Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 12


Chapter 12

Stephen awoke early the next morning with the sunlight streaming through his windows.  It was too early for breakfast, but he didn’t care.  For the first time in weeks, he felt rested and alive.  He briefly considered getting up to join Mark in his morning swim, but decided that he would rather lie in bed for a while and enjoy the fact that he didn’t need to be up yet.

Two hours later he breezed into the office, whistling an old sea shanty that his father had taught him.  He could never remember all of the words, but recalled that they had something to do with a sailor getting his oar stuck in the wrong lock.  It didn’t really matter:  the tune was cheerful, his headache was gone, and all was right with the world.  Peeking into the offices as he went by, he saw that he was the first one in.  He hadn’t really expected anyone from CouldBU to be up this early, but was a little surprised that no one else from ADD was running on Eastern time, too.

Stephen shrugged as he entered the conference room that had become their shared office.  More time to get some work done before everyone is stacked in here on top of each other, he thought.   Plus, I get to stake out the best spot in the room.  He tossed his soft-sided briefcase onto the table.  I think I’ll take the spot in the corner, so my back is to the wall….

His site survey was interrupted by a loud thump, followed quickly by loud cursing from under the table.  "What the--  Is someone here?" he called.

The cursing continued as Brad crawled out from under the table holding the back of his head, accompanied by an overwhelming cloud of cologne, alcohol, smoke, and perfume.  "Are you trying to kill me?  My heart’s been abused enough without you jumpstarting it first thing in the morning!"  He checked his wrist suddenly, then patted himself all over when he saw that he wasn’t wearing his watch.  "It is still morning, isn’t it?" he asked worriedly.  "I’m not late for the meeting, am I?"

"What meeting?" Stephen asked.

"The design presentation!  You guys are supposed to show me and Robert your designs today, right?  We’re supposed to give our approval before you can go off and build it, aren’t we?"  He glared suspiciously at Stephen through bloodshot eyes, as though expecting a trick.

"Oh, that meeting.  Yes, that’s today, but not until 10:00.  We wanted to make sure you both would be able to get here in time.  I think Robert’s coming in person for this one."

"Good, so I’m not late?"

"Nooo…" Stephen answered slowly, to make sure his answer penetrated, "…you’re early.  Two hours early, in fact."  He raised his sleeve and showed his watch to Brad, who had apparently given up on finding his.  Brad peered at it blearily, then gave a squawk of dismay.

"That says 11:12!  I knew I was late!  Why would you lie to me about this?  It’s important!  Where’s everyone else?  Did you have the meeting without me?  Does Rod know?"  He ran to the door and looked out into the hall, frantically searching for everyone else.

Stephen looked at his watch in surprise.  "Oh, sorry:  I forgot to set it to Pacific Time."  He twisted the knob a few times and showed it to Brad again.  "There, how’s that?"

Brad looked again, but was unwilling to trust Stephen a second time.  "Wait here," he ordered, and ran out of the room.  He was back in moments.  "Which clock in Thomas’ office shows our time?" he asked.

"The one that says, ‘Los Angeles.’"

"Right, I knew that.  I just wanted to make sure.”  Brad ran back out again, returning a few minutes later and sinking into a chair with a relieved sigh.  “OK, I really am early."

Stephen sat beside him.  "Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why the sudden concern with punctuality?"

"Oh!  Well… this is an important decision for the company and I wanted to make sure that we made it in a… timely manner.  We can’t keep treating this company like our own personal party boat, you know.  We need to be responsible with our investors’ funds.  It’s time to get serious and start acting like grown-ups, or at least businessmen…” he trailed off.

Stephen waited expectantly, but nothing more was forthcoming.  He hazarded a guess, "Rod called you, didn’t he?"

Brad let out an exasperated sound, half sigh, half groan.  "Yes."  He refused to meet Stephen’s eyes.

Stephen continued, "And he told you all of those things?  About being responsible and acting like grown-ups?"

"I added the bit about the party boat," muttered Brad.

"Oh, that was a nice image."

"Thanks."

