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Vox Silencio

This is Chapter One of my this year's entry for NanoWriMo.

As I write this update note, we are halfway through and the story is progressing incredibly well (well, the words are going down on the page and that is the point of Nano) My next entry will summarise the remainder of the story (once it is all writ).

The address was right but Louise couldn't see the company name against any of the buttons on the intercom.

The Light Frame

Kebab Music

Lettuce Prey

11:59 Incorporated

who said that?

Taking a gamble on the intercom roulette, Louise chose the bottom button. Only later would she learn that any of the buttons would link her to Vox Silencio, her new employers.

She had applied for the job after seeing the ad in the BSA Magazine. The British Stammering Association was the must read for Speech Therapists. Her interview had been on neutral territory in London. She didn't know much about Vox Silencio but that didn't matter since she just wanted to get out. The advertisement had promised interesting but unusual work loosely related to speech therapy and that was all that mattered. Dick Kwaan, the Vox Silencio project leader had arranged to meet her in the foyer of the London Hilton International for the interview. Louise didn't think anything of this anonymity at the time. If she had been paying greater attention she would have noticed that the interview had been superficial at the very least. All Dick had seemed to be interested in was that she was qualified and that she knew about phonemes. His face lit-up when she revealed that she was unemployed at the moment. She had the qualifications and her work with deaf children had been based on the phoneme research she had done for her doctorate so she knew all about them. Dick must have been impressed because, to Louise's surprise, he offered her the job immediately and told her that he needed her to start as soon as possible. Louise was available but would need somewhere to stay in the area of Woldingham where Vox Silencio was based. That wouldn't be a problem, Dick had told her that they kept a list of local bed and breakfast places. In fact he had it on him and gave her a copy. Louise was as keen to start as Dick was to have her and so she agreed on the first October, a Wednesday, to start. This gave Louise just over a week to get her things in order and pack to come down south. She had chosen Mrs. Anderson's to stay in. Mrs. Anderson usually had students to stay with her but, lately, the behaviour of the average student had been degenerating and so she had decided that, when the most recent one had left, she would rather take professional people. Louise had only spoken to her over the phone but liked the sound of the Anderson house and had agreed on a six-month trial.

The intercom buzzed her in.

The reception area was typical of any newly built small block of offices, except that Louise noticed that there was only the Vox Silencio name on the plaque on the wall. Tastefully decorated in neutral styles, the reception could have been installed yesterday. Making a note to ask about the other companies later, she asked the receptionist for Mr. Kwaan. The receptionist introduced herself as Kate. She must only have been on work experience since she couldn't have been any older than 16. Her faith in the office's central heating was absolute since she wore a mere crop tee exposing the customary pierced belly button. The ornament was more technologically advanced than any Louise had seen before because it was cycling through a rainbow of colours and not in a refraction way but, rather it emitted these colours. Kate noticed Louise staring at it and volunteered, "One of the perks of working here. It is powered by body heat using the materials they developed."

"Mr. Kwaan," Kate could barely suppress a giggle at addressing him this way, "I have Louise in reception for you. He'll be down for you momentarily," she informed Louise who was about to correct Kate for the misuse of the word momentarily before she remembered that she was even newer than the work experience girl here.

The door beeped and a click signified it had unlocked. Dick Kwaan arrived and greeted Louise warmly. He invited her back through the door which appeared to unlock for him without the customary wave of a swipe card. "More of the gee-whiz technology, I guess." thought Louise.

"Let me introduce you to the team, those that are here at least and then I'll show you what we are working on here at Vox Silencio." Louise knew that Vox Silencio was a high tech start-up but had expected less of the laboratory and some of the more comfortable surroundings that she had had in her previous job giving speech therapy to people with various speech defects. He previous workplace was in an old Victorian house in the centre of Cambridge. The therapy rooms were converted bedrooms. They were oak panelled, lined with books and thickly carpeted. Technology played a role in her previous work but it was hidden away - only to be brought out when the therapy called for it. The panelling and books and carpet served an important function in deadening echos which was as important for speech therapy as being in comfortable surroundings. The ideal room would be an anechoic chambre but that hardly had the ambience conducive to practicing conversation. "Vox Silencio would have an anechoic chamber for their therapy sessions," she thought to herself just as Dick opened an obviously heavy door to reveal their chamber.

"This'll be where you'll be working," he said with as straight a face as he could muster but he wasn't very good at practical jokes and Louise saw through it immediately.

"Give it up, Dick," a voice from behind them said.

