The History of Magic
in the 21st Century

A novel by Brandon Starr

Now, a new fiction story--"The Voice of Cassandra"

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Saturday, April 30, 2005
Voice of Cassandra, (thirty-three days before)

     Cassie pointed to the files.  “In fact, many of them wouldn’t be insurable at all, at any price.  Instead, over the years, there is probably several billion dollars’ worth of insurance policies from the customers in these drawers.

     By the way, because we have health-related files on premises, you can’t leave the hall door unlocked or allow anyone in unsupervised.”

     “Got it.  How can I help you?”

     “Well, I was thinking about that.  There’s a project I’ve been meaning to get started.  A new database has been set up, giving medical researchers and others access to bare-bones death information—who, when, cause of death, location, and age at death.  I’d like you to go over all the clients, one by one, and determine whether they’re alive, and if not, how soon after their Cassandra reading they died.  We’re going to make a database to see exactly how accurate she is.”

     “How long has…she been active?”

     “We just passed the five-year mark.  So we’ll learn about the one-year and five-year levels.”

     “But even the heart-attack guy only had about a two percent chance of dying in the first five years.  We’ll need to run into the law of large numbers to get any sort of accurate picure.”

     “Fortunately, there are plenty of customers.  Also, I want you to start with—“ and here she rolled over with a practiced push to the drawers, and pulled one out all the way, “the anomalies.”  She ran her finger over some files, and stopped with her hand on one with a pink tab added.

     “Anomalies?”

     “Mmm-hmm.  Every once in a while, we get an answer back that’s so odd, we give it to the insurance company and they basically throw up their hands in frustration.  Mostly it has to do with high chances of dying very soon, which ties in perfectly to your project.  Though some of them are regarding high odds of a strange cause of death, like ‘violence, accidental or otherwise.’”

     And this’ll keep me from learning much about how Cassandra actually works, Erica thought.  “Okay.  I’ll set up a database, because with each customer having a different set of odds, we’ll need some fancy math to see if she really checks out.”

     “Excellent.  Computer sci major, I saw?  Going to double in math, by any chance?”

     “Minor.  Though it’s pretty easy to get to a math minor from a comp sci major.  I wanted to round my education out with some humanities.”

     “Fine.  One of my focuses in my math studies was statistics, so we can work on that together once you’ve got our database up.”

     “Statistics.  Is that why you were helping Mr. Liber on the Voice of Cassandra?”
     “Partly.  Plus, I knew him from way back.  Plus…” she trailed off.

     Erica decided to wait her out.  She’d read once that in negotiations, the first one to talk loses.  She had a hunch there was something being negotiated here right now, inside Cassie’s head.

     “Plus, you might as well know, I was a doctor.  A medical doctor.  But not any more.  I lost my license while consulting with Jim, so he moved me over and I became a permanent part of the project.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that.” Erica felt her cheeks flush.  She hadn’t expected such a personal confession.  Maybe negotiations weren’t her thing.

     “It’s okay.  I’m past it now,” Cassie said.  “You’d find out eventually, anyway.  There are enough people around the building who know.”

     Erica found herself eager to get off the subject.  “Can you show me how to enter a customer’s information and so on?”

     Cassie looked over at the Voice of Cassandra.  Then:  “Sure.  Tomorrow.”

 

--=--

(Thirty-three days before)

 

     Erica had slipped into a routine.  She had learned how to enter the customer’s information, but mostly she worked on the death database.  She was getting very little that she might put into a report for Peter Wharton.

     “Cassie,” she said on this morning, “Why can’t this program be duplicated on a regular computer?  It seems pretty straightforward to me.  Find causes of death, form them into ever-more-accurate pictures of the likelihood of death.”

     “Because it’s a quantum computer,” Cassie said simply.

     “I understand the language is different.  But why not take a look, and maybe be able to translate it back into standard silicon languages?”

     “Schrodinger’s cat,” Cassie said.

     “Schrodinger’s cat?  The physics thought experiment?  The cat is neither alive nor dead until you look at it?” Erica asked.

     “Right.  You can’t look at the qubits in this computer without altering them.  Try to look at the “program,” and what you’ll get is a dead version of it.  Regular computers have bits that are on or off.  Here, though, it can be any number from zero to one, with varying degrees of probability for each bit depending on how the program is working.  But if you stop the program to look at it, it’s a little like…hmm.  Let’s say you have a full-color picture.  But for some reason, the only way you can look at it is in black-and-white—not even gray.  Either it’s white or black.  Suddenly a picture that would be full and vibrant is blotchy, impossible to make out details on.  It’s even more extreme than that, but you get the idea.”

     “Yeah.  So, no looking at the program without destroying it.  Talk about black-box technology.”

     “That’s pretty much it.”

     “What happens if there’s a power outage?”

     “There are multiple power backup systems and surge protection.”

     “Yeah, but if it happened?”

     “Jim said that if it should ever be unplugged, that it would start over from the beginning, but it would learn even faster than the first time.  That idea always blew my mind.  How can a program learn better if it gets started over?  If it keeps nothing of its old program, how can it evolve even faster?  If this is true, then shouldn’t we turn it off and on regularly?”

     “Wow,” Erica said.  “That is a brain-bender.”

     They worked in silence for a while.

     About an hour later, Cassie said, “Huh.”

     “Huh what?” Erica asked from the file drawers.  She was writing down info on customers to look up from the main computer.  Since there was only one regular computer plus Cassandra, they had to share.

     “Cassandra’s information request form is different.  Way different.”

     “How so?”

     “It’s only a half-page long.”

     “Really?”

     The form, Cassie had explained at some point, kept evolving over time, presumably as Cassandra’s models evolved.  It started out about eight pages long, and over time had increased in length.  Recently it was twenty pages long, and asked for details about all kinds of aspects of the customer’s life, down to hobbies and former places of residence.

     “All Cass wants now is name, social, and address.”

     They just looked at each other a moment, and then at the new, extremely bare page.

     “I think Cassandra’s getting her information from somewhere else now,” Erica said.

     “Obviously,” Cassie said.  “Jim said part of the evolutionary logic included information on falsehood and unreliable sources of information.  So whatever info she’s using, she thinks it’s at least as reliable, or moreso, than information given straight from the client.  Woof.”