They sat in silence for a few moments.  Stephen hesitated before observing, "I’m surprised that Rod would have such an effect on you.  You’re one of the company founders, after all, and you don’t strike me as someone who acknowledges authority easily…."  Now it was his turn to trail off, as Brad sat slumped in his chair, staring at the wall.  Finally, Brad spoke.

"He sounds like my dad."

"Ah," said Stephen, as though that explained everything.  And as he thought about it, he realized that it did.  He sniffed the air experimentally before deciding that was a bad idea.  "You know, I think they have a shower somewhere in the building."

Brad sat up again.  "Do you think I have time to shower before the meeting?"

"I wish you would."

Brad slapped his knees and stood up.  "Good idea.  My head will be much clearer if I get cleaned up and change my clothes."

Mine, too, Stephen thought.  "See you back here in a little while, then.  You can leave the door open when you go.  I need some fresh air."

***

Stephen was still trying to freshen the air in the conference room when the rest of his team began straggling in.

 "Why are you waving your notebook around like that?" David asked as he entered.  He sniffed and wrinkled his nose.  "Whew!  This room smells like that van you rented last time we were here!  You were not smoking -- what was it? -- pot in here, were you?"

Behind David, Ricky noted, "The pressure’s on us today, not you, so if you’re going to start relaxing before the presentation, the least you could do is share."  He tested the air.  "Smells like some expensive stuff, too.  Where did you score it?"

Stephen scowled at both of them.  "I didn’t score anything other than a contact high off of Brad.  He slept here last night to make sure he didn’t miss the design presentation.  I sent him off to shower twenty minutes ago and it still stinks in here.  I tried opening both doors, but there’s no cross breeze to move the air.  Help me wave it out, would you?  I’m getting a headache."

Shrugging, David unwound his scarf and began spinning it like a propeller, trying to push the air out of one door.  Ricky grabbed the other door by the handle and began opening and closing it quickly in an attempt to create more of a breeze.  Stephen returned to waving his notebook in wide arcs in the middle of the room.  The three of them were still at it when Frank, Stu, Mark, and Kelvin arrived.

"I knew it was only a matter of time before he started forcing us to do morning calisthenics," said Frank.  "Interesting program you have going here, Stephen.  Did you read about this in one of your project management magazines?"

"I’m a yoga man, myself," observed Stu, "but whatever it takes to get the blood moving, I suppose."  He sniffed.  "Whoa!  Did someone sacrifice a yak in here?"

Stephen glared at them.  "Just go see if you can find a fan or some air freshener or something, would you?"

The four engineers reversed direction and scattered into the hallway.  As they walked off, Stephen heard Mark explaining to Kelvin, "I’m not saying he actually had hookers in there, but the last time I smelled something like that was at the end of my uncle’s week-long bachelor party in New Orleans.  We were only supposed to go for the weekend, of course, but it took us the rest of the week to find him.  By then he was in Macon, and we still have no idea when he lost his pants or why they let him on the train without them…."  His voice faded as they rounded a corner.

Stephen glared at David and Ricky.  "Keep fanning."

Twenty minutes later, the smell had dissipated enough for everyone to sit down and work as long as both doors were kept open for ventilation.  David and Ricky were making final tweaks to their graphics on one end of the room while Kelvin and Frank argued quietly but intensely on the other.  Stu and Mark sat in the middle, their eyes riveted to their laptop screens, though it was unclear whether they were actually working or simply trying to avoid being drawn into the fray.  Returning from a preparatory meeting with Thomas and Craig, Stephen reviewed the situation and decided to step in before Frank and Kelvin came to blows.

"Setting ground rules for the bakeoff finale?" he asked, pulling up a chair next to Frank.

"It seems clear to me," replied Kelvin, "that the only way to settle this is by a jury of our peers.  In other words, the CouldBU engineers.  The business people" -- astonishing how someone so generally bereft of emotion could pour such scorn into two words -- "lack the expertise or inclination to appreciate my technical architecture, so it’s hardly fair to allow them to judge."