"Ahh, Tracie. I don't think I'd fooled Louise for a second. Louise, this is Tracie Brooks, our chief biologist. Tracie this is Louise Carter. She's a speech therapist."

"Pleased to meet you, Louise. You'll get used to Dick's attempts at humour. Has he even offered you a coffee yet?"

Louise signalled no and Tracie said that the rest of the team are down there anyway.

In the kitchen, Louise was introduced to some more of the Vox Silencio team. "Vince here is our programmer. He'll sort you out with your laptop," said Tracie, "Where's Kaleb?" she asked Dick.

"He's at imperial today getting an upgrade." Dick replied, "you'll meet him tomorrow, Louise, he's our auditory expert. I guess now would be a good time to tell you what it is we are trying to achieve here. Basically we are creating telepathy through technology. We are building on implanted electronics that are already rendering sound directly into nerve impulses inside the ear. The missing link in the chain was to find a way to pick-up nerve impulses that control speech and to decipher them so we can create the corresponding phoneme sounds that would be voiced."

"Only without you actually voicing them," added Tracie.

"Hence the name, Vox Silencio," completed Louise, "I get it now. A bit like a throat mike only without the actual sounds. But cochleal implants only got the OK because the people who got them were deaf. I am guessing that you are operating on people who haven't lost their speech, implanting the sensor's electrodes into the throat directly - how do you get ethical permission to operate on people without a pre-existing disability or potential benefit?"

"For now, Louise, that will have to remain a secret. Suffice it to say that we are breaking no laws here at Vox Silencio. The actual technology that we use will be revealed to you soon enough. In the meantime, I'll leave you in Vince's capable hands to show you some of the toys that we have for you to play with. I have a call with our sponsors scheduled at ten and they will be happy to know that we have the final member of our team on board."

"C'mon, Louise, Bring your coffee, I'll show you to your office. A real one this time, I hear Dick tried the old silent room trick. He did that with me when I started too."

Vince led Louise to an office that already had her name on it. He demonstrated to her how to logon using the built-in biometric camera and explained that now, all the secure doors would let her in automatically. He showed her where the phoneme analyser was as well as the vocoder equipment. She was familiar with these tools but these were the very latest editions. She would have killed for state of the art equipment like this in her previous life. But that was then and she didn't want to go back to that. "OK, I understand all this gear but exactly how am I supposed to apply my skills in the cause of Vox Silencio?" she asked.

"Didn't Dick explain? We want you to work with our virtual sound box. We have created a synthetic soundbox which mimics the anatomy of a real voice box. We'll send it, virtually, of course, simulated nerve impulses and your job will be to let us know when we've managed to get it to make the right sounds. That'll tell us what impulses to watch for from the butterfli."

"What's a butterfly?"

"That's the sensor that we use, like a throat mike. We call it a butter fli because that's what it looks like and it 'facilitates linguistic interaction'. I Know - corny - but Dick thought of it and he's the boss - besides, it really does look like one."

"But to get the impulses that it needs you'd have to go deep into the larynx. I don't know af any surface mount technology that can pick up the necessary signals."

"I've said too much already," said Vince, "you'll have to ask Dick to fill you in and he'll only do that when he's ready."

Louise decided that she like Vince. He was unlike any computer nerd she'd met before. He seemed to like explaining the tech to her and didn't treat her like an imposition on his time. He was tall and wore the obligatory obscure tee shirt from a long ago video gamers convention but his hair was washed and he didn't have BO which was always a plus in her books.

Vince left her to play with some more of the toys that Vox Silencio had put at her disposal. The PC was pre-loaded with Vox Silencio company profile material. She read up on some of their patents. Their speech synthesis software was second to none and could already mimic anyone whose speech they had sampled to sufficient length. They had refined the cochlear implant technology to a point where they could feed the right impulses to simulate spoken speech as clearly as a hearing person could understand. They already had the patent on a device that would read text messages straight into a deaf person's head in the voice of anyone they choose. Vodafone was already signing people up to have their speech sampled so that they could text their friends and have the message read out in their own voice. This was one of the ways that Vox Silencio got its money. The next step was to take speech recognition technology to the next level so that the spoken word could be turned into a text message instantaneously. Coupling this with the text to silent voice production and you massively reduced the data required to transmit to send a phone call. This technology was of enormous benefit to the phone companies saving them a fortune in bandwidth charges just when the available bandwidth was maxing out and the network looked as though it was going to collapse.

