Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 9

Trying to get back to that mythical "one chapter a week" average that I promised at the beginning.  Speaking of beginnings, if you want to start reading there, use this page to get there.


Chapter 9
"I’ll email my code to you this weekend," Frank said to Stu as they both prepared to leave for the day.  "You can look it over and integrate it with your pieces before Monday.  Once my part’s done, yours shouldn’t take long at all."

As a rule, ADD strictly forbade weekend and evening work, except in case of project emergencies.  Their motto was, "Anthony works enough extra hours for all of us."  For the sake of everyone’s sanity, however, every project team was given the leeway to determine what constituted an emergency.  After two days, Frank and Stu had made some good progress on the prototype and would clearly be done in time to meet the requirements of the bakeoff.  Frank knew that he wouldn’t be able to relax until it was completely done, though, so he had decided, as usual, to invoke the emergency provision.  No one ever challenged him when he did this, because they figured that if keeping Frank happy didn’t qualify as an emergency, nothing did.

 "OK, I’ll come into the office tomorrow morning."  Stu thought through his schedule.  "I can finish my errands after that, I suppose, if I bring the trailer."

Frank frowned.  "It’s not worth coming all the way in here.  It should only take you half an hour to do.  Just pick it up at home and send it back to me when you’re done."

"Can’t.  I can’t get email at home.  I’ll come in, it’s no big deal."  Stu began gathering his things and loading them into the pannier bags for the ride home.

Frank refused to let it go.  "What, are you finally making the switch to cable?  Cancel your DSL account before the phone guy actually showed up?  That’s a loser move every time, right, Moore?"  He tossed a wad of paper at Mark, who was packing his own bag so that he could walk out with them.

Mark batted the paper away and grinned sheepishly, "Yeah, I had to go for a week with no connectivity.  They never make it to the first appointment."

"No, that’s not it," Stu got up to leave and Frank and Mark followed him.

"What, then?"  Frank asked, "Did your cable modem die?  Network card problems?  Wireless router on the fritz?"

Stu sighed as he pushed the button for the elevator, then leaned against the wall as though bracing himself as he said, "I don’t have Internet access at home.  Or a computer, for that matter."

Frank laughed.  "That’s funny, an engineer without a computer.  No, seriously, what’s the problem?  Is your home machine just too slow to do hard-core development on?  Are you ashamed of it?  It’s OK; we all fall behind Moore’s Law at some point.  I’m sure you’ll be able to upgrade now that you’re working here."

Stu let out a second, longer sigh.  "I’m serious.  There are no computers in my house."

Frank froze half in and half out of the elevator, then leaped in to keep the doors from closing on his backpack.  "What?!?  What are you, some kind of Luddite?"

Stu cleared his throat.  "Neo-Luddite, actually.  At home, I don’t use any technology invented after 1920."

Frank snorted, "And I’m a neo-vegetarian.  I won’t eat any steak that hasn’t been aged at least 3 weeks."

Stu smiled quietly and said, "That’s a new one.  I’ll have to remember that," but he clearly wasn’t joking.

Frank rolled his eyes, but Mark was fascinated.  "So, you don’t have a TV, either, I guess.  What about a stereo?"

"I don’t have a big stereo, but I do own a radio," replied Stu.  "I only listen to NPR, though."

"Why, was NPR invented before 1920?" Mark asked.

"No, I just like the jazz."

They arrived at the garage, and there was silence for a few moments as they exited the elevator and walked toward the bike racks.  While Stu began the complicated process of unwrapping several fathoms of cable from his recumbent bike, Frank began muttering to himself with increasing volume.  Finally, he kicked the bike rack, winced, and carefully set his foot back down, heel first.  "How can you live like that?" he snarled over the pain.  "I mean, come on, you’re an engineer!  We live for gadgets!  What do you do with your free time, knit?"

Stu thought about it for a moment as he coiled the cable and attached it, along with his bags, to the back of his bike.  "I guess I’m just happier leaving it at the office.  I think technology has made life complicated enough without inviting it into every aspect of my day.  I still have plenty to keep me busy:  reading, working on my bike, gardening, not to mention my other projects.  I don’t need to stare at a flickering screen for another couple of hours every night after doing it all day."

