“Life Bytes”

ATSF's technosoap for the digital millennium in twelve chapplets

Chapplet 4

Now, how about a nice cup of coffee?

Tom glanced nervously at his watch. Steve hadn’t pulled him out of the meeting and he expected Scott to check on the newsflash situation as soon as he landed. At least with the server down no one else could access the contentious newsflash and he really couldn’t help the situation until the server was back in action. He only hoped that no other lawyer had taken exception and contacted Scott’s company in the intervening hours of the morning when the article was so prominent on the home page. A couple of hundred people would have visited the web site in that time and could have seen it.

He was in one of those bi-monthly progress meetings with one of his clients. However, Justin presided and controlled it using the progress report sheets that were mandatory for the managers to fill in. Justin really should have let the managers get on with such meetings but he wouldn’t let go no matter how much they hinted. This allowed Tom to coast along chipping in as and when necessary.

He’d resigned himself to the disappearing bug fix and the consequences for the next meeting. He moved on to the next problem—The Terror. What could he possibly say or do that all the others hadn’t. Sue was very competent and would not have passed this on lightly. The Terror already had a reputation so she wasn’t the only one to have had problems. Tom didn’t see himself as good with people at all. He just seemed to muddle through as far as he was concerned. But others saw him as one of those people that would get on with all and sundry—the type that was good to have at the formal cocktail party and ready to play darts at the pub as well. He’d fit in anywhere. The Terror seemed to fit nowhere. Tom was at a loss and the only glimmer that shone through the mental fog was Meg. She’d know what to do. She had all the experience with the sixth formers and God knows they ranged from remarkably self-assured and pleasant to surly and inhibited with all spectra of behaviour in between. Perhaps she could suggest something.

“So Tom, what do you feel about that? You won’t mind, will you?”

“Double Shit. Caught again!” thought Tom as he smiled and said, “No, of course not, Justin. That’ll be fine.” He made a mental note to himself not to wander off at Justin’s meetings as he just kept getting landed with more prob ... oops challenges. Justin had banned the word 'problem' as being negative after he’d been on his last management training course. Tom wondered what challenge he’d landed this time as he smiled round the table at his clients.

Faith wished she’d run as soon as the door had shut. Meg’s household wasn’t compatible with her reality, she’d decided. She turned and retraced her steps back to the door with apprehension growing.

Meg whipped her inside and bundled her towards the kitchen. As they passed the answer phone Meg deftly pushed the message key. The machine was an old tape one so she had time to get to the kitchen and shut the door before her own voice filled the hall with strangulated swearing and shouting. Faith opened her mouth to ask why Meg wasn’t listening to the message and changed her mind as muffled shouting came from the hall.

“Well now, Faith. Where do I begin?” Meg smiled wanly. “Tea or coffee?” she added filling the kettle.

“Oh no!” thought Faith “This is going to take ages. Was the grade average worth all this effort?” she wondered.

“Ummm. Now then ... my husband asked me to send an important email that had come here to him at work. I’ve tried several times but it hasn’t reached there. Now this bouncing of messages, could this explain everything? Oh! ... and what causes it?” Meg hid her embarrassment by running round getting mugs and biscuits.

“Ahhh. Yes it might be that but it could be a few things.” Faith was relieved. Questions about computers were fine. She’d dreaded a grilling on aspects of literature or worse other students in her class. Email messages going awry was a cool topic.

“Where’s the computer? I’ll take a look, if you like.”

“We can take our drinks upstairs to Tom’s study.” Meg inwardly grimaced at the thought of the mess. Tom was happy to work in it and she recognised that Faith probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid at it. What was left was her own hang-up, she supposed.

There was a strange rolling thundering noise followed by a soft swish and a muffled thump against the kitchen door. Faith grinned nervously as Meg opened the door, marched into the hall and shouted apparently into thin air, “Stop this at once, you two. I’ve had more than enough today. Come out now or you’ll be sorry!”

Faith took a bet with herself that whoever or whatever the ‘two’ were, they’d be better off hiding.

