Required Fields

In Short Story by Mark Wagstaff

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Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash

First, you don’t know the politics. Boundaries are hazy. Clusters of desks, all kinds of work getting done. Nobody knows how much use or annoyance you’ll be. I had no plan, no schedule. I had fields to interrogate, with dry-throated alarm at how the Next Page links jumped up in tens. The data, my domain.

Paul Durrant, my manager, customized his zone with scribbled pictures I guess his kids provided and mementoes that maybe meant something. A craggy, reddish indent from the Lava Lakes: an ashtray possibly, though used for stationery. A make-believe football score chart, a week or two out of date. He leaned back when he spoke; I noted a scuff on the wall where he leaned back. We’d agree targets, he told me, set parameters. He checked his phone while he talked – every so often he’d flick it up, talking at me, eyes reading.

My immediate task to interrogate data. There’d been changes, he said, targets slipped. We needed to restore. He said we, to mean I would do it. The data ran more to bulk than complexity – several hundred thousand detailed records. It’s like having kids, he told me: best move is dive right in.

My desk formed part of a typical cluster of four. The desks to my immediate right and diagonal right had PCs and plastic racks for papers. No one sat at those desks. The only occupied desk in my cluster the one immediately opposite, where an older woman spent days calling friends. My desk gleamed, the pedestal drawers barely dusty. Even the screen seemed unused – looked at lengthways across the plane, it had none of the dried spit or grease that accumulates with pointing and talking. A new workstation, assembled for me.

Previous data jobs I found bullyingly social IT guys are like that – IT women also, in compensation of how we’re wired. Civilians think of loners in basements, gaming with guys they never met, trolling movie babes; atypically, making trillions. But when screenheads gather, they flip. In any organization, the IT crew is louder, fuzzier, coarser edged. Truthfully, that isn’t me. Surrounded by people working in color, I was tasked to tidy and hoped that was all. But there were meetings – demanding me from before I first accessed my inbox. I’m not great with meetings. I’m data.

Paul Durrant seemed a needlessly friendly man. Other men in that section – a Tom, a Simon, focused hard, though in late afternoon broke out social, though actually diffident, conversations of baby news. The other women seemed okay. I’m not open, I’m not comfortable with that. A Leora, a Becky, Nicola – all smiled, said Hi. They probably noticed – people notice – but there were no obvious looks. I hoped to stay out of the way.

I won’t go too much into the characteristics of the data. It structured as meta and layers beneath – each record exploding out to raw detail. I’m a code nut, I like its base, anonymous language that means what it constructs. Data is just that bit of give on the surface. My task, so far as I could ascertain, to rescue data from the limbo of imprecision it drifted into, I was told, because of staff changes. I had a predecessor. Paul Durrant referred to ‘your predecessor’, yet the briefest search of file properties produced the name Amanda Bligh. Not a complex name you’d avoid recalling.

I’m not physical and in meetings with Paul Durrant perceived his eyes as overly intrusive on how my trouser cuffs hung and whether my shirt had sufficient opacity in all light. Other women wore thin woolens and showed their legs. Paul’s PA Miriam and the woman opposite me – Louise – tended to autumn tweeds. I felt clumsily bewildered at never exchanging a word with Louise, even when our eyes slid across each other’s vision. Her half-whispered phone calls created a background signal that grew invasive. I continued to hear her voice when she stopped talking.

Amanda Bligh generated an impressive quantum of records. Truthfully, I felt inhibited from asking about her, so my impressions are based on her approach to data. She’d begun respectably – for a non-specialist – completing fields, adding descriptive matter, though with evidence of indiscriminate copy and paste. Reading her tables I surmised she’d been shown a preset and repeated that format, even where data chafed against her decisions. Possibly, she misunderstood her objectives.

Cutting corners is a reflex with fast evolution, Amanda Bligh’s negligence of shift-lock a classic marker of this. Record titles began to appear with no caps, or all caps, or caps randomly deployed. I corrected a few, a drop in the ocean, but each correction adds value. I became absorbed, to the point where I continued to hear Louise’s voice after she left her desk.