"Why did you become a software engineer, then, if this is how you feel about modern technology?" Mark asked.  "You couldn’t be more dependent upon high tech here without implanting it in your body."

Here he gestured meaningfully at Frank, who bristled defensively.  "Hey, I’m still working on the power supply, OK?  I won’t try that again until I can eliminate the external battery pack!"  He paused.  "Good point, though.  Why not work on a commune or something?"

Stu shrugged as he put on his helmet, "It’s what I was good at in college.  Go figure."  He settled into the seat of his bike, pushed off, and gave a little wave and a goodbye ching-ching from his bell as he rode off into the evening gloom.

***

"You should have seen Frank.  I swear that the top of his head was about to just flip open, like the lid on one of those fancy trash cans, and spray agitated brains all over the place!  He just couldn’t grasp the idea that anyone would want to live without a computer in their house.  I was ready to catch him, just in case he shorted out completely and collapsed on the way to the T.  He just kept talking to himself, saying, ‘Not even one?  Not even an iPod?  How does he keep track of phone numbers?  How does he know where he’s supposed to be?’  Man, he was shaken."  Mark accentuated his point with a shake of his empty soda can, rattling the pull tab that he had dropped into it when he finished the drink.

"Mm-hmm," Kelvin replied, glancing up briefly from the complicated sketch of a multi-geographic N-tier hardware architecture that he had been working on for the past twenty minutes while Mark talked.  "I don’t suppose he was so rattled that he wasn’t able to work, was he?"

The none-too-subtle hint was, nevertheless, too subtle for Mark.  "Oh, I doubt it.  Just the opposite, more likely.  He probably went home and drowned his sorrows in code.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had rewritten the entire prototype, reconfigured his network, and rewired his pants by now."

"Just as well.  I want to prove I’m right, but not by default."  Kelvin paused as footsteps approached the open door of their workroom.  "Shh, he’s coming."

Mark cocked his head to the side as he listened.  "No, it’s not him."  At Kelvin’s questioning look, he elaborated, "Those kinetic fibers in his pants make a particular ‘swip-swip’ sound when he walks.  Sit next to it for a year or two and you come to recognize it."  Just then, Stephen came around the corner.

"Steffy," Kelvin nodded solemnly.

"Kelly," Stephen nodded back.  "Hey, is something going on with Frank?  I just saw him, and…  Hey, you shaved your beard!  I’ve never seen your chin before!"

Kelvin looked at Mark with surprise.  "Hey, you did!  I hadn’t noticed.  What’s wrong, did you get a lice infestation or something?"

Mark fingered his newly denuded chin, clearly uncomfortable with the scrutiny.  "Yeah, I figured it was time for a change."

"A change?" asked Stephen.  "You’ve had that beard as long as I’ve known you!  It’s like a member of the family.  What kind of change could this be?"

"Well, I was doing some research on Google about this whole ‘sacred feminine’ thing, and I stumbled across an article about men hiding their true selves behind facial hair.  Something about trying to get back to our Neanderthal roots and subjugate women with our beards because they can’t grow them."

"Most women, anyway."  Kelvin shuddered.  "Remember Sandy?"

 "Sandy was a woman?" asked Stephen.

Mark cut them off.  "Anyway, it seemed pretty silly to me when I read it, but I kept thinking about it.  Finally, I decided that, gender issues aside, it was time for me to expose myself to the world."  He thought about that statement for a moment, while Stephen and Kelvin retained admirably straight faces.  "Wait, that didn’t come out quite right.  I decided to stop hiding behind my beard, and let the world see the real me, all of me.  Yeah, that’s better."

"Congratulations on your new face.  It’s a pleasant change," said Stephen, and meant it.  Behind the facial shrubbery, Mark had fine features, if a bit plump, and he had removed ten years of apparent age along with his beard.

"Thank you.  Now, what about Frank?  Is he OK?"

"I haven’t spoken to him yet, but I saw him enter the building ahead of me earlier, and he was limping.  You don’t think he tried another self-directed implantation again, do you?"

Alarmed, Mark stood up. "I hope he didn’t go that far.  I’ll go check." he excused himself, leaving Kelvin to explain Stu’s revelation and Frank’s reaction to Stephen, who could only shake his head.

