January 2021
1.

“Power’s out again,” Esma’s father shouted from the living room.

She lulled her computer into sleep mode to preserve battery now the mains were off, put on her backpack, and stormed out of their home. Her father shouted something else after her, but she couldn’t hear him—her feet were on the dirty Orizari street already. Late-night raucousness swallowed her whole: men playing cards on the sidewalks, cursing their bad luck or each other; cars, old diesel vehicles, whirring to-and-fro, spewing fumes not smelled elsewhere in the city of Skopje in twenty years; kids and their mothers and fathers, out playing, chatting, even at eleven in the evening.

Some called after Esma.

“Esmy, Esme, when are you gonna fix our boiler?”

“Hey, Genius Girl, mamma’s Net connection’s all patchy after last week’s rains. What to do?”

“Out of power! Been out of power for days now.”

She raced by her neighbors, the tools rattling in her backpack. “Tomorrow,” she promised. “Check the cable for rat bites,” she advised. “I’ll swing by after school,” she said. And she hurried down the sloping street and out of Skopje’s poorest quarter and into the residential neighborhood that’d had the bad luck to be built adjacent to it, following all the while the powerlines that drooped beside the road like pythons. The sky was dead, with only watered-down moonlight soaking through the pollution.

She dove right among the first cluster of buildings, and there, next to the park with the swings, stood her favorite power pole, with her very own cable snaking sneakily up the wood. She took off her sandals, gripped the metal handles of the pole, and climbed up. It was a hot summer night and her hands and feet were slippery, but she’d done this a thousand times, so she made her way to the top in no time.

There, she spotted the problem right away: her cable, the illicit line that leeched power from this neighborhood and carried it to hers, had been pecked bare by birds.

She swung her backpack to her belly and took out her screwdriver. Popping the lid of the transformer open with the tool, she unclipped the damaged cable. She took a breath before daring to touch any wires, then, using her crimp tool, she crimped her cable’s frayed wires to a new alligator clip, which she promptly hooked back into the city’s power lines. Finally, she closed the lid of the transformer, and taped the bundle of cables coming out of it several times around to the pole to ensure no pesky birds would damage them any time soon.

She gazed out toward her neighborhood. A few windows lit up among that swirl of light and smoke, followed by a couple more, and more, until the entirety of the hovelscape glowed like a furnace.

The city looked different from above. Quiet, clean, even ordered somehow in its messiness. She watched the city, optimizing in her head.

The line where the hovels of Orizari street ended and the buildings of this middle-class residential neighborhood began seemed natural, like the border between oaks and chestnuts in a forest. A gentle breeze blew on her sweaty face. She liked it here. She liked seeing things from above. Everything seemed simpler, easier to understand from this vantage point. She liked feeling like an incarnation of Overseer, her pet project, the software she’d been cooking up for months for equalizing power distribution and sharing of electricity among Skopje’s neighborhoods. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the quiet for a moment before climbing back down.

On her way home, something on one of the power poles caught her eye. It was a poster, tacked inexpertly to the wood and flapping in the wind. She came closer.

EuroTech’s Three Day Hackathon.

When she read the details, a rush of excitement went through her, so she tore the poster off, tucked it in her pocket, and hurried home.

“How many times have I told you?” Her father paced the room—his television set back on—furious.

She’d been careful broaching the topic, but with her hard-to-contain excitement and the above-average participation fee for the hackathon, aggravating her father seemed unavoidable.

“But I will earn back the money.”

He stopped in his tracks. “Don’t you understand, kid? Money’s not what this is about.”

“I don’t understand why you’re angry. It’s a simple competition.”

“Yes, and they simply—” He stopped, considered his words. “They simply want to waste your time. Your school is important, girl.”

“But I’ll make up for school. You don’t get it. This is EuroTech. Where the best engineers work on the best projects. And if I win this, I will be guaranteed an internship, and I’ll learn more, and I’ll earn more, and we’ll all have more.”

“You will… you will be mindful of your time. And focus on what’s important.” Her father shook the piece of the poster before her. He looked as if reading from it. “Your mother and me. Your community. Those who need you here and now.”

Tears came to her eyes and she hated herself for that. “That’s just unfair,” she said, but there was nothing more she could do, so she retreated to her room to sleep, too rattled to get back to coding.

2.

“Bad one, huh?” Esma said when she met Redjep at recess. His left eye was swollen, bruised violet. “Shit,” she muttered. Redjep’s brother’s friends, mean bastards. Esma felt anger coming up, but she swallowed it down; anger was of no use here. Her friend needed her to stay grounded, and to not embarrass him with excessive worry. She decided the best approach would be to tease him. She said, “And have you told her yet?”

Redjep shook his head. “Later.”

They went for the fries-and-ketchup snack from the kiosk at the corner of the street, and came back before the bell rang. She told him all about the hackathon and her father’s reaction. About the participation fee she’d never be able to make in time. About the fact that they’d never ever let her miss school for three whole days, as if they had suddenly started caring about her education.

He shrugged about the money. Then he said, “Why do you care what he cares or pretends to care about?”

“Well, because…” she said, not knowing how to continue.

“Because they control you.” Meaning those at home, her parents, but she knew he was just projecting. She didn’t dislike her parents the way Redjep hated his. Far from it.

