“Life Bytes”

ATSF's technosoap for the digital millennium in twelve chapplets

Chapplet 5

Round and round the magic staircase we go!

Tom was intermittently trying to upload the new pages for Scott while coping with the other tasks that had mounted up on his desk all day. He knew Scott quite well and felt sure that he’d have rung to check on the page situation once he’d landed. But he didn’t want to admit that the contentious newsflash was still up there till he had to. Occasionally he checked the door of the meeting room to see if Sue’s team meeting had finished so that he could grab her and The Terror. He was beginning to feel like a yo-yo when he mechanically tried the new web page again and it went through.

“Yesssssss! Brilliant! It’s gone!” he gushed elatedly and did a war dance jig on the spot by his desk feeling a little foolish as Steve had gone off for a meeting and the others in the open plan room didn’t know what all the commotion was about. “The server’s up if you need it,” he announced in a normal voice to the gazes from the three other pairs of eyes that were looking at him.

He grabbed the phone and rang Scott’s number.

“It’s Scott Hatton. You’ve reached my answer phone. If you’d like to leave a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

As Tom was leaving his message, Sue’s meeting finished and people were leaving the room. Tom was unaware as he had his back to the doorway leaning against his desk in what was a characteristic fashion for him when he was standing up using the phone. Both Sue and The Terror passed heading for the main door.

“Tom here, Scott. Just to say we’ve pulled the newsflash as requested. I have to say the server’s been down for several hours and so that made pulling it problematic. However, no one could have accessed the site during that time—so swings and roundabouts. I’ll await further instructions when you can give them. Cheers.”

“Ahhhhh!” Tom sighed contentedly sinking down on his seat reaching for his mug of semi cold coffee.

His phone rang. He closed his eyes and with a grimace on his face answered it.

“Tom, Jan. Peter’s just left the building. Did you manage to speak to him?”

“Double shit! Thanks Jan.”

Tom left the room running and continued down the corridor and out the main door looking left and right as he got on the street. The back of The Terror was visible about 50 yards away on the right. Tom caught up with him at the traffic lights while he was waiting for them to change. Tom tapped him on the shoulder.

“P-P-Peter,” he finally got out although he’d had a mental block about his real name. The Terror seemed to register no reaction but mechanically removed the earpieces of his Walkman and looked at Tom blankly.

“Umm ... I’ve been meaning to speak to you today but things have been hectic. Are you leaving for the day or will you be coming back?” Tom managed between gasps for breath.

“Leaving,” said The Terror.

“Past the first word then,” thought Tom struggling with what to say next.

“Where do you live?”

Even The Terror reacted to this with a puzzled look.

“Frindon,” came the reply.

It was about half an hour away on the train but in the opposite direction from Tom’s place.

“Ah! I’ve been asked to talk to you, in fact, and I’d prefer to talk in a relaxed atmosphere. So, could you come for dinner tonight, at my home? I’ll give you a lift after my last meeting, if you’ll wait?” Tom managed to blurt out.

The Terror opened and shut his mouth a few times looking aghast at the suggestion.

“I can’t take ‘no’ for an answer, Peter. We have to sort a few things out and it has to be tonight.” Tom urged although he couldn’t remember what the hurry was.

“No,” said The Terror quietly but firmly with his jaw set in an ‘I-won’t-be-intimidated’ fashion.

Tom stared at him wondering if he was really worth the fuss. No wonder he caused a stir.

“Right. Do you have an alternative suggestion then, given the timescale?”

The Terror eyed him.

“Talk now,” he said quietly.

Tom felt The Terror hadn’t meant to be disrespectful and he had rather ambushed him so he calmed himself down.

“That’s awkward for me as I shouldn’t be here with you now. I have a mini crisis to solve before the next meeting in ... 12 minutes. Any other suggestion?

“After the meeting.”

Tom thought that getting three words from The Terror was great progress.

“Fine. It should last about an hour but because of the problems it will probably be longer. I’ll see you at your desk then?” Tom faltered as The Terror was putting his earpieces back in.

A nod was all he got as The Terror crossed the road away from the office.

“I suppose he’ll come back within the time,” Tom tried to re-assure himself as he turned and jogged back.

“Tom was never at his desk when she needed him” groaned Meg to herself as she hung on the phone waiting for his answer phone message to finish.

She knew that she had to tell him that the bug fix was on its way but she wanted to avoid mentioning the typos!

“Bleep!” sounded the mechanical tone to indicate she should speak.

