A fictional story on real technology with true role models.

By Alex Ruby [~ 10-15 min]

She froze “Oh my god”, she cried and in front of her Mariana spun around in surprise. Reshma turned on her heel and raced back. She had five minutes before the Pod took off. Not for all the coffee in Brazil did she want to miss this maiden trip.

Reshma SohoniShe racked her brain and replayed the last hours. It must still be at the café. She had flown in from Gurgaon, Delhi, where she had met with Rahul. He was the technology head of a company that built a network of 500 startup centers in India with 5 hubs already established across the country. His team had nothing less in mind than to build a global system of startup hubs to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. Thus, Rahul was representing their team that set up European headquarters, one of them in the UK. He was also looking to partner with existing accelerators and incubators. Of course, Reshma’s investment firm was a potential ally and some of her startups were ready to expand into India and APAC. She had flown over to test the waters with Rahul. The trip, as any trip to India, had triggered a firework of beloved childhood memories. Her parents had traded the old British colony for the American way of life when she was on the verge of becoming a teenager.

Then, after landing in Munich, on the way to the Hyperloop station she’d bumped into an old friend she hadn’t seen in what seemed like ages. Andy had had an hour to kill before his next flight so they sat down in this little café and savored a large latte along with their memories. It was still early and she hadn’t gotten much sleep on her red eye flight so her body was in desperate need of caffeine. Andy had thought she looked as young as ever. He worked for a robotics company now and was head over heels for their latest model. She thought he still looked the same in his usual jeans and sweater except for a bit more gray hair around the temples.

“We are so close to the revolution,” he said. “There will be nothing a robot won’t be able to do what you and I can do now. Under the law they will need to be considered human.” How he said it gave her the creeps. It was just a fleeting moment in which she wondered if Andy had changed and given up on his heart for humans. Since high school he’d been a dear friend and that was more than three decades ago. But she had blamed it on the lack of sleep. He was just excited about the possibilities.

Out of breath she reached the café. Her laptop was still there hidden under a heap of crumpled newspapers that Andy had thrown onto the table. Reshma grabbed it and dashed back. Her mind raced. How could she have forgotten it? Well, after all she was only human. The information on her computer was worth a fortune and had been encrypted using the latest security standards. Still. Could somebody have tempered with it? She needed her team to check this asap. At the Hyperloop station, she jumped through the open door of the tube and rushed into the Pod. She dropped into one of the six seats, exhausted and wide awake at the same time.

“Running high on caffeine?” Mariana joked. “Buckle up now! We’re ready to launch.”

Reshma shot a quick message to her forensic team. To ensure that all their communication received the highest level of privacy they had started to use the encryption service of a Swiss startup. These guys had created a zero- knowledge network architecture that used customer data only to set up the communication. It never saved it. This way data could not be compromised by hackers. They used an AES cypher with 256 bit keys and the ZRTP protocol. To the delight of their developers it was so secure that even the NSA had called it catastrophic. Most of Reshma’s business communication was crucial to her own and their client’s success. Sometimes she felt like being a covert ops member.

The door of the Pod closed with a thumping sound. Then they saw the tube door snap shut outside. A humming accompanied the air evacuation in the tube while an overhead instrument panel at the front of the Pod counted down the seconds. Everybody held their breath. The launch was smoother than she had expected. She enjoyed the acceleration. Mariana had a big grin on her face as well. There was no wobbling from the wheels and the transition to supersonic speed came without any surprise. Three of their co-passengers clapped their hands although there was no pilot to applaud to.Mariana Avezum

The Pod hovered autonomously in near vacuum at a speed faster than voices traveled and followed its inevitable course within the tube. It would make the journey of more than 2,000 kilometers in less than two hours. Solar cells outside on top of the tube provided the energy. There was no scheduled stop in-between Munich and Lisbon. So, the Pod had a few amenities on board including water and air tanks, a tiny bathroom, fire extinguisher and a first aid kit.
In case of emergency the Pod would be brought to a stop at one of the maintenance entrances along the route. Communication with Pod Control was ensured via satellite connection that also offered a certain bandwidth for passengers to check their emails. That’s how her team would establish a remote connection to scrutinize the contents of her laptop.

Once the security strap-in sign had been turned off and it was safe to move, Reshma and Mariana swiveled their chairs into a facing position and unfolded the table between them to get to work. Their company’s vision was to build a Hyperloop network across Europe after the successful inauguration of the Munich-Lisbon section.