     “Cassandra uses the Internet to connect with databases and so forth, right?” Erica offered.

     “Right.”

     “Do we know which ones?”

     “Nope.”

     “Do they change over time?”

     “Before today, I’d say I don’t know.  But now, I’d have to say that must be right.”

     They just looked at the page.  “I wonder what the insurance companies are going to think of Cassandra’s new form,” Cassie wondered aloud.

     “Assuming they still get good info, they’ll probably be relieved.  I mean, do you want to ask a multimillionaire to fill out twenty pages of extremely personal data?”

     Still, the page held their eyes for quite some time before either of them were able to get back to work.

    

--=--

 

(Twenty-nine days before)

 

     “Thanks for meeting with me, Erica,” Peter said.

     They were back in his office again, on a Tuesday morning.

     “Are you finding your internship interesting?” he said it by way of pleasantry.

     “Oh, yes, very,” Erica said.

     “And anything you want to report to me now?”

     Erica thought.  She considered telling him about the shortened Cassandra forms.  “Nothing that you don’t already know, sir.”

     “Please, Peter.”

     “Peter.”

     “That’s fine, then.  Are you getting along with Dr. Knox?”

     “Very well, I think.”

     “Very good.  How’s her daughter?”

     “Daughter?  She hasn’t mentioned her.”

     “Oh,” Peter said, but without any discernible emotion.  “Well, she’s a pretty introverted person, really.  I wouldn’t worry about it.”

     “Okay,” Erica said.  She felt embarrassed, and yet couldn’t figure out why.  It wasn’t her fault if Cassie hadn’t decided to share her personal life with her.  It didn’t reflect badly on her internship.  Did it?

     “Hopefully, you’re considering some items to include in your report,” Peter said.

     “Of course,” Erica said.  “It’s a really amazing machine.  I wish I could dive into the program, but the way it’s set up, you can’t look at the program without destroying it.”

     “Yes, I know,” Peter said.  “Too bad about that.  But that’s yet another reason we need to know all that we can.  I’ll let you go,” he said, and pushed back from his desk a little.

     Erica took the hint, and went to work.


Sunday, May 01, 2005
The Voice of Cassandra -- through (twenty days before)

(Twenty-three days before)

 

     Erica had the anomalous entries gathered, and was starting to look up information on who was dead and who was alive.  It was a strange feeling at first, like peering into someone’s house when they don’t know you’re outside.

     She was plugging away that morning when the phone rang.  It was between Cassie and Erica, so Erica always let her get it.

     After the third ring, though, Erica asked, “You want me to get it?”

     “Yes,” Cassie said.  She had an odd tone in her voice, like an automaton might have.  She didn’t look up from her work.

     Erica grabbed the phone just before it would have gone to voice mail.  “Voice of Cassandra.  Erica speaking.”

     “Erica?  Hi, I’m Manuel Medina, from Pru.  I thought Cassie worked alone.”

     “She did until recently.”

     “Okay.  Listen, I have some questions about this new short form—and that’s an understatement, okay?  Have her call me on that.  But also, she’ll want to know that Jack MacIntosh is dead.  Seems his wife and her lover planned to do it once the insurance went through.  We got their emails, though, and it nails them.  Can you let her know that?  If she wants more, I’ll fill her in.  Either way, I want a call about the form.  Okay?”

     “Got it,” Erica said.  She looked over at Cassie, who was still gazing at whatever she had already been gazing at.  “I’ll have her call you as soon as she’s back in.  Bye.”

     Erica hung up, and turned towards Cassie.  She waited a minute, in case Cassie was going to say something.  When she didn’t, Erica turned to the files and pulled the file for John MacIntosh.  It had a pink tab, labeling it as an anomaly.  Erica added the death information to her database, then turned again to Cassie.

     When she decided Cassie wasn’t going to break out of her little seizure without outside influence, she plopped the file right by her.  “Jack MacIntosh is dead,” she said.

     Cassie didn’t say anything.

     “His wife killed him with her lover,” she added.

     Cassie just stared.

     “Manuel Medina from Pru wants you to call him about that and the new forms.”

     Cassie continued to do very, very little.

     “You okay?”

     For some reason, the question pulled Cassie out of her trance.  “What?  Yes, I’m okay.  I’ll give Manuel a call.  MacIntosh is dead, you say?  That was quick.  He only came in a few days before you arrived here.”

     “So, what’s holding your attention?”

     “Another anomaly.”

     Most of the so-called “anomalies” Cassie had flagged over the years were really not all that spectacular.  Four percent chances of death the first year, another eight within the first five, and so on.  Jack MacIntosh’s had been quite a bit higher—pegged at 30% chance of death within the first year and 28% additional within the first five years, all most likely due to “violence, accidental or otherwise.”

     “You know, I knew there was something special about MacIntosh,” Cassie said.  “The numbers were so high.”

     “You think Cassandra figured out something most people wouldn’t?”

     “Maybe.”

     “Manuel did say that they had emails between the wife and the lover.”

     Cassie snapped her gaze over to Erica.  “Really?”

     Erica found herself trapped in eye contact.  “Yes, that’s what he said.”

     Cassie took the papers she was holding and cleared the screen.  “I’ll see you later,” she said.

     “What?” Erica asked.

     “I trust you to work without me.  Try hard to finish the anomaly study.  We may need it sooner than I thought.”  Cassie grabbed her purse and nearly ran out the door.

 

--=--

(Twenty-two days before)

     Outside the next day was a typical muggy Washington, D.C. early summer day.  Inside, where it was always cool and dry, it was anything but typical.  Cassie didn’t show up for work.  She was totally unavailable by phone.  Erica, after some effort, gave up and worked on the anomaly project.  She considered, then rejected, alerting Peter Wharton.  She had a hunch that if he really wanted to, he could find out from the door cards that Cassie wasn’t here.

     With the strange actions by Cassie yesterday as a motivator, Erica worked extremely efficiently, and found herself shortly after lunch finishing the data-gathering portion of the project.

     She wasn’t entirely sure how Cassie wanted the data parsed, so for now backed up the data and put it aside.

     She looked over at the Voice of Cassandra.

     There were two new requests to input.  Erica picked them up and entered them.  Given the short nature of the new forms, it took only a minute.

