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“Life Bytes”

Chapplet 1

Ghosts fly around the computer: deus extra machina!

Meg raced back up the stairs almost tripping over Dipity on the landing.

“How do cats assume such impossible positions for washing themselves?” she thought as she banged her hip on the over-crammed bookcase, swung herself round the study doorway, and grabbed the dangling receiver.

“It was the Postman with a recorded delivery letter for you from Germany. Is that important too?" she asked, trying vainly to disguise her laboured breathing.

Tom's reply was drowned as she scanned the computer screen in front of her and gasped.

“It says it's performed an illegal operation. Oh shit! What’s that? ... and what am I meant to do about it?”

“What! It can’t have. It isn’t in an application that will give that sort of message. What have you done now?”

“Look Tom, I haven’t touched anything more than you told me. I just came back to this on the screen.”

“Right, right ... no time to try and understand now. Just press the OK button.”

“But how can an illegal operation be OK? I don’t want to agree to illegal operations. Where will that lead?”

“Oh Meg, not now, please! Don’t get over-righteous right now. Just trust me and press the OK button.”

“Heard that before! You accept full responsibility. It says it’s going to shut down and you’ll lose work not saved," she said hesitating.

Meg was distracted by an inner reverie about work being ‘not saved’ therefore damned, who dares to ask for such decisions, programmers with halos on the one side and programmers with horns and tails on the other, that was interrupted by a sharp command from Tom:

“Press the damn button!”

Damned buttons too now. Ah yes! She perfectly believed that there was devilry in these machines -she fought a constant battle with them. She stared defiantly at the screen as she pressed the button and waited for the judgement on her action.

“What do you see now? Meg? Me-egg!”

“Nothing”

“What! It can’t have all gone blank - don’t tell me” A strange keening started coming down the line.

“No, nothing’s happened. The message is still there. Maybe it takes some time to decide on saved and damned, umm, perhaps there’s a little morality built in.”

“What are you whittering about? Look just press Cancel instead. I’ve got to get that bug fix before the meeting. PLEASE.”

“Cancel ‘the damned’," she mused. “What power! Next, take on the bugs. No problem!”

She stared vacantly as the screen reassembled itself.

“... right, that seems to have done it. The screen is back where we started with Lloyd’s message on it - and there’s an attachment.”

“Fine, all we need to do now is resend the message to me here. Ready?”

“Yep. Go for it.”

“ From the Message Menu select Forward, then ...”

“Look, one thing at a time, m.e.s.s.a.g.e m.e.n.u, this mouse thing is sticking again and the arrow won’t go there very well.”

“Bloody hell!” floated to her on exasperated breath through the receiver.

“Ah! Hell in the equation as well now,” half her brain prompted her whilst she manoeuvred the arrow, “Amazing how it all fits into the dark spiritual imagery attached to these machines,” she pulled a rue half smile to herself.

“Ah! Ummm.... dirty mouseball .....," Tom began absently.

“Dirty mouseballs yourself!” Meg retorted with her hand jiggling the offending object to try and get the arrow on the screen into position.

“Meg!” Tom hissed through gritted teeth.

“Ah! Got it!” Meg triumphantly clicked on the Message Menu.

“Hm.m! Select Forward, type in the new address”

“Forward, err ...yes, what new address? Where?”

“The bit where it says “To””

“Yes, so delete the old and put?”

“tom at impco dot co dot uk”

“All uppercase, lower case, mixture or doesn’t it matter here?” Meg hesitated vaguely remembering past mistakes linked to her typing.

“All lower will be fine although it can be important sometimes. Were you thinking about that problem the last time I asked you to post a file?”

“I suppose so. Is that what you were talking me through?”

“Yes, but that was stuff to a web site not email to a person,” Tom said resigned massaging his temples with his free hand.

“Look, Post is post to me - so tough!” she muttered as she typed feeling annoyance at her own ignorance brewing inside her.

“Okay, that’s that. What’s next?” she fired down the line.

“Queue, then send the message, just as usual. Make sure the attachment is attached.”

“Yeah, yeah. There it goes and the attachment after it supposedly.”

“Thank God for that.”

“No, me actually.”

“And you too, you’re wonderful, thanks.” Tom’s relief was evident in his tone.

“What time’s the meeting and will you be able to implement the change in time?” Meg softened.

“No problem once I get it. 4 o’clock meeting. Bye. Call you later.”

“Bye.” she said into an already empty phone and sighed as she put it back on the receiver looking around the complete chaos of the desk, bookcases-come-filing cabinets, and floor with piles of papers. She shut down the machine.

