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The Petrollica Affair (vii)

9 May

Cowboys

Six thirty on a Saturday morning, the pair stumbled through the ancient oak bound front doors to Bwain’s offices, quite dishevelled and much the worse for wear, desperately trying to remember the combination to the burglar alarm, which they’d argued about all the way from Mayfair, driving the cabbie crazy.

“1-4-6-9-5,” said Bleep.

“1-6-4-9-5,” argued Babyface.

“Where have you two been?” demanded Reg the second Babyface set foot on the premises, causing the duo to jump out of their skins, screaming.  “And the answer better not be the strip club I think it is.”

“Petrollica!” stuttered Bleep defensively.  “It’s six bloody thirty in the morning Reg, what the hell are you doing here?  You’re supposed to be tucked–up in bed, not trying to scare the living bejesus out of us.”

“That’s none of your business,” retorted Reg, turning crimson.  “Babyface…”

“At least let me get my coat off.”

“What’s in those carrier bags?”

“That would be 12 telex boxes,” stated Bleep matter-of-factly.

“You promised me you’d fit them,” said Reg.  “This better not be a disaster in the making, because if it is I promise you they’ll be publications.”

“Faulty hardware, Reg.  Bad batch,” replied Bleep.

“More naughty than bad,” added Babyface.  “So naughty it took us all night to figure it out.  I’m going to my desk now, to have a large mug of coffee and a serious sit on my best thinking cushion.”

“Then I’m following you, because if I don’t you’ll be asleep within the minute.”

“Impossible,” slurred Bleep.  “Even with a bucketful of Dumbo tranquilisers, I guarantee you there’s no way we’re taking a nap until halfway through tomorrow at the earliest.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Go figure.”

Babyface settled down with a super-large mug of filter coffee, which he took time to personally supervise the creation of to his exacting specification, pulled out a bronze and aquamarine Indian thinking cushion, positioned it atop the desk, folded his legs into a full lotus beneath him, uttered the briefest of ‘Ommm’s, and without further ado got down to the serious business of thinking outside the box whilst pumped full of hardcore stimulants.

He reasoned it couldn’t be the software that was broken, as he’d installed a basic copy of Telex Exec, to prove the special modifications weren’t at fault, it couldn’t be the hardware as a quick test of the purported bad batch of boxes in the Bwain test lab while the coffee brewed proved a random pair worked perfectly fine and much as he hated to say so, it couldn’t be Hooverstein either, as a quick test on-site using a length of co-ax cable which they knew to be good didn’t fix the problem with the frakked telex data.  As he worked through the possibilities on a mental whiteboard, Reg, like a dose of herpes, popped up at regular intervals to provide motivation by reminding him that the Sunday Sport’s submission deadline was looming ever closer, and the fix window was diminishing accordingly.

While the Babyfaced one sat in silent contemplation, running scenario after scenario through his splendidly wired brain, Bleep made himself useful by dusting off the Support File and reading through the many installation reports, starting at ‘A’, in the hope of finding something that might give them a lead.

“Frak me!” exclaimed Babyface, jumping to attention, with just five minutes left to go.  “I think I know what it is.  I can’t remember the name of the company, but they deal in inflatables.  Based in Rotterdam.  Ring any bells?”

“Already been there,” said Bleep, thumbing his way back to the correct set of pages.  “I’m on the E’s now, they were back in with the ‘Cs’.  Clogplast are your boys.  Manufacturers of puncture repair kits for inflatable clogs.  That was Denzil the Cradlesnatcher’s patch.”

“And what does the Cradlesnatcher have to say about the install?”

“Nothing unusual that I recall.”

“And in the section on troubleshooting?”

“Here it is.  If the telex box starts misbehaving or sending and receiving corrupted messages, make sure the cleaner hasn’t untied it from the radiator.”

“Bingo!”

“Babyface.  I don’t understand, what does that mean?”

“It means we go back to Petrollica with 24 lengths of copper wire and hunt down a bloody great big metal radiator and when we find one, we tie the telex boxes to it.”

“With what? Copper wire? Why? My brain hurts, I don’t understand.”

“All will be revealed.  In the meantime, as we’re going to have to do something we swore we’d never do – like take the floor up, to disguise the evidence, I suggest we set Reg to work procuring more lead.  There’s no point in doing a half job and leaving that monster only half encased, we might as well finish it off properly.”

By Saturday lunchtime the Petrollica installation was running like a dream, totally fixed with all 24 telex boxes purring their little hearts out, the creeping corruption at the flick of a light switch gone, not a single bit of a single byte of data out of place.  The monster under the floor was finally done for, turned into a tasty lead sandwich with a supernatural filling.  In the space of 24 hours Petrollica had gone from Nightmare Number One to perfection in a nutshell, a technical paradise city.  Naturally Reg was delighted, so much so that he offered to take Bleep and Babyface out to the Ritz for a slap-up lunch, feigning disappointment at their refusal, all the while knowing that Babyface had an unbreakable appointment to keep with his father and Bleep had promised his girlfriend he’d go shopping for curtains, upon pain of torture, having already wriggled out of the same appointment several weekends on the trot, citing work issues on both occasions, only to come home ridiculously late and very drunk, either with a pocketful of slot machine tokens or a badly crushed rugby ticket which in his inebriated state he’d found quite impossible to throw away.

“So what was it?” I asked curiously.

“Cowboys,” grinned my pal.

“Cowboys?” replied I.  “I always thought Bwain were the biggest cowboys in town.”

“Not this time.  What the Cradlesnatcher’s site report failed to mention was the cause of the problem, which Babyface remembered with absolute clarity: there was no Earth rail, the building didn’t have one.  Not that uncommon on the continent, but here in the UK, all our sockets have to have an earth rail by law.”

“Except the electricians that did Petrollica were wearing spurs.”

