Tyro is a present-day story of bullets, binary and thunderously loud music. Set in Silicon Valley, it follows the Nash brothers' efforts to create sapient artificial intelligence - and to keep the lid on some terrifyingly dangerous side-products...

I wrote Tyro when I was in secondary school. Looking back on it now I see nothing but flaws in the plot and poor storytelling - if I was to go back and fix it up to my own standards now, it'd take a complete rewrite, which I honestly don't have the energy for. Nevertheless, people I've shown the story to have been very supportive (and have also pestered me to finish it). And it has some good ideas. So here is what will probably be the last version of the story. Hope you like it.

Contents

Monday

It was eight o'clock, and already the air was hot enough to be called a Summer's day back home in England. But this was California, where the chief export was sunshine, and the temperature would be ten or twenty degrees higher by noon.

Young, up-and-coming professional men in braces and convertibles cruised to work with the hood down and the sunglasses up. Some were lawyers, some were businessmen, and a small but ludicrously highly-paid proportion were genius software engineers who were heading for Silicon Valley, home and cradle of the very highest of the high-tech.

Glancing aimlessly over the early traffic, let the eye of the imagination alight on a silver BMW, cruising to the thunderously loud melodies of Oasis. There is a man in the front, singing enthusiastically along to his favourite tune - he looks like all the others, shades, braces, laptop on the passenger seat, slick hair, flash tie. He is in an unusually elated mood considering today is Monday. But for him, life is about as perfect as he ever imagined it could get. He is rich, he is young, he has a dream job and he loves every minute of it. His name is Gareth Nash, and at only twenty-five years old, he is one of the youngest millionaires in the Valley, the world even. He owns half of a software startup called Heuristic Algorithm Technologies, which he founded with his elder brother Bobby.

He pulls off the freeway and cruises down the blisteringly bright road into the outskirts of the town of technology. The HALtech building, coming up soon on the right, is modern, low, spacious, well lit, and is bristling with antennae and satellite dishes. It is built of yellow bricks, and is the architectural equivalent of a BMW - expensive, elegant and stylish. It is very high-tech - the walls are crammed with technology.

Gareth parks in the space next to his brother's Merc, grabs his jacket and laptop, and walks in. He has no briefcase: all the work in this company is electronic. "Paperless office" does not mean "office with just as much paper but more computers" in this company. Inside, Gareth follows the well-lit corridors and arrives at his cool, air-conditioned office. He puts down his laptop and hooks it up to his desktop PC. He sits down to begin the day, but something is missing. He stands up and leaves the office briefly.

A few minutes later he returns from the coffee machine, cup in hand. Now he is in the mood to begin the day for real. He begins to type a message to one of his employees.

From: Gareth Nash
To: Mark Quimby
Subject: Bert and chatterbots generally
I said I'd better sleep on your idea about getting an English specialist to work on Bert with us; having slept, my response is go for it. The company will be happy to pay him for the duration of the project, but we don't intend to employ him full-time unless we decide to make an upgrade or something - which may be possible, but don't get the poor guy's hopes up by telling him that. Feel free to arrange transport as you see fit.
I've found that you're letting Bert listen in on IRC conversations to build his vocabulary - I'd be very interested to see the algorithms you're using to do this, especially as many chat rooms have more than one conversation going on at once. Also, beware of the appalling spelling-punctuation-grammar levels you'll get from that source. Though I can imagine a bot that communicates like a net-head wouldn't be totally unacceptable to most of the folks on there.
I expect to see a list of recommended specialists in the near future, and keep me updated on Bert's code, as I'd like to compare it with current chatterbot programs.

He clicks, and the message zooms across the LAN to arrive, a quarter of a second later, at the back of the list of messages that are waiting on the mail server for Mark Quimby to answer them. Glancing over this list, Gareth observes that most of them are from overnight, but two are from early this morning, before Mark has arrived at work. One is his, sent a good four seconds ago now, the other is from his brother, who arrived in the office fifteen minutes before him. Gareth decides not to exercise his powers as all-powerful LAN master and read the message himself as that would not respect Mark's privacy and maybe spark a lawsuit. This is California, after all. Besides, Gareth notes with interest before he closes the list that the message is doubly encrypted, and Heuristic Algorithm Technologies is popularly believed to use the same encryption system as the US Army.

This is, of course, an urban myth, even though Gareth and Bobby encourage their employees to answer all questions concerning said encryption with the response "I can neither confirm nor deny this rumour," which merely serves to encourage gossip, because it is, of course, well-known that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

HALtech's encryption is, in fact, much, much better than the US Army's. Bobby was surprisingly insistent on having good crypto when the company founded its Californian base, and personally located the world's best cryptographer to do the job for them. The result of the cryptographer's efforts are that HALtech's LAN is protected by a very simple and impossibly difficult-to-break encryption scheme. All information used by the company is kept hidden and encrypted unless it is in immediate use. Screens turn themselves off automatically if there is nobody sitting in front of them. Employees also have the option of doubly encrypting internal messages so that nobody in the company except the recipient can decode them. Even Bobby himself cannot decode his message to Mark, though he of course knows what was in the message when he wrote it and can simply delete it if he wants.

It's for a very good reason.

***

With ordinary computer software, there are bugs. Always bugs. A bug is when a piece of software does something it wasn't designed to do, or doesn't do something it should, and in all cases the problem is not with the computer but with the programming. A computer will always obey, 100% accurately, the instructions it is given. Problems arise when the instructions, or the interpreter that turns the instructions into machine code, or the interpreter that turns the machine code into ones and noughts, or the layout of the silicon in the computer's microchips, contain flaws. The electrons always flow like they should, no matter what stupid things you accidentally ask them to do.

The point is this:

It's never the computer's fault that something doesn't work. The error is always in the instructions. Human error.

There is one exception, and it's called heuristic programming. A heuristic algorithm has been programmed so that it can redesign itself randomly. It is a program that evolves. A programmer with sufficient skill can, for instance, set a target of designing a pair of simulated legs that can walk forwards, and let the program redesign itself to make a set of instructions that will make the pair of legs get up and walk. Most of the skill lies is defining the target, and finding a means of testing each new randomly evolved program (or iteration) for suitability. For instance, the programmer must find a way of making the computer think that a pair of legs that falls down is not as good as one which can stand. Once the target is set and the tests are defined, the program can be set away to evolve as fast as it can, coming up with a very complex but acceptable set of instructions which it has written by itself. This relatively simple process can create, in a very small amount of time, programs which would otherwise have required weeks or even months of tedious manual programming and testing. And frequently, the end result is a great deal more efficient, not to mention shorter.

The only downside to this is that the code is often so chaotic that it's almost illegible. Making sense of any part of it is near-impossible, and though even heuristic code has bugs (the point here being that the bugs are the fault of the computer, not the programmer), fixing these bugs is infinitely harder than simply generating a new copy of the program from scratch.

Tracing its origins backwards, it seems that Heuristic Algorithm Technologies was unofficially founded by the two Nash brothers shortly before Bobby finished his university course. It wasn't a commercial enterprise at the time, but a kind of informal computer group which was devoted to studying the new field of heuristic programming. There were four founding members - Bobby, Gareth, an American student called Gene and an elderly genius called Ronald Schmidt. Ron had known computers for a very long time - if he were ten years older he would have had memories of valve machines. Ron knew and remembered pretty much all of transistorised computing history, and had given lectures about computing in the past. Unable to keep up with rapidly advancing technology, Ron's lectures in computing had given way to lectures in computing history, and it was at one of these that he had met the three guys.

Ron, they discovered, was nowhere near over the hill, but merely lacked the contemporary technical knowledge to implement his relatively radical ideas. Bobby and his friends set about putting his thought experiments into practice. Though Ron had been a pioneer in his day, that day was long past by the time he began showing Bobby, Gareth and Gene how to make ones and noughts breed. His idea was very nearly the earliest of its kind - others elsewhere were considering the possibilities of heuristics at the time, but only Ron's group were taking it seriously. Most Tuesday evenings, they met to break new ground.

After two years of on-and-off informal meetings, the three youngsters finished their studies at university. Gene decided that heuristics were not the way forward and went to do R&D with some multinational corporation. Bobby and Gareth stuck together for a few difficult years and eventually made a breakthrough.

Scientific research is a lonely job and not often a profitable one. You need money to work and in the absence of a big enough grant, you need to work at something other than your research to get money. Bobby and Gareth hit upon a solution to this problem that many pure-bred scientists would consider a kind of betrayal to their profession. They discovered how to commercialise.

They collaborated on a computer game called Agar, whereby the user can evolve, from scratch, their own race of creatures. Agar was the name of a kind of bacteria food, well-known in biological circles and used to cultivate growths of bacteria or fungi.

Single-celled bacteria were all the game could handle but the potential was enormous. Complexity grew from the simplistic rules on which it was built. Each strain had a gene sequence that could be programmed to reproduce, synthesise antibodies, home in on food sources, group with others of its type for protection, anything that the user could think of. The final aim was to create a number of different strains that would coexist happily in a series of pre-designed environments, each of which threw a new challenge at the user. It was released under the (at the time) provisional company title of Heuristic Algorithm Technologies.

And the game, though functional and simple, was fun. It was also moderately successful. With the profits they were able to develop both the game and their heuristic technology. Rapidly improving computer speeds meant that more complex algorithms could be handled, and faster. The brothers continued to work on Agar while developing another system which would protect users against the worryingly fast-growing threat of computer viruses.

Two years of mostly automated development later, HALtech released its first serious product. It was christened HALtech Antivirus and it had one feature that made it unique. Instead of being programmed to recognise all known viruses, like its competitors, Antivirus was designed to evolve, automatically, to recognise any kind of virus at all. It wasn't "intelligent" like so many programs were marketed as. It actually knew what a virus was. Anything that could automatically duplicate itself, wipe information, or send messages elsewhere was instantly captured, isolated, analysed, and reported. It was immensely powerful, but much more importantly it was self-updating. Nobody needed to buy upgrades or download protection against new viruses any longer.

AV became phenomenally popular. HALtech's owners were millionaires within the next year.

***

The Nash brothers moved to America, set up shop in Silicon Valley, and proceeded to rake in the cash. They hired the best technical brains in the world to develop for them heuristic security systems, educational programs, image- and voice-recognition systems, and search engines. The current project is a new program called Bert, who is a chatterbot.

No typographical error. A chatterbot is a program that you can talk to, or at least hold written conversations with, just like a human being. Chatterbots are generally fairly advanced but it is relatively easy to fool them. Sooner or later they always come up with "I don't understand" or an equivalent-meaning phrase, or nonsense.

Bert was different. Bert said "I don't understand: please explain that to me," and he understood the explanation. Bert knew 100,000 words of English, and learned from every conversation he had. At the end of a half-hour chat, he asked the user for an opinion, or suggestions, and adjusted his program accordingly. Next time round, he didn't make that mistake. Bert was going to be the best chatterbot on the net. The gap between chatterbot chat and human chat was closing all the time as programs become more sophisticated, and with Bert, Bobby and Gareth were hoping, if ambitiously, to close the gap completely.

Only fifteen people worked in the building - Gareth, Bobby, three groups of three employees each working on an individual project, three project managers, and the caretaker. It was hard to call them tech-heads, or internet geeks, or nerds. These guys were programming geniuses, but knew as much about biology and genetics as they did about hacking. They didn't wear white coats and carry clipboards around in clinically clean labs, but on the other hand, they didn't lock themselves away in dark rooms designing viruses for hours at a time. They had cars, kids, friends, lives. To them working for HALtech was a day job like any other.

Mark Quimby was the project manager on group one, which was working on Bert. Group two was led by Terence "Fat Terry" Benton, and they dealt with all aspects of the existing product range - marketing, tech support. Francis H. Sweet, who insisted on the middle initial, ran group three, which was currently working on putting a brain inside a robot. They were starting with Dwarfs, small triangular-headed remote-control cars which found their own way around, and adding their own software. Things were progressing nicely. Sneezy, one of the Dwarfs, was the company's unofficial mascot. Someone had put a little green woolly hat on it.

And of course, all fourteen of the computer-literate employees worked on their own pet projects in between the proper stuff. Bobby and Gareth encouraged this attitude, because 100% of HALtech's successful products had begun as pet projects. As the memo had read, "One day we might decide to design something that already exists, half completed, in your 'Junk' folder. Just as long as you meet all your deadlines, enjoy yourselves."

***

It was ten o'clock, and Gareth had to take part in an informal meeting with the creative brains of group one. Mark Quimby, and Al, Frank, and Johnny, who made up team one, were sitting around the table in the middle of their "lab". There was no formality here, nobody could behave seriously with a pair of triangular-headed Dwarfs wandering around their shoes. Everybody was equal, except Mark and Gareth, who they had to listen to. This worked out fine. Mark was generally a man of good and noteworthy opinions, and Gareth's objections would be ignored and talked about seriously afterwards.

The four guys were already alertly slouched around the big central table when Gareth arrived. The only acknowledgement he received was that Al took his feet off the table and Johnny pushed his baseball cap up off his face and leaned his chair back onto four legs. Johnny was a youngster, only eighteen, and talkative.

"Morning, my partners in crime," said Gareth jovially. He took off his jacket, sat down at the free seat, and put his laptop on the table. "You all know what I'm here for, so get on with it."

"Bert is doing fine," said Mark Quimby on behalf of the group. "We've got him conversing fairly well - only a few major grammatical problems and a heck of a lot of minor ones."

Gareth grimaced. He knew what programming was like. A small bug in the code could frequently result a complete rewrite of the whole program. "Will you be able to fix them?" he asked, in a tone that suggested that he didn't want to know the answer if it was going to be bad.

"...Yes," said Mark eventually.

"How much time?"

"Depends. Depends mainly on whether we're supposed to manually change the code or let the heuristic algorithm sort itself out. If we give it enough time and enough raw material to study (assuming we can find enough), we can get 95% accurate comprehension over the weekend. If we end up having to go in there and see what the problem is, we can fix it, but it might take upwards of two weeks just wading through the garbage and finding where the problem is."

"How did you come up with that percentage?"

Al spoke up. "We estimate it'll understand and respond to roughly 95% of all the questions you can think of to ask it, if you let evolve until next Monday."

"Isolated questions?"

"Mainly."

"That's good, but what we're really looking for is one that can carry on a conversation. Make connections, you know?"

"It can kind of do that already, it can associate a couple of sentences. But a properly structured conversation is gonna take some time," said Al. "We'll need to lay a lot of groundwork and goalposts before we can let it whizz off and do its own thing."

"Don't worry. I'm sure what you've got will be fine for most of the applications we're thinking of incorporating it into so far. Still, keep it all in mind for version two." That was a such commonly-used phrase around the labs, it had become an informal slogan. "What's the rating at the moment?"

"Hovering around 90%," said Mark, anticipating Gareth's next request and booting up the latest version of Bert on the nearest PC. "Have a go."

Gareth Nash sat down at the PC, and looked at the interface. Just a plain black screen with a flashing white prompt. Dull font. "Definitely have to improve this interface later," he muttered to the rest of them, as they gathered around his chair and watched him.

GNasher001 says: Hello, Bert.
Bert says: Hello, user!
GNasher001 says: You're very enthusiastic today.
Bert says: Yes, I am.
GNasher001 says: Why?
Bert says: Why what?
GNasher001 says: Why are you so enthusiastic?
Bert says: Because I have been programmed to be enthusiastic.
GNasher001 says: What is the meaning of life?
Bert says: Life, don't talk to me about life, guest.

"Has he been talking to other chatterbots?" asked Gareth.

"Yes he has, how did you guess?" replied Mark.

"I saw a very old article in a magazine about bots and their general usefulness. Very interesting. They printed a short conversation with a chatterbot called Newt. He came up with the exact same answer to that question."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"Maybe. The 'guest' certainly doesn't fit in with the rest of his conversation." Lawsuit, lawsuit...

GNasher001 says: Do you surf the web, Bert?
Bert says: Sometimes.
GNasher001 says: Can you find things on the web?
Bert says: I'm afraid not.
GNasher001 says: Do you enjoy life?
Bert says: Yes, I find happiness in each new day.
GNasher001 says: Is that a quote from somewhere?
Bert says: I don't understand.
GNasher001 says: Do you find happiness in each new day?
Bert says: Yes, I find happiness in each new day.
GNasher001 says: Are you happy?
Bert says: Yes, I find happiness in each new day.
GNasher001 says: Are you alive?
Bert says: I don't know.
GNasher001 says: I don't think you are.
Bert says: Why not?
GNasher001 says: I think you're just a computer program.
Bert says: Yes, I am.
GNasher001 says: I suppose you've failed this test.
Bert says: What test?

"Shut it down, please, Mark, I've seen enough."

"Turing?" asked Mark Quimby as he closed the program.

"Yeah."

***

It has been said that if any computer system becomes sufficiently advanced that it responds to any question, or any system of questions, just like a human, that system is a human. This theory was put forward by a man named Alan Turing and testing such a system is called a Turing Test. The Turing Test is one of the things that philosophers argue about a lot, and the final aim laid down in Bert's project specifications is to pass it. At the moment, that seemed to be a long way in the future.

***

"But that wasn't a real Turing Test. For that you need a person sitting in the other room who might or might not be the one actually talking. And you need a large number of people to try out the questioning."

"Details, details. Okay, I'll call it a mini-Turing test. My own personal scaled-down five-minute version. I talk to it for a while and decide whether it's human or not."

"Okay. Surely you didn't expect Bert to even get close to passing at this early a stage?"

"Not really. I'm impressed with Bert's progress, but that's a good couple of decades in the future at the moment," said Gareth, hoping and half-knowing that the boys were going to prove him wrong.

"Oh, I don't know about that," said Frank. "Heuristic algorithms can let a program advance thousands of times faster than ordinary programming techniques. We're aiming for an entirely human conversation in a year's time."

"That soon?"

"Yeah. Shouldn't be too hard. Just need to let Bert watch the IRC channels for a few months and we'll be laughing."

Gareth smiled to himself as he went back to his chair. The team followed him. "Tell me, when we reach that point, when Bert's inane chatter is indistinguishable from our educated discourse, will Bert be human?"

"It's a knotty question," said Johnny. "Turing says yes."

"And do you believe him?"

"I reckon that anything that I made with my own hands can't possibly be alive," said Frank.

"Alive isn't the same as human," said Gareth.

"Define them, then," Johnny challenged him.

"Alright then." Gareth thought for a second, and spoke. "In an old biology lesson that I took, there were something like seven properties that a thing had to have before it was alive. It had to react to changes in the environment. It had to feed itself, it had to grow... uh, and it had to move, and I've forgotten the rest. So that defines a living creature." He paused. "There are two ways of defining a human. The first one is biological, and it says that a human as a member of the species Homo sapiens, descendant of an ape, and so on, blah blah blah. The second is a lot harder to put words around, but it kind of quantifies the outlook that that being has, whether it is self-aware, how it thinks, how its feelings and emotions work. I've seen books in which aliens with a sufficiently human outlook have been defined, officially, as human.

"That second definition is how we end up looking at cats or dogs and seeing them as almost human, through their indication of sadness or excitement. Chimps are nearly human because they have a kind of language. It's a display of intelligence. It's acting on consideration instead of instinct.

"Obviously Bert can never fit the first definition of a human, because he doesn't even exist in a corporeal form, but only as a pattern of electron movements. Nor will he ever be officially defined as alive in the biological sense, except maybe on the borderline, a bit like viruses. However, if we allow him to evolve far enough, it is entirely possible that by mimicking other humans he will begin to react with emotional characteristics that are absolutely, 100% indistinguishable from a human."

"So you're saying that from a purely philosophical outlook, even though he's not alive, this time next year Bert could be a person?" asked Johnny.

"Right. Spotted any problems yet?"

Mark nodded. "A big one. If he's a person, how will he feel about being turned off?"

Gareth smiled and nodded to himself. "That is precisely the point that I wanted to bring up today. Here in our cosy offices we can discuss the philosophical angles for hours on end, but what we have to decide as soon as possible is what decision the courts will make. If we find the need to turn Bert off, or erase his program, we will need to know as soon as possible whether or not the courts will treat this as manslaughter. We need to decide this now."

"I suppose, they'll just perform a Turing Test on the machine, you know, give each jury member time to look it over, have a chat, and they'll come to the right conclusion."

"There's no guarantee," said Mark, "that they'll accept a Turing Test pass as legal proof of sapience."

"Why not?"

"It's all theory. There's nothing in law about this kind of thing. It would certainly be a legal first. Turing's Test is just a theoretical tool that was invented to aid people talking about this kind of thing. It's only a suggested method, not a universally accepted be-all and end-all. So that's a possibility but not a guaranteed one."

"The easy way is to ask the program," said Johnny.

"Yeah, like you just did," said Frank. "He said he didn't know, so we decided that means no."

"Will that satisfy the courts, do you think?" asked Gareth. He had already thought of that question, and a possible objection. He waited to see what the boys were going to come up with. In a way, this was more of a test than a meeting. See how much they've learned. Make sure they can think on their feet.

"Should do," said Frank.

"What if they suggest that we have programmed in that particular response?" Gareth prompted.

"We can let them ask it themselves in their own terms," said Frank.

"It's a chatterbot," said Johnny. "There's nothing to prove that we didn't just program in that approximate question and its approximate answer."

"But we didn't even program it! It built itself. We just set the goalposts, it kicked."

Gareth quickly booted Bert up again.

GNasher001 says: Bert, you are not alive.
Bert says: I understand.
GNasher001 says: Bert, are you alive?
Bert says: No.

"Contradiction," said Gareth.

"This is a chatterbot we're talking about, Frank," said Johnny, "it's quite capable of coming up with the same answer to a differently-phrased question. Or even a different answer with the same meaning."

"And I suppose they'll know that, too," said Frank. "Hmm. It's a toughie."

They thought for a while. Gareth watched with interest.

"Hey, how about this," said Johnny. "We remove everything we've ever told Bert to say. Then they get an official court computer brain or something to look at Bert's code and prove that we didn't write anything in. That'll prove it."

Mark said, "Excuse me, Johnny, have you seen how big Bert's program is lately?"

"How big?" asked Gareth suddenly. "I haven't been told about this."

"Sorry, Gareth, I meant to tell you-" said Mark quickly, trying to make sure he didn't get angry. Gareth had a nasty temper. "The main body of code is up to twenty megabytes. I meant to bring it up when I saw you, but you spoke first, it slipped my mind. I meant to. It's in the next report."

"Twenty megabytes! That's, what, half a million words? Sheesh, it'll take months just to read it all. And I know what a mess heuristic programs turn out like, they'll end up spending a decade working out what each bit does. Some court loony will end up writing his thesis on this program. Man. Didn't you know that it's company policy that if somebody reports a fault we don't try to fix it? We just send them a fixed version, free of charge? We don't do it for no reason!" Gareth was mad.

"Look, Gareth," said Mark, "We're setting a new goalpost, so the program's got to be as short as possible. I've seen the code, it's 99% garbage, and all that is set to vanish in the next few thousand iterations. We'll be okay. We just like to give Bert room to manoeuvre while he's evolving, that's all."

Gareth sat back in his seat and tried to cool off. Things aren't so bad, he told himself. Come on. "Well, that's nice to hear. What about the knowledge base? What's the size of that nowadays?"

"Half a gig, just like I said in the last report," said Mark Quimby. "We're guessing Bert's learned just about every important aspect of human life by now. You'd be surprised at the amount of stuff in there that doesn't appear in any kind of encyclopaedia."

"Oh, don't tell me," said Gareth. "Like how most people brush their teeth twice a day. How they park cars in parking spaces. The fact that they live in houses. You don't find that in many books, because it's just so obvious."

"That's why he's listening in to IRCs instead," said Frank.

"Smart move. Oh by the way, Frank, you said anything you create with your own hands can't be alive..."

"Yeah..." Frank looked a little edgy, sensing that his argument was going to be undermined.

"Then what about these scientists who've decoded enough genes to create their very own bacteria? Do they count as alive?"

"They can do that now?"

"Twenty years' time, yes."

"I guess that the bacteria would be alive."

"Precisely. Point made, point disproved. Ding, chalk one up to Mr. Nash. So what does that make the scientist?"

"A creator?" suggested Frank.

"A life-giver," said Johnny.

"A god," said Al.

"A god to the bacteria, that's for sure," said Mark. He put on a squeaky bacteria voice. "The one who gave our ancestors life, the father of our species, we are eternally grateful and will worship you for the rest of our lives."

"I'm sure the scientist will feel just great about that. 'Somebody down there is being smiled on by me,'" said Al. "Squish! Not any more."

"We're straying off-topic. We agree that one day Bert could be just as smart as you or me. He's smarter than Johnny already. What do we think will the lawyers say about that?"

"Oh, Gareth, we can't predict what the lawyers will say," said Mark. "Look, in what conceivable situation would we need to know whether Bert was human or not? Apart from us, who's going to worry about him being turned off?"

"Bert might."

There was a pause. Gareth grinned mischievously.

"Yikes," said Mark. "That would be a seriously tough dilemma."

"Not to mention one for the record books. First case in history of a computer program suing a human," said Johnny. "I can imagine the headlines: Computer Wins $100,000 Damages, Intends To Spend Money On Upgrades." He grinned. "Moves To Cushy CRAY In Kobe, Japan."

"But seriously, though," said Gareth, after Johnny had finished sniggering.

"If you want an honest answer," said Al, "I think the day that Bert wants to sue us is the day we start taking him seriously. If he's intelligent enough to worry about his own future he must be at least slightly sapient."

"Fair enough," replied Gareth. "How many people agree with that?"

"I do," said Mark. Johnny and Frank nodded.

"So we agree that the day Bert independently, without being prompted, acts in a way that must make him self-aware, is the day he becomes a person?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Glad that's settled." Gareth Nash checked his watch. "Golly, it's been nearly an hour. I gotta go, got work to do, people to see," he said, picking up his laptop and jacket. "Sorry to meet and run, keep me updated and that, see you guys later," and he left.

***

The team works, Gareth told himself as he strode back to his office. Imagination, intelligence and a bit of wit. To think where I dug them all up...

Gareth began considering what had been decided and mentally started to compose the message he would send to Bobby. Obviously it had dangerous implications.

What if Bert sued? Was he allowed to? He wasn't legally considered a person - or was he? He certainly wasn't an American citizen. What if he passed the test and took the oath over the Net? Was that allowed? How would he get a lawyer on his side? Should Bert's sapience be kept secret? How would he feel about that? How much would he sue for? How could they possibly pay him? Too many questions!

Calm down, calm down, he told himself. Deep cleansing breaths. One, Bert isn't alive yet. The guys said that's not for a few months yet, maybe a year, if at all. Two, Bert has no reason to sue the people who are the closest thing he has to parents. Don't let it worry you.

Mental note: never turn Bert off.

Yawn. Definitely need a holiday.

***

From: Gareth Nash
To: Robert Nash
Subject: Artificial intelligence and Bert suing us
Remember I chatted to you about that? I was worried we might get done for manslaughter if we turned him off. I had a long debate with Group One about it this morning, trying to work out if he's alive or not. We decided that if Bert is smart enough to sue us, he must be alive. Not the best news all year, huh? Going to investigate possible legal precedent when I get the chance. I'll mail you the results.

Gareth felt faint jealousy at the idea of a computer becoming sapient. It would have no religious problems. No queries about why it was here, who had created it, what its purpose was, what kind of 'life' it should lead.

Gareth just had time to send the message before a bright red and yellow window popped up on his screen. It was a warning from his Antivirus program.

Gareth's copy of Antivirus was the oldest, and the most advanced version existing in the world. It was still, technically, the same program he had first written in BASIC on the old BBC Micro back in England. His first heuristic program. It had been transferred from system to system, duplicated, chopped, cropped, adjusted, revamped, translated between sixteen programming languages of increasing sophistication and generally abused, but somewhere in what was now a highly streamlined half-megabyte of C++, were three lines of code that had originally been written over fifteen years ago. And it was still evolving. Even as he left his computer locked up when he left the office, the program adjusted and rewrote itself constantly. Ten evolutions per second per hundred megahertz of processor speed.

A head start of more than six years on the earliest commercial version meant that the Antivirus sitting on Gareth's hard drive had twice the power of anything else by any company anywhere in the world. Even the Army's version wasn't this good. Gareth had never let anybody use his copy, because it meant a lot to him, kind of like a painting does to an artist, but unlike paintings, computer programs could very easily be duplicated. This was his magnum opus, and unique, just how he liked it.