"Normally, I would agree with him," said Frank, taking his case directly to Stephen.  "But the whole reason that I built a prototype was because these guys are incapable of conceptualizing anything more complicated than lunch.  If we show it to the engineers they’ll just start trying to break it and then decide that Kelvin’s elegant architecture is the better way to go, regardless of whether it has the right features or not."

"That still doesn’t address -- wait, you really think it’s elegant?" Kelvin asked.

"Of course it is!  You never design anything that’s less than perfect.  Conceptually, at least."

"Well… thank you," said Kelvin, looking both pleased and surprised.

"That doesn’t mean we can build it."

Kelvin drew breath to start the argument over again, but Stephen raised a hand to cut him off.  "Let’s do this:  we’ll start with the visual designs and see how that goes, then decide whether to bring in the prototype."  Now Frank began to object, but Stephen kept going.  "I’m not saying we won’t use it, but frankly, I’m a little nervous about showing it to the execs.  They might think we’re almost done, which would make the next several months hard to explain.  If we do show it to them, we can use it to get them talking about what else the site needs to do, and then we’ll let the CouldBU engineers decide if Kelvin’s technical plans can accommodate everything.  We’ll all decide who won."

"What if we can’t?" asked Kelvin and Frank simultaneously.

"Then we’ll call it a tie and the two of you can argue forever over who the real winner was. I suspect you might be happier that way, anyway."  Stephen gave the two of them a moment to mull it over.  "Fair enough?"

"I suppose," muttered Kelvin.

"Like we have a choice," grumbled Frank.

"Great, everybody’s happy, then!"  Stephen smiled and stuck out a fist to each of them.  "Knuckles."  Sullenly, they both rapped their knuckles lightly against his and then each other’s.

With a gentle rap on the door, Timothy entered.  "Everyone’s gathering in the big conference room," he said.  He paused and sniffed.  "Oh, good, Brad’s already here.  I was afraid we’d have to hunt him down again."  He turned and walked out.

Stephen checked his watch and stood up.  "Let’s go, everyone.  It’s show time."

As they walked through the halls, Stu pulled him aside, slowing so that the others could pass.  "Stephen, are you expecting us to speak at this presentation?"

"Probably, but only to walk through the prototype you built.  Why?"

Stu cleared his throat. "Oh," he said hoarsely, "well, I’ll do my best."

"What’s the problem?  Are you feeling sick?"  Stephen drew back involuntarily.  Ever since the baby was born, Jenny had him paranoid about bringing home a virus.  “Should you go back to the hotel?”

Stu cleared his throat and gave a little cough before he spoke again.  "No, it’s not that.  I feel fine.  Well, mostly.  It’s just, well, I hate speaking in front of people, and whenever I get really nervous I lose my voice."  His voice was raspy now.  "But I’ll be fine, I’m sure.  Frank can do most of the talking."

"That’ll go well, I’m sure," Stephen muttered.  "Don’t tell Frank, but -- "

"Don’t tell Frank what?" came Frank’s voice from down the hall.

"Nothing, Frank!"  Stephen turned back to Stu.  "I was kind of hoping that you could be the voice of reason if anyone questioned the prototype.  Frank tends to take those kinds of comments personally."

"I heard that!" yelled Frank from around the corner.  "And I do not!"

"Frank, stop yelling!" Stephen yelled.  "Just keep walking!"

"We’re already here!" yelled Frank as Stu and Stephen rounded the corner and found themselves facing the closed conference room door.  Frank continued speaking at a more normal volume.  "How much further did you want to go?"

"That’s far enough," Stephen replied through gritted teeth.  He ran his hand through his hair and drew a calming breath.  "Client faces—ah, screw it."  He reached past Frank and yanked the door open, pasting a smile on his face as he entered.

Their clients had opted for formal seating today, lining one side of the huge cherry conference table and leaving the other side for the ADD team.  Robert and a freshly scrubbed Brad sat in the middle, so Stephen took the seat opposite them.  Ricky and David walked to the end of the room and began fiddling with the room’s complex theater system, while the remainder of the ADD team ranged out on either side of Stephen.