“Exactly.  At the time, Babyface reckoned that Hooverstein had eaten the entire circuit, and as I was feeling totally paranoid, I just agreed with him.  In retrospect, it all seems a little far-fetched.  Cowboy electricians are the obvious answer, I just couldn’t see it at the time.  Anyway, once we’d earthed the telex boxes, we still had to earth the PCs.  Conveniently, they all had one thing in common: the network.  So Babyface took two spare tentacles and tied those to the radiator too.  And that as they say was the end of the monster under the floor.”

“Nice,” I said, proposing a toast.  “To Babyface van Helsing.”

“To Babyface,” answered Bleep.

“That’s the end of the story?”

“Hell, no.  All that tying things down might have put an end to the troubles with the network, but it sure as shit didn’t prepare us for what was coming next.”

“You mean there’s more?”

“Oh, man!  You haven’t heard the half of it.  It’s gonna cost you mind and cost you big.  I suggest we retire to a reputable pizza emporium, where you’ll flash your credit card and in return I’ll tell you what happened next.”

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The Petrollica Affair (vi)

18 Apr

Troubleshooting

“Is it foggy?” I asked Bleep, as he returned from his soiree.

“Why?”

“You’re flying low,” said I, pointing at my friend’s zipper.

“Well spotted, stewardess.”  Bleep returned to his seat, leaving his flies untouched.  Another cigarette was soon sparked-up; a long drag followed, the exhaled smoke forming a plume of blue grey, a shadow mask around my pal’s face.  Contentedly, he took a sip of icy cider.

“Well?”

“I’m thinking what a cracking day it is.  We should go to the park and feed baseballs to the ducks.”

“One word: Hooverstein.”

“Shush!” emphasised my friend.  “I’ve told you, don’t say its name, not ever.”

“If you don’t hurry up, I’ll say it three times quickly.”

“Mate…”

“I mean it.”

Extracting what happened next required another pair of ciders and a couple of dayglo chasers, which Bleep had acquired a taste for in Belgium.  Initially, Petrollica’s Telex Exec (Uber Edition) was only configured for 4 boxes, which according to the official line was to allow the system to properly bed in.  Unofficially, Babyface ran into a series of hitches and took a lot longer than expected to hack and splice the code together.  Onsite, as Babyface completed the various stages of development, a series of minor engineers delivered extra boxes until eventually the system was half complete.  This was when the training was timed to finish and Petrollica started to use their network in anger, putting the ‘putas through their paces.  Coincidentally, it was also the point when hardware began to misbehave.  Everything was either running slow or performing erratically.  Or sparking.  One of the printers had a heart attack, coughed-up blood and set fire to a desk.  After a series of support visits by the same engineers who had added the extra Telex boxes, everything appeared to settle down again, but there were still a few annoying niggles that kept reoccurring on a daily basis.  Much to my pal’s annoyance, Reg soon ran out of patience with the lack of progress and ordered him to sort things out.

Fearing for his safety, Bleep resisted as long as he could, with a string of feeble excuses until Reg could stand it no more and had Ronnie read him the riot act.  Realising he had no choice, my pal decided to arm himself against the beast under the floor; hesitantly, he contacted Hoover, intending to ask for a detailed specification for Hooverstein, in order to pinpoint its weaknesses.  But the mad washing machine scientist was nowhere to be found.  Aristotle and Einstein were just as elusive; according to their lock-up neighbours they’d packed the contents of their offices into a pair of vans and quit town overnight in a cloud of dust, leaving no forwarding address.

Out of options, Bleep was forced to return to Mayfair on his own, under cover of maximum daylight, to fully assess the situation.  Petrollica had a massive suite, recently refurbished, on the top two floors of a really prestigious apartment block; from street level it was impossible to tell it was an office, its location being deliberately discrete and almost invisible to the untrained eye.

“Because they were located in an expensive part of town, they attracted some real stunning babes,” reminisced my friend, “all upper class tasty – one pinters the lot of ‘em.  Despite the lurking horror under the floor, the visits were really enjoyable.”

“Visits?” I queried.

“Once I discovered the business was run almost entirely by smart tarts with delicious accents, I decided there was no real hurry and did that engineer thing of finding me a favourite and making her feel special.  Charlotte was her name, I can still picture her now.  Anyway, I soon forgot about Hooverstein and fell in lust instead.  Charlie was drop dead gorgeous, with a subtle hint of lilacs and a fabulous set of bristols.  It was quite by chance, as I was straddling between floors ogling her suspender lines through a tight black dress, hoping for a glimpse of stocking top as she bent over a photocopier, that I discovered something we’d missed.”  Bleep took a jolt of dayglo chaser. “Oh, melons.  Nice.”

“So let me get this,” said Babyface perplexed, “every time the photocopier went swoosh, you heard a frak! of indignation from somewhere in Petrollica.”

“Exactly.”

“And then, when your harlot switched the light off in the photocopy room, the fraks became a stream of beefy expletives.”

“Don’t call her that, her name’s Charlotte and she’s lovely.  Look, this is obviously a tin and wires problem and I’m really the applications guy,” wriggled my pal.  “This is your area, not mine – so it’s over to you.”

“Coincidentally,” said Babyface, switching to serious mode, “Reg has tasked me with installing the final 12 telex boxes this weekend.  Unfortunately I’m busy – Father’s having one of his weekend parties and he needs me there in a coordination role.  You know what we’ve got to do.”

Bleep choked as a penny dropped. “We?”

“Yes, WE.  WE have a window of opportunity on Friday night.  If you think you’re going to stitch me up and send me back there alone after dark, think again.  We’re the only ones who’ve seen Hooverstein who are still here to tell the tale and this is an omen I do not like.  We do this together, because if I go alone and don’t come back, Reg won’t believe a word of it and then he’ll get Ronnie to send you in by yourself, all alone, to face Hooverstein and no matter how much you squeal and shout you won’t get out of it, not without running away.  And if you do that, the monster will sense your weakness and one day when your guard is down you’ll feel a tap on the back and before you know it, you’ll vanish under a random floor somewhere in a flurry of tentacles, never to be heard of again.”