The reasons why this had been first were simple. Munich was ideally located as a central hub within Europe offering both a solid scene of large corporations and innovative young companies. Lisbon had started to develop into Europe’s humming startup hub, and inspiring antipole to California. This was influenced by the confident Portuguese government’s decision to support private investments with a 200 million euro public fund. Ties with Brexit beaten London had intensified after the prime minister of Portugal had publicly invited startups with a “You are always welcome here”. More and more founders took him up on it. Many from London relocated their business to the Atlantic coast and turned their former English headquarters into minor subsidiaries- just to keep a foot in the door in case things turned around again.

Once the Lisbon Hyperloop route was progressing Mariana had looked at the connection between Hong Kong and Taipei which was one of the world’s most used travel routes hauling more than five million Chinese shoppers to Taiwan and back. But bridging the ocean was a challenge. Mariana had planted the seeds for their Hyperloop business during her student days in Munich. She had jumped to the occasion influenced by the mobility situation of her Brazilian birthplace Sao Paulo. Now she wanted to widen their focus to include transport of cargo.

BejingHer ultimate goal was to build a track connecting Munich through Moscow with Jingjinji. The latter being China’s latest gig to combine the former areas of Bejing (Jing), Tianjin (Jin) and Hebei (Ji) into a 130 million inhabitant strong super smart city, not counting stray dogs.

Logistics would play a vital role on the route with sustainable transport a key factor for fighting climate change. Reshma had put out her feelers to possible financial partners a few weeks earlier. The data on her laptop contained ballpark numbers that some investors were willing to throw in to get their slice of the pie. If all decided to come on board it would be a home run.

Reshma had not heard back from her forensic team which made her uneasy. She wanted to be sure that no ransomware had been installed before she fired up her laptop. Only the paranoid survive. Her phone rang once. A message. Not via the secure line.

“Do you know what your boy is up to?”, it said. She frowned. What was that? The sender had no ID.

“Who is this?” she asked. There was no answer. Reshma dialed her son’s phone and got his voicemail. He was at pre-school. She sent him a text to call her back. She looked at the strange message again. Should she inform her husband? She decided to wait. Maybe it was just a blind shell sent by mistake.

LissabonA blonde young woman across the aisle shot her a quick smile before returning to her book. Her name was Sarah and she was heading to Lisbon to meet a race driver from Brazil. Mariana knew her from a community she was part of which empowered women and members of minority groups to thrive in the technology world. Sarah was one of the community’s ambassadors. Reshma made a mental note to check it out.

She remembered her teachers in school and her parents who had encouraged her to follow what she was good at and passionate about. Not everybody had grown up in such a supportive environment. That’s why she engaged in the “Founders at school” initiative. There, she shared her personal motto with the students at middle and high schools: to stay curious and not get locked in to what everybody else does. Maybe she could provide some benefit for the diversity natives as well.

Finally, her team informed her that it was safe to start her laptop. Mariana and her went through the list of questions that the investors had. Before they could start the project dubbed “Jingle Bells” they needed their buy-in. Mariana was almost shocked by the amounts of money that some investors were willing to put in. This list was dynamite for some of the big shots in logistics and automotive. It could mean the end for those unwilling to accept that new mobility was disrupting century-old coterie. Her team was well aware of the impact automation had on jobs. That’s why a task force was looking into other sources of income for those whose jobs became obsolete by the Hyperloop. Reshma’s phone chirped again. A new message.

“We know where your boy will be today.” No ID, just like the last one.

“What do you want?”, she replied. Was this some kind of bad joke?

She tried her son’s cell again. Only voicemail. Then she called her husband. But Philip didn’t answer either. She left a message and tried to calm herself. The security signs of the Pod were turned on and all electronic communication had to cease. What a bad timing. The arrival in Lisbon a few minutes later was not as smooth as the departure. They didn’t slow down quite as fast so the Pod had to be brought to an abrupt halt to prevent bumping into the emergency ram. The smell of scorched brake pads lingered in the air as the door opened.

Mariana was highjacked by their Lisbon engineering staff. Reshma rushed out of the way and hit re-dial on her son’s number. Still no luck. She hailed a cab to the startup center downtown. Finally, her phone rang. She was relieved to hear her son’s voice.