"That’s a new one to me, though it’s a logical extension, really.  You have no idea how many time I have considered ‘losing’ this beast down the toilet," he said, waving his smartphone.  "Just because we can be accessible 24 hours a day doesn’t mean we should.  Speaking of which," he added as it began to vibrate in his hand, "it looks like our West Coast friends have gotten hold of my cell number.  Great, now I have to remember to turn this off when I go home at night.  This is Stephen," he answered as he left the workroom, leaving Kelvin to his diagram.

***

"I said, ‘We have a new boss!’" Thomas’ voice came faintly over the telephone.

"Are you calling me from inside a tunnel or something?  I can barely hear you," yelled Stephen.  After several fruitless minutes of trying to hear Thomas over the general hubbub of the office, he had finally ducked into an empty conference room and closed the door.  Even with his phone’s volume turned up to the maximum, Stephen could barely understand anything that Thomas said.  "Maybe I should call you back from a land line!"

"No need to shout.  There, is that better?"  Now his voice was louder, but it sounded muffled and scratchy, as though he were holding a paper napkin over the phone.

"Not really.  I can still barely understand you.  What were you saying?"

"This damned thing.  Here, oh screw it.  I’ll just put you on speaker phone."  Suddenly, Thomas’ voice boomed in Stephen’s ear, so loudly that Stephen almost threw the phone across the room in his haste to pull it away from his head and lower the volume.  "How’s this?"

"Better."  Stephen rubbed his ear.  "What was the problem?"

"Oh, it’s this new headset I got.  It’s the same model as Robert’s, but there seems to be something wrong with mine.  No one can ever seem to hear me."

"I think the round end’s supposed to go in your ear and the pointy part is supposed to point toward your mouth.  Now, what were you saying before?  Something about a new boss or new bras, I couldn’t tell which.  I’m sincerely hoping it’s the former."

"It was ‘boss.’  Trust me when I say that we wouldn’t rely on your fashion sense for the other issue. Now that we’ve started adding staff, Robert and Brad decided that they needed to focus on the creative side of the business, not to mention their other side ventures, so they hired a new CEO.  Didn’t even consider looking internally, I suppose."  Thomas sounded hurt.

"Well, I guess that makes sense.  How many people have you added since we were there last?"

"About 50, mostly administrative and financial.  Everyone has assistants now, even Connie.  It’s getting a little crowded in here."

"Your assistant has an assistant?  What does she do?"

"I don’t know; she’s Connie’s responsibility."  Now that Thomas was on the speaker phone, Stephen could hear two women talking in the background, though their voices were too low for him to understand.  "Filing, I suppose, or making coffee.  Or maybe just chatting!"  His voice rose significantly on the last sentence, and the women’s voices were cut off by the sound of a door slamming.  "It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, we have another chef in the kitchen, so you’ll need to make sure he likes what you’re cooking."

Stephen stifled a sigh.  "I’m not even sure whether we’re all using the same recipe at this point.  Can we try to keep him out of the kitchen altogether?  We don’t have time to keep another executive happy right now."

"Can I tell him you said that?"

Stephen surprised himself by actually considering the question.  "No, probably not, though I may have to tell him myself before this project is over.  Just let him know that we’re already on a tight schedule, so changes at this point would be… difficult."

"Tell him yourself.  He starts next week and you’re scheduled to meet him Monday morning.  He’ll want a status update, I’m sure."

This time, Stephen did not stifle the sigh.  "I don’t suppose any of you plan to talk to him first?"

Thomas laughed, not entirely nicely.  "No, we wouldn’t want to steal your thunder."

"Is this to get me back for calling you at 8:00 in the morning the other day?"

"You mean 5:00 in the morning?  Maybe.  And you’re a bad actor, by the way.  ‘Oh, is it too early to call?  I forgot about the time difference.’  Right.  I got the point, though, and I have solved the problem of the time zones now."

Stephen chuckled quietly.  Whatever it takes, buddy.  "Really?  How did you do it?"

"I got another clock.  Now I have two hanging on the wall, one labeled ‘Los Angeles,’ and the other ‘Boston.’  It’s kind of cool, like a newsroom, and now I can just look up and see what time it is there whenever I need to reach you."