     Soon the Voice of Cassandra spat out two life-expectancy tables.  Erica grabbed them, expecting an anomaly.

     Nothing.  The movie star had a less than 1% chance of dying, and the Chicago executive the same.

     Erica put them down, puzzled.  Who or what was Cassie looking at that made her so concerned?

     She reclined back in the chair and just stared at Cassandra for a while.

     She looked at the program as though for the first time.

     There were typical pull-down menus for printing and so on.  The files could even be saved—not to Cassandra, but to the other computer.  There really wasn’t much else, except—

     Help.

     Why would a one-of-a-kind program, written as a black box, need a help function?

     Erica clicked on it.

     It pulled down a menu consisting of only one item:

     “In case of emergency…” it said.

     Erica paused only a moment before clicking on it.

     A picture of a large glass window was pulled up, complete with a firehose and fireax visible behind the glass.

     “Break glass,” Erica finished.  When she hovered the pointer over the picture, it turned from an arrow into a little hammer.

     “Cute.”

     She backed off from the computer and looked at it from a distance.

     She couldn’t resist.

     She clicked on the picture.  The hammer made a little cartoon motion, but the glass didn’t break.  Instead, the computer said, in a calm, man’s voice:

     “Are you sure it’s an emergency?  You only get three tries at the password, and if you fail, this help function is wiped away totally from the program forever.”

     Erica gasped.  A little YES/NO menu popped up on the screen.  She instantly clicked on NO, and the whole thing disappeared, leaving behind only the normal Voice of Cassandra screen.

     She found herself shaking a little from adrenaline.  She tried to work on the anomaly data, but had trouble making headway.

 

--=--

(Twenty-one days before)

 

     The next day, Cassie was back at work.

     “Where were you?” Erica asked, a note of demand in her voice.  “You scared me leaving like you did the other day.  Why wouldn’t you answer your calls?”

     “I was busy,” Cassie said, answering the second question first, and putting her purse under her desk, “And I didn’t mean to panic you.”

     “I wasn’t exactly panicked,” Erica backtracked.  “I was concerned.”

     “Okay.  Let me fill you in.  First of all, I met with the FBI.”

     “The FBI!?”

     “Yes, the FBI.  Let me explain.  First of all, I told him about how Cassandra seemed to have figured out there was a plot against Jack MacIntosh’s life.  Then I showed him these.”

     Cassie spread some papers out on the desk.  Erica looked them over.

     “Four results reports, two of them anomalies.”

     “Yes, that’s high as a percentage for one day’s reports.  What else do you see?”

     Erica didn’t feel like playing detective, but bulled ahead anyway.  “Both are due to, ‘disease, other.’”

     “Right.  What else?”

     “They’re high, even for anomalies.”

     “Right.  Anything else?”

     “Umm…no.”

     “Look at the non-anomalies, too.”

     Erica looked, but didn’t know what to look for.  “Listen, you know, why don’t you tell me?”

     “Where do the non-anomalies live?”

     “One in Seattle, one in Topeka.”

     “And the anomalies?”

     “One in Baltimore, one here in Washington, D.C.

     “Look at this.”

     It was another anomaly.  Again, the cause was for the coming year, and was “disease, other.”  Then she saw the name.

     “Cassandra Knox?”

     “I ran one on myself as a test.  Apparently I now have a five percent chance of dying of a disease within the next year.”

     “But how?”

     “That’s the question.  I came in late last night and ran this one on myself.  I do it every three months, anyway, as a sort of baseline test to see if I can detect changes in Cassandra’s models.  This is the first one that had me as an anomaly.  In fact, there were very few changes in the other results at all over the years.”

     “So whatever changed in Cassandra’s models did so…”

     “Less than two months ago, at my last self-test.”

     “Is it related to the change in the forms?”

     “That I don’t know.  I have an experiment I’d like to do, though.”

     “Oh?”

     “I’d like to run you, with your permission.”

     “Umm.”  The thought of knowing her likely mortality didn’t really appeal to Erica.  But her curiosity, and the belief of youth in their indestructibility, won out.  “All right.”

     She entered the information herself.  A couple of minutes later, during which neither Erica nor Cassie spoke, the printer spat out the report.

     Erica looked at Cassie.

     “Hey, it’s your report,” Cassie said.

     Erica grabbed it.

     “Six percent chance of dying within the year to disease.”

     “Christ.” Cassie took the report.  “And then, just like the others, a pretty normal-looking report, all the way out to sixty years.”

     “Well, maybe the computer has a hold of some bad data.  Garbage in, garbage out.”

     “Always a possibility.  But the crux of Jim’s efforts was to weed out good data from bad.  That’s why it’s been so successful.”

     “Has it?”

     Cassie looked at her.

     “What I mean is,” Erica amended hastily, “Is that it’s only now that we’re doing a project to see if the predictions have been borne out.  I assume some means of testing before were found, but there’s nothing like the real world for testing one’s hypotheses.  Maybe Cassandra worked great in theory, but is breaking down when it’s up against reality.”

     “Spoken like a person who just found out she has a six percent chance of being in the ground inside a year.”

     “Maybe.  Maybe I am reaching for a leg of hope.  It’s very hard to tell what’s going on inside Cassandra.”

     “You’re right.  We’ll monitor things, and see where they take us.  Each day, we’ll run ourselves, to see if there are any changes.  We’ll run other people as necessary.  In the meantime, we’ll do what we can to nail this down.”

     “Like?”

     “Verifying the idea that the ‘disease, other’ will be localized, or at least start, in the Washington, D.C. area.  Also, determining what are the most likely disease that could take place.  Finding out if there are any people in the area with higher or lower risk rates.  Determining a timeline.  Coming up with hypotheses on how Cassandra can know about a disease that by all accounts hasn’t even started yet.”

     “Right, ‘Disease, other’ is pretty broad, right?”

     “It covers any disease that doesn’t have its own category.”

     “Which includes?”

     “Cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer, basically.  A few rare ones pop up, like Alzheimer’s.  Our category could be anything from pneumonia to Asian flu to ebola to HIV.  Most would be transmittable.  But since most people in this country die from cardiovascular disease, stroke, or cancer, if Cassandra can nail those down, it covers a lot of ground.  Disease, other isn’t a very common category.”