Janu was all pumped up as their pre-school class had been taken to a field trip to Mars, sort of. A school bus had been turned into a virtual reality vehicle for the whole group. Windows had been exchanged for special screens. A real time rendering game engine generated the Mars landscape that was projected onto them. The streets of their home town had been mapped over the Mars surface generated by the game engine to enable the simulation of a close to reality experience. Whenever the bus took a real turn the projections on the screen were turned by the same angle.
Her son loved stuff like that.

Kubo Robot, Learn to Code, Coding, EdtechHe also enjoyed playful and activity-based learning without the help of screens. Janu barely went anywhere without his little robot and the set of learning cards snug up in his backpack. Whenever he found a table in his spare time he’d choose a special task and lay out the tiles accordingly. Then the little robot would check it by driving over the cards. Janu could not only work on his math or spelling skills but also learn how to code.

While they spoke another call came in. It was her husband. She told Philip about the messages and they both agreed that it was best that he picked up their son right away. He would take him to his next meeting where they would be safe. The robotic company he supported in their product launch had surveillance that would leave no fly undetected. When Reshma ended the call her husband had already picked up Janu and was on the way to his client. Reshma felt better. She hoped that somebody was playing a nasty but harmless game with her. But she hoped in vain.

“It’s not over. We want the list!” appeared in bold letters on her screen.

What did they want? The Hyperloop investor’s list? How could they know about it? She would need to play for time. “Which one? Who are you?”

“The Hyperloop list. Print it. Instructions follow. No police. Or else your son…”

She called her husband again. They were almost there and nothing unusual had happened. Nobody was following them as far as Philip could tell. What was going on? How could somebody have an influence over her son now? She texted back to the unknown ID: “Need to find printer.”

Her taxi stopped at the startup hub. Her first meeting would have been with the country’s airline. She wanted to win them over for the service of a startup she mentored. Carlos and his team catered to the market of employee education.

LissabonCompanies in the US allocated some 4,000 tax-deductible dollars per year and employee. Yet, not even 50 percent of employees took advantage of this. They were either unaware of their chance or simply unwilling to go through the hassle of advancing the payment and re-claiming it.

The startup had come up with a platform that made things simple. It worked as a go-between companies, employees and suppliers of educational material. It turned the company dollars into a virtual currency that employees could use to buy real training books or courses. This system could be of interest to the airline in two ways. Their employees and their flying customers could order and consume educational material during longer flights. There was no way she could concentrate on this now so she asked a colleague to step in via video call.

Reshma’s phone flashed. Her husband and son had arrived at the robotics company. Philip’s contact, the head of technology, was not there yet. Janu had already made friends with one of their electronic creatures. He was blown away by how human the machine looked and how it reacted to his questions. The android had introduced itself as Dick and the two of them had settled in a meeting room. She breathed easy. At least they were safe for now.

Her phone flashed again. “We have your son now. Don’t play any tricks.”

Her heart almost stopped beating. She called her husband. “Get Janu out of that room. Now! It’s a trap.” She heard Philip yelling at one of his client’s employees but the guy seemed genuinely surprised. They called the managing director who promised and begged that his company had nothing to do with it. Together they rushed to the meeting room. The doors were locked with Janu and the android trapped inside. A few moments later a technician of the company found out that their android had been manipulated and thus enabled to take over control.

Access to Dick was impossible now. The only way to get Janu out of there was if their son disabled the android somehow. But how should Janu do this? They had no way of communicating with the boy. There were no windows and the walls muffled any sound. They could not know how Dick would react if they called Janu on his cell. They only saw the video stream coming from the surveillance camera in the room.

The android was sitting right next to their son with its arm on the boy’s chair. It looked straight into the camera. Its unmoving eyes cold as if to say “You’re out of luck there”.

Reshma racked her brain while she heard her husband and his client discuss what to do. A task force was formed to find out how this could have happened and how to gain back control; and to find the villain they owed this to. All of a sudden she thought of Janu’s little robot.

It was connected to a learning platform on the internet through which she could track what he was doing. The platform was set up to provide daily tasks and connect you with other people to create a playful competitive environment. Parents could define individual tasks for their children.

Reshma also had one of those little robots and she and her son would play a game to recognize songs. He loved music and knew more songs than any adult she could think of. They would take turns to lay down the first two to three bars of a song with the music tiles. Their robot would recognize the music and stream it via Bluetooth to a device with loudspeakers. The other one would have to guess which song it was.