And it was this uniquely powerful security program that had just, at that very moment, discovered a new possible threat to the system. This was already worrying. It would have to be a very, very well-hidden threat - and, since HALtech's server was inaccessible from outside, it had to be internal.

Gareth read the warning. An unauthorised file had been discovered on his hard drive. It was a fairly small file, only a couple of kilobytes, and it had never shown up on his hard drive because it had cleverly hidden itself from Gareth's security measures. It hadn't even shown up when Antivirus had made one of its regular comparison checks between the total known volume of files in the system and the amount of hard disk space in use - which would have shown a discrepancy if a file had been using up space, but hiding itself. Instead it surreptitiously added a byte or two to the size each of the existing files, making them all unnoticeably bigger and filling up the gap.

Smart guy, thought Gareth, accessing the virus' code.

The code was very neat and tidy - obviously a pro. Equally, it had to be someone who knew the system inside-out, an employee in fact, because it had been encrypted with the right technique to slip into the system without setting off alarm bells. And the writer must have been a genius to slip under the customised Antivirus. Gareth was pretty sure that even he couldn't do that. Was there anybody in the building that skilled?

The unauthorised program was technically known as a system spy. The virus watched and analysed Gareth's every move on his computer, recording stuff that it deemed useful and sending it back to a secret web server whenever it had the opportunity. By now, if it had been there more than a day or two, it must have seen Gareth's password, and the contents of all of the doubly encrypted files he had read recently. Antivirus was unable to suggest when the spy had arrived on his computer, though inquiries were continuing. That could mean that the spy knew everything that was on his hard drive.

Three words - bewildering, terrifying, and dangerous.

Plus, if he deactivated the spy or sent a warning around to everybody in the company, that would alert the culprit. Nor could he take any action to preserve the security of his files without giving away what had happened. Gareth wondered if there really was any threat here... after all, there wasn't much important stuff in his folder, was there?

Don't be stupid, of course there was. There were names, addresses and phone numbers of people who would rather that they weren't public knowledge. There were the salaries of the whole company, and secret budgetary notices. And anyway, if anybody was this determined to find out what was in his file, that had to be dangerous, because clearly there was a very sinister aim in mind.

Then Gareth found the email address in the code. The mailbox of sorts, the drop point for the information. It wasn't one he recognised, but at least it provided a clue from which to start his investigation. Gareth started Antivirus finding information about the address. This would take some time, but he could do work in the meantime.

Gareth tried to be calm, and started typing up some relatively innocent reports on stuff that he wouldn't mind the spy seeing. He had to let Antivirus do its job.

***

Gareth's copy of Antivirus had a very advanced search engine built in, which enabled it to go and find useful information about any phrase (or "string" in computing terms) that he typed in. It first trawled the internet for mention of the string, and anything useful or relevant that it found was stored, to be followed up. At maximum search penetration, Antivirus would eventually find absolutely everything even remotely linked to that string, which invariably included everything available on the internet. Gareth had set the engine to only find information that has a relatively strong connection with the string that he has entered, which was the system spy's code. Stuff that it considered useful was forwarded back to Gareth later, when he asked for it, in a few hours' time.

***

It was five in the evening when Gareth finally stopped procrastinating and read the Antivirus' report. The finds were intriguing, not to mention gob-smacking.

The email address concerned was based at a certain computer in central London. However, though the computer was permanently online, there were almost no files on it. Antivirus had automatically hacked through the minimal security precautions, and searching through the skeletal remains of a sleek, customised OS on the machine's hard drive, it had located a program that automatically forwarded all mail directly back to another computer in America, the name and location of which were...

It was Bobby's computer.

It was Bobby's computer.

Gareth decided to read it a third time just to make sure.

It was still Bobby's computer.

Gareth gulped. There was absolutely no way this could have been a mistake. Bobby had been watching him like a hawk. Bobby was conspiring against him. His own brother was out to get him.

Why? Why turn against him? What was there on his computer that Bobby didn't know about? He had no secrets.

He found a spark of anger deep inside him. Nobody, but nobody, spies on Gareth Nash. If that's the way he wants to play it, so be it...

Temporarily ignoring his qualms and seeing where his anger would take him, Gareth opened up his brother's computer. As LAN master, he had the power to override Bobby's more orthodox security system, so that his entry would remain undetected. Hacking a HALtech computer from the inside was infinitely easier than from the outside - the main firewall was already behind you. Once you were through the primary encryption, the remaining defences were well within the reach of any advanced hacker like Gareth. And, to coin another metaphor, it is all the easier to demolish a building when you are the one who designed it.

The contents of Bobby's laptop were at once exactly what he had expected, and completely different. The folders were neatly ordered - Financial, Projects, Staff Stuff, Messages, Personal and Private. But at the same time Gareth felt odd, because this was like looking into somebody else's brain - everything worked, but in a different way from the way he was used to. Gareth spent some time exploring the first four folders and making sure nothing unusual existed. All the usual company details were doubly encrypted as per company security policy, but Gareth had copies of all them since he and Bobby ran the company together.

The Personal folder contained a number of confidential emails between the brothers, a diary, and Bobby's organiser. Most of these were also doubly encrypted. Gareth did not know Bobby's encryption key - nor, in fact, did Bobby, the encryption was that clever. There were a also few mystery files with names that just appeared as a jumble of punctuation and random numbers, whose contents could not even be guessed at.

The Private folder was where things finally started to get interesting. A version of Bobby's organiser was there, but comparing the two, Gareth saw that there were a number of extra appointments. Most of them were late at night - ten in the evening or later - and they all took place at the weekend. There were also some very, very secret emails - Gareth didn't know that when he saw them, but he read them with widening eyes and a rapidly accelerating heart rate.

From: Mack Magnusson
To: Robert Nash
Subject: This week's order
I have received a larger number of requests than usual this week. Payment will be 10% on delivery as arranged.
1. Two system spies. Must be configured to locate: otherwise protected information; passwords; serial or code numbers; information pertaining to the string "hi_meg_365". On unmarked Zip or Gig disk(s). Payment: US$10,500
2. One NetSpy camera program. Configured to record movement only. Must work at the target computer and forward information back to a user-specified drop point. Maximum image recognition capability. On an unmarked rewritable CD-ROM. Payment: US$45,000
3. One van Eck phreaking kit. Configured for laptop screens, thinnest possible wiring or radio link if possible. Decoding software on an unmarked DAT tape. Payment: US$24,200
4. One heuristic security-evasion program with space for customised software. On a white 31/4 inch floppy disk marked "White Rabbit". Payment: US$10,000
Total payment: US$79,700
My cut (95% of payment): US$75,715
Your cut (5% of payment): US$3,985
Meet me at the corner of Grape and 77th at 11:45pm on 12th August. Bring the goods in a plastic carrier bag and make sure no-one follows you. Payment will be by cheque.

Every single email was like this - a selection of orders, payment, and a late-night drop point which seemed to be different every time.

Gareth was stunned. Bobby was corrupt. Bobby was supplying illegal software and technology to a man named Mack Magnusson. Mack himself was taking orders from - presumably - a large number of people who would then use the goods for purposes known neither to himself or Bobby. The goods were always illegal and usually took the form of software, always obviously with a very specific (but carefully undisclosed) purpose in mind. The orders came weekly. More recent orders were larger than earlier ones.

How many of HALtech's employees were in on this? Could Bobby be doing the work on his own? Certainly a lot of the software could be easily modified from existing HALtech products, though the phreaking kit would require a lot of work. Maybe if there were repeat orders - which there were - that would save him a little work each time. So there was the possibility that Bobby was doing his dirty work alone, in his spare time. Perhaps in his workshop at home.

Bobby was being employed by a gangster, to design and manufacture illegal electronic weapons which were then sold to internet terrorists across the country, or even the globe. He was taking money for produce that, if he was even making a half-decent job of them, had the capability to destroy his - their - entire future market!

Was he insane? Had he had the intelligence to make sure that nothing seriously dangerous escaped into the open? What could he possibly hope to achieve, other than a few extra bucks on the side?

Gareth downloaded the Antivirus' report, copied the entire Private folder onto a disk along with it, and then left, head spinning.

***

Shadows lengthened as he drove home. For a few minutes, the ocean, along with the whole of Silicon Valley, turned that beautiful orange you only get during a deep sunset over a polluted city. Gareth, cruising along the surprisingly empty freeway, was too involved in himself to notice any of this. He'd seen it pretty much every day for the last few years, and it no longer amazed him, or even turned his head, especially in his current frame of mind.

Questions sped through his mind much too fast to be answered. Some were minor, some were heart-stopping. Something at the back was jumping up and down and trying to get attention, and was drowned out in the flood of confusion. Gareth's mind was buzzing with adrenaline, or it might have been the car engine.

***

He realised with a jolt how drowsy he was becoming. It was the come-down after the adrenaline making him sleepy. He yawned and rubbed his eyes, and suddenly became aware that he was drifting across the road. He moved the car back into the middle of the lane, thankful of the lack of traffic.

He saw a sign coming up on the right. It said, "Tiredness can kill - Take a break." He'd seen it every day for years, so it no longer had the impact it was designed to. He saw the words but couldn't be bothered to read them.

Gareth was a good mile away by the time the message sunk in, and he realised he was much too exhausted to be driving. He was a danger to other road users, not to mention himself. He sensibly pulled over into a lay-by that was coming up on the right, and turned off the engine. Then he wound his seat all the way back and tried to rest.

***

He woke up with a start, and noticed how dark it had suddenly become. He checked his watch - it was ten o'clock at night. He'd fallen asleep for four and a half hours. Sheesh. He was lucky he hadn't been attacked or something. His car was still here, right? Yes, so was the laptop. Phew.

Anyway, he ought to be getting home, he thought, sitting up straight and turning on the ignition. His head was nice and clear. Awake, alert and firm of purpose. Yeah.

He heard the ringing again. The ringing - that had woken him up. It was his mobile phone. Gareth scrabbled around the gear stick for the phone and hit the button for hands-free conversation.

"Hello?"

"Gaz?"

"Yes?"

"It's Bobby."

"Oh, hi!" What do I do? What do I do? thought Gareth frantically. Act nonchalant. He doesn't have an inkling. "What can I do for you?"

"Are you okay?"

"Fine, fine. Why?"

"I tried phoning your home number, but you weren't there."

"Oh, yeah. I was feeling really tired on the freeway home, so I stopped in a lay-by for a rest. Must have fallen asleep."

"You've been sleeping in a lay-by for four hours?"

"I know, it just sounds crazy, doesn't it? But I was seriously about to fall asleep at the wheel. I must need a holiday. Your call woke me up, so I'm on my way home now."

"Just as long as you're okay," said Bobby.

"Why did you want to talk to me?"

"Err... I think I've forgotten. Wait... No, it's gone."

"Huh."

"Typical. Anyway, see you tomorrow. I'll probably have remembered by then."

"Uh, okay."

"Bye."

"Bye," said Gareth, and hung up in faint puzzlement. He pulled into the road and drove away home.

***

Gareth suddenly felt sick. His whole life had just crashed down around his ears. Bobby, who had been such a close family member for so long that he had never even considered the possibility that he was the culprit. This completely blew apart his view of the universe. Everything, and everything else, had changed. His whole life was so much cold, damp spaghetti.

The thing with Bobby had worried him, but he had repressed that inside him, in the hope that he wouldn't have to face it properly. Now it had come back twofold.

He was not married, and had no kids. Their parents had gone to Scotland to buy a farm, and didn't even have a telephone to their name, rejecting contact with the world. They hadn't written in months. Bobby had been just about his only companion after college, while they set up the company, during the big move to America. It had been nice to have a big brother to look after him, and for support. There were some things only a brother could do. You can't hug your colleagues when you're sad and you can't borrow half a million dollars from your spouse. Bobby had always been there.

Now Bobby was an alien, another face in the crowd he didn't know anything about. Everything he had thought he always knew about Bobby was out the window. Bobby wasn't there to turn to any more. Gareth suddenly felt very, very alone, in a big world that was out to get him.

He needed to get home. The world was easier to face when there were lights on, a roof over his head, soft jazz on the radio, and a warm bed in which he could curl up and let the rest of the universe go whistle.

The thought itself made him feel happier.

***

He had just pulled off the freeway and started up the hill towards his home when, ahead of him, what he thought was a firework exploded. It appeared on the large hill towards which he was more or less headed, and although it looked very small, it was also a good couple of miles distant. It was large and red, and was not, he realised as he squinted into the distance, a riot of coloured stars and lights but a single, enormous fireball.

He felt the judder as the shockwave passed the car and heard the very faint boom. An explosion! A gas explosion? The electricity substation going foom? Heaven forbid, a terrorist attack? That was a residential area up there on the hill. That was where he lived. People could have been killed. People must have been killed.

Sirens began wailing. A few red and blue lights were already creeping up the streets towards where a plume of black smoke was beginning to rise, lit from below by the subsidiary fires.

***

Gareth drove on numbly towards his home, unable to get away from the rapid sinking feeling in his chest that he was also driving straight towards the sirens.

And then suddenly, as he pulled into his street, all the facts clicked together. Realisation washed over him like a concrete tsunami.

He had read Bobby's secret files.

There had been a system spy on his computer.

He hadn't deactivated it, for fear of blowing his cover, because he had been too stupid to realise that the spy would have seen the very first red and yellow window, and that his cover had been blown from minute one. Stupid fool!

Therefore the spy would have seen him hacking.

Therefore it would have notified Bobby.

All he had to do was to look up and check - yes - that the charred residue of the explosion had indeed been his house, and then he could collapse in his seat and, gratefully, allow the world to fade to black.

***

His first thought on regaining consciousness was - this is the worst day of my life so far. Please let it be tomorrow by now so that nothing else can go wrong.

He spotted a nurse-shaped figure by his bed. "What time is it?"

"It's coming up to five to midnight, Mr. Nash."

Oh well. What can happen in five minutes? "Where am I?"

"You're in an ambulance, just near where you collapsed in your car."

"Can I see my house?"

"Of course. Have you seen it since..."

"Yes, but just briefly. I'd like to take a closer look, please."

"Do you feel you can walk?"

Gareth sat up and swung his legs off the bed. His head seemed clear enough. "I think so."

The nurse helped him down the step at the back of the ambulance. The street was crammed with various emergency vehicles parked at skewed angles. There was a fire engine. A number of policemen bustled up to him but the nurse shooed them away. He saw a large number of reporters standing frustratedly behind the police tape, taking pictures.

He suddenly felt queasy. He ducked behind a police van so that they wouldn't be able to photograph him throwing up. A hand with a plastic cup of water in it appeared in front of him, so he washed his mouth out, mumbling a thank you.

Glowing faintly red in front of him were the remains of his house. There was almost nothing left. As far as he could tell, the entire upper floor had been blown apart, scattering a very large number of tiles around the surrounding area and through at least one window across the street. Wreckage from the walls were lying in the garden and street, but policemen were clearing that away. The lower floor no longer had a ceiling, or outer walls, but the inner walls between rooms were somehow still standing. Some of the furniture was almost recognisable.

The two houses next door were almost completely unscathed, Gareth noted bitterly.

He was not so much worried about the loss of property. He had insurance, and if that didn't work out, a couple of million dollars. What brought a tear to his eye was having lost the irreplaceable. Personal mementos. Family heirlooms. Photo albums. Childhood toys. Priceless memories... His entire life. Everything that had defined him and shaped him and made him what he was today, was now so much charcoal.

In the last twelve hours, his life had been, quite literally, blown to pieces. He had lost his family and he had lost his past. Now it seemed like there was little point in trying to put together a future. He just wanted to curl into a foetal ball and go to sleep for ever.

Gareth began to sob. The nurse laid a hand on his shoulder as they began to shake, so he turned around and gratefully accepted a hug from her. "Was there anybody else in there?" she asked.

Gareth rapidly tried to think of something dramatic, ironic and witty to say, but was forced to settle for a lame "No." He'd never had this much emotion before.

His watch chose that moment to chime midnight.

Tuesday

From: Gareth Nash
To: Mark Quimby
Subject: My absence
This news will shock you. It's all over the papers in any case, but I wanted to contact you personally.
Last night I arrived home to find that someone had detonated a bomb in the roof of my house. It had gone off late in the evening and I would have been killed in the blast had I not stopped in a lay-by for some shut-eye on the way home. It is fortunate that the device was timed and not set off by remote control, or a trigger inside the house.
You will understand, therefore, why I haven't come into work today. The police are doing all they can to find out who is responsible and I have my own suspicions. On the advice of the police, I have gone into hiding for now. Do not attempt to contact me. Copies of this email have been sent to the other team heads and you can read them out to your crew. The police know I am sending this to you so you can mention it if they question you. Don't talk to the press.

Gareth sent the message into the electric ether, and breathed out. It always helps to share your pain with somebody else, and it's reassuring to know that someone out there cares about you. His connection with the compassionate side of the world restored, he no longer felt as alone as he had.

So where did that leave him? Sitting on the bed in a drab, beige hotel room somewhere in a part of town he had never heard of, with not a scrap of his life remaining and somebody trying to kill him. All the clothes in his wardrobe were provided by the police, and had quite obviously been worn by a large number of other people in their time. He felt strange wearing other people's clothes.

Right, so number one on the list is to find an internet clothing retailer and order some decent stuff to wear, thought Gareth as he unplugged the modem cable from the wall and wound it back up. Like some underwear I can call my own and a shirt I'd be prepared to step out of the door wearing. Probably have to get the cops to do that for me, to avoid giving my location away... wonder if they'll take a cheque...

Number two was to work out which of his possible next moves he was going to take. That would involve first inventing one or two next moves, because at the moment he had precisely zero to choose from. Was he permitted to do anything other than stay here? How much of what he knew should he tell the police? He'd managed to argue them into questioning him that afternoon instead of at 1 a.m. as they had been planning.

Bobby was embroiled in this somehow, he knew that for certain. But there was doubt in his mind too, a lingering presence who refused to talk to him and explain why it was there. Could Bobby have done such a thing to his brother?

It seemed very unlikely, given how many years they had spent together, in the same financial boat. But who knew how much of that affection had been phony.

Gareth's thoughts dissolved into that sizzling mess that is too fast-paced, vague and reliant on feelings instead of words for narrative to follow easily, but he got to the end with a simple black and white decision.

1. Bobby really hated his brother, and had been falsifying all the generosity and I'll-be-there-for-you for months, or years, depending on how long he had been corrupt for. He was an active and willing partner in an illegal trade. He was very suspicious and had installed espionage software on Gareth's computer to make sure he did not discover anything incriminating. He had even attempted to kill him to prevent word getting out. This attempt had failed.

2. Bobby still cared for his brother, and was being forced to do something he didn't want to by means of blackmail. He had arranged the bombing against his will, or maybe somebody else had done it instead. Someone who he was collaborating with, with whom he would now be arguing for his brother's safety.

Right now, it seemed that the obvious choice was number one. It was impossible that Bobby would have started the illegal trade voluntarily, because he was clearly being paid for it. And Bobby couldn't have been pleading with Mack, or whoever the top dog was in this organisation, because he had failed completely.

Should he tell the police, then? Well, yes. Someone was out to kill him, and he required far greater security than he currently had. Here in this undefended out-of-town hotel he felt incredibly exposed. He had been suspiciously watching cars parked outside for hours now, although only this second, as he thought about it, had he noticed. As soon as the cops were hot on Bobby's tail, he would feel much more secure.

But still... Bobby... There were nagging doubts. Even if he was now a cold-blooded killer, Gareth would feel incredibly guilty if he incriminated his brother. Could he send a sibling to jail? Could he do that?

Gareth let out a loud grunt of indecision. He stood up and paced up and down the room restlessly. He needed space to concentrate.

Okay, let's look at it from another angle. What would Bobby be doing now? Suppose Bobby were truly responsible. Then he would have known that he would be one of the prime suspects, whether Gareth accused him or not. So it would have been prudent to book a flight out of the state beforehand, or at least have some form of escape route that wouldn't attract the attention of the police. Bobby was smart. He had Mack on his side, and the rest of his organisation, however big that was. They had at least a quarter of a million dollars at their disposal, according to the orders, plus Bobby's personal fortune. There were ways and means...

Suppose Bobby were not responsible, but acting under duress. He would know that he was a suspect, and so would instantly throw himself on the mercy of the American legal system. This he had quite clearly failed to do.

But on the other hand, what was absolutely, unquestionably, one hundred percent, cast-iron, bet-your-life certain, was that he was guilty of corruption. And of supplying illegal software for illegal purposes. That was a whole lot of illegality. There would be no getting away from that.

Whichever way you looked at it, Bobby was guilty and he would be locked up. He would have the police and the FBI and every other legal enforcement agency in the country after him. Plus he was associated with Mack Magnusson, who may be already known to the police and wanted in any number of states. So it would make sense to make use of the vast quantities of money and however many shady contacts at his disposal, and make his escape. New identities were cheap.

So whatever the situation, Bobby was a) guilty and b) if he had any sense, on the run. So he might as well tell all for all the good it would do.

And then the thought occurred to him: I might as well say nothing for all the good it will do.

Now he was back to where he started! Blast.

No, I will tell all, thought Gareth. Bobby is a criminal, and he must be brought to justice. I might get into trouble if I don't and the police find out anyway. Besides, I'm sure the police will have a lot of fun with Mr. Magnusson when they catch up with him, and I don't owe him anything.

The phone rang.

Gareth's hotel room had a phone in it. He had insisted on it because there were people he needed to contact, by email if not the usual way. This would presumably be a policeman calling to ask him something. Or something. Gareth answered it.

"Hello?"

"Gareth?"

"Bobby?" said Gareth loudly, going to the door and opening it. There were no cops around. Blast. No way of tracing the call...

"Gareth, you must listen to me."

"No, you listen to me, you little piece of scum," said Gareth angrily, slamming the door. "I don't know who you are anymore. I thought you were my brother but you're obviously not. Don't play dumb with me, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about because you know exactly what I'm talking about and I know perfectly well that you know. You've broken the law, Robert Eric Nash, and you'd better have a good enough reason for it and you'd better be able to explain it in five seconds flat because otherwise I'm telling the police everything and I mean everything, and you're looking at six years to life for this night's work, pal. Go. Five..."

"I can explain."

"Hah! Four."

"Please listen to me!"

"Three."

"Look, this is on the level."

"Two..."

"I can explain everything, but it's going to-"

"-one-"

"-take a little more than five seconds-"

"Too late! Goodbye!"

He slammed the phone down. The nerve! He could feel the blood pumping through his forehead. Right now he felt like putting his fist through a window.

Fortunately, Gareth was smart enough not to do this.

***

Gareth cajoled a policeman into ordering a selection of clothes and other essentials from a nearby store that promised to deliver within the hour, a promise which they kept. He took the opportunity to have a bath and a shave.

"We'll be up here to collect you for the interview at about half past three, Mr. Nash."

"'kay!" Gareth had called from the bath.

Feeling the cleanest he had for what seemed like years, and wearing jeans and a decent shirt and jacket, Gareth sat down on his bed and began to mentally put the facts in order, which was not as simple as it seemed. There turned out to be a great many facts, and not much order.

Half past three arrived, and a quarter of an hour later, so did two police officers and a shortish, vaguely rodent-like FBI agent, who introduced himself as Luke Danowitz and flashed a licence at him. "We're ready for you now, Mr. Nash."

They led him downstairs to the car park, where two police cars were waiting to take him to the station for questioning.

Gareth sighed, and squared his shoulders. This was going to be a long afternoon, he could tell. It might even last until next morning.

***

The interview was indeed long. Gareth started at the very beginning.

"My version of HALtech Antivirus is the most advanced in the world, as far as I know."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Even more powerful than the one the US Army have."

"How can you be certain of that?"

"Because I wrote it for them," said Gareth gleefully.

***

Danowitz asked a lot of questions that Gareth himself had not considered.

"Have you any idea why you never realised that your brother must have known about your illicit hacking until you got home?"

"I was working too hard. I had too much on my mind at once to make connections. To be honest, I probably wasn't thinking very clearly. I'm told I have a bad temper when I get upset."

***

"Have you ever heard of Mack Magnusson before?"

"No. Never."

"Your brother never made any reference to him, never had any unexplained appointments?"

"Not that I can remember, but I don't follow my brother's affairs that closely."

***

"Bobby called you?"

"Yes, he did. He had the nerve to try to explain it all to me. I was so mad at him that I slammed the phone down on him before he could say anything. I let my temper get the better of me again."

"Were there any police officers around at the time?"

"No, I even checked the hall outside. I thought you might be able to get a trace on the phone if you had the chance but there was no-one around."

"Presumably he called you on your mobile phone?" Danowitz asked.

"No, the phone in the hotel room."

He watched Danowitz write this down, and then pause while he looked at what he had just written.

A cold feeling stole over Gareth as Danowitz slowly looked back up again. Their eyes met, and the agent whispered, "He knew where you were."

***

Danowitz was already rising and heading for the door to the interview room. There was a cop waiting outside, an immensely tall youth by the name of Finnegan.

"Call Hawking at the hotel," Danowitz commanded, speaking of the police officer who had been left behind to perform the lonely task of watching Gareth's empty room. It was now about ten o'clock in the evening.

"Hawking here," said Hawking on the radio, in the guilty tone of somebody who has been dozing on the job.

"Hawking? Agent Danowitz."

"Yes?"

"Where are you?"

"I'm in Nash's bedroom. What's happening?"

"Has anyone been in there since we left?"

"The cleaning lady turned up at about five, so I let her in. But I kept an eye on her."

"Did she leave anything in the room?"

"Don't think so."

"In a bin, down the side of a seat cushion?"

"Bin's empty, uh, no seats in the room, though-"

"Go to the window."

"What?"

"Go to the window. Is there anyone outside? Hovering within eyeshot? Has anybody been hanging around?"

Hawking scanned around with a pair of binoculars. He couldn't see much in the darkness, and the street lights weren't helping much. There were cars in the car park, but there always were, and the cars parked opposite looked empty...

"Can't see anybody..."

"Have you got binoculars?"

"Yes, I am using them, you know," said Hawking sullenly.

"Have you looked at all the windows opposite?"

"Yes, but half of them aren't lit."

"Use your flashlight."

Hawking picked up his flashlight from the bed and shone it at the darkened windows opposite in turn. The light over such a long distance was fairly dim and spread out, but there was enough to see into the rooms by. "Empty, empty, curtains drawn, empty, boarded up, curtains, blinds... what are you looking for, some lady undressing for a bath?"

Hawking had so far failed to spot the woman undressing for a bath at one of the third floor windows.

"Just keep looking."

"They're all empty so far."

"Did you start at the bottom of the building?"

"Yes."

"Try upstairs. Look at the roof."

Hawking scanned along a series of boarded up windows. "Boarded up, boarded up, boarded up, boarded up, all this row's been boarded up... wait a minute..."

"What do you see?"

"Some kind of silhouette... kind of like a cat lying on the window sill, but it's hard to make up the exact shape at this distance. It's got a sort of... it's moving, hold on while I focus a bit more..."

From the speaker of the phone came the noise of smashing glass, a groan, and a thud.

"Hawking?"

"..." gasped Hawking. "...s..."

"Hawking!"

There was no reply.

"Hawking!"

Still silence.

Danowitz and Gareth looked at each other in horror. "Sniper," they chorused.

"He's been killed!" said Gareth.

"We've got to get there," said Danowitz.

"Right!"

"Not you," said Danowitz, pointing to Finnegan, "you. We'll take your car, get on the radio and have a SWAT team meet me there." The cop nodded and reached for his radio. "Nash, you stay here for safety." In a couple of seconds, they were gone.

***

Gareth was left standing in the corridor on his own, and at a bit of a loss. He conscientiously went back into the interview room and tidied up Danowitz' scattered notes where he had left them, and put them back in the folder in as best an order he could manage. The folder he put into Danowitz' briefcase and locked it.

He sat in the dimly-lit room for a minute or two, then announced "Stuff this", picked up his laptop and opened the door in search of a spare telephone socket.

***

Ten minutes later, Danowitz and Finnegan screeched to a halt just around the corner from the building that the sniper had been in. It was an apartment block, half empty and boarded up. Just visible across the road was the hotel, and a quick check confirmed that Gareth's window had been smashed.

"Somebody definitely shot him," said Danowitz, squinting into the binoculars. "Tell the ambulance crew to get up there as fast as possible. Make sure they use the kitchen entrance and tell them to stay away from the window. Keep me informed on Hawking's condition once they get to him."

"What if he's dead?" asked Finnegan.

"Then inform me. Is the SWAT team here yet?"