“Those cats!” said Meg. “They seem to have their mad five minutes every day but at different times so you’re never prepared.”

“Come this way Faith, but watch out. The cats like to ambush people around the corners of the stairs when they’re like this,” said Meg as she moved towards the staircase peering round distractedly.

Faith gritted her teeth as they started to ascend.

“That’s strange,” said Meg glancing at the screen as they negotiated round the open door. “I’m sure I turned it off.” She pulled up an extra chair for Faith. “It does seem to have a life of its own though,” she added. “Oh No! Not another illegal operation! Tut tut!” Meg exclaimed as she examined the screen.

The cyber circus was obviously having a field day, she thought, and the fiendish web spiders had waylaid more messages no doubt.

Faith chuckled. “Ah! Home from home!” she exclaimed leaning down hitting the power button confidently.

Meg was aghast. She was always convinced she’d done something wrong and Faith just cut the life source off no problem and with no worries about illegal operations.

“Right. Let’s start with a clean screen.” Faith exuded complete confidence and certainly wasn’t the absent dreamer that Meg knew from her class.

“These illegal operations don’t really matter then?” Meg muttered unconvinced in a low voice.

“Oh if you spent your time trying to understand them, you’d waste years of your life. I’m quite pleased to see that my machine isn’t the only one that plays up. And this is far more powerful and sophisticated than mine. You’re SO lucky, Mrs Fairford. What I’d do for this power and speed. Don’t tell me you have ISDN too? Wow.”

Meg knew that Tom probably had anything Faith could name and she just nodded slightly not wanting to show her ignorance and not wanting to inadvertently lie either.

The machine took ages to boot up because Tom had so much on it. There was a slight awkward pause as Meg and Faith looked sideways at one another. Then Meg leapt to her feet and ran towards the door arms flaying the air.

Faith jumped up knocking over Meg’s spare chair, which in turn hit the coffee mug, perched on a pile of magazines.

“Get out of it! Go away. Leave us alone. Shoooooooooo.” Meg chased the cats along the landing and they scuttled down the stairs racing each other.

Faith was mortified trying to soak up the coffee with a tiny piece of loo paper she had in her pocket as her emergency tissue.

“I’m so sorry. Mrs. ”

“Don’t worry, Faith. It was bound to happen. The carpet and the magazines have seen it all before. If it isn’t the cats knocking something over, it’s Tom or Brid. I give up.”

Meg produced some kitchen towel from behind the curtain smiling wanly.

“You see, happens all time so emergency measures are at hand. I’ll get on with this and you see to the computer. I shouldn’t have startled you but once those cats are in their mad mood, they’re hell. They would have swarmed all over us and the computer without mercy,” she explained weakly

Faith turned back to the screen and started to swear.

“Sh hhhh shame!” she blurted. “There’s another message now about Windows not shutting down properly. I’m not so familiar with that.” But even though not familiar with it, Faith didn’t seem too fazed as she hit a couple of keys murmuring low sounds of concentration to herself. “Have you got a spare disc?” she asked the bundle mopping the floor.

Luckily Justin followed a formula for meetings where clients were involved and so Tom found out what he’d unwittingly agreed to do at the action-points summary towards the end of the meeting. He found, to his relief, that he just had to have an extra meeting with the client to define how much an extra work and money three new sections for their web site would be.

Steve’s head appeared in the glass panel of the meeting room door and Tom’s face lit up in expectation. But Steve only shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He’d tried to upload the newsflash amendment several times without success. He just wanted Tom to know that he hadn’t forgotten but that things were beyond his control.

The Terror’s silhouette passed behind Steve. He was heading for reception. Tom suddenly had the premonition that The Terror was leaving for the day and that he hadn’t addressed the issue about his time keeping. If he didn’t catch him it’d be too late.

“Umm mm. Excuse me, Justin. Steve just needs me a second. I’ll be right back.” Tom didn’t wait for confirmation. Justin certainly didn’t like being abandoned to clients. He wasn’t any good at small talk and the meeting had almost come to an end. However, Tom didn’t give him an option as he dodged out the door, grabbed Steve’s arm and herded him up the corridor until they were out of sight.