Looking across the table as he settled into his seat, Stephen thought, Why were we so worried about presenting our work to these guys?  As he watched, Brad reached into his pocket and opened a packet of Alka-Seltzer.  Looking around and not seeing any water close at hand, he shrugged, popped a tablet into his mouth, and began chewing.  Oh, that’s right:  because they’re crazy.

After a few more minutes of fiddling -- both aided and hindered by Thomas -- David and Ricky finally managed to bring the gigantic flat-panel screen to life.  Several more minutes of muttering and random button-pressing on the dinner plate-sized multi-function remote stilled the vaguely ominous hissing coming from the concert-sized speakers on either side.  There would be no sound element to this presentation:  though Ricky had wanted something from the Rocky film series, David maintained that his voice was all the music a client’s ears needed.  Ready at last, they both turned to their chattering audience and waited expectantly for the conversation to die down.  It did not.  Delicately, David cleared his throat.  The conversations continued.  He looked imploringly at Stephen.

The Prima Donna mustn’t strain her voice calling for attention, apparently, thought Stephen wryly.  Placing his hands on the table, he rose and spoke through the hubbub.  "I think we’re ready to begin, everyone.  David and Ricky will present their ideas to you first, and then we will see a prototype that Stu and Frank—" a loud squeak interrupted him as Stu tried vainly to clear his throat.  Stephen glanced over to make sure that Stu was all right before continuin, "—have put together to illustrate some of the features of the new site.  I suspect that Frank will do most of the talking for that."

Thomas looked around.  "Hey, where’s Dan?  We can’t start without him."

A loud rustling erupted from the speakers in the front of the room.  Ricky leaped back and reached for the remote, seeking an emergency kill switch.  He stopped his frantic fumbling when Dan’s head emerged from behind the left speaker.

"I’m here," called Dan’s head, but it was several more minutes before the rest of Dan followed:  he appeared to be partially mummified by cables.  When he finally emerged, Stephen noted that the hair on one side of his head was flattened and that his face on that side was creased by irregular lines.  "I was, um, checking the cables to make sure that the sound was ready for the presentation," he said, scrubbing his hands through his hair in a hurried attempt to straighten it.  "Are we ready to achieve signoff?"

"For those who haven’t met him yet, this is Dan, our motivational consultant," said Thomas.  "Dan, this is Frank, and that’s Stu.  I think you know everyone else."

Dan lunged across the table to shake Stu’s hand with both of his, then went for Frank.  "A pleasure to meet you, Stewie.  You too, Franko."

"Just Stu, please," Stu whispered, just as Frank rather forcefully replied, "Frank."

"Whoa, sorry, guys!  Didn’t mean to step on anyone’s tootsies, just trying to keep things friendly.  We all have little nicknames for each other here.  Everyone calls me Dan the Man."

"No we don’t," Craig called from the other side of the room.

Dan ignored him and continued, gesturing at Stephen "Stevie Nicks, here, and I have been working closely together to keep this train from going off the tracks.  The last thing we need at this juncture is to have to circle back, retrace our steps, and circle the wagons."  He yawned, "I just don’t have the bandwidth for it."

"That’s why we pay him the big bucks, I suppose," commented Robert.  "Now that we’re all here, though, can we get started?  Rod, are you ready?"  He waited.  "Rod?"

The speakerphone in the middle of the table popped loudly and Rod’s voice boomed out of it.  "Sorry, had you boys on mute."  He sounded like he was speaking from the inside of a wind tunnel.  "There a lot of noise on the plane here, but I think I’ll be able to make it out as long as you speak up.  Oh, thank you darling."  There was a clinking sound.  "Sorry, dinner just arrived.  Go ahead."

Kelvin looked at Stephen and mouthed, "Dinner?"  Stephen shrugged.  He looked to Robert and Thomas for permission, then spoke.  "OK, then, let’s begin.  David, take it away."

"Thank you, Stephen," David gave a little bow, tossed his scarf over his shoulder, and launched into his spiel, his French accent thickening as the passion of the moment took him.  "As you all know, we have worked with you to capture the spirit, the essence of what it means when someone says, ‘Could be you.’  We have striven to illuminate the dynamism of hope, the illusory nature of fame, the beauty of a dream.  We want your customers to take you as their partners in making their dreams come true, for a small monthly subscription.  In the pages that I will show you, we have tried to gather those dreams and make them a reality…."

