Steven Payton dragged his weary body down the hall toward the condo that had been his home since his separation from Cynthia. Somewhere in those few short steps, he decided there had to be a better way to live. The question was could he find it.
For the past six months his law practice had been in a flurry of activity, cutting into all his free time. He used to manage an occasional tennis game with an up‑and‑coming member of the district attorney’s office, but no longer. He had too many motions to file, depositions to take, and meetings to attend. Tomorrow would be a rehash of today, the same the day after.
At thirty-six, Payton had a face that belied his age. His hair had begun to show the ravages of time, with more and more alien gray intermixed with its dark brown. Some might consider his hair predominately gray, but he liked brown better. Worse, his schedule had prevented him from taking his usual workouts–with a direct impact on Payton’s waistline. He swore he’d take off the few pounds he had put on. The question was how.
As the door clicked shut behind him, Payton glanced around. When he moved in, he figured that he’d only need the basics: a place to sack out, a chest of drawers, a couch, one decent easy chair, and a dining room table that doubled as a place to work when the office drudgery spilled over. That was three years ago, and he hadn’t added a single piece of furniture since. There were still no pictures on the walls, nor any signs that the condo was anything other than a place to sleep or eat an occasional meal when he was too tired to go out.
Marriage breakups were difficult and often dirty things. Until recently when the sister of one of Payton’s closest friends needed help, he had successfully navigated the legal waters without stepping into any divorce cases. Cornered, Payton couldn’t deny her request. She and her estranged husband haggled over terms for months; each negotiating session served to remind Payton why he hated handling divorces so much. Finally, they reached a fair settlement. Now both parties could get on with their lives.
Counterbalancing the divorce case was a complicated corporate acquisition Payton was handling for his old college buddy Mark Albright, executive vice President of Worldwide Agricultural Products. Albright’s father was grooming his son to take over the company’s helm. This acquisition was the first of several the younger Albright would be making. If everything went as planned, there would be more deals in the future, and Payton would be handling them.
Payton settled at the dining room table. From his attaché case, he removed his Apple MacBook portable computer and plugged it in. Like most attorneys, he had resisted buying a computer. But his good friend and computer guru Matt Evanston had hung tough. Payton finally acquiesced. Now he had no idea how he’d ever managed before.
In addition to the usual stuff–word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting–Payton used the MacBook to tap into the mammoth databases that were only a phone call away. His heaviest usage was on the Lexis network, which provided him with all the legal case references an attorney would ever need. He accessed Lexis through UniNet’s main computer.
Payton clicked on the modem, initiated the dial‑up process, and waited for the UniNet host computer to finish its handshake. Seconds later, the screen in front of Payton blanked. Another second, and it filled with a menu listing his available options.
He intended to research the case law for a new client, but decided to first check his E‑mail for any messages. Since the MacBook had become part of his life, Payton had even come over to using UniNet’s E‑mail service. Although it was not state of the art, Payton felt that sending and receiving messages by computer had a certain appeal. Besides, it dramatically cut down on the amount of paper his practice consumed as well as the number of faxes he sent.
When the E‑mail screen appeared, Payton deftly typed in his mailbox number, and watched as the computer went through its gyrations. The tally on the screen showed that two messages waited patiently for Payton’s review. He called up the first.
It was from Mark Albright, about the merger agreement Payton had prepared for Worldwide Agricultural Products. Apparently the last draft he had furnished Albright was acceptable, and would serve as the final agreement.
Throughout the lengthy negotiations, Albright and Payton had kept each other posted using UniNet’s E‑mail. Albright had outlined the basic tenets of the agreement, which Payton then translated into legalese and sent to Albright’s E‑mail address.
The executive made any needed changes then transferred the file back to Payton. Using the computer network streamlined the entire process. Payton saved the message to his hard disk, and then called up the second.
Unlike the typical E‑mail message, this one did not show the header listing the addressee, mailbox number, and the message details. Instead, the MacBook’s screen filled with groupings of five digit numbers–each in perfect symmetry as if it were a product of nature and not the byproduct of some mass of wires, silicon chips, and plastic.
Payton blinked, wondering if he had somehow made a mistake. But he had done nothing unusual. The number sequence on the screen stared passively back at him as if to ask what was next.
Payton’s hand started toward the sequence of keys that would result in the errant message’s deletion and expulsion to the most distant ether or wherever such digital garbage ended up. In midstream, he stopped, shrugged, and then saved the garble‑gram to his hard disk.
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