“OK,” said Bleep, shaking.  Whilst Reg worried him and Ronnie frightened him, he was absolutely terrified by the prospect of facing Hooverstein alone, in the dark, in the buff. “I’ll be there.”

“And make sure you bring crosses and garlic and any silver bullets you might have lying around.  Just in case.”

Nine o’clock on a Friday night: while the rest of London was in party mode, winding up for the weekend, Babyface and Bleep headed down to Mayfair.  After leaving Bwain’s offices in Victoria, they had a good few bevies for the road and then a smoke, just to be sure they were in the right frame of mind.  Upon arrival, they let themselves into the offices, as arranged with the security desk.  Once inside, Babyface assembled a makeshift crucifix from a pair of screwdrivers which he bound together with gaffer tape, whilst Bleep produced a garlic string from his toolbox and draped it about his neck.  Not being entirely certain as to the heritage of their foe, they took the added precaution of smearing themselves with wolfsbane and then sprinkled holy water in a circle in one of the side rooms, to define a much needed sanctuary space in case of trouble.

Despite his reputation as a space cadet of some merit, Babyface was truly methodical when it came to problem analysis, and before long he had some answers.

“Look at this,” pointed Babyface, wielding the cruci-driver as a pointing device. “I’m running diagnostic Pro, across the network between half a dozen ‘putas I’ve turned into probes.  This ‘puta here is the master.  On the count of three, flick that light switch on.  One, two…”

“Nothing,” noted Bleep.

“And now switch it off again.”

<<Fzzz>>

“See that – it’s a power spike.  All of the data on the master scope is frakked and garbled.”

“So it is,” mused Bleep.

“It’s exactly as I suspected: the monster we helped jam under the floor is also the monster in the ceiling when viewed from below.  And what’s more, it’s somehow patched itself into the light circuit and is slurping on the electricity supply.  Every time a light goes off, it bitches and chews data.”

“Oh, hell.  What are we going to do?”

What they did in their excited state was to place a call with Reg, who had a word with Ronnie, who had a word with one of his special mates.  Within the hour, a shipment of lead was on its way from the East End, where an unfortunate vicar would no doubt discover to his dismay that come the next serious rainstorm, his church was no longer watertight.  Once the ceiling tiles had been removed and the monster encased, it was game over for Hooverstein.

At least that was the theory.

It was two in the morning by the time Bleep and Babyface finished installing the remaining telex boxes, and being half straight, half sober and half hungover, they had a tactical line or two of Babyface’s favourite wake-me-up-before-you-go-go powder.  In a blaze of euphoria, heads clacking like a pair of analogue telephone exchanges during a bank raid, the duo proceeded to toast their success with several nips of Welsh whiskey from an aging hip flask that Bleep’s grandma had given him as a present, for use in emergency celebrations, just prior to leaving home.

“We’re brilliant!” exclaimed Bleep, puckering like a squeezed lemon.  “None of the other engineers could have pulled this off.”

“Yes we are,” admitted Babyface, taking the flask and a double nip.

“We should pack up and go home.”

“Yes we should.  The question is, are we brilliant enough to power up the entire system and give it a thorough test, or do we leave it for the trainers on Monday?”

“Oh, frak.  Do we have to?”

“Are we brilliant or are we deluded wasters?”

“Can’t we just be brilliant wasters and leave it at that?”

By six o’clock in the morning, the amphetamines were gone, the flask was empty and Hooverstein was still in its death throes, wounded but refusing to die.  No matter what they tried, as soon as they cranked the system up above 50% utilisation, the telex transmission lines became unstable, receiver circuits flaked out and frakked data became the order of the day.  They tried holy water, garlic breath, wolfsbane to the tentacles and the Lord’s prayer, forwards, backwards and sideways, all to no avail.  In abject frustration, Babyface declared that Hooverstein had destroyed the integrity of the space/time continuum and ruined the telex boxes forever.

Obviously, Reg could never be told the truth and fearing he’d set Ronnie on them if they didn’t have a good story, a faulty batch of hardware was declared, a tried and tested engineer’s explanation for strange goings-on that remains in place to this day.

Bleep retrieved another smoke and seeing it was the last one, crumpled the packet up and threw it as far as he could. “It’s a good job I bought 200 at the airport.  Go to the bar and get the lager in, while I search through my bag for the other 180.”

The Petrollica Affair (v)

2 Apr

The Network

“Well, my son,” grinned Hoover, “wod’ya fink?”

“It’s very, very strange.”

“All it’s missin’ Bleepy Boy is a name,” said Hoover, to a look of contempt from his henchmen.  “We’re still arm wrestling over that.”

“Where did it come from?” asked Bleep, dismayed.

“Secrets is secrets,” said Aristotle, stuffing a pony in Bleep’s pocket.

“Gypsies,” said Einstein, removing the pony.  “I know these Gypsies who run a rubbish tip out of town.  They flogged us a mile of TV cable they found.”

“Found?”

“More discovered,” said Aristotle, reinserting the pony.

“In all honesty,” said Bleep, “it’s very, very scary.  In fact, it frightens the living bejesus out of me.”

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Einstein.  “I hope you’re not deriding our masterpiece.”

“Our baby,” added Aristotle, patting the thing.

In front of my friend, stretched out lengthways on a well worn wooden bench lay a contorted monster, the mother of all cabling nightmares, nestling in a pool of its own putrid slime.  In construction, the creature was comprised of a huge life affirming double helix, wrapped loosely about itself, forming a central core off which two hundred and ten satin black arms hung limply, each terminating in a shiny silver connector which to the uninitiated could easily be mistaken for an eye.  The graft-point where arm and helix met was bound tightly with gaffer tape, creating a series of compact nodules, reminiscent of eggs sacs – which provided a clue as to the creature’s reproductive habits.  There was no way it could be trustfully left alone with your children, your pets or the contents of your larder, not if you ever wanted to see them again.  All the mother of cabling nightmares required to bring it into being was a jolt of electricity from a lightning storm.  Come the aftermath, the all-seeing bald behemoth would undoubtedly be last glimpsed slithering away into the drains, chased by dozens of villagers armed with burning brands and pitchforks.