David continued speaking, but Stephen was no longer listening.  He had heard the presentation many times before.  The words were different, but the essence was always the same:  as long as everyone agreed with David’s ideas, no one would get hurt.  He knew that David would continue for some time, so he took the opportunity, as he always did during meetings that weren’t his, to gauge the reactions of the other players.  Keeping an attentive expression on his face, he let his gaze slide down the table, scanning each face in turn.  Timothy had stopped drawing and was staring raptly at David, occasionally mouthing a particularly choice phrase as though trying to memorize it.  Craig and Greg both looked bored, clearly ready to get to the prototype, or possibly lunch.  Robert and Brad were listening closely, as though this were a pitch for an especially enticing summer blockbuster to which they had first rights of refusal.  Brad had flecks of foam at the corner of his mouth from the Alka-Seltzer.  Thomas divided his attention equally between David, Robert, and the speakerphone, chewing a thumbnail thoughtfully as he listened.

A couple of empty seats away from Thomas, Connie sat whispering to her assistant, supposedly telling her what notes to take.  When she saw Stephen looking at her, she winked lasciviously.  Stephen snapped his eyes back to the front of the room, while the two women laughed behind their notepads.  Frank glanced over his shoulder at them before directing a glare at Stephen.

David had reached his first visual design:  a mockup of the home page.  The wall behind him came to life as the page appeared behind him, and he turned with a flourish to gaze upon his handiwork writ large.  So large, in fact, that it took everyone in the room a few moments to take it all in.

The center of the page was text, theoretically describing the service that CouldBU provided, though David and Ricky had not bothered to write any real marketing copy.  That was for others more talented in the unique hybrid language of marketspeak, a perverse blend of English, jargon, and half-truths with which they would not sully their creative minds.  For now, they had used the designer’s shorthand:  "greeked text."  The same phrase, beginning, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…" repeated throughout the page wherever Ricky had not felt like inserting or making up real copy, showing how and where the text would appear.  Not for the first time, Stephen was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu when he saw this pseudo-language:  he felt that he could almost extract a meaning from the nonsensical phrases, as though Hephaestus, the Greek god of technology, had encrypted a special message for any disciple tenacious enough to decode it.

The central text section was surmounted by simple block letters that formed the company name:  CouldBU!  On either side, running the full height of the page, were images of two women, a blonde and a brunette (of course).  Both were dressed somewhere in between showgirl and spokesmodel, shading toward a look that Stephen could only define as "saucy conservative," or perhaps "business come-hither."  On the left side of the screen, the blonde was leaping into the air and exhibiting the kind of unreasoning exuberance usually reserved for cheerleaders and people on television who have discovered a new hygiene product.  On the right, the brunette stood, hips cocked to the side, pointing meaningfully at the viewer with a smile on her face.  Looking at her, one could almost hear her call, "I want you to rescue me from my dull life as a model and whisk me away to an exotic location where I can finally live out my fantasy of being a French maid with a behavioral problem who needs constant discipline from her employer."  At least, that was what Stephen heard, but looking around the room he was pretty sure that everyone else heard a similar siren song.

David waited, hands clasped before him, allowing everyone to soak in his reflected glory for a few seconds before speaking.  Frankly, Stephen was surprised that he appeared to be so proud of this design.  It was far more commercial than most of the other things that David had done:  he was usually called in to design sites for museums, theatres, the odd clothing boutique, and other institutions that shared his artistic sensibilities.  The only possible explanation was that he found this whole experience deliciously ironic and had decided to abandon himself to the moment.

After several minutes of contemplative silence, Brad spoke.  "Do they, uh, move?" he asked hesitantly, looking at the speakerphone as though for permission before he did so.

"Move?"  David gazed at him narrowly.

"Yeah, you know, dance around or, um, unbutton anything?  The girls on the sites that I’ve, um, seen moved around.  Can ours do that?"