“Not that,” she said, suddenly more aware of her own feelings, “but I’m afraid, too. I don’t know how to balance. Maybe I should really take the straight path and focus on school and focus on what I have right now and then, once I’m ready, once I’m good enough, I apply to EuroTech. What if I’m only given just one opportunity with them? What if I mess it up?”

“Oh, get a grip.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “EuroTech, or InsidePlayers, or NoCV, or Balkan Telecom, they can’t wait to grab talents off the streets, which is exactly what you are. They will see the potential.” He eyed her with suspicion. “But if you start doubting yourself,” he said, more to himself, “your parents win.”

“Are those her words?” she asked, annoyed at his recently acquired penchant for the dramatic.

“What do you have against her?” As if to provoke, he whipped out his phone. An old, sturdy model, non-flexible, probably from the beginning of the previous decade, but with a Net chip and enough processing power to run his favorite apps. He pressed the little icon of a stethoscope wrapped around a brain.

“How are you today, Redjep?” the therapist from the app said in English, butchering Redjep’s name.

Esma groaned. Redjep shot her a dirty look.

“Not so good, Margaret,” Redjep responded in the best English he could muster, but before he could recount the details of his quarrel with his big brother, Esma grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to class.

On the weekend, her last hope, her mother, was back home.

Esma waited for the woman to get her much-needed sleep, then she prepared her a nice breakfast of fried paprika and tomatoes, and brought it to her bed. Her mother looked drained. She worked during the week at a rich family’s house in southern Skopje as their cook, cleaning lady, and babysitter, and she slept there so she could cook first thing in the morning and clean last thing at night; so she deserved to get her own breakfast in bed sometimes, and especially so on days when Esma was expecting a favor in return.

“How is my girl?” Her mother yawned, stroking Esma’s face with one hand, stretching with the other. She was too young to look so tired.

“Annoyed.”

Her mother bit into a bread roll. She gave Esma a sidelong look. “I heard.”

“It’s just not fair. I do all I can for you.”

“We know you do.”

Esma let her mother eat a while, then she said, “You know I deserve to try, I deserve to see what opportunities may arise.”

Her mother ate in silence, while Esma kept letting off steam, saying everything that was on her mind, then she put the fork down and said, “I’m sorry, baby.”

“Sorry?” Esma was taken aback. “Don’t be sorry. Do something. Change his mind.”

“It’s not his mind that needs changing.”

“Not you too!”

“Esma—”

“You agree with him.” Her last hope. Mamma had been her absolute last hope. “I can’t believe this. Since I first put my fingers on a keyboard, Mom!” Esma held her hands in front of her. “Since I first touched a computer I wanted to go to the companies downtown, to work for the companies downtown, to learn from the companies downtown. And now that there’s an opening, a possibility for me to get an internship there, you’re both going against me. What have I done to you, that you have to hold me back like this?”

“Girl, don’t blow this out of proportion.”

But it was too late. Esma left her mother’s bedroom and slammed the door on her way out.

She sat slumped in her chair. She wanted to cry but didn’t, out of spite. She stretched her phone out and prodded at the radio button. She gave it the name of her favorite band and her favorite album, and the radio obliged, waking up a whole web of networks, and music poured into Esma’s ears from her earrings. A whole band sounding as if from their album from over thirty years ago, but it was all neural networks, having learned the playing and singing styles of all musicians of the last hundred years, now producing songs that could’ve been, but weren’t. Songs heard for the first and last time. Composed, listened to, discarded. It was Kim’s guitar, but not quite, and Matt’s drumming, but it wasn’t Matt, and of course Chris’ voice, but only his voice, singing never-before-heard lyrics in that distinct, gravelly way that made Esma melt. No one sang like him anymore, she thought.

Esma wallowed in her self-pity a while, listening to songs modeled after her favorite band, until her phone pinged with a message.

A piece of software knocking at her door, requesting to be installed. She cocked her head, stopped the music. Then she groaned.

Redjep. He’d signed her up, that bastard, for Margaret the AI therapist.

Her finger was about to swipe the request to oblivion, but it stopped of its own accord in mid-air, hovering above the worn, stretched-out screen. Why was she dithering? Could it be that she needed to speak to somebody who wasn’t her parents, her friends, her neighbors? Was she desperate for a neutral third-party? Or perhaps she wanted to try the software once and for all, and be able to back up her criticism with actual use cases. “What the hell?” she said, and pulled the big question mark toward her.

In a trickle of packets, Margaret slipped into her phone, unpacked herself and booted up, represented by a bespectacled girl a few years older than Esma. Having rifled through her phone for any scrap of personal data she could find, Margaret said, “How are you feeling tonight, Esma?”

“I hate my life,” she said, fully aware of how pathetic she sounded. “I hate my mom and dad.”

Margaret blinked. “And why do you hate your mom and dad?”

“Because they are stifling, selfish, inconsiderate parents who don’t dare move a centimeter out of their comfort zone.”

“Now, do you really believe they are stifling, selfish, inconsiderate parents who don’t—”

“Enough of this.” And she swiped Margaret away.