“It looks like twenty one point two five octopuses engaged in some bizarre mating ritual,” said Bleep.

“Excuse me?” said Einstein, threateningly.

“Octopuses have eight arms,” coughed Bleep.  “Do the maths.”

“My partner is not questioning your skills at division, but your use of the English language,” said Aristotle.

“Twenty one and a quarter then.”

“Twenty one and a quarter what?” asked Einstein.  “And the answer better be octopi.”

Bleep paused for a second, to take a swig of gin.  “The network just sat there glistening, covered in a layer of Vaseline, staring at you malevolently through hundreds of tiny eyes, like it was waiting for something to happen.”

I began to snigger.  “Perhaps it was waiting for Professor Quatermass to come along and give it a proper fight.”

Bleep gave me a look of thunder.  “IT was anything but funny, mate.”

After the boys had finished melding the mother of all nightmares together on the bench, they found they couldn’t shift it out of Reg’s garage, it was just too weird and heavy.  Hoover was forced to drape a tarp over it, so as not to scare any more passers by.  Then, on Saturday morning he got one of his mates with a forklift truck to move it into Aristotle and Einstein’s Bedford so they could deliver it to Petrollica in one piece.

“Bleep,” said Babyface, stepping from the pavement into the road.  “I have no idea what you’re playing at, dragging me halfway across town to Petrollica’s offices in my lunch break.  This better be good.”

“Oh, it’s good,” said Bleep, displaying all the skills of a regular traffic cop as he directed the traffic around a parked-up off-white Bedford van with an obscene drawing of an erect penis etched in the filth of the back doors, its three hazard warning lights flashing merrily away.

Babyface took a step back, and in that diligent way of his began to survey the scene, quickly directing his attention to two oddball workmen dressed in badly fitting faded blue overalls, tugging desperately on a length of thick rope.

A head popped out of a sash window some five storeys above the street.  “Pull, one two free,” it shouted at the workers, in a gruff gravely tone.

Babyface’s eyes followed the rope, all the way up to a makeshift pulley, erected against the superstructure of the building and then back down again to a cradle suspended in mid-air.  The angles were confusing, which prevented the baby faced one from making out the contents.  As he contemplated what was occurring, the rope snagged, causing the cradle to come to a jarring halt.  A single menacing tentacle fell out, its silvery eye staring blankly downwards, its pupil filled with malice.

“What… is that?”

“Shush,” said Bleep.  “It might hear you.”

“What might hear me?” said Babyface quizzically.  “Have you been drinking?”

“Have you?”

“You first.”

“We had a jar or two on the way,” interrupted Aristotle, “it ain’t half thirsty work, this networking.”

“And you are?”

“Aristotle, Intellectual Networks.  The one with the rope around his middle – that’s Einstein, my partner.”

“Afternoon,” waved Einstein.

“They call me Babyface,” said the baby faced one.  “I’m the code-head responsible for making all the communications software work.  I have to ask: what is that thing suspended in the air?”

“That thing,” said Aristotle emphatically, “is the network.  In Latin it’s the ‘Networkus Primus’.”

“That’s a network?”

“It’s not a network, it’s the network.  Networkus Primus.  Now stop gawping mate and get stuck in, give us a hand to pull it up there, while Bleepy Boy does his best to make sure we’re not all turned into a massive spread of strawberry street jam.”

It took an hour of pushing and pulling to get the network through the window in one piece.  By the time the gang had finished their work, there was a sizeable crowd of curious onlookers gathered below, all watching in wonder, trying to figure out what the crap was going on.  Thankfully, Petrollica’s Chief of Operations was on hand in a pastel purple suit to keep things calm and fend off the police with tales of epic endeavour against the odds, from his time in Nicaragua, while Hoover and his pals from Intellectual Networks got on with the installation.

“And how do you intend to fit this thing?” asked Babyface, now completely absorbed in the drama.

“It’s goin’ under the floor,” replied Hoover, pleased with his planning.  “We cleared it wiv Reg, he’s had all the paperwork, he’s sweet.”

Aristotle and Einstein nodded at each other.  “Under the floor it goes.  Let’s get them boards up and get cracking, networks don’t install themselves.”

“It’s for the best,” said Bleep, taking Babyface to one side.  “They CAN’T leave it exposed, it’s evil!  I’m scared of it and I know what it is.”

“What it is,” said Babyface screwing up his face in contemplation, “is a hybrid between every single networking topology known to man, and a few more that are still to be invented.  They haven’t used one idea, they’ve used every idea.  You know there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of this thing ever working.”

“I know I’m not touching it, whether it works or not.  I’m from the Valleys, remember.  When my forefathers dug up anything like that down the mines, they belted it with shovels and set fire to what was left.  I know the stories, my Gran warned me about things like that.”

“Relax,” said Babyface, “it’s inert.  It wouldn’t harm a fly.”

“Only because a fly has no nutritional value and dead-end DNA.”

“I’ll show you,” said Babyface, reaching out to pick up a tentacle and recoiling in horror as soon as he touched it.  “Urgh!  That’s not right.”

“I told you!” squealed Bleep.

“It feels sort of alive, as in the dead sort of alive that nothing has the right to be.”

“It’s an abomination, that’s what it is.  An affront to God’s creation.”

While Babyface and Bleep discussed the merits or otherwise of the network, Aristotle and Einstein set to, pulling and pushing at the beast, ramming it under the floor, placating it with rubber mallets and crowbars where necessary to ensure it didn’t resist.  Under instruction from Hoover, who grasped the master floor plan like it was a map to hidden pirate treasure, they pulled the connectors out in pairs at what looked like appropriate points, intending that each set be connected to a ‘puta.