The next and obvious stage was to intercept the voice messages from the brain as they activated part of the speaker's voice system and then decipher them into the textual equivalents in a similar fashion to voice recognition only without the voice.
Obvious really.
Dick reappeared at her office door, “Are you ready to start working?” he asked, “As I said at the interview, we need your input urgently. I wish there had been an overlap with Sarah, that's our speech therapist before you, but she had to leave at short notice.”
Louise noticed a flicker of embarrassment cross Dick's face but decided not to pursue it right away, “What was she working on when she left?” she asked.
Dick came around to her side of the desk and the computer recognised him immediately. He opened his files on phoneme recognition and showed Louise how far Sarah had got. It took a little while for Louise to follow Sarah's way of attacking the problem but once she did she could see immediately that it wouldn't work. “She was trying to construct the phonemes from a priori speech traits. That wouldn't do the job. The APST are just for baby talk, you wouldn't be able to use that to get the right sounds. Not unless you wanted everyone to sound like a six month old child.”
She showed Dick what she meant by getting one of the gadgets that Vince had showed her and adjusting a few settings. She downloaded some of Sarah's phoneme files to a memory stick and transferred it to the speechifier , as she called it to Dick. What came out was a series of gurgles and burbles exactly as she had predicted.
“She hadn't showed you this had she?” Louise asked.
“No she claimed that there was a bug in the software. We had Vince check it over several times but the result was the same. Then she claimed that the data had got corrupted. In the end we decided that we weren't getting anywhere with her and she ...” Dick didn't finish the sentence and the sheepish look returned to his face. “I can see that you definitely know what you are doing here, Louise, I will let you get on. We are going to go to the pub for lunch, I'll come and get you when we're ready.”
“Thanks – that'd be great.” replied Louise absent mindedly as she stared at the screen, typing furiously, “I might need to finish running some tests first.”
Dick left quietly. He could see that he had made the right choice for replacing Sarah, whom he hadn't liked from the start but had needed in order to convince the backers that the team was in place. Now he had the right person in the job he felt a lot happier.
Louise began by working out how Sarah had configured the phoneme files for the speechifier and then tried to replicate it with some of the learnt phoneme patterns from her thesis work. She prepared a couple of test files; just the first lines of 'Mary had a little lamb' to see if she had got it right. She loaded the files into the stick and transferred them to the speechifier again.
“Mmmphy aaaarda ikkal lum. Eytiz flee-ee-ee se ....” Louise shut off the machine. Clearly this wasn't going to be as straight forward as she had hoped. She continued to tinker with the speechifier controls and made adjustments to the data input files but, by the time that Dick poked his head round the door again, she still hadn't got much closer to the desired level of clarity.
“Fancy a bite to eat?” he asked.
Louise looked up, startled. She had been so into playing that the sound of a clear human voice confused her for a moment. “Oh yes!” she said, a little too enthusiastically.
Dick Kwaan was of Korean descent, aged about 55 his hair remained stubbornly full and black. He had what Louise thought of as a kind face. She couldn't imagine him ever getting angry, a little pissed off maybe but not angry. He dressed smartly in a suit and tie but the tie revealed a non-serious side to his personality. This one had a repeating pattern of the three monkeys on it with the 'hear no evil' monkey looking aghast at the 'say no evil' one. When Louise asked him about it the rest of the crowd groaned. It was clearly a bone of contention with them that they had to sit through Dick's explanation of how it came about for the umpteenth time.
“Oh no – not again!” said Vince, “Louise, you just HAD to ask didn't you?”
“Sorry,” she replied.
“Don't worry.” said Vince, “ I'll get the drinks in – I've heard this story a million times – what's your poison, Louise?”
Louise stopped dead in her tracks, “What? What do you mean Poison?” she asked desperately before realising that Vince was only asking her what she'd like to drink. “Oh, Sorry, Silly me, I'll have a diet coke please.” Louise would have preferred a large Gin and Tonic right now but decided that she would see if the others drank at lunchtime before she ordered one.
“Diet coke it is then and the usual's for the rest of you?” asked Vince getting a chorus of affirmatives in reply, he wandered off to the bar.
The Wagon and Horses pub had been in Woldingham since the seventeenth century, Louise read on the menu. It was the oldest pub in Kent and has still got some of the original beams from the coaching house that stood on this site in those days. Louise was mentally reading it in the same voice that her last attempt with the speechifier would have rendered.
She snapped herself out of it and switched to the less onerous task of choosing what to eat. This pub had pretensions to be a gastro-pub and the menu reflected this – not in the sense of the meals on offer but, rather, in the way that they were described. You know the sort of thing, Finest saddle back pork from our local farmer rolled in tubes of selected primple served with pomme d'terre purée and a poly-unsaturated jus. Or Bangers and Mash with Gravy as it would have been called where she came from, thought Louise who chose the lasagne instead.
