would ever contemplate.

REPORTER (LIVE): That’s… I’m not gonna lie, that’s quite disturbing.

PROFESSOR: Mm. Teach an algorithm to fish, and it just might drain the lake.

REPORTER (LIVE): So, how do we unravel the set of rules the Program follows?

PROFESSOR: The answer is quite straightforward: by inspecting the logic the Program uses to determine what is just and unjust. For instance, we know that people who got rich off their own work kept their wealth after the Update - or rather that their wealth got transferred into their credit score. On the other hand, people who inherited their riches lost everything. By examining specific cases between those two extremes, we can draw conclusions about how the Program quantifies justice.

REPORTER (LIVE): Huh. Okay, makes sense.

PROFESSOR: Another data point we have are windfall credits. You were born under the Program and take it for granted that someone who gets afflicted by a biological or natural adversity will automatically get compensated for it through an increased credit score. But historically this is an entirely novel concept.

REPORTER (LIVE): Okay, so wait, what would you do before the Program if you had the misfortune to be born with a medical condition, or simply had an unattractive body shape or facial features?

PROFESSOR: My child, you wouldn’t do anything. The facts of your birth were so inherent to your existence that you wouldn’t even notice them! Luckily, I might add, as that way it was easy to forget your innate disadvantage. That was pretty much the way things were before the magical happiness machine appeared.

REPORTER (LIVE): But if this is so, shouldn’t we be feeling grateful that it did?

PROFESSOR: I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But we also ought not forget that any magical happiness machine is by necessity a magical misery machine as well.

REPORTER (LIVE): What do you mean?

PROFESSOR: Setting a price on happiness inevitably sets a price on misery. And as it stands the Program has a monopoly on both. Look, it lifted billions out of poverty only to get billions killed afterwards - who’s to tell what its plans are for us in the future? Who’s to tell if there even is a plan?

REPORTER (LIVE): So... What are we to do?

PROFESSOR: We have good indications there is some kind of moral code behind the Program’s actions. So far we’ve been trying to understand it. What we have to do is crack it.

REPORTER: It was getting late and Professor is a creature of habit, so we bid our goodbyes and I walked back to my hotel. It occurred to me that for someone analysing the intersection of technology and morality, Professor sure picked the right place to conduct his research. Because if there ever was a series of actions that would stretch the White Algorithm to its limits, it was the one that played out here two years ago. And it all started with a seven year old girl who didn’t come home one day. Her name was Sara.

What’s important to understand is that at the beginning it was not entirely clear if Sara was missing at all. Her mother, the town teacher, lived separated from her husband, a vehemently violent man from the city. After moving to Neumat, the townspeople lowered his credit score to zero - twice. The first time he smashed the town’s bar, the second time after he smashed the bartender. But for some inexplicable reason on neither occasion had he ended up on the Program's firing list. These incidents explain why Sara’s father was somewhat of a hermit, choosing to live alone in a cabin outside the town. Even if he had taken Sara with him for the weekend, it might have been true she was unaccounted for, but it wouldn't be fair to say she was missing - after all, the man was her father. A fact her mother, Teacher, was acutely aware of.

TEACHER: Did I gift him my entire thirties as a delectable peach which he sucked to the pit? Did I bear that man a heavenly child which he in turn treated with reckless abandon? Did I provide him with room and board for almost a decade without asking a single gentle word in return? Am I bitter? No. [chuckles] I’ve got only myself to blame, but what can I say - I had two weaknesses back then: motorcycles and bad boys, and he was a bad boy with a motorcycle! [chuckles] Luckily, he was never violent towards Sara, who is perhaps the only person he cared about other than himself. He would get to see her every Friday after school, spending time with her in that cabin of his where they would play old video games and what not. It was only when Saturday morning came and she didn’t that I began to worry…

REPORTER (LIVE): So what did you do?

TEACHER: I walked to Mayor’s house, and then we took a ride to the cabin together. It must have been past noon, but it was obvious he just got his ass out of bed, still reeking of moonshine. Remember, he didn’t have enough credits to disguise cheap alcohol inside fancy cocktails - he was drinking this stuff straight!

REPORTER (LIVE): Was Sara there?

TEACHER: No, and he hadn’t seen her either. Not since the previous Friday. When it became evident I didn’t know where she was either, he totally flipped and started accusing me of losing our child! So Mayor and I quickly turned back towards the town. I was genuinely afraid he would attack us! Wouldn’t have been the first time he’d laid his hand on me.