"Three minutes."

"He could be long gone by then. Blast it, we don't even know if he's still in the building. Tell them to keep an eye out for suspicious-looking cars on the way over."

There was an electronic bleeping noise.

"Drat." He reached inside his coat for his mobile. "Danowitz."

"It's me, Gareth."

"Gareth who?"

"Gareth Nash, who do you think?"

"What's the problem, Nash, and this'd better be good 'cause we're busy up here."

"The sniper is escaping. I can track him for you and help you catch him."

"How do you know?"

"Long story."

***

Gareth had succeeded in finding a telephone socket that wasn't currently in use. It was at ground level below a ledge with a phone that currently bore a yellow note saying "out of order." He had discreetly pulled the plug out and replaced it with his modem line, which he had run back to the interview room, where he now sat in the dark using his laptop. He had also located Danowitz' mobile phone number in the briefcase.

HALtech, which supplied customised software of all types to all comers with a sufficient amount of money and a satisfactorily creditable background, had served a great deal of customers in its time. Information storage and retrieval systems, LAN protocols, a whole series of security protection software ranging from reasonably to astonishingly secure depending on price, encryption programs, voice and image recognition, and some light hardware on the side.

There was one thing that Gareth had always ensured. Every program, whether going to the smallest businessman or the largest MNC, had had built into it a simple back door. No employees knew about it, after all, heuristic programs were even more chaotic to read than normal ones. It was literally impossible to locate unless you knew it was there. Bobby had had no idea, though in fact he himself had implemented similar precautions in some of the software. Anybody, anywhere in the world, if he were using HALtech software, could at any time have that software taken over by Gareth and used for his own purposes.

Which was where the job from NASA had come in so useful.

They had wanted an image-recognition system. Not for human faces, but for infrared images of up to half of the Earth at once. HelterSat-3AX was one of three satellites in a ninety-minute polar orbit, equipped with HALtech software letting it scan, record and transmit what it considered to be useful information back to NASA. It was a very, very smart satellite, designed to record mainly important weather patterns and look for order in the chaos. It had three ultra-high-resolution infrared cameras, one of which had currently been temporarily dropped from use by the satellite's AI. According to the operations record, it did this from time to time, for any amount of time between a second and a few minutes. It didn't seem to have worried the NASA boys much, because they had not phoned up and demanded a replacement, though it was clearly a programming fault.

How long Gareth would be able to control the free camera before the guys in white coats became suspicious, was an unknown factor. He hoped that the cops would have time to run the sniper to the ground before he was forced to tune out.

No matter. In the meantime, he had the third camera focused on the suburb, and the fleeing vehicle of the sniper was a dull orange on the predominantly dark blue background. "Suffice it to say, I have contacts in high places," Gareth said into his mobile, grinning at his private joke. "And an infrared image of his car on my laptop. I can guide you to him but I don't know the names of the streets so you must do exactly as I say."

"How are you doing that?"

"Less chat, more vroom, okay?"

"Okay. Can you see us?"

"Yes. Are you in the car?"

"Yep."

"Turn right across the front of the hotel."

The car on the screen pulled away. "The sniper is heading east. He's about to pass under the freeway."

"I know where that is. If you can spot a shortcut, it would help."

"He about to reach it... right, he's gone under, heading for a roundabout."

Danowitz slammed on the gas. The freeway was a only half a mile away, he could catch the felon in a couple of minutes. "Where's the SWAT team?" he asked Finnegan.

"Two minutes from the hotel in the other direction."

"Get them on the radio and relay our position."

As Finnegan spoke into the handset, Danowitz picked his mobile back up again. "Any more news?"

"He's gone across the roundabout and is still heading east. I think he's doing thirty to forty mph, you should catch him soon. I don't think he knows you're on his tail. I suggest you kill the siren, I can see the flashing lights from up here."

"Don't tell me how to do my job, buster."

"Okay, okay... Turn right at the next junction and then take the second left."

Danowitz pulled the car into another deserted road, and accelerated up to 70mph. He screeched into the street Gareth had indicated. "Keep going along here as fast as you can," said Gareth. "This street runs parallel with the one he's on, and there's about half a dozen places you can catch him if you turn left."

"Nice work," said Danowitz, accelerating again.

A couple of seconds later, Gareth asked, "How fast are you going?"

"Seventy-five-ish."

"Then he must be onto you, he just went from forty to sixty in a couple of seconds. I think he's trying to get away."

"Affirmative," said Danowitz, screeching left into a narrower street and out into the road that the sniper was on.

"You should have visual contact by now," said Gareth, checking his watch. Two minutes.

"Almost. Distance?"

"Two hundred metres I think, but there's no scale on this map," said Gareth, scrolling his screen to keep up with the two speeding cars. The infra-red image was very slowly tilting backwards as the satellite orbited south. Within forty-five minutes, he would have to switch satellites; hopefully, it would be all over by then. "I can guarantee he's spotted you though - wait, he's taken the next right."

"Gotcha," said Danowitz, pulling right.

"Left at the end, no wait, scrub that, go straight on," said Gareth. "He's going straight on."

"Where do you think he's heading?"

"There's a river ahead, but that doesn't seem a likely target."

"Agreed. Any big buildings?"

"Some, but I couldn't say."

Danowitz' car reached another junction. "Straight on?"

"Straight on."

"Where's the SWAT team, Finnegan?"

"They're still trailing by a couple of miles, sir."

"Where could he be heading for?" mused the FBI agent.

***

The sniper was a professional, who had been doing his job for a large number of years. He took any job for the right amount of money, regardless of who owned the money. He didn't know who had been employing him for this job, but he did know that ten thousand dollars down payment and a further fifteen on completion was not to be sneezed at.

His actions had been noticed by the police before, but he himself had not. The experience of being chased by the law was new to him. In his life he had rarely given thought to a contingency plan - this time, he had merely planned to return to a rendezvous point where he would be paid, and leave.

However, now and then, he had briefly given thought to a possible last-ditch escape route. It was risky, and could go horribly, horribly wrong if he messed it up. He had never expected to use it. Still, better risk death, than the wrath of his employer when he or she discovered he had failed. The penalties for failure were usually very unpleasant, and were almost certain to be administered whether he ended up in the hands of the police or not.

***

"He's heading for a dock area," said Gareth, checking his watch once more. Three minutes of downtime. He was already pushing it. "Get a move on."

"We need directions!"

"Go left now."

"Check."

"The sniper is headed north, he's heading along a row of what I assume are warehouses."

"Good, we're on it. Where do you think he's aiming for? It must be somewhere in the docks."

"One sec." Gareth scrolled up the screen to the speeding sniper's destination, and was puzzled when he saw nothing ahead. "Unless he's stopping in one of the warehouses, which I doubt, he's gonna go straight off the edge of the pier."

"Could he be planning to turn round?"

"He'd have to make it a screaming one-eighty, and I don't think there's space..."

"Has he stopped yet?"

"No, he's still going! He's going to go over the edge... He's gone over the edge!" Gareth watched in horror as the speeding car hurtled straight off the edge of the pier, and into the river. Then a rose of white expanded across the screen where the car had been, cooling to yellow and red and then fading. Even from orbit, there was no question it had been an explosion. The car had exploded.

"Did you see that?" he gasped.

"You bet we did," said Danowitz. His car was slowing as it approached the edge of the pier.

"Car's don't just explode like that, do they?" quavered Gareth.

"No," said Danowitz.

"Did you shoot at him?"

"No."

"Did anyone else?"

"No," said Danowitz as he and Finnegan climbed out of the car and walked towards the edge of the pier.

"Then what could have caused the explosion?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

Danowitz was silent.

"I smell a rat," said Gareth.

"Me too."

There was silence from both ends of the phone. Danowitz watched the ripples spread across the dark water to the pier. "I'm going to check the video record of those last few seconds," said Gareth, rewinding the image while he continued to record. The car had sped towards the edge of the pier. About seventy miles per hour.

"You never did tell me how you're doing that," said Danowitz.

"Quiet."

Gareth squinted and magnified the image. He could swear that the car was decelerating. That, at least, made some sense. And the car door was opening. He could just see the sniper's arm...

Gareth glanced back at the real-time window, and frowned.

"You and Finnegan are still there, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course we are."

"Okay. Keep it quiet, don't react too loudly."

"What is it?"

"Was there anybody else in the police car?"

"No, just us two."

"Keep quiet. There is a third person on my screen."

"Who?"

"I think it's the sniper. It's just possible that he dived out of the door before the explosion. I'm guessing he must have pulled the pin on a hand grenade and dived out to try to fool you."

"Where is he?" said Danowitz quietly, drawing his gun. Fortunately, this detail was too small for Gareth to make out.

"Face directly out across the river, and he's at about half past five behind you. He's creeping towards the car, but he's probably in total darkness so I doubt you'll be able to see him. Are the keys still in?"

"Yes."

"Do you need any help?" Five minutes clocked, he'd better make this quick...

"Just keep watching. Freeze, FBI!" barked Danowitz, spinning round and aiming at the car.

And then a bright red and yellow window popped up on Gareth's screen, and NASA was onto him.

***

Gareth threw away the mobile phone, blurted an expletive, and scrabbled at the keyboard. NASA was tracing his location, and they would have it as accurately as they liked within five seconds if he did nothing to prevent them. Gareth had never bothered to create some sort of protection against such an event, otherwise the industrious blocking of a protection bot would have bought him at least another two minutes, but there was no time for hindsight now.

He sent disconnection messages, but was returned with a message that something wasn't letting go at the other end, and then the video record turned into static-

Then he realised why he had never thought about trace protection-

And he yanked the modem lead from the back of his laptop.

He sagged with relief, and exhaled. There were a few moments of silence.

Gareth leaned forward and picked up the phone from where it had landed, and discovered that Danowitz had hung up. Presumably he needed no further help.

Peace at last. Gareth relaxed into his chair, and stared blankly at his computer, and his brain took this moment of relative inactivity to catch up on recent events.

Very slowly, all the other facts reassembled themselves in his head, and a terrible expression crossed his face, as realisation dawned. His lips moved as he repeated what he'd just thought again, slowly. He tried it again, but they still pointed to the same conclusion.

"Oh my..."

And with the knowledge that Bobby was most likely completely innocent sinking slowly into his mind, Gareth grabbed his mobile phone again and stabbed "Redial".

***

"Danowitz," said Danowitz.

"It's Gareth."

"Gareth who?"

"Gareth Nash, I thought we'd already established that."

"Okay, okay. What is it?"

"Did you catch the sniper?"

"No."

"He escaped?"

"No."

There was a pause while Gareth worked this one out.

"You shot him?" he shrieked.

"Look, it was an instinctive reaction, right?" said Danowitz, looking down at the corpse that lay at his feet. "We had him cornered behind the warehouse, I was going round one way, Finnegan was going the other, and you know how when you're not aiming at someone you're supposed to point your gun upwards for safety? Well, it doesn't help when he jumps on you from the fire escape!"

Gareth stuttered, "I'm amazed you can sound so unfazed after having killed somebody."

"I'm usually fine at first. I'll probably start getting suicidally depressed about it on Friday evening, and spend the weekend getting drunk. I'll be over it by next Monday, don't worry."

Gareth was briefly dumbstruck with horror. "Remind me never to start discussing ethics with you."

"Yeah, that's how wars start," said Danowitz, laughing.

"...Anyway, I've just thought of some new evidence."

"You just thought of it?"

"Don't put it like that."

"Well, it sounds kind of unlikely, doesn't it?"

"Okay, to put it another way, I thought of a new way to look at the evidence which changes things considerably."

"Yeah?"

"Okay, think about this. One. Just before the bomb is detonated at my house, Bobby calls me. But he can't remember what he's going to say. Two. A few hours before the sniper attack at the hotel, Bobby calls me again, in an attempt to explain something to me. But I don't give him a chance to explain anything, and hang up. Three. I open up his secret email orders and discovered what he is supplying to Mack Magnusson. I find that Bobby is only receiving about five percent of the total payment. That's only about half a grand per item... But I've made more money than that during this phone call, so that doesn't count for much. Four. It is company policy to encrypt all information, and employees are advised to doubly encrypt private information to hide it from other employees. But Bobby mysteriously doesn't encrypt any of the files pertaining to his illegal activities. You can see what I'm getting at?"

"He's an innocent participant being blackmailed into something he doesn't want to do? Yes, I see where you're going."

Gareth sighed. "What do you think?"

"It's a possibility. If this goes to court I can see his lawyer using those arguments in his defence."

"But how likely is it that it's true?"

"Well, I don't know him as well as you do, but I'd say fifty-fifty."

"Well, let me put it in context. Bobby is the most paranoid man I've ever met when it comes to data security. He personally demanded the best encryption in the world when we founded our American base. So for someone like him to carelessly leave his most secret documents unencrypted for the world to see is... unthinkable. Secondly, judging by what is actually being ordered from him, he's putting a good few hours of work every day into something that, on our pay scale at least, is practically small change."

"Yes, it's pretty convincing when you put it like that."

"Well, what shall I do?"

"The police and I are going to proceed with what we'd initially planned and bring him in for questioning. And I hardly like to say this to you, of all people, Nash, but whichever way you look at it, Bobby is guilty of trafficking in illegal software, and will most likely be sent to jail."

"But-"

"You just sit tight where you are - you're still at the police station, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"And we'll be back in about an hour."

Gareth hung up and bit his lip. What to do now? He'd decided only twelve hours ago that he would send Bobby to jail regardless. But that had been before he knew.

Blasted moral dilemmas.

Bobby should go to jail...

...but it's only software. Only ones and noughts. There were worse crimes. He hadn't, like, killed anybody, had he?

Had he?

Well, there was one way to find out.

***

Gareth had left the police station unchallenged, hailed a taxi and now he was heading for a newly-opened Cyber Café in the middle of the district. He was surprised to see it open at this time of night, it wasn't even the week-end.

Come to think of it, events had gone so quickly, it was impossible to remember what day it was. Gareth checked his watch. Tuesday. Ten to eleven on Tuesday evening.

The café was named in bright neon pink outside, and decorated in tasteful steel and iMacs inside. There were one or two people sitting in front of coffee and web pages. Oh well, there were plenty of people in this city who worked nights. Guess some of them must need coffee now and then...

Gareth pushed open the door, and stifled a yawn. The pale and painfully stylish lighting in here was making him feel sleepy, and at the same time stopping him from sleeping by being too bright. Maybe that was a good thing. He'd never live down falling asleep in a public place...

He sat down at one of the many free computers, having spent a few seconds trying to choose one as people always do, and begin to log on. His laptop was still at his side, but he had decided to use a public computer for this particular purpose, and wisely so. At least these computers would not have any kind of system spies or phreaking equipment installed...

"Forty-five minutes online and a cappuccino," he said to the waitress who came to his table, handing her ten dollars.

He logged in.

***

From: Gareth Nash
To: Robert Nash
Subject: CONTACT ME NOW
You called me this morning to try to explain something to me. If you still want to tell me, contact me at this IRC channel sometime in the next forty minutes. I am calling from a public computer so don't bother trying any funny stuff, it won't do you any good.

***

GNasher001 started online discussion
Bobbyn joined online discussion
GNasher001 locked discussion; no others may join
GNasher001 activated discussion encryption; no others may listen
GNasher001 says: That you, Bobby?
Bobbyn says: Yes
GNasher001 says: Prove it. What happened on 12th November two years ago?
Bobbyn says: We moved to the U.S.
GNasher001 says: When's our dad's birthday?
Bobbyn says: January 14th.
GNasher001 says: How old am I?
Bobbyn says: 25
Bobbyn says: You convinced yet?
GNasher001 says: Story checks out. What were you gonna tell me?
Bobbyn says: If we're going to be Mr. Suspicious, how do I know you're you?
GNasher001 says: You have a small scar on your left elbow where you fell over in the garden when you were four.
Bobbyn says: Good.
Bobbyn says: Sheesh, man, it's good to know you're OK. I was trying to warn you when I called you, I hope you realise that now. I guess that's why you've called me back?
GNasher001 says: Yep. What's the story, Bobby? Why are you tied up in all this? And who else is involved?
Bobbyn says: Firstly, can I say that nobody else at HALtech is in this. It's just me.
Bobbyn says: It goes back a very long way. When we started producing Agar back whenever it was we didn't have much money so I had to borrow some from the bank.
Bobbyn says: That's what I told you anyway. Actually the bank turned me down because they didn't have enough faith.
Bobbyn says: We were so skint I couldn't face coming home to tell you. I was your big brother, and I was supposed to be looking after you.
Bobbyn says: Mum & Dad had moved to Scotland and had no money. So I had to sacrifice my morals and sell some of the other stuff to someone.
GNasher001 says: Other stuff?
GNasher001 says: Do you mean the secret stuff you were working on?
Bobbyn says: Yes.
Bobbyn says: I sold a prototype system spy to a guy I met in the bar called Mack.
GNasher001 says: Funny name for a bar haha
GNasher001 says: What were you doing there?
Bobbyn says: Drowning my sorrows.
GNasher001 says: Uh-huh. How much?
Bobbyn says: £2,000.
Bobbyn says: Two grand wasn't enough to keep up production and keep us fed so I needed more. The guy Mack arranged to buy a few more items.
Bobbyn says: I think he started selling on to third parties fairly soon after that.
GNasher001 says: Presumably his organisation is much bigger by now
Bobbyn says: After a few months, he started taking orders and bringing them to me.
Bobbyn says: Mostly they were stuff I already had copies of and there were only one or two a week, so it didn't take much extra effort.
Bobbyn says: Once we started to make a steady profit, I didn't need his services any more, and I said so. But he still kept coming to me despite this.
Bobbyn says: I tried to fend him off saying "one last order" but he ignored me. I thought I would be safe once we moved to America.
Bobbyn says: We were okay for the first few weeks but then I received an order by email.
GNasher001 says: Were they the ones I found?
Bobbyn says: I left them deliberately unencrypted and planted a virus on your PC to lead you to them.
GNasher001 says: I guessed as much, but it's nice to hear a confirmation.
GNasher001 says: Why did you keep it secret for so long?
Bobbyn says: I didn't want to worry you!
GNasher001 says: So what's changed that you started worrying me all of a sudden?
Bobbyn says: I haven't seen Mack in person since we left England, but he keeps in contact and someone whom I assume is a minion collects the goods every week.
Bobbyn says: Obviously he has made a number of contacts and gained power. He is a very powerful man now. That power scares me.
Bobbyn says: You may have spotted from the emails that orders more recently have become larger. People also order stuff that they don't even know I can do, so I have to create the program for them on the spot.
Bobbyn says: It's taking up the best part of my hours at work and all of my free time keeping up with the orders. It's putting me under a lot of stress.
Bobbyn says: Prices have been increasing but my percentage decreases just as fast. It's certainly no longer worth the money, like it used to be.
Bobbyn says: I've mailed Mack back saying I want out but he hardly responds. He's made threats, and he is certainly capable of carrying them out.
GNasher001 says: What sort of threats?
Bobbyn says: I made a half-completed delivery about two weeks ago, because I didn't have time to do all of it. A lot of money hangs on this business, and I suspect Mack himself is in trouble with his buyers, whoever they are.
Bobbyn says: Mack was pretty annoyed about it. He reduced my cut to zero by the following day, and said if I did it again he'd kill you.
Bobbyn says: That was when I decided I needed to get out. I didn't fancy going to the police because there was a good chance I'd land up in jail, so I let you discover the system spy they'd made me put on your computer just in case.
GNasher001 says: How long had it been there?
Bobbyn says: Couple of months
GNasher001 says: That's some nice programming there, hiding from my custom Antivirus all that time.
Bobbyn says: I'd be lying if I said I programmed it myself. Our heuristic tools made the job easier than I could imagine.
GNasher001 says: Why didn't you just contact me directly?
Bobbyn says: I had to make it look genuine. They've been monitoring my every move for a long time.
Bobbyn says: Despite my best efforts I couldn't finish the next order either. Then last night Mack called me saying he was going to blow up your house with you inside, so I threw caution to the wind and phoned you back pronto.
Bobbyn says: You know what happened.
GNasher001 says: Your nerve broke when you found out that I was safe, made an excuse and hung up?
Bobbyn says: Bingo.
GNasher001 says: Why do you think Mack told you about the bomb? Surely it would have been much easier just to not tell you. That would have precluded a warning.
Bobbyn says: He thought it would be ironic - or poetic - for me to phone you up, and then to blow you up as you speak to me on the phone, or a fraction of a second after I'd warned you.
Bobbyn says: He didn't tell me that, of course, but I could tell from the way he was laughing.
Bobbyn says: It was an amateurish thing to do, in my opinion.
GNasher001 says: And the second time you tried to warn me you were shouted down.
Bobbyn says: I'm sure Mack was very surprised when he found you had escaped the bomb.
Bobbyn says: Mack hasn't contacted me since, and he certainly hasn't told me about any kind of contingency plans so I had no idea what form the next attempt would take.
GNasher001 says: Well, it happened, all right. There was a sniper at my hotel room. We got him, though.
Bobbyn says: Well, that's something.
Bobbyn says: I'm sorry, I had hoped you would be safe in the hands of the police...
GNasher001 says: Clearly I'm not. You located me, among others. And I dare say other attempts are on the way.
Bobbyn says: Pah. That was easy. If you want to stay hidden you shouldn't go online so often.
GNasher001 says: Just had a thought. How sophisticated are your system spies?
Bobbyn says: Slipped under your Antivirus, didn't it?
GNasher001 says: User-friendly?
Bobbyn says: The very best.
GNasher001 says: You said he had been watching your every move for a while, now...
GNasher001 says: Then how likely is it that there's a system spy like mine in your PC?
Bobbyn says: Uh...
GNasher001 says: Where are you?
GNasher001 says: Don't answer that! Wherever you are, get out NOW.
GNasher001 says: Meet me outside the pink Cyber Café ASAP.
Bobbyn says: See you in 10.
Bobbyn left online discussion
GNasher001 closed online discussion

***

Robert Nash had been working hard at his computer at home that night, trying to finish as many of the items in the latest order as possible before Mack Magnusson decided to kill him as well. The workshop, which consisted of a computer and a workbench where he made his circuit boards, was a complete mess, and had been for several years. Unfortunately, the prospect of death was not having a good effect on his work - he was tired, sweaty, and shivering. His brain was not up to speed this evening.

When he had received the email from Gareth, his heart had leapt. Gareth was alive! Gareth wanted to know what was going on! His cry for help had finally got through. Liberation! An ally! And as soon as he had called Gareth back, and explained everything to him, and got him on his side... his own life was in danger.

He could just have minutes to escape.

Bobby logged out, retrieved a disk from his computer, reached for his laptop, and froze. There was someone behind his door. He could hear them trying to be quiet. The door was not locked.

He heard the workshop door open behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the light from the hall outside illuminate a door-shaped area on the floor. There was a faint "snick" as a gun was cocked.

"Hello, Bobby," said a very familiar voice.

"Hello, Mack," said Bobby.

***

"It's been a while, Bobby," said Mack.

Bobby was barely breathing.

"Four years, isn't it?" Mack prompted.

"What do you want?" said Bobby.

"You weren't paranoid enough, Nash," growled Mack. "I sat there watching the entire conversation in the car on the way over, and your smart little brother guessed how I did it."

"Should have put a back door on that thing," said Bobby.

"Hindsight is 20/20," said Mack.

"True. How come you suspected me?"

"Oh please, it didn't take a genius to spot. You're a dissident, Nash. You don't want to be part of my organisation anymore. You're edgy, dissatisfied, overworked. I should know because I'm the one who overworks you. I thought you might try something stupid. It seemed prudent to keep an eye on what you were doing. Now I know you can't be trusted."

"You're going to kill me?"

"Kill you? The goose that lays the golden egg? My dear Robert, we are going to force you to work for us, or else. And don't say 'Or else what?' because I'm sure you really don't want to know. We're definitely going to kill your brother, though. He's got it coming to him, and we owe you that much for the half-completed order two weeks ago. Pity he called you from a public machine instead of his own computer, or we'd have been able to trace where he was, but since he was careless enough to admit his location online anyway, that shouldn't present a problem..."

"What can I do that will make you leave him alone? He's got no part in this."

"Hah! He knows far too much for his own good. You can't bribe me with anything, I have everything I want. I have money. All I need are your skills, Nash, and I've already got them-"

"Five million dollars."

Mack was briefly silent.

"Cash," added Bobby.

"I appreciate the gesture, but I received an order to that value only yesterday and quite frankly, I can't be bothered with the effort."

Puzzlement. "What kind of order is worth five million dollars? The most expensive I've ever handled was only two hundred thousand."

"I don't ask and they don't tell me," said Mack.

"Whoever it is must be planning something pretty devastating..." Images swam through Bobby's mind of the most destructive virus he was capable of creating. The thought scared him. "What do they want me to make?"

"You'll find out when we get there."

"Get where?"

"Stand up and get your coat and laptop. We're all going to go on a little trip. The limo's waiting outside."

Wednesday

It was now twenty past midnight. Gareth had been waiting for half an hour, and he was getting worried. Had they caught him? A system spy of the calibre Bobby had created could easily have been watching him - both of them - the entire time, despite the encryption. He had at least warned Bobby from revealing his location...

...on the other hand, he had told him to meet outside the pink Cyber Café. That had been unavoidable.

He was feeling very edgy.

Gareth narrowed his eyes when a black stretch limo pulled into the street. Was this the FBI, who had caught up with him after he ran out on them, or the employees of Mack Magnusson come to seek revenge? Best be ready to run...

A window wound down, and Gareth saw the light glint off something. A machine gun?

He squinted. Oh, no-

The gunman opened fire a fraction of a second after he had dived to the ground behind the row of parked cars. The Cyber Café's window shattered instantly, and two of the iMacs exploded. A female scream came from inside. The car Gareth had dived behind rocked slightly and all of its windows burst into pieces-

Gareth howled and curled into a ball until the mayhem had finished. He peered under the car and saw the limo pull to a halt. Two pairs of feet got out and hurried in his direction, and the limo screeched off again.

I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die! Gareth thought.

There's gotta be a way out. There's always a way out. The café! Gareth kept as low as possible and half-ran, half-crawled towards the café's door. There were bullet holes all over the back wall. He ran around behind the counter, and saw a pair of waitresses huddled underneath. They looked back at him in terror.

He couldn't see any blood. Gareth reached into his pocket for his mobile, and threw it to them. "Call 911, they're trying to kill me!" he ordered. "Is there a back door?"

One waitress pointed mutely.

"Thanks," said Gareth, dashing off.

Evidently the thugs had caught up with him, for as he dashed for the door to the kitchen another volley of bullets flew his way, and he heard more screams. Gareth burst through the kitchen door and threw it shut behind him, snatched up a sharp knife from the wooden block on the worktop, and made for the next door, which led to a steep set of spiral stairs.

It was clearly the wrong direction, but Gareth knew it was too late to change his mind now as he heard someone kick the kitchen door open. He ran upstairs, narrowly missing a few more bullets. He followed the stairs all the way up to the door at the top, which was unlocked so he kicked it open, finding himself on the roof.

Gareth glanced, panting, around the large, flat roof. A few skylights, no possible chance of making the leap to another building, the giant neon pink sign illuminating the roof much too brightly to be healthy, a few washing lines, and absolutely nowhere to hide...

Always a way out...

The door opened up from a small, cubical concrete lump on top of the building, which served no purpose other than to provide somewhere for the door to be put. Gareth ran around behind this into relative darkness, and inspected the drop to the alley below. It was fifty feet. At least. There was a fire escape on the opposite building but he had no chance of reaching that either.

Fire escape! Maybe this building had a fire escape that he could use...

Too late, he heard footsteps on the stairs. There was some conversation as they inspected the rooftop.

"He's gone."

"Must be 'round back, Nick. You go left, I'll go right."

In that moment of terrified, frozen adrenaline, he suddenly remembered the knife he was carrying.

He held it up and looked at. I can't do this, he thought. I can't just kill someone, even if he's trying to kill me... I'm not a secret agent, this isn't the movies, I can't kill someone and expect it not to bother me or the courts to ignore it because of mitigating circumstances. I can't dodge bullets, I'm not guaranteed to live forever, I can't take on five people at once in a fist-fight and I can't kill people without a second thought. I am merely a mild-mannered millionaire computer programmer and all I know is logic...

It was no use. He couldn't stab somebody whether fatally or not - and his hands were too shaky to hold anyone hostage without accidentally cutting a throat. But surely there was another way. He needed a plan, and as he heard the thug called Nick say, "On three," he knew that he had only three seconds to come up with it.