It should go without saying I’m careful. I preferred not to visit the kitchen, to avoid the sociability office kitchens enforce. I’d fill my water bottle a couple of times a day, trying to choose quiet moments, though kitchen traffic was barely sixty percent predictable. Focused on how water moved from the dispenser into the plastic, I could usually ignore people. I am mostly sure Nicola didn’t knock someone’s lunchbox out of the fridge on purpose, and when – on reflex – I turned to the noise, I’m sure her stance was no more than habitual. Unfortunate, though, our eyes met.

She smiled but said nothing self-deprecating as I might have done. She knelt to gather the box, back straight, clenched knees the feminine way; swiped it clear of the floor: a smooth, again, feminine gesture. Put the box back on the shelf without turning it right-side over, to prolong my attention so she could ask, “How’s it going for you?”

A steeled, percussive workplace, its language regularized, I can’t truly have thought I wouldn’t be noticed. I was someone’s replacement.

It felt best to sound skilled but not showy. “Getting to grips.” My voice cracks when it has to speak without warning. “The data’s very thorough.”

Nicola perhaps wasn’t cruel but had refined awareness of her body, expressed through theatrics. How she scooped up the box, or stood, holding the refrigerator door. “I thought,” she popped the door shut, “it was the opposite.”

Due diligence matters. In my room, wired for privacy, I tried fleshing out Amanda Bligh, aware of my confirmation bias for data that suited the woman I imagined: blonde and jangly, rushed and over-invited. Social sites returned dozens of possibles – I hadn’t the will to create accounts to gain access. I trawled professional networks, smart-searching résumés. Those Amanda Blighs claimed upscale skills; plausible, to forget a spell of gross data entry, if you’re ambitious or desperate. No one ambitious entered the data I saw.

Typos slid to incomprehension, spelling mistakes and nonsenses swallowed into the database wholesale. In places, Amanda’s carelessness looked almost willful. Title fields retained text that said ‘New record. Start typing here’, or components of that message. Fatally, the dropdown of record descriptors allowed a value of ‘Other’, which I visualized as a vast, underlit hangar, stacked with bolt-through shelving, piled with sealed, unmarked boxes.

At month end, Paul Durrant emailed the section a spreadsheet listing how many emails he’d sent each person that month, how many not answered, or answered imperfectly, to require follow-up. As an exercise in rigor, it seemed effective: the section clustered neatly on a tight median. The quality of my figures an embarrassing outlier, though my hundred percent derived off a small message base. Nicola had good scores, the quality of her responses either precise or very practiced. We got markedly better, Paul Durrant wrote, since recent staff changes. He didn’t name me, but fine hairs rose on my neck.

Some nights, I’d leave the train one stop early, walk to my room through the park. There’s a lake and – in darkness – I achieve a more inward concentration, looking at water. Almost every variable of water and screens diverge. The lake glittered from lamps on the pathways and light haze from tall buildings behind the shore. An iridescent busyness, absent from its steady, framing land. The clatter of skateboards behind me hard and impersonal as an automated process. Nobody knew what I knew.

I hit a run of records with the same title rolled over and over. I visualized Amanda going to lunch, getting something carb-heavy with salad, coming back and entering duplicates because she’d set no flag for where she left off. My finger on Next, something flashed over my vision. I tabbed back. A record titled: ‘See Notes’. I tabbed to Notes. ‘People here are weird.’

A momentary slight, a hangover, a badly phrased request: anything might have sparked that annoyance. To a lively, sloppy girl, digital graffiti would feel neat. I could read it that way. But I’m cautious.

Her habit – if she filled Notes at all – to duplicate the descriptor, so where a record might be: Descriptor: Report, in Notes instead of expanding that, she’d type Report, or nothing. I scanned, anxious for difference. Ten thousand records in, a drain hole opened: ‘They watch me’. The image of someone lost in woods, scratching marks as way-guides. In my room I tried fixing on her again, built all the smart searches. Saw women who might be her but couldn’t shake the conviction none were.

I develop routines to minimize complication. I used the toilet when I arrived each day, too obvious otherwise where I was going. I sequenced indicative sounds: clothes, flush, door unlock, footsteps, soap dispenser and water – sometimes; hot air dryer (when I made noise, if needed), then a momentary lull to check eyes and hair before the soft thud of the outer door. I aimed never to be seen.