REPORTER (LIVE): Thoughts and prayers.

TEACHER: Oh don’t worry my dear, by then I’d learned to live with it. He appeared to have some sort of immunity from the Program, so there was nothing anybody could do to him.

REPORTER (LIVE): Speaking of which, did you submit a report that Sara was missing?

TEACHER: Of course! Professor did it himself, insisting on doing it personally. But no gigs were ever issued to search for her. So much for the spotless morality of the high and mighty Program! But then again how do you square any kind of moral code with what happened in Victoria?

REPORTER (LIVE): Victoria?

TEACHER: Oh, let our good Professor tell you about that.

REPORTER: The mention of Victoria confused me - it sounded like a name of a place, but I had no idea where Teacher was referring to. But wherever it was, it would have to wait, as I had a more pressing concern raised by a detail in Teacher’s story. If Professor insisted on reporting Sara’s disappearance personally, and if this prompted no reaction from the Program whatsoever, it didn’t necessarily mean that the Program was unresponsive - it was also possible that a report was never submitted at all. Which prompted me to seek a deeper insight into Professor’s character and his theories. At the opening of this story, I likened my investigation to a medical report - and if this was the case, it was time to get a second opinion.

Whenever I asked the Neumat residents I was interviewing “who I should talk to next?”, the names of Philosopher and Engineer kept popping up. Even though they were a couple, in many ways they were antipodes - including in their appearance. Philosopher had a lion’s mane on his head, Engineer was bald as an eagle - who to be fair had had at least ten more candles on his birthday cake.

ENGINEER: I started my career over 40 years ago. It was in the machine learning division of a company formerly known as Apple - that was before it got merged with Alphabet. This is also where I hooked up with my future husband, probably violating every guideline in the corporate rulebook!

PHILOSOPHER: [laughs] Which was the start of a long and happy relationship in which I would get blamed for everything! [laughs] And yes, I worked in the notorious human resources department, so I can confirm that it was against the guidelines! [laughs]

ENGINEER: Well I’m glad you’ve found the courage to break them my love, otherwise we would have never grown to be two old farts like we did.

PHILOSOPHER: [laughs] Is that all what we are now? Two old farts?

ENGINEER: [laughs] You know, it’s funny to talk about it now, but it does make one realize the power companies had back then - they even felt entitled to ordain who you were allowed to fall in love with.

REPORTER (LIVE): Doesn’t the Program’s Serendipity feature basically do the same thing today?

PHILOSOPHER: Which just goes to show, madamosselle, who has the power today.

REPORTER (LIVE): So you agree with Professor when he says that we need to recapture that power from renegade algorithms?

ENGINEER: I would suggest a healthy dose of scepticism when listening to Professor... He often mistakes theory for practice - it’s a common error in the academia.

PHILOSOPHER: Hey!

ENGINEER: I had ample experience working with AI when the Program appeared and I can tell you with certainty the field was not even close to achieving the strong AI that his “white algorithm” theory presupposes.

REPORTER (LIVE): Strong AI?

ENGINEER: Strong artificial intelligence. Also known as general AI. Meaning it can solve general problems versus a highly specialized one. It’s the difference between playing chess and coming up with chess. In the period the Program appeared, AI might have been a grandmaster - but it was a grandmaster that couldn’t even tie its own shoes! [chuckles]

REPORTER (LIVE): But how can you be so certain of that?

ENGINEER: Think of a pipe organ.

REPORTER (LIVE): The pipe organ?

ENGINEER: For almost 500 years, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device - a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century. Now, I want you to imagine yourself as a destitute peasant somewhere in late medieval Europe. You cannot read or write; you are more often hungry than you are fed and warm. But once a week, you find yourself huddled with everybody else you know inside a towering cathedral. It’s the biggest structure you will ever see in your life. And you are listening to the pipe organ, this powerful, bellowing instrument filling out the space with music equally heavenly and foreboding. To your ears, it would have sounded like GOD! Even though it was in fact just the opposite - it was the sound of human ingenuity.

PHILOSOPHER: My love, if I may, I have a question for our young madamosselle as well. Tell me, do you know Jeremy Bentham?

REPORTER (LIVE): Oh, I don't think I’ve had the pleasure, I've only been in Neumat for three days.