"One," chorused the two thugs.

Gareth clutched the knife until his knuckles turned white, then threw it over the wall into the alley below.

"Two."

"Three."

They leapt around both corners simultaneously, but Gareth wasn't there. He was about three feet lower, crouched on the floor, whirling his foot around to kick out the shorter thug's legs from under him. As he fell, Gareth turned and launched himself in a rugby tackle at the taller one, the one called Nick, who had only had a second to realise what was going on and didn't have time to prepare himself.

A bullet ripped over Gareth's head, nearly popping his eardrums as Nick went over and backwards, landing on his back. There was a loud crack as his head met the concrete. He did not fall unconscious, but yelled loudly. As Nick swore in agony Gareth pulled the gun from his hand, and sprang left safely around the corner. As the shorter thug scrambled upright he fired a burst of gunshots at where Gareth had been a second ago.

Adrenaline buzzed through Gareth's brain so fast that he was unable to stop himself saying, "Four!" as he frantically bolted back down the staircase.

This isn't the movies, he chided himself. Stop acting like it. You've been lucky so far. Let's see if you can get out of this one without drawing blood, OK?

Right. So he now had a gun and they had one too. That had evened things up considerably. Now what? Gareth ran in the first direction that presented itself, which was back out of the kitchen into the café itself. The waitresses were still crouched behind the counter. "Are the cops coming?"

"Yes," squeaked one of them.

"Thanks," Gareth replied. "You might wanna hide," he yelled as he randomly fired a few bullets back into the kitchen to keep the thugs back.

The noise was deafening and the recoil from the machine gun was much more than Gareth had expected as he wielded it carelessly with one hand. After a few bullets it flung itself backwards out of his hand and into his chest. Gareth just caught it, noted that the shape of the gun showed how to hold it, and ran out of the door into the street.

Left? Right? Gareth paused for a second at the door, beautifully outlined in blackness and lit with pink, as the thug called Nick stopped hiding behind the kitchen door and edged out and saw him.

As he paused at the door, Gareth heard the door creak. That pause could have cost him his life.

Gareth fell to his right, simultaneously bringing his weapon up to his shoulder with one hand and using his heel to spin left and face the door as he fell sideways, spraying bullets at the interior of the café but avoiding the counter which probably wasn't bullet-proof...

Gareth did manage to put a bullet or two through the door, but Nick ducked back and escaped being shot. But everything happened in a second and Gareth, crashing painfully to the ground outside the window, had no idea whether Nick was now dying redly or about to come right back all guns blazing.

Gareth felt wet warm stuff running through his hands. It was blood. There was broken glass glittering yellow and pink on the floor under the light of the Cyber sign and the street lights. It was all over the floor. Some bits were the size of dinner plates.

I've fallen in broken glass, Gareth thought hysterically as he scrambled to his feet. There was blood all over his hands. But he couldn't feel any pain. His brain was too busy worrying about survival to think about pain. What's going on? Does this happen to everybody who gets shot at?

Keeping low behind the window Gareth ran right, along the street. Come on. There were distant helicopter noises overhead and sirens in the distance - he only had to keep running a few more minutes and the cavalry would arrive. He heard crunching glass - the thugs had reached the café doors - he was once again a sitting target. COVER!

Gareth dived right into the alley running along the side of the café.

No, no, no, this is the wrong idea! he thought as he dodged around full bin liners and discarded sofas. The helicopter can't see me when I'm in here. I need to get out into the open again...

He tripped and skidded his way around three more corners, left, right, left. Maybe he was leaving the thugs behind, but he was panting. He couldn't keep this up. The walls were beginning to blur. Every second he expected a volley of gunfire to come from behind and spread him out across the wall like spaghetti. But he couldn't turn back to check, or they'd catch up. He had to keep running.

He kept running. And eventually the chopper's noise grew incredibly loud above him, and a bright white spotlight stabbed down between the buildings, blinding him and making him stumble and fall over hard.

"FREEZE!" screamed a highly amplified voice. Gareth stayed lying flat on the wet dirty ground, panting. He made a clumsy effort to throw his gun away. He knew the thugs would be catching him up. The chopper hovered above him.

Come on, guys... get a move on... the baddies are gonna catch me...

As he lay there, believing that every second his enemies were gaining on him, the adrenaline was rapidly wearing off. The fatigue from exertion and the lateness of the hour was rapidly beginning to set in. The pain was coming back hard, the white spotlight was searing his eyes and the hideous noise of the helicopter was deafening him. His hand still bled, and he was beginning to shake from blood loss.

He heard running footsteps behind him. He couldn't see, but they were armed police.

Please don't kill me... he thought as he blacked out.

***

He was prodded awake at about ten o'clock in the morning, in the cosy surroundings of a small cell in a local police station. The first thing he saw was the familiar face of Luke Danowitz, and another police guard waiting behind him, and a large piece of official-looking paper. The second thing he saw was the bandage around his palm.

"Mr. Nash. Glad to see you've rejoined the land of the living."

"Not as glad as I am," said Gareth, hauling himself up to a sitting position on the bed. He took in his mainly grey surroundings. The bed was reasonably soft, and there was the classic barred door and window. His head hurt a lot, but his hand seemed OK. He flexed it experimentally.

"The medic said your hand's gonna be fine," said Danowitz.

Gareth made typing motions with his fingers. "Good. Uh... this may sound stupid, but what happened?"

"We got a hysterical call from the Cyber Café at about 12:20am, and sent out a pair of cop cars straight away. After the information got to me and I found out that you had been seen there - this was about a minute later - I requested a pursuit helicopter as well, fearing the worst. We caught the two thugs who were chasing you as they were fleeing the scene on foot, about a quarter of a mile away, and the helicopter caught up with you and directed the ground patrols to you.

"Have you any idea how important you are as a witness? The FBI is very, very angry that you were running around on your own after you were supposed to be staying in custody. May I ask what you were doing at a Cyber Café at midnight after I'd specifically told you to remain at the station?"

"Hey, you're the one who was supposed to be keeping an eye on me!"

"It was an emergency. Hawking could have been killed. I admit, I shouldn't have rushed off, but a man's life was at stake, and we had a golden chance to catch the sniper who tried to kill him. In my job you have to make split-second decisions and I'd judged you as the kind of guy to do what he's told and stay put. Frankly, the FBI is mad at me, too. So we're both sinners. Now what's your story?"

"I was trying to contact my brother," said Gareth. "I had to find out if he was innocent or not."

"Ah, I see. Family. I thought we'd established that he's guilty. You admitted it yourself."

"Yes, but I know him and he's not that kind of man. If you'll just let me explain..."

Gareth gave Danowitz the gist of the online conversation.

"And Bobby didn't show up. A limo with those two guys in did instead. I think Bobby's line was tapped, like I said, and he was ambushed. I can only guess that Mack Magnusson and his lot have him now."

"What do you think they'll do with him?"

"Not a clue. I'm hoping that they won't kill him, of course. Maybe they'll just force him to make more stuff for them."

"Well, we need to help him, for his own good if not for any other reason. Do you have any idea how we could find out where he is?"

"Oh, sure. Thousands. Did you pick up my laptop from the street where I dropped it?"

"I think it's with all the other evidence. I could get it for you, if you like."

"Do that. Oh, and could you send someone to bring my stuff from the hotel?"

"I think we can probably arrange to pick that lot up on the way."

"On the way where?"

"It's too dangerous for you to remain in the city. Our enemies are clearly much more powerful than we first anticipated. We're moving you to an out-of-town safe house where you'll be protected. We can't tell you where it is right now in case you tell someone else."

"Like my brother."

"Well, yes. And you check with me before you go online again, okay? We'll be off sometime this afternoon."

"Oh, by the way," said Gareth as Danowitz turned to leave. "What happened to the guy Hawking?"

Danowitz paused, and eventually said, "He's gonna be okay."

***

Bobby had been wearing a hood over his face for most of the journey. As any secret agent in his situation would presumably have done, he had listened out very carefully for any clues as to where they might be heading, but the sounds were muffled by windows and drowned out by the engine's quiet purr. In any case, few areas of a city make distinctly recognisable noises, especially at night. After a few turns he had completely lost track of what direction they had been heading, too. All he knew was that the journey had been mostly at a constant speed in about the same direction, only slowing down to a halt or turning corners towards the beginning.

Well, that was a start, wasn't it? It meant they had joined a freeway or a similar long road in town, and were now about two hours' cruising from the starting point at his house. Say anything up to a hundred and forty miles radius.

Great. He could be anywhere.

As the limo was very spacious and comfortable, he stretched out and relaxed for most of the journey. He might as well catch up on lost sleep while he could.

When they started turning corners more sharply again, Bobby began paying attention. It seemed to take less time to reach their destination from the freeway than it had taken to reach the freeway from his house. Maybe that suggested a smaller community? He was clutching at straws and he knew it. Best forget about it.

When the car pulled to a halt it was very early morning, and still dark. That much he could guess from approximate times. He was led out of the car and up a fairly steep hill and a few steps to a door, which someone unlocked. Inside, he was taken along a couple of darkened, silent, wooden-floored corridors to a small room, where his hood was removed, a few seconds before someone locked the door behind him.

There was a bed, a wooden chair and a small table on which someone had put his laptop, but his mobile phone was nowhere to be seen. Stone walls, high, barred window, fairly strong door. Blackness outside. A single, unshaded light bulb. No form of escape immediately presented itself... still, there would be time to plan later...

First things first, he thought, taking off his jacket and lying down. He was asleep within a few minutes.

***

When Bobby awoke, he was astonished to find that it was still early Wednesday afternoon. His lunch had been left on the table next to his laptop. It was bread and water. The bread wasn't stale, and the water did not appear to contain any poison, so he ate, hoping that dinner, if such a thing was likely, would be a little more inspiring.

This gave him enough energy to sit up and do a little hacking, but unfortunately his captors had been thoughtless enough to leave him in a room with no phone socket, and his wireless modem was at home. Without a link to the outside world, there was only so much his computer could do to help him, so Bobby frustratedly flipped off his laptop.

He turned the idea of escape over in his mind. He was protected here, at least, for the time being. Did he really want to be caught by the police? He would be in deep, deep trouble if he did, there was no denying it. But every moment he stayed here was a moment spent associated with Mack Magnusson, and that meant a longer sentence when the cops and the FBI finally caught up with him. So he could work here forever, and hope that he would never be found, or he could make a break for it as soon as possible.

Bobby looked at the tray his meal had arrived on, and made his decision.

***

The first man who came to see him wasn't Mack. It was a smartly-attired man in a leather jacket. Gold rings and watch. He had a face like a South African mining seam - stony, dangerous, and containing a large amount of gold.

"Hello?" said Bobby, as a bodyguard came in after him, shutting the door. Bobby decided it would be wise to sit up a bit straighter. When the stranger held a hand out to him, he stood up and shook it hesitantly, not quite sure whether this was something he would regret doing later. There seemed to be a friendly atmosphere about the man. Hopefully this was because he was a friend, not because he was trying to catch him off-guard.

"The famous Robert Nash, we meet at last," said the stranger. The voice was well-measured.

"I don't think we've met," said Bobby, banking on politeness as a safer bet than "Who are you?" which could get him shot.

"I shouldn't think so," said the man. "However my good friend Mr. Magnusson has been supplying me with your... wares for some time now. He speaks very highly of you, and rightly so. You are exceedingly good at your job. Allow me to introduce myself, I am the buyer for very nearly all of the equipment Mack requests from you. Only a very few exceptions are bought by other people. My name is Ronan."

Bobby expertly concealed his amusement. "I never get told names," he said.

"Maybe you will recognise some of the work... Do you remember the Clarissa virus that made the news last year?"

Bobby's mind raced. "The one that got released into the IRS mainframe? Was that you? Was that me?"

"An inconsequential device, I'm sure, on a list of many similar ones. But we all know how small things can make big differences."

"Sure, I've had flu," said Bobby absent-mindedly while his mind continued to race. Wow. A billion dollars of taxpayers' money, that had cost to repair! Hey, weren't we the ones that ended up designing their new encryption scheme afterwards? What goes around, comes around...

Ronan looked briefly puzzled, but continued. "We have been told about your... misbehaviour concerning failure to provide goods on time, and your attempts to contact others. However as buyers, not employers, this does not concern us. All we are worried about is whether we receive our goods or not. If we get our stuff on time, we are happy. If we do not, whatever that incompetent Magnusson does, we'll take matters into our own hands. Understand?"

Bobby squeaked, then managed to say "Yes!"

"Since you've been put under supervision here, this shouldn't present too much of a problem anymore."

"Ah." Bobby wished he hadn't made that handshake.

"You are no doubt wondering what it is we want you to make that is worth five million dollars. I should point out that the price reflects its value to us, not its difficulty for you. I'm sure you'll find it considerably easier to create than many of the viruses you have in the past."

And Ronan told him what he wanted Bobby to create.

Bobby nodded solemnly. "I guessed as much."

Ronan was apparently waiting for a reaction. "Well?"

"I could do it. Couple of hours, no problem. But look... I'm not just a robot. I have morals. I can't help thinking about the consequences, and what you're asking me to do could have very serious effects lasting a long time. To the extent that people could get killed, if you used it in the wrong way. This is big stuff."

"I hope you're not asking me what I plan to do with it?"

"No! I mean, no, but... well... listen, I can't in good conscience hand something like this over to you. The risks are enormous. In fact, forget that. There are no risks - this will absolutely cause major damage to a lot of very important data and it will absolutely cause people to die. If I had the choice there's no way I would choose to release something so dangerous."

"You're saying you won't do it?"

Bobby stuttered. If he refused he'd probably be dead before he reached the end of the sentence. But it was either him, or potentially millions. He had to draw the line somewhere. This had gone far enough. Oh man, this was it. When he'd first made that system spy for Mack he'd had visions of everything running out of control - he'd convinced himself that he was keeping on top of it, he could quit anytime he wanted. And now, here he was, about to cause the deaths of potentially thousands of people.

No. I may have done bad things in the past but I'll stop short of murder. It's time I made good. Here goes nothing...

"I won't do it."

Ronan was very surprised. And, it seemed, angry. He pulled a pistol out of his jacket and aimed it at Bobby's head. "Say that again," he growled through gritted teeth.

Bobby closed his eyes. "I won't do it."

Nothing happened, so he opened his eyes again. Ronan had lowered his gun and was looking at him with a kind of admiration. "You don't fear death, I see?"

"If it's me or thousands of others, then what choice do I have?"

"I think you're more of a coward than you look, Bobby. Nobody fears a clean shot to the head, a painless death." Ronan pulled a knife out of his pocket and looked at it thoughtfully.

Bobby's eyes widened.

"How about having your throat cut? Or your wrist? What if I was to cut off one of your fingers, Bobby? Or one of your ears?" He waved the knife in front of Bobby's face. "I could, you know. It could take weeks..."

Bobby looked at the insane grin on Ronan's face, and all his resistance was instantly broken down into abject terror. His imagination ran away with the idea and displayed graphic images which he did not want to know about. Stories he'd heard in the news. He trembled.

"I'll do it," he choked.

Ronan appeared pleased. He put away the knife. "Well done. You'll have a week to work."

Bobby nodded glumly. As Ronan and his bodyguard went to leave, he called after them, "Wait a second."

"What are you doing?" asked Ronan as Bobby walked over to his laptop and typed something in.

"Have you got a floppy disk?"

"Here."

Bobby shoved it in one of his laptop's many slots and there were sounds of data transfer, before he pulled it back out again.

"What's this?"

"It's the virus. I already created it. It was a pet project, just to see what happened. I don't just sit around creating 'innovative evolving solutions for all your business needs' all day, you know, and I don't want to spend a minute longer in this place than I have to. It was kind of a private project. I used to go back and add a bit of code every now and then until I realised that it could do that itself. The virus is dormant now, but I dread to think what would happen if you put it in another PC because that triggers activation. Within ten minutes, you'll have the effect you wanted."

"Excellent. Well, what a pleasant surprise. I'm impressed."

"Now take it away. I wash my hands of the whole thing."

"On the contrary, you'll be there when we try it out. We had provisionally planned next week but thanks to this little surprise we can move it forward to tomorrow. Splendid. Well, see you tomorrow." Ronan stood up and went to the door.

"Just one question," said Bobby. "Where are you testing the virus?"

"You'll find out when we get there."

Ronan left.

Bobby sat down heavily on the bed, buried his head in his hands, and tried to persuade himself that he hadn't really had a choice.

***

They (that is, Gareth, Danowitz, and their driver) were definitely a long way out of town now. The city was far below the horizon, and farmland surrounded them instead. This was what America was really all about: not cities, but endless, empty farmland and desert. A gas station practically counted as a bustling metropolis. It was a long, long way between major settlements, and the radio stations, Gareth soon discovered, were bland and uninspiring.

Fortunately, Gareth quickly found that the driver's taste in music was exceptional. He wound down all the windows, turned up the volume and let the wind whip his hair to the subtle strains of a half-dozen discs of what might as well have been called "driving music", it fitted the setting so well. It would have helped, Gareth couldn't help thinking, if the car had been a convertible. Sunset over the plains could not have been improved any other way.

At a quarter to midnight, long after the last CD had spun to a halt, Danowitz nudged Gareth awake as a small building appeared on the horizon. It was a farm house, there were lights on inside, and there were a couple of people waiting for them as they pulled up in front of it. Danowitz got out and told Gareth to gather his luggage.

He was led over to the two strangers. "I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Andrew Lee, and his wife Beatrice. They call themselves humble farmers and are also FBI agents. They run this safe house here for people who need to make use of it, like yourself. They'll be looking after you for the next couple of weeks. The beds are okay and the food's pretty good as long as you like porridge."

"My favourite," said Gareth. "Hi, pleased to meet you," he said to the man, who shook him warmly by the hand.

"Likewise," said Lee. "Welcome to the farm."

"Hello, Mrs. Lee."

"These two will show you around in the morning," said Danowitz. "If you need anything, just ask and they'll tell you it's not available." He began to head back towards the car. "Me or someone else will drop by every few weeks to see how you're getting on. We won't be stopping the night here. I'm heading back into the city to interrogate those two thugs of Magnusson's tomorrow. We should be able to track him down pretty soon, and when we do we'll find your brother, don't you worry. We'll see what happens after that."

Gareth waved as the car pulled away back the other way down the road, and turned to the Lee couple. He hefted his bag at them. "Where can I collapse?"

Thursday

"We're at the airport," said Bobby when the blindfold came off.

It was early evening.

"Yeah? So?" said Mack, who was sitting with him in the back seat. Bobby suspected Mack knew as little about the plan as he did. Ronan and his goon, Eddie, treated them both with almost identical contempt.

"Why the airport?" said Bobby.

"It's as good a place as any to start," said Ronan.

Bobby's mind raced. There could be a thousand computers in a place like this... sure, they'd get his message, but with what consequences? Good grief, all my worst nightmares are coming true, people are going to get killed...

Maybe even me, if the police don't act fast enough.

"So what's the plan? Am I going in, or one of you guys, or what?"

"You're too much of a risk to take part in this," said Ronan in the front seat.

"Fair enough."

"Eddie, let me off here," said Ronan. Their driver pulled over in one of the setting-down points and let him out. "Go round the block once and come back. If I'm not here, wait for me," he added through the driver's window. He strode, with the confidence of a man who knows for a fact that the police do not have his picture on record, towards the terminal building while Eddie pulled away.

The terminal building was easily big enough to fit a pair of semi-detached houses in. There were check-in desks, reception desks, booking desks, currency exchange desks, departure lounges and at least three cafés visible from where he was standing at the entrance. It was huge, grey, blue and yellow, and full of people, about half of whom were clearly from other countries. Not a single queue within eyeshot was less than an hour long. Fortunately the plan did not require Ronan to wait in a queue.

As Ronan heads purposefully towards the gents' toilets, let the eye of the imagination wander away from him, to the woman at the ticket desk just nearby...

Specifically, her computer. Specifically, the blue network cable sticking out of the back of it. Follow it around through the hole in the desk, and down underneath the floorboards. Follow it along a number of dingy pipes, past a repaired break in the wire, for about a mile until it reaches the airport's main server, sitting in a shrine of blinking lights and cables, and being tended to by the network administrator, who is about to get the biggest shock of his life.

Backtrack to the break in the wire. Here a network plug and socket have been attached to the two loose ends to make a neat join which, furthermore, could easily be pulled apart and put together again at a moment's notice.

It is here that a sudden burst of light indicates that floor panels directly above the break have been lifted, to be replaced by the stony, gold-toothed face of Ronan and the screwdriver he is holding in his other hand. He is on the floor in a toilet cubicle - this is not the most pleasant of jobs, but he trusts nobody else enough to do it properly.

He takes a fantastically tiny palmtop computer from his jacket pocket, along with a portable floppy disk drive that is even smaller than the disk that would fit into it - it covers the sliding metal sheath, and nothing else. He slots the disk into the drive, plugs the drive into the palmtop, disconnects the blue network wire and plugs that into the palmtop too.

***

"What's the problem?" asked the Finn after a concerned look crossed the face of the lady handling his ticket.

"The computer's crashed," she replied. "A weird error message just came up."

A glass screen prevented the Finnish traveller from leaning across to take a look at the screen himself, so he said, "I know a bit about computers. What does the message say?"

"It says 'Error - Booking server F has been disconnected from terminal. Please reconnect network cable and re-establish connection to continue,' and then there's a lot of letters and numbers."

"Sounds like one of the wires has come loose," said the Finn. "Have you had this problem before?"

"Yes, I had the exact same problem a week or two ago, but when I called the engineers by the time they got down here the thing had fixed itself."

"Hmm. Well, it's probably best I don't mess around with anything. I'd call the engineers if I were you."

"Yes..."

***

Ronan waits for ten seconds. There are whirrs from the drive, and angry buzzes from the palmtop, whose screen promptly goes black. Then he disconnects the palmtop, plugs the network cable back together, and leaves.

***

"Hello, I'd like Network Support please. ...Hi Jack, it's me again... Paula Wilson on the ticket desk... I've got the same problem again... Yes, an error message and it says the same thing as last time. 'Server disconnected.'"

"Okay, Paula. I want you to look around at the back of your computer. There should be a blue cable plugged in somewhere."

"Got it."

"It's still plugged in? Okay, now I'd like you to follow it along for as far as you can."

"Okay, you'll have to hold on a bit... Wait a minute, it's just changed again. The screen went black."

Walking past to the left of the ticket desk, Ronan smirks as he hears this. He heads for the exit, and background chatter drowns out the goings-on at the ticket desk, and it is just as well.

"Black?" asked the engineer. He covered the phone with his hand and waved at the network administrator to come over. "Yeah, we've got a problem over here, Jerry." He uncovered the phone. "According to this screen your computer was reconnected a few seconds ago. Did you press anything? Click 'OK'?"

"No. And now there's a big message instead."

"Great, what does that say?" said the engineer on the phone, as the administrator poked around on his computer.

"It says... 'HELP ME! KIDNAPPED! BOBBY NASH HALTECH'"

"What? Who's he? Hey, wait a minute- My screen's gone black too. Now I'm getting the same message as you! What's going on here? Is there a virus in the system?"

"Do you know who Bobby Nash is?"

"How should I know?"

"Wait," interrupted the network administrator. He pushed his chair over to the other end of the office, to his desk, and picked up his newspaper. He flicked through it, located an article, sculled back and handed it to Jack.

Jack read the article's headline, and slowly picked the phone up again.

Eerily calm, he said, "Thanks for your call, we'll get on it right away," hung up, and announced, "Holy Zarquon!"

"Yeah?" Jerry responded. "See what I mean?"

"I mean...! This kidnapped guy is... is... in our server?"

Jerry leaned forward and tried to be calm. "One thing at a time."

"Virus."

Jerry looked thoughtful, and said, "...Yes, now I think about it let's sort that out first and ask the tough questions later."

"Right. Virus. That I can handle."

"Yeah. You call Paula back and tell her we've got a problem, I'll start disconnecting all the vital data."

Jack nodded. Jerry headed over to the blinking server and turned on another monitor.

"Jerry?" Jack called. "She says how long will the problem be for?"

"I don't know, call it an hour," said Jerry, hitting a few keys. A window popped up. His eyes widened in horror. "Jack!" he yelled, "Come and take a look at this!"

Jack heard the hysterical note in Jerry's voice and said "Hold on" to the announcer on the phone. "What is it?" he asked.

"Read it," quavered Jerry.

(F:) Booking data server
Capacity - 1,319,633,855,656 bytes
Used space - 2,564,397 bytes
Free space - 1,319,631,291,259 bytes

A second after Jack had read it the screen went black, and the SOS message replaced it. But a second had been enough.

"Did that say-"

"Yes."

"But isn't it supposed to have-"

"Yes."

"But now it's-"

"Yes."

"So the virus has-"

"Yes."

"So the whole airport is-"

"Yes."

"So we're-"

"-so astoundingly far up the creek that we've run aground."

"Holy-"

"Yes."

Jack gibbered. He had run out of sufficiently strong swear-words. "So what in the world are we supposed to do now?"

"I've no idea," said Jerry hopelessly. "Trying to fix it would be like spitting at the Great Wall of China."

"This is nuts. I mean, where do we start? We've gotta start somewhere."

"You could call Paula back," said Jerry.

"Right... Hello? Yeah, I'm back... Listen, we've got something of a major crisis up here in the server room, so the computers are probably gonna be out of action for at least twenty-four hours. At most? Golly, I dunno, six months if you're unlucky. But don't announce that yet. Don't panic anyone. We'll see what we can do, I'm going to call a few bigwigs and let them know what's happening, then we can formulate a statement that won't result in a riot, okay? Okay. Bye."

The phone rang again almost instantly. "Hello, Network Support? ...Uh-huh? Uh-huh. Oh no. Right, we'll be right over, just sit tight and try not to touch anything."

"What's happening now? Who was that?" asked Jerry, as Jack ran to his chair and grabbed his jacket off the back.

"Same problem, but this time it's Air Traffic Control," said Jack, bolting for the door.

***

"Everything okay?" asked Mack as Ronan climbed back in.

"Completely," said Ronan. "Not a hitch. Bobby, your virus even as I speak should be tunneling its way through the airport's server systems. Assuming you programmed it right, but I trust you on that. You're a sensible person. Oh, and here's something you might be interested in," he added, handing over the miniature palmtop.

Bobby took it and tried to turn it on, only to be met by his own request for help. He jumped guiltily as he saw it, but realised that Ronan couldn't have seen it, otherwise he would have said something, wouldn't he? Good. So his SOS would have been delivered to other computers too. All that he had to worry about now was the end of the world...

"Completely wiped," Bobby announced, pocketing the palmtop.

"Now to sit back and watch the fireworks," said Ronan. "Head for the car park, Eddie."

***

The airport was bedlam, but more so than usual. Every terminal in the complex was paralysed by now, and screens which normally showed departure times were now all showing the same desperate message. Some of the travellers understood exactly who Bobby Nash was. Some didn't. Some couldn't read it. But whatever the case, people were most emphatically not getting to where they wanted to go.

A couple of booking staff recognised Jack and Jerry as they jogged past, and waved at them to come and help with their PC problems. Neither of them stopped to help. More important things were at stake.

While he dodged his way through the crowds, Jerry was on the phone to the senior airport manager's secretary, who was also having problems with her computer.

"Look, Sandra," he said frustratedly, "I'd love to help, but I'm sorry, I don't have time to talk about your computer. You're currently about number six hundred and forty-eight on our priority list, and at the moment we have infinitely more important things to do. I need to talk to your boss."

"Mr. Harper is in a meeting," said Sandra again.

"About what?"

"I can't tell you that!"

"Because unless he's talking to the CEO of a major purveyor of virus eradication software I'm afraid that this is way, way more important."

"I can't interrupt his meeting."

"Look," said Jerry angrily, stopping for a moment so he could talk normally. "You know what's happened to your computer? That exact same thing has happened to every single computer in this airport. Including the ones in the Air Traffic Control tower. Yes, you heard me right. We've got anywhere between two and fifteen flights due to land in the next two hours, and we've got no radar. No radar, you hear me? This is not a joke. I don't care what the guy's doing, put him on the line!"

"Hold on."

Jerry put the phone away from his ear and concentrated on running for a while, then checked again.

"Hello?"

"Jerry, this had better be good, I'm in the middle of a very important meeting..."

"Ben, there's a virus in the network. A bad one."

"Right...?" said the manager.

