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Kiss Me Again

by L M Williams

Copyright 2017 L M Williams

Smashwords Edition

“Okay, so don’t forget that Dr Allbright’s loaning us 15 volunteers for the project test next week, so that makes 3 per group...”

This had to be the most interesting assignment yet. Having got the basic first year stuff out of the way, the second year syllabus was finally giving Sam something to get her teeth into. This was a group project, building a system for placing food and drinks orders via a smartphone app. It was also a chance to get to play with the tech that the Comp Sci department had at their disposal, namely the programmable NFC tags and bluetooth stuff that she’d been looking forward to tinkering with since she’d seen a demonstration at the open day two years ago.

It struck Sam as a strange way to go about food and drink orders, getting the serving staff to tap something onto your phone to get the details of your order, but Professor Tillman had explained, rather unsatisfactorily, but in her characteristically forthright way that brooked no arguments, that it was ‘all about the gig economy these days’. If it had been up to Sam, she would have sent everything directly to a central computer and had the next available server pick up the order directly from there, but the brief was the brief. She was reasonably sure that she was one of the only students who had noticed the inefficiencies in the brief, and if she’d had the confidence of Abbie or Sunita, or any of the boys in her class, she might have said something. Professor Tillman’s robust approach to running the Friday afternoon workshops was also a factor, so Sam had kept quiet, instead focusing on the opportunity to play with the new tech, with which she was having a lot of fun.

“But remember to allow space for at least 15 volunteers on your system, because if one group’s project breaks down, and I’m not saying anyone’s will, but if it does, then the other groups will have to pick up the slack and maybe potentially handle all of Dr Allbright’s people…”

Sam couldn’t imagine that anyone’s code would not be easily scalable, but she’d been programming for quite a bit longer than some of the other people on her course. She hadn’t done anything too groundbreaking from her bedroom since the age of 12, but she had at least made most of the usual mistakes. Mistakes that she’d seen the other students still making, well into their first year. The groups had also only been working on the project for about 3 weeks, which wasn’t long for a project of this size, and this was going to be the first proper test of everyone’s work, so anything could happen. A postgrad student who’d been helping with the project had given them all some code to handle the NFC tags, but the rest of the system was up to each individual group. Sam was more or less completely confident in Jason, Abbie and Mike, and the different strands of the project, namely the app, the database and the backend, were finally coming together into a more or less coherent whole. They’d got some approving nods from Professor Tillman this afternoon as she had wheeled around the room, so that was encouraging at least.

“And make sure your system sticks to the design brief, you’ve all seen the video from last year’s group, so don’t make the same mistakes they did…”

The video was a curious thing, showing first how the system was supposed to work in a cheesy animation. The user selects some food and drink from the app, presents the smartphone to a volunteer, who touches it with an NFC tag to pick up the order. The volunteer then goes to a terminal, touches again, prepares the order, brings it back to the user, and touches the smartphone again to complete the transaction.

The second part of the video was effectively a comprehensive catalogue of all the different ways to ‘bollocks everything up’, to use Professor Tillman’s words. The brief looked simple enough, but the video of last year’s group proved that it was not such a simple task after all. The trick was to get the smartphone talking to the terminals, as writing stuff to the NFC tags themselves caused two groups’ whole systems to crash, taking a third group’s down with it. Another issue, which Sam was confident that her group had avoided, was people placing a new order with a different server before their first order had been completed. It wasn’t mentioned in the design brief, but Abbie had foreseen the problem while she was working on the app interface, and Professor Tillman had given her very approving nods when she brought it to her attention.

