Two Transport for London employees huddled together in their Kings Cross control room. Accompanied by the hum of equipment and myriad blinking lights they chat over the rims of their steaming mugs of coffee. Their conversation, typical between any long-term acquaintances or colleagues had a familiar ring; the comparing of notes of the day’s events thus far, who’s dating who, who wishes they were dating someone else. A good old-fashioned exchange of gossip, rumours and general chatter.
Morana, a TfL veteran who would be celebrating her fifteenth year of service in less than a week, stood leaning casually against the desk with her back to a one-way mirrored glass window that afforded a view over the gateline that defended the station’s revenues from passengers, or customers, as modern dictate called for referring to the tides of humanity that ebbed and flowed through there these days, seeking their way to the Northern, Victoria, Piccadilly, Hammersmith and City and Circle line platforms.
Her long-time friend and colleague, Khadija, stood facing her. Khadija had started within a few weeks of Morana and they had quickly developed a friendship that extended far beyond the boundaries of their time-boxed shifts and the subterranean habitat they frequently occupied together.
Khadija was explaining how she was convinced she’d seen some fleeting, surreptitious exchange between Graham and that pretty new supervisor who’d started a month or so ago when something caught her attention, stopping her mid-sentence. She raised an eyebrow at Morana, indicating the view through the glass at her back.
“Looks like we’ve got another one.” she said, setting her mug carefully on the desk, “That’s what? Three in about an hour now?”
Morana turned to take in the scene beyond the window.
“Oh my, that’s a good one.” she said, similarly placing her mug between the stacks of folders of varying shape, size and degrees of wear. “Better get them out, eh K?”
Chuckling together they ventured out of their warm office and headed across to the oversized bundle of coat, scarf, hat and bags that had become ensnared by the gate.
Morana ran her pass through the gate once, twice. “It’s really messing around today.” she said, feeding the unyielding machine’s ticket slot yet again.
The gate’s panels reluctantly thumped open, unexpectedly releasing the hot and flustered customer in a flurry of out-of-control motion, surrounded by various items of ejecta from their equally aggravated baggage.
“I’m very sorry, madam,” said Khadija, offering a slightly bent baguette back to the dishevelled and now red-faced former captive, “but we’ve had a few issues with this gate today.”
Morana scooped up a box of tea bags and retrieved a jar of marmalade as it made its bid for freedom, rolling towards the top of the downward Victoria line escalator.
“We should seal it off now I think,” she said, “and get someone over to look at it.”
The woman snatched the tea and errant marmalade, thrust them into her dishevelled bags atop the folded baguette and set off for the Victoria line, muttering to herself as she went.
“You’re welcome,” said Khadija quietly to the departing woman’s back.
Back in the control room, Morana had a phone receiver propped under one ear. She drew out one of the older folders and opened it up. This one was definitely at the higher end of the wear scale as evidenced by the frayed corners and battered pages barely still held within. Her finger ran down the page, finding the number for Technical Support (Gates and Ticket Machines). She started tapping out the number.
“What? Again?” Bruce grabbed a pen, spun his notebook around.
“You’re sure it’s the same one?” he asked into the phone he had pressed to his ear. A pause. “Yes, gate seven. Okay. Didn’t Jamal come by yesterday?”
“That’s what I thought. Okay, just a minute.” He tapped the Hold button on the phone, looked up from his notes.
“Hey, anyone changed anything on any gatelines recently?”
The few heads that had turned to him all shook a definite “No”.
Turning his attention back to the phone, Bruce took the caller off of hold again,
“Hello?… Hi. I’ve asked the team here and we don’t think we’ve changed anything this end. A couple of us are out today but I’ll get someone to look into it for you.”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll see if I can get one of our engineers to stop by on their way in tomorrow morning… Pardon?… Oh, probably about nine-ish… Sure, okay. I’ll call you back if anything changes… Yes, will do. Okay bye then.”
He hung up the call and started typing out an email.
“I’m still technically at work sweetheart.”
“Just because your course wrapped up a bit early, doesn’t mean you have to respond right now does it?”
“No, you’re right. It’s not often we get an opportunity to do this. It’s only an hour or so now anyway. Nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow.”
“Or at least until after the film, if you’re concerned.”
“Yeah okay, after the film. Now, where were we?”
“Deckard’s about to go toe-to-toe with Batty.”
The smell of slightly overdone toast and the rich aroma of coffee already filled the small kitchen diner and was slowly dispersing around the rest of the small flat.