I tracked the sequence: the final pause stretched on. Either the woman had some complex chore – adjusting lenses, for example – or she’d decided to wait me out. On the cusp of late, my heart ticked-up, pressure-kicks in my eyes. Still, she didn’t leave, shaming me as taking too long in the cubicle. On the gross, random notion that people might think some medical emergency deserved the door breaking-in, I tried finding a neutral look, flushed, and unlocked.

Nicola dabbed the tips of her eyes with pinkie-nails, leaning across the washbasins into the mirror. Diffused halogens above the glass brought a faint green tint to her pale hair. She spoke into the mirror. “You okay now?”

Not wanting to explain I hadn’t a problem, I nodded, carefully washing my hands.

“How you like it here?”

I don’t have much capacity to challenge her sort of person. “It’s good. Lots to do. I like that.” I rubbed my hands through the dryer – enough to seem hygienic, not obsessive. I watched my skin bubble and fold.

When I turned back, she was acting some yoga stretch, arms behind her head, chest forward. Unselfconscious, she swung side to side. “Know what they call you?”

“Call me?” Pressure pinched my brain.

“Velma Dinkley.” She giggled, releasing her arms, loose like a gymnast.

A good answer, maybe, Velma Dinkley was smart and scientific. I didn’t have that answer. “Who does?”

“The girls.” She checked her watch – thin platinum, plain dial. “You’re late.”

I sat, glazed with data, as quiet conversations went on, as people had meetings, clutching devices or packs of papers. Activities, decisions, incremental builds of outputs that settled, at last, among data. In a pure, binary world the organization could be verified – reconstructed – from data. But, from Amanda Bligh’s tenure, you’d as well sort ash in the furnace.

I can’t stress how careful I am. I don’t want problems. If I glanced up involuntarily when Nicola walked through, I knew with high probability she’d look at me. I couldn’t be seen to stare. She raised her eyebrows – quite dark, for a blonde. My clothes felt slick and awkward.

An eleven o’clock with Paul Durrant to review progress – a value he regarded as quantitative. I hadn’t detailed the extent of degradation, increasingly wary at what the weight of slipshod records implied. It became painful, scrolling scores of careless entries; I couldn’t describe that pain. I needed something to recommend. Trying to focus on that, and not my discomfort, a dissonance took my finger off the scrollbar. I tabbed back. ‘Durrant spies ks.’ If true, if keystrokes were recorded, outpacing the spybot entailed a proper hack. Those things suck deep under system files, hard to isolate, capturing any attempt to find them. So why type what would get caught? Why type ten thousand fields of trash?

He booked one of the windowless pods on the spine of the building, five or eight degrees colder than the cluster, so sweat crystallized on my lip. He always had some quirk to his clothing: his shirt riffled out, tie skewed, a loose lace. Just something to notice. He smiled when he talked, which shaped his voice to a cadence not matching its content. He asked how I was going along.

“Cataloguing.” A word deployed on reflex. “Inconsistencies.”

“Many?”

The interruption too early to prepare for. I watched my hands form parentheses. “There’s unevenness. A number of records. Some fields, perhaps, not helpfully coded.”

“She disappointed us.” A smile still pricked his lips. “We can only go by references we’re given. There are limits. Your references checked fine.”

“I don’t think it’s irreparable.”

“She never really grasped what we’re about.” He wrote or drew something on his pad. “Didn’t want to grasp it.”

“She walked out?” Heat flashed my spine.

“A clean break. Best for everyone. So. Rachel.” He folded himself across what he’d drawn or written. “What you found?”

Systemic – the answer so often. “The database is too easily pleased. It accepts any text for an answer. It allows contradictory choices.”

“It’s the database?”

I scrabbled back. “Its code. The build. Its rules need more bite.”

“Rules.” He puckered, as though considering immense things. “These changes are beyond you?”

I blinked.

“A system user. Beyond your permissions. They need making…”

“Upstream.”

“Write a proposal. It’s infrastructure.”

It wasn’t. It was code.

“Meantime, continue cleansing. I want resolution next week.”

As we walked to the cluster, he switched to that casual talking I find awkward. I’m not good with verbal filler. One reason I cut my own hair. He threw tidbits about his kids – fishing, I guess, if I had any. I suppose he thought I might. He and his wife – who hadn’t a name – scooped a couple of little girls from shelters up north. A deal where everyone wins. At my desk, I thought he’d peel off toward his area, but he moved behind me – something I hate – forcing me to twist round.