“And remember, people, Dr Allbright’s volunteers are from the Psychology Department and they’ll be working on their own project while they’re with us, so try not to interfere with the good Doctor’s work, and don’t ask where she gets her volunteers…”

Sam, Jason and Abbie shared a raised eyebrow at that, but Mike was too engrossed in the backend to have noticed. The workshop was nearly over, but there was time for one final test of the system before everyone left for the day. Mike’s changes fortunately didn’t affect the rest of the workings of the system, but Abbie wanted to make a few cosmetic changes to the app interface. She agreed she’d do this over the weekend and promised that she wouldn’t break the whole thing before next Tuesday. A couple of the other groups around the lab had their hands on their faces, apparently doomed to spending their whole weekend or at least a couple of late nights trying to resuscitate their code, but for Sam and her group the work was more or less done.

Some of the students who had code that was more or less working start to peel themselves off from their groups, heading to the bar as usual, while Sam and Abbie, like the other two girls, turned down the opportunity to sit silently through another male-dominated comp-sci geek pissing contest. For Sam, it was home for chicken curry from a jar, her fleece onesie, a big cup of tea and China Miéville. Friday nights were the only nights when all of Sam’s housemates were guaranteed to be out raving, and it was easily the best time in the week to lose herself in a good book. She quietly said goodbye to her group and headed out to the bus stop.

“You made quite an impression last week…”
Dr Allbright’s office had been quite hard to find. The Psychology Department was in an older part of the University, a part that Sam had never had reason to go to before. She’d walked around the whole floor at least twice before finding a psychology student who looked small enough and nice enough to approach, and now, with her help, here she was.

Professor Tillman had taken Sam to one side a couple of days after the project test and told her that Dr Allbright wanted to speak to her. Apparently it hadn’t happened very often in their collaboration together, but there was something very interesting in the feedback from Dr Allbright’s volunteers that she wanted to talk to Sam about. Sam was almost put off by the faintly conspiratorial whiff, but after a quick email to get a timeslot and a room number Sam was here in the Doctor’s office, being told that she’d made quite an impression.

“Erm, I guess our project was the best? Because it only crashed once, and we got it working again pretty soon. Erm… All the other groups had bigger problems, I suppose? But I’m not really happy with our work, if I’m honest…”

“I’ll leave the technical stuff to Professor Tillman. What I meant was that you made quite an impression on my lovely volunteers...”

It’s true, they had been lovely. Fifteen of them, all men, that turned up on time, were very polite, did what they were told and were incredibly patient while the other groups were having difficulties with their systems. Sam had seen a couple of the younger ones around the University campus, but there were some older ones who looked like they weren’t students. She wouldn’t have thought anything more about it, but she had been haunted by the dangling question of where, in Professor Tillman’s words, Dr Allbright had ‘got them from’. She had a chance to ask about that now, but there was a more interesting question that had just presented itself. A question that had tickled Sam’s anxiety.

“An impression on them? How do you mean?”

“Let me tell you a little bit about my research first, then we’ll get to the feedback sheets. Feedback sheets in which you personally have been singled out as worthy of high praise indeed…”

The Doctor told Sam all about her field of study, which involved, in the simplest terms, the psychodynamics of dominant and submissive relationships within consensual and institutional settings. Quite a lot of it went straight over Sam’s head, and just as she thought she was on the right track, she was informed that Fifty Shades of Grey was a particularly bad example. The basic gist of the Dr’s work was studying how people worked in environments with clear organisational hierarchies and customer service focus, and if being a submissive-type personality put you at a particular advantage or a disadvantage.

After the project test, the volunteers, all submissives themselves to varying degrees, had reported back to Dr Allbright about how they had felt while using the automated systems designed by Sam and her classmates. The feedback forms were open-ended, said Dr Allbright, and encouraged long paragraphs on serving strangers, being patient in the face of technological failure, and how it felt being reduced from a more or less human waiter to what was effectively a dehumanised service automaton. Sam had seen pages and pages of text before, but never so carefully and neatly handwritten. She was feeling more or less completely bewildered, and still fairly anxious about the impression she’d made, but her curiosity about the experiences of the volunteers was steadily on the rise. The fifteen men who had been so lovely the week before had made a pile about an inch and a half thick on Dr Allbright’s desk.

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