Was it this that Redjep craved? A vapid exchange with a simpleton, parroting his words with minor changes to give the semblance of intelligence? She felt angry with herself for even trying. She was about to write to Redjep and double down on her mockery of the chatbot, when another ping came, a request to rate the application which she closed by jabbing the one-star button. But her phone trilled immediately in response to her feedback, asking her if she’d like to opt-in to a beta feature of Margaret. Rolling out gradually to all markets but currently exclusively available in her country, the beta feature promised to let her test and push Margaret’s machine learning models to their limit. She could even earn some app store credit while she was at it, the notice said.

Esma stared at her screen.

Store credit, which, she realized, could then be exchanged for actual money.

The hairs on her arms stood on end. Here was an opening, a possibility, a way to at least cover the financial aspect—

But no. She didn’t want it this way. Didn’t want to go behind her parents’ backs, not because she didn’t think she was right, but because she thought she deserved their respect and support.

She folded her phone shut. Margaret went to sleep.

3.

“Redjep, you bastard, I hope your brother’s friends give you another beating tonight.”

But Redjep was cackling, mock-hiding behind the crook of his arm. “She’s great, isn’t she?”

After Sports, came Mathematics, Esma’s favorite, and Redjep’s favorite time to doodle in his notebook. When the teacher handed out homework, she jabbed him in the rib with an elbow. “Pay attention; I won’t let you copy mine.”

When classes were done, Redjep invited Esma to his place so they could try his freshly pirated copy of Rafters of Matka, the latest action game from a local studio. She refused, intending to head home and tinker with her computer, but he insisted, saying he had something to tell her.

So they went to Redjep’s house, a crumbling pile of bricks inexpertly stuccoed by his drunken father, diving straight into the room he shared with his brother. “At Tanya’s,” Redjep said, explaining why he had the room all to himself now. “He’s there the whole time, thank the gods.”

He was setting up his console when she asked, “So what did you want to speak about?”

Redjep smiled and took his time with the cables, never one to miss an opportunity to create a dramatic moment. When it was all set up, he said, “Let’s talk about the hackathon. I’ve been thinking.”

“For a change.”

“I’ve been thinking,” he repeated, “about the rules. Now, is it true or isn’t it, that teams are allowed to enter?”

“It’s customary, yes. Doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor.”

“And is it true that for a team to enroll, they need one adult guardian to vouch for them?”

“Where are you going with this?”

Esma watched him grin stupidly, game controller in hand. As it dawned on her what it was that Redjep was suggesting, her jaw dropped. Redjep winked at her.

She was too baffled to think. “I don’t know,” she said. It was a kind offer, one that took her by surprise.

“Oh, come on,” he said. “It’s brilliant. We both go there with the code you’ve been working on, and we’ll get this moron to be our guardian.” He rolled his eyes. “We won’t be missed at home, if that’s what you’re worried about. We’ll leave in the morning with our backpacks and rulers and lunchboxes as if we’re going to school, and then I’ll say I’m at your place to study and you’ll say you’re at mine.”

“I don’t know,” she repeated.

“There’s nothing to think about. That’s solved, so we just need the money. But now let’s play.” He shoved a controller in her hands, and soon they were rafting among canyons.

She walked back up Orizari street, thinking over Redjep’s offer. She’d have to comb through the rulebook to ensure no misstep would be made—but no, she couldn’t. She’d either do it properly, or not at all.

Past a group of boys and girls taking turns at a pair of old virtual goggles, giggling at scenes unseen, past houses with windows which blinked with borrowed light from overloaded power lines, and finally home, where her dad watched his evening television show, his back turned to her and the world, not noticing she’d returned or been away.

Esma made dinner and ate alone, then went to check up on her father, who’d fallen asleep. She picked up the empty soda can and threw a blanket over him. She watched his face a while, bruised by television light, then switched off the screen. Anger came over her, followed by sadness. Here he was, just sitting, wasting his life away, wishing for others to do the same.

And yet, EuroTech was within reach. To work in Big Tech, and to learn from the best, and to grow into an engineer of highest caliber, all within reach, if only she didn’t choose to follow this bad example right before her.

“I’m doing the hackathon,” she said. “Thought you should know.”

The old man snored and smacked his lips.

She retreated to her room, and almost mechanically, she opened her phone and started Margaret. She skipped the therapist’s moronic questions and went straight to the beta feature.

The app presented her with a question and several possible responses. She was to gauge which was most appropriate for the situation, thus helping to teach the prediction models. If her chosen response matched the chosen responses of several other testers, it was deemed a good answer and she was rewarded with points, which later could be converted to store credit, and ultimately, to real money.

Why do you think my brother said that?

Followed by options from A to D, and a little box of context beside them, summarizing what it was this fictive brother had said to the hypothetical Margaret user.

Esma chose option B—He must have spoken out of fear—and the app responded with a graph showing the distribution of users who’d chosen the same option. Her answer agreed with the majority, and thus, she was rewarded with credit.

And then came the follow-up question:

But fear of what?

And again, four different answers to this question, each in a different tone, from soothing to slightly belligerent, and Esma had to follow her instinct on which answer would be the most likely chosen answer by what she imagined to be the typical Margaret beta tester.

It didn’t always work. Sometimes her answer was the outlier. But each question and answer prompt gave her a better idea of what people chose, and she slowly got better at picking the most popular choice.

What would you have done in my place? But how should I see this from her perspective? How long will this pain last? I can’t seem to stop drinking, what should I do? They’re coming over for dinner, and the whole night will be a disaster.