PHILOSOPHER: [chuckles] Madamosselle, Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher born in the late 18th century. During his time he became the leading theorist on philosophy of law. He realized that all mankind was under the governance of two overbearing masters - pain and pleasure. So he devised an ethical theory which sought to maximize pleasures derived from any action. His aim was to devise a new code of law which could, in principle at least, determine the moral status of any act by calculating the amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause.

REPORTER (LIVE): But wait, in order to follow moral repercussions, wouldn’t Bentham need to keep track of society’s every move?

PHILOSOPHER: Madamosselle is very shrewd! Bentham wanted to make society perfectly transparent; he pictured a world in which each gesture or word that affected general happiness would be noticed and marked down. In an effort to achieve this, he devoted fifteen years of his life developing ideas for a structure he called the panopticon - a building in which all the inhabitants could be observed by a single watchman.

ENGINEER: Practical considerations however hindered establishment of Bentham’s ideas in practice. Even with technological advancements that appeared later in history, panopticon remained an elusive utilitarian dream. No amount of cameras and recorders could provide enough information to make this “morality calculator” viable. It would require millions and millions of intelligent sensors covering every square metre of inhabited land.

PHILOSOPHER: And you would need them to all go live at once, as people - especially those living in the old system - would probably not take kindly to what they would most likely perceive as an intrusion of their privacy.

ENGINEER: Unless of course, you already had a grid like that installed.

PHILOSOPHER: A-ha!

REPORTER (LIVE): What are you trying to say?

PHILOSOPHER: Well, what do you need billion sensors for if you’ve got a billion pair of eyes?

REPORTER (LIVE): You’re talking about the Program!

PHILOSOPHER: Precisely. I am talking about all the reports people submit, all the gigs they take, all the selfies they make, their every message and every transfer of credit score. All of this data - data with which people feed the machine voluntarily!

REPORTER (LIVE): Huh, I never really thought about it that way.

ENGINEER: Most people don’t think about it at all. Especially the conclusion it leads to...

REPORTER (LIVE): Which is?

PHILOSOPHER: The Program is using the people; not the other way around.

REPORTER: I won’t lie, I’ve found Engineer and Philosopher’s theory of artificial artificial intelligence intriguing. I wanted to discuss in more depth how it related to Professor’s White Algorithm hypothesis, but this and other debates would have to wait, as night snuck up on me again. So I arranged to meet with the self-proclaimed two old farts again in a couple of days. This was becoming somewhat of a ritual – I’d conduct my investigation in Neumat and then return with a piece of the puzzle to imbue with meaning. I was pondering about meaning a lot lately. If it was indeed true that our every action is appraised, and that an appropriate response is dispensed, it would suggest a rather discomforting possibility – that we are living in a world of total justice, a world in which everything around us happens for a reason. And how the heck do you marry reason with what happened next?

MAYOR: It was two years and two days ago… I remember the precise date because it was the day after my anniversary of becoming Neumat’s mayor. Not that there was a celebration or anything - it wouldn’t have been appropriate with what Teacher was going through… It had been three days since Sara went missing, and everybody was looking for her. But no one could find a trace of her - it was as if the child vanished into the aether! Then at dawn on the fourth day, one of Farmer's dogs brought home a child's shoe. Farmer first called me, so I went to Teacher’s house and we took a ride to the farm together. She confirmed the shoe belonged to Sara. Then we followed the dog into the flatlands and found Sara's socks... Then her blue dress... Then her underwear... Nobody was saying anything but it was obvious what was on everybody's mind. This was a sex crime!

REPORTER (LIVE): How did the town react?

MAYOR: With equal degree of anger and repulsion! There’s nothing as important to people in Neumat as family. Everybody hugged their kid a little stronger that night. I’m sure even Professor did, no matter how aloof he likes to appear.

REPORTER (LIVE): Professor has a son? He didn’t mention that.

MAYOR: Professor had a son. His name was Simon.

PROFESSOR: Do you want to talk about Simon, or learn the story behind Victoria?

REPORTER: I once again paid a visit to Professor’s abode, doing my best to ignore the scorched carcass of a white oak in the front. I was there the minute the clock struck five - Professor allotted exactly an hour for our discussion, almost like it was therapy - even though I wasn’t sure who was the patient and who was the therapist in this simile. The other thing I didn’t understand was why I was being impelled to choose a topic - however, as I’d soon find out, it was precisely dilemmas that were our topic d’jour.

REPORTER (LIVE): Tell me about Victoria.