"That should do it.  Anything else I should know about before we come out?"

"Nothing more for now.  Just be ready.  This new guy has run about 20 other companies, so he knows what he likes.  I just hope that one of those other companies made software too, or we’re all going to have to start wearing overalls to work."  After some fumbling noises, Thomas found the speakerphone button and hung up.  Stephen sighed again as he put his phone back in his pocket.  He wasn’t sure what that last bit about the overalls meant, but it didn’t sound good.

***

Later, Stephen decided to check on Frank and make sure that he was all right.  Mark hadn’t come back to find him, so he assumed that no lasting damage had been done, but it never hurt to be sure.  When Frank got upset, he could be, frankly, stupid.  As he walked around to where the Brothers and Stu sat, he saw that Frank wasn’t there.  Mark and Stu were at their desks, though, and seemed to be involved in a running conversation as they worked.

Mark called to Stu, "OK, what about electric lights?  Can you use them?"

"Electric lights were invented in the mid-1800s, and I’m not fond of working by candlelight," Stu replied.  "Too hard on the eyes."

"Hmm, OK.  What about buttons?"

Stu looked up at him.  "I’m not Amish, Mark."

Mark blushed, "All right, just checking."  He paused to think.  "What about a telegraph?  Could you use one of those?"

"Why would I want to use a telegraph?"

"I don’t know, maybe you had a friend who was trying to learn Morse code so that he could join the Coast Guard."

"In that case, then yes, I could use a telegraph.  But I would have to place it in a shed outside my house."

Mark stopped typing and stared hard at Stu, "You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?"

"What do you think?"

 Stephen decided this was a good time to interrupt.  "Have you two seen Frank?  Is he OK?"

Stu beat Mark to the punch.  "Define ‘OK’ in Frank terms."

Mark elaborated after shooting Stu a dirty look.  "He’s fine, but he’s in a Mood.  He didn’t try any new experiments on himself, if that’s what you’re wondering, but he also didn’t finish the prototype.  He seems to have been distracted by something else all weekend."

"What about the limp?"

"Oh, that came from the bike racks in the garage.  He, er, stubbed his toe rather forcefully when we walked out with Stu on Friday."

Stu was concerned for the first time.  "He didn’t break his toe, did he?  If I’d known he’d react like this, I would have tried to find a better way to tell him.  Not that it really should affect him, of course, but I don’t want his toes on my conscience."

"Don’t worry about Frank," Mark reassured him, "he’ll calm down.  He always does, eventually."

Just then, Frank stalked around the corner.  Seeing all of them there, he hesitated before continuing over to stand in front of Stu’s desk.  His approach was heralded by the rustling of noise-reducing headphones being lifted from desks and firmly settled on heads, followed by the dim cacophony of twenty different rock songs playing at argument-drowning volumes.  Mark’s conversation had been entertaining, but Frank’s tended to be long and bloody.  "OK, Mr. Techno-Ambivalence.  I researched this Luddite thing on the web, and there are no rules that say you can use some technology and not others.  It’s butter churns and wooden pegs or nothing.  So what’s the real story?"

Stu looked up at him calmly.  "I’m Reform."

Frank was puzzled, "What does that mean?"

"It means that we believe that you can set your own limits and still be within the principles of Luddism.  There are Orthodox Luddites, who cling to a very strict interpretation of the traditions.  Ironically, they seem to be the ones who get the most press.  I assume they all have webmaster friends.  I find Orthodoxy too self-limiting, as some advances in technology can actually be more freeing than encroaching.  Plus, if I worked on a farm I fear that the conversation wouldn’t be nearly as stimulating as it is here."

Shockingly, Frank had no ready reply.  He had been ready to catch a fake and had discovered a nuance.  Frank and "nuance" rarely shared a room, so the effect left him imbalanced momentarily.

Smiling behind his beard, Stu returned to his work.  "I’m thrilled that you’re interested in Luddism, though, Frank.  You’d be a great addition to the fold.  In fact, you’re only one or two radical doctrines away from becoming a Cyborg Luddite yourself."