“We’re all done nah,” said Hoover.  “I’ve got me some lads comin’ in Sunday to finish orf the ‘putas, so you can go ‘ome.  Or dahn the pub.  You’re bohf as white as sheets, you look like you need a large stiff one.”

“And you have every confidence that this thing will function as designed?” asked Babyface incredulously.

“Are you questioning the operational capabilities of Aristotlestein?” asked Aristotle.

“Hooverstein!” insisted Hoover.

“I still like Einsteinstein,” said Einstein, to a look of derision from his two colleagues, who both agreed it was the least sensible suggestion of the three.

“There’s a pair of ‘putas in the van,” said Hoover.  “While we argue the toss, why don’t you go get ‘em like a pair of good girl guides and I’ll proof to you it works.”

“And?” I asked, suppressing a snigger.

“By the time we got back, they’d reached a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ agreement.  Hooverstein it was.”

“I mean did it work?”

“Babyface and I were both extremely sceptical, until Hoover powered those ‘putas up, plugged them into his monster and everything burst into life.  Don’t ask me how, I really, truly don’t have a clue.  I’ve worked with hardware for most of my life and by all the laws of physics it had no right to be anything other than an inert lump of copper and plastic.”

“Once you bring a monster to life, it’s powered by the supernatural,” I quipped.  “Everyone knows that.”

“Stop taking the piss.”  Bleep looked around furtively.  “IT might hear you.”

“I do believe you’re serious.”

“Of course I am!  I’ve just told you something I’ve never told another living soul.  Babyface and I made a pact there and then, on that day in the pub, never to mention the network ever again.  And under no circumstances were either of us to lift any floorboards and take a look.  Ever.”

“What about Ronnie and Reg?”

“Ronnie wouldn’t go near something he couldn’t frighten and Reg was totally oblivious, he had no idea his new network was a malevolent grotesque.  Babyface and me, we figured our mission was to install the server software and some telex boxes, no questions asked.  So we went back on the Sunday afternoon, did what we were paid to do and left pronto, intending from that point onwards to hand over to the trainers and the support engineers and never set foot inside Petrollica again.”

“But you did.”

“Obviously we did, that’s how these things work.  Now, get the ciders in while I go for a slash, then I’ll tell you what happened next.”

The Petrollica Affair (iv)

27 Mar

That Fabulous Feeling

You can’t keep the lid on a great feeling forever, and according to my friend it wasn’t long before everyone involved began to talk the project up in-house, and that soon got them talking out of house too.  Then the trade rags caught a whiff of the story and sought an interview.  After a spot on the front page of Compu-Diddly-Doo, the business world decided it was time to take an interest, which prompted Reg to employ a PR company, who in turn procured valuable column space in the ‘Who’s Hot and Who’s Not’ section of the Financial Times.  Imagine that – Reg’s well-honed bushlit gracing the pages of the FT!  Once the excitement hit the broadsheets, even Babyface lightened up – and suddenly, bang!  Before anyone knew what was happening, the whole company and their friends and relatives were caught up in the drama.  It was the mid-Eighties, the housing boom was in full swing with no end in sight, the city was full of expensive cars, the champagne bottles came clinking one after another, seemingly without end; life was good and about to get even better.  The staff became convinced that Bwain were going to make millions and when Reg began talking flash company cars and shares options for all, that was it: everyone including the cleaner was thoroughly sucked into his dream.

“It was a fabulous feeling, a fantastic time to be alive, like being part of a hit West-end show.”  Bleep raised his empty glass and stared through half closed eyelids. “Gin,” he stammered. “Get me gin.”

I duly complied, returning with a matching pair of double gee and tees, knowing it would take a lot more alcohol than this to see the story through to its conclusion.

“Hoover,” smiled Reg, “I have need of your unique talents once again.  In my lock-up in the East End – the BIG one, not the small one – you’ll find two hundred brand-new PC cases in their boxes.”

“Yes, boss,” replied Hoover, looking craftily from side to side like a cheap sewer rat covered in expensive, reclaimed bling.  “These ‘puta cases, what should I do wiv ‘em?”

“I want you to purchase two hundred second-hand PCs, the cheapest you can find, and fit the innards into the new cases.”

“The ole one-two-switcharoo.  Posh.”

“I need them all working within the week.”

“I know a couple of blokes in the twilight removals business, right up their street.”

“Very good.  Can they be trusted?”

“Wiv me mum’s funeral arrangements, swear to god.  They’re solid geysers Reg, solid.”

“Excellent.  Now, there’s one more thing.”

“And wot would that be?”

“I need to commission a brand new network and as a payment for services past I’m giving you the privilege of building it.”

“Awright!  I’ve got me some uver mates bin wanting to build a proper network fer ages.  Av you perchance, got any of them books wiv pictures that might elp?”

“Drop by the office tomorrow.  I’ll lend you one of our engineers and get him to assemble the appropriate literature from our extensive design library.”

“Extensive design library?” I guffawed, choking on a fragment of ice cube.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Reg, winking, “I’ve always been rather liberal with the truth.  Now, the engineer I assigned to shadow Hoover was none other than your old pal Bleep.  Isn’t that right Bleep.”

“It sure is,” said Bleep, switching back to his own voice.  “While Babyface got cracking with the code, I worked on the hardware specs and the configuration files.  By the time Hoover arrived, I was well ready.”

“Bleepy Boy, wot I require is some books about networks,” demanded Hoover, “Wiv big pictures, just like the old washing machine repair manuals.  Did I tell you I cut me teeth on washing machines?”

“Several times,” retorted Bleep.

“If you can do washing machines, my feory is you can do anyfink,” said Hoover.  “The world is yer hoister.  I ad a word wiv my ole mucker Reg, and he’s agreed we can build the server ‘putas too.  Ain’t that sumfink?”