“Show me the issues.”

I’d locked my screen, that was the rule, and stupidly couldn’t remember if I left the database open at her message. I unfroze the screen, awkwardly hunched to mask it. “Here,” I said, a little loud. “Dates all zeroes. Title repeats the descriptor. No file ref. Just system.” I stopped, alert to how I sounded.

He leaned by me – horrid, invasive. I kicked to the side and he filled the gap, tabbing the slow, inexpert way of someone not tuned to scan a page by exception.

“See?” I hardened my voice, to make him stop. “I’ll write a proposal.”

He paused to ponder a record identical to those either side. “She seemed to get on very fast.” Decisive, he snapped straight. “You should have said something sooner.”

“I didn’t want to trouble you.”

“Trouble me?”

I hate it, the dumb interrupt. “Trouble you with a couple three glitches. Now I’ve scoped how bad it is I’ll write a study.”

“A study?”

“A proposal. For systems to spec a solution.” My voice a distraction, thrown above the crowd.

The draining-out of noise registered on him. His lips cracked into his face. “By Friday.”

Down on the taskbar, a fussy icon of an envelope unwrapped. New mail. I clicked, tense for whatever. From Nicola Stibbe. No subject. One word. ‘Ouch.’

I had no time between leaving work and morning. Once I got to my room, made something to eat – I didn’t eat lunch, the logistics beyond me – followed online threads, waited for sleep, woke and went in, left barely two hours. I like to walk at nights. I worked night shift before, so I could walk the early, empty streets. I see a strong distinction between routine and pattern.

Every search found Amanda Bligh – the right one, till I dug under, till some evidence-scrap made me doubt it. Threads gone cold, unanswered posts – I chased every algorithmic wildcard deep into websites trafficked by invitation only. Unlike Nicola Stibbe, smiling in thumbnail on everything social.

On the train I listened to wheels in the tunnel, watched pipes and wires flash along. For each alcove or recess, in went the wires, swerving out and around to hug by the train again. Train wheels communicate speed a fine-grained way, pitch-responsive on relatively slight variations. With the right software, I could chart resonance to velocity, allowing for mass – though assuming most weight embeds in the train and only a very full passenger-load stacks appreciable push on the wheelbase. These are things I would like to do, but in my industry any time out is time off the pace, and I rent a room. Sometimes at night I stick pins in the palms of my hands.

I built a query where Note field was greater than fourteen characters – a random pick, to filter out thousands of records where Note field was blank, and the hundreds more that repeated the Title field. Records remaining had higher probability to be those I wanted. My work necessarily zoned me off from the cluster. Miriam waited beside me long enough to develop sufficient impatience to say my name.

“Paul needs to know what time tomorrow for his report. He’s meeting Janice.” Janice, his boss: some different level of consciousness to the cluster. Next day was Thursday. I’d been told the report was Friday. I like to interpret contortions in my stomach as process. Miriam thanked me for my understanding.

I had too much noise in me. If he told Janice the system choked on garbage, he was taking no blame. Amanda of course: ineffective, incompetent – but where was her supervision? By half-past seven I filled four pages – too much for busy people. I could quantify the problem – she entered thousands of records, the quality wouldn’t have improved once she knew she was leaving. I presumed Amanda decided to leave: young women, firm on their feet, sure of where they’ll land. I specced required fixes – nothing costly, plain vanilla. When I wash my hair and it drips on my face, I wonder – since that second summer – why I never went back to college.

Eight o’clock when I logged out and toggled my duffel, the office sparse and chilly. Past time when meaningful work got done. In far clusters, a few heads still haloed with screen-glow. On whatever floor the IT boys pitched camp, night maintenance would be starting – any process runs remotely, but nothing satisfies like watching servers pulse and shiver. If Durrant wanted to go with the upgrades, I could meet IT, let slip some knowledge, test maybe for openings. Preoccupied with some possible job, I didn’t acknowledge the seaweed-toned raincoat, the pale hair flicked and settled across its collar. I always exhaled when the lift doors closed, watching stratal concrete glide upwards. The receptionists in their tight shirts were gone. The night security men looked hungrily bored.