     “Right.  So if heart attacks and cancer form the important ones, why did Jim include things like death by violence?”

     “Maybe to let us know when something was wrong.”

    

--=--

(Twenty days before)

     “I’d say that Cassandra is pretty accurate.”

     Cassie leaned back, and smiled a bit grimly at the computer.  “We have more to do with the numbers, but it sure looks like if Cassandra thinks you have a high chance of dying, and why, then you do indeed stand a high chance of dying, and by that cause.  Jack MacIntosh was no fluke.  Good work, Erica.”
     Erica had forged ahead with the statistical analysis of the data while Cassie had entered name after name after name into Cassandra.  The names came from the files of past customers.

     “I’m finding disturbing things here.  For the names over a hundred miles from Washington, D.C., no change in chance of death.  For the names inside, high chances of death within the year.”

     She then ran herself and Erica.

     “I’m now at six percent chance of death, same as you,” Cassie said.  “At least your numbers haven’t risen.”

     “Since yesterday?  I’d sure hope not,” Erica said.

     “I’ll keep an eye on those outside the range, to see if their numbers start to go up.  And I think it’s time for another visit to the F.B.I.”


Monday, May 02, 2005
The Voice of Cassandra -- through (fifteen days before)

(Nineteen days before)

 

     Erica was entering some data, and Cassie was away at lunch, when they came.

     It was a group of four:  two very serious-looking men in suits, accompanied by Cassie and Peter Wharton.

     Wow, the F.B.I., thought Erica.  Then she looked at Wharton, who shot her an angry glance.

     Erica stood up.  She decided to go for the safety of the agents.  “Hi, I’m Erica Tanney,” she said, extending a hand out to the older agent.

     “Special agent Larson.  This is special agent Sahadi,” he said, pointing his chin to the other agent.

     “Hi,” she said, shaking agent Sahadi’s hand.  He was only a few years older than Erica.

     While agent Larson started talking with Cassie and Peter, Erica asked agent Sahadi, “How did Cassie convince you guys about Cassandra?”

     “We’re from the economic crimes unit.  We spend a lot of time dealing with insurance fraud.  Agent Larson consulted with Cassandra’s inventor, same as Cassie.  So they’ve met before.  He knows Cassie isn’t one to push a panic button without reason.  So, what do you do here?”

     “Interning,” she said.  It felt pathetic, given that he was about her age and already in an important career.  She didn’t even know what she wanted to do with her degree when she graduated.

     “Mmm-hmm,” he said, looking around the lab.  “Pretty simple setup here.  Might get crowded.”

     “Crowded?” Erica asked.

     “Well, apparently there’s no way to look into Cassandra directly to find out what’s going on,” agent Sahadi said.  Erica nodded.  “It looks like the plan is to tap into its Internet connection, find out where it’s getting its information.”

     “Yeah, that makes sense,” Erica said.

     “Excuse me, may I have a word?” Peter asked, pulling Erica aside.  He towered over her, and she realized he’d never seen him except behind his desk.  He was intimidating.  “Why didn’t I hear about this until the F.B.I. came knocking at my door?”

     “We just had a couple of anomalies.  Cassie was concerned, but I didn’t know Cassie was going to get the F.B.I. in here.  I didn’t know it was that big a deal,” Erica lied, stammering a litle.

     “Change of plans.  As long as this situation persists, I want a report from you every day.  What the agents are doing, what the Voice of Cassandra’s situation is.  Got it?”

     “Got it,” Erica said.

     Peter stalked away back to Cassie and agent Larson, and Erica tried to force herself to calm down.

 

--=--

(Sixteen days before)

 

The F.B.I. set up the tap during the weekend.  It was up and running by the time Erica came in on Monday.  Sahadi and Larson were there, plus a couple of other agents, presumably computer experts, who were hunched over some new computer equipment.

     Cassie was already there.  “No, I had no idea,” she was saying.  Whether she was on good terms with agent Larson or not, she was getting questioned pretty heavily.  “I swear, there’s no way for me to know where Cassandra goes for information.”  Larson asked another question Erica couldn’t hear.  “Listen, it’s a black box!  I don’t know how it does what it does—I only have clues from the output it gives.  I didn’t even invent the thing, all right?”

     Erica stepped a little closer.  “Morning.  Everything okay?” she asked, hoping to give Cassie a chance to lose some steam.

     “We’ve been getting some interesting data from the Voice’s internet tap,” agent Larson said.  “Can you shed any light on this?”

     “No, she can’t,” Cassie said.  “If anyone would know, it would be me.  So don’t drag her into this.”

     She looked over at her desk.  “Erica, could you hand me my purse?” she asked.  Erica reached under the desk and grabbed it.  It felt very light.  She offered it to Cassie.  Cassie reached in, keeping eye contact with agent Larson the whole time.  She handed Erica some money.  “Could you please buy a box of donuts?  You know where the Dunkin’ Donuts is?”

     “Uh—yeah,” Erica said.  She did know where it was, but they never bought donuts before.  “Okay.”

     The money was attached to a money clip.  She shoved it in her pocket, and walked out the door.

 

     At the Dunkin’ Donuts, she pulled out the money clip.  On it was a picture frame, with a girl’s picture in it.  It was a young girl, not yet a teenager, with some of Cassie’s features.  But as Erica looked at it, it seemed familiar; and she realized the girl looked a lot like her as well.  The girl had her hair color and something of her eyes as well.

     She grabbed the box and headed back towards Cassandra.  Funny, she thought, at first it was “the lab.”  But it had become so personalized, it wasn’t “The Voice of Cassandra’s lab,” or even “The Voice of Cassandra” any more.  It was just “Cassandra.”

    

     When she got back, she put the donuts down.  The agents were drawn to it like nails to a magnet.  Erica went over to Cassie, who was no longer talking with agent Larson.

     “Your change,” she said.  “Is that your daughter?  She’s pretty.”

     “Yeah,” Cassie said.  “Thanks.”  She stuffed the money back in her purse.

     “You have the lightest purse I think I’ve ever felt,” Erica said.  Cassie shot her a look, which Erica pretended not to see.  In a moment, whatever Cassie was thinking about passed, and she put her purse under the desk.  “Yeah, I don’t keep much in there,” she told Erica flatly.