"No, they do not move," David answered, investing the final word with all the continental scorn that the French portion of his blood could muster.  Brad sat back with a disappointed sigh, still gazing at the images.

"And what’s with all the words?" asked Robert.  "What is that, French or something?"

"No, that’s greeked text," replied Ricky after a moment, while David continued to stare at Brad in disbelief.  "We just use that as a placeholder in the designs, so you can see where the text will go without being distracted by English words.  It doesn’t mean anything."

"That’s a relief!  For a second there, I thought that all the drugs had finally caught up with me!  So what’s it mean?"

"It doesn’t mean anything," Ricky repeated slowly.  "It’s gibberish."

"I thought you said it was Greek."

"Looks more like Latin to me," Greg chimed in.  "Are we expecting a big turnout from the Vatican?"

"It’s pseudo-Latin.  We use this phrase because it has roughly the same word length and occurrence of letters as in English, but it doesn’t mean anything.  That way, you can just get a feel for how the text looks.  Do you like the font?"

"These girls aren’t hot enough," interrupted Brad, still staring at the screen.  "I mean, they’re OK, but they don’t make me want to give someone my money.  We need hotter girls."

"These are just stock images—" Ricky began, but David cut him off.

"I spent some time choosing these images to present the exact right essence," he said, then reached for his satchel and pulled out a notebook.  "You told me, ‘Sexy like Cindy Crawford.’  There you are."  He gestured to the screen with his notebook, then flipped it closed with finality.

Brad scratched his chin.  "Yeah, but when I said that, I meant Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Cindy, not disturbingly hot mom Cindy."

"You also said, ‘Madonna and child peaceful,’" continued David.

"Right, and I sent you that picture from the Enquirer of her doing yoga while she breastfed her kid.  What could be hotter than that?"

Robert spoke up for the first time.  "Whoa, where’s all this mom imagery coming from?  That is not at all what we’re going for.  We want to draw people in, not creep them out."

"’Creep them out?’"  David was nearly quivering now with injured affront.  "There is nothing creepy about mothers!  They are the fount of all desire, the source of true affection!  Freud knew this!  What man does not wish to crawl back to the womb, to return to the source of his life and suckle again at the teat of motherly love?"

Brad sat back and waved his hands in front of him as though trying to swipe the imagery out of the air. "Hey!  That is definitely not what we were going for."  He turned to Robert.  "Was it?"

The speakerphone erupted as Rod roared, "Did somebody just say tit?  You can’t say that with ladies present!"

"Maybe we should move on to the next page," Stephen suggested.

"No, I want to know who’s talking about tits!" insisted Rod.  "And there had better be a cow up there on that screen, or we’re going to be having a long talk about proper etiquette.  Do you kiss your mama with that mouth, boy?"

"Ugh, can we stop talking about our mothers now, please?" said Craig.  "I get enough of this when I go home for the holidays."

"At least my mom doesn’t kiss guests on the mouth," said Greg with a shudder.

"That was Dad," corrected Craig.

"Oh, right.  When he wears the wig I have trouble keeping them straight."

"Well, he was just trying to make you feel welcome," answered Craig defensively.  "I thought it was very thoughtful of him."

"Then what were the fishnet stockings for?" asked Greg.

"Yeah, that was weird.  They didn’t even go with the mini-skirt."

"OK!  Can we go to the next page, please!" Stephen shouted.

With a glare over his shoulder at Brad, David pressed a button and advanced to the next slide.  As he slipped back into the presentation, he grew visibly calmer.  "Here we have a secondary page.  As you can see, I have carried over the green and pink color scheme to convey the sense of excitement, but I have muted the graphics.  We want people to be excited, but we want them to realize that we are serious about their career prospects.  We will use these pages for each section devoted to a specific discipline.  This one, as you can see from the background image, is for singers.  Each area will have its own color scheme and iconography.  We want people to always know where their home is."

"Question," Robert broke in.  "Can you change the mouse thingy whenever they change areas?"

"The mouse thingy?" asked David, puzzled.  "What is this… thingy?"

"You know, the arrow thing that you click on stuff with.  Can you change that?" asked Robert.