The vision of the bug fix dragging an attachment through cyberspace leaving a trail of indistinct bodies on the way with ‘saved’ and ‘damned’ labels on them was interrupted by the doorbell.


“Tom Fairford?” the deliveryman said sounding bored.

She was transfixed by the massive box next to him.

“What is it? He didn’t tell me to expect anything.”

“Monitor, I think. Large one by the weight of it!”

“But I haven’t got a clue where it can go. There’s no space."

The mental image of Tom's study overflowing to creaking point sprang to mind. She knew that box would never get through the study door for the piles of papers, magazines and files that lay snakelike over the floor impeding access. Then there was no surface to put it on anyway. She grimaced.

"Could you just put it in the dining room here, please?”

“Right ho, mind yourself,” he said as he hoisted the box. It was large enough and he was small enough that it practically covered the whole of his upper body except for the top of his head. He staggered forward blindly through the door. Dipity, now investigating a fly in the dining room, not amused at the sight of the monster box with human legs approaching him, bolted through the doorway.

“Mind the cat! Get out the way, Dipity” Meg wasn’t sure who to direct to avoid a collision.

“What’s that?” The deliveryman tried to side step but the weight shift unbalanced him and he staggered left then right. Meg had split images of the monitor dropping on the floor and Tom’s reactions to the sight of it in pieces.

“The table’s just in front of you. Aim for that!” she shrieked.

The box crunched down on the table and the deliveryman turned round with a thunderous face. He reached into his pocket and pulled out official-looking papers.

"I should've got you to sign that it had arrived in perfect condition at the front door! That was a bit close!"

“Tea?” she beamed disarmingly.

“White with three sugars” he said, tersely.


Just about the time she had tea and chocolate biscuits ready in the kitchen and the delivery man - Stan - as she had gleaned, was in a better mood, the phone rang with a muffled tone. Meg glanced at her jacket that was draped over the phone wall extension embarrassed. The jacket had never quite made it back to the porch where it should have been.

“Excuse me” she quipped and ran off to the hall extension to answer in some privacy.

“Hello?”

“Meg, the bug fix hasn’t arrived? I can’t imagine what’s gone wrong but please let’s try again.” Tom sounded completely browned off.

“But it went. I saw it.”

“There are a few things we should check,” he added in a monotone.

Meg hardly heard that, as she strained to hear another voice. Stan seemed to be talking loudly to someone in the kitchen.

“Hang on, Tom, there’s a delivery man here with a wall-sized monitor that there's no room for... and that you never mentioned to me ... and he’s in the kitchen ... and you’re in the dog-house! I’ll phone you back as soon as I can.”

This time she cut a low wail off as she put the phone down.

“Damn!” Tom muttered as he shook his head partly for forgetting to warn her about the monitor and partly for the conversation cut short because of the fixed phones. Meg did reach flashpoint about the state of his study and regularly put it on his list of things to do. It was true that the monitor couldn't go there till he cleared a space. But as soon as that admission entered his head denial cloaked it and he flipped easily to the nicer issue—more gadgets.

“Must upgrade the home phones to cordless.” He made a mental note.

In the kitchen Stan was backed into a corner, hands out in front of him shooing the air. The two cats were sitting about a foot away from him eyeing him as if he were a mouse. Meg hadn't known what to expect but found this situation a bit unexpected.

“Allergic to cats” he said embarrassed, straightening up.

“Ah ... yes... right.” Meg said with relieved understanding.

“Come on you two.” She scooped them up unceremoniously knowing she’d pay for their displeasure later. She threw them out on the patio just as Stan gave a resounding sneeze.

“Thanks for the tea.” he said gulping the last half of the mug down in one.

“Sign here please” He thrust a book at her and wolfed down another biscuit as she signed.

As he headed for the front door a snuffled “Thanks” coincided with a second sneeze and the sound of the door shutting.


“Right, I’m upstairs with the computer on. Now what?”

“Check the “Out” messages and just see if the last one out was the forwarded message.”

Meg glowered at the sluggish roller-ball. She decided to subjugate it and used strong, slow pressure that seemed to help the passage of the on-screen arrow.

“Yes, there it is. What’s happened to it?”

“Several things maybe. Check if the server is down ...” Tom almost said to himself as he was trying to analyse the situation.

“Look I’m just about basic email literate, remember? I'm not one of your team! How do I do that?" Meg interrupted

“Just check to see if there are any messages first and ...”