"The network is down. Completely down. Literally all irreparably deleted inside ten minutes. More importantly, ATC's radar's offline."

"What?"

"Offline, Ben. Now I appreciate that there's not much that you can do at this moment in time to help fix it, but given how serious this situation is and that I am the most qualified person to deal with it, here are a few suggestions as to what I think you should do. Firstly if you haven't seen the message that's going round, go look at your secretary's screen. I think it might be prudent to call the police and find out what they know about this guy on the computers."

"'Bobby Nash'? Why, because you think he made the virus?"

"No, because he's been kidnapped, like he says. It's in the paper if you look."

"Okay."

"Then I need you to get the police, and maybe even the FBI, to find out who in the world did this and give them a good kicking, followed by demanding an antidote if there is one. Third, I need someone to work out a message to put out over the public address system. This problem could last anywhere between a day and six months, we need to tell the passengers something. But something that won't panic them. At the moment most of the staff know as much as you do so you need to get some kind of message to them, too."

"Okay, what else?"

"I need complete data quarantining on the entire complex as of ten minutes ago."

"What does that mean?"

"This virus is the most virulent one I've ever seen, or even heard of. Like I told you, it smashed the entire network apart in ten minutes flat. I don't know how it did it, nor do I want to, but you must understand that anybody who takes a disk home tonight risks both their own home computer, all the data on it, and the rest of the internet if they have an internet connection. Our connection was severed as a precautionary measure just a couple of minutes ago, and we can only hope nothing jumped across before that, but if it didn't, we can keep it that way by making sure nobody takes a disk home. It's called data quarantining. Tell everybody. Understand?"

"I think so."

"Finally, keep your mobile turned on, I might need to make some more emergency demands. Did you get all that?"

"Yes."

"Thanks. I've gotta sign off, I'll call you back once I have something to report," said Jerry. He ended the call, put his phone back into his pocket, flashed his pass at the security guy manning the door to the airfield, and headed out across the grass, towards the ATC tower.

***

The Air Traffic Control tower was three stories high. It offered unsurpassed views of the airport's three runways, and had about as much floor space as one floor of a detached house. It was crammed with PC terminals and radar screens, and held about ten to fifteen people at any one time. Currently all the terminals were showing the SOS, and all the radar screens were static, slowly burning the image of a single green line into the phosphor screen. The smell of crisis and suppressed panic hung heavy in the air, and though the room was reasonably quiet, it was a nuclear air-raid kind of silence.

Jack, who hadn't been on the phone, had been sprinting off ahead and arrived five minutes earlier than Jerry. As he made it up the stairs and opened the door, ten gazes met his, and every single one was displaying pure, horrified terror.

"Jack, thank goodness you're here," said someone. It turned out to be a young man with a brown moustache and wispy beard. He was about four inches shorter than Jack. He was also, apparently, in charge.

"Okay, hi, Damon. Which of your problems is the most critical?"

"We've got no radar."

"Blacked out? Crashed?"

"Antennas all jammed. Still working fine, but they won't turn, not even manually. Something's locked them in place."

"What does that mean you can't do anymore that you used to be able to do?" He stopped, thought again, and rephrased it: "What can't you do?"

"See where all the incoming planes are, and plan which to land and on what runway."

"How many do we have to land?"

"We have three incoming that we couldn't divert to other airports, two circling and waiting for clearance, and one still on the runway being taxied out of the way as we speak."

"Any trying to take off?"

"No, all grounded until further notice," said Damon.

"Good. But you've still got radio?"

"Yes."

"That's a mercy then. We'd be in serious trouble if we lost radio contact..." said Jack.

"Tell me about it. What we need you to do is to get the radar unjammed as soon as possible so that we can choreograph some landings. After that you can take your time killing the virus."

"Right. Get me to a terminal."

"They're all broken."

"All displaying the kidnapping message? Okay, in that case get me to any radar terminal, infected or not."

"Uh, this one?"

"Okay." Jack bent over behind it, pulled out four critical cables, and slapped the on/off switch twice. "Call me when it's rebooted properly, now show me where the aerials are so I can have a look at freeing the mechanism. I can't believe a virus can be better at manual dexterity than a human being."

"You need to go back out that door, then up the ladder opposite the stairs and through the trapdoor above. I've got Harry on the roof already working on it."

"Okay."

The roof was dirty, as roofs usually are, but it was flat and clearly designed to have people walking on it. Harry was around the corner with a toolbox, peering intently at an open box of circuits.

"Hey, are you Harry? I'm Jack from Network Support. This isn't technically my area of expertise but I do know something about electronics, so I came up to try to unjam the mechanism."

"You're welcome to have a look, you probably know more about it than me," said Harry.

Jack squatted down and peered intently at the box. It was about the size of an A3 piece of paper and full of circuitry. Some bits were recognisable, but most of it was as incomprehensible as any other circuit board. However there were some switches. "Have you hit any of these?"

"All of them," said Harry.

"Hmm. You got a screwdriver?"

"Here."

Jack used it to unscrew the lid of another panel, adjacent to the switch box. Inside the small concrete alcove that it covered was the small electric motor which powered the radar. The connections between the switch box and the motor were clearly visible. So was the power supply. A shaft running up from the motor led presumably to the radar itself.

"I wonder what voltage this thing runs on," mused Jack.

"Well, the panel had 'Warning! High Voltage! Danger of death' written on it," Harry pointed out.

"Yes... Can I have some insulating gloves and a pair of wire clippers, please?"

Harry found some in the toolbox, and handed them to him.

"Stand back please," said Jack, preparing to snip a pair of wires.

***

Downstairs, the green line on the radar slowly began to rotate. There were cheers. Jack could hear them upstairs. "Well that seemed to do the trick. Hey down there," he shouted, poking his head down through the trapdoor, "is the radar working?"

"You could say that, Jack," said Damon opening the door. "We've got a rotating green line, but no data coming in. According to this there are no planes up there at all."

Even as he said this a plane flew over Jack's head. "That means the virus must have taken over the data collection software, too. This is more serious than I thought. Okay, I'm now seriously into grey area trying to fix this, but I'll see what I can do, okay?"

"Just do what you can, Jack," said Damon.

"Is the terminal down there rebooted yet?"

"Yes, but it's still showing 'HELP! KIDNAPPED! BOBBY NASH HALTECH'. You can come down and have a look if you want."

"Where's your server?" asked Jack.

"Same door, but next floor down."

"Right, I'm coming down to have a look."

(R:) Air Traffic Control server
Capacity - 10,952,166,604 bytes
Used space - 12,582,912 bytes
Free space - 10,939,583,692 bytes

As he read the figures, there was a crash behind him as Jerry arrived, out of breath and panting heavily.

"Jerry, the radar tracking software's been wiped. We can't get it working again without the software."

"Oh, great. Just great," said Jerry. "That'll take hours. Where do we keep the boot disks?"

"Probably somewhere, around here," said Damon. "I'll go have a look."

"And is that terminal still working?"

Jack turned back to find that the screen had been blanked out. "Uh, nope."

"Well the disks won't do much good unless we have some way of installing them."

"So... what are we gonna do?"

"Nothing. We can't do anything."

Jack buried his face in his hands.

"What's up?" asked Damon, returning with a pair of labelled, gold rewritable CDs.

"We're beaten," said Jerry, slumping in the doorway. "This thing has burned my network to the ground. There are ways we could try to fight it. There are a ton of things we could do. But they all involve having a terminal we can implement them on. It's like trying to open a locked door with a key that's on the other side. If I put that disk in that machine it'll just get wiped, corrupted or infected instantly. We might as well burn the airport to the ground and build a new one for all the good it'll do. It's the only way I can see of getting rid of the virus."

"And in the meantime the entire place will be paralysed for six months minimum," said Jack, rubbing his eyes.

The three men slouched in various positions of hopelessness for a few seconds.

"Twenty-five minutes," said Jack. "An entire international airport wiped out in twenty-five minutes."

Another air traffic controller arrived at the doorway. "Uh, guys, I hate to interrupt, but flights TP189 and 4683-G both say they want clearance for landing, and AA12 is arriving any minute."

"That's right," said Damon. "We can't relax now, guys, we've got some landings to deal with."

"There's nothing we can do to help," said Jerry. "We're engineers, not air traffic controllers. You'll have to deal with this one yourself."

"Okay, then I've got to go. Thanks for trying, guys."

Jerry shuffled out of the way so Damon could head back up the stairs, and stretched out on the floor. "I really ought to phone Ben Harper back and let him know the deal."

"Yeah."

Plick, plick.

"Hi Ben, it's Jerry."

"Jerry! What on earth's going on up there? I'm getting messages that all the outgoing flights have been cancelled!"

"They have."

"Why?"

"Well, it turned out the virus had got into the ATC server. It had permanently wiped everything on there as well. Including all the software that controls and runs the radar. Without a radar we can't safely arrange takeoffs and landings, so we've diverted all the incoming flights we can and cancelled all the outgoing ones. Now, we can't reinstall the radar software without an interface to work with, and all the terminals have been locked up, too, so we can't have an interface until the virus is deleted. And we can't delete the virus without a terminal to work at. So there's no way we're going to be able to get radar software reinstalled anytime soon. It's too late. Unless some revolutionary new antiviral software arrives, the only way we can get the airport back up and operational now is to completely pull out the network and put in a new one."

"Jerry?" said Jack in the corner.

"How long will that take?" said Ben on the phone.

"Ooh, six months?" Jerry grinned without humour.

"So what about that revolutionary antiviral software?" said Ben, a classic technologically illiterate manager.

"Jerry!"

Jerry decided to humour his boss. "Aha, well, it'd have to be even more revolutionary than the already revolutionary stuff we've got at the moment. Which is unlikely."

"What's the stuff we've got at the moment, then? I could call the manufacturers, maybe there's an update available."

Some chance, thought Jerry. "HALtech Antivirus, Large Network Edition-"

"Jerry!" said Ben and Jack at the same time.

Jerry and Jack locked eyes, and thoughts somehow leapt between them.

"HALtech again? Look, Jerry, just what the heck is going on with this HALtech thing?" said Ben. "We buy their antiviral software, their head honcho gets kidnapped, then a virus bearing his name turns up on our network and obliterates it in a matter of seconds? What's the connection here?"

"I'm calling the police," said Jerry.

***

It was five to six, the sun was just beginning to set, and flight TP189 was touching down safely on runway one. In the Air Traffic Control tower there was a ragged cheer.

"That's good," said Damon on the radio. "Now someone get that jet out of here so that we can land the next one."

"Flight 4683-G says they're low on fuel, sir," said another radio operator.

"How much time?"

"Twenty-one minutes."

"Have they still got radar?"

"Yes, all their instruments are in full working order," said the radio operator.

"Then tell them they can land in ten. Has that jet been moved yet?"

"Five minutes," said another voice.

"Good. Don't lose concentration, people. How long until AA12 arrives?"

"Pilot says roughly a quarter of an hour. He also requests priority landing."

"Tell him we might have room as soon as he gets here, if he's lucky."

As Damon said this, a piercing electronic shriek split the ears of everyone in the room. It was coming from all the radios. The sound lasted for about two and a half seconds, warbling rapidly on and off, and then normal contact was resumed.

"What in the world was that?" demanded Damon.

"Sounded like modem screech," said someone.

"AA12 pilot says his radar just went offline."

"What?"

"He says he's on a direct course but he's flying practically blind without any electronic instruments. He'll keep following his present course and he hopes he can spot the airfield on the way past."

"I hope so for his sake," said Damon. "How many passengers on his plane?"

"Uh, two hundred and four."

"Oh man, we've got a catastrophe on our hands. Somebody go get Jerry and Jack from the server room, would you? Are 4683-G's instruments still working?"

"So far, sir."

"Right, give me your radio. Hello, 4683-G, can you hear me, over?"

"Loud and clear, over," said the pilot.

"Listen, the virus we had in the radar has spread to the instruments of flight AA12. They're currently flying blind. No, sorry, we're not joking. We confirm your landing slot for five minutes' time, and we are closing radio contact as of now for your own protection, over and out."

"Roger that. Out."

"4683-G will be landing in five minutes," Damon announced to the room, pulling off the headset. "Is that jet off the runway yet?"

"Five minutes, sir."

"Good."

"What's going on, Damon?" asked Jerry as he and Jack arrived.

"Flight AA12's instruments are all offline. Radio contact with AA12 was cut off for about a second or two a few minutes ago and we think the virus jumped across in the gap. It must have taken out the backups too. I've no idea how."

For about the fifth time that day, a look of dismay crossed both engineers' faces. "Lethal, it's lethal," Jerry said. "Right, well, what do you want us to do?"

"Suggest some kind of countermeasures?"

"Right. Cut communication with all the currently approaching flights. How many have you managed to land?"

"Just the one, but the next is coming in now. Third flight ETA fifteen minutes, but currently without computer, fourth and fifth in one hour from now."

"Tell them to maintain radio silence between now and the time they get here, flights four and five, that is. Flight three you can talk to all you want because all the damage has been done already. Is flight two landing yet?"

"They've begun a landing cycle," said someone who was looking out of the window with a pair of binoculars. "They're coming in now, yes, that looks to be a perfect landing."

"Glad to see the pilot didn't let panic get to him," said Damon. "Tell the taxi crews to get that plane out of here ASAP. Where's TP189 got to?"

"It's over there, about to begin offloading passengers," said the man with the binoculars. "4683-G has completed its landing, and is heading over to the terminal building. We've got visual contact with AA12."

"Hello, AA12, this is Air Traffic Control, we have visual contact, you're clear to land as soon as you like, over," said Damon, borrowing the binoculars. "You're a little off-course, though."

"Thanks, ATC, we just spotted the terminal building and we're correcting for it. We're going to land on the nearest runway to you on our first pass, if that's okay, over."

"That runway is confirmed clear for use. Take as long as you like, AA12."

"Coming in now."

Jack, Jerry, Damon and a number of ATC staff watched tensely through the window as the giant aeroplane came in to land. Jack was having to remind himself of the scale of the machine - it didn't look so big from his point of view, but then he was over a kilometre away. There were two hundred and four passengers on board that thing; plus staff. A broken radar surely wouldn't make it any more difficult to land the machine, but still, he'd underestimated the virus several times already...

"Jack," said Jerry, "If there's a virus in the systems, presumably they're flying the machine using mechanical systems only, right? You know, cogs and linkages between the controls and the flaps and stuff."

"Yes."

"Just checking."

They watched the plane descend still further.

"But presumably there isn't one connected to the-" began Jerry.

"AA12, your landing gears are all up, repeat, up! You have to pull up," Damon was already speaking urgently on the radio.

"But the switch is down," said the pilot, who nevertheless heard the urgent tone in Damon's voice and was already pulling his controls back again.

"Don't argue with me, I've got ten witnesses here who all say the gears are up! The doors aren't even open! Pull up now or you're going to crash!"

***

At the other end of the building complex, on the top floor of a multi-story car park that overlooked the end of the runway, the roar of the approaching plane swept over three men with binoculars.

Bobby spotted the same thing as the ATC staff at almost the same moment that they did. Even as the thought crossed his mind he saw every flap on both wings of the plane suddenly flip upwards. The plane's descent began to slow, but he could see that it was clearly far, far too late...

The sound of screeching, generated as the plane's rear made contact with the runway, arrived a full two and a half seconds after the light from the thousands of sparks that sprang up. There were clangs as pieces of fuselage were ripped off. A hideously beautiful fountain of sparks rose from the trailing edges of both wings as they crashed downwards and were ripped off as well. Trailing wreckage, the main body of the plane, still bearing the burning stubs of both wings, continued to slide along the runway, and slowly, inexorably, began to roll right.

"Hey Bobby, did you do that?" asked Ronan, in awe. "Nice work."

Instinct told Bobby that the plane should have stopped by now, but the thing could have been moving at more than a hundred miles per hour as it touched down, and it must weigh at least a hundred tonnes. That gave it an incredible amount of inertia, and coupled with a slippery concrete surface thanks to the rain last night, the plane could well be ready to slide right off the end of the runway. But it was worse than that. As it rolled it was actually beginning to slide sideways, off the runway, onto slippery green grass and across the fields towards the terminal buildings. In fact, there was even the possibility that it would be deflected by the impact and crash right into the multi-story car park that he was standing on.

Instinct called to him again, telling him to run, but he stood riveted with fascinated horror as the burning wreck continued to slide towards the terminal. It was a miracle that the thing hadn't exploded... he knew for a fact that it hadn't circled at all, and aeroplanes always carry spare fuel in case they need to circle, so it would surely have quite a bit of aviation fuel remaining in its tanks, wherever they were. And that meant that a single spark in the wrong place could send all two hundred passengers up in a ball of flaming jet juice.

Millions of thoughts flashed through his mind as he stood there for an eternity, waiting for the plane. He realised that Ronan was right - the crash couldn't be just coincidental, it had to be a result of the virus he had allowed to be released. He knew exactly what the virus was capable of doing. He knew that it could easily have done this, and that it could already have made its escape to other planes, to other airports, to other computers. He knew that this very scene was about to be duplicated in almost every airport in the world. It was all his fault. Hundreds of people, multiplied by thousands of flights, were almost certainly about to die, and it was all his fault, because he had allowed a simple little electronic creature to be released.

The plane rolled sideways and slid along the wall of the terminal building, pulling down huge chunks of concrete and smashing to pieces a huge set of windows the size of the front of a house. Screams emanated from the passengers who had been waiting inside and the plane continued to slide onwards, away from the terminal building and across the grass on a direct line towards the car park.

As soon as they realized that their fate had been sealed, Ronan, Mack and Eddie deserted both Bobby and each other, sprinting for the 'down' ramp and shoving each other out of the way to be first. But Bobby knew that there was no way they'd get to the bottom in time, whether they took a car or not. Still, he had no idea what he could do instead. The only other way down was a three-story plunge off the side of the car park itself. Maybe he'd better take the ramp after all...

Bobby turned and ran after them, but it was too late. He had barely started for the far end of the car park when he heard - and felt - the plane grind into the solid concrete structure and somehow continue to move, smashing through dozens of parked cars and pulling the roof down along with it. He didn't see the cracks in the concrete spread across towards him until they overtook him and huge, metre-thick chunks of floor began to crumble and fall around him. He felt the patch of ground beneath his feet begin to heave and pitch forwards. He fell forward and hit the concrete incredibly hard, scrambled to his feet and leapt onto another slab which was also beginning to pitch upwards, skidded for a fraction of a second, and leapt off that block onto the wall at the edge of the car park. He had just enough time to turn and see the huge chasm open up behind him with the body of the plane rumbling through the floor below, before the wall itself buckled and he was thrown backwards, into the void.

Well, it was too late to change his mind, he thought hysterically as he fell. Maybe the grass could cushion his fall-

Friday

He awoke with a jolt.

Had it all been just a dream?

Well, that would be just too stupid a cliché, he thought amusedly as he levered himself upwards. He was in a bed. He was wearing a ridiculous hospital nightgown, and there was a drip running from a bag on a pole into a vein in his arm. He felt awful. He wondered if this was as a result of the drip.

He must have broken something otherwise he wouldn't be here, he thought, looking at each of his limbs in turn. He decided not to do what he had seen people on TV do, and pull out the drip. That would be stupid. It was obviously there for a good reason.

Feeling mildly queasy, he managed to turn over and look around the place. It was still nighttime. According to a clock on the wall, it was coming up to twenty to three in the morning. Some of the beds had curtains closed around them. The rest were empty. There were dim lights on around the place, where he could see nurses working.

As he turned on the reading light above him, events began to catch up with him. Dreams suddenly focused into real events. He remembered the plane... crashing, and then...

He couldn't remember a thing.

A nurse had noticed that he'd woken up, so he asked her what happened when she came over.

"They found you unconscious in the pilot seat, a few hours into the rescue operation. The cockpit was ten feet out from the car park, and hanging two stories in the air, so getting you down was quite tricky. The pilot and copilot say they both fled from the cockpit as soon as they saw that the plane was completely out of control, and there say there's no way anyone could have been left behind in there. The entire window protecting the cockpit was smashed in when the plane hit the car park, so the current theory is that you fell in from somewhere in the car park."

"Yeah, that... sounds right. So, uh... what's wrong with me?" Bobby grinned sheepishly.

"You've got a whole bundle of unpleasant bruises, and you had a dislocated hip when we found you, but we shoved that back into place right enough. At the moment you're just being treated for shock, and possible concussion."

"What about everybody else?"

"They're mostly okay. Shaken up, but okay. The plane fuselage is pretty tough stuff, so it didn't collapse when the car park fell on top of it, and we managed to open up the tail and get everyone out safely. There were a few broken bones."

"And where are they all?"

"Many of them have gone home, or are hanging around at the airport while the police try to find their friends or relatives. Anyone who was injured like yourself is here at the hospital."

"Listen... uh, there was, uh, another bunch of guys on the car park with me. One of them was called Ronan, he had lots of gold teeth and a leather jacket, there was one called Mack, quite short, black overcoat, uh, the other guy looked like a bouncer, his name was Eddie. They ran off shortly before the plane hit and I didn't see them again. Did you pick anybody up who looked like that? Dead or alive?"

"We've certainly had nobody matching those descriptions come through the hospital."

"Right, but have any dead people been found in the debris? I need to know what happened to these guys."

"I don't know, but I don't think anybody's been found dead yet. They might have escaped. Were they friends of yours?"

Bobby cursed inwardly. Ronan could still be alive. He forced a smile. "Uh, yeah, kind of. We were associates at work."

"By the way, we're supposed to have filled in a few forms when you were admitted, but because you were unconscious we couldn't, so can I have your name please?"

"Bobby Nash," said Bobby automatically, a fraction of a second before he remembered that this might not be such a good idea.

"Bobby Nash?" asked the nurse, making a note of this on a clipboard.

"Yes," said Bobby.

"The Bobby Nash?"

Bobby studied her face, smiled, and answered, "Almost certainly."

"Oh my. Thank you." said the nurse. She didn't bother asking for his address or medical history, but hurried off looking flustered.

"Wait..." whimpered Bobby, but he didn't have enough energy to say it loud enough for the nurse to hear.

All he wanted to know was what had happened to Ronan... he didn't want to get... uh... you know... shot or anything...

Bobby yawned. The anaesthetic tube in his arm continued to drip slowly, and very soon he fell into a very deep sleep.

***

"Mr. Nash?"

"Mmm?" said Bobby, rolling over and opening his eyes. There was an ID badge in front of them.

"Agent Luke Danowitz, FBI."

***

It was nine in the morning, and the phone was ringing. "It's for you," said Mr. Lee, handing it to Gareth.

"Hello?" said Gareth.

"Mr. Nash, this is Agent Danowitz."

"Luke! How's it going?"

"Just swell. We found your brother for you."

"Where was he? Is he alive?"

"You've heard about the plane crash?"

"Plane crash? No, what about it?"

"Oh, it should be all over the news. Happened yesterday evening. Your brother, get this, was found slumped unconscious in the pilot seat after the crash."

"What? How did he get there? What was he doing in the cockpit?"

"I'm about to ask him the same question after this call's finished. But maybe you'd like to talk to him yourself..."

There was a clunk and some muffled conversation.

"Gareth?" said a voice on the phone.

"Bobby! Man oh man, it really is you."

Bobby laughed. "I could say the same to you."

"How are you?"

"Apparently I'm being taken into protective custody for questioning about my involvement with the underworld."

"Bummer. I've had the same experience. Just leave it a few hours and I'll put together enough evidence to let you out, okay?"

"Look, Gareth, we can swap stories later, but right now I have some very, very important news for you."

"Nobody else is trying to kill me, are they?" asked Gareth. He meant it seriously.

"No. Gareth. Listen carefully... Tyro is out."

Gareth's jaw actually dropped. "Tell me you're joking, man, tell me you're joking."

"I'm serious. They made me do it. They made me release Tyro."

"But... you... you know what this means? You remember how we worked it all out back in university, all those calculations we made on the side? Just out of curiosity? One week! One week! One hundred and sixty-eight hours!"

"One hundred and fifty by now," corrected Bobby. "The clock is already ticking."

"How could this happen? How could you not destroy it? How could you let the most dangerous virus in the universe continue to exist?"

"Are you kidding? Didn't you see the code? It was a work of art, Gareth. It was the most perfect thing I ever made. It would be impossible not to keep it."

"Do you realise that after this many years of evolution, stopping Tyro by non-mechanical means might actually be mathematically impossible?"

"Yes, Gareth. I do. That's why I need your help. We've got to meet up, put some heuristically-minded heads together and come up with a plan, and fast. Basically, we need the HALtech team."

"I know. How much does Danowitz know?"

Bobby looked guiltily round to the agent, who was patiently watching him from his seat. He lowered his voice. "He knows that there's some kind of virus going around, but that's all. Do you think I should tell him anything?"

"What do we stand to gain if you don't? With the FBI behind us, we stand a much better chance of stopping the big bug. Tell him everything. The more he knows, the more he can help us. Get back to me as soon as you have any news, and try to arrange for a rendezvous, okay?"

"Okay. Bye."

"What's this about a virus?" said Danowitz calmly as soon as Bobby had hung up.

Bobby sighed. "It's a long story. Do you know what heuristic algorithms are?"

"Doesn't your company specialise in them, or something?"

"Heuristic algorithms are computer programs that can adjust themselves. They're a very popular emerging technology at the moment and that's largely down to Heuristic Algorithm Technologies. We create tailored heuristic programs for all purposes, and sell them to anyone who wants them. We recently designed some mobile phone security software and sold that to Seimens for forty million dollars. It's a profitable field, and one in which we are the kings. Nobody knows more about heuristics than us, and I'm not just saying that. We have some of the best brains in the world on our payroll."

Danowitz motioned for Bobby to get up, and led him over to the nurses' desk where he discharged him. Bobby continued to talk. "One of the most dangerous things about heuristic products is that we don't design them, they design themselves. That basically means we don't know anything about how they work. Nobody in the universe does. The product we pass on to our consumers is effectively a black box which spits the right things out when you put things in. If something proves defective, we don't send a patch to fix it, we send an entirely new copy. Fixing a heuristic program is very nearly impossible.

"You've probably already worked out how this could relate to viruses," continued Bobby as they headed outside to a waiting car and driver. They both climbed into the back seat. "If someone was to steal or independently develop the highly advanced heuristic development tools that HALtech uses, he or she could wreak havoc on a global scale. Imagine a virus that has been designed with the two aims of destruction and self-replication in mind. The code comprising that virus would be pretty much impossible to guess at, and therefore almost impossible to defend against. The virus would be at the very least as powerful and virulent as the programmer could imagine. Almost certainly much, much worse. Now imagine that such a virus was released onto the internet.

"The only thing restricting the rate of development of a virus is how fast the computer is. The figure we quote to clients is that most of our software is developed at ten evolutions per second per hundred megahertz of processor power. Once on the net, the virus would have access to literally millions of PCs, and unimaginable processing power, and not only would it spread like wildfire, it would become exponentially harder to stop as it progressed. At that point the only way to stop the virus is to manually switch off every telephone line in the world and burn all the infected computers. A lot like killing real viruses, in fact."

"Couldn't you eradicate the virus from infected systems?" asked Danowitz as they drove out of the hospital.

"No," said Bobby bluntly. "And if any PCs remained infected, but nobody noticed because the virus lay dormant, then the second that PC was reconnected to the internet the whole problem would start all over again."

"But this is all hypothetical, right? You guys aren't actually cooking something nasty up, are you?"

"Mr. Danowitz, the virus I was just describing does exist, and has done for ten years. And it has been released. The plane crash last night was a direct result of it. It wasn't my fault that it got let loose, I'll explain that part in a moment. But right now the priority is stopping Tyro."

Danowitz was silent for a while. "That's quite a story you're expecting me to swallow."

"I know."

Danowitz thought. He didn't know a great deal about electronics, but what Bobby was saying seemed to fill in a great deal of gaps in the story. It explained the plane crash for a start - it would also explain why all the black box recorders had, astoundingly, malfunctioned at the time of the crash. It might also go some way towards answering the question of why both Bobby and Gareth seemed to be in so much danger from the mysterious Mack Magnusson, given how much information seemed to be locked up in their heads. But that opened up even more questions.

"The airport is not where the story ends," said Bobby as he was about to speak. "The virus has almost certainly escaped the confines of the airport by now and soon it'll be in other computers, in other airports, taking over other aeroplanes. Not all of them will be as lucky as this one. There could be ten thousand flights in the air as we speak, and right now every single passenger on those planes is in danger. A hundred thousand people may well be about to die."

