The hand on my Lady Swatch creeps round, luminous in the dim light outside the Vortex Building. I am already shiveringly aware that today is the last day of the year — of the millennium. I checked the time earlier, and it is accurate to the second. That will matter, later on. For the moment, my watch only tells me that Griffin is late.
At last I see him, emerging from the brand-new Tube station entrance. His breath puffs in the December air.
“You made it, then.” I give him a smile as we lug our laptops and tech cases into the foyer.
Griffin looks the same as ever — big coat, and untameable hair. “Bloody trains. Hi Lucy.”
Together we check into security in Vortex’s marble foyer. Vortex runs half of the UK’s electricity infrastructure. Griffin and I are here to make sure that nothing happens as the year ticks over from one century to the next. Nobody wants any problems with the pylons.
As we ride up in the lift, I say, “I still don’t know where that dodgy data is. The tests showed a fail right after I confirmed to the client that it was as all ok.”
“We’ll find it.”
“If we don’t and it gets to midnight —”
“Things will be OK,” says Griffin. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
I don’t smile.
“Come on,” he says. “If it breaks and we get the sack —”
“We’ll never work again — I need this contract —”
“Lucy. It will be fine.”
The lift powers upwards. Usually on these jobs our work is in the basement. At Vortex, technology is king, and their server suite is at the top of the tower.
Our presence here ought not to be needed. When the twentieth century ends and the date changes, everything should just roll forward with no problems. Vortex hired the UK’s top contractors to spend months checking the code that runs their systems.
Unfortunately one of those contractors ran tests on the code, and didn’t notice a failure in the results, until last night. That contractor is me.
Only Griffin knows. He ought to report the risk to our client, and our superiors. But he hasn’t, and neither have I. I’m not sure what’s stopping him; for me, it’s pure fear. This contract was hard to win. To admit negligence now would end my career. I need to find the cause, and fix it . Before midnight.
Of course, I might be worrying about nothing. Things might be fine. That’s the trouble — nobody knows what will happen tonight when all across the globe, 99 must change to 100.
The space at the top of the building is vast and dark. We use our security passes to unlock the server room. Lights flicker on the servers — rows and rows of them, like aisles in a supermarket of the night.
Griffin and I haul out our computers and power them up.
“Six hours,” he says. “This could be a very boring night.” I look at him, and he looks away.
I open my first can of Coke and begin checking the code.
The servers here even have a view, unlike their less-loved, basement cousins. Griffin crosses to the window and stands, staring down at London Docklands. Everyone with a life is out partying. As well as the notional thrill of a new century, there is a frisson of uncertainty. So everyone is celebrating. — Everyone except us, a couple of zeros trying to make sure that there is a tomorrow.
“Don’t help, then,” I say.
He sighs and sits down at the table beside me. “You’re faster at this than me,” he says.
“Faster at cocking it up.”
“You didn’t create the failure. You found it. Now we just have to fix it.” He indicates the section he’ll check, and I grunt agreement. “We should have brought champagne for midnight,” he says.
I say, “If it all goes wrong we’ll be locked in here in the dark while the country’s electricity supply falls apart.”
“Lucy. Take a break.”
“Can’t.” It is much later, and I cannot find the error I’m looking for.
“You’ll kill your eyes. And there’s still plenty of time!”
“Right. Because four hours is an absolute eternity in which to correct and test something critical.”
“Oh,” he says, “I wasn’t going to test it.”
“What?” I jerk my head up, and find he is grinning. “For god’s sake, Griff, why can’t you take this seriously?”
“Because I am an optimist and you are good at your job. Things will work out.”
“Stop saying that!”
“Two words for you,” he says. “Christmas Party last year.”
“That’s four words.” But he has mentioned it, which gives me hope.
He says, “You weren’t even on call. I was. But when that alert went out, you drove to the office when everyone else was getting sloshed, and you told me how to fix it. You didn’t have to do that.”
No, I could have rung him just as easily and given him instructions over the phone. But I’d driven to town, in my party dress, to spend the evening hunched with him over a load of screens, poking Vortex’s servers until they co-operated.