“Tom, it’s me. We’ve tried sending the bug fix one more time and so see if it gets through now. Bye”

“I’m not going to mention the typos just now. I feel so ashamed,” confided Meg to Faith while moving towards the door.

Faith was seeing a human side to Meg that she’d never imagined. She almost felt protective towards her.

“He’ll notice as soon as he opens the mail and sees the bounced mail or even if he glances at the first two attempts you made. Do you want me to delete them or doctor them?” offered Faith temptingly.

“Ummm” considered Meg torn between entering into deceit with a student and her shame at holding up the crucial bug fix. She looked back towards the machine. Perhaps this was the way that the demons started getting you onto their side in cyber subterfuge. A vision of herself taking a slide down a sticky web thread towards an illegal operations room where things were doctored flashed in front of her. “It’s tempting, but I’ll have to explain to him before he gets on this computer somehow. I’ll just have to choose a good moment if I can.”

“You just need some basics and you’ll be fine. I can’t get my Mum near the computer, which is probably just as well as I’m on it most of the time,” Faith chirped as they headed downstairs.

There was a scrabbling at the lounge door as Meg and Faith passed through the hall on the way to the kitchen.

“They' won't let up now they've heard we're down here. Their psychological paw-war on that door will get more and more frenetic in their attempts to get our attention! Is it safe to let them out now, do you think?” Meg checked with Faith.

"Oh! Yes. They'll be fine and I'll be fine, really," Faith reassured her.

Meg opened the door to a flurry of cat fur that ran past her into the kitchen.

“That’s nothing. Wait till you see them trying to get food out of us!” warned Meg

She’d almost forgotten about the trousers soaking in the bucket. The cats took a passing interest in the unusual bucket on their floor space until they smelled the bleach. Meg checked the alarm as she dowsed the trousers up and down. Five more minutes to go. At least it looked as if the bleach was working.

“Faith, it’s going to take about 40 minutes to get the trousers through a quick wash cycle and then an hour for them to dry using a hairdryer on them. We don’t have a washer dryer, I’m afraid. I could run you home now and bring them to college Thursday, if you like...

Faith’s face showed that a day without her favourite trousers wouldn’t be conceivable so Meg kept throwing out options.

“... I could drop them off tomorrow if that’s any help. Or why not stay for supper and I’ll run you home after that. They’ll be dry by then.”

Faith was in a dilemma. She needed the trousers for Wednesday night. She was meeting up with friends and wouldn’t be seen dead in anything else. But the thought of her teacher turning up at her house, being invited in and her parents taking the opportunity to grill Meg about her work was not a good idea. Trapped, she clutched at the last option that kept Meg away from her home and her parents.

“Great!” said Meg, and then panicked about what there was to eat as she offered chocolate biscuits and put the kettle on.

Faith was perched against one of the fitted units eyeing Seran and Dipity’s antics towards Meg. Both cats were at full stretch on either side of Meg, each with an outstretched paw when she reached for the biscuit tin. She couldn’t turn round either way without brushing into one or other.

“Honestly! You’re worse than children!” she hissed at them but relented and gave them a few munchies each.

“That’ll shut them up. They know they won’t get any more from me this time,” Meg said unconvincingly.

“Brrrring!” went the alarm making the humans jump and the cats run to the hall.

“I’ll see to the tea,” interjected Faith as she saw Meg waver between kettle and trousers.

“Ding dong” chimed the door bell

“Burr-burrr, Burrr-burrr,” Demanded the phone.

Tom needed five minutes peace before the dreaded meeting. He went to the loo and locked himself in. He stared without recognition at the cartoon at the back of the door as he had done many times. He was wondering how to salvage things gracefully. The bug fix was the main reason they were coming but there had been three other minor issues that he had cleared up. That was positive. The fix was ready and Lloyd had tested it on the right system. That was positive, too. He’d need to work out how to demonstrate the fix to them tomorrow without inconveniencing them. Then he remembered that Amanda was in Sheffield. That blew contingency plan number 1, as she was the one to convince. Maybe, just maybe, he could video-conference with her wherever she was and demonstrate the fix that way.

“Mm, worth putting forward,” he murmured to himself.

Or, perhaps Amanda could pop in after her return from Sheffield, even if it was an unearthly hour. Or, he could be at their offices ready to demo it on her return.

“Plan number 2!” he said more assertively

He always liked three possible options so he screwed his eyes up at the cartoon, focusing hard.