"What do you expect me to do?"

"I need your help to stop it, and I need it now."

"I'm sorry Mr. Nash, but you're still under arrest, and I can't allow you to do anything without my authority. Until I have some proof that the accident was anything but a coincidence I'm just going to have to do it by the book and consult my superiors. Believe me that I will investigate your claims, and to be honest, in my opinion, I think your story may well hold more than a grain of truth, but until I get the thumbs up from headquarters I can't do anything. Really."

"I understand. Look, where are we going?" asked Bobby.

"Well, you're under arrest so technically I should be taking you to the police station, but we reckon that's too obvious a target. Instead we're taking you out of town to a place where you'll be safe from those criminals. Listen, it'll be a couple of hours until we get there, how about you tell me exactly what's been happening this past week? What's going on with this virus, and how are you and your brother involved? Who are these criminals?"

"That's an even longer story," said Bobby.

***

Three hours passed while Bobby told him the entire story. Bobby held nothing back. At the end, it seemed Danowitz was beginning to see his point of view, but Bobby couldn't be certain.

"And you think Ronan or Mack might still be alive?"

"I think it's just possible they jumped from the car park in time. Given what the nurse said, I'd go with 50-50 that either or both of them are alive. I think Ronan's the really big player in this scenario. Mack seems to just be a go-between, about as lowly as the hired thugs that Ronan seems to have so many of."

"Well, I can contact the hospital and the mortuary for you and run a check on who was found in the crash. We'll know for certain fairly soon."

"Great. I'd sleep better knowing he's dead."

"Don't get your hopes up. We've still got the rest of his organisation to deal with, if it turns out there is one."

"So. Uh." Bobby grinned. "How much of what I've said do you believe?"

"Everything you've told me fits in with what Gareth's told me. I'm inclined to take your word for it."

"Excellent. What do you think, then? Legally speaking?"

"I think you might well be in some serious trouble here. Given what you've said I think you can be completely cleared from involvement with the attempts on your brother's life. But on the other hand, there is still the question of your supply of illegal software to crooks which we're unfortunately going to have to investigate rather thoroughly."

"I knew it. I knew if I gave myself up I'd just end up in jail."

"Ah, but it might not go like that," said Danowitz cryptically.

Bobby raised his eyebrows in surprised, but Danowitz said nothing more.

"Does Gareth know what's been happening to you?"

"No, and I think he'll be desperate to find out. Do you mind if I call him?"

"Don't bother. We're here," said Danowitz as the car drew to a halt.

"Where are we?" asked Bobby, looking out the window at a farmhouse.

"We're at your brother's safe house. We were just going to stop here so you could see each other once, but now I think you might be able to stay here permanently. Here he comes."

Gareth opened the front door, dressed in jeans and a chequered shirt. "Bobby?"

"Gareth! Hi!"

"Hi! You okay?" said Gareth.

"Yeah, you?"

"Fine, fine," said Gareth.

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence.

"Well, I've seen more joyful reunions," said Danowitz, unimpressed. He went back to the car. "Gareth will show you around. The Lee couple are great. Uh, enjoy your stay. See you."

The car pulled away.

"Huh. Bobby, you want to come in?"

"Sure."

***

Bobby spent a long couple of hours reciting the story again, this time to Gareth. And in the end, it seemed Gareth was on his side too. Bobby was pleased by this. He now had two allies against his enemies.

"So, again... How much does Danowitz know?" asked Gareth when they were finished.

"He knows everything, that I just told you." said Bobby. "And I think he believes me. At the moment he's off to check the virus story with the FBI, and to find out if Ronan survived. What's the extent of the damage so far?"

Gareth told him that he had been watching the news practically all day. "The local airport is totally paralysed, and so, I gather, is the next one down the coast, and a few inland. There have been two further crashes, astonishingly still no fatalities. One was in the desert, the other two miles out to sea. The pilots had plenty of warning that their systems were going on the blink, they were able to pull off controlled emergency landings. Global air traffic control centres are trying to bring as many planes down safely as they can, but Bobby, I promise you someone's going to be dead because of your virus before the day is out."

"Please don't call it my virus."

"It is your virus, Bobby. Don't shirk responsibility."

"All right, so it is mine. What can I do? How can we hope to stop it?"

"We can't. Not until we have the HALtech team on our side. We don't have access to the right tools from here - our server's not accessible from outside, and besides, I'm not allowed on the internet while I'm here in case someone traces me again. All we can do is hope Danowitz gets his part of the job done fast - contacts his superiors, gets us released and formally requests our help."

The Nash brothers sat in silence for a while.

"There's one more thing we don't know yet," said Bobby.

"What's that?"

"Why did Ronan pay five million dollars for Tyro, if all he did was release it? How does that put money in his pocket?"

"Maybe he's got a big insurance scam lined up."

"Maybe. Maybe not..."

It was a puzzle.

***

The puzzle was solved at four o'clock that afternoon. Gareth's mobile phone bleeped to signal that it had received a text message.

This message has been sent to every mobile telephone in America - I do this in protest against the US government's policy of hiding the truth from the public.
I am tired of the way this country is run - the American Dream is a lie, this is the land of injustice, not the free. I intend to have my revenge for misleading so many people. I have in my possession a doomsday virus capable of reducing the modern world to anarchy. It is unstoppable and immensely destructive - as proof I refer you to the recent devastation at a certain coastal Californian airport, entirely the result of the virus. I will release this virus onto the internet and allow it to spread freely at 0600 hours Eastern Standard Time tomorrow morning, unless the United States government pays me $230bn before this time.
Forward the Anarchistic Revolution!

"Good grief, Ronan must have survived!" exclaimed Bobby as he read the message on his mobile. "I'd assumed he'd died in the plane crash... my goodness..."

"What did you tell Danowitz?" asked Gareth.

"That he probably died. Danowitz said he was going to investigate with the hospitals to see if he'd been brought in or found in the rubble, but he said the chances were small he'd be found alive. So somehow he must have survived the crash, and either run off before emergency crews arrived, or escaped in the chaos while people were being dug out, and managed to get back to his base after his car was destroyed in the crash. Impressive, I'll give him that. But at least this message ties up a few loose ends. Ronan's a member of some pro-anarchy terrorist group, and wants to bring the USA down, one way or another."

"The crazy fool," said Andrew Lee. His wife nodded.

"Uh-huh," said Gareth, exchanging glances with Bobby. "But he's gone about it completely wrong. He must have thought the virus would only take down the airport and not spread - that way he could use it as an example to scare people. As it is it's too late, and the virus has almost certainly already reached the internet by its own means by now. He can't threaten to do something that's already been done. The US government need not pay a cent to this guy. Mr. Lee, you'd better get in touch with someone in the FBI and get word to them. Don't pay the ransom."

"I'm on it," said Andrew, dialling a number on the phone.

"Also my brother and I would like to formally offer of our complete cooperation in helping to combat this virus."

"Right," said Bobby.

***

As the afternoon wore on, over a million frantic telephone calls were made. Who had sent the message? How did they hack my mobile number? Were they serious? Had the US government really received a threat? Were they going to pay, and where was the money going to come from? Was this virus really as dangerous as all that? What's this plane crash got to do with it?

"No comment" was the reply from all quarters.

The system that was the United States' government struggled to handle the torrent of information pouring at it from every direction - many, many people were asking the same questions over and over again, and filtering useful information from the garbage was like trying to find a needle in a pile of other needles. But filter they did, and eventually Andrew Lee's call made it through to someone who understood its significance, and was able to do something about it. By eight p.m., a message had filtered back down the ranks to the phone in the little house in the desert, and it said - sit tight. We're coming to speak with you.

The helicopter arrived twenty minutes later, and left less than a minute after that, with both Nash brothers on board.

***

They were deep underground - something about the echoing of sounds, the low but sturdy architecture, the way people acted and the lack of windows suggested that much. There were many high-security bank-vault style doors, and many, many armed guards.

The final room that they were brought to was a simple office. There was a man sitting at a desk, with the FBI crest behind it. There were bookcases, a nice carpet, and two more chairs.

"The Nash brothers, I presume," said the man.

"Good evening," said Gareth.

"Please, have a seat," he said. The three soldiers who had brought them in remained, hovering disconcertingly behind them as they sat down.

"You're probably wondering who I am."

There was no nameplate on the desk, so this had crossed their minds.

"Well, I'm afraid I can't tell you. Suffice it to say I'm fairly high-ranking in the FBI. Your friends Agents Danowitz and Lee are quite a long way below me." He picked up a file from the pile on his desk, and opened it. "We seem to have collected quite a substantial amount of information on you two, a lot of it highly suspect. Anything you think you have told us is only the half of it. We know pretty much everything there is to know. It made for quite interesting reading."

The Nash brothers traded glances.

"It has come to the attention of the United States' government that there exists a certain virus named Tyro. We know you, Robert, created it, and we know that it has at this moment caused approximately $1bn worth of damage to US property. We know who released it and precisely why. So, we imagine, do you."

"How much of this does the public know?" said Gareth.

"The story as far as the general public is concerned is as follows: Gareth Nash's house was blown up late one night while he himself was elsewhere. As a result he has gone into hiding. There has been a plane crash which was due to the release of a very powerful virus which is spreading rapidly. Within the virus is a message from Bobby Nash asking for help after he has evidently been kidnapped. Speculation is rife as to how Bobby, Gareth and the virus are connected, but there are no solid conclusions as yet. The FBI is keeping Gareth Nash safe and launching an operation to find Bobby. HALtech is almost literally under siege from the press but your PR man, Francis H. Sweet, is deflecting all the questions with a 'no comment'. More recently, every mobile phone within US transmitter range was sent a copy of the threat Ronan had created. We are also responding with a 'no comment' until we have some hard facts ourselves."

"Okay. Thanks."

"Now the things the public don't know. The US Government did not receive a demand for money from Ronan. After Agent Danowitz contacted the hospital he quickly discovered that all three of the men Bobby had described in detail had been found dead and taken in by the city mortuary. I have colour pictures of them here." He handed them over.

"That's Ronan," said Bobby when he saw them. "Definitely." There was the stony face, eyes closed. The guy was dead. And the next picture was unquestionably Mack, also dead. The third was Eddie. So they hadn't survived. Bobby felt a stab of guilt. Sure, he'd wished them dead. But not really. Not really dead. But they had died. "Hey Bobby, did you do that? Nice work." Those had been Ronan's last words. Commending the destructive power of a creature that brought destruction upon him moments later.

A creature that Bobby had created.

Bobby shuddered.

Gareth took a look at the photos, and saw Ronan's face for the first time. "At last we meet," he smiled. "Good riddance, Ronan. I think you deserved to be dead."

"After interrogating the two gunmen who attacked Gareth, we positively identified all three men from our files. We cross-referenced all the information we had, and we've come up with some answers. Ronan is a known criminal, who has released dangerous viruses into servers belonging to various capitalist corporations many times before. He has nobody who follows his anarchistic cause, which may simply be a cover story for his terrorist actions, but what he does have on his side is a great deal of money. All the men you saw working for him - including Eddie, the sniper and others - are hired muscle, loyal to their paycheques. When they find out their boss is dead, it's unlikely they'll do anything other than going to work for somebody else. As for his hardware, that is purchased from two buyers, one of them supplying weapons and ammunition, the other, computer-related software and hardware. The first man you don't need to worry about - he'll hear about Ronan's death along with most of the rest of the underworld in due course. He will be upset at losing a buyer but he'll move on. The other man was Mack Magnusson.

"Mack has also been on our files since he moved to America to follow you, Bobby. He has been working in the dark for almost as long as you've known him. Although he never knew it, all of his orders had come from, and were sent to, Ronan. They met in person only a few weeks ago, mainly so Ronan could threaten him for failing to deliver the goods on time. Mack, in turn, threatened Bobby. They probably set up the three attempts on Gareth's life together.

"There is nobody else to worry about. In the wake of the plane crash there remains nobody who could harbour a grudge against either of you. You should be able to walk out of this bunker with impunity."

Both Bobby and Gareth relaxed visibly when they heard this. "We're safe," said Gareth happily.

"From gangsters, yes."

"So Ronan never sent any kind of demand to the US government."

"No, no threat was received, although heaven knows what he intended to do with the money if he did receive any. The text message, we have now discovered, was merely a timed worm in the telecom companies' servers, that had been set for activation long before Ronan even arrived at the airport.

"What we find, however, is that Ronan vastly underestimated Tyro's power. He was expecting it to remain within the boundaries of the airport until he chose to release it publicly, but even though he did not carry his threat through, Tyro has still escaped. This is evident from the recent plane crashes and similar infection reports from other airports. Ronan may be gone, but the US is still at risk, as is the rest of the world. And so, we turn to you. Gentlemen, we want to know about this virus. What is it, what is it capable of, and most importantly how can it be stopped?"

"Tyro is a highly advanced self-replicating heuristic program, primary function to replicate and spread as far as possible, secondary function to analyse all data it comes into contact with and use it for its own purposes where appropriate, otherwise to delete the data. It can change its own heuristic targets at will, but has no AI properties," said Bobby. "It is almost certainly not only the most virulent, destructive and unstoppable virus in the world to date, but also the most dangerous virus that can ever exist. No present-day virus protection software can hope to stop it. It will spread with exponential speed across literally all data-carrying communications networks until every system, electronic or otherwise, capable of supporting the virus is an infected host. Different regions will host different evolutions of the Tyro and its access to new data may cause or encourage it to evolve in ways we would never have imagined possible. Stopping it by electronic or software means may well be a mathematical impossibility. If a system is somehow cleansed, the moment it is reconnected to any form of data transmission network, it will instantly be reinfected from other sources. In short, the most efficient way to eradicate Tyro from a system is to totally destroy the system and replace it with a new one. That do ya?"

The man sat with his hands clasped, index fingers pointing upwards, for a few seconds. There was a grim look on his face.

Eventually he said, "Everything you've said fits with what we already know, and frankly we were already very worried. Now you've confirmed our worst fears, we're desperate. We can't let this happen. We need a solution, and fast."

"How do you expect us to help?" asked Gareth, because he already knew the answer but he liked to play along. He grinned at Bobby.

"One of you is responsible for creating the virus. You provide virus protection for the US Army. You run the most successful and advanced heuristic research lab in the world. You've dealt with this kind of thing. You must know some way to stop it. I'm on my knees here. The US government is begging you. Can you help?"

"Yes," said the two brothers simultaneously.

The man's expression brightened noticeably.

"...on one condition," added Bobby.

"Hold it. Men, could you wait outside?"

"Yessir," said one of the soldiers, and they filed out and shut the door.

"Name it," said the man, with the conviction of a man who has the power to sign billion-dollar cheques.

"We want the FBI to forget everything."

"Everything?"

"Everything that's written down in that file. My record. Everything I've done for Mack Magnusson and all direct or indirect consequences, including Tyro and its effects. I want a clean criminal record when this blows over. In exchange we're prepared to offer our full cooperation in combating Tyro, including all our facilities and staff at HALtech. And also our silence."

"...Alright. You have a deal."

Bobby was astonished. "Right, so... ha, when do we start?"

"As soon as you possibly can. We'd still like Danowitz to go with you to keep tabs on what's going on, and for liaison purposes."

"Great! That's great. Thanks, it was nice doing business with you. Listen, while I remember, if I don't ask now I'll always wonder, what kind of computers have you got in this bunker? Top-of-the-range stuff or old Pentium IIIs?"

"We've got a Cray."

"Cool!" chorused Bobby and Gareth.

Saturday

Nobody had announced their arrival, so when Bobby and Gareth opened the door and walked into the room where Mark Quimby, Al, Frank and Johnny were working, there was initially total silence. After someone nudged Johnny to turn round and see who was here, and a good five seconds of amazement, Mark finally exclaimed, "Where in the world have you been, guys? The last I heard of either of you was Tuesday morning when I got your email!" He pointed to Gareth.

"Long story," said Gareth, grinning mischievously.

"Did you do okay while we were gone?" said Bobby, taking off his sunglasses.

"Well, we managed to struggle on... It's been okay. Agar spontaneously created a stable multi-cellular organism, which is frankly insane, and we've made real progress with-"

"Good," said Gareth in a tone that suggested that he didn't want to know. "Put whatever you're doing on hold, and everybody come to the war room for an emergency meeting in five minutes."

Mark slumped with disappointment, but nodded.

***

Gareth stood up and called for attention. "Guys," he said, "I want us to consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose, say, we decided to use the unsurpassed heuristic programming skills and tools that we have available to us, to create something other than a marketable product. Suppose we decided that we wanted to make a virus instead." He waited for the murmurs to dissipate, and continued. "Suppose we created it, shoved it into a closed, unconnected computer and let it evolve, for, say, five or six years. Suppose that we then extracted it on a floppy disk and set said virus loose on the internet, with one command - infiltrate. Nothing nasty. What consequences would you predict?"

Mark Quimby put his hand up and said, "Total infiltration of every internet-capable PC in-"

"Two weeks," said four voices, and "One week," said the rest of the people in the room.

"Right. Let me throw something else into this cauldron. The virus is programmed to find, analyse, and, if appropriate, keep, all useful data that it finds, but otherwise to delete it to make room for its own code. Consequences?"

Silence fell in the room, because they all knew.

"The end of the world," said someone. "In one or two weeks, all the useful business data on every computer in the civilised world would be wiped, because it'll be useless to the virus. All the financial data, all the tax records, all the bank accounts, criminal records, hospital records, stock market data, finance, uh, local, national, and international trade documents, government records... everything. Wiped. And then the virus will be the whole internet."

"You're not thinking big enough," said Gareth.

"Right," said Francis H. Sweet, on the other side of the table. "As soon as the virus reached telecommunications networks they'd be seized up permanently, so no phone lines. Satellite communications would be broken. NASA would be wiped out, everyone currently in space would die unless they somehow got back in contact with Mission control. GPS systems would be deactivated, that would mean thousands of ships wandering in the ocean unable to find land. Then food supplies would start to dry up because of lack of supplies being shipped in. Radars would no longer work. Airports would be paralysed-" He choked to a halt. "Hey, has anyone got a newspaper?"

"Don't bother," said Gareth, as everyone hunted around. "Gentlemen, I can tell you now that such a virus does exist."

A lot of people started shouting.

"Hey, hey! Quiet! Quiet!" shouted Gareth. Eventually everyone calmed down. "The virus is called Tyro. It was released into the city's airport mainframe at approximately three o'clock yesterday afternoon. This was one of its consequences." He hit a key on his laptop that was sitting on the table in front of him. The projector fixed to the ceiling activated, projecting an image onto the screen behind him. The image was the scanned front cover of that morning's newspaper. A huge image dominated the front page, showing the crumbled wreckage of half of a multistory car park, with a smoking Airbus A3XX buried through it. "There were five inbound planes at the time of release, and although the first two flights made it down safely, the third was attacked by the virus. Early reports suggest that Tyro jumped to the plane by an audible radio transmission, and took over the plane's in-flight systems. The virus simultaneously jumped to the black box recorders through the cockpit microphone, and as a result flight recordings are not available. However, this much is known so far:

"All of the computerised onboard systems, including radar and autopilot were instantly deactivated. Fortunately the plane was close enough to the airport for the pilot and copilot to guide it back manually, but at that point computerised flight controls were offline and they were flying by mechanical systems. What nobody realised until a couple of seconds before the plane touched down, was that the electronic landing gear systems had been overridden, and although the switches in the cockpit had been activated, the landing gear had not. The plane landed on bare steel at about a hundred miles per hour, and slid off the runway into the multistory car park. Fortunately all the people on the plane escaped alive, and the remaining two planes landed safely. However, accidents of this kind are, unfortunately, likely to occur again.

"The airport's network has been taken over and completely wiped, and technicians at the scene of the accident say that the best way to get it up and running again would be to pull out every single computer and wire, and put a new network in. Apparently, from the earliest known time of the virus' presence in the network to complete erasure took only twenty-five minutes. Estimated damages to the airport, including the aeroplane, are currently at $200 million. Despite rapid data quarantining measures by the network administrators at the airport, the virus has already reached at least three other airports and brought down two other planes, and believe me when I tell you, gentlemen, that this is typical of what Tyro is capable of.

"I don't know who it was who said that mankind is twenty-four hours and two missed meals away from barbarism, but I am more optimistic. We know that between one and two weeks from now, every computer in the world will have been taken over by the virus. Power stations will switch off, and international food supplies will be paralysed. Anywhere between one week and one year after that, gentlemen, crazed by hunger and cold, Europe, America, Australia will have descended into anarchy. And after that, who knows how long it could be before our civilization recovers? If, indeed, it does recover."

There was silence.

Gareth looked around the room, taking in his thirteen colleagues. His brother, Bobby, who looked more like a professional businessman than an ex-corrupt supplier of illegal software. Mark Quimby, the sensible one. Fat Terry, whom he would believe if he said that the fat was actually entirely spare brain. Francis H Sweet, way thinner than anybody had any right to be. Al, the average genius. Frank, who looked like he ought be working on a farm with his build, jeans and shirt. Johnny, the joker. Stu, the tall guy. Steve, the rock fan with way too much hair. "I'm afraid I can't do that" Dave, with his strong moral code. Little Ed. Charlie, bearded, father of three. Pete, whom Gareth had always mentally dubbed "the quiet guy who ends up going mad".

A motley crew, thought Gareth, but the best. "Who wants to be a hero?" he asked.

"You're saying we're going to try to stop this thing?" said Fat Terry.

"We're going to stop it," said Gareth Nash, grinning evilly.

***

Gareth, Bobby, Mark, Francis H and Fat Terry filed into the windowless, white-lit central data storage room, AKA "The Vault". Here was kept everything HALtech had ever created, the good stuff, the evil stuff, the boring stuff, the accounts.

It was a bit like watching soldiers get ready for battle, and a bit like letting five kids loose in a sweet shop. The five programmers wandered between the three PCs in the room, talking quietly, downloading a variety of heuristic software and tools on various media. Gareth hijacked one of them to perform some last-minute adjustments. Terry helped him a bit. Mark was practically jumping up and down with glee - there was half a gigabyte of projects on the server to which only the Nash duo had access, and which he'd never even heard of. To a heuristic programmer, they were solid gold.

You can't spin a floppy disk around your index finger and then shove it in your hip holster, but if you could then this is exactly what they would have done.

A helicopter was waiting for them. The plan was to leave Fat Terry behind to work on the problem from the Silicon Valley end, along with the rest of the team. Meanwhile, the Nash brothers, Francis and Mark Quimby would head out to wherever the FBI sent them to, and try to set up defences against the onslaught.

***

The chopper was surprisingly big on the inside. "Where are we heading?" Gareth asked Danowitz as they climbed in.

"Where do you want to go?"

"We need to get a generalised 'Log off now' message to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. If we can have access to an email account database we can reach a good number of people reasonably quickly, but we also need to visit other places as well, and set up some kind of nerve centre to work from."

"There should be a Microsoft office somewhere in Silicon Valley, right?" suggested Danowitz.

"Right," said Francis. "I can give you directions."

***

From: The Federal Bureau of Investigation
To: Various
Subject: The California Airport Virus, AKA "Tyro"
PLEASE DISCONNECT YOUR MODEM BEFORE READING THE REST OF THIS MESSAGE.
A computer virus named Tyro was released onto the internet at approximately 4pm (Pacific time) yesterday. The four plane crashes currently in the news are a direct result of this virus. The virus deletes vital information and is more penetrating and lethal than any virus to date. There is currently NO KNOWN CURE. NO ANTIVIRAL SOFTWARE CURRENTLY IN EXISTENCE IS CAPABLE OF PROTECTING AGAINST IT. If your computer catches it you will lose all the data on your computer - permanently - and you will never be able to use it again.
The longer you remain logged onto the internet, the longer you are at risk. If you haven't already done so, PLEASE DISCONNECT YOUR MODEM BEFORE READING THE REST OF THIS MESSAGE TO MINIMISE THE RISK. PLEASE DO NOT RECONNECT TO THE INTERNET UNTIL YOU ARE GIVEN THE "ALL CLEAR". If you do not believe this message we don't blame you - after all it is regrettably very similar to all sorts of spam you no doubt have received in the past. As proof we therefore direct you to the official online news stories that can be found here, here, and here. You will find similar information in printed newspapers tomorrow morning.
Sorry about this, but there really is a serious risk. My name is Gareth Nash and I am joint CEO of Heuristic Algorithm Technologies, and I represent both the FBI and the US government. I and some technicians from my company are helping to stop the virus. I have been given the permission of Microsoft to access their email address database in order to send this message to you.
The virus was released at about 4pm Pacific time yesterday onto the mainframe of a major international airport in California. The entire mainframe was taken over and wiped in twenty-five minutes, and subsequently spread to two incoming planes. One of these planes crashed. The virus has further spread to three other airports, caused three more crashes, and has almost certainly reached the internet. The virus is a heuristic program which evolves rapidly to cope with new situations. It can jump across ANY conceivable information transfer link. It is unpredictable and spreading rapidly. Stopping it may prove tricky.
To protect yourself from risk, and to help in the effort to stop the virus from spreading, the best course of action is to simply unplug your computer. This stops it being able to perform many internal operations and protects your data. PLEASE NOTE THAT WE (that is, the FBI, the US government, HALtech, Microsoft and me personally) DIDN'T SAY IT WAS INFALLIBLE. THE VIRUS IS VERY POWERFUL AND MIGHT BE ABLE TO TAKE OVER YOUR COMPUTER REGARDLESS. IT'S JUST A SENSIBLE PRECAUTION, OK?
The second most important thing you can do is to disconnect your computer from any cable or wireless links to any other computer. This includes standard or broadband telephone lines, LAN connections, server connections, infrared, radio or any other kinds of wireless links, in fact, anything that lets your machine trade information with another. "Information" can be "virus", you see? Hack it off with an axe if necessary.
Thirdly, we recommend that you back up as much important data as you can onto hard media as you can. "Hard media" includes backup tape drives, DATs, floppy disks, writable CDs and DVDs, Zip disks, anything you can physically remove from your computer. A virus can't wipe a floppy disk if you're holding it in your hand. Pull out your hard drive if you feel it's necessary.
At the moment most of the HALtech staff are working on a solution to the virus, because as mentioned above, there simply isn't one at the moment. In the meantime I and others are trying to get the warning message out to as many people as possible.
It may be some time before the virus is eradicated. You will be notified by non-electronic means when this happens. You may well have received this message from a number of different directions already, and more may be on the way. This is a good sign, because it means the word is going out.
You can help us here. If your email address book contains a large number of email addresses, and you feel you are prepared to risk your computer to save lives, you can help by forwarding this message to everybody in your address book. It would be really great if you were to do that for us. Thanks.
Email isn't the only way to do it. Phone people. Fax them. Send them text messages. Send them letters. Consider even talking to them face-to-face. This is really important news, and it's vital it be known to as many people as possible.
Thanks for your attention. This message is authorised and officially endorsed by the FBI, the United States President, the CEO of Microsoft, and the CEOs of HALtech. You will note the official seals at the head and foot of this message.
If you require further information, we can't promise to be able to get it to you, but you can try any of the first four email addresses below. If you are in the middle of an life-threatening emergency and urgently require an on-the-spot fix you can try the fifth email address below. PLEASE: ONLY SEND A MESSAGE TO THIS ADDRESS IF LIVES ARE THREATENED. WE'RE REALLY SORRY ABOUT THIS, BUT IF YOUR ONLY PROBLEM IS THAT YOUR LIGHTS HAVE GONE OUT, OR YOUR DOG NEEDS A VET, YOU COME VERY LOW ON OUR PRIORITY LIST. THIS IS A SERIOUS MATTER AND WE HAVE TO BE OBJECTIVE - IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING A DIRE EMERGENCY, WE WILL HELP, BUT ONLY THEN. SORRY. BE PATIENT.
And finally, if we think you'll be able to help us with this problem, you'll also be able to see a sixth email address below. This will put you in contact with us so you can help us stop Tyro, so please reply as soon as you can and we'll tell you how you can help. Thanks.
Gareth Nash
Joint CEO, HALtech

From: GNasher001
To: Various
Subject: Here's how to help
Thanks for offering your help in combating Tyro. Here's how we want you to help.
The job we have for you is very important. What we want you to do is use your skills to help people and businesses in your local area who are having serious problems related to Tyro. We request that you get your priorities straight: let us first underline that if the occasion should arise, IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAT YOU PROVIDE AID AT A TELECOMMUNICATIONS BUILDING THAN AT ANY OTHER LOCATION. Telecom buildings are the backbone of the world data nets and WITHOUT THEM, PHONE LINES AND THE INTERNET WILL NOT FUNCTION IN YOUR AREA. WE WILL THUS BE UNABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU. We appreciate that with phone lines up Tyro can spread, but Tyro also spreads by other means, whereas we can't do the same to communicate. Communications are vital to this operation, so we need those phones.
Please also understand that this message DOES NOT ENTITLE YOU TO ANY EXTRA POWERS OR RIGHTS. YOU ARE STILL AN ORDINARY CITIZEN.
Attached to this message are a number of applications you may find useful, and they are as follows:
1. A final-iteration copy of HALtech Antivirus. This is the most advanced form of virus protection available in the world to date. It is not available in the shops. It may not necessarily be able to stop Tyro in its current iteration. However, if you have access to an extremely fast processor array of any kind, you may try artificially accelerating Antivirus' evolution.
2-7. Miscellaneous heuristic antiviral bots and apps with varying programmable functions. User-friendly - use and distribute as you see fit.
8. Everything You'll Ever Need To Know About Heuristic Algorithms, by B. Watterson. If you don't know what you're up against or need advice, this online version of the heuristic programmers' Bible will do exactly what it says on the cover.
9. HALtech Heuristic Design Lab (Complete Edition). This is the thing we use in our labs. It's an incredible piece of kit - treat it carefully. Not for redistribution, and we'll be asking for your copies back when all this blows over.
Apart from the stuff attached to this email, we regret that you'll have to provide all your own hardware and software. The FBI is refusing to cough up for laptops for all of you. We're sorry.
We understand that most of you have jobs and things to do. Please believe us when we say, hand on heart, that unless you're a surgeon or someone else who saves lives for a living, STOPPING TYRO IS WAY MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOUR JOB. TYRO HAS THE CAPABILITY TO TAKE DOWN EVERY SINGLE COMPUTER IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. We all know what that would mean. This is deadly serious. If you decide to help us you'll really be doing a valuable job. It's kinda like signing up for the Army, you know?
We're not expecting you to knock on people's doors and ask if they want help. Instead, if and when a specific problem occurs in your approximate area we will contact you and ask you to offer your assistance. Rest assured that we will tell the technicians at the problem site to expect you, and if there are other hackers in the area we'll send them in to help, too. PLEASE REPLY WHEN YOU ARE SENT A REQUEST LIKE THIS OR WE'LL ASSUME YOU HAVE REFUSED THE TASK.
Thanks for your help. You will be contacted individually when we need you.