The train station a nervy twelve-minute walk – caught in the crowd, thinking nothing but get there, ignoring intricate systems of buildings and streets. The collar of my duffel reaches up; my hair sits inside. I prefer to think I move through crowds unnoticed.

“Hey Rache. I said Rache.” The glossy green coat made her tall. Slenderly belted, zipped chevron pockets – the coat looked complex and useful.

I glanced at her; instinctively looked away.

“You’re late. We don’t get overtime.” Nicola walked fast, dodging bodies, that zing to her voice.

“Busy. Report for Paul.”

“The data? Durrant won’t like it.”

“He commissioned it.” I use that word, it doesn’t taste so much of being told what to do. I could feel her steer me across the crowd – a decisive, confident walk I became involved with. Her long hair and skirt made her younger than me, her face shadowed, bitten by weather. I got jostled against her arm – recoiled, sick-feeling.

“In a rush?”

“The crowd.” My breath gave out.

At a corner she broke to the side, to a street falling off into night.

“There’s a bar. Ten minutes, that’s all.” She swung at the narrow, empty street. “No one from work goes there.”

I have to be careful. People peel you for trophies. “I have to go. Busy.”

She canted around, shoulders up. The wind played with her hair. “It’s quiet. Friendly.”

“I’m really. Paul’s report.”

“Rachel.”

How could I go to a bar? I don’t understand how people go to bars. They must not sleep. In bed, nausea stretched me – I couldn’t find how to comfort myself. I didn’t pin or cut – I don’t reach for that cheaply. I have rules to make days breathable, but that sickness then had no process cause.

Next day – Thursday – swampy and lagged, I froze – unresponsive to instructions. Some rootkit loaded into me: stealing space, sapping power; reporting on me behind the command line. I kept Amanda’s name in my pocket, in scrunched paper. I like her name. You can say it on a breath, without speaking.

The men: Simon, Tom, stopped talking as I went by. A chill buffered my station – a sink of cold. I watched my hands log on. Tiny, flushed-out blisters made my palms hot and eroded. The screen flashed: Good Morning Amanda.

Where did she find energy to do so much so badly? The air must have pressed implacably on her. How did she stand it? I typed her first name in capitals – its compact near-symmetry took my breath out. I tabbed for that flicker, that twitch in the Notes field. ‘He can see you.’

Ten-thirty, Paul Durrant called me to his zone. I sent my report to print, needing the comfort of paper for his obtuse, unswervable questions. Tried to move a natural, ordinary way to the printer. I’d never known what relation Leora, Becky, all of them, held to this data. Their job titles overspilled – Enduring Framework, Modal Schematics – obscuring legible action. They talked in quiet groups. Popular Nicola Stibbe was Protocol Intervention. She was printing a fat, orderly spreadsheet. I stood off, not to distort her space.

Two, three seconds she didn’t reveal she’d seen me but received pages from the printer, eyes slanting across their columns. In office light she was my age, faint green threaded through her hair. Creeping dampness along my spine, tightness pulling my lungs shut, I maybe bled some hidden scent she detected.

“All yours, Velma.”

I maybe looked as if it mattered, because, on a thrown breath, she whispered, “Rachel.” As she turned to go, the fullness of her, our sly connection, flayed me. In the office, in the open. I gripped the printer, each ridge of its molded casing a vast, humid sensation.

Paul Durrant played approachable, as he had that first day. Crayon images round his screen: rainbows and dogs – or horses – their legs all to one side. He scattered orange sticky notes – personal reminders – a man at ease with work and home. I wondered what his wife was.

As he flicked his messages, I tried to explain, pitifully offering paper to his half-turned back. He asked for the gist, not giving attention. I told him perhaps Amanda hadn’t got hold of her role. That got him: “I think I said that.” Pleasant-sounding. “She didn’t ask for help.”

“There’s no damage done.” It came out awkward, girlish. “The syntax needs fixes. It’s recovery.”

“There’s damage. Opportunity cost.”

True, and costs in the remedies I suggested, and the efficiency cost of poorly described artifacts, untraceable behind blank fields. “Of course, there are implications.” I sounded evasive.

“She,” he tapped his desk – a loose, steady rhythm, “seemed a solid hire. We create the opening. You fill it.”