     “So, what is Larson all keyed up about?” Erica asked.

     “Cassandra’s tapping into all kinds of databases.  Databases which are secret, and encrypted.”

     “Encrypted?  That means—” Erica started.

     “Yeah.  Jim actually probably had a working instacrack program, and decided not to let the government have it.  But he built it into Cassandra.”

     “Do the agents know?”

     “Know or suspect.  They don’t know he was working on such a program.  But I think they will soon.  Actually, I may just tell them.  I doubt they can get the program out of Cassandra, even if they shut her down.”

     “—Which is what I’m proposing we do right now,” agent Larson said, interrupting them.

     “You really want to shut her down?  When she’s warning about some sort of disease that’s going to strike the D.C. area inside a year?  And what happens if such a contagion hits—are you going to tell your superiors that you might have stopped it, but you were worried a computer might find out about your aunt Fannie’s hemorrhoids?”

     “It’s not only health databases.  It’s research computers, email programs—”

     “All of which are being used by a computer in ways that don’t harm anyone,” Cassie finished.

     “We don’t know that.  The computer has internet access.  It could be written to send information out as well as gather it in.”

     “And have you seen any hint that it’s doing so?”

     “Not exactly.  Only one file has gone out, so far.  But that may be all it takes.”

     “And what was in the file?”

     “We couldn’t tell.  It was encrypted.”

     “And who was it sent to?”

     “No one.  It was sent to reside in a rather obscure place inside a government computer.”

     “And was it in danger there of being pulled out by anyone besides Cassandra?”
     “I don’t think we can say that definitively,” snapped Larson.  “Granted, the file was tucked away inside a secure area.  But who knows if a foreign agent might be working at that agency who is supposed to pull out that file?”

     “I see.  So, you’re thinking of shutting her down?”

     “Shutting it down, yes.”

     “Come over here, agent Larson.”  Cassie sat down in front of Cassandra’s work station.  “You have kids, right?”

     “Sure.  A boy and a girl.”

     “And you live near D.C., I’m sure.”

     “Actually, yes.”

     “Do you have your kids’ Socials?”

     “What?”

     “Let me have them.”

     Larson looked extremely unhappy, but he pulled a card out from his wallet and handed it to Cassie.

     Cassie input the information.  In about a minute, two forms spilled out of the machine.  Cassie took them, glanced at them, and held them up in front of agent Larson.

     “Your kids have an eight percent chance of being dead within the year.  Do you want to turn off the one thing that might clue us in on why?”

 

--=--

(Fifteen days before)

 

     “What I’m proposing is a test,” Cassie was saying when Erica entered that morning.

     “What kind of test?” Larson asked.

     “We know there’s a geographical component.  Let’s pin it down.  Lots of names, lots of locations, starting right in Washington and working outward.  We’ll need names, Socials, and addresses.  I know that’s personal information.  But it’ll take too long to cull the right names from our old customers.  Can you get that to us?”

     “Sure,” Sahadi said.  “We can probably do pretty well with F.B.I. and other government employee employee lists.  Lots of them have to waive privacy, so we can do it quickly.”

     “Good.  We’ll find the geographical pattern.  Then, we’ll keep inputting those names daily, and see how fast or if the chances of death increase.  Hopefully, that will give you guys some ideas on where to investigate next.”

     Erica picked up an interoffice envelope and put in a report to Peter.  It was less than complete, but she hoped it would be enough to keep him off her back for now.  She walked back out in the hall and dropped it in the slot by the locked door.

 


Wednesday, May 04, 2005
The Voice of Cassandra -- (Thirteen days before)

(Thirteen days before)

 

     The phone rang, and in the darkness Erica jumped.  Adrenaline pumping, she grabbed at the phone, and got it on the second try.

     “Hello?”

     “Hey, Erica.  It’s Cassie.  Sorry to wake you.”

     “No…I wasn’t asleep,” Erica said automatically.  Then she realized how dumb that sounded.  “I mean, it’s okay.  What’s wrong?”

     “I want you to get out of bed now, if you can, and meet me at the office.”

     “Why?”

     “We’ve got some work to do, and I’d rather do it without the agents around.  Okay?”

     “Umm…okay.  I’m getting out of bed now.  Bye.”

     Erica swung her legs over, and picked a couple of sleepers out of her eye.  Then she looked at her clock.  3:30!  No wonder it was so dark.

     She squinted her eyes and turned on a light, then went to her dresser for some clothes.

     At the office, Cassie was already at the computer.

     “What’s the rush?” Erica asked.

     “Come here,” Cassie said.

     She pointed at the screen.  “I know you know about the emergency glass.  I wanted you to be here when I broke it.  That way, if something happens to me, you can access it.”

     “Couldn’t you just write down a password and leave it in a safety deposit box or something?” Erica asked, then immediately wished she hadn’t.

     Cassie was polite enough to ignore the faux pas.  She cracked the glass, and the voice again said, “Are you sure it’s an emergency?  You only get three tries at the password, and if you fail, this help function is wiped away totally from the program forever.”  Cassie clicked on YES.

     The words popped up, along with the calm male voice.  “That’s Jim, I take it,” Erica said.

     “Yep,” Cassie said simply.

     “Cassie, I hope you remember what you and I both had at that restaurant the day Cassandra got the go-ahead.  It was the first time you’d tried it.  Eight letters.”

     Cassie typed in COUSCOUS.

     “Excellent,” the voice of the now-dead Jim intoned.  “I added this feature once I found out I wasn’t going to be with the project much longer, if you catch my drift.

     “If you’ve done this, I assume that Cassandra is giving some disturbing readings.  That is what I both dreaded and prepared for.

     “Now, I have no way of knowing exactly what the problem is or what Cassandra is even telling you.  But I can imagine it’s pretty scary.  So here’s what I can tell you.

     “I did in fact finish the instacrack program.  I tested it out by having it hack into some government email programs.  I found that the men I was working with on the project were already planning on using it, and not against enemies, but even against U.S. politicians and allied countries.  Everything was fair game to them.

     “I felt I couldn’t allow them to use it in that way.  But how to get some use out of it, without causing too much harm?