“I’ve tried, Tom, but ...”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s not the immediate issue. I’ve just used you as an excuse ‘cos I reckon The Terror’s just about to leave the building without my talking to him.”

“Oh ooo! That’s a difficult one, all right!” murmured Steve as Tom scooted about the reception looking down corridors and down the road both ways.

“Damn and blast!” he exclaimed to the air. He wheeled around to Jan, the temp Aussie receptionist.

“Did you see the ... urrr ... what’s his real name Steve?”

“Peter," grinned Steve

“Peter? Did you see him Jan?”

She took a breath to reply, but the phone went. She shook her head as she picked it up.

“Good Afternoon, ImpCo. How may I help you?”

Tom expelled a breath slowly looking heavenwards.

“It’s for you, Tom. Amanda from Rhythm.” Jan indicated the extension line.

Steve looked sympathetic. It wasn’t Tom’s day. Rhythm was the company arriving to see the bug fix—or not—as it was going to be.

Tom picked up the extension phone with eyes closed and the fingers of his left hand crossed.

“Amanda. What can I do for you? You’re not cancelling on me, are you?”

Steve grinned and Jan took the next call.

“Late. Well, what a pity! Yes, that should be fine. Are you sure you don’t want to re-schedule. Tomorrow, same time and place?” Tom tried in suppressed desperation. “Ah! In Sheffield. Yes that would be a little difficult. Things have moved on, yes, but ...”

Jan was frantically pointing at the new call and mouthed ‘Justin’ at him.

“Another call has just come in, Amanda. Yes ... yes ... see you later then. 'Bye.”

“Hello?” Tom said quietly, “Justin, yes ... yes, sorry ... yes. Rhythm just caught me on the other line. Couldn’t say no to them, could I.”

The Terror suddenly appeared through the main door holding a bacon sandwich. He headed straight off down the left corridor setting off a smokey bacon wave that hit all at the desk setting them drooling.

“Caught between two sets of clients, you see”. Tom put the phone down. “He didn’t see!” he announced to grinning faces.

"Steve, can you find out how long the Terror’s going to be around today so I can nab him? This meeting’s only got a few more minutes.” Steve nodded his agreement and Tom strode back towards the meeting room. Justin was peering round the doorpost so that his head looked severed and hanging in mid air. “Tempting!” thought Tom.

Meg sat perched on her chair looking on astounded at Faith. They’d managed to get past the glitch about Windows not shutting down properly but she hoped that they hadn't sacrificed any important disc to dump the data the machine seemed to want to get rid of before co-operating. At least now they were at a screen she recognised.

“So ... you take over and show me the message you needed to send this morning,” asserted Faith.

As they swapped seats Meg noticed the cats sitting demurely in the open doorway.

“You just stay put THERE!” she waggled a finger at them. Faith was beginning to get used to this 3-way conversation involving animals and turned to check up on the cats’ response. Dipity nonchalantly started licking a paw. Seran put her head characteristically on one side.

Meg opened the mail package and found the original message.

“Right! Here it is. It’s for my husband at his firm and the important attachment is there. And this is the second that his colleague talked me through. Attachment there too.”

“Open the mail that bounced as well,” directed Faith.

“’No recipient found at this address’, from the web master and ‘Unknown mailee’ from the post master. Ummm ... very formal, strange language.” Mumbled Meg.

“Ah ha! But those have bounced from different places?”

“Wouldn’t that be usual?” asked Meg innocently with a faint image of different bungee spiders catching the messages, sending them off-course and them having a tortuous route back.

“No. You must have changed something along the way but both went astray. Let me take a closer look.” Faith took command and swapped seats.

Meg noticed that the cats were in exactly the same poses but were two feet inside the door now. They were good at the cat equivalent of musical statues without music, she noted.

Faith was studying the messages carefully.