The paper he still ignored wilted from my hand. “These measures should be effective. And quick. Relatively quick.” I pressed thoughts to service. “Data re-entry could be effected through existing resource. If everyone took, say, five hundred.”

Leaning forward, he kicked his hand down on the desk. “Why didn’t you say it’s this bad?”

There were people around us. “I can’t make a recommendation without scoping the problem. I thought you knew.”

His fingers flexed across gray laminate, reaching to his Lava Lake souvenir which had started to lose its label, the cheaply applied plastic strip peeling from its rutted surface. A spliced bubble of lava, its rusty stain some chemical oxidation, some element boiled in air. A shallow dome, shaved out to be useful, mazed and cracked as a skull.

He would see Janice, he told me: this had to be rectified quickly. I had to consider – quickly – what was beyond me.

The last entry kicked like a sleep-twitch. The counter run out – the last entry, zeroes and ones strung through its fields: something to build, a key. I scribbled it on a thin sticky. Zeroes and ones, all but the Notes field. The Notes field, a single word: ‘Go’.

I folded my duffel, walked to the toilets, a slight drop in background noise tracking me. I got ready in the cubicle – a tight, grubby box with nail scratches in the paint. Wadded paper in my fist to touch the lid, the flush, the door. Heard women talking on phones, kicking doors shut, letting out bright streams on enamel. I tensed for the lull – hurried out, catching myself move through the mirror. I’ve been so much better than what I’ve become.

Back stairs fed to the service bay – I knew from Induction, the session on fire awareness. Don’t use lifts: take the stairs out through the bay. Men in plaid shirts mashed waste in big hoppers. Waste fed the furnace, the building kept at twenty-three degrees Celsius.

Picking between parked forklifts, I reached the loading dock barrier, its fringed arm closing the ramp. A narrow walkway by the security booth, blocked with a sprung-lock gate. In the booth, a man in a yellow reflective jacket and football beanie looked up from his scrum of monitors. “This isn’t an authorized exit.”

I’m not coded for charm nor pally conspiracy. “Sorry. I’m new. Thought take the stairs. Exercise.”

He kissed his teeth. “You’re not allowed here. It’s a hazard.”

I nodded fiercely. “I won’t. Not again.”

He poked a small ledger through the flap, messy with signatures of pest exterminators and delivery drivers. “You sign out the gate. Every time that gate opens got to be signed.” I dated and timed myself leaving. I signed. With a teeth-drill buzz, the electric latch on the gate heaved clear. I looked weak, female, hauling it open. “I’ll have to report this, Amanda.”

I can work all night on a tight thing. I program well and nimbly. I get something from beating the deadline. I had to be quick. I took a loan – my payslip, my prospects just good enough. Changed my phone straightaway, found a new room to rent. Paid a man from a want ad to move my things in his rattling van. He liked singing to soft soul music. His dog sniffed my shoes, its eyes lost in shags of damp hair.

Getting work is a scrum, but there’s pick-up jobs – coding, data blasting, fill-in shift on helpdesk. Patrolling sweet office blocks in jeans, carrying plugs and cables. Takes sixty, seventy hours a week to match what a staff job pays. No time between midnight maintenance and four a.m. diagnostic to work that fragment of code that will quiet my head with dazzling peace.

The price is broken sleep. Stress rash on my chest. Spots on my face. A few scars I don’t show. The price of not being traced, not known, not questioned. I’m scared I’ll get recognized – then what? I’m saving to move now, really away.

So, I sound like I’ve been on my own too long. I sound cranky. So check the data. What we entered, what we built – how was it my fault? That search I did, that search just then, through my encrypted proxy. Just wanted to see how she’s getting along, I’d never contact her, no. I cut and recut, but always the same – no refresh, no update. So, tell me how popular Nicola Stibbe, her smile kinetic, her eyes disruptive – how such a digital presence went cold, after I’d gone?

About the Author

Mark Wagstaff

Mark Wagstaff’s work has appeared in The Write Launch, Garden, The Meadow and The Piltdown Review. He won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with off-kilter romcom Attack of the Lonely Hearts published by Anvil Press. Mark’s new novel On the Level was published in 2022 through Leaf by Leaf, an imprint of Cinnamon Press.