     “I turned the program into a self-seeking hacking program, and added a lot of details to help it sort through what information would be important and what would be extraneous.

     “The question:  how long are people going to live?

     “I figured I could sell the information to insurance companies, giving it a sheen of legitimacy.  But the real purpose:  early warning.

     “If the life expectancy of a lot of people are going down, Cassandra will give you some clues as to why.  I hope it’s enough.

     “Cassandra constantly updates her logarithms telling her how to determine life expectancy.  She then sends out files, encrypted, into various places on the internet, so that if she’s turned off, she doesn’t have to start from scratch.  That is why she’ll be able to learn faster than the first time.  It’s a little like being born with a high-school diploma.

     “A copy of the most recent file is now being emailed to you, Cassie.  It will give some clues as to what Cassandra considers important, and where her information comes from.  It won’t be the easiest thing to read, though, so for the next few days, a new file will be sent each day.  That way you can compare, and find out what parts are changing from day to day.  Whatever the problem is, Cassandra will be working on it most heavily, and that is where the changes will be found.

     “But at the end, you’ll probably have to figure out both what she is and what she isn’t telling you to determine the problem.  I hope Cassandra will be enough to forestall whatever it is.  If you fix it, soon you’ll see Cassandra’s prophecies going back to normal, and you’ll know you were successful.

     “It’s too bad my program had to get buried, but perhaps some good can come from it.  All the best to you and your daughter.  I wonder how old she is?”

     The program ended there.

     Cassie went to the other computer and pulled up her email.  Sure enough, there was an email—which was blank in the “From” line, Erica noticed—with an attachment.

     Cassie downloaded the file, backed it up, then opened it.

     It was a collection of numbers and variables.  Cassie gave a small groan.  The tags were minimal at best.

     “It’ll be a long while before I have a handle on how to read this,” Cassie said.

     “Well, scoot over,” Erica said, pulling her chair beside her, “Because I’m pretty good at this.”

     It wasn’t even 5:00 AM yet when they started, and they hadn’t even glanced up from the screen by 8:30 AM, when agent Sahadi and the two techs came in to work on Cassandra’s internet tap.

     Before the end of the day, they had some sort of handle on what was what.  But they would need the next day’s file to see what was changing to really understand the file and where Cassandra’s hypotheses were changing.

     Cassie entered more names into Cassandra.  She brought one over to Erica.

     “My daughter lives near the edge of the danger zone.  She’s now in danger of dying within the year, too.”  Erica looked at the page.  JESSICA TALBOT was at the top of the page.  “Not Jessica Knox?” she asked.

     “She lives with her father,” Cassie said.

     “That’s…” Erica said, then realized she couldn’t finish the sentence politely.  “I’m sorry.”

     “Don’t be,” Cassie said.  “I’m okay with it.”

     But Erica wondered.

 


The Voice of Cassandra -- through (six days before)

(Twelve days before)

     Cassandra sent a second file to Cassie’s email.  By comparing, they were able to determine which parts of the information were being changed.  Soon after, they had a good idea of how the variables fit together.

     The trouble is, it didn’t point back to anything specific.  They knew how the danger was being computed; but the actual cause was still a mystery.

     At this point, Cassie turned the information over to the agents, hoping they could do better.  The agents gave Cassie a strange look when they saw the files, but didn’t complain about the new information.

 

--=--

(Nine days before)

     Cassie and Erica both came in over the weekend to pull Cassandra’s new files and to input more names.  Not much new had been determined by the time they came in that Monday morning.

     Erica had quietly gathered the social security numbers of most of her family, and input them.  Everyone except her brother, who lived in California, had a chance of dying.

     And the odds were now creeping up day by day, and even hour by hour.  The one-year odds of death for most of the people who lived in the D.C. area were approaching twenty-five percent.

     Erica was the one who input the first name that turned out to be an exception.

     His name was Gregory West, and he worked for the Department of the Interior.

     “We’ll check it out,” the agents assured her and Cassie.

     A few hours later, they had their answer.

     “We don’t think he’s involved in anything nefarious.  But he is taking a business trip next week.”

     “A business trip?” Cassie asked.

     “We’re betting whatever is going to happen, will happen while he’s away.  Now we need to find more people who will be out of town, so we can narrow the window.”

     After a lot of calls to various HR departments, they had some possibilities.  After inputting them, they had the time window narrowed down to just one day:  a week from Wednesday.

     “I think it’s time to alert the higher-ups,” agent Larson said.  “Before, we had a whole year as a window—and no way of knowing if it was a single event or some long-drawn out affair.  Now, it seems, we have a single event tied to a single day.  Evacuations may be in order.”

     “We still have eight more days to stop whatever it is,” Cassie countered.

     “We still have eight more days,” agent Larson said, accenting the we.  “The F.B.I. appreciates the help you’ve given, but you need to stay out of our way.  This is what we do.”

     “Fine,” Cassie said, her mouth clenched in an unconvincing smile.  “We’ll just provide whatever support we can.”

     And alert our families to be somewhere else that Wednesday, Erica thought.

    

--=--

(Six days before)

     That Thursday, Erica felt useless.  She wasn’t even being asked to input names any more.  The agents were apparently following leads of their own.  Erica had heard a couple of them talking about the CDC—perhaps some virus had been stolen and was about to be released?

     She decided to input a few more names herself, and try to help any way she could.

     What she found surprised her.

     Not only were the chances of death still climbing—over thirty-eight percent now—but now Cassandra was forecasting higher death rates in later years, as well.

     Her models were evolving again.

     “Cassie, what does this mean?” Erica asked.

     “I’m not sure—the disease is likely to cause problems long after the initial outbreak.  Are they all like this?”

     “Yes.  And the cause of death isn’t ‘disease, other.’  It’s cancer.”

     “Cancer.”

     “Yeah.”

     “I’ll alert the agents,” Cassie said.

 


Thursday, May 05, 2005
The Voice of Cassandra -- through (two days before)

(Five days before)

     “Erica?” agent Larson said over the phone.

     “Yes?”

     “Cassie there?”
     “Not at the moment.”

     “We got him.”

     “You did?”

     “Yep.  An inside job at the CDC.  Turns out one of them had terrorist ties that hadn’t been discovered before.  He was caught with anthrax in his possession.”