The rest of the party ordered at the food counter and Dick insisted on paying for Louise's. This drew cries of derision from Tracie and Vince, who had, by now, returned with the full order of drinks. The warned Louise not to get used to being treated like this by Dick who took the jibe in the good humoured way it was intended. Louise saw that she needn't have worried about ordering a proper drink since the rest of the round was fully alcoholic. Now she worried that she might have appeared too conservative with her choice.
Over lunch they talked about how the weekend had gone, what the plans for Christmas were, Vince had friends over for a LAN party and had won at War-rock or something. Louise noticed that they never talked about work. The one time that she had mentioned work (she had asked Vince if there was any way to interface her computer directly to the speechifier) they quickly changed the subject and she got the idea immediately that work was not to be discussed outside in the wild.
Tracie was forty two. She had brown eyes and her dark hair cropped short. It turns out she had not always been a biologist. It had been her degree subject, of course, but that was when she was just out of school back in the early eighties. Immediately after graduating, she had been snapped-up by a drugs company to act as a medical rep. The sort that plugged the company's latest product to doctors by giving away any number of freebies, samples and trips to conferences in far-off exotic places – all in the name of education, of course. They had worked her into the ground and within six months she had a car crash. She never admitted it but she had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road into a ditch. She gave up the job and, when she had recovered, she married her orthopaedic surgeon and settled down to have 2.4 children. Or, at least that was the plan, before she discovered that he had married other patients before her and neglected to divorce any of them. It seemed that he had a condition that meant that he couldn't resist 'over-caring' about people he met. Curing them was never enough, he had to look after their whole self from then onwards. Whitehouses Syndrome, they called it. The judge called it bigamy and he got ten years. Tracie spent a few years in therapy after that and emerged a new woman. She set about a voyage of discovery to fine out who she really was before returning to Woldingham and marrying a bricklayer. Her kids are in secondary school now and that was why she dusted off her biochemistry degree and got a job with Vox Silencio. Her husband thinks that she is a lab technician and that is fine by her. She has persuaded Dick to pay her wages in two separate accounts so that the pay slip that her husband sees doesn't hurt his feelings about being the breadwinner and she is 'unusually lucky on the lottery' at just the right times such as when the van needed a new engine. She said that she knew exactly where she stood with her 'alpha-male' as she called him and what he didn't know wouldn't hut him was her attitude.
Louise had found out the tail end of this story back at the Vox Silencio offices over a back to work coffee. She marvelled at how 'sorted-out' Tracie was compared with her own life. It was very open of Tracie to have told her life story so quickly upon meeting her but this was a symptom of how deeply seated in the real world she was. Louise herself had skated over her history and had not mentioned the incident with Jaycee.
Vince came round to find out more about what she had wanted regarding directly interfacing the PC with the speechifier and he pointed out to her that they were both networked, wirelessly, of course, together anyway. He showed her how the speechifier could access files on her PC over the network and Louise sheepishly thanked him.
“No worries,” he said, “any time that you need my help, well ... it's my job innit?” he was gently mocking her accent and she didn't mind at all.
It was dark outside by the time that she noticed that she'd worked through her first day. When she looked out into the darkness she suddenly felt quite tired and hungry. As she was shutting down her PC she noticed that Dick was still online. She packed up her laptop and went to his office to say thanks and goodnight.
Knocking first she thought she heard him say enter but it mustn't have been because when she did enter he was surprised by her and quickly shut his laptop screen down. “Ahh Louise,” he quickly composed himself, “and how was your first day at Vox Silencio?”
“Fantastic thanks,” said Louise, “that's what I have come here to say. I have had a great first day. Everyone is so friendly. Vince is so helpful and I cannot get over how open Tracie was.
“Oh, I think you'll find we all have our secrets though,” Dick enigmatically answered, “on the other hand, I am glad that you like it here. I have just finished telling the backers what you discovered about Sarah's work. They were not best pleased that we had hired someone who could make such a schoolboy error but they were impressed that you spotted it so soon. How are you getting on with your experiments? Is there anything that you need?”
Louise was blushing by now and brushed aside the compliment. “No. I think I have enough to be getting on with. The equipment I have is way better than that that I had to use before. There's a bit of a learning curve as there always is with these things but, with Vince's help I think that I can pick it up pretty quickly.”