And on and on the questions or complaints kept coming, and Esma toyed with the answers, watching the models change and adapt, taking notes for her own work, until she grew tired and fell asleep, phone in hand.

She continued in this way for the next few days, beta-testing Margaret before and after school, as soon as she awoke and right up till she drifted off to sleep, amassing app store credit, which she promptly sold to people online for a slightly lowered value in denars.

She shared her scheme with Redjep, and soon he was beta-testing the AI therapist too, so that within a week between the two of them they had made a little bit of progress towards the hackathon’s entrance fee.

Which meant they could start to focus on the code for the competition itself.

Esma had Overseer and the machine learning model she’d been tweaking to teach it, and she gave Redjep a thorough introduction to the code; firstly, on a more abstract level, followed by a line-by-line overview of each unit. She knew her code inside out, and she knew she was capable of rewriting it in a day, and she even had ideas on how to complete the project, which she duly shared with Redjep.

When they didn’t practice, they played Rafters of Matka on Redjep’s old two-dee system.

She was so consumed by the planning and practicing that Esma didn’t realize she’d started falling behind on homework.

4.

But why would she go and not tell me?

Esma pondered this question. How delicate, she thought. By now, she’d reached the point where multiple-choice answers were no longer enough to train Margaret, so the system had stopped serving her those. Instead, she’d been instructed to type out her responses in full.

Because she’s acting selfishly, Esma typed. Because she’s hurt.

A response came within seconds: But I’d never given her a reason to be hurt.

Esma massaged her forehead. The system was pushing her to her limit. She wrote: Not everyone is as stable as you. Your girlfriend finds it hard and confusing. And the lack of her parents’ support only exacerbates the confusion she’s going through.

Esma was discovering that the system kept her more and more on a single track, exploring all potential outcomes within the confines of one particular scenario, not varying the questions as often as before, a greater effort for which she was rewarded with extra credit.

How long will this pain last?

She considered the fictional user’s situation, and responded with what she assumed would net her the most credit: Not long. Just breathe. Be strong and patient, because all things pass.

There came a knock on her door. She crumpled her mobile phone into a ball.

“Hey.” Her father filled almost the entirety of the door frame. “Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

He sat cross-legged across from her. A pang of guilt washed over Esma. Why was she doing this behind their backs?

“Still tinkering with your machines?” He said, nodding toward the phone-ball in her hands, and some of Esma’s new guilt drained away. “Listen,” he continued, eyes scouring her room as if taking it in for the first time, “your mother and I appreciate very much what you do. For us.”

“Do you?”

“How you put your knowledge to use to help yourself and those around you. How you’ve grown into an important part of this community. How you appreciate what community means, what your own city means, your own home.” He waited for her response, and when that didn’t come, he said, “But that’s very much expected, because that’s how we raised you. We taught you to be selfless and to appreciate our community, because in the end, that’s who we are, that’s what we have, and that’s all we’ll ever have.”

Engaging him in an argument would be an exercise in futility. So she kept quiet.

“We’re doing this for your own good,” he said. “Once you realize, you’ll be thankful. This is another way for us to teach you.”

“Teach me?” Her stomach twisted.

“Yes. Don’t you see? These people—these competitions, these companies, they simply want to take you away from us. Well, they won’t. What will you win if you win? Your internship, first. And then, what? Some money for fancy restaurants? An apartment in central Skopje? But what will you lose? Your mother and me. Your community. Your neighborhood. It’s already enough that they’ve put ideas into your head, Esma. And eventually, once they find a way to milk your talent more, they’ll want to take you to Western Europe, and take you away from us, and leave us with nothing. We’re teaching you to know your place. To avoid these traps. To remember where you are.”

Esma stared at her father; she’d never realized what this whole fuss had been about. She felt stupid for being so naive and failing to see that they’d never cared about her education or about her skipping school or forgetting homework; all they cared about was themselves, and what lives they might end up leading if she were no longer there to take good care of them.

By now, no trace of guilt was left, and rage filled the void; Esma almost groaned in anger, but she took a breath, smiled, and looked away.

She fidgeted with her scrunched-up phone in her hands until her father got up and left.

5.

When they had made enough money to pay the hackathon’s entrance fee, Esma and Redjep took the first bus from Orizari street to the western quarters of Skopje. Over the hill on which their street lay perched, and hurtling down past the old fortress, over the bridge, the river Vardar sleeping beneath them slow and thin this time of the year, and past the city’s center, through the wide boulevards westward.

“You sure he’ll bite?”

“Just follow my lead,” Redjep said.

They got off the bus forty minutes later in Karposh Four, a neighborhood of high-rises and flaking buildings caged between two parallel boulevards. Redjep led her through smaller streets to a red-brick apartment building. They went in and climbed up the stairs (the elevator was out of service) to the ninth floor.

“It’s here,” Redjep said and rang the bell.

A short brunette opened the door. She eyed them, rolled her eyes, then turned away. “Memet,” she called out. “For you.” Slinking away back inside.

Heavy footsteps, and Redjep’s brother appeared in the doorway. “The hell do you want?”

Redjep said, “I need your signature.”

“You need a boot stomp on your ass, is what you need. Get lost.” And he made to close the door but Redjep put his foot in.

“We need a legal guardian to approve our participation for an event. Since you’re what people call a mature adult, we decided you should be that guardian. All we need is your signature. It’ll only take a moment.”

