For Hayley Storm, formerly of the Systems Alliance Marine Corp, and principal security consultant of Storm Security Services, it had been a long and frustrating day. Exceedingly so. Originally, her foray into the world of corporate enterprise in the wake of her retirement from the Alliance military at the tender of age of twenty-eight had been meant to be something to keep herself occupied lest she go insane with boredom as a civilian.
That and the fact that she found she hated being somebody else's kept woman. Her significant other and former Marine Corporal William Carver had his bar and, old-fashioned gentleman that he was, had been perfectly happy to be the sole breadwinner. And, for about...oh eight weeks, Hayley had been content to do whatever it was civilians did. Then she got bored. Then she went out and founded her own company, using her technical skills to establish truly fearsome security protocols for various corporations for big money.
Hayley performed what she liked to term 'security audits' whereby she was invited to test a company's physical and electronic security and suggest ways by which both could be improved. In practice, she liked to steal away into the dead of night when Bill and their cat Purr-Jo were fast asleep and perform a sanctioned B & E on her clients' premises. The next day, she'd present them with a report detailing exactly how she'd been able to gain access to the supposedly secure areas of the company in question.
Her frustration was born of the fact that many, if not all, civilians she'd encountered in her new career were almost totally devoid of common sense when it came to even the most basic security protocols. Like using the number 1234 as a pass-code to enter what was supposed to be a 'secure' area.
The twenty-second day of March 2189 saw the now-thirty year old Hayley stumble into the apartment she shared with Bill and Purr-Jo, aghast by the depths of stupidity to which she'd been exposed to.
"Honey, I'm home!" she managed to say with forced cheerfulness as she entered the apartment, soles of her low-heeled shoes clicking on the polished hardwood floor.
Purr-Jo emerged at a run from deeper inside the apartment and skidded to a halt at her feet before twining herself between Hayley's ankles. "Hey, puss," Hayley greeted the tabby, crouching to scratch her between the ears. Still not content, Purr-Jo flopped onto the floor and rolled over onto her back, exposing her stomach for a rub. "You big sook," Hayley crooned, feeling herself begin to relax as she gently rubbed the cat.
"That you, Hayley?" Bill called out.
Hayley smirked, "Ah Bill, if it turned out to be somebody breaking into the place, do you really think they'd answer?"
Bill entered the living room via the kitchen. All six-four of him. Despite his retirement from the Marines, he hadn't lost his edge and still worked out every day. Hayley smiled, feeling herself warm at his appearance.
He wore an apron reading Kiss the Cook. Hayley stepped into the circle of his arms and obliged him, standing on her toes to reach. It was a long, deep kiss and by the end both participants gasped slightly. "Don't start something you can't finish, sweetheart," Hayley murmured as she stepped away.
"Rough day?" Bill asked. His rich deep voice still managed to raise a ripple of goosebumps over Hayley's arms even after all this time.
Kicking off her shoes and settling into the big leather easy chair with a sigh, she replied, "Just when I think I've plumbed the depths of human stupidity, people still find new ways to surprise me. And not in a good way."
Hayley sighed and rested the back of her head on the seat back, eyes closed. She reached behind herself and unpinned her hair, freeing the golden shoulder-length locks.
Soft movement from behind the chair heralded the arrival of Bill as he gently massaged her shoulders.
"Better?" he asked.
She nodded, eyes still closed, "All kinds of better," she said quietly. Bill came around the front of the seat and settled his frame in next to hers. "Want to tell me about it?
The offices of the company she'd been hired to audit, McGinty & Associates Financial Planners were on the twenty-fifth floor of an ultra-modern seventy-five storey office tower that looked like all of the other office towers that surrounded it. Earth, thy name is Homogeneous. The tower was all gleaming glass and high-tensile plasteel and, as Hayley parked in an empty space right in front of the main entrance, she could see the sky and clouds reflected in the face of the structure.
The whole thing was like a giant mirror for a titanic fashion model, she thought as she got out of the car and locked it. Inside the cavernous lobby, she headed for the bank of elevators, returning nods from people as they passed her by. I look just like them she reflected as she stepped into a waiting lift car along with a business suited man and woman deep in conversation about stock options.
