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by Matt Whyman

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Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

by Matt Whyman

Guided by goat tracks, I trailed after the Frenchman on a perilous but revealing ascent. For as one elevation rose up behind the next, the horizon line receded to confirm that we were in fact just one island in a sprawling archipelago. And yet what really caused me to draw breath was the sight that greeted me at the summit. There in a clearing, lashed to the surrounding coconut trees, this technical savant had erected a relay of sorts. Some ten-foot bamboo totem, bound by vine and copper wire, studded with circuit boards and shards of solar panels. A Wicker Man gone World Wide Web.

"L'email." Declared Vendredi, bringing two fists together.

I beamed at him. At last, we would have that connection.

I opened the laptop with great reverence. Lifting the lid as if it were a chest of treasure. Meanwhile, Vendredi switched the lead from his barnacled corpse of a computer to my own, and crossed his fingers tightly. This time, the email dispatched smoothly. Up and away from the island. Seeking out the nearest server, then leapfrogging to the next. Closing in on my office and my PA's work station. Where Lara would stop her keyboard chattering and shriek with joy at the message on her monitor.

At least that's how I imagined things would be, in the moment before I learned for myself how my e-business had fared without me.

By way of reply, I received my own email. The bugger had bounced back at me. Address not recognised. I glanced at Vendredi. He licked his cracked lips. Scratched at his matchbox bristles. The man was plain itching to get his own hands on the keys, but of course I forbade him outright. This was, after all, a man skilled at working behind the screens. There was room for only one front-end user, and that was me.

“It would be a great threat to the natural order," I reminded him. "Good Lord man, I'd never dream of interfering with the running of a technical department. Not without risk of an uprising."

And there I fell quiet, mindful of what had folded in my absence. Sensing my distress, Vendredi dutifully backed away. I smiled at him bravely, then turned once more to the matter in hand. Numbed, but undeterred, I deleted Lara's name. The trouble was no substitute came to mind. Since the company's launch, and steep ascent into cyberspace, I had left my friends and family behind. Lost touch with a world I now so desperately missed, just to stake my claim in another. The sound of breathing over my shoulder, just then. This time, I didn't resist.

"Le chat room. C'est plus popular."

He was right, though I couldn't quite bring myself to show it. Instead, I just pointed my browser to the most crowded gathering of like-minded lonely hearts on the web. Adopting the screen name Castaway 1, we eased our way inside and silenced the masses with an urgent plea:

Castaway 1: Help! We're stranded on an island.
Can't get off :o(

A moment passed before we got a response, and as I made the translation Vendredi clasped my shoulder as if to steady himself. At last, our ticket home appeared to be in reach!

HeelSpike: Are you for real?

Castaway1: Thank God! Can you raise the alarm?

HeelSpike: Maybe ;o)

Castaway1: Please. We're begging you.

HeelSpike: Mmm, sounds good.
What are you wearing?

We turned to face each other, both of us quietly computing the implication behind this request, then made our exit without saying goodbye. I sank back against the palm tree, ready to admit defeat. Unlike my companion, whose hopes seemed to rise in inverse proportion to my own.

"Newsgroups," he said, striking his forefinger high. "Les newsgroups."

I sat up smartly, as if I'd thought of the idea myself. A well-placed posting could reach a thousand people or more. Which was what I did next, targeting alt.news.attention-seekers with just seconds to spare before a cloud slipped in front of the sun and the system went down. As the trade winds were but a breeze that day, we both agreed to break for lunch. For this was a glitch that only the heavens could fix.

I should say Vendredi had exhibited magnificent resource since washing up on the other side of the island. Without any brief or instruction, the man had made his home in a clearing and even cultivated a small potato crop. Thus we dined as he would back at work, on fries washed down with a bitter brew of his own making. Café, he claimed. In his department, I grimaced quietly, but not mine. For dessert, however, the sun came out and it was with high hopes that we returned to the laptop to feast on the replies.

In the space of an hour my empty mailbox had swelled so magnificently that I was forced to scroll down the screen.

A whole host of emails responding to our SOS. Some asking us to specify what we were selling. Most telling us to quit clogging the system with spam. Junk email nobody wanted. The last missive had been sent by the newsgroup host. A curt note informing us that we weren't welcome to contribute without a conspiracy theory, porn pics, or scurrilous celebrity gossip, and that a block had been placed on any future posting.

"But we're genuine," I cried aloud. "This is serious!"

Newsgroup culture. A medium for the trivial and the tasteless, it seemed. Just like the chat rooms. No place for the cerebral or sincere. My finger hovered over the exit button, and then the unthinkable happened. Vendredi, my backup boy, seized the laptop from my possession.

"Un website," he said, showing me his palm to calm me. "C'est le solution."

We may not have shared the same language, but I was damn glad Vendredi was fluent in a third. HTML. Hyper-Text Markup Language. Computer coding, in short. We made a fine team, too. My man constructing the digital pidgin between the tags. Laying the foundations for me to compose the Queen's English that would appear on the screen. All of which amounted to a cry for help, an outline of our predicament, and an invitation to email.

True to form, Vendredi refused to post the site live until he had perfected its functionality and inserted a click counter to monitor our performance. So it was that we went online with a comprehensive but deceptively simple menu bar and the choice to view the site without frames.

"My friend," I beamed, as Vendredi completed the upload. "We'll be home in no time."

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