Jennifer Van Coak had not noticed that the sun was up. Of course, it was overcast and the window shade was down, so very little light came in from outside. Jennifer had worked through the night, keeping traditional computer hacker hours. She looked around the cramped and cluttered space that had been allotted to the computing club. Something had broken her concentration but what? She realized that it was the sound of a key jiggling in the lock of the door.
The door opened and Stefiz came in. “Damn it, Jenny, don’t you ever sleep?”
Jenny shrugged and turned back to the computer. She completed the piece of PHP code she was working on and closed out of her programming shell. Now she could talk. “I sleep when I’m tired.”
Stefiz had booted up the second computer in the office, knowing from long experience not to expect Jenny to speak until she had completed her train of thought. Stefiz said, “I left you here 12 hours ago and it looks like you have not moved.”
Jenny tried to think back into the night. She had been working, as usual, to build on to the virtual campus that had been a growing project of the club for the past fifteen years. Jenny had been working during the past year on expanding the system to integrate a growing set of television cameras into the system, linking the virtual campus to the real world campus. She vaguely remembered a few brief breaks she had taken during the night. “I ate and peed since you left.”
Stefiz turned back to the computer she had just logged into and accessed the virtual campus. She pulled up the camera view of the lobby of her own dorm. She used the webcam on the computer to capture an image of herself and entered that new image into the facial recognition software that was built into the virtual campus. Stefiz clicked on the “find recent” button and waited. Jenny came up behind Stefi and watched over her shoulder. After a delay of about ten seconds, a video frame appeared, showing Stefiz passing through the lobby of her dorm about ten minutes previously. Stefiz turned and gave Jenny a high five. “It works!”
Jenny already knew that it worked. For the past six months she had been focused on trying to improve performance. “That was easy because you specified a particular camera and the image of you was only a few minutes back in the video stream. Also, that camera would have missed you if you had been going in rather than out. If you do a realistic test and a global search, it can take an hour and is likely to fail, anyhow.”
Stefiz asked, “How far back in time is the system archiving video?”
Jenny replied, “I have it set to use all of our server’s available hard drive space, but the more cameras we hook up, the shorter our depth of time.” She turned, went back to her computer, hammered at her keyboards for a minute and brought up the video database diagnostics page. “We are down to about 19 hours of video. Anything that happened more than 19 hours ago had already been dumped from the system.”
Stefiz pulled her wallet out of her backpack and found the photo of Charlie. She slapped it on the flat bed scanner entered the image of Charlie into the facial recognition software, and entered “Charlie” into the “name” field to label the picture of Charlie. She set up a database search, telling the system to start the search with the three cameras at Charlie’s dormitory.
Jenny said, “I take it you never found him last night.”
The night before, Stefiz had wanted to apologize to Charlie for not making an effort to join him at Perry’s, but she had been unable to reach him by phone. Fearing that he was ignoring her calls as she had ignored his the night before, Stefiz had taken the campus shuttle bus to Charlie’s dorm, but nobody there had seen Charlie since first thing that morning. Stefiz had then gone and searched the physics section of the library and then stopped by the computer club in the Student Union. She had spent about five minutes telling her troubles to Jenny, before giving up with that too. Jenny had been fully engaged with the computer and Stefiz had not even been sure that Jenny was listening. Jenny had simply kept asking Stefi to turn on the other computer in the office and help build the virtual reality environment. Stefiz had left to return to her dorm. “I kept calling his room all night but I never got through to Charlie.”
The only feedback from the facial recognition software was a flashing “PLEASE WAIT” and a growing list of code numbers for the cameras that had been searched. As Stefiz watched it added the code for the second camera in Charlie’s dorm. She modified her requested search to put the library’s cameras next in line to be searched. “I was so jealous that I was not at all nice to Charlie. I would not blame him for avoiding me.”
“But we were busy yesterday morning. Why did Charlie expect you to break your plans to go see this…what was her name?”
“He said her name is Lanora.”
“Ya, that’s right: Lanora not Lenora. I hate all these cute alternative spellings of names.”
The computer was now displaying as 'complete' its search of the stored images from the third camera at his dorm. Stefiz exclaimed, “Damn. He has not been there for at least 19 hours.”
Jenny yawned. She was rapidly becoming bored. Why did Stefiz care anyhow? A dozen times during the past year she had assured Jenny that there was no promise between Stefiz and Charlie, that they certainly were not engaged. During that period of nearly a year, Stefiz had hardly mentioned Charlie except to assure Jenny that whenever her class work was light she would be free for another weekend of intensive work on programming the campus virtual reality system and that she and Charlie had no intimate relationship that would occupy her time.