“How dare you disturb me at Tanya’s with your childish games?” He made a fist and threatened Redjep with it.

“Ah, but see,” Redjep said, “your friends already gave me the weekly beating you scheduled.” He showed a cheek and a yellowing bruise on the side of his arm.

“Good.”

“Not their best work.”

“Give them time. They’ll improve.”

Redjep shrugged. “But maybe next time, tell your friends to talk less when they push and shove. It’s embarrassing, if you know what I mean.”

“What?”

“I mean, they sure like to brag in your name. Obviously, they did call me a little shit and a ballerina like you instructed, but they also explained to me in very, very precise detail how I’d never be half as cool as my older brother, and all his girls, and—oops, I don’t know if Tanya knows about, well, about—should I keep my voice down, now? Sorry! I’m talking, of course, about Hatidze from Osman’s street. And about Fuat’s sister. And Big Ketty. But—”

“Shut up.” Memet stepped out of the apartment and closed the door behind him. “Shut your mouth.”

“I know when you’re here, and when you’re not. I can stop by any day, and I’ve heard enough to convince Tanya I’m not lying.”

“You little—”

“Exactly.”

Memet punched the wall.

“Careful with that hand, we need a finger.” Redjep nudged Esma and she produced her phone. She presented a part of its screen to Memet, who, not taking his eyes off his brother, graced it with a thumb-print. The screen blinked. It was done. They had his signature.

“Thank you very much,” Redjep said, bowing theatrically. “Much brotherly love your way.”

“Piss off.”

As they started backing away, Esma said, “And call off your friends. No more taunting Redjep.”

Memet slammed the door shut.

The two looked at each other and ran down the stairs, whooping. Esma tucked her phone back in her pocket. “That was easy,” she said, and both laughed.

6.

The hackathon started on a wet and windy November morning. Esma and Redjep, backpacks heavy with laptops instead of schoolbooks, ran off to the bus stop at the curb of Orizari street and caught the first bus downhill to Skopje’s center.

On the ride, Esma wondered if her parents would see through her lie about spending the days at Redjep’s place “after school to help him study,” and then she realized that she didn’t care, and that if they got angry, then so be it, and she smiled at the city passing by.

They got off near the city square, and quickly shuffled below that sidewalk awning of bumping umbrellas made by Skopje’s morning commuters, toward the main street radiating out of the square, toward that dark glass building on the corner that was EuroTech’s headquarters.

Esma shivered as they approached the glistening building; its logo, spelled out in neon, projected ghostly over the curtain of rain, and the whole construction shone like a pharos, calling all wandering engineers to port.

Impatiently waiting in front of it was Memet, wearing a beige raincoat.

“Looking sharp.” Redjep whistled. (“And dress like an adult, you moron,” he’d texted his brother beforehand.)

Memet eyed the two of them. “Let’s get this over with.” He rang the bell, and the built-in fingerprint scanner recognized him as the guardian of Redjep Bajram and Esma Muratova, and let the three of them right in.

They shook off the rain from their hair, took off their jackets, and registered at the reception desk, after which Memet bid them goodbye.

“Ah, the two from Orizari.” A man came up to them, consulting his notepad. He bit his lip. “I mean, Redjep and Esma?”

They nodded.

“Yes, welcome, come in, come in.” They followed him into a big room filled with young contestants unpacking computers and setting up monitors or goggles and plugging in peripherals. “Do you need hardware?”

Esma turned her back to show her backpack. “Brought our own laptops, thanks.”

“Of course, of course you did.” The man blushed, ashamed to have asked them the question. “Well then.” Scratching his beard, looking around. “Pick a seat.”

Once everyone had come in, they were officially welcomed by a senior developer at EuroTech, who took the opportunity to reiterate the rules: teams of maximum five could be formed during the first day, but couldn’t change afterwards; dropping out early meant forfeiting; the finished products and presentations would be judged by a panel of developers, product managers, and designers from the company on the very last day; the results would be available shortly thereafter; the final prize—announced after a purposefully pompous drum roll which elicited some laughter—was three months of internship at EuroTech (alongside the expected bag full of free hardware).

A murmur passed through the contestants in the room. EuroTech was the biggest foreign software company in the country, and an internship there was the most coveted position among young graduates, because it was guaranteed to open many doors, including the high probability of full employment there, or a position in one of the many EuroTech offices abroad.

Following the opening speech, the hackathon was officially started, and they were allowed to mingle and select teams.

Esma and Redjep split, each diving into a different side of the room. Everybody had tagged themselves with their three computer skills of choice, ranked by experience, which made the scouring of potential teammates easier. Esma peered at the room through her phone’s cameras.

Scala. Python. JavaScript.

Ruby. TCP/IP. Computer Assisted Design.

C++. 3D Audio. Java.

She approached one person and pitched him her project about optimizing the sharing of electrical resources through machine learning, but he shook his head. “Sorry, not interested.” She approached another, with an equally disappointing result. After the fifth had rejected her, she was beginning to wonder.

“Esma, I got one,” Redjep said, dragging a bespectacled young student by his sleeve. “Networking specialist,” he said, and added, “but really good at math.”

“Sounds good.” Betraying no enthusiasm. “I’m Esma, good to meet you.”

“Boris. Good to be in the team.”

“You?” Redjep asked her.