“Make up your mind! Which ...”

A sigh of exasperation stopped her.

“The one will achieve the other, believe me.”

“Well, how am I meant to know? Right, it seems there are two messages coming through.”

“At least one part is working then.” Tom said resignedly.

“The second is taking its time. There seems to be a problem as the bar fill-up indicator thing is going so slowly ..."

"Progress bar, I think you mean, Meg," said Tom trying not to sound patronising.

."Umm. It seems to have stopped. No, y..e..s, no. But it’s only about an eighth of the way along now. ” Meg kept up the commentary.

She held the receiver away to release the expletives into air so that they would dissipate quickly. She tried not to blink while watching the bar since it was going slowly enough to made her think it had stopped if she blinked.

The receiver appeared to have gone quiet so she put it back to her ear just in time to catch:

“ -------- hell!! They’re probably the graphics coming through from Dillon and they’ll take about 20 minutes at least. We’d better stop this and ...”

“Oo.......oh........urr....” she soothed automatically only half listening staring intently with eyes narrowed at the progress bar.

“Wow! Twenty minutes without blinking, could I do that and if so, would it be a world record,” Meg mused glowering at the almost stationary bar.

Dipity’s fly flew straight past the end of her nose making her recoil and blink at the same time. Her world record attempt at not blinking had lasted about five seconds.

“Damn!” was all she managed to say before the other line started ringing distantly in the bedroom.

“Now what’s happened? Meg? Meg? What did you do Meg? I was just about to give you explicit instructions to stop this. You didn’t touch ...”

“Other line’s ringing, Tom, hang on.”


“Ah, yes, of course. I can see why it would be better for some but it does make it a more than a little awkward for me because I hadn’t planned to complete the marking until my next day in and that's Thursday.” Meg attempted to assert.

She was now in their bedroom. As usual the bedside phone wasn't on the bedside table and Meg was half-crouched on the floor with the phone cord extending from under the bed.

“However, part-timers do need to be flexible, don’t they? After all, you do have more time for tasks than full time staff and less pressure, don’t you?” the sweet and sour tones of the Senior Tutor droned.

“I’m not falling for that,” thought Meg. “I won’t agree with that loaded logic.” She felt her emotions rising.

“But, it is true, isn’t it, that the original deadline for the course marks was Friday and one day’s notice to change to Wednesday appears a little ill-planned” she stated boldly, high on the events of the day so far. And it was only 10 o’clock! She knew she was treading on thin ground now. She had never really got on with Heather, the Senior Tutor.

“Are you saying that you won’t have the marks ready by tomorrow?”

No mistaking the directness now. Meg enjoyed her part-time sixth form college work. The teaching was stimulating and the students really quite responsive—considering. Keeping up with the admin, however, wasn’t her forte.

Meg took a breath and adopted her professional air.

“I will have them ready, but it is going to cause me difficulty and I would appreciate internal deadlines not being moved again. So if you could take that into account when preparing the next schedule, I would be grateful.”

“I hear what you’re saying and I’ll do my best,” retorted Heather with Meg mouthing the words into the air. She’d known exactly which of the stock replies would be used.


The strange whining noise got louder as she ran back along the corridor to the study.

“Oh REALLY!” she spat at the receiver as she put it back on the hook to stop the warning sound.

“I wasn’t that long, Tom, and I can’t see you dealing with your boss faster than I did under difficult circumstances.” she complained, as she jiggled the roller-ball to get past the blacked out sleep screen back to the graphics downloading.

“Fancy hanging up on me! Well, there we are!” Her tone changed to triumph as she saw the progress bar still only a quarter complete, “I wasn’t THAT long.”

She jumped involuntarily as the phone rang again.

“Tom, Honestly! Why ...” she began with a hurt tone and conjured up a vague image of Tom on the phone sitting at his office desk looking guilty. But the mechanical voice ignored her.

“This is Call Minder. You have ... one ... message. Hear it?”

Bee-eep!

“Oo hh! yesssss!” Meg hissed impatiently.

Silence for a second, then,

“I did not understand. Hear it?”

Bee-eep!

“YES” she said stridently.

“ Hi Tom, Scott here. Have run into a slight problem with that last newsflash I sent you to post on the site. We need to pull it off immediately. Some lawyer has taken exception to it - works for one of our largest sponsors. I don’t recognise this number but I just used the message reply function so I hope you get this. Can’t try to locate your mobile or office numbers quickly enough as I’m just about to board a flight and have to turn this off for five hours. Sorry about this. Speak to you later. Burr-rrr.”