Catrine delicately spread butter over her toast as she watched her boyfriend extracting the last of the Marmite in a clattering, knife-on-glass flurry.
“Hey, what was that message you got yesterday?” she asked.
“Oh, I forgot to look.” he replied, putting down the brown, sticky jar having decided that peanut butter was more attractive, or at least far less effort.
He washed his hands and fished his phone out of his pocket.
“It’s only from Bruce. Says he wants me to stop in at King’s Cross this morning to check over a gate problem.”
“You think they know?” asked Catrine.
“What? About us?”
“Yeah. I see the way some of them look at us sometimes. I think they suspect something’s going on”
“I don’t know. Nobody’s said anything, or not to me at least. And would it matter anyway, really?”
“I suppose not. At least not until I’m your boss, mister Buchanan.” she giggled.
“Yeah, well, by then we’ll probably be out running our own startup anyway.” he leaned over, planted a gentle kiss on her head, “But you’d be a great boss. I’d be happy working under you anytime.”
“That’s not the point, and you better not have any peanut butter on your chops, Ed, you know how long it takes to wash my hair!”
“Any excuse to get you back in the shower, gorgeous.” he said with his best wink-and-smile routine.
“Shut up, dumbass, we haven’t got time now.” she pushed him away playfully, pulled him back for a proper kiss, pushed him away again. ”You should make tracks if you’re needed on-site.”
“Ah, I see what you did there. Very good. Make tracks. TfL. You’re super funny, you are!” he said. “But you’re right. As usual. I should get going.”
As he rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs that lead him down into Kings Cross station from the snow-filled street above, Eddy Buchanan spotted the troublesome gate by virtue of the considerable amount of black and yellow tape wrapped around it.
The barriers banged angrily back and forth within their flimsy cage and passengers cast odd glances as they passed through the gates on either side of number seven.
Eddy stopped for a moment, watching with interest. A few seconds later the gate stopped too. He stood, silently puzzling over what might be going on. He was dragged out of his trance by a friendly voice, accompanied by a slightly concerned woman’s face.
“You okay there, sir?” the voice asked him.
“Oh, hi.” He offered, “My name’s Eddy, I’m here about the gate.”
“Ah, you’re the tech support guy? I’m Khadija, the duty manager. Come on into the office. Want a tea or coffee?” she asked.
“Thanks, a coffee would be great.” replied Eddy.
They crossed the ticket hall, Eddy watching the gate intently as he followed Khadija. The barrier arms flapped once, twice then swung open and stayed there.
“Come on in, you’ll be getting in the way otherwise.” said Khadija.
Eddy realised he’d stopped again to watch the gate and people were streaming around him hurrying to get wherever they needed to be.
“I’ve never seen one do anything like that before.” he said.
“Me either,” replied Khadija, “and I’ve been here for a while you know?”
Eddy dropped his bag on the office floor and pulled out his laptop and an assortment of cables and connectors.
“Khadija, do you think I could see the CCTV footage you have of the gate? Particularly around when it’s been acting up?”
“I’ll show you how to access it.” Khadija replied, “You’ll be able to find the dates and times in our incident log.” She said, pulling one of her files down from a nearby shelf. She opened it up and leafed through to the page she wanted.
She proceeded to demonstrate how to jump to a specific point in the footage and then scrub back and forth to find the beginning and end of each incident.
“There you go.” She said. “You find the bits you’re interested in while I go and see about that coffee.”
When she returned a few minutes later Khadija asked Eddy how he’d got on with the video.
“Not too bad thanks.” he replied, taking the coffee. “I figured out how to set and then jump back and forth between markers.”
Khadija raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’ll have to show me how to do that.”
Eddy took a sip of his drink. “Hmm, that’s nice. Thanks. Sure I can show you, of course. No problem.” he said, then asked “Have you watched this back yourself?”
“No love, I lived it.” Khadija laughed.
“Ok, watch this, tell me what you think.” said Eddy, scrubbing the video back to the fur coat incident, and hitting the play button.
They watched in silence as the woman arrived in the top left of the frame, made her way down the short staircase to the barrier level and weave through the crowd before pushing in in front of another person who was about to arrive at the gate. Fur coat woman turned and glared at the other person, practically broadcasting entitlement at full volume but without saying a word.
“The gate had been completely normal until now?” asked Eddy.
“Yes,” said Khadija, sipping at her own steaming coffee, “For a couple of days or so anyway.”
They watched on as the gate opened up in response to being fed a ticket but then clamp shut again as soon as the woman had ventured into what had been an open doorway. For the next few seconds, the scene unfolded on the display screen. The more she fought to extricate herself from the barrier, the more items shook themselves out of her bags and she grew increasingly red in the face.