“Then I bid you good night and wish you a pleasant evening with Mrs. Anderson.”
“Do you know Mrs. Anderson?” Louise asked.
“Just watch out for that husband of hers. He's a big man but don't let that confuse you because he is as gentle as a lamb.”
“Thanks for the tip. Good night Mr. Kwaan.
“Call me Dick, please!”
“Good night, Dick” said Louise as she headed down the corridor to the exit which obligingly opened for her as she approached it.
Louise was the only person standing at the bus stop waiting for the four-oh-seven to whisk her back to Mrs. Anderson's when she was joined there by a man. He wore a suit and a union jack waistcoat. But it was not this that first caught her eye. For the first time in her life she found herself staring at a man who thought that it was perfectly right and proper to wear a bowler hat. Before she could stop herself the man noticed her staring at it and said, “Hope it doesn't rain. I forgot my brolly and these things are a bugger to re-shape after they get wet you know?” That last part was stated with rising intonation. You didn't need to be a speech therapist to know that it was being asked as a genuine question.
“Oh yes – I do know. It can be awfully difficult to get the right blocks for them these days,” Louise replied. She had no idea where the word awfully came from but was glad she had used it. Realising that he had caught her staring, she now studiously looked away but, unfortunately for her, he was persistent. “So, you are familiar with the difficulties that the millinery business finds itself in then?”
“Not really,” she said, “I'm just very good at empathising,” 'two can play at your game' she thought.
“I see. Then I shall wish you good day.” and, with that, he turned and walked away. The bus arrived shortly after and Louise pondered the strange encounter throughout the rest of the journey to what was, for now at least, home.
Mrs. Anderson was a large afro-Caribbean lady. Louise had not met her husband but had heard him on the first night after she had gone to bed. At first, she couldn't sleep in this new location and, as she lay awake trying to control her breathing, she could hear his deep velvety voice gently arguing with Mrs. Anderson but that was all she knew about him until she got home from Vox Silencio.
Mrs. Anderson had prepared dinner. Louise wasn't hungry after the lasagne at lunchtime but she didn't want to upset her host and so sat down for some fried chicken with rice'n'peas. Rice'n'peas is exactly what it says on the tin. Boiled rice and peas, albeit black ones. Simply mixed together. Louise had heard of the famous Caribbean dish before and imagined that it was way more exotic than it transpired to be. It was a little disappointing.
After dinner, Louise went back to her bedroom and noticed for the first time that it didn't have a television. She contemplated watching some On-Demand stuff on her laptop but decided to be sociable and went downstairs and asked if it was OK to join them to watch some TV.
“Of course it is love!” boomed Mrs. Anderson, “We're just finishing off the dinner. Come in Come in.”
And so it was that Louise had to sit through a series of soaps, one after the other, some had to be time shifted to squeeze them all in. And, all the while, she could hear Mr. and Mrs. Anderson crunching their way through the chicken bones with their bare teeth to get at the marrow inside.
“Want to try some?” asked Mr. Anderson, “its the best bit y'know.” he added.
Louise declined as politely as she could and, when at last the crunching subsided to be replaced by contented snoring, she snuck upstairs, had a bath and went to bed.
She resolved to ask Vince, tomorrow, what was the best option for a TV tuner stick for the works laptop. Before she got into be she checked her private e-mail. Schlekking out the junk, she got it down to six real mails. Two were from the cinema club that she was a member of. She logged onto the site and updated her local cinema to the one down the road in Oxted so that future mailings would reflect what she could actually see. There was a mail from her school's alumni group telling her that some more photos from the past had been added to the site but she was too tired to look at them tonight. There was a short note from her mobile phone company telling her to top-up and the last two were from shops that she must have signed up for but couldn't remember ever actually having signed up for. Cursory glances dismissed these last two.
She thought about blogging about her first day at work but was too tired and, besides, that uncomfortable business at lunchtime had convinced her that it probably wasn't a good idea to even mention Vox Silencio, let alone blog about it for all the world to see. Not that all the world read her blog but, well, what's the point of blogging if there isn't that secret hope that someone, somewhere, was reading about your life and, maybe, recognising some of it and sympathising with you just a little bit? So she confined her update to telling the story of the bloke at the bus stop and finished it with her disappointment about the rice'n'peas. She hoped that all the world didn't include the Andersons or any Caribbean people who were easily offended about their national carbohydrate meal component.
With her head swimming in phonemes and speechifier settings she fluffed up her pillows and was asleep almost before her head had re-dented them.
She did not dream of Jaycee this night. It was a good night for once.