“Well, the one is easy to see and the other not unless ... what’s your husband’s firm called?”

“IMPCO” Meg was getting a foreboding tingling.

“Ah well then. Look at this. The first was sent to I.N.P.C.O and the second you had a typo on Fairford. You missed the second ‘AhhhhhhR!’.

They’d both been intent on the screen while Seran had crept up and decided to leap onto Faith’s inviting warm lap. Meg saw the second coffee mug tilting dangerously on the table next to the keyboard. She reached for it and managed to shove it backwards away from the keys but the coffee sloshed over her arm and Faith’s white trousers.

Dipity bounded from the lap to Meg’s now empty chair joining Seran who had taken advantage of the free bum-warmed seat.

“They’ll be the death of me!” wailed Meg. “Oh Faith, I’m SO sorry.”

An invidious brown stain was spreading over Faith’s thighs. Meg glowered at the cats who took the hint and tumbled out of the room dancing along the way, hopping off all fours then rushing down the stairs.

“I’ll have to soak those straight away so they don’t stain," Meg said softly watching Faith’s colour go from the fashionable graveyard pallid to flame.

She ran off to her room and dragged an old pair of leggings out of a drawer feeling mortified but not as mortified as Faith when she saw the leggings. Faith was standing awkwardly on one foot clutching her offending trousers protectively in front of her.

“NO arguments!” Meg said sternly as she took the crumpled semi-white trousers and thrust the leggings into Faith’s arms. She turned and left the room saying, “I’ll see to the cats” in a mock, cold, calculating voice.

The meeting had finished. Tom dashed back to his seat to find Steve still trying to upload the changed pages for him without success.

“What news on The Terror? Did you get anything?”

“You owe me at least two pints now,” Steve said out of the corner of his mouth. “He was taking his bacon sandwich into a team meeting with Sue. I asked how long she thought that would go on as if I wanted the room. She said about three quarters of an hour, so you could catch him then.”

“Great! I should just fit it in before Rhythm. If only I’d known they were going to be late, I could have gone back for the blasted bug fix. What’s the status on the server? What’s the problem?”

Tom flung himself into his chair hammering the keys automatically.

“There’s a rumour that some spam hoax has hit the major players and clogged the whole system but there’s no verification yet.”

“Holy Shit! That’s all we need.”

“What have you decided about The Terror?” Steve couldn’t disguise his curiosity.

Tom was checking internal mail messages from his team since he hadn’t seen them all day.

“Ah! Well. I really haven’t a clue except it occurred to me that Meg might get through to him when we can’t. She’s used to coping with the adolescent youth hormone-driven nightmare years and The Terror just strikes me as the tortured individualist. Meg gets several of those each year at the sixth form college. Actually I don’t know how she copes but she seems to. It’s the parents that give her the most grief!”

Steve continued drafting some code with raised eyebrows.

“Yes, I suppose that’s a very different approach and others haven’t worked. So how are you going to get them together?”

“Hadn’t got that far. Dinner, I suppose.” Tom continued eyes glued to the screen.

Steve’s jaw dropped and he glanced sideways at Tom.

“Does she know?” Trish, his own wife would have raged for a week if he’d dare suggested anything like that. Also, he’d spent time with The Terror and couldn’t imagine a more intimidating idea than having dinner with him. And, for another thing, he couldn’t see The Terror agreeing to go.

“Nope. Just thought of it.” Tom finished a sentence and put a definitive full stop.

He turned towards Steve.

“Look. I don’t know the guy from Adam and I don’t actually think he’s ever even said one word to me. And I mean any word—'morning, Goodbye, even Excuse me! I haven’t a clue how to start a conversation with him let alone discipline him. What have other people tried with him? What did you do when he was in your team?”

Steve blushed faintly continuing to tap the keyboard.

“I’m sorry to say I ignored him. I tried—just like everyone else has—to include him in the human side of things as well as work, but he just doesn’t want to take part. Now, we know his work is brilliant if spasmodic, so I just had to cajole the rest of the team to put up with his scathing criticism of what they did. I think that’s where Sue’s had the greatest difficulties ‘cos she’s got Nicko in the same team and he won’t put up with anything, as you well know.”