     “That’s great.  Did you get Cassie’s message about the cancer?”

     “Yes, but it doesn’t matter any more.  Even if this guy had accomplices, we’ll catch them too soon.”

     “Okay, but Cassandra hasn’t shown any changes this morning.”

     “You know it takes time for the computer to catch up with what’s happening.”

     “I guess so.”

     “We’ll send some agents to take the tap down pretty soon.  It’s considered low priority unless we need the equipment for another job, so it could be today, or a few days.”

     “Fine.  Bye.”

     “Erica?  Thanks.  And let Cassie know we appreciate her help, too.”

     “Okay.”

     Something bothered Erica.  Would anthrax, if survived, cause cancer later on?  She didn’t think so.

     She entered more names and plotted the information, just to make herself feel better.

     It didn’t work.

     “Cassie?” she said.

     “Yes?”

     “Look at this.  First of all, the chances of death haven’t changed.  They’re still rising as we approach Wednesday.  Second, we have our first geographical change in a long time.”

     “What kind?”

     “Shorter distances to the southwest, longer to the northeast.”

     “How about the other two directions?”

     “Roughly the same, a bit less.”

     “So, now we have a teardrop shape pointing northwest.”

     “Right.  Any idea why this is happening?”

     “Let me think.”  Cassie went back to Cassandra and just folded her hands in front of her.  “We’re what—five days away, now.”

     “Right.  Oh, no.”

     Cassie just looked at her, waiting.

     “The weather.  The weather can’t be predicted more than five or seven days out at most.  If Cassandra’s including weather predictions, she’d have to wait until five days before.”

     “That makes sense.  Let’s check the weather.”

     Sure enough, a medium wind from the southwest was forecast to be blowing on Wednesday.

     “Anthrax gets put into spore form and dispersed.  So this doesn’t exactly blow the F.B.I.’s theory out of the water.  In fact, it kind of supports it,” Cassie said.

     “I know.  It just bugs me that Cassandra’s now thinking that cancer is going to follow in the wake of the attack.  And, of course, that she hasn’t gotten the word on the capture.”

     “Maybe the agents missed something from Cassandra’s input file.  Or from their tap.”

     “Is it okay if I look at the tap and see?” Erica asked.

     “They’re not here to ask.  I don’t see why it would be a problem,” Cassie said.

     Erica went over to the tap computer.  It was the first time she’d even taken a good look at it.

     It was still running.

     The computer was continually compiling files on where the Voice of Cassandra was getting information on the internet.  It was easy for Erica to figure out how the files worked.

     Most of the information came in the form of IP addresses, though sometimes actual URLs or email addresses were given.

     Erica sorted the information, and followed up on the IP addresses.  It quickly became obvious that the agents were looking at the most-often-searched IPs first.

     Were they missing something from the rarely-used addresses? Erica wondered.

     There were thousands of them, though.  There wasn’t time to search them all.

     She put the files on a disk, in case the agents took the tap away, and just sat down to think.

     She wasn’t able to come up with anything that day.

 

--=--

(Two days before)

     After a restless weekend, Erica wasn’t any closer to thinking of a way to go through the tap information.

     It was a junk pile of information.  She didn’t even know if any of it was what she wanted.

     She input some more names in Cassandra.  If the agents had caught the right guy, Cassandra hadn’t gotten the word.  The chances of death were approaching 50%.  The teardrop-shaped formation remained, and Erica found that the same wind pattern was being forecast for Wednesday.

     She absently followed up on a few addresses, but it was hopeless.

     She called the F.B.I., and got agent Sahadi.

     “Agent Sahadi, Cassandra’s still showing rising death rates.  I gave it the weekend for her to figure out that your guy had been arrested, but no such luck.  I don’t know if you’ve got the right guy.”

     “How many guys with anthrax do you think there are out there?” agent Sahadi asked.

     “I don’t know.  I just know Cassandra is unconvinced.  Listen, if I think of something, could I call you back?”

     “Of course,” agent Sahadi said.

     Erica hung up.  She felt she had missed something.

     Lots of data, she thought.  Too much.  I need a filter.  But what to use as a filter?

     She looked at Cassandra.  But the black box might as well have been a black hole, a void from which no light escaped.

     She remembered vaguely that theoretical physicists were arguing about black holes.  Information is everywhere in the universe.  You just have to know how to gather and interpret it.  Information about the Big Bang is still whizzing through the universe at the speed of light.  More of it hits our planet every day.

     But black holes pull in light, particles, everything, and emit almost nothing.  Any information contained in the particles would be destroyed when it enters the black hole.  The argument was basically, was the information lost by going in the black hole, or was it simply mangled so badly that it could never be recovered?

     Either way, she thought, nothing useful came from a black hole.  Or a black box.

     But then she looked at the other computer.

     Cassandra was less of a black box than before.  She was emitting information about herself.  It was in the other computer.

     She pulled up Cassandra’s file, and looked at the portions that had been changing—meaning they most likely had to do with Zero Day.

     There, buried in the pages and pages of information, was a number.

     A series of IP addresses.

     They fell into two groups:  one of the same number, and one of a number whose first part remained the same, but whose second part changed.

     Two addresses, she realized.  Just two, really.  One hard line, whose IP address never changed.  And one using a dialup, getting a new IP address each time.

     Two addresses.  Two emails?

     Perhaps these two were sending encrypted messages to each other, secure in the knowledge they couldn’t be read by human eyes.  But they didn’t know there was a computer that could.

     The one with the changing IP address would be impossible to track down without the cooperation of the internet service provider.  That would take the F.B.I. and probably a court order.

     But the other address never changed.  It left traces of itself all over the internet, each time that user surfed.

     Erica started typing furiously, surfing the internet, including some little-known backwaters where some friends of hers with dubious ethics played.

     Cassie heard the typing, and looked over.  “Something up?”

     “Yeah, maybe.”

     Erica pulled up the tap information, and searched for the IP address.  It pulled up some good information, places for her to go.


Friday, May 06, 2005
The Voice of Cassandra -- conclusion!

     She did some research, brows knit the whole time.  All I need is a name or a physical address, she thought.

     It took her about an hour, but she got it.

     She went over to Cassandra, and entered a name and address into the computer.