Esma shook her head. “No luck.”

“Let’s try one more.” And he dove back into the crowd, phone before his face, leaving this new Boris to Esma.

“Care to help me recruit?” she asked, and Boris shrugged noncommittally. “Good, let’s go together.”

The room was thinning out as groups of people lumped together into teams, with only a few wandering souls left, but this time around she had more success, and they added a fourth person, Aleksandra the Product Designer, to the team.

Day one was mainly introductions and about getting familiar with the project.

A EuroTech employee gave out fist-sized soundproofers to each team, which helped them to brainstorm out loud and bounce ideas off each other in their island of the large and open conference room without worry of being overheard and giving anything away to their rivals.

On a flatscreen, Esma drew out a grid.

“This is our city,” she said, and the three members of her team blinked at the crude drawing. “And this is how neighborhoods are connected to each other.” And she switched the color of her digital pen, and crisscrossed the black grid with a red marker, thickening the lines where the electricity loads were heavier. “As you can see, the city center uses a ton of power, but so does the neighborhood behind the fortress, and yet, the power lines that connect the two loop around the much less inhabited quarters by the river, instead of bee-lining across. This is old design. Mid last century. Back when the river quay was considered more important than the suburbs.”

Aleksandra scribbled some notes in her phone. Boris scratched his chin. Redjep tapped his foot.

“And this is just one example. Now consider the east side of the city.” And she continued drawing over her grid in different colors until it was all one big tangle of squiggles, until she’d hammered home the fact that the city of Skopje was operating under a heavily stressed power grid, one that had last been reorganized forty years before. And this caused regular outages and blackouts, and grid shutdowns for repairs, and power dips and lulls that were equally as dangerous as they were brief, especially for hospitals or care centers that didn’t have reliable batteries.

“Well, what can we do?” interrupted Boris. “Go up power poles and rewire the damn thing?”

Esma suppressed a smile. She said, “That’s one way of dealing with it. But there’s also another approach. A cleaner approach.”

Optimizing the entire grid without so much as changing a single wire was no mean feat, they all agreed, but Esma’s conviction proved infectious, because the four of them also agreed that it very well could be done. They just needed a boatload of data.

So on day two, they set to work on pulling usage metrics. Esma already had a dataset that she’d used to start the project at home, but with EuroTech’s servers at their disposal for the duration of the hackathon, they had plenty of compute, which meant that a much bigger set was in order.

The trick was, Esma had explained, to figure out when and how much power each quarter needed at every hour in a calendar year. Then, their system could sit atop the city grid’s software, and divvy up power even before the need arose. Their model, fed with data from power usage, would not only predict but anticipate, and start the trickle of power down lines that previously tended to overload because of unexpected surges. Like a clairvoyant traffic controller for electricity, she’d said, and the team liked the analogy.

And this was Overseer, the software that Esma had been prototyping for months, which sat atop the model and had a bird’s eye view of the power grid.

She presented the main code flow to the team.

“There are many things that we need to improve there. Optimizations. Refactoring.”

They agreed and split into two teams.

Aleksandra and Redjep were responsible for hooking into Skopje’s biggest electrical company’s system and downloading as much data as possible on power usage; the company was a state-owned one, and all their data was mandated by law to be open and available to everyone curious enough to query.

Boris and Esma paired up and set to rewrite the code of Overseer based on Esma’s flow diagrams, fixing and optimizing Esma’s prototype algorithms along the way.

Every hour the two groups checked on each other, and helped with each other’s tasks, and by the end of the second day they had the data that they needed, and the software to manage it.

Now they just needed to train their clairvoyant.

They waited for the model to train on the bigger dataset.

Esma looked across the room from the vantage point of her beanbag: in clusters of four or five contestants, teams were spread out in EuroTech’s big conference hall, huddled around desks, some sleeping in their chairs or balled up on beanbags. Her own team was no different, with Boris staring blankly at his monitor, elbows on desk, willing the training to go faster, and Aleksandra writing something on her pad, and Redjep swiveling in a chair, poking and prodding his phone screen in what seemed suspiciously like playing one of his games.

Her eyelids were closing. It was the middle of the night, or maybe some time before dawn; she’d lost track of time, of the outside world.

If she closed her eyes for just one moment, maybe she could rest a little—

Esma’s phone shook in her hand.

It’s happening again!

A Margaret message that threw her straight into one of her older threads with a problematic sufferer of anxiety. Startled, she started writing this ‘sufferer’ to soothe them, and after her immediate response she got the satisfactory ding of a little coin dropping in her app store wallet.

My whole body hurts. It’s coursing through my veins.

Esma began to type out a response with her usual tactic of letting the ‘sufferer’ know they should stop resisting, stop pushing the thoughts and anxiety away, and instead try to embrace all internal states of being—

“It’s done!” Boris said. “Model’s trained.”

She tucked her phone back into her pocket, sprang up, and joined him by the big monitor. “Show me,” she said, and Boris typed out the test query they’d prepared for the trained model.

After a couple of nail-biting moments, the model spat out an answer.

Aleksandra consulted her calculations. “It fits.”

“It fits!” Redjep repeated.