Jenny and Stefiz had met at the start of their first semester in a computing course they were both taking and they had together joined the computing club. Jenny could well remember exploring with Stefiz the club’s online virtual campus. Jenny had long been a computer nerd, but she had never previously experienced such an intricate and extensive virtual reality environment. Then Stefiz had started spending more and more time with Charlie and all but stopped her participation in the computer club. Jenny knew she had been jealous of Charlie, but then Stefiz had stopped spending her free time with Charlie and much of the past year many of her weekends had been devoted to development of the campus virtual reality. Jenny thought back to the past weekend and luxuriated in the memory of spending it with Stefiz working on her favorite project. Stefiz liked to collect digital video of the faculty and then insert the faculty members into the virtual reality. It was one of the most popular features of the whole virtual reality environment and Stefiz delighted in making the virtual faculty members as realistic as possible.
Jenny shook herself out of her revere and yawned. She watched Stefiz nervously waiting for the computer to complete its database scan for Charlie. She reminded Stefi, “He may have been at his dorm last night and the cameras might have missed him. His dorm has exits that do not have a camera, right?”
Stefiz realized that Jenny was right. The premed dorm was large and while it had two cameras near the front door and one on the back door, she knew that there were at least two other unmonitored exits, one at each end of the building. Stefiz felt slightly ashamed to be “spying” on Charlie in this way, but she told herself that she was concerned for him. If he could be concerned for her when unable to contact her, surely she could be similarly worried about him. Stefiz muttered, “I wish he had a cell phone.”
Jenny said, “You really like him.”
Stefiz shrugged, “Of course I do.”
Jenny shook her head. “No. I mean, you really, really like him.”
Stefiz was looking through the list of cameras in the virtual reality campus system. She was surprised at how long the list had grown over the past year since campus security had given the computer club access to most of the large network of campus security cameras. Still, most of the cameras in the network were student webcams and did not show public spaces on the campus. “There’s no coverage of Perry’s?”
Jenny knew the camera network intimately. “No, the closest shot would be the external camera of the Student Union food court, but Perry’s is around the corner of the building from there.” Jenny looked at her watch. “Don’t you have a class now?”
Stefiz grabbed her backpack and stood up. “Yes, I do, and I have a quiz. I’ll be back after my class to see if the search turned up anything.” And she was out the door, leaving the computer to continue its search for an image of Charlie.
Jenny did not have a class until 10:00. She sniffed one of her arm pits and decided she could skip going home for a shower. She reached under the desk that she usually worked at and pulled out a sleeping bag. She was more than eager to grab two hours of sleep. But out of the corner of her eye she noticed that Stefi had left the photograph of Charlie on the scanner. Jenny picked up the photo and looked at Charlie. She shrugged. He was kinds cute, but Jenny had always been most impressed by how tall he was. Jenny was almost asleep on her feet, but something tickled at her mind. It was something about the search that Stefiz had set up. She looked at the search parameters Stefiz had entered and realized that such a search would not be exhaustive. She put the photo of Charlie on the scanner that was attached to the computer she usually used. After capturing the image, she set up a new search, asking the facial recognition system to look for matches in all current images feeding into the system while searching back through all images from most recent to the oldest. After setting up the search, she sank down on the sleeping bag and almost instantly fell asleep.
A few minutes later her computer displayed a newly captured video at the visitors parking garage. In the image were Charlie and Dexamene, emerging from the parking structure. They were off to the far right of the video image. The camera that had captured the image was part of the campus security network and was positioned across the street from the garage to capture license plate numbers of cars entering the parking garage. The garage was of a fairly open concrete slab design. Also visible in the image was a solitary figure on the second level of the structure, quite obviously looking down at the departing figures of Charlie and Dexamene.
Continue to Chapter 6 - Stefi begins her new life
Here is a map of the chapters:
_> Mary –––––––––––––––––––––> Lincoln / \ / \__> Amelia PAlbert ––––––––––––––––––––> Andresklo / \ \---->Ferace ------> Yasas / \ __----------> Cathy / / \ / \ / / \ / \__________>Tess CC –––> Charlie ––-----–> Stefi \ \ ----------------> Lani \ / \ \ _______---> Jenny –––> Thomas \______> Dexamene
Sunday ----> time flow --> one week in the Fall --> ---------> Saturday
Useful pages for the reader: List of characters and the Glossary. Readers can discuss the story at Talk:Cellular Civilization.
If you want to help write the story, see the meta page (warning: spoilers!).