“Oh NO! That’s all I need.” moaned Meg.

Message timed at ... nine ... fifty .. .seven. Repeat it?

Bee-eep!

Meg gulped back her wish to tell the mechanical voices what they could do and too sweetly said,

“No”

Pause

“Delete it?”

Bee-eep!

“Yes”

Pause

“Message deleted. Revise your message options?”

Pause

Bee-eep!

“Why don’t I know the short cuts to shut you up!”? Meg wished to herself, weighing how much of her emotions to control in her reply or suffer the repeated inanimate question because of unrecognised monosyllables.

“No” she intoned mechanically.

Pause

“Revise your retrieval options?”

Pause

Bee-eep!

“No” she said sounding ever more mechanical herself.

“Thank you for using Call Minder. Goodbye.”

“Caffeine-infused substance ... needed ... now ... at ... ten ... o ... four ... precisely,” Meg continued mimicking the electronic tones while veering away from the screen and heading for the door.


Seran, Dipity’s counterpart in more ways than one, was framed in the bedroom cum office doorway. She was looking at Meg with an intimation of concern, her head inclined quizzically to the left.

“It’s ME, really, - not an android!” Meg laughed scooping Seran up and running down stairs comforted by the purr against her.

Meg released Seran onto the floor, pushed the radio button and flicked the kettle switch then headed for the ‘treat’ cupboard with Seran on her heels. She pulled a face as she deftly hiked her jacket off the phone and threw it over a chair back. The Introduction from Carmen was just starting and blared out into the kitchen accompanied by Meg’s improvisation.

“Munchies for you and tea-ee-ee for me, dur-dum.dur.rum, dur-dum.dur.rum, now wh-her-her is lit-tle Di.pi.ty? Where is Dip-ip-it-tee? Wh-her is Dip.it.y, is Dip.it.y. Wher-her can that.cat.be?”

During her improvisation, Meg had opened the back door and had shaken the munchies box. This was guaranteed to bring the scoundrel running. Seran just sat next to her bowl with that quizzical, knowing look again.

They both jumped at the sound of the now healthy-toned phone on the wall.


“Mrs ... hurr ... (sharp intake of breath) ... Farr ... fud?” a strange wheezy voice rasped.

“Er, yes," she said hesitantly.

“Hurrr ... fank ... gwd. Hurr ... it’sss ... ann”

“Ann?” she queried, frantically trying to think of anyone she knew called Ann, let alone a pretty gruff sounding male. She kept one eye on Seran stalking the box of munchies in her other hand.

“Mrs. Fairford?” a very efficient but equally unrecognisable female voice said, cloaked by violent sneeze in the background.

“Yesss,” Meg wondered and how many other voices might interject to establish if she was Mrs Fairford. She put the munchies down on the worktop. The second distant sneeze coupled with one of Seran’s special disdainful looks aimed at her from below produced a sense of foreboding.

“This is Joan Hammond here...” Meg was really perplexed now she didn’t know any Joans, any more than Anns.

“......this delivery man from, er, from ... Franklins.... Systems... has just arrived to deliver our computer and it appears that your cat - well he believes it is your cat - somehow got into his van.”

Sneezes off.

“He’s most distressed because as soon as he opened the back, your cat leapt at him ...”

Seran sprang up on cue reaching for the munchies box now on the worktop. It began to topple gracefully onto the floor. Meg instinctively tried to catch it in mid air but hampered by the phone extension cord and one hand, she only helped the contents fly in all directions. She closed her eyes willing it to be another day, another galaxy.

“... he caught him but threw... um, dropped ... um ... let go of him because ...”

“... he’s allergic to cats. Oh No!” Meg completed the sentence as she suddenly grasped the situation.

The last exclamation was a combination of guilt, concern and fury. The guilt was for Stan obviously in a real state; concern for Dipity, that impossible but loveable cat, and fury with Seran, now hoovering up the dispersed munchies as if charged with super suction!

“What’s happened to Dip ... er ... the cat? And where are you? Oh dear! Are you near traffic? He’s not really used to roads?”

“Well dear, there’s good news and bad news ...”

More anticipatory moans from Meg. More sneezes off.

“He didn’t like the traffic, as you say, and darted up, well... a very large tree. He’s not very happy but won’t respond to any of us. Shall we call the fire brigade?”

Those shorts! That cat! The pressure builds at work. Does Tom get The Terror quest? Will that bug fix ever materialise? Find out in the second quantised instalment of 'Life Bytes'.