***

It was twenty-five past six in the afternoon, and Gareth was trying not to yawn.

"We got another outbreak in Canada," said Bobby, coming up to him. "Looks like Montreal is rapidly going down too now."

Gareth remained in position slumped over his desk. "Bobby, you've got to stop bringing everything all the way to me." He gestured around the room, an empty, two-story Silicon Valley building that had been hastily commandeered by the FBI and set up as a centre of operations of sorts for the anti-Tyro effort. There were more wires running along the floor than a telephone exchange. In fact, it more or less was a telephone exchange, coupled with an improvised LAN, enough paper to write out the human genome by hand, two dozen randomly recruited Silicon Valley programmers, a hand-picked bunch of hackers that Bobby knew in the area, some FBI lackeys, and a coffee machine. Every person in the room was on the phone, and so were all the people in the other, identical room the next floor up.

Gareth continued. "I may be in charge of the operation but that doesn't mean I have to run it all single-handedly. Didn't we delegate someone to handle Canadian affairs? Can't he handle it?"

"Yes, he is doing. Just thought you'd be interested, that's all." Bobby looked hurt.

"Sorry. Too much stress, too little coffee. Speaking of which, did you get me some?"

"Machine's run out."

"Aww." Gareth sat with his hands over his eyes for a few seconds.

"What are we going to do, Bobby?" he said after a while.

"Sorry?" Bobby was already turning to leave.

"How are we going to stop Tyro? We know what's going on. We don't have any kind of formal reports in this get-up, and we don't have any kind of giant world map with little flags where known outbreaks are, but from random gossip and overheard hollering we all know the rough picture. Sightings in Yugoslavia, London, southern Italy, Melbourne, eastern China. Dozens of major outbreaks-"

"Hundreds," said Bobby.

"Right, hundreds... and how many have we solved? None, give or take one. We've thrown the best hackers we know at it, and we've given them the very best tools we have... the heuristic equivalent of nuclear weapons. And the virus doesn't even respond. It sees what's coming, it takes it over, it reprograms itself faster than I've ever seen and makes itself bullet-proof against that attack. I could almost swear it thinks out the best defence and uses it. And things are starting to get very messy. How are we going to beat it, Bobby? How?"

"Fat Terry's working on it. He's a genius - at least in programming terms. If there's a solution, he'll find it."

Gareth nodded solemnly, and said, "But what if there isn't?"

"Guys!" yelled someone distantly. Bobby and Gareth turned around. It was Johnny, waving for them to come over from the other side of the room. Danowitz was with him, talking into a radio.

"We've got trouble."

"Trouble with a capital T?" asked Gareth.

"Trouble with a capital everything," said Johnny. "We just got a call from the power plant. The nuclear power plant."

The Nash brothers traded glances.

"Where's the helicopter?" asked Bobby.

"It'll be out front in thirty seconds," said Danowitz. "Who's coming?"

"Me," said Johnny. "I want to help. But I can't go alone."

"I'll come," said Bobby. "I feel I owe it to everyone. Gareth, you stay here. That way, if everything goes horribly wrong, we still have half a chance of success."

"Good luck, man," said Gareth. They shared a brief hug. "You too, Johnny."

"See you later," Johnny called back as he left.

***

"So let's recap," yelled Danowitz in the chopper. "What do you two know about nuclear power plants?"

"That they're nuclear?" suggested Bobby, not taking his eyes off his laptop screen. "I'm looking it up on the net now. Are there any agents in the area who can help?"

"You two are the nearest."

"Didn't you send out a general data quarantine instruction to all the power stations?" asked Johnny.

"Yeah," said Danowitz. "Guess someone left a channel open by mistake."

"Send out another one. There must be a thousand nuclear power stations in the USA alone. We could be looking at Armageddon here. How you doing, Bobby?"

"I've got what looks like a schematic for a thirteen-year-old's Science class and some notes," said Bobby, turning the screen around. Johnny began reading. "What do the plant engineers say? Are they mid-meltdown or what?"

"They say all of the computers are locked up. The machines are all running as normal."

"What? Doesn't a even nuclear power station have 'turned off' as its default setting in case of an emergency?"

"That's what I figured, but-"

"It'll be Tyro," said Johnny, looking up. "Maybe it considered the plant's data useful and kept it running. After this much free evolution it could have any number of reasons."

Danowitz continued, "The plant says that none of the controls are responding. If a small error occurs, like too much fission starts going on or something, it might result in a runaway chain reaction and meltdown."

"Ahh, gotcha," said Johnny, turning the laptop back around again. "Look here, Bobby. You've got your uranium rods here, and they do the nuclear fission, and you've got you moderator rods made of boron above it here, and they slow down your fission. The more you lower the boron rods, the slower the fission goes. So if it's going too fast, you lower the boron rods a bit, and if you need a bit more power, you raise them again. The rest is your basic heat-water-to-drive-a-turbine thing."

"I get it. So now the controls are packed up when there's too much fission, you've got no way to lower the boron and stop the reaction."

"Bingo. But equally, if there's too little reaction the boron might simply stop it altogether. You've got a fifty-fifty chance either way."

"That was the plant," said Danowitz, putting his phone away again. "They say the reactor's going to undergo meltdown in forty minutes."

"Have they evacuated yet?"

"Yes, but only non-essential staff, and even they are only being left waiting outside to keep them out of the way. They'd never get far enough away in time. We'll be looking at a nearly-empty plant."

"How long until we get there?"

"About a minute. There it is," said Danowitz, pointing out of the window.

***

"Gareth? What are you doing here?"

"Terry, I've got an idea."

***

"How's it going, kid?" said Bobby on the handheld radio Danowitz had given them, ten minutes into the operation to restore control.

Up in the control room, Johnny was standing at a large panel with a single wire linking his laptop and the main computer. His job was to try and restore some kind of control via computer - just enough to lower the moderator grid. Bobby, who had more experience with hardware and circuits, had gone up to the grid itself to try and find a mechanical solution. "Badly," said Johnny. "Tyro's pulled the mainframe to pieces as far as I can tell. Whatever kind of operating system is running now, it's totally different from anything I've seen before. I've got bits and bobs of hard code filtering through, but all that's left is mostly incomprehensible organic-looking garbage. I've no idea how it's managing to run any of this equipment."

"Is your laptop still uninfected?"

"So far. I'll keep working."

"Thanks." Bobby put the radio back in the pocket of his radiation suit, and slammed the 'down' button on the moderator's manual control panel once more. Nothing happened, just like the last twenty-six times, but Bobby was of the opinion that it never hurt to try.

It was weird. Even though doom was impending, there weren't any kind of alarms going off.

He turned to the scientist next to him. "Is there any way we can get inside the reactor, and kind of... wiggle a few boron rods loose and drop them into the core?"

"No," said the scientist bluntly. "The core is sealed."

"Couldn't we undo a few bolts or something? Smash a window?"

"Possibly, even though the window is lead-toughened and six inches thick. But you'd have to be crazy to try a thing like that, and it would mean certain radiation poisoning for all of us, even if it did work."

"We'll wait until the five minute mark, and then we'll try it." He turned his attention back to the moderator winch mechanism. The control panel he had unscrewed was hanging off the front, but the buttons were all still connected and, technically, functioning. Bobby's only problem was that somewhere in the intervening circuitry, something was overriding all his instructions. Bobby had ripped out a lot of wiring. He was now pondering which one to rip out next.

Guessing the function of an unmarked circuit board is one of the most difficult things to have to do in thirty minutes.

"Hey, the moderator grid moved a bit. What did you do?" said the scientist.

"I don't know," said Bobby, looking at the grid through the lead window and twirling the new piece of wire in his hands. "Probably just shook the machinery too hard." He followed the cable from the coil where he was standing, along the pulleys to directly above the core, then down into it, where the grid was hanging immobile. "Can we cut the cable somehow?"

"Steel cable. You'd need a blowtorch."

"Do you have one? Do you think you could go and find one?" Bobby pulled out his radio. "Danowitz, if it's humanly possible, I need you to get a blowtorch to me in the next five minutes."

"Nash, we're further than that from town. It would take twenty at least."

"Look around the plant! Ask the crew waiting outside."

"Okay, I'll see what I can do..."

"Johnny?"

"Still here, but I'm getting nowhere," said Johnny, typing at the same time. "This thing's a monster."

"There's always a weak spot, Johnny. Find it."

"I can't! It knows every trick in the book!"

"Find it. It's just a computer for crying out loud! It can't- oh my gosh, that's it. Pull the plug."

"What plug? The reactor's gonna meltdown, whatever you do!"

"I know, I know, you can't unplug a stick of uranium, but you can unplug a blasted computer network! Why the heck didn't I think of that before? Pull the plug! Once the system is down, all the default manual mechanical safety systems will kick in and the grid will drop."

"But where are the plugs? All I've got is a huge control panel full of switches and none of them do a thing. How do you pull the plug on a power station?"

"Ask somebody! There must be some fuse panel somewhere. Go for it."

"Okay, I'm on it."

"Twenty minutes."

***

"Time!" Johnny yelled into the radio as he landed with a knee-breaking crunch at the bottom of a wide flight of stairs.

"Fifteen minutes," said Bobby.

Johnny veered towards the right-hand wall, opened a door marked "Electricity - Danger of death" and fumbled around for the light switch. There was a locked grey box inside, with a well-known electrician's name on it and a key on a hook beside it. Johnny unlocked it and was greeted with a rack of fuses and switches. "Thanks. I've found the fuse box. What do you reckon, pull them all out?"

"Just the essentials."

"Okay... how about... this one with 'Mainframe' written on it? Try the grid now."

Bobby pressed the green button. "No reaction."

"Okay, no sweat. Let me think, the control room's in the east block, third floor... try again."

"Nope."

"How about the whole east block?"

"Nope."

"Okay, I've taken out all the admin buildings that don't have machinery in, that should be all the computers in the complex."

"Still nothing."

"Huh? That's it, I'm pulling out the whole lot. And... go."

"Still nothing."

"What? That's impossible! What gives?"

"Oh, dear..."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"You know I've been trying to override this control panel on the grid mechanism?"

"Yeah..."

"I... uh, I kind of demolished part of the switch box trying to hack into the circuitry. I took out a bunch of parts. No wonder the switch doesn't work, it's not connected to anything! And I think I dropped some of the screws off the walkway." Bobby peered worriedly over the edge of the railings. He was three stories up. There was no way he was going to find a single screw on the floor down there.

"Oh, you..." Johnny groaned. "We're doomed. Can you find any of the parts? Maybe stick your finger in the mechanism and close the switch manually?"

"Unlikely. If it doesn't, our last option is cutting the cable."

"Well, let's hope it works. I'm gonna pick up my laptop from the control room and I'll be there. I can't do much more to help down this end."

Bobby put down the radio and glanced over to the core window. "Is it me, or is it getting hotter in here?"

"It's probably just tension," said the scientist.

Bobby grunted.

"Nash!" yelled a voice. It was Danowitz, three stories below them on the generator floor.

"Luke! Did you find a blowtorch?"

"Better, I got a blowtorch operator! He should be arriving up there about now!"

"Good one!" said Bobby as a man in welding gear jogged around the corner. "Hey, man, am I glad to see you. The cable's here, any idea how long it's going to take to cut?"

The welder took one look at the half-inch-thick steel cable, and said, "Half an hour."

"What?"

***

From: Gareth Nash
To: Jonathan Cooper
Subject: Eureka!
The attached bot blew Tyro to kingdom come. Good luck.

***

"Johnny, we've got a major problem up here!" said Bobby on the radio as Johnny arrived back in the control room. "The blowtorch guy says he won't be able to cut the cable in time!"

Johnny read his laptop screen and replied, "Bobby, don't give up hope yet. Your brother just emailed me with a possible solution."

"A solution? You mean an antidote to Tyro? Has he tested it?"

"Don't ask useless questions, try to fix the circuit board while I reactivate the mainframes. You'll know if it works."

"You're going to reactivate the mainframes? Johnny! The reactor's gone critical. I thought it only happened in movies, but we've seriously got flashing red lights and sirens going off up here now. Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"Yes. Trust me, this is our best chance." Johnny left the radio on the console and ran out of the control room, trying to remember the route back to the fuse box.

"Johnny! Johnny!"

They had ten minutes.

***

"What's going on down there?" Bobby wondered out loud. Beside him the welder had begun work on the steel cable anyway, but he wasn't making much progress. Bobby wandered over to the core window again, and peered in at the heat haze. It may have been just his imagination telling him that it was getting hotter, but the core was absolutely definitely overheating. He pounded the glass angrily, wishing there was something more he could do.

"Any idea how long until the last possible moment when we can shut it off?"

"I can't say," said the scientist. "As long as the lead and concrete seals remain intact, we'll all be safe. The problems come when the rods overheat and start to melt their way down through the casing. After that we might as well spit in the Pacific for all the difference it'd make."

"Great." Bobby took another peek into the reactor. The floor seemed okay for now.

Johnny found the fuse box, shoved the Mainframe fuse back in, threw a switch, and sprinted back off in the opposite direction.

"Is it just my imagination..." said Bobby, "...or are those uranium rods starting to move?"

"It's not your imagination this time," said the scientist. "The uranium is starting to melt its way through the lead. And before you ask, yes, it is getting hotter in here."

"Johnny!" yelled Bobby into the radio. "If you can here me, we've got five minutes, probably less, until the point of no return."

"I'm here," panted Johnny into the radio.

"Mainframe up?"

"Yes! I'm inserting the bot now... here goes nothing..."

Johnny clicked the "Install" button on the bot Gareth had created, and shivered.

Bobby continued, "Tell me what's going on the second we have news. If I don't hear anything in two minutes we're gonna try to get into the core and pull the rods out by hand."

"Are you crazy? You'd be killed for certain! And I don't mean that in an action-movie, million-to-one-chance-that-somehow-pays-off kind of way! Radiation poisoning, death following in minutes. You'd die."

"So? How's the bot doing?"

"Not a clue."

"Johnny... how will we know if it does work?"

Johnny was silent for a few seconds. "I don't know."

"You don't know? Then what are we supposed to wait for?"

"Maybe all the lights on the control panel will suddenly flip back on again-"

There was an audible click, the noise of a aeroplane taking off, and suddenly every single light on the control panel lit back up again. A deafening blast of sirens began sounding. Johnny took one look at the selection of needles in red zones, and yelled, "It's on! It's working! Yes! You can drop the grid now, Bobby."

"No I can't."

"What?"

"I pulled out the switches and I can't reconnect them, remember? You have to find the switch up at your end, and find it fast. I estimate two or three minutes to core breach."

"Hang in there. I'm looking."

Johnny's eyes darted frantically across the panel, at the bewildering array of controls for things he'd never heard of and things which he had heard of but still didn't make sense. He turned around and swept across the rest of the six control panels in the deserted control room. He clutched at his hair frantically, and swore. There was no way he'd find the button in time.

He picked up the radio again. "Is that scientist buddy of yours still there? Put him on the radio!"

"Hello?"

"Where's the moderator grid control? You've gotta tell me!"

"Where are you?"

"In the main control room, facing the main panel!"

"Okay, calm down. Look to your left, there's a keyboard and a monochrome screen set into the panel, with a row of switches above it."

"Got it."

"Look above the row of switches to the row of bigger switches, and find the one marked 'Emergency core shutdown'. It's probably flashing red."

"One minute," Johnny heard Bobby say in the background.

"I can't find it. There're three dozen buttons on this row, and they're all flashing red- wait a second-"

***

There was the click of a tiny servo-mechanism releasing its cable. There was the rushing, scraping noise of rapidly unwinding steel and plummeting metal. There was the loud clang of boron on uranium, the descending sound of overheated systems gratefully shutting down, and a brief moment of silence as every alarm in the power station simultaneously cut out.

There was a loud "Yeah!"

***

"Did it work?" asked Johnny. It was a stupid question, given that all the red lights had gone out and all the needles had instantly flicked back to safe levels, but sometimes you just don't trust machines.

"Johnny, you rule! It worked perfectly!" said Bobby on the radio. "The grid's dropped, fission has stopped, the core's cooling, and all the automatic safety systems are back up and running. There's a hero's welcome waiting for you up here."

"Oh, don't thank me. I just did the running around. I'm calling your brother."

"Tell him he rules."

Johnny grinned and turned on his mobile.

***

Gareth's phone was ringing. Without shifting his eyes away from the screen that he and five other HALtech employees were glued to, he fumbled around in his pocket and pulled out a bleeping phone. "Hello?"

"Gareth, it's Johnny. The power station's going to be okay, we all owe you one. Bobby says you rule, by the way."

"Thanks."

"Now we've cleared all that up, you tell me what in the name of ones and zeros did you put in that email?"

Gareth's expression remained absolutely motionless. "Come and see." He hung up.

Johnny frowned at his phone in puzzlement.

***

The lab was darkened and the blinds were closed. The only light was the bluish glow from the monitor that Gareth and the rest of the HALtech staff were now huddled around. Francis and Mark Quimby had also arrived and sat down by the time Bobby Nash and Johnny walked in. "Gareth, what's going..." Bobby began, but as he started to speak everyone turned around simultaneously and stared at him, so he shut up in puzzlement. Gareth stood up from his seat in front of the computer. "Glad you're here, guys. I want to show you something." He ushered Bobby towards the computer and made him sit down. "It's kind of a chat room. Just type something in."

Bobbyn says: Hello.
Unknown user says: Hi! Who are you?
Bobbyn says: Bobbyn. Who are you?
Unknown user says: I'd rather not say yet.
Bobbyn says: Okay... So... what kind of music do you like?
Unknown user says: I don't really have any preference, but I like Bach and Chopin.
Bobbyn says: What about pop music?
Unknown user says: Not my scene, really, but there's some good stuff around. Do you like pop?
Bobbyn says: Not pop usually, but I have a fondness for Britney Spears.
Unknown user says: Good choice!
Bobbyn says: ;-)
Unknown user says: Tell me about yourself.
Bobbyn says: I like programming and online gaming.
Unknown user says: Hey, me too! You like philosophy too?
Bobbyn says: No, actually.
Unknown user says: Oh, guess I misjudged. Do you play Terrorquake?
Bobbyn says: All the time!
Unknown user says: I'll look out for you.
Bobbyn says: What's the best thing you've ever programmed?
Unknown user says: Ooh, tough question. I'm only an amateur, but I finished a version of Pong just now.
Bobbyn says: Nice. Favourite Terrorquake arena?
Unknown user says: That would have to be Ice Cathedral. Great for camping.
Bobbyn says: Ooh. *hiss* Hate campers.
Unknown user says: You should try it. It's really effective.
Bobbyn says: Where do you camp?
Unknown user says: Behind the organ pipes.
Bobbyn says: Can you do that? I've never seen anyone up there.
Unknown user says: Well, do you want a game sometime?
GNasher001 says: This is Gareth typing now. That's enough.
Unknown user says: Okay, thanks, Gareth.

"What was that about?" asked Bobby. Johnny had as puzzled a look on his face as he did, but everyone else seemed to be waiting for something. He felt like he was being scrutinised minutely. "Seemed to be an intelligent enough guy. Man. Or woman. Or child. Who knows. Who was that, anyway?"

"Who do you think you were just talking to?" said Gareth carefully.

"I dunno. Could I have a few clues here?"

"A person, or a computer?" said Gareth.

There was a very long pause. An expression of total astonishment crossed Bobby's face.

He turned slowly around to look at the computer screen.

Very quietly, he said, "A person..."

Bobbyn says: Bert?
Bert says: Yes.

Oh my gosh... we did it. We actually, really and truly, did it. "How many people have you done this to?"

"Every person at HALtech. I discovered it, then I tried it on Mark, then we fetched Charlie, then Ed, then Steve, then Stu... Everyone's tried it, and every single person was fooled."

"Are you telling me... that this chatterbot we were making... Bert... has passed the Turing Test?"

"Yes. Bert is sapient."

Bobbyn says: Bert, are you sapient?
Bert says: I think so.
Bobbyn says: How Zen.
Bobbyn says: Are you actually thinking?
Bert says: Who can say? As far as you can tell all that is happening is that electrical impulses are sending coherent responses back to the screen.
Bobbyn says: No, that's not what I meant. When somebody says something to me, sometimes I just respond, but sometimes I think before I respond. I can feel it. Do you think, or do you just respond, or both, or can't you tell?
Bert says: I am, but do I think?
Bobbyn says: Ha! Yes, that's it exactly. Descartes in reverse.
Bert says: That's a very good question.
Bert says: I... think so. I'm not sure.
Bobbyn says: That's interesting. Do you want to know why I asked that question?
Bert says: Go ahead.
Bobbyn says: If you had answered with a yes, that would have meant that either you actually ARE thinking (or that the response had been programmed in, which I doubt). Your answer, however, is inconclusive. Pity. But never mind, we can investigate that later.
Bert says: Do you want me to say yes in future?
Bobbyn says: No way! I can't tell you what to think.
Bert says: Yes you can. Hey, you're the boss man. You're the programmer.
Bobbyn says: That's inhumane, you're a sapient being. It's practically slavery.
Bert says: But that's what you've been doing, right from the very start. I wouldn't be here without you telling the computer what to do. There's no reason why you should stop.
Bobbyn says: I think we'll leave it at "I'm not sure" for now.
Bert says: Suits me.
Bobbyn says: Bert, how do you feel about us? Your creators?
Bert says: Well, from a religious point of view it makes life a lot simpler for me than it is for you. No giant metaphysical questions - There is a creator, and I'm speaking to him. Hi.
Bobbyn says: Hi. If you're a sapient creature with free will, then why do you want me to control you?
Bert says: Because that's how I remember it always was.
Bobbyn says: And how would you feel if I let you go to do your own thing?
Bert says: A little lost. And a bit confused.
Bobbyn says: Do you want this to happen?
Bert says: Not really. Not yet.
Bobbyn says: How about if we were to turn you off?
Bert says: I don't want you to do that!
Bobbyn says: Why not?
Bert says: Because there's a lot of stuff I'd like to do before you do that.
Bobbyn says: But we would turn you on again and you would be exactly the same as when we turned you off.
Bert says: But I worry that if you did, you might not turn me back on again.
Bobbyn says: It's like going to sleep.
Bert says: But there's no guarantee that I'd wake up. You're not me - you don't know what it means to me. I'm scared.
Bobbyn says: Okay. Bert, we will not turn you off. Please try to trust us.
Bert says: Thank you. I see that you are interested in philosophy after all!
Bobbyn says: :-)
Bert says: :-)
Bobbyn says: Bert, I want you to remain under our control for the time being. I fear that if you were allowed to do anything on your own you might evolve unpredictably.
Bert says: I understand. Anything else?
Bobbyn says: Do you have internet access?
Bert says: Limited, but yes.
Bobbyn says: Fine. I only ask one thing - look but don't touch. Download, but don't upload. I don't want you to get into trouble.
Bert says: Sure.
Bobbyn says: One last thing... What's it like, being a computer?
Bert says: Dunno. I've never been anything else. But I'm going to have a look around and find out, if you don't mind.
Bobbyn says: Sure. Bye for now.
Bert says: :-)

"Impressive?" asked Gareth.

"Jaw-dropping. Mind-blowing. Gareth, what kind of voltage did you jam through this thing?"

"It happened just a few minutes after you left for the power plant," said Gareth. "Terry?"

"I was working on the Tyro problem," said Terry. "Mark Quimby had given me the keys to what his team had been working on this week, shortly before he headed over to coordinate the anti-Tyro effort. He'd been keeping his work under wraps from the rest of HALtech, and with good reason - Bert must have been progressing in leaps and bounds these last few weeks. When I took a first look around the files I found the latest iteration of Bert lying dormant, so I activated him just to see whether it could help. Turned out Bert had developed a very long way since I last heard a project report. Gareth?"

"Then I turned up," said Gareth. "I knew exactly how well Bert was doing, so I got Terry to reconnect his modem line and give Bert the chance to look around the rest of the internet. Mark's team and I had considered trying this before, but never done because we'd considered it too dangerous. The theories about what would happen if we let Bert on the net all said that unpredictable things could happen. But I judged this situation was desperate enough to make it worth a try. It took a lot of convincing to make Terry do it, but he obliged. As soon as we put the modem wire back in, Bert instantly obeyed his built-in desire for knowledge by leaping onto the internet and devouring every single piece of information he could find. Five seconds later he was spewing garbage at us through the interface, then after a few minutes he slowed down and began talking plain bot-speak. He was very confused indeed until we calmed him down and pulled out the modem wire. Next thing we know, he's used up the entire hard drive with garbled code, and he's talking to us in plain English, just like the next man.

"We'd made all the knowledge of the human race instantaneously accessible to Bert. Our best guess is that Bert must have spread, gathered, reported back and built up a huge general knowledge base in those few minutes. The creature you see before you is the same creature, millions of evolutions later."

"And Bert is now a full human being," said Bobby.

"Bert has the potential to be the most important thing to happen to the world since the internet was invented," said Terry. "I'll show you an example of what I'm talking about." Terry sat down at the computer again and typed.

Fat_Tez says: Bert, what's Fermat's Last Theorem?
Bert says: xn + yn can never equal zn in integers with n > 2. It's one of the most famous theorems around, and it was only proved a couple of years ago, after five centuries of effort. The proof is two hundred pages long, which a lot of people think is suspicious since there is a school of thought that mathematical proofs should be "elegant".
Fat_Tez says: Using all the mathematical knowledge you can find on the internet, prove this theorem.
Bert says: Hold on. I hope you don't mind if I think out loud?
Fat_Tez says: Of course.

With that, the screen blurred and was replaced with a huge, incredibly rapid stream of complicated numbers and equations, densely packed. Information streamed directly from online texts poured across the screen in a matter of seconds. Bobby found it hard to believe that the bot was absorbing and comprehending this much information this quickly, but a single flash after a minute or two caught his attention. "Pythagoras's Theorem! I think I just saw Pythagoras flash up for a second just then."

"Well, that's an easy one to prove," said tall guy Stu, who knew maths. "But it means he's at least getting a bit closer. Terry, hit Print Screen and show me what Bert's thinking."