Now Frank cycled through several reactions -- appeased, insulted, incredulous, and several others -- before settling on grumpily curious.  He looked to the others for support before asking, "What’s a Cyborg Luddite: half man, half horse cart?"

Stu chuckled, but kept typing.  "Not quite.  Cyborg Luddites believe that technology’s incursion into our lives can only be limited by using technology to protect our privacy.  Much like the members of the English Church who rewrote popular drinking songs into hymns, they think that the Devil’s tools are best suited to stopping him.  Think of it as the backfire approach to technology:  burn the field before the wildfire can do it for you, absorb the technology before it can control you.  You’re just as likely to hasten the end as delay it, but maybe a mind more brilliant than mine can find a way to make it work."

This, Frank decided, was definitely a compliment, as well as a challenge.  "Well, maybe I just will."

Stu didn’t look up as Frank stomped off, followed closely by both Stephen and Mark, who were already trying to get him to promise not to attempt self-surgery.  "Let me know how it turns out."


Continue to Chapter 10

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 10

Chapter 10

It was a surly bunch that gathered at Logan International Airport at 5:00 Monday morning, and Stephen was far from the happiest of the lot. As he shuffled through the sliding glass doors into the terminal, he saw Mark waving cheerfully to him from across the terminal, with David and Stu beside him. Stephen wavered for a moment’s muddled deliberation. Choices: Mark (far too happy for the hour); Dunkin’ Donuts (chocolate donut or glazed stick. I wish they hadn’t done away with the crullers); Starbucks (coffee with a kick like a donkey, scone).

Deciding he needed the jolt more than a donut or company at that moment, he waved back at Mark to show that he had seen him before turning away to join the line of coffee junkies jonesing for their morning fix. Looking ahead in the line, he saw Kelvin and Frank, deep in animated debate, or at least what passed for animated at this time of the morning. Frank was gesticulating halfheartedly and trying to work up a good head of steam while Kelvin just stared listlessly forward and listened. When his turn came to speak, Kelvin leaned toward Frank and squinted at him blearily, as though to make sure that he was arguing with the right person.

Probably trying to decide who won the bakeoff, thought Stephen with a momentary glimmer of pleasure. No matter what else you might say about him, he knew how to motivate engineers: you either told them it couldn’t be done or that someone else was going to do it first. Stephen didn’t know what had honed this fierce competitive instinct in the mind of the engineer, but he suspected it was a redirection of instincts that might otherwise have been exercised in athletic endeavors. Lacking a physical outlet, the engineer poured his evolutionary need to prove himself into intellectual achievement. Whatever the reason, I’m glad the buttons are there to push.

At the front of the line, Stephen could see Ricky, explaining his multi-part coffee order for the second time and making the barista repeat it back to make sure he had all of the variables exactly right. Satisfied at last, Ricky moved to his left to let the woman behind him rattle off her well-rehearsed code sequence, which, when translated into a series of scribbles on the side of a coffee cup, resulted in a hot and flavorful beverage through a kind of alchemy that still baffled Stephen. Shuffling another step forward, he rehearsed his own order, lest he embarrass Ricky again. As he did so, he massaged his temples against the throbbing pain that threatened to beat the caffeine to his brain.

Large -- no, wait: venti -- dark roast. Do I want milk today? Then I’ll need to ask for "room," so I don’t have to pour any coffee out into the garbage. That’s the equivalent of walking around with your fly open here. Yeah, some milk would help. OK: Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room. Got it.

Another step forward. The next several customers just wanted coffee, fast. Probably commuters heading down to New York on the shuttle. Even if they had tickets on a later flight, they always tried to get onto the earlier one if they could, creating a sort of constant panicky rush hour around those gates until around 9:00 every morning. Glad I’m not doing that anymore. We may have to get up early, but it’s only once a month, and we don’t have to rush. Frank and Kelvin were next, calling a brief truce to place their orders: straight black coffee for Frank and a surprisingly frothy-sounding combination for Kelvin. Ricky must be rubbing off on him.

Then Stephen was only three people away and he began to panic. Wait, what’s my order? Americano? I can’t ask for light or they give me that wimpy blend. OK, calm down.... Large -- damn! Sorry, honey: darn! -- venti bold. With room! Almost forgot the room. I wish Ricky would stop looking at me like that. Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room.