Tom took on a pained expression at the mention of Nicko the Robot. He certainly could imagine the clash that might occur with two such opposite personalities. Nicko was clean cut, fervent, arrogant and pernickety about the tiny details, as well as somewhat obsessive about punctuality. He wanted things defined and didn't suffer fools gladly. His work was precise, structured but mechanical.

“That casts things in a different light. I wanted to catch Sue to get her side of things but why all the rush? Why does this have to be carried out so quickly?”

Steve chortled. “Didn’t you listen to anything at the meeting this morning?

The trousers got Meg’s hand-scrubbed treatment, then got the nailbrush treatment but the stain still showed through. She got the bucket out and reached for the bleach.

The cats watched attentively not moving when she’d waggled the trousers intimidatingly at them while murmuring under her breath.

“What has got into you both today? I’ll tell Ada and Olive and they’ll come to give you remedial classes!” It occurred to her that they’d probably give her the remedial classes and protect the cats.

Meg remembered not to take risks with steeping the trousers in bleach. She was bound to forget them, so she set the alarm for 20 minutes. It was only after she felt that situation was under control that she allowed herself to think about the bug fix. How dreadful! Her typos had caused all the trouble. Perhaps she should do a keyboard course. Perhaps she should accept defeat and refuse to get pulled screaming into the 21st century. Perhaps she should have counselling about her ambivalent attitude towards these machines. Perhaps she could just curl up with her favourite book on a desert island... well it’d have to have a power shower on it ... and classical music ... and chocolate cheesecake ... and definitely NO BUGS!

The cats were herded into the lounge and the door was firmly shut on them before she went back upstairs.

“I’ve tried several times to send it to the right man at the right office but the email times out without connecting,” Faith said apologetically.

“I don’t know if the web is too busy, or if the server is down,” she continued, “or maybe they’re doing maintenance today. Do you know how to check?”

“Meg looked blankly at her. “No, ‘fraid not.”

“Ummm,” murmured Faith tapping the keys. “Your server is Demon but there are no maintenance warnings for today in the mail.”

“Demons,” repeated Meg suspiciously “We’re served by demons?” she said as if the words were a foreign language she was trying out. Faith took no notice as she was looking through file menus to see if anything leapt out at her to help her get better information.”

“Demons—that makes perfect sense, of course,” thought Meg. Another piece of mental jigsaw fell into place in her inner-world understanding of The Web. The demons owned the cyber circus and ran the illegal operations rooms. What are the good guys called?” she almost asked out loud. “There are good guys, aren’t there?” she pondered. “Really, Tom would have to spend time explaining it all to her—probably best one evening over a good bottle of wine,” she decided silently.

“Shall I give it a try?” she said out loud. The thought of Tom had brought back the sense of urgency over the bug fix.

They swapped seats. Faith hoisted up the baggy leggings as she settled onto the chair. Meg pretended not to notice. “Really, what an incredibly embarrassing day all round!” she thought as she half shook her head.

She checked the message, closed it and selected “Send queued messages.” There was a slight pause.

She stared intently at the screen willing it to go.

“Looking for deamon.co.uk,” flashed past on screen. “Why had that never registered with her before?” she wondered.

“Preparing to transfer ...”


“Go on with you! Mind the bungee jumping spiders! And the illegal operations room!” Meg spat at the screen forgetting Faith until laughter reminded her she was there.

“Yesssssss!” They both whooped as the progress bar and message being sent flitted past.

“This deserves a chocolate biscuit at least!” beamed Meg

“Oh! At least,” echoed Faith.

Tom eyeballs The Terror. Why is Meg offered a cover-up? Will the bug fix be integrated before the clients arrive? All is revealed in the next reassuring episode ... on line on target in 'Life Bytes'. Tell your friends.

Cows With Guns!

Life Bytes is written by Santa Fe and Sanity Claus