PROFESSOR: You can try, but you won’t find Victoria on any map. Not because it’s too small - at its peak, it was home to almost ten thousand souls. Though referring to Victoria having a peak might be a bit misleading…

REPORTER (LIVE): Why?

PROFESSOR: Because the town existed for barely ten years.

REPORTER (LIVE): So how was it formed?

PROFESSOR: It was established shortly after the Update mostly by people who got the short end of the system change. Ex-officials and whatever remained of the government at that point. And researchers - a lot of researchers. The neighbourhood where I resided was composed mostly of my fellow academics.

REPORTER (LIVE): Oh, so you lived in Victoria as well?

PROFESSOR: Yes, I lived in Victoria, and I lived well. The community as a whole was very well off, especially considering this was so soon after the war.

REPORTER (LIVE): What were you doing there?

PROFESSOR: We were conducting experiments to decipher the White Algorithm. Have you ever heard of the trolley problem?

REPORTER (LIVE): That’s the one in which you have to solve a moral conundrum, right? Like choosing if you want to purposely divert the streetcar to another track and kill one person in order to save five people who would get killed otherwise?

PROFESSOR: Good, yes, exactly. Trams or trains were a bit out of our reach; we just didn’t have access to them. Since this was happening after the Update, our instruments were by necessity... Cruder.

REPORTER (LIVE): What do you mean by “cruder”?

PROFESSOR: We started with buildings. As part of our first experiment we placed gas cylinders inside the school and set a timer to ignite them. Needless to say, our wives weren’t too happy about that.

REPORTER (LIVE): You mean you were living there with your families?

PROFESSOR: Of course. But worry not, this was done without any children being around. We chose to bomb the school because education is traditionally viewed as a moral good, so we wanted to see if threatening to blow it up would prompt the Program to prevent it from happening.

REPORTER (LIVE): And did it?

PROFESSOR: No. We even submitted an anonymous report to the Program that a bomb was going to detonate in the school within the next 24 hours. However no gig to prevent this was issued; no one showed up.

REPORTER (LIVE): Which is probably for the better, as this way you didn’t have to blow up the school after all.

PROFESSOR: Well of course we did! We had to prove we were serious! Like I said, Victoria’s community was affluent so fixing the school was not an issue for us. It was a small price to pay for what we had learned.

REPORTER (LIVE): Which was?

PROFESSOR: Which was that buildings and material possessions clearly weren’t part of White Algorithm’s formula. Which is why we started using animals next.

REPORTER (LIVE): That’s horrible!

PROFESSOR: My child, please do not think me callous. I do understand your inhibitions. But you are forgetting the historical context - we were just coming out of a war with the Program! There was no way to judge how magnanimous a victor it would be. And seeing that less than a year later Karmageddon started and billions perished, it turned out we were bloody right to worry too! But then we got incredibly lucky, because it was at that point that windfall credits were introduced.

REPORTER (LIVE): Yes, you mentioned the other day how getting compensated for misfortunes was a novel concept.

PROFESSOR: For us it was more than that - windfall credits opened a whole array of new experiments we could conduct.

REPORTER (LIVE): Like what?

PROFESSOR: One of my colleagues had a truly breakthrough idea. After observing that people with a visible handicap were given more credits, he wanted to see if this was going to apply to him as well. So he cut off his finger.

REPORTER (LIVE): That’s insane!

PROFESSOR: The only insane part is that he was indeed awarded windfall credits! And not because the Program lacked any information before bestowing them - the colleague submitted a detailed report about the incident himself! The Program knew he had self-mutilated! This basically confirmed that the logic guiding the Program was artificial. I mean, what kind of sane person would award credits for self-mutilation?

REPORTER (LIVE): I’m wondering more what kind of sane person would self-mutilate!

REPORTER: At that point, Professor put down the teacup he was holding and then brushed his hair back, allowing me to notice for the first time that his ears… Well, that his ears were missing.

PROFESSOR: My child, the intellectual acuity of our experiments is irrelevant. What is important is that they were necessary. Especially since experiments were being conducted in the opposite direction as well.

REPORTER (LIVE): What do you mean “the opposite direction”?

PROFESSOR: As we were running our experiments on the Program, the Program was experimenting on people. You see, what we call the White Algorithm is in reality not one but many different algorithms, tweaked over time.

REPORTER (LIVE): Wait, how is it possible to test multiple versions at the same time?