This had happened before, and in his panic Stephen had blindly repeated the order of the person in front of him. He had not at all enjoyed his grande chai soy latte with extra foam, and he did not want a repeat of that debacle. Venti bold with room.

He made it to the counter and quickly fired his order at the young girl behind the counter. She gave him a sympathetic look and relayed the request on the next girl, who repeated it back as she worked on another order. Cocky from his success, Stephen improvised on a scone, ordering the flavor of the month, pumpkin cheesecake. Then he took his coffee, paid, and went over for milk and cream before joining Ricky in suspiciously eyeing the barista.

"I’m pretty sure this guy hasn’t completed his training yet," Ricky said by way of greeting. "They always put the new guys on these early shifts. You need seniority to sleep in. Ugh, did you see that? He completely flattened the foam! I specifically asked for extra-airy foam!" He sighed with exasperation. "Oh well, I’m sure it will be OK with a little bit of extra nutmeg."

Stephen eyed Ricky over the rim of his coffee cup. "Ricky, do you even know what regular coffee tastes like?"

Ricky shook his head sadly as he surveyed the aesthetic ruin of his drink. "I tried it once. I didn’t really like it."

The coffee run complete, the group rendezvoused in the center of the terminal with Mark, David, and Stu. Stephen surveyed his motley crew as they gathered their carry-on bags, assaying their chances for a free pass through airport security. Frank’s long hair was more unkempt than usual, as though he had refused to brush it in silent protest at having to be up so early. He looked sullen, but not dangerous. Fortunately, the security personnel didn’t work with him. Ricky would be fine: he was dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt today, no new ethnicities to speak of. Kelvin looked like a student flying home for a break, as usual. He was unfailingly polite to officials anyway, so he never had trouble in any airports except New York and Philadelphia, where such politeness invariably aroused suspicions. David was dressed to the nines today, perhaps even the nine-and-a-halves. He would skate insouciantly through security as usual, unless one of the TSA inspectors took a liking to him and went for a patdown.

Stephen looked over to Mark and decided that it was just as well that he had shaved his beard. He was letting his hair grow longer, which meant that it was sticking out in all directions at the moment. With beard intact, Mark’s look might not have screamed "terrorist," but it certainly would have muttered, "willing recruit." Stu, on the other hand, had an imperturbable calm about him that was almost spooky. Watching him as they walked, though, Stephen decided it was a good calm, a comfortable-with-one’s-place-in-the-world calm, not a ready-to-come-face-to-face-with-God-at-any-moment calm. He hoped that the officials of the Port of Boston agreed.

As they waited in line, Mark continued the conversation with Stu that had been interrupted by everyone else’s arrival.

"OK, what about this: your only sister is trapped under a large tree, and the only way that you can save her is with a chainsaw. Do you compromise your beliefs and use the chainsaw to save her, or refuse to use the chain saw and let her die?"

"I have two sisters. What happened to the other one?"

"Killed in a freak blender accident while visiting a chocolate factory."

"That’s a shame," said Stu pensively. "She loved chocolate."

"So what do you do?"

"How did I get the chainsaw in the first place?"

"It was left behind by the loggers who felled the tree. They panicked and ran off when they saw what happened," said Mark impatiently. "Now tell me, do you save your sister or not?"

"Is it my older sister or my younger one?"

"Why? Do you like one more?"

"No, it’s just that my younger sister is a fairly extreme Buddhist, so she probably wouldn’t mind being crushed by a tree," Stu mused. "She would probably find some poetry in it, and expect to be reincarnated as a song bird."

"It’s your older sister, then," replied Mark. "She’s not a radical eco-terrorist or anything is she?"

"No, she’s very normal. In fact, I can’t figure out how she got into the woods with me in the first place. She hates being outdoors."

"Well, now we know why: it’s a dangerous place. So do you use the chainsaw or not?"

They were nearly to the metal detectors now. Stu pulled a pocket watch and a handful of change from his pockets and set them in a small plastic bowl. "You know, Mark, it’s not like I think I’ll go to Hell if I pick up a power tool. This is a lifestyle choice, not a religion." He eyed the X-ray machine suspiciously. "I never trust these machines. How do we know what really goes on inside that thing? For all we know, there’s a guy in there replacing all of the watches with fakes and selling the real ones. Or worse, it could be scanning all of the data on our hard drives and uploading it to a massive government database."