"The pointer?"  David wiggled the arrow on the screen for emphasis.  "You want us to change it?"

"Right, the pointer," Robert laughed.  "I love this technical lingo.  Can you turn the ‘pointer,’" here he made air quotes with his fingers to emphasize the new term, "into something different for every area?  You know, like a microphone for singers, a clapper for actors, maybe a little typewriter for writers.  I think the kids would love that."

"A… typewriter?  How do you point with a typewriter?" David asked.

"I don’t know!  You’re the technical guys; you figure it out!  Can you do it or not?"

David looked at the engineers for help.  Stu opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out, so he just shrugged.  Frank was staring at Robert in open disbelief, mercifully silent.  Kelvin considered the idea thoughtfully for several more moments than it deserved, then said, "Yes, I think we could do that.  I don’t know how we would get the new pointers onto users’ computers, but I could probably develop some sort of stealth installation tool that put them there without openly notifying the user of its actions."

"You mean, like a virus?" asked Stephen.

"No, not exactly.  More like a benign helper protocol."

"No, more like an adware virus," Frank argued.  "You can’t send another one of those into the ecosystem.  The next thing we know, hackers will be using it as a back door to get people’s medical histories!"

Kelvin turned toward Frank and answered him coolly.  "I didn’t say I would do it, just that we could.  As an academic exercise, it is an interesting problem but not one that I would implement without serious thought as to the ramifications.  Unlike some others—"

Here Stephen cut him off, sensing a techno-religious debate in the making.  "We’ll look at it and see what we can do.  Shall we continue?"

David began to speak, but was cut off when the speakerphone came to life again.

"Listen, boys, I think we’ve seen all we need to see right now," Rod said.

"Have you, um, seen anything?" Stephen asked.

"I haven’t seen the screens, but I don’t need to.  My years at the helm have given me a fine sense of team dynamics, and it’s clear to me that you boys from ADD and our team aren’t reading from the same sheet of music.  Hell, I’m not even sure if you both have the same book!  It’s like we’re asking for Beethoven and all you have is jazz or that ragtime crap.  It’s clear to me that we need to regroup and figure out what to do next, so let’s not waste our time looking at any more pictures."

Stephen was stunned.  "So, what does that mean?  Should we keep working on these designs, start all over, or what?"

"I don’t know.  I need to talk to Robbie and Brad, maybe confer with a couple of my other colleagues in the industry, and see what we should do next.  For now, you just sit tight and we’ll get back to you."

A sick feeling had begun to grow in the pit of Stephen’s stomach.  He ran his hands roughly through his hair as he asked, "Do you want to see the prototype, then?  We have some of the main features ready to demonstrate.  They’re not done, of course—"

"No, don’t bother.  I trust your technical sense more than your artistic sense.  That one with the calm voice, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing.  If he chose the features, I’m sure they’ll be fine.  You just keep working on that, and we’ll review it later.  Just don’t make any more pictures!"
Kelvin smiled slightly at that, but then frowned when he saw that Frank was smiling too.  He looked at Frank and pointed to himself, as though to say, he was talking about me.  David, on the other hand, looked as though he might burst into a steaming hissy fit at any moment.  He toyed with the end of his scarf as though unsure whether to stick it in his mouth and chew on it or throw it over his shoulder and storm gloriously out of the room.  For the moment, he chose neither.

Rod continued, "Robbie, they’re about to clear the food away here, so I’ll call you in your office in… three minutes.  That should give you just enough time to hustle down there from the conference room.  Go!"  With a loud click, the phone went dead.

Robert looked around the room sadly, opened his mouth as though to apologize for the unfortunate turn of events, shrugged instead, and hurried from the room looking at his watch.  He had two minutes and fifty seconds left.

David watched Robert go, then announced, "David must smoke," and followed him, throwing one last glare at the speakerphone as he slammed the door behind him.

Brad slumped in his chair and fished out another packet of Alka Seltzer, which he proffered to Stephen.  "Want one?"

Stephen took it, opened the packet, and popped the tablet into his mouth.  "Thanks," he fizzed.


Continue to Chapter 13
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