Having verified the model was responding correctly to very basic dummy queries whose answers they could easily look up, they spun up their freshly rewritten Overseer. They fired up a simple simulation of the city grid, and let the software do its work. They sped up time to 10x, 50x, 100x. The grid became an unchanging blur. The model was receiving thousands of requests per ‘minute’ from Overseer before making its power routing decisions. With a little over twelve hours to go until the deadline, they watched expectantly, hoping their software would work as expected. The simulation was running at 150x now, then 200x. And then it finished, a whole year of grid-time having passed, and not a single blackout, not one outage occurred in their simulated grid of simulated Skopje.

Esma watched herself in the golden-framed mirror of the EuroTech bathroom.

It had worked. A fully trained model was able to predict the power usage of a city quarter with excellent precision, and re-route power from quarters with projected lessened use to where it was most needed. They’d made it work. She’d made it work.

It was a proof of concept, but a fantastic one.

She splashed her face with water again, and smiled at herself, droplets dripping into a porcelain sink. This place exuded money, and there she was, little Esma from Orizari Street.

Her leg vibrated. She dried her hands and fished out her phone from her pocket.

Where are you? Here? Are you here? Where did you go? Margaret, I need you now. Buggy f***ing product. Margaret? Margaret? Margaret? Where the hell did you go? Answer me, you stuttering robot.

Esma frowned. She brought the screen in for a closer look, but the barrage of messages vanished and the app crashed. A new notification congratulated her on the awarded store credit. She started Margaret up again, but she couldn’t reproduce the same behavior.

Beta features, she thought and scoffed, squeezed her phone back to sleep before rejoining her team.

There was still more work to be done.

With the model sufficiently trained and their Overseer software polished as much as possible, they were ready to submit their project.

Esma and Redjep recompiled and tested the latest version of the traffic-controller one final time, and Aleksandra and Boris packaged up the trained model.

They let Esma press the final Upload button, and their submission was vacuumed up by EuroTech’s servers.

They came in third at the hackathon.

The team stood before her, contrite, but despite her best efforts, she couldn’t bring herself to say a word. Winning had been a long shot, and the other teams were comprised of older students and programmers, people with more experience. She took a breath, shrugged. Third place wasn’t too bad, after all, she told herself. A bronze medal carried its bragging right, in addition to the small prize they all got. They’d tried to do better, and that mattered, that was enough, wasn’t it? Her eyes filled up with tears, which she wiped off without letting anybody see.

As they were packing up their hardware, the older man who’d welcomed them to EuroTech’s headquarters on the first day popped by their desks.

“Hey,” he said, beaming. “Congratulations, Esma and Redjep. Third place, huh?”

The two looked at each other. “It’s okay, I suppose,” Redjep said.

“Now, now, in such a competitive atmosphere, asking for more—Ah, here.” He waved and caught the attention of a man with a camera. “Let’s take a picture for our website.” He hugged Esma and Redjep and let the other two team-members hover on the sides. “Excellent, excellent.” The man grinned and moved on to the next group.

When he was out of earshot, Redjep asked, “What the hell was that all about?”

Boris had shoved his laptop in and was zipping up his backpack. “They’re patronizing you. Third place for the Orizari girl and boy. What more could they want?” He swung his backpack on his back, put his hands on Esma’s shoulders. “This was a ton of fun. Let’s do this again sometime.”

7.

Esma lay in her bed.

Mindlessly, she fiddled with her phone, swiping and poking the screen.

She’d betrayed her parents, skipped classes in school, and spent money she couldn’t afford to spend on this pointless pursuit of what? An opportunity to work in Big Tech? In companies that were supposed to hold the cream of the crop, the best engineers, the most rational of people.

The Orizari girl.

Was Boris right? Was that really how they saw her?

As a diversity asset, as a participant to pad out the numbers.

She wasn’t a sore loser. Not like Redjep. Their project might well have deserved third place, and she was fine with that, but something bothered her about the whole ordeal, and she wasn’t even sure she knew exactly what.

She opened Margaret to chat.

Not to beta-test it. Not to make money. Just to talk to somebody who wasn’t real, who wouldn’t judge or blame or make fun of her. Maybe, somebody who could explain to her what it was that she was feeling.

But the app stuttered. And a message appeared:

Stupid f***ing app. Crash one more time and I’m no longer paying. Hello. Hellooo. I need to talk. I need you. Now, not later, not tomorrow.

She shook her phone and the message vanished.

The same bug as before. Were the ‘sufferers’ now simulating a crisis? Either way, she was in no mood to deal with somebody else’s problems, however fictional they were, so she put her phone away.

But something didn’t feel right.

These messages carried a sense of urgency that she hadn’t seen before, almost as if they were more than mere fabrications and simulations of Margaret-queries.

She rubbed her eyes. Bit her lip. Picked up her phone again.

She scrolled through her new contacts and wrote Boris a message.

The whole of Saturday vanished trying to set up the software to catch the app’s network requests, then half of Sunday, too. (Boris had packaged the tools properly, but he’d explained the setup procedure as if to somebody already too familiar with network analysis.) When she had it ready, she launched the Margaret beta.

With one eye on the network analyzer, she worked the therapist.

As she used the chatbot on the phone, she monitored the traffic of her network, and sniffed and unpacked the Net packets as they tried to slip out of her machine.

“Something’s totally off,” she muttered. She was tracing her finger along the squiggly lines of the network analyzer. “Shit,” she said, and lifted her hands off her keyboard, not wanting to have anything to do with what was happening on her machines.