"Why Stu, you almost sound like a genuine conspiracy theorist," Frank commented from behind him as he pulled his laptop out of his bag and prepared to feed it into the machine. He paused for a moment, then shrugged and put it on the conveyor belt. "They probably already have a file on me anyway," he muttered.

"If by ‘conspiracy theorist,’ you mean a shut-in who believes that the moon landing was faked and JFK is living in sin with Elvis on a secret CIA compound in Cuba, then no, I’m not," replied Stu. "If you mean someone who questions the little intrusions into our everyday life in the name of protecting us from unspecified evil," he gestured meaningfully with his shoes before he fed them to the X-ray machine, "then guilty as charged." Seeing the raised eyebrows on the large security official standing on the other side of the metal detector, he added hurriedly, "Not literally."

"You still haven’t answered the question, Stu," challenged Mark from the next machine. He was busy pulling an astonishing array of metal objects from various pockets in his pants, shirt, and vest, generating a mixture of amusement and annoyance from the people in line behind him.

Stu sighed. "I save her of course. And then I go home and give myself twenty lashes with a knotted rope as penance."

Mark stopped short just before walking through the metal detector, causing the man behind him to bump into his back. "Really?"

"No."

"Oh. I knew that."

"I’m sure you did." Stu inspected the plastic bowl as it slid out of the X-ray machine, then turned to question the bored baggage inspector. "Hey, didn’t I have 68 cents before? I only see 66 here."

***

Once on the plane, Stephen settled back in his seat and yawned through another safety presentation. You would think that they'd change the order of these things once in a while, or maybe throw in some new information just to see if we’re listening. Like "your seat cushion can also be used as a self-defense tool in the event that we crash on a mountaintop and have to decide whom to eat first to survive." That would get my attention.

Even with the Venti bold with room zipping through his body, his head still throbbed. Coffee was no substitute for sleep, Juan Valdez be darned. He closed his eyes and prepared for a nap. He was too tired to even look at the Globe that he had grabbed from the front step as he left. A whole week of uninterrupted sleep ahead. There are some benefits to traveling for work. He nodded off then, and slept right through the in-flight meal, the movie, and both snacks. He didn’t mind: the menu hadn’t changed.

***

There was something inhumane about sending someone back three time zones and expecting him to work, Stephen decided as he stuffed himself behind the wheel of his rental car. He wanted nothing more than to go to the hotel and have the beer that his body was telling him it was time for, and which he so richly deserved, followed by half an hour of Monday Night Football before he fell asleep. Instead, he had to go to the CouldBU office to meet their new CEO, who would probably want to talk for hours about his vision, his credentials, his plan for "motivating the troops," and who knew what other kinds of crap -- sorry, Jenny: "garbage" -- before he would let anyone leave.

Stephen briefly considered bringing the whole team to the meeting rather than leaving them to settle into their new offices, but decided against it. Much as he and his misery might like company, no one else had done anything worthy of such punishment, yet. The day, sadly, is young, though, and Frank could still decide to mess with me between now and then. He smiled grimly at the thought of Frank and a professional chief executive in the same room together. Oh, the fun we could have! Maybe I will bring Frank along. No, better to save him for when the CEO needs disciplining. In Stephen’s experience, the higher an executive climbed in the food chain, the more uncomfortable he was around engineers. They were just too likely to tell you what they really thought, a shocking concept in the rarefied air of the boardroom.

Squirming uncomfortably, Stephen tried to find a way that he could sit so that his knees weren’t pressing against the car’s steering column. He had a car to himself this time, such as it was. The rental company had lost his reservation and there were barely enough cars to go around; the vacant-eyed girl behind the counter had mumbled something about a convention around a mouthful of pigtail. Since he would be leaving at the end of the week while the others stayed behind, Stephen had pulled the black spot in the rental car lottery. He was stuck with the hybrid.