     Despite not having a social, Cassandra came through with a printout in only a minute longer than usual.  She took a glance at it to verify her hunch.  Then with a brief word of excuse to Cassie, she left to go back to the campus.

     In about a half an hour, she was at the geology department of the college.  She glanced at the department listing to verify the office she was looking for, and sprinted up the stairs.

     A moment later, she was knocking at an office door.

     “Professor Martin?”

     “Come in.”

     Professor Martin was balding, somewhat overweight, and tanned from countless outdoor expeditions to further his field of study.  He looked up over some reading glasses.

     “May I help you?”

     “I hope so, Professor.  I had a class with you last year.  Erica Tanney.”

     “Oh, yes.”  There wasn’t a whole lot of conviction in his voice.  It was a large, introductory class, and she’d only talked with him personally a couple of times.

     “I need to borrow some equipment from the department.  There’s a crime about to be committed that I think I can help stop.”

     “A crime?  Why don’t you just get help from the authorities?”

     “They’re already involved.  But they think they got their man.  I don’t.  I think it’s still going to happen.”

     “I don’t know…” he said, trailing off.

     “I understand.  That’s why I brought this.  It’s from the Voice of Cassandra—the computer that predicts life expectancies.”

     “Oh, yes—I heard of that quite a bit a few years ago.  Caused a stir in some circles.”

     Erica put the paper on his desk in front of him.  At the top was PHILANDER MARTIN.

     Professor Martin looked it over, then back up at her.  “You’re serious.”

     “Dead serious.  Mine doesn’t look any better.”

     “I think you’ve got yourself a deal.”

     The equipment was heavy, but easily packed into Erica’s beater Honda.  She got out a map and figured out how to get to her next stop.

     The drive was uneventful, and she pulled up a little ways away from a very quiet house in a very quiet neighborhood.

     She’d decided on the way there to first knock and make up some story if the door was answered.

     She found herself shaking.  If the stakes were any less, she never would have found the courage to do it.

     She stepped out of the car and walked towards the house.  The windows were all shaded, and seemed dark as far as she could tell.

     I’m sure no one’s home, she told herself.  No big deal.

     She lifted her fist to knock, and then looked at how badly it was shaking.  She decided to ring the doorbell instead.

     She heard it go off inside.  It seemed loud.

     No one answered the door.

     She relaxed a little.

     She knocked, loudly.

     No one came.

     She looked around, then marched back to her car.  She got out the equipment, most of which was designed to be strapped on like a backpack.  She felt like a World War II minesweeper.

     She went back up to the door and turned it on.

     There was a bit of noise, but no strong signal.  She swept the door and the porch, but found nothing.

     A stronger signal came from the garage door area.  But was it strong enough?

     “What are you doing?” a man’s voice asked.  She spun around.  A man, possibly of retirement age, was staring at her quizzically—but, she hoped, not too suspiciously.

     “Do you know who lives here?” she asked.

     “Yes—well, sort of.  We’re neighbors, but he doesn’t socialize.  Still, I did him a good turn recently.”

     “How so?”

     “He was going out to get his mail—that was about the only time anyone ever saw him—and he just collapsed.  I called the ambulance.  Probably saved his life, they said.  He’s awful sick.”

     “When was that?” Erica asked.

     “Just a couple of days ago.”

     “Where exactly did he collapse?”

     “Right by his mailbox.”  The man pointed.  “What exactly are you doing?”

     “Hunting.”  She walked by the mailbox, and flipped on the machine again.

     It crackled like popcorn.  Erica put the probe aside and knelt cautiously down.

     She saw flakes of some dark, slightly metallic, substance.  Shaken off of his clothing?

     “Which hospital did they take him to?”

     A few minutes later, she was in her car, calling agent Sahadi.

     “Agent Sahadi, can you meet me—right now?”

     “What’s this about?”

     “Radioactivity.  The disease Cassandra’s referring to isn’t anthrax.  It’s radioactivity poisoning.  And it’ll cause cancer to a lot of people it doesn’t kill outright.  I’m going to the hospital to meet the man I think is going to be responsible for a dirty bomb.”

     “Why a dirty bomb?”

     “It looks like metal shavings.  I think he got hold of some radioactive material, and was shaving it down so that it would disperse more.  But it made him very sick.  He’s in the hospital.”

     “Okay, I’ll meet you there.  I’m leaving now.”

     They met near the front entrance.

     Agent Sahadi asked to see the man Erica had named.  The nurse looked at them—the agent, now holding up his identification, and Erica, with a large Geiger counter strapped to her back.  But she acquiesced, and even led them upstairs.

     In just a minute, they were in the man’s hospital room.

     Erica looked at him.  He might have been dark-complexioned, but his illness made him look faded.  He was unconscious.

     “We don’t really know what’s wrong with him, yet,” the nurse said.

     Erica turned on the Geiger counter.  It crackled fiercely.

     “He’s been exposed to a lot of radioactivity.  So much that he himself is giving off radioactivity just from the trace amounts of dust he has left on him.”

     “I’ll get the doctor,” she said, and hurried out.

     “They’ll need a hazardous cleanup team here and at his house,” agent Sahadi said.

     “And we need to find out who his accomplices are.  He was probably just the bomb maker.  Someone else may well have the bomb and is getting ready to set it off.”

     “’If you reveal your secrets to the wind you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees,’” agent Sahadi said.

     “Sorry?” Erica asked.

     “Something by a Lebanese-American poet I remembered.  He had no way of knowing his encrypted emails would be intercepted, not by a person, but by a computer, and that ultimately they would lead back to him.”

     Nine hours later, a team of F.B.I. agents swept into another quiet house in another quiet neighborhood, while several hazardous materials teams and bomb squads readied themselves to go to work.

     Erica and Cassie both slept well that night, for the first time in far too long.

 

--=--

(Day Zero)

     That Wednesday was beautiful, with a few high cirrus clouds and fairly low humidity, plus a cooling breeze from the southwest.

     Cassie and Erica took the day off, and just enjoyed the weather, each other’s company, and the full experience of living.

     A few days later, Cassandra’s models changed to normal—for everyone except Erica, who had a slightly above-average chance for cancer.  But that was decades away, and she considered it a good bargain.


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