“That’s my job.”

“You can elp if you like, but you’re not to interfere,” said Hoover, slipping a pony in Bleep’s pocket.  “And you’re not to tell Reg any of our trade secrets.  Aris and Eino don’t like it when their secrets is spilled, they take it very bad.”

“Too right,” said a voice from the doorway, belonging to a beanpole of a man, clad in overalls a couple of sizes too small, zipper down to his waist, displaying a faded ‘Pub Quiz team of the year’ tee shirt beneath.  “Cept I don’t like being called Aris, it sounds cheap.  To you my good man, it’s Aristotle.”

“And I’m Einstein,” said a short swarthy chap with mad hair, clad in overalls a size to large.  He smiled and held out a thick, calloused hand in greeting.

“Bleep,” said Bleep, swapping voices and shaking his own hand.

“Nah we’re all ‘ere,” said Hoover, “it’s dahn to business.  We need pictures, specs and a dawg.”

“What kind of dog?” asked Bleep suspiciously.

“A white one wiv a handset, you dodo.  I can’t be calling me mates on a Cocker spaniel, now can I?  They’d think I woz some kind of ponce.”

Despite being a technology company, technology really wasn’t the Large brothers’ forte and Ronnie, finding computers quite unscarable took a back seat when it came to the nuts and bolts of business, trusting Reg, who was only a shade more technically literate than he, to get on with the job of securing the profits.  Hoover was ordered to scrimp and save wherever he could, with an index-linked bonus for bringing the hardware in as cheap as humanly possible.  It was, therefore, no great surprise to discover that the grey hardware with new cases wasn’t so much grey on the inside as a shade of red-hot crimson, purloined as it was from a network of spivs who plied their trade in the backrooms of a number of well known city pubs.  From every available source the dodgy hardware came: some lost off the backs of lorries, some from the fronts of trade stands; hot-standby spares that mysteriously went missing from trading room floors, unopened boxes purloined by RAM raiders in the dead of night – all this and more passed through the dealers’ shady hands.  For Reg’s order, which was bigger than most, the bulk of the equipment was rescued from the Crusher – the final resting place for decrepit ex-government machines, well past their sell by date.  Condemned to death due to the confidential contents of their hard drives, it really was a waste of perfectly good if underperforming tin.  Being government putas, the hard drives in question were remarkably small and it was well known in Spiv circles that they hardly ever held confidential data, which was why the man in charge of the big red lever looked the other way when the hardware was replaced at the last with a box of underperforming pink fluffy rabbits with broken hoppity springs.  Government being government, Spivnet knew no-one would notice the discrepancy in weight or pinkness just as long as the forms were completed without spelling mistakes, on time, in black ink.

My friend supposed that Reg wasn’t fully aware how crap the solution his corner cutting contractors were pulling together really was, but then Reg was a big picture salesman with no attention to detail.  There’s no doubt he intended to save money to make money, but whether he planned on shaving off all the corners on offer to create himself a round table remains open to debate.  By the time Hoover and his gang had finished building all the ‘putas, Bleep had a pocketful of ponies, one per objection, which made it impossible for him to objectively object to anything.  The 12 line-servers at the heart of the system had already been given triple bypass surgery courtesy of Babyface, and even though Bleep tried really hard, they were soon abused further.  For good measure, Hoover installed an extra loud fan to hide the fact that one of the ex-Whitehall disk drives had developed a high pitch pig-like squeal whenever it was stressed, which due to Babyface’s design was more often than not.

Bleep lit another smoke, handed me the pack and took a long, hard drag. “After we’d built the special servers, that’s when things went really queer and IT happened.”

“IT?”

“IT.”

The Petrollica Affair (iii)

25 Mar

The Golden Carrot

Taking a swig of beer, Bleep slammed the empty glass down and switched his voice, imitating Reg’s well perfected sales purr, a vocal trick I’d heard him perform many times before, but previously only so accurately with Sean Connery and Roger Moore:

“Look, Babyface, I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, you’re the best developer we have.  You breezed 4, 8 and 16, so 24 is easily within your grasp.  I know you have the skill and determination, so what’s the problem?”

“Speed,” replied Bleep, switching his posture and deftly answering his own question in Babyface’s pre-pubescent tones.

“Very good!” said I.  “You’re quite the wicked impersonator when you get going.”

“You wait til later, when you appear!” winked my pal, returning to his act.

“Speed,” reiterated Babyface.  “It’s all to do with speed.”

“You told Ronnie you’d given that up,” swerved Reg.

“I mean there isn’t a server fast enough to keep up,” snapped Babyface irately. “I’ve done all the calculations.”

“Let’s use 3 servers then.”

“That was a one off.”

“What about 5?” asked Reg, undeterred. “Or 10? Name your configuration and we’ll do it.”

“Reg, it’s not a hardware issue, this is all about the software – it simply isn’t up to it.  We’ve got patches on our patches as it is.  We need a complete rewrite to stand a chance, and that’ll take months.”

“A month you say? Get to it then.  As I’m such a brilliant boss, let’s call it a round 25 days.”

“You have to be kidding!  I’m not doing any more bodges or half arsed splatches.  Enough is enough, my foot is down.”

“Right, that’s it.  I’m cutting your pay by a grand for insolence.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Now it’s two grand, for insolence AND wasting my time.”

“I quit.”

“Make that three grand, for insolence, time wasting and cowardice.”

“You can’t do that.  I just quit.”

“A three grand pay cut, to be restored as a three grand raise when you deliver Petrollica.  And as a special bonus, I’ll give you the photographs plus negatives from the company trip to Amsterdam.  You must remember your entwining encounter with the masked python woman of Tripoli?  Ah.  I can see from your face that you forgot.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy the rediscovery.  Along with your fiancé.”

“Now you’re bluffing.”