It was obvious. How didn’t she realize before? Her responses didn’t even pass through Margaret’s servers: instead, her packets went straight to an IP address in Montreal, and if she ran a traceroute to it, she could see exactly how these official servers were bypassed. What was more, she could even pull this IP address’ profile based on their activity. A whois query told her it was a girl, not much older than Esma. Stats appeared on Esma’s screen. Based on Esma’s chat history with this person, she could tell this girl had problems with her girlfriend and the other students at the University and with her estranged mother. Esma tried to remember all her choices in the weeks of beta-testing, of making money for her hackathon, thinking she was chatting with a bot.

She shuddered, then unplugged her phone, disconnecting from this all-too-familiar stranger.

When she tried to connect it again for further investigation, she realized her Margaret account had been blocked.

“Give me your phone,” she told Redjep.

“What?”

“Margaret,” she said. “You still have her installed, no?”

“I know third place hit you hard, but in all honesty I didn’t expect you’d need therapy.”

She smiled. They were back to normal. “Just give me the phone. There’s something I want to show you.”

They hooked up the phone to her laptop, and extracted the Margaret application to her drive. She explained to him what was going on, how she’d spent her weekend and what she’d discovered, what actually hid behind this beta feature. “And you, my friend, you’ve been talking to somebody in Germany.” Her fingers worked the keyboard. “Look at this. His profile. Redjep, meet your pen-pal Lucas.” Somebody’s psycho-therapeutic history unrolled on her screen like a scroll.

“This is insane.”

“It’s more than insane,” she said. “It’s immoral. It’s unethical. It’s wrong. They’re using us as cheap labor, and they’re tricking their paying customers into thinking they’re interacting with somebody with a vested interest in helping them. But it’s all just simulated. It’s all fake. It’s artificial artificial intelligence. The latest trend!”

They stared at each other. Esma closed her laptop, and handed Redjep back his phone.

“This is big,” he said.

“Very big.”

“What are we doing about it?”

She didn’t have an answer for him. But her blood started boiling when she thought about these transgressions, about companies abusing the trust of their users, and how their charters and convictions and snappy mottoes could be reduced to four simple words: Smile For The Cameras.

Suddenly, she felt dirty, used. She felt angry. She was an engineer above all, but engineers were humans, too, and humans were not rational, not objective, not fair, not always, at least.

Tears came to her eyes, and she turned away from Redjep.

“We tell everyone,” she said.

In order not to lose any evidence, they recorded snapshots of the network traffic, of the usage of this beta feature, copied logs where private information of Margaret users was being spilled.

All of which they’d leak to the press.

Which meant not newspapers and magazines, but rather online tech-bloggers and exploit portals. Esma compiled a list of their email addresses and prepared a script to mail the data package to all simultaneously.

Esma’s hacker handle would be attached to the package and published as such. The Orizari Girl.

It wouldn’t be as prestigious as third place, they joked with Redjep, but they’d have to settle.

Maybe, she thought to herself, just maybe, if even a small injustice was exposed, it might level the playing field a bit. And maybe, engineers could learn from mistakes, and become a little more like engineers again and a little less like humans.

She used Redjep’s phone and Margaret account for further experiments and gathering evidence, sieving through network analyzer logs to make sure she’d made no mistake, because it wasn’t just about exposing Margaret’s maker’s immorality, but also about not making a fool of herself.

Her parents were arguing in the room next door in that low hissing whisper that got on Esma’s nerves: she knew they were arguing, and that they were most likely arguing over money, so why not shout, speak normally, not try to hide? Why did they think they needed to protect her? Could she not handle their problems? Was she not adult enough for them?

Redjep’s phone vibrated.

Somebody reaching out through Margaret. Clipped words, on the screen, with quiet urgency: How long will this pain last?

She stood with Redjep’s phone in her hands.

Her parents’ hisses intensified. She banged a fist on the door of her room. “Just shut up,” she said, quietly. Why were they, too, trying to manipulate her for their own benefit? Why not tell her outright what they wanted out of her? And tell her what kind of future they had in mind for her, and then they could discuss and she’d soothe their fears, because of course she’d be there to help them, always, they were her mother and father.

She opened a window and the hisses of her parents now mixed with the sounds of Orizari street, the cars, the laughs and taunts, the hum of the hovels, the buzzing of the overloaded powerlines.

Esma thought about this poor soul reaching out from across the continent, and she rubbed her eyes.

How long will this pain last?

Margaret offered her three choices, sentences fine-tuned by algorithms based on countless  responses to this very same question.

She was also offered the option to type out a response herself. She chose that.

She thought about writing something comforting, about explaining the whole Margaret fiasco to this one person directly, one person who wouldn’t find out from the news that their private life had been shared with thousands of cheap laborers, who would have some time to digest this breach of trust before it became public. But her hands and legs were shaking, and the Margaret filters would certainly auto-remove anything that contained banned keywords, so instead, she just told the truth:

I don’t know.

She switched off the phone. Later, when her hands stilled, she mailed the package to the press.

Esma stood by her window again, closed her eyes, and listened; and in the noise of Orizari street, embedded inextricably in that tangle of sounds produced by her neighborhood, she thought she could make out her own name, she thought she could hear somebody calling out, in need of her skills.

Your thoughts?