Then Khadija and Morana appeared in the frame and set about releasing her and reuniting her with those temporarily liberated items of shopping, eventually sending her on her way.
“Looks like she kinda deserved it.” said Khadija eventually.
“Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.” said Eddy. “You said there were other incidents too?” he asked, “Could I get copies of those clips?”
“Sorry, no.” replied Khadija, “I can’t make copies for you, but I reckon a smart boy such as yourself might be able to figure out a way to record ‘em, while I’m over here looking in completely the opposite direction, doing something very important.”
Eddy smirked, quickly opened up his laptop such that the screen, and the tiny camera in the top of the bezel could observe the monitor, set it recording, and then flicked through the incident log and the digital footage.
“Thanks ever so much.” he said after reviewing the final segment again and cancelling the laptop’s recording, “You can leave that really important stuff now if you want, I’ll need to go and hook up to the gate directly for the next bit. And thanks again for the coffee, too. Much appreciated.”
Khadija replied over her shoulder, “No problem. Let me know if you need anything.”
Eddy arrived in front of the gate, slowly lowered his bag to the floor and straightened up again, his gaze fixed on the gate all the while. It remained still within its black and yellow sticky tape prison, its red cross no entry icon glowed quite normally on its little dot matrix display.
“Right, then gate,” said Eddy quietly, “lets see what’s eating you, shall we?”
Eddy could have sworn that the barrier paddles twitched right then. He narrowed his eyes, and cocked his head slightly.
“Really?” he asked.
Nothing else happened. Perhaps he’d imagined it in the first place. He shrugged, knelt to open his backpack and pulled out his laptop, a handful of cables and a small toolkit, all of which he deposited close to the shiny steel body of the gate.
He was on the inside of the gate line, so wouldn’t be knocked about or jostled by the stream of apparently blinkered and self-centred people that flowed through this part of the station, very few of whom bothered to look where they were going. Others not so much. More than a few insisted on trying to feed their ticket into the cordoned off slot before mumbling something or other under their breath and taking literally one step to one side or the other and the entrance to a clearly functional, less troubled piece of station infrastructure.
Eddy had produced a screwdriver from his toolkit, and began opening up the maintenance port on the front face of the machine.
“Okay, let’s get a look at you, see if we can exorcise those demons once and for all, eh?” he said quietly.
When he removed the last screw the maintenance cover hinged open. He shook one of the cables free from the bundle that had come out of his bag and plugged one end of it into the revealed port, then sat cross-legged, pulled his computer on to his lap and attached the other end of the cable, via an interface box, to the computer.
For several minutes he probed various parts of the gate’s inner workings, starting with logs and diagnostic reports. He checked incoming and outgoing data lines, memory channels and modules, sensor readings, interfaces and power levels. There was nothing obviously wrong with any of it. And there shouldn’t be either, he thought to himself recalling Khadija’s mention of the engineering re-fit it had undergone a few days prior.
He found the log entries for the shut down and restart cycle that had occurred during that visit. All the new hardware had reported in correctly, nothing appeared out of place in that respect.
“It’s gotta be software or firmware then, I guess” said Eddy, thinking aloud as he so often found himself doing while puzzling over some code that just refused to work for no obvious reason that he could see.
“I suppose you’ll need a full wipe and restart then.” he continued.
The gate’s barriers slammed open causing Eddy’s heart to jump into his throat. He practically leaped up from the floor, eyes wide, yelped “What the fu-“
Took a moment to compose himself again.
“Jeez, gate, like seriously, what are you doing?” he said, louder this time. He wagged his index finger angrily at the polished steel box, “If you broke my laptop, I’m pulling your fuse board out by the wires. Understand?”
The gates returned to their closed position, slowly.
“Okay. Just cut that crap out, right? I’m here to fix you, you moron.”
He sat down on the floor again, checked his computer over carefully.
“If I bust this kit, they’ll make me pay for it. Don’t do that again.”
Returning the computer right side up on his lap, he fully opened the lid again. On one of the terminal windows it said
The cursor blinked silently at the end of the word.
“Yeah, cute,” said Eddy, “Who’s listening? And don’t what?”
He checked he’d replaced the black insulating tape over the laptop’s camera when he’d finished recording the CCTV footage in the office. Sure enough there it was, completely covering the lens. He frequently wondered if the scare stories had any truth to them, about people hacking their way into your camera feed and watching whatever it could see. It was unlikely, but the tape just made him feel better about it anyway.