Janu always won. Lately the system had been expanded and their little robots been upgraded with a tiny audio speaker to playback tunes. The technician checked and found that the android had not disabled WiFi in the room.

Tommy Otzen, Kubo RobotReshma needed to call Tommy. His company had invented the activity-based learning robots. She had met the young blonde guy from Denmark back in the days when he had pitched their startup idea to a crowd of investors. That‘s when she’d fallen in love with the concept. He would certainly have an idea.

Before she could select his number a new message appeared on her phone: “Websummit. Center stage. In one hour. Don’t forget the list or Dick will forget his manners.” Who was this bastard?

The thought of the android harming her son made her cringe. It was the same feeling she had had earlier this morning and suddenly the picture seemed to be clear. It must be Andy! Their meeting had not been a pleasant coincidence but a staged betrayal. He must have tried to get the data of her laptop and as he didn’t succeed he must have placed his bet on her family. How could he have turned that mean?

Her husband knew Andy as well. She called him. He described him to the CEO of the robotics company who confirmed that Andy recently started working for them.
The question was whom she would meet in Lisbon. Andy or his accomplice? He couldn’t be at two different places at the same time. But first they had to sideline Dick. Once again she was grateful for the encrypted communication that secured her call to Tommy. She reached him right away. It took a few minutes then their plan formed. Tommy would take her part today and feed the song snippets through the platform to Janu’s little robot. Slowly he would change to a different game.

They could only hope that Dick would not suspect foul play when Janu started to pull out his learning companion. But why should the android think that it was anything else than child’s play? She hailed a cab to Parque das Nações the area built for the 1998 world expo and the best place in Lisbon to cater to over 50,000 people. Tommy kept her informed on what was going on. He had set up a three-way conference call with her and Philip.

LissabonAs Janu did not seem to sense that something was wrong they had to be careful. Frightening him was the last thing they wanted. So Tommy initiated the signal to the boy’s robot saying that it was time for the daily lesson. Janu had set a 2012 released piece of an alternative rock band from Las Vegas for that. Then Tommy started off with a famous Roxette song. Philip was watching the camera feed on a tablet and told Reshma what he was seeing. Dick turned his head to scrutinize the little robot but seemed to classify it as a toy which he had no objection to. Janu smiled and laid out his reply using a James Brown tune. It made her laugh. At least he was feeling good.

Tommy and Janu started taking turns with a few more songs but the hardest part was still ahead. They had to get her son to engage the android in a game that he had no chance of winning. Tommy had thought of an article he recently read. It had explained that artificial intelligence was still minor to human minds when it came to reading comics and anticipating what would happen next. The reason was that facial recognition did not work well with characters of comics. Also, understanding scenes captured in exaggerated drawings required to think outside of structured patterns or known landscapes.

Janu did not have a comic book with him but he loved riddles, especially the ones that required you to think different. Janu would need to fire away as many questions as possible and make the android try to find answers to. They hoped to trap the machine in enough parallel circular references to make Dick freeze in operation. Tommy had changed the music game for a regular coding session to cozy along the android and prepare a special message to Janu.

Web Summit, LissabonReshma’s cab had almost reached the expo area. A ticket to grant her access would wait at the registration desk. All she had to do was download the app and enter the credentials contained in the last message. The created QR code and her passport identified her as the correct person. Traffic had stalled. They were trapped in a jam. She had thirty minutes left.

She paid the driver and jumped out. No time to wait. Running down towards the river she found herself in the middle of a humongous throng of people heading to the entrance. Thousands of technology disciples, startups, journalists and investors were taking to the conference that was an hour away from its official opening. It would feature a famous Hollywood star and big shots from the political arena. Access to the halls was only possible through one single entrance. She cursed.

Web Summit, LissabonThen Reshma saw a familiar face further ahead. It was the young woman who had shared the Pod to Lisbon. “Sarah”, she called out and squeezed herself through the crowd apologizing left and right. If someone followed her she would only have a few minutes to ask for help. Sarah didn’t ask questions and promised to do what was necessary. They needed to get the person Reshma was about to meet taken into custody by one of the many security guards.

Always three feet apart they plowed through the three large halls where startups were busy setting up their stalls and companies polishing up their booths. Out in the open again they hit the masses that funneled through the main entrance eager to get the best seats in front of the center stage. Smiling their way through them they reached the front row.