After we fixed it, there had been some prolonged and unprofessional hugging in the server room. I thought something would happen between us, after that, but nothing did. Griffin has remained as my affable colleague.
I had been going to ask him tonight — once and for all, if he likes me. I’ve done nothing about it for a whole year, and neither has he. I thought maybe he had someone else, or just plain was not interested. I have waited and waited and now I am sick of waiting. I set tonight as my own deadline for sorting out the Griffin question.
Of course, that was before this self-inflicted work crisis.
A piercing electronic melody breaks the silence. I pull out my mobile phone. It’s the client’s project manager.
Before I can press Answer, Griffin takes the phone. “I’ve seen no issues with the code,” he says to the client. This is true.
He chats easily to the client, sounding confident.
After the call, I say, “Thanks.” My voice croaks as I speak. He has now condemned himself. If things go wrong —
He shrugs, then smiles. “You’d better get cracking.”
I bend over my work, Griffin beside me. From the corner of my eye I watch him, and when I get up and walk around the servers, stretching my sore shoulder muscles, I know he is watching me.
The hours pass. We have now reached a point where, even if I find the error, there isn’t enough time to fix it and test it before midnight. There was never enough time, really, and I know it.
In films, when computers break, they bleep or flash. A red light whirls around overhead and men wearing glasses grab phones and bark terse commands down the line. Sometimes, a klaxon sounds.
In this case, an alert arrives on my screen, having found a potential problem. “Dammit.”
“You carry on,” says Griffin. “I’ll check this one out.”
My concentration has evaporated. I know that in less than an hour, Vortex will be operating using code which might not survive the century date change. Power could fail across half the country. Hospitals could go dark. And I will be to blame.
I wish Griffin was not here to witness this.
I wish he had not damned himself along with me.
I scroll furiously through code, blinking away tears at my own stupidity.
Griffin’s hand wraps around my wrist. “I’ve got it,” he says. “And it’s the same one you’ve been looking for.”
We pore over his screen.
“There’s time,” he says. “Do it.”
I log into the live system. “There isn’t time to test it.”
“Do it on mine.”
We swap seats while he readies the live system for an update.
My watch bleeps at ten minutes to twelve and I smash it into silence against the table. “It looks OK,” I say, flicking through status screens. “Doesn’t it?”
He nods. “I’ll deploy it.”
“No. This is down to me.”
Outside, in frosty London, six million people are ready with champagne. In here, the only light is from our screens, and the twinkling servers. My fingers are shaking. It’s midnight.
We can hear the cheers even from here. Every house, every park, bursts with celebration as the clock ticks round to a startling double zero. Music reaches us faintly, and then the fireworks start.
“It’s done,” says Griffin. He seems utterly calm. “You fixed it, just like that fault last year.”
I jump up and clutch my hair. “I’m never doing anything like that again.” I go to the window and lean my forehead on the cold glass, breathing hard. He comes to stand beside me.
Below us, in back gardens and parks, purple and green fire blossoms and bursts. Pink rockets shoot into the sky below us, pause and then fracture into dazzling white chrysanthemums of light. The new century has arrived, triumphant.
I straighten up. “Griff,” I begin.
Griffin leans over and kisses me on the mouth.
“Oh,” I say.
“Happy New Year,” he says.
“Oh. Yes. Right. Happy New Year.” I had forgotten.
“I had a girlfriend,” he says. “Last year.”
“Oh.” He used the past tense. My heart skips a beat and comes back hammering.
“We split up,” he says. He catches my eye. “Lucy. Just now. Do I need to apologise? Harassment in the workplace, all that —?”
“No,” I say.
We watch the fireworks.
“Listen,” I say. I am a big believer in clarity. “Was that just a New Year thing, or —?”
“Or,” he says firmly.
“So can we …?”
In our dim room, the servers buzz. Outside, the world explodes in colour, one time-zone at a time. And his hand creeps into mine, and stays there.