PROFESSOR: By releasing different versions in different communities, preferably in isolation. In practice this often means islands. New Zealand seems to be a popular one - that’s where windfall credits were first introduced. There are strong indications that Karmageddon was kicked off on Iceland. These are just the experiments committed to the main branch which we got to see - who knows how many never made it to us, but got discarded after a discouraging trial.

REPORTER (LIVE): Huh, I… I hadn’t thought about that.

PROFESSOR: We studied the Program and it studied us... Told you it was a symbiotic relationship. Well, until it got cut short.

REPORTER (LIVE): How?

PROFESSOR: Unknown to us, the Program issued a gig to have Victoria’s water treatment system poisoned. 48 hours later, everybody in the city was dead.

REPORTER: I left Professor’s house feeling dizzy. There’s a fine line between our actions being guided, and our actions being controlled. If Professor was correct that the White Algorithm was directing our behaviour, it would imply that we are not really free. But then again, free to do what? Free to take advantage of each other, to drop bombs on one another, to devour animals? It’s good that I wasn’t free to do that. I wondered if people before the Program felt the same way, or would they flip out if you took away their paper money, their guns, and their drumsticks? But I quickly abandoned this line of thinking, as it was adding more questions to an already high stack. A stack which included the mystery of how Professor survived the mass poisoning in Victoria and lived to tell the tale. Or what about Professor’s wife and son Simon - did they make it out alive? Seeking illumination, I decided to go back to the person that mentioned Victoria in the first place. It was time for a lesson from Teacher.

REPORTER (LIVE): Your ex-husband, Sara’s father, he came from Victoria, didn’t he?

REPORTER: Never a proponent of subtlety, I decided to open the conversation with my strongest move. Luckily, my gambit worked.

TEACHER: I guess it wasn’t that difficult to guess where the dog is buried.

REPORTER (LIVE): Is he the one who poisoned the water? And is that why he’s under the Program’s grace now?

TEACHER: My dear, the very fact you’re asking me that implies you don’t know the whole story of Victoria yet.

REPORTER (LIVE): Why so?

TEACHER: Instead of giving you a direct answer, let me give you a parable. Imagine a society in which all the inhabitants are perfectly happy. However there’s a catch: their happiness is contingent on the misery of a single unfortunate child. He or she, it doesn’t really matter, is perpetually kept in a small, dark, filthy basement, physically and mentally stunted. The inhabitants of this society know of the child; but they also know that all serenity and splendour, all personal fortune and joy of every single man, woman and child would disappear in an instant if even a single word of warmth was spoken to the lonesome outcast.

REPORTER (LIVE): Teacher… Is this society you just described Victoria?

TEACHER: Oh no. [chuckles] Victoria was much worse.

REPORTER: If the parable of the forlorn child wasn’t meant to refer to Victoria, what did it refer to? The only theory I had was that the forsaken child was Sara, and her disappearance was somehow instrumental for equilibrium in Neumat. So I decided to run it by the last person I still had to meet in this small desert town. The person who I probably should have interviewed first, as she was the one who propelled me to come to Neumat to begin with. It was still summer when I received an email addressed as coming from Mother of Jakob. No name, no surname - just Mother of Jakob, as if her maternal function defined her and all she stood for. After a few chosen words of commendation for my published investigative work, she invited me to Neumat - or rather she enticed me to Neumat with what she said was going to be the crown jewel of my reporting career. Intrigued, I gave her a call, which turned into a three hour conversation, which turned into a three day ride across the continent, which turned into three knocks on a white door.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: Welcome, welcome! I’ve been expecting you.

REPORTER: The first impression I gathered when the door opened was not of the frail, elderly woman who greeted me, but that of a strong, fresh smell of leather. Evidently accustomed to my reaction, Mother of Jakob said the odour was an endowment from her mother. It was the first thing we talked about, reclined comfortably on the porch with two glasses brimming with iced tea - spiked with just the right amount of some surprisingly decent ‘shine.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: My late mother, Program preserve her to memory, was a hardworking woman. Her husband, my father, died before I was old enough to remember. What I do remember from my childhood was money - or better said, lack of it. Looking at it now, it’s mind boggling how much our lives revolved around money. My mom was a seamstress. She sewed leather upholstery at the local furniture factory. Then an IKEA opened an hour drive from here in the late aughts, and the factory was out of business before the decade’s end. Unfortunately, mom was already over 50, the unofficial cut off point past which you were no longer interesting to employers.

REPORTER (LIVE): How old were you at the time?

JAKOB’S MOTHER: I was 15… No, 16 years old. I had to help my mom somehow.