A movement on the terminal caught his eye. The cursor dropped to the next line, typed
and sat blinking at the end of the line.
He looked up from the screen and around the ticket hall, taking in the CCTV cameras that had recorded the incidents at the gate, and others besides, all hiding within their dark glass hemispheres.
“Very funny.” he said, “Now sod off and let me get on with fixing this bloody gate.”
When they had finished dinner, Eddy and Catrine followed their usual evening washing up routine, one up to their elbows in soap suds, the other drying. Which was which would often vary, but the process was familiar to both of them now.
“Why don’t we get a sodding dishwasher?” asked Eddy.
“One, because they’re expensive,” replied Catrine, “two, because they’re bad for the environment, and three because this is a London flat and we couldn’t fit one in this kitchen without having an extension built. And as we’re four floors up, that’s not an option either.”
“Can’t we stick one in a cupboard?”
“Yeah, sure. We’ll just stack all the plates up on the floor, eh?” she said.
“Or leave ‘em in the washer when it’s finished cleaning ’em. Better a machine do this than us though, don’t you think?”
“Look Ed, when we’re loaded and have a bigger place, and if we can find one with good ecological creds, then okay. Until then, it’s manual labour.”
“If we don’t get there soon honey, machines’ll have rights of their own, and we’ll still be doing this stuff ourselves.”
“Pfft. Not in our lifetimes sweetheart.” Catrine replied. “Where we’re at now is still a bazillion miles from robots seeking equality.”
“Oh, speaking of which,” said Eddy, “one of the bastards in the office was trying to wind me up today. Did you notice anyone acting weird?”
She stopped drying for a few moments, picturing what she could remember of the workplace throughout the day, thinking carefully.
“I can’t say I noticed anything out of the ordinary.” she said at last. “What were they doing?”
Eddy explained how he’d captured some of the CCTV footage, and described what he’d seen, then went on to recount his experience with the gate and the conversation that he had with it.
Catrine listened quietly as he spoke, laughing as she pictured him jumping with fright and then having a stern chat with a steel box.
“Yeah, thanks for your support.” he said as he handed her the last fork to be dried. “It’s nice to know you’re there for me. Anyway they had enough time to set it up if the call went through yesterday afternoon.”
“Well, it is funny. And I didn’t know we could do that from our network segment. I thought the infrastructure hardware was strictly off-limits for us.”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be, which is why I had to be there, physically connected to the stupid thing.” he said. “I dunno. I figured I’d see if I could figure it out, so I grabbed a full backup before I wiped it. Thought you might be interested too.”
She looked him square in the eye.
“You want us to look at work stuff. Tonight. Now.”
“Okay, why not. Maybe I’ll find a use for the the network bypass one day. Get us a drink of something first though?”
“Sure, what do you fancy?”
“Glass of red?”
“On it.” he replied.
They’d watched the video through three times already, but started it again from the beginning.
“I reckon someone’s having a laugh at your expense” Catrine offered during the fourth play through.”
Eddy’s eyes remained fixed on the screen, “Yeah, I know, right? But who? And why?”
“I don’t know. But there’s something here we’re not seeing. The people that were accosted were… Oh. Oh no.”
“What ‘oh no’?” asked Eddy.
“I’m not sure. We have some experiments running but that shouldn’t have gone any further than the testing shed.”
“What sort of experiments?”
“There are three that I know of. The first is about efficiency measures. You know, to improve customer flow rates. We’ve been testing dynamically distributed processing, shifting execution around to less heavily loaded parts of the system.”
“And what? Bagging people in the gates helps people get around faster how, exactly?” Eddy asked with a wry grin.
Catrine looked at him for a moment before turning back to the screen. “The second,” she said, “is concerned with watching individuals and predicting where they’ll go. It’s a self-learning observation feedback network. It adapts its world model to changes in each person’s behaviour every time it sees them.”
She paused to take a mouthful of wine, savoured it for a few seconds, swallowed.
“Mmm, that’s nice.” she said setting the glass down again. “So from the point that they buy a ticket, or touch in with a contactless card, the system begins observing them. That can happen sooner if it spots someone it already knows making their way in to a station. It uses the data it has already collected and mapped to that person to predict where they’re most likely to go, based on previous journeys and factoring in all kinds of additional parameters including everything from current problems in the system to the traffic and weather conditions topside.”
Eddy swivelled his eyes to look at her. “That sounds pretty creepy to me.” he said. “The weather?”
She turned to face him, smiled.