"Besides," Kelvin had added, eyeing Stephen’s vehicle before sauntering off to climb into his air-conditioned tank, "I couldn’t get my suitcase in there. Since you only had to pack for a week, you’re the only one of us with a bag small enough to fit in that trunk. That is a real trunk, isn’t it? It’s not like one of those fake drawers in front of the sink?"

What exactly is this a hybrid of, anyway, a skateboard and a driving lawnmower? As Stephen tried to get out and adjust the seat, he realized that he had no idea how he had gotten his legs in the car in the first place, and he now had no hope of maneuvering them back out. If only I’d paid more attention in that Mommy Yoga class we went to, he thought wryly. Putting two hands on the oil-stained asphalt of the parking lot, he pulled himself back out of the car headfirst -- Look: Standing Dog! I guess I do remember something. Or was this Weeping Camel? -- then squeezed his head and shoulders back inside to look for the release that would allow him to slide the seat back as far as it could go.

"Whoever drove this last must have been a midget," he grumbled as he reached under the seat. "Eww, make that a gum-chewing midget." The pounding headache was back. He started to massage his temples, but caught himself just in time and sniffed his sticky fingers. "Mmm, grape." He reached across and wiped his hand on the carpet on the passenger side. It was not a long stretch. Sighing, he reversed direction and carefully folded himself back into the seat. Reaching around a knee, he placed the key in the ignition and turned. The car puttered to life with a sound like a racing lawnmower. Salsa music blared from the speakers, the whole car jumping with each thump of the drums.

Sighing again, Stephen backed out of the parking slot and drove to the entrance, where the others were waiting in their much larger vehicles. He felt like the clown car at the back of the circus parade, right behind the elephants. Better behind them than in front of them, I suppose, Stephen thought, I doubt this cracker tin could sustain a direct hit from a pedestrian, much less an SUV.

While he waited for the others to check out and exit the lot, Stephen fiddled with the car radio’s presets. For a terrifying moment, he thought the radio was stuck on AM, but after a bout of "percussive maintenance" -- basically beating on it with the palm of his hand and, eventually, his shoe -- it switched to FM. He set the stations that he had carefully memorized on his last trip, excluding the "all divas" station that David had found, and settled on jazz for the drive to the office. He drew as deep a breath as he could in his current position, let it out, and drew another, willing himself to calm. At least the air conditioning worked, even if the vents blew the cold, dank air directly up his nose. It really wasn’t so bad as long as he didn’t try to move both of his legs at the same time.

When Stephen arrived at CouldBU’s office park an hour and fifteen minutes later, moving both legs was really no longer an option. He had become trapped in the middle of a phalanx of SUVs on the 405 and missed his exit, ending up in Brentwood Heights before he was able to wedge his car into a crease between the shiny black behemoths. Judging from the looks on the suntanned faces above him, this was a rather shocking move for a car of his stature. Hybrids were supposed to be seen and not heard, he gathered: a necessary balancing of petroleum karma, perhaps, but like recycled toilet paper, better left to the more fanatical edge-dwellers of polite society. He had given them a merry wave through the sunroof -- with all five fingers, he was proud to note -- and shrugged off their concern. After years of driving in Boston, squeezing into a space that was more or less the same size as his vehicle while traveling at upwards of 70 miles per hour was as natural as cheering for the Red Sox. In fact, his only real disappointment in the move was that the car he cut off didn’t have New York plates.

By the time he finally backtracked to the correct exit -- he wasn’t comfortable trying to find his way on surface streets yet, though he sensed that it might have been faster -- both legs were developing serious cramps where they pressed against the steering column, and he felt the beginnings of a groin pull coming on. If he was going to survive this trip, he would have to either catch a ride in one of the other cars for the rest of the week or embark on a serious stretching regimen.

On the bright side, he was able to park right next to the building, in one of the five "compact" spots that were normally only used by the night cleaning crew. He pushed the door open with his knee, then grabbed said knee with both hands to pull it out of the car. Several minutes later, he was free and hobbling bowlegged to join his team.

"Howdy pardner," Frank drawled. "Had some trouble bustin’ that little dogie, did ya?"

Stephen was too tired to muster even a fake laugh. "Want to trade? There’s just enough room in the back for your wit."



Continue to Chapter 11