“Clubbus Eroticus.  Babyface meets the porno rhino.  Oh, I see, you forgot about that too.  Make Petrollica work, or the photos go to the Sunday Sport.  The editor is a personal friend of mine.  I can see the headline now, ‘son of a…’”

“…You can’t fool me.  I don’t believe you’d do that, not for a second.”

“You better.  An empty threat is like a bald hedgehog – laughable and quite, quite pointless.”

Bleep opened his wallet and produced a folded page from the Sunday Sport, showing a topless bloke on all fours twisted into a rather revealing pose with an uninhibited snake goddess, replete with erotic back tattoos, a black rectangle obscuring his face.  Despite the attempted black-out, the curl of unruly hair poking out above the black gave the identity of its owner away in an instant.  For once, Reg was telling the truth.

Bleep shook his head. “Babyface’s family and fiancé were threatened with total embarrassment unless he did the business.”

“What did he do?”

“What could he do?”

The baby-faced one set to like the grizzled old pro he’d become, patching patches on patches, bodging bodges on bodges and frigging the frigs that had historically been applied to a load of other frigs.  By the time he’d finished, the product stunk like the outhouses at a French glue factory and what came out of development at the end of that stint was most unsavoury.  It might have worked well enough to the untrained eye, and splitting the input queues over 6 servers and the output queues over another 6 solved the throughput problem, but it wasn’t the twenty four seven solution the client was expecting.  Babyface didn’t care by this point, he was mentally wasted from all the late nights and early mornings; all he wanted was his photos and once they were in his shaky little mitts, he was planning to be off to the Far East in a cloud of dust, for a nice long Thai-stick induced relax in the sun.

“Did he get them?”

“Hell, no.  Reg had never seen Babyface so motivated and on it.  He wasn’t about to surrender his newly discovered golden carrot, not without properly wearing it out first.”

The Petrollica Affair (ii)

21 Mar

Twenty Four Seven

“Why is it,” I found myself asking as I waited patiently for four pints of beer to arrive, “that everyone involved with Petrollica has either run away to Ireland to learn basket weaving or quit the country never to return?”  It’s a question which has kept me awake at night for years, begging for an answer.  Despite many beers with many ex-Bwain engineers over the last forty eight months, no reasonable answer has yet been forthcoming.  I’ve heard many theories, including one that proposed Reg had perfected a porcine aircraft carrier, for which Petrollica were contracted to supply the fuel, but an outbreak of foot and mouth in the hanger bay soon put paid to that plan.  Another theory suggested that Reg had become involved in an international smuggling cartel, importing specially trained monkey pilots from Latin America to fly the pigs, but it all fell apart because he let the monkeys watch too many racy wildlife documentaries, which resulted in a gang of badly corrupt primates, quite prepared to mount anything with a pulse, especially the pigs.

Two beers, a round of cocktails and a pair of shooters later, Bleep was ready to talk.

“Did you know,” he said, taking a break from chain smoking ciggies, sparking up a stubby evil-smelling cigarillo, “it was Ronnie Large who founded Bwain?”

“Never!” I said, taking a matching stubby and sparking it up.  “I assumed it was sly old Reg, he was the mover and shaker.”

Over the next few drinks my friend filled me in on how Bwain came to be.  Whilst Reg was a foxy salesman par excellence, it turned out he wasn’t the man with the money.  He used to make ends meet working in the city, selling insurance schedules for thoroughbred pets to the wives of executives with too much money and too little sense, until one day he got wind of a brilliant sales opportunity from a mate who knew someone who knew someone.  Rather than spending the rest of his life shifting medical repayment plans for pampered high-end ponies, he smooth talked his brother Ronnie into trading him a directorship – some might say ‘dictatorship’ for a share in a deal which he claimed would set them both up for life.  Whilst many firms were jumping on the latest technology bandwagon known as facsimile, or fax for short, there were still three businesses that refused to accept a fax as legally binding evidence in court.  Banks, shipping companies and anyone involved with petrochemicals simply weren’t having fax, they demanded good old telex instead.

Between the pair of them, Ronnie & Reg bought up a one man and his dog outfit that specialised in computerised Telex systems, rebranding the product line as ‘Telex Exec’.  Reg fulfilled his part of the bargain by borrowing a copy of the contacts database from Medi-pet, paying special attention to shipping tycoons and finance moguls, whilst Ronnie called on his legal expertise to put the frighteners on their newly discovered client base.  The plan truly came together with the hiring of office space at a prestigious London address and the launch of the new range of Telex Exec solutions.

Very soon Bwain cornered the market with their secure computerised Telex system; they couldn’t get product out the door fast enough.  Within six months the business had expanded tenfold and Ronnie and Reg were well on their way to making their first mint.

“You remember the Bwain Support File?” asked Bleep.

“The master list of who’s got what, made purposefully unintelligible to the uninitiated.”

“It came about because Reg wouldn’t stop selling product for long enough for Development to catch up with Sales.  They developed a version of Telex Exec that worked with two telex devices, so Reg sold a client four.  They worked day and night on the four port version, and as soon as they finished Ronnie scared someone into needing eight.  It was the classic shifting goalposts manoeuvre, and after six months we were all frackin’ knackered from working ‘til stupid o’clock every night.  Then came Petrollica, a full-on petroleum dealer, who asked for twenty-four telex lines, all working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

“Twenty-four seven three six five?  I’ve had firsthand experience of that particular product, there’s no way I would ever trust it as a mission critical component.”

“Listen to you, with your smart new business speak!” laughed my friend.  “It sounds like you’ve recently eaten a management consultant.”

As expected, Reg took no notice of Development, who said 24 lines couldn’t be done, curtly dismissed Babyface’s reservations with a deft wave of his hand and went right ahead and sold Petrollica the most advanced version ever of a theoretical product, along with a bulk order of PCs, several file-servers and all the network cabling.  All in all, it was the single biggest order that Bwain had ever seen.  Suddenly, Banks all over the continent sat upright and started paying serious attention.  Reg could be seen out to dinner in restaurants where only the rich and famous dwell and for a while he became a minor celebrity in the banking fraternity, but no matter how much he talked himself and his products up, no matter how scary Ronnie’s horror stories became, no-one was prepared to place an order for a comparable system until Petrollica was fully commissioned with all the bugs ironed out.