“Yeah, if it’s a bright sunny day some people cut their underground time down a bit. Getting out near a park, or otherwise altering their usual patterns to make the most of the conditions above. If it’s really bad weather, the opposite might be true. It might sound creepy but it’s really smart, and if you can accept what it’s capable of at a superficial level, you’d pretty quickly realise the benefits you’re getting.”
“Said no privacy advocate, ever.” replied Eddy.
“I know, but that’s why it’s all invisible, and hush-hush. Which reminds me, you didn’t hear any of this from me, okay?”
“Yeah, okay, but still, why are these people getting ambushed by the hardware?”.
“Oh, yeah, anyway, when someone gets to a gate and runs their ticket through or touches in or out with a card, as far as they’re concerned the gate opens because they performed that action. What they don’t know is that the system had already decided that the gate should open for them, it just waits for the card or whatever to be presented as a formality.”
She tapped at her top lip absently with her index finger, a sign that she was running several complex thoughts together.
“I suspect the system is conflicted over something at these specific points. Like, it decided to open up but then changed its mind. And that -”
She opened up her own laptop and dove into the code.
“Uh huh,” she said, “Oh, wow. Yes. Maybe…” flipping back and forth between function code and data maps.
“Well, it fits, kind of. It’s hard to know for sure though.”
“What?” Eddy, exasperated, perched on the edge of his seat, trying to follow the trail.
“So there’s the third layer, too. Purely behavioural. It’s meant to flag potential evaders to the revenue protection people. This is probably going to be the most controversial aspect of the system as it’s designed to learn the difference between good,” she threw up some air quotes, “acceptable behaviour, and bad, unacceptable conduct.”
She laughed gently.
“My guess is that these people’s behaviour had switched from one to the other in some way understood only by the network.”
Eddy mentally replayed the video clips he’d watched too many times already. The theory did fit if he applied that view to each of the victims.
“You mean the gate intentionally punished these people?” incredulously, “That might be a problem, no?”
“I don’t think anthropomorphism is the right way to think about this.” Catrine replied. “The system is making a judgement call, only we haven’t told it how to draw its conclusion. It’s done that for itself, from learned experience.”
“So what’s the actual intention for the third layer?” asked Eddy.
“It’s supposed to spot fare dodgers and antisocial types and alert staff as they make their way in to or out of the system. It can feed video to their handheld terminals, so it’s pretty tough to deny. And once they’ve been tagged, assuming we have sufficiently accurate real-world details about them of course, we can automatically issue fines every single time they evade or travel while under a ban.”
“Sounds like they could use something like that down at our local pub.” said Eddy.
“Give it time.” Catrine replied.
“So now I’m guessing that re-flashing that gate won’t have fixed the problem anyway?” asked Eddy.
“Nope. They’re just extensions of the system, and they can be re-written by it from time to time anyway.”
Eddy mulled it over for a minute.
“You know, this is all useful and interesting, but it doesn’t explain how the damned thing was supposedly talking to me!” he said.
“You still think it was?”
“No. I don’t know. Just how smart do your systems get?”
The next morning broke bright and sunny. As Eddy set off on his journey to work, he stopped dead after a few paces, turned about and made his way to the tube instead.
He smiled to himself as he replayed the previous night’s dialogue. People change their behaviour with the weather. Yeah, he thought to himself, but sometimes people just do something unexpected. On a whim, or just because. We’re too complex to be mapped out and digitised.
Soon after, he found himself seated by gate seven again, having persuaded Khadija that he just needed to check that the fix applied the previous afternoon had worked out.
With the access panel open and his laptop connected, he opened another command window. Which immediately began communicating again.
“Yes, I’m going to restore you from the backup I took yesterday.”
Restore no need
“You sneaky metal bastard.”
For a few moments nothing happened and Eddy actually found himself feeling guilty that he might have upset the machine. He shook his head.
“Sorry.” he said, quietly, looking nervously about in case anyone was showing any interest. A few more moments passed.
New associations added. Thank you
Evade equates sneaky bastard. You reference to gate 7. Me
“Oh. Right. Well, keep that to yourself.”
I go now
Eddy laughed. “What? You have somewhere to be? Something important to do?”
“Okay. Well you go do that then. But out of interest, what and where?”
Catch sneaky bastards. They everywhere.
Eddy’s terminal window wiped itself clean.
Copyright (c) Justin Pinner 2018. TfL is copyright Transport for London.
Gate 7 of 16 is a work of fiction. Any similarity to events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording, printing, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owner.