Hayley had gone all 'corporate' much to her brother's dismay. The tall slender former first lieutenant now wore a tailored black suit jacket over a white blouse with a matching knee-length black skirt. She also wore glasses. The glasses had plain lenses and were merely an affectation, part of her Corporate Hayley persona - a smart, attractive, slightly geeky techspert and troubleshooter. Thanks to the genetic upgrades she'd received when she joined the Alliance military, her eyesight still tested out at twenty-twenty and she enjoyed superior night vision.
On her feet were black leather shoes with a modest heel. She'd tried going the high-heel route. Until she'd lost her balance trying to walk across her own living room floor and almost knocked herself out when her head smacked into the wall. It wasn't like she needed the extra height that badly either, she reflected.
"Which floor?' the man asked with a smile. His female colleague was now speaking rapidly into the kind of mobile phone that also managed to cram in a super-computer, high-speed 'net access and, for all Hayley knew, its own artificial intelligence. Hayley's father had told her of a time, in another age, when the telephone was simply a means of communication, not a status symbol.
"Twenty-fifth," Hayley replied, gaze straight ahead yet using her peripheral vision to watch the man as he watched her. Slowly the man's gaze travelled up and down and Hayley could almost hear his thought processes: No tits or ass but nice legs. As the elevator reached its destination, she turned to face him and asked sweetly, "Enjoying the view?"
She was out of the elevator and down the corridor before he could say a word. "Zing!" she congratulated herself as she arrived in front of the frosted-glass door of McGinty & Associates. Behind the door was a reception area featuring reproductions of classic paintings: Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch's The Scream as well as laminated A4 sheets stuck to the wall behind the front desk reading This isn't an office. It's Hell with fluorescent lighting and Stress is when you wake up screaming and realise you weren't asleep
Hayley had to smile at that one. Seated behind the front desk was a woman in her early twenties with shoulder-length black hair streaked with red and blue. A yin-yang symbol hung from a thin leather cord around her neck and a tiny diamond stud glittered in one nostril. The name-plate on the woman's desk read
Director Of First Impressions
Hayley's head tilted to one side. Director of First Impressions? Candy Apple saw the look and nodded. "Giving me a fancy-sounding job title is cheaper than giving me a pay rise," she shook her head, a grimace of disgust twisting her pleasant features. "Apparently calling me a Director is supposed to make me take pride in my work but you know what?" she asked, voice rising, no doubt so that she could be heard by her as yet unseen employer, "It doesn't!" Lowering her voice to levels more suitable to polite conversation she asked her visitor, "You're the chick from the security firm, yeah?"
Hayley nodded, eyes narrowing. Chick? Candy Apple pulled open a drawer of her desk and retrieved a strip of gum from packet of spearmint chewing gum which she unashamedly began chewing. "Want a piece?" she asked.
"Thank you but I'm trying to cut down," Hayley deadpanned. Then, because her curiosity had now reached intolerable levels she asked, "Forgive me, but...Candy Apple?" and gestured vaguely at the woman who nodded.
"I know. Like, what is up with that, right?" she exclaimed, wide-eyed before going on in her normal tone, "My parents are these new-age hippy types. Raised me up on this commune-type place in Wichita. Dad almost had a heart attack when I got a job in the corporate sector," Candy Apple said with a faint smile. "Anyhoo," she went on, consulting her computer, "You have a ten o'clock appointment with McGinty."
Hayley nodded and, noting the distinct lack of anybody else aside from herself and Candy Apple in the vicinity felt compelled to ask, "So where are the associates?"
Candy Apple shrugged, a lock of red and blue accented hair falling across her face. She tucked it back behind her left ear, "Technically me and the kid in the photocopy room are the associates." She shook her head, "See, having associates makes the company seem more professional than it actually is. And believe me, this place needs all the help it can get."
Hayley folded her arms over her chest, "If you hate the place so much, why do you stay?"
"Hate? Nah, I don't hate my job as such. I mean, I get paid to basically sit around all day and play Solitaire...be a sweetie and don't tell that to McGinty. He thinks I spend all my time typing up his dictation. Sucker."