REPORTER: Since there were ten applicants for every opening at the aforementioned IKEA, she opted for a different kind of opening - that of an account on the Etsy, a web service where craftsmen and artisans could sell their handmade wares. It was there that the mother and daughter duo turned leather furnishings into a much higher-margin offering - customized BDSM gear.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: Harnesses, collars, garters, floggers, whips, gag masks, strap-ons! [laughs] Anything that could be made from leather, latex, rubber, we made! And all produced by an underage girl and a widow.

REPORTER: It was what sustained the two women and allowed them to live rather comfortably - even after Mother of Jakob earned her moniker and gave birth to a baby boy when she was just shy of her 19th birthday.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: First couple of years were rough. I got pregnant. Mom’s mental health problems started during that period as well - that made things even more difficult. Luckily, our profits skyrocketed after the system change. As you can imagine, BDSM paraphernalia is not exactly part of our Program's planned economy. [laughs]

REPORTER (LIVE): I guess it only makes sense that in a world of comfort, the highest traded commodity is pain.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: You bet!

REPORTER: I tried to breach the subject of how she ended up being pregnant at 19, but she immediately deferred the conversation to what she called the only positive result of the whole affair: Jakob.

JAKOB’S MOTHER: When Jakob was restless as a baby, I wouldn’t give him a pacifier - I’d give him a pencil! I could give him some paper and crayons and he would draw for hours, happy as a fool! Even at that early age, well let’s say it was obvious my Jakob was never going to invent gunpowder, but that child could draw! He got his first comic book gig when he was 16! An official Program gig at 16 - praise be to the Program!

REPORTER (LIVE): What were his comics about?

JAKOB’S MOTHER: Well, you may or may not be aware that during the late capitalism period superhero movies were extremely popular. These adult fairy tales cost millions to make, truly making them the sign of the mindless and profligate times that made them. Productions like that are no longer possible, so modern audiences turned to other mediums - after all, it’s much cheaper to narrate or draw a space battle than to film one! So my Jakob wrote and drew science fiction stories. His most successful series and was about a band of time travelling aliens. It was called Chrono-Terrestrials.

REPORTER (LIVE): Really, Chrono-terrestrials was done by him? My younger brother adores that comic!

JAKOB’S MOTHER: Yes! It was Jakob’s most popular creation, even though it was not his finest work. Chrono-Terrestrials revolved around conflict between simple characters, either heroes or villains. I guess there’s just something about black and white morality that appeals to people in all ages.

REPORTER (LIVE): Did people in Neumat read his works?

JAKOB’S MOTHER: Oh no, no, no. It was nothing folks in Neumat would have any interest in. Well, apart from Professor. Professor loved comics, and he was very fond of my Jakob in general. There was one story that Jakob worked on obsessively. He’d been working on it for years, saying it was going to be his masterpiece. But he never got to finish it...

REPORTER (LIVE): Which story was that?

JAKOB’S MOTHER: I don’t know, he never showed it to me. But, I did see some of his drawings for it…

REPORTER (LIVE): What kind of drawings?

JAKOB’S MOTHER: [hesitant] You have to understand about my Jakob... He was peculiar. He was never the most social person in the world - he liked to keep to himself. He never showed much interest in company, especially not of... you know... women… At first I thought that my Jakob was just not into girls, but into boys instead… Then I found a folder of his drawings… Program forgive me. The drawings… they were... extreme. Females bound. Gagged. Penetrated. Being in my line of business, this was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t the BDSM that shocked me… It was the age… They were all clearly prepubescent. Which was how I found out that Jakob… My Jakob… Was into girls after all. Really into girls! [sobs]

REPORTER: Listening to Jakob’s mother was hard, but it was hardly surprising. Not after what Mayor had told me in a conversation recorded that very same morning.

MAYOR: I was coming back home from the library. We’d been copying posters informing folks Sara had gone missing. When I got to the top of my street I saw a big crowd in front of my house. I could see Professor, and Teacher, and Farmer, maybe six or seven others. And surrounded by them was my husband. His eyes were red and his voice was shaky and he hugged me hard. And then he told me that two more children had vanished. And that it was our daughters... Maria and Beckie… Our two little girls! [sobs]

REPORTER: Sara’s disappearance wasn’t an accident - someone was abducting children in Neumat!

ANNOUNCER: End of part one.

FULL LIST OF CAST AND REFERENCES AVAILABLE AT THE END OF PART 3