“Tom. Tom? Are you in here” Steve’s voice floated urgently across the cubicles.

Tom closed his eyes momentarily, took a breath and replied.

“Yeah! In here gathering strength. Don’t tell me they’ve arrived early after all?” panic tones were just audible as he struggled to unlock the door.

“Quick. The fix has arrived. I checked the mail for you when I got back to my desk and there it was!”

“Brilliant! But is there time to sew it in place before they come, or can I stall them long enough for Joel to get it up and running.”

Running was the operative word for both of them as they charged along the corridor.

“Joe ... elllllll. get in here, prontOOO OO. Oh! Sorry Justin!” Tom skirted round Justin who had his finger up to say something.

Steve, like the good friend he was, stopped to talk to Justin and distract him from going anywhere near Tom.

“Dinner at least, with a good bottle of wine!” Steve thought would be fitting as a reward.

“I’ll get the door,” said Faith heading past the phone hoisting her leggings.

“This is crazy!” thought Meg as she lifted the receiver.

“Hello” she said

“Hello” echoed the caller at the door.

“Hello, dear” came an unrecognisable voice, “Ada here.”

The mumbled voices from the hall were intriguing so Meg was pulling the extension wire to its full stretch trying to peer out the kitchen door and didn’t really catch who it was.

“Sorry, who?” she prompted.

“Forgot my key,” Bridget announced as she waltzed in and up to Meg giving her a playful rub of the head just as Ada reconfirmed who she was. Meg didn’t catch the name trying to avoid her daughter’s playful head tussle.

Faith wandered back into the kitchen smiling at the unteacherlike scene. Meg made frantic pointing gestures towards the immersed trousers. Faith nodded.

“Ah! Yes! Hello.” Meg floated a vague response back hoping for a reply so she could place the voice. Silence.

“How are you?” Meg tried.

“As well as when I left you, dear” Ada replied not amused.

“Of course,” Meg had the clue it was one or other of Olive or Ada and proceeded appropriately. “But you must have had an exhausting afternoon’s visiting.” Meg thought she was back on track but wondered what new tasks they had in mind for her.

Faith was explaining why she was wringing out her trousers to Bridget quietly in the background. Bridget was giggling occasionally at the account of the cats so Meg turned her back on them to try and hear the phone conversation better.

“You’re very difficult to get hold of, dear. They were not helpful when I asked Directory Enquiries for your number. Just as well we’ve got contacts,” whichever old lady it was said menacingly.

“Yes but I get bothered so much by my students and their parents, you understand.” Meg felt dreadful as she realised Faith was in the room half-listening and so Meg turned her back on the girls as if she was concentrating on the phone conversation.

Between them the girls shoved the trousers into the washing machine and set it off.

“Umm, I see. But it can make life difficult for others, you know. It’s taken me several phone calls to the cat community to track someone down who has your number.”

“Oh dear! I am sorry,” Meg said automatically and immediately wondered why she was feeling guilty. She’d actually suggested taking Olive’s number so that she wouldn’t have to give her own.

Brid gestured that the girls were going upstairs and Meg nodded.

“Have you found them, dear?” Ada asked anxiously.

Meg wondered if she’d missed more than she’d thought.

“Found them?” she repeated thinking hard what they could be.

“Oh that’s wonderful. I’ll come round to collect them. It just had to be your house. I’ve tried everyone else,” babbled Ada. “I’ll be there in ten minutes,” she added.

Meg was trying to interrupt but the house suddenly felt as if it was a spaceship taking off to another world from inside the house. The girls had put Brid’s hi-fi on loudly and although the bedroom door was shut, the bass beat throbbed through the bricks and mortar.

Momentarily distracted, Meg was too late when she finally managed to say.

“No, I haven’t found anything. I don’t understand what you’re ...”

She was speaking to a dialling tone and looking at the cats who had gathered round her feet looking at her to stop the intimidating sound.

“Brid ... get?” she wailed half-heartedly up the stairs knowing she was no competition for The Crooze.

“Who’s lost what?” she wondered moving towards the lounge where she’d been with the old ladies. She passed the door to the study and the mountain of marking suddenly reminded her of the deadline she had. She dithered but went into the lounge looking for she didn’t know what followed by the cats. At first glance she couldn’t see anything that didn’t seem to belong.