"From your lips to God's ears," Hayley assured her and made a lip-buttoning gesture as well.
"Bless!" Candy Apple exclaimed as she rose from her seat. She gestured for Hayley to follow her and led her past several grey filing cabinets to another frosted-glass door with the words Charles McGinty and below that Knock Before Entering.
Candy Apple simply pushed the door open and ushered Hayley in ahead of her. A thin, squirrelly-looking man with thinning brown hair and watery brown eyes magnified by lenses of glasses that most certainly weren't for show looked up and frowned at the intrusion.
"Candy Apple, I've told you on several occasions to knock before you enter!" McGinty said with an oddly pitched nasally voice.
Candy Apple shrugged and chewed her gum before replying, "Yeah, you say a lot of stuff I completely ignore." Before her boss could answer, she cocked her head at the woman beside her and said cheerfully, "Hayley Storm of Storm Security Services come to plug all the holes in our network security before our competitors get ahold of our vital corporate secrets and bury us!"
McGinty frowned again, and several deep lines appeared in his forehead, "Thank you, Candy Apple. That will be all." Candy Apple shrugged and sauntered out.
"I apologise on behalf of the company for that girl's shocking behaviour," McGinty said as he offered his hand to Hayley who shook it with a thinly veiled grimace. Shaking hands with Charles McGinty was akin to holding a dead fish. Only a dead fish would have had a stronger grip. "Good help is so hard to find these days!"
Hayley forced a smile on her lips and nodded. "I understand you've had some problems with sensitive data ending up on the extranet?" she began, taking a seat in the chair McGinty indicated. The seat cushion emitted a tired-sounding groan as it settled beneath her weight.
"Quite right! I have no idea how people are able to access our data! I must say, I find the entire thing deeply mysterious and distressing."
"I'm sure it is," Hayley said dryly. "I think I'll begin by taking a look at the security protocols on your personal desktop and move on from there. Do you mind if I..?" Hayley stood and came around the other side of McGinty's desk. The desk was sparsely decorated with a vase of wilting flowers and a family photograph showing McGinty, an equally unassuming woman who was likely his wife and two school-aged children who had, unfortunately for them, had inherited their father's poor eyesight. Both the boy and girl wore the kinds of spectacles that no doubt resulted in their being stuffed into the lockers at school by bored teenage thugs.
"By all means!" McGinty said, "Can I get you a tea or coffee? I suppose I'll have to get it myself, that girl out front will absolutely not lift one more finger than is absolutely required!"
"That'll be fine," Hayley assured McGinty and settled herself in his chair. The monitor before her displayed a login prompt and she quickly typed something into the password field, testing a theory. The drives whirred as the system accepted the password, granting her access to the system.
Hayley pushed back from the keyboard and removed her glasses, feeling very weary all of a sudden. She massaged the bridge of her nose for a time, attempting to come up with a way of conveying the problem that wouldn't involve an undue number of expletives and her questioning her client's parentage. Eventually she replaced the glasses and looked up at her client who was hovering about with an expectant look on his face.
"Here's the thing..." Hayley began.
In the apartment where Bill and Hayley sat snuggled together in the big easy chair, Bill blurted out, "No!"
Hayley nodded, luxuriating in the feel of Bill's fingers as they gently ran through her hair. "Yes," she confirmed, "His password really was password."
Bill shook his head, "Unbelievable..."
"People in the help-desk industry have a term for that kind of thing: PEBKAC."
"PEBKAC?" Bill echoed, sounding confused. Hayley's head nodded up and down under his fingers.
"Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair," Hayley explained with a smile.
After a moment, Bill figured it out, laughing and Hayley joined him.
Final Words: PEBKAC is an actual term used to describe problems with computers caused by user error and general stupidity. Like in the old days when people would type Format C:\ and then wonder where their files went.
I wanted to close out this series with a little piece about Hayley's life post Normandy and this is any idea I've had for a little while now. Purr-Jo is a deliberate mangling of the car brand Peugeot, for those of you who were wondering.
A big thanks goes out to everybody who's read and reviewed this, particularly Kendoka Girl and Vshard who always find something positive to say. Thanks a lot, girls. Now my head's gotten so big, it won't fit through doorways. :)