The Petrollica Affair (i)

20 Mar

It’s been a while since I last posted anything in the way of creative writing, mainly because I’ve been very busy with the Ferret Files.

Back in the 80s & 90s I used to work in the City doing tech support and installs for a number of different companies.  One experience in particular sticks in my mind and that’s the installation at Petrollica, who were a petrochemical dealer based in Mayfair.  I’m going to publish Part I over the next few days – see what you think.

The Promise

“So, tell me Bleep, where did you acquire your nickname?”
Bleep ran his hand through thinning hair, shorter than when we’d last met, now with a hint of grey around the temples. “Really mate, you don’t remember much do you? I’m a recognised black-belt at swearing in every continental language. Back in the day they used to call me ‘Monsieur Bleep’ in France and ‘Herr Bleep’ in Germany.”
“Really?”
“Absolutely! It’s only Mister Bleep in England, mind. In Ireland they call me Sweary O’Bleep and over the borders it’s Bleepy McSporan. Babyface was the first one to recognise my unique talent. You remember Babyface?”
“Yeah, I remember Babyface,” I said reminiscing, “but only just.” Truth be told, all I could remember of the baby faced one was his pug nose, childlike grin, squeaky high voice and that one curly lock of annoying hair atop his head which was destined to be forever out of place, no matter what he attacked it with. Everything else was an out-of-focus blur. “I met him twice,” I continued, “the second time was his unofficial leaving do, which happened a week after I joined. After that, everyone was actively encouraged to forget him, which they quite happily did.”
“Babyface left because he didn’t want to manage you,” quipped Bleep, his dark brown eyes flickering playfully. “And who can blame him?”
“What about you? You left at exactly the same time. Rumour had it you both eloped in a sloppy gay lovefest.”
“Now there’s a story,” mused my friend, draping his scuffed and worn duffel coat across the back of a chair, plonking his bum down.
“You made a promise,” I half complained.
“I haven’t forgotten.”
I removed my own jacket and placed it on the back of a chair at right angles to Bleep. “I think I did a rather splendid job of tracking you down after so long. That’s got to count for something.”
“OK, I guess you deserve an explanation – I did sort of drop you in it.”
“You kid me not,” I said, straddling the seat. “Get your mate a fantastic new job and then vanish a couple of days after he starts with no notice or forwarding address. That’s hardly cricket.”
Bleep looked down guiltily. “I don’t suppose you’d like to hear tales of Brussels? I’ve only just got back from a lengthy assignment there. Some very, very good beer, brewed by some very, very strange monks.”
“Absolutely not.”
“I figured that might be the case.” Bleep removed a packet of trademark gold carton cigarettes and regaled himself with an ashtray. “Before I tell you in lurid detail exactly why I was forced to leave the Bwain Consortium, answer me this: have you ever heard of Petrollica?”
“Now there’s a name that could bring any meeting to a close in under a minute. I used to mouth it in those boring sales presentations that Reg held every quarter. Worked like a charm, sent him packing and running for cover every time, without fail.”
“Not surprising, mate. If only you knew.”
“I assume that’s what we’re here for. I have no idea why ‘Petrollica’ inspired such a reaction, just that it did. One of the support guys taught me the trick, but he was new and he didn’t know why it worked either. And neither did the guy who taught it to him.”
“Have you ever read the Installation Report?” asked my pal, cracking open a new pack of golds, discarding the wrapper randomly on the table. “Duty frees. Another of the joys of working in Brussels.” As Bleep carefully withdrew a cigarette, badly bitten fingers chewed to the quick, I caught the whiff of freshly minted tobacco, causing my own demons to briefly cackle awake and assume the position.
“I searched high and low,” I said, doing my best to ignore the lure of tobacco, “every filing cabinet including the special blue ‘confidential’ one which Reg kept securely locked.”
“Depends on who you know.” Bleep gave a smug grin and flipped a cigarette into the side of his mouth, in a well rehearsed motion. “Did you look in Reg’s secret safe?”
“The one with the broken lock hidden behind the picture of him with the Queen? Of course I did.”
“That’s his ordinary safe. I mean the safe hidden behind that safe.”
“Ah.”
Bleep leaned back on his chair, a rickety affair bandaged together with glue and nails, which had obviously been ritually abused in this manner before, probably by guys much larger than my friend and firestick in hand, sparked-up. “Reg intended that that particular report never see the light of day again.”
“In that case why didn’t he just burn it?”
“I guess he needed to keep it as a reminder of how things once were,” said Bleep nonchalantly.
“How is this related to your sudden departure, mystery boy? C’mon, spill.”
“You’ve waited two years already. Another few minutes won’t matter.”
“We’re in the nineties now, 1990 and a half to be precise – that makes it four years.”
“Four year, schmore years. Go on, get the beers in before the barman comes over to have a word. If you want to know about the Petrollica Affair and how it forced me out the company and later the country, you’ll have to get me proper drunk first – which will take approximately six pints of strong beer and a couple of B52s. Have you kept the afternoon clear as suggested?”
“One till four, review meeting with external supplier.”
“Congratulations,” grinned my pal, throwing a brochure down on the table. “Here’s your sales pack, I declare the meeting over. Let’s start the drinking the traditional way with a pair of pints each. I’m hearing good things about the Testicle Roaster, allegedly it’s as lethal as a barrel of pythons fitted with vibrating butt plugs. I’m afraid I’m fresh off the plane with a pocket full of Belgian Francs, so you’ll have to buy.”
“On one condition.”
“Such as?”
“Cigarette. Now.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but I knew you’d crack eventually.” My friend smiled, handing me the pack.

 

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