Meanwhile Tommy had introduced a new game to Janu by way of streaming an audio sequence: “What has a neck but no head?” The boy was a clever. He laid out the answer with the letter tiles.

“Let’s include your friend and see how many questions he can answer in a row”, Tommy sent next. The good thing about androids was that they wanted to be part of a conversation.

Janu didn’t have to think for long: “What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?”

A good one, Tommy thought, and fired off another question: “Everyone has it and no one can lose it?” followed by “Hold your breath, Janu, let’s test your friend.”

Dick looked at the tiles but didn’t speak. The boy seemed to like the idea and laid out more questions in front of the android. Tommy kept firing audio streams from his end. Dick turned his head from one card line to the next while listening to the incoming audio streams. The boy was chuckling at his last question: “What is green and knows about law?” Even Tommy had to think for a moment before he realized it was an “Advocado”.

Unlike the android, Janu had a lot of fun. He laid down another one: “What is orange and sticks together for good?”

It was a dangerous game. They could not know if Dick would abort the algorithms running in his artificial brain. There was no way of telling his reactions or if he would hurt the boy. So far their plan seemed to work. Philip was watching the scene on his screen closely, next to him a team with axes at the ready to break into the room. It was not necessary. The CEO of the robotics company and his task force found the guy who manipulated Dick.

It was the head of technology. In a secluded room in the basement he had despaired to disengage the machine from frying itself. Too late he had figured out what was happening. But Dick had finally wrecked his brain in the quest for answers. Its former human features frozen. Reshma heard the door of the meeting room fly open. Philip confirmed that Janu was safe. Now it was her turn to finish the job.

Web Summit, Center Stage, Lissabon

Her heart throbbed like crazy. She sat down at the table of the first row following the instructions. The seat next to her was reserved but unoccupied. She scanned the crowd. The arena was filling up fast. Journalists and photographer where shuffling around in front of her to secure the best position for the opening speech.

LissabonShe turned back to search for that familiar face behind her. Suddenly a man with a beard in an expensive suit sat next to her. It was Andy. His disguise couldn’t fool her. Reshma shot a panorama picture of the stage. The signal for her ally.

Sarah stormed in and started a thunder of accuses. She said Andy was the rotten guy who had harassed and groped her outside. The event had a strict anti-harassment policy. In seconds security guards surrounded them and took Andy into custody. But that was not enough. They needed to prevent him from talking his way out of the situation until he was arrested. Lissabon, Pink Street, Night Summit, Web SummitIn London, Philip and his client had informed their local police about what had happened and had urged them to call their colleagues in Lisbon. But paper pushers didn’t pass things on before they were blue-penciled. Sarah gave it everything. She was a fantastic actor. She staged a scene so dramatic that the security guys were all eyes for her.

Finally Andy was handcuffed. Reshma and Sarah gave testimonial evidence on the real cause of their action.

When everything was over they realized how hungry they were.

And in urgent need of a drink.

Sarah knew just the places to go. First they went to a little local restaurant west of Rossio square that served food infused with Mozambique cuisine. Then, to stretch their legs and enjoy the last rays of sun they walked down to the river passing the century old electric elevator. Lissabon, RossioPast the famous square they turned around to climb up the hill of Bairro Alto. At the corner of Rua de Barroca and Travessa da Espera there was a club that had a great selection of gin. Sarah had come across it during night summit the year before. Pink Street had been too crowded for her taste so she had taken to the crooked little alleys of uptown.

Now that they were sitting in front of their second G’n’T Reshma started to relax. She’d been on the phone with Philip and Janu. They were doing fine. Having to wait until the next day to hug them made it harder for her to be happy. But she had learned that it didn’t make sense to fight things you couldn’t change. At least it had become clear why the bastards wanted the list. The head of technology was also a shareholder of one of the biggest logistics companies. And they felt threatened by the Hyperloop.

Lissabon, Bairro AltoChatting and laughing with their heads stuck together they noticed two guys coming in. One reminded Sarah of her former neighbor and the other could have starred in a biopic of the late Heath Ledger. The guys shot them a shy smile and took a seat at the bar. It turned out they were product designers from Denmark. Soon they were discussing if Tokyo was more favorable than Seoul in terms of food and life style. This lead to ethical aspects when developing new technologies. The barkeeper nodded at their empty glasses.

Sarah shot a quizzing look at Reshma: “AGF?”

They laughed fully aware that this might not be the Absolute Gin Final of the day.

Read offline in one piece? 


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