“Hell!” she exclaimed to the cats. They thought it was great fun as she turfed the cushions off the sofa and felt down the sides of it. She found a pencil, a ten pence piece, one soggy but mercifully wrapped toffee, the missing piece of jigsaw that had caused a mega row and ...

“Ah ha!” she turned gleefully to the cats who had jumped onto the discarded cushions and were prowling around them as if they were new items. Meg waved a set of keys. “This is THEM, I suppose.”

She left the cushions as they were, grateful that the cats would be amused for a while.

Well, with Faith and Brid occupied indefinitely with the hi-fi, she thought she might just as well get on with some marking before Olive or Ada arrived.

“What will we have for dinner?” she thought as she barricaded herself in the dining room-come-study resentful of the large monitor box on the table blocking the light and space for her scripts.

It was just as well she was used to background noise, as the booming from the stereo was still discernible. She hummed Beethoven’s Ninth to herself loudly in competition as she picked up the next essay.

Tom and Joel were engrossed with the demo machine set up in the meeting room. The bug fix shouldn’t take long to integrate and then he just had to decide the best way to demo the fix to convince Rhythm. For the first time that day Tom felt that little elation that kept him interested in the whole stressful business. This was the bit everyone loved—watching the completion of a successful phase of a project.

Tom prayed for Rhythm to be even that little bit later than they’d indicated to allow Joel to integrate the bug fix. Rhythm’s application was an information kiosk updated via the Internet with the latest news on jazz and blues events. They’d had a problem with the sponsors’ video clips held on the kiosk. The text overlays could be updated remotely and needed to integrate with the video clips seamlessly, but they weren’t. The text updates appeared in the wrong place and some of the video clips appeared distorted.

“Okay, that should be it,” said Joel.

Tom selected one of the pieces of video and played it. He noted the date of the next gig.

“I’ll go and update the record on Damson, then, and come back to try it out,” Tom shouted as he dashed out of the room back to his desk. He changed the date of the gig and uploaded it onto the site.

“Fingers crossed,” he said as he returned and played the Damson piece again.

“Yesss! Fantastic!” he beamed. There it was.

“Right. I’ll just change the date back at the demo as the test. Now, for the problem videos.”

Tom selected one of the videos that had been troublesome. It still looked stretched and the text ran into it.

“Oh no! I don’t believe it,” despaired Tom. “Lloyd said he tested it.”

“Check the integration, Joel. Did all the code transfer?” was all Tom could think of trying. The two others in his team had wandered in and realised that things weren’t going quite right.

Tom headed for his room to check the dimension of the attachment that had come through on the web and to see if it looked corrupted. He returned to the meeting room.

“Anyone else got any ideas?” he appealed to the team.

“Lloyd’s the only one who knew this part of the code inside out,” volunteered Joel. “Can’t we contact him?” he suggested.

Tom shook his head. “He’s in a closed meeting in Scotland. I’ve already left a message for him to ring.”

“I’ll try another video clip. Maybe it’s just that one and the others are fixed,” Tom clutched at straws. He tried another known problem piece. The same—distorted! Tom moaned to himself. He was sure that Lloyd had said it was all fixed but just in case he went back to his desk to re-read the message that came with the bug fix. Lloyd had said that all the video had worked on his machine so he couldn’t reproduce the errors. Tom had missed the important second part of the sentence.

When he returned to the meeting room the team were looking sheepish and The Terror was scanning the new code on the bug fix.

Tom gulped and went to say something but The Terror beat him to it.

“But there’s nothing here to change the video code, just the text database,” he asserted confidently.

“Yes. That’s right,” said Tom taken aback at the radical personality change when The Terror sat at a machine. “The video worked on his machine and he couldn’t reproduce the errors so he did as much as he could.”

“Ah well, it has to be the compression or most likely the aspect ratio used.” The Terror’s fingers flew over the keys and he scanned the code in front of him as if possessed.

“Umm. Ummmm. There’s the root of the problem. Some of the video was done using one method and the others another and this machine will only read one type. It’s the client’s machine spec, I assume.”

Mesmerised nods came in unison from the assembled group.

“We need the original files. How long have we got?”

Tom blinked, opened his mouth to say 'two minutes,' when the phone rang. Ivana, one of his graphic artists, answered.

“They’re here.”

Tom and the Terror battle against time and clients. Meg battles against The Crooze, the marking and the kitchen. All is revealed in the next culinary episode ... ready for consumption in 'Life Bytes'. Tell your friends.

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Life Bytes is written by Santa Fe and Sanity Claus