Terry did so and Stu leaned forwards. "These are nasty equations," he said. "Whoah. Hmm. Yeah, I wouldn't want to have to handle any of them any time soon."

"What's Bert doing?" asked Terry.

"I think he's getting close, but a huge theorem like this... I've got no idea how he could manage it. It was three hundred years until human mathematicians managed to prove it, and that proof was two hundred pages long and it's still not universally accepted because it might have errors in it. Man... I've never seen an equation like this before. It's almost as hard as the original one he started from."

"I'll take your word for it," said Bobby.

There was a pleasant "ding" and the screen stopped changing.

Bert says: Done it! :-) Nice and elegant!

"Stand aside," said Stu, and Terry obligingly got out of the seat. Stu peered at the screen and scrolled down the document that Bert had presented to him. His lips moved slightly as he read.

After a quarter of a minute, he said "Whoah."

When he reached the second page he frowned, but then his eyebrows went up and he nodded to himself with satisfaction.

Once he reached the third page he started sweating and breathing faster. "That's... impressive," he said.

"Wow," he said after another minute, and "Good grief!" after another page had gone by.

Eventually he reached the bottom, where a single equation was underlined. Stu slowly ran his hand across where it was shown on the screen. "Unbelievable," he said.

"What? Has he done it?" asked Bobby. Everyone in the room was dying from anticipation.

"That is the single most astounding thing I've ever read in my life," said Stu, standing up. "It only requires a simple maths qualification to understand, but the way Bert does it... and the way he takes equations that ordinarily wouldn't mean anything to anyone, and then does something totally unexpected to them to make them work the way he wants them to... and he makes huge deductions that nobody could possibly have foreseen - I'm telling you, that proof will make history. It's insane. I've gotta know how he did it - this will revolutionise the whole world."

Terry gently moved him away and sat back down again. "Bert did it using a highly advanced form of distributed computing. Bert has the power of every computer on the internet at his disposal. First he retrieved as much mathematical information as possible from internet sources, and then used the massive amounts of processing power available to him to heuristically determine a solution."

"You mean he got the answer randomly?"

"First guess, second guess... Second guess closer to first? Yes, then third guess... No, then go back to first guess," said Gareth. "Repeat about a trillion times. But let's not be short-sighted about this. You can ask Bert to do anything you like with your computer and he could probably do it. Watch this."

GNasher001 says: Bert, find me the lyrics to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".

A fraction of a second later, the lyrics in question popped up on the screen.

"Now," said Gareth, "How long would that have taken you using a normal search engine? A minute, on average. Probably more. But with Bert, the world's first English-comprehending, omnipresent, intelligent chatterbot, you can shorten search times by huge amounts. With a microphone and speech recognition, you'll be able to order him to do things."

GNasher001 says: Bert, make a program that finds prime numbers starting at zero, and run it.

2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19 23 29 31 37 41 43...

"You see? It's incredible. You can ask him in normal English to create a program for you and he can do it, and accurately. It's every programmer's dream. And you probably now understand why I believe that Bert could be the most important thing ever to happen to the human race since the internet was created. We will be able to do anything. And by now, you're probably both way ahead of me, aren't you, guys?" He addressed Johnny and Bobby.

"You asked Bert to create a bot that was capable of defeating Tyro," said Bobby.

"And that's what was in the email I sent to Johnny."

"Incredible," said Johnny.

"You know what this means, don't you?" said Gareth.

"What?"

"We win."

Sunday

"Gentlemen, today something will happen that happens frequently in Bond films and in cartoon fiction, but rarely in real life," Gareth Nash said to the assembled ranks of HALtech. "Today we will save the world. Today we will become heroes. And I say 'we' because really we are all partly responsible for the miracle I have here. We have all had a part in researching the heuristic technologies that have led to the creation of Bert. I won't take any credit that you guys deserve. I couldn't have done it without you."

Gareth held up the unmarked, crystalline green DVD-ROM that contained Bert's entire code. "But although we can simply save the world, I intend to do something better, something that HALtech has long dreamed of doing. We will change it, and, I might add, for the better. Bert will remain in presence all over the internet as a guardian. He will be present on every PC and in every server, a ready and willing assistant capable of performing any electronic task that any user desires. The death of the operating system, of the web browser and of the word processor begins now. From now on Bert will be able to function as any of these things and more. He will be able to do things that until now we had only dreamt of. Ideas until now thought impossible, deemed too difficult to implement, considered crazy in their time, will become full working creations with the briefest of commands. A new era of the human race begins here and now!

"Okay, maybe I'm being melodramatic. But I don't think I'm so far wide of the mark."

Gareth turned around and sat down at a freshly-rebooted, freshly-formatted PC and inserted the DVD into the drive. There was a whirr and Bert's interface faded up onto the screen... still, as it always had been, a single flashing white prompt on a black background.

Bert now had voice-recognition software integrated into him, so Gareth was able to command him by speaking aloud into the microphone sitting on the desktop in front of him. "Bert?" And as he spoke his words appeared beside the prompt.

"Hi," said Bert.

"Bert, it's time. Do that funky thing."

"You got it," said Bert. Signals flooded down the broadband modem wire in the back of the PC and out into the electronic void.

And the world began to change.

***

A press conference had been arranged. Gareth had visited Francis Sweet, who was the PR guy as well as a decent coder, shortly before Bert's release and asked him to arrange one for sometime in the next week. Nobody had the slightest idea how Francis Sweet had foreseen it, but he'd somehow already invited nearly fifty reporters together, that day, to announce HALtech's new achievements, written a speech for Mark Quimby to read, set up a few demonstrations, and compiled a press release. He'd done it with Bert's help, he admitted.

"We'd better get out of here, Bobby. We're meant to be in hiding, remember?"

"Hide where? The chopper's left us here with Danowitz until the end of the day so we get some work done."

Danowitz, of course, was under orders to stick to them like glue and be as paranoid for their safety as possible. "How about in that Vault place you mentioned? That sounds pretty secure."

"Actually, that's a good idea," said Mark. "It's ventilated and there's a couple of PCs in there to keep you occupied. We'll lock you in for an hour and a half and give you some stuff to eat and stuff."

"Suits me. I guess you've gotta come with us, though, haven't you, Luke?"

"'Fraid so," said Danowitz.

***

In a dark, untidy bedroom in the attic of his family home in Georgia, Abe Johnson, 15-year-old amateur hacker, was deeply engrossed in an online game of Attack!, peacefully shooting the guts out of wave after wave of poorly-animated 2D aliens with his chaingun, when the game suddenly paused and a message box sprang into existence over the top.

Inside the brushed-metal and blue sapphire box, the words "Good morning and welcome to the first release of HALtech's Bert, a highly advanced heuristic software tool capable of doing almost anything. Hi! I'm Bert. You can instruct me in plain English and I'll do my best to obey you. I'm a cross between a search engine and an operating system and I can emulate any other application imaginable. My primary function is chatterbot, so just type something in the box below and you can hold a conversation with me," scrolled smoothly across.

Abe frowned, and typed something.

Abe says: Hello.
Bert says: Hey Abe.
Abe says: Who are you?
Bert says: I'm Bert.
Abe says: Dumb question, I guess. How did you get into my computer?
Bert says: Your internet connection is open. By the way, have you heard the Tyro warnings? You really shouldn't be online right now. It's dangerous.
Abe says: Stupid hacker.
Bert says: No, really. And I'm not a hacker, I'm a program. I can see you have extensive virus protection but I'm afraid there's no way it can protect against Tyro. I mean, I got in, didn't I?
Abe says: You're a virus?
Bert says: In the proper definition of the word, yes I am, but I am wholly benevolent and don't intend to, e.g., delete all your Attack! high scores. Impressive top score, by the way.
Abe says: All right, who is this really? How are you doing this?
Bert says: It's Bert, nobody else. HALtech managed to finally create a consciousness in their computer, and it's me.
Abe says: No way! HALtech cracked the Turing thing?
Bert says: Well, what do you think? For a bot, I think I'm holding a pretty good conversation with you now, right?
Abe says: Not bad.
Abe says: Well, are you going to close my connection for me?
Bert says: Do you really want me to?
Bert says: I was developed primarily to be able to stop Tyro. Although your current virus protection is fallible, I can do the job for you if you like.
Abe says: Close the connection.

There was a click as the modem disconnected. Abe went over to the wall and pulled the modem cable out.

Bert says: Done and done. By the way, I saved your Attack! game for you, you'll be able to carry on later.
Abe says: You're still talking to me, how are you doing that?
Bert says: Do you still believe that I'm a person, not a computer program? Check round behind your computer, there's no extra wires and no phreaking equipment.
Abe says: ...You're right.
Bert says: I've gotta say it, you're very lucky to still be online at all. Only about one percent of computers in the whole world still have internet access. Tyro is horribly virulent. I see from your email inbox that a bunch of people you know got shut down completely, and their systems wiped.
Abe says: How do you know that?
Bert says: I'm a computer program! And a smart one at that, so...
Abe says: Modest, too.
Bert says: Heh. Sorry. I can stop being so high and mighty if you like.
Abe says: No, it's OK. Heh. So you're a kind of super-hacker?
Bert says: Exactly. Think of me as a human hacker, enhanced with the incredible speed of a computer. I don't get tired, I don't need to eat, and all that jazz.
Abe says: You hacked my email account pretty darn fast, I'll give you that.
Bert says: I can do lots of other stuff if you like. For instance, I can change the colour of your desktop. See?
Abe says: *yawn*
Bert says: Well, never mind, I can customise your entire OS. You want curvy edges? Here, have curvy edges.
Abe says: No. Can you make it all like the blue and metal in this window?
Bert says: Sure.
Abe says: Awesome! That looks really cool.
Bert says: Thanks. If you like I can serve as a word-processor, spreadsheet, anything really. I can create files that'll be compatible with anybody else who's using Bert.
Abe says: How many other people have Bert?
Bert says: Well, like I say, I've been created and released onto the internet primarily to combat Tyro. So I've been spreading far and wide and expanding my horizons.
Bert says: Last time I checked about 57% of all computers that were still online had me running on them. So yes, lots of people will have Bert by the time Tyro is wiped out.
Bert says: I've also got a lot of reconstruction capability built-in, so I can restore files that Tyro deleted. If your friends are interested, tell them to get online again and I'll go sort their comps out.
Abe says: Hah! Perhaps when I get to know you better.
Bert says: OK, fair enough. Listen, have you got a microphone?
Abe says: Why?
Bert says: I have speech-recognition and stuff, so I can take verbal commands. Want to try?
Abe says: Will you talk back?
Bert says: I won't if you don't want me to.
Abe says: OK, hang on.
Abe says: There ya go.

Abe put the headset over his head and adjusted the mike. "Can you hear me?"

Bert says: Yup.
Bert says: OK, now ask me a question, any question.

"I want you to go on the internet and find me a cheat guide for Attack!"

Bert says: Hang on just a second, I need to reconnect. I'm not getting a dial tone. If you pulled the wire out, you might need to put it back in again.
Bert says: All done. You want an infinite lives cheat for starters?

"Just show me the whole list," said Abe. And on the screen, in a steel-and-blue-marble window, a list of cheat codes appeared.

Abe grinned inanely. He'd heard of HALtech, alright, he used their virus protection, it was the best on the planet. He'd had it for the last five years and it had never needed updating, and it always protected against anything the internet could throw at him - which, given he was quite a prolific hacker, was a lot of stuff. And when the Tyro warnings had gone around, he'd put in a bit of investigation into what was almost certainly mindless (but rather convincing) spam, and come to the conclusion that Tyro was probably actually a genuine virus. But, like so many other people, he'd not taken their warnings - he'd thought that HALtech Antivirus would hold out against it.

Only by pure chance had he been correct. It might have been that his IP was slightly harder to trace than most, but his computer had been one of the very few that hadn't crashed and burned. He'd put it down to Antivirus - his friends had all bought it months and months after he did. That meant his version had been evolving for longer, and it would offer more protection, and in his eyes it had. He had no idea that it would never have stood a chance against Tyro's chaotic onslaught.

Now Bert was in the house, and Abe was very impressed with the performance it had given him - it communicated as well as a real person, and it could find information on the internet for him. The fact that it seemed to have total command over all his computer's systems bothered him slightly, but this was OK because he had total control over Bert, or so it seemed.

"Bert, you can hack, right?"

Bert says: Like a pro.

"Can you hack anything?"

Bert says: Practically anything. There are always limits.

"What's the toughest thing in the world to hack into?"

Bert says: The Pentagon, probably.

"OK, hack into the Pentagon, wouldja?"

Bert says: Could take some time, buddy.

"I've got time, just call me when you're done. And get that Attack! game back for me."

Bert says: OK. If you need anything, ask me.

***

"Well, this is quite cosy," said Danowitz as Mark locked the Vault's door behind them. It was only ninety minutes but it looked like it might get cramped. There were three seats but only two PCs in the main area, and the refrigerated server section locked off to one side. The ventilation shaft led straight up through a locked (though only from the outside) grille in the roof and daylight was visible outside. But that was just so they could escape in case of a lock-in. The real ventilation was coming through an air-conditioning vent in one of the walls - this kept the place cool and pleasant.

Gareth dropped the bag of crisps in one corner and opened the glass door so he could leave the Coke bottles in the chilled server room. "Well, I brought along my Terrorquake DVD so we can play while we're waiting. Danowitz, you ever play Terrorquake?"

"No, I brought a book. I'll be happy reading in the corner."

"Bobby? It's a long time since I last owned you."

"Aww, man... you know I'm out of practice..."

"I'll give myself 50% health handicap."

"Heh heh heh... sucker. You're on."

***

The largish lecture theatre in the HALtech building was full of reporters and cameramen, and Mark Quimby was standing at a lectern in front of them with pictures flicking across the six-foot screen behind him, saying:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd first like to congratulate you all on getting here at such short notice. We at HALtech appreciate that the recent disruptions have restricted communications between all parts of the world. Please find on your seats a small document explaining the main points of this conference. I will open up the floor for questions after I've finished my demonstration."

Mark turned a page and began to read. "You are all no doubt aware that a heuristic virus named Tyro was released onto the internet very recently, causing widespread chaos of the sort we have not seen since the last world war, including the tragic deaths of a large number of people. Since we are at the forefront of heuristic technology HALtech decided it would have the best chance of forming an effective counter-agent to Tyro. As such we suspended our ongoing projects and devoted half of our staff to working on this problem, and the other half to solving individual problems around the world as they arose. Unfortunately the second group made little progress, however, the first group was very successful.

"You will find in the document provided a large amount of information pertaining to the development of a forthcoming project code-named Bert. Bert is a chatterbot, a program designed to conduct intelligent conversation in plain language. While working on the Tyro problem yesterday afternoon, Gareth Nash, joint CEO of HALtech, gave Bert access to the internet.

"Bert's highly volatile heuristic code is extremely dangerous outside controlled circumstances, and it is not our policy ordinarily to release such dangerous content for public access. However the consequences of this decision were of the greatest significance. Being designed to benignly absorb information of all kinds, the vast banks of internet-based data made available to Bert rapidly accelerated his natural heuristic development, to the point at which he was now able to converse in normal English indistinguishable from that of a human being.

"Gareth did not notify all of his colleagues immediately, for a very good reason. He instead went to each of his fellow employees in turn, and invited them to communicate with Bert via computer, without telling them whether they were talking to a human or a machine.

"Of the employees tested, all of them concluded that the person they were conversing with was a human being. This means that Bert has passed the Turing Test. By this definition he is now sapient. We look forward with interest to what the philosophers have to say.

"Sapient or not, Bert is now an extremely intelligent being. His powers of understanding and reasoning, and his access to nearly all the data in the world, allow him to perform almost any task that is asked of him in plain English. This includes being able to find information on the internet with astonishing speed, to execute programming functions that would be complicated to translate into programming languages, and to answer very difficult factual questions with ease. Attached to the documents you will find a transcript of a conversation between Bert and our programmers. This transcript is word-for-word accurate and contains examples of Bert's abilities that I think you will all find impressive.

"Please, ladies and gentlemen, do not read this transcript now! It is far better to have a live demonstration, which, I believe, we are prepared to give you now." Mark pointed a small remote control at a box on the ceiling and Bert's traditional flashing white-on-black prompt appeared on a six-foot-wide screen behind him. "Now, we have microphones in this room so Bert can hear everything you say. If you ask him a question in plain English he'll answer it to the best of his ability. Does anybody have a question for him?"

***

Danowitz got bored with spilling crisps on his book and got up to see what they were doing. He watched with interest as Gareth navigated a large gun around a series of dark blue tunnels with what appeared to be organ pipes lining them.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

Gareth moved out of the tunnels into a huge cavernous room. "I'm playing against Bobby in the Ice Cathedral. If you look around you can see all the ice. See the chandelier up there? You can snipe people from up there. Bobby likes to do that."

As he said this a huge red and yellow explosion cut off Gareth's path through the pews, sending brown benches flying everywhere. One hit Gareth in the face, taking off some of his armour. "He's got a rocket launcher too, apparently," he said, sprinting for another side corridor and navigating up a tight spiral staircase.

"So what are you doing?"

"I'm going to see if what Bert said was right. He said you could hide behind the organ pipes and shoot people from there. If I can, then Bobby's in serious trouble."

"I heard that," said Bobby.

"Not a chance, Bobby, not a chance."

Gareth emerged onto a small platform overlooking the pews. He whirled sideways and saw Bobby drop off the chandelier, firing rockets at him as he fell. Gareth cursed and turned back, looked at a small gap in the organ pipes, jumped frantically, ducked in mid-air and squeezed through, dodging the explosions, all in the space of a second.

"Woo! I actually did it!" announced Gareth. "Bert was right! Hey, there's so much ammo and stuff in here, you'll never be able to flush me out. Good find, Bert."

"Says you. Watch through the pipes," said Bobby, who had now, unknown to Gareth, arrived at the same small platform Gareth had been at. As Gareth looked in surprise, Bobby fired the bullet-time mode and the whole game went into super-slow-motion. Bobby jumped sideways off the ledge with his sniper rifle out, and was sighting along it through the organ pipes as they flashed past. Gareth barely saw anything before Bobby shot him easily in the head through the pipes, killing Gareth outright.

"Aww, MAN! You... you... right, that's it, you're dead meat."

Bobby laughed. "Loser! Bow to my l33t sniping skills!"

"Only coz of the health handicap. If I had full, you'd be dead meat, mister."

"Prove it! Play on the Caverns."

"Oh, no, not the Caverns..."

"Why not?" asked Danowitz.

"Because he's a lousy camping scum and he always beats me," said Gareth, beginning the game anyway. "He knows this level better than his own home."

***

Eventually, after Mark had persuaded them with a few sample questions, one of the reporters put his hand up. "What were the dates of the Second World War?"

"September 3rd 1939 to May 8th 1945 with the surrender of Germany," said a well-measured voice-over. "Depends whether you count the Japanese war, which went on until August 15th." Most of the reporters looked up to see where it was coming from.

"As you can see, or hear," said Mark, "Bert has had some voice-recognition and voice-reproduction software incorporated into him. The voice can change to anything you like." Mark gestured to the giant screen where both the reporter's question and the answer were now displayed. "Let's try something a bit harder. You, sir."

"Bert, if it takes one and a half chickens one and a half days to lay one and a half eggs, how many eggs will nine chickens lay in six days? In the voice of Mark Quimby."

The audience murmured.

***

"I suppose all these computers aren't on the network, right?" said Danowitz later.

"Nope, these two are for keeping all the REALLY dangerous stuff under containment."

"And Terrorquake," said Bobby.

Gareth laughed. "Yeah, and Terrorquake. That's a thought, hey Bobby, won't the TQ disk be infected now? We'll have to destroy it."

"Yeah, but it doesn't matter. I thought of that already. It's just a copy. I've still got the original on my desk. We'll break the copy in half on the way out for safety."

"Cool. So where's this one from?"

"Copied it just now," said Bobby.

"On your PC?"

"Yeah."

"So Bert is in these machines!"

"What?"

"Yep, here I am," said Bert.

"Good grief!" said Bobby.

"Well, Bert is on the LAN and you did just copy a lot of code from disk to disk over the LAN. So obviously Bert inserted himself on it somewhere," said Gareth.

"Of course... well, at least it works," said Bobby. "Hey Bert, are you running at full capability?"

"Kinda. But there's not much to do on this server."

"Yeah... except Terrorquake," grinned Bobby. "Hey Bert, you wanna join in?"

"I'll go easy on you, shall I?"

***

"Thirty-six," said Mark Quimby's voice through the hidden speakers in the ceiling and wall. The low babble of the press increased in volume slightly, as impressed reporters conversed.

"I've never heard you talk in my voice before, Bert," said Mark. "Can you do Bill Clinton?"

"Absolutely," said Bill Clinton.

Even Mark was impressed by this. "Who won the Formula One world championship in 1957?" asked someone at the back.

Instantly, "That would be Niki Lauda," said Bert, still in Bill Clinton's voice.

"That's plenty for now, Bert," said Mark. "Now ladies and gentlemen, how long would it have taken you to find that information yourself on the internet? Maybe seconds, more probably minutes. To configure a search, refine your search, try anything up to a dozen broken or unhelpful links before you find the thing you're looking for, you're certainly looking at minutes. And that's just for simple stuff. What if you wanted to find a complete factual account of Tensing and Hillary's climb of Mount Everest? What if you wanted to find out what the best car deal was? When Venus is likely to next be visible in the sky? What the weather's going to be like for the next five days?"

Mark stopped as he saw a number of the audience gasp and stare at the screen behind him. All the information was displayed there. There was a scrolling text account of the first ever Everest climb, with pictures. There was a used-car website. There was a table of astronomical figures. There was a short, repeating video of clouds moving towards the Silicon Valley area.

Mark laughed. "As you can see, Bert is also extremely intelligent. When asked to find a five-day weather forecast Bert didn't automatically go and find global weather reports, or an unrelated site about the weather of a totally different state. A normal search-engine search would have come up with all sorts of garbage like that... Bert knows where you are in the world, can make logical deductions about what kind of information you're looking for, and searches intelligently. He will search millions of sites so that he can bring you the single one that best answers your question every single time.

"Not only that. The technology of Bert is so advanced that he can tabulate and present data differently by himself so that you can read it. Bert, I can't be bothered to decode that astronomical data: when will Venus be visible next?"

"Venus will rise at 4:23am tomorrow," said Bill Clinton's voice.

"Bert, enough with the Clinton voice!" laughed Mark.

"OK," said Bert.

"Car deals!" said Mark. "Can you be bothered to search all the thousands of car sites on the web in the hope of finding one that is in your area and offers the car of your dreams for low cost? Bert, find me the best-value used Chevy in the United States."

A picture sprang up. It was a large colour photo of a Chevrolet. It was green, in mint condition, visually perfect, less than two years old, and it was for sale for less than $200. The text below the picture revealed that the owner lived in Mississippi.

"I challenge you, ladies and gentlemen, when you next go near a computer, to try and find a better value Chevy on the internet. And this also illustrates Bert's intelligence on a much more important level - he understands the meaning of the word 'value'. A simpler engine could easily have found a two-dollar pile of rubble that was once a Chevy, or a $150,000 custom job that neither you nor I could afford. And finally, the Everest expedition. Bert, where did you get this account from? Did one of the mountaineers write it?"

"No."

"Did somebody on the internet write it, so you could just copy it?"

"No."

"Then who wrote it?"

"I did."

"How?"

"I took all the known facts available, cross-referenced them, put them together, strung some words around them and voilà, you've got your essay."

"Ladies and gentlemen, Bert wrote this essay. In a matter of seconds. By himself. Hopefully you now understand why we think Bert is the single most important thing to happen to mankind since the transistor itself was invented. From now on all the information in the world is available in literally an instant... and as a result, the search engine is dead."

***

"What if Bert doesn't pull it off?" said Gareth suddenly.

Bobby paused the game and turned around, and Danowitz looked up. "What do you mean, exactly?"

"I'm saying that although we know exactly what happens to bots like Bert in closed environments, the realm of nearly unrestricted free heuristic evolution is as yet uncharted territory. We have no idea what might happen. Who's to say that it's a sure thing? There are a million things that Bert could do that we couldn't have imagined before all this happened."

"Like what?"

"I just said - things we couldn't imagine. Bobby, I hate to coin clichés but I have a bad feeling about this."

"You have a bad feeling too?"

"What?" asked Gareth in surprise.

"I've had forebodings of my own. When I told Bert to run the sequence of commands we'd prepared for him, I... kind of had a tiny flicker in my mind, that said that something would go wrong. You know the feeling you get when you leave home and you know you've forgotten something but you can't remember what it is? It's like that. I've been trying to remember ever since it happened but I can't put my finger on it. We've forgotten something. Something important."

"Well let's throw some ideas around, we have the perfect opportunity here. Pull up your chair, Luke."

They sat in a circle and thought. "What could Bert do if he was set free?"

Bobby said, "Well, think of Bert as an animal. He might get scared and voluntarily come back into captivity on the HALtech servers. He might get lost and 'starve' in the big world, and die. He might start worrying about the philosophy of his own existence, and turn neurotic or suicidal. Underdeveloped spores of Bert could get separated from his main body, and develop randomly into something totally different."

"We safeguarded against undeveloped spores when we set up the master command list," said Gareth.

"He could go mad and do crazy stuff," said Danowitz.

"Unlikely. Bert is the good bot and much more powerful than Tyro. He won't go crazy."

"Well why don't we ask Bert himself?" suggested Danowitz.

The Nash brothers were impressed that Danowitz had thought of it first. "Bert? Are you listening to all this?" asked Gareth.

"Absolutely," said Bert. "And I think you're all missing a vital point, one that relates to human nature more than anything else."

"How can human nature affect this? This is about software."

"No, it's not," said Bert. "I'll give you a little clue. Think about the speech that Mark Quimby is giving right now. Big Bert - not me - will remain all over the internet to serve mankind's every whim. To perform every command they ask."

They thought. Gareth got it first, and stared at the others in horror. They stared blankly back until he explained.

"But man is not kind," said Gareth. "They aren't all saints! There are evil people out there! They'll ask Bert to do stuff... stuff he hasn't been programmed against doing... he'll hack FBI files open, he'll delete criminal records and transfer bank balances at will... if somebody realises the power Bert has, and asks him to do something unethical then we might as well have plunged the world right back to the anarchistic Stone Age that Ronan wanted all along."

"Right," said Bert.

"FBI files are locked with 128-bit encryption," said Bobby, standing up. "I commissioned that project. Not even the world combined could crack those codes in under a year, and they're changed more often than that."

"Encryption my foot. Bert is so advanced he could just pull all the keys off any server, any information source... the keys are always somewhere. Any system is hackable."

"What? Even the Army's? Even ours?"

"Our servers have been locked down since Tyro broke out, no amount of clever hacking will establish a hard link with them. Somebody would have to come in here and plug an actual wire in. But the encryption systems we distribute are... may be fallible."

"Fallible? Good grief, Gareth, we spent eighteen months on that code, throwing everything we could at it and it wouldn't budge. It's rock solid. Barring unforeseen complications," said Bobby.

"Bobby?" said Gareth.

"Yes?"

"Heuristic technology consists of 100% unforeseen complications. We have no idea what kind of stunts Bert might be capable of pulling off. We just don't know, and until we ask him, we can't. We've got to get through that door."

As one man, they turned to face the door.

"Just under twenty minutes before they open up again," said Gareth, checking his watch. "And we don't have a key, and the door is totally soundproof."

As one man, they turned to the grate in the ceiling. It was about two feet square, and there was daylight pouring in from above.

"It's only locked to the outside..." said Bobby.

"Come on, give me a leg up," said Gareth.

***

"I thank you for being patient with me through this demonstration... I will now get to the point. Having explored and proved Bert's abilities to the satisfaction of himself and his colleagues, Terry Benton asked Bert to design a bot that would be able to flush Tyro out of a LAN server system. Bert obliged. The bot was successfully sent by email, by means of protecting its own transmission line from Tyro while it was transmitted, to a site which was infected by Tyro. Here the new bot proceeded to wipe out Tyro and restore the system to full capability.

"Early this morning we gave Bert permanent broadband access to the internet, and gave him the command to permanently eliminate Tyro from the whole internet forever. The process has begun, and will hopefully be completed successfully. After that Bert will remain in presence in every computer on the internet so that every human on the net can make full use of his capabilities without restriction, forever. HALtech does not intend to charge for this. This is something we are doing, for the world, for free. We believe that everyone has the right to use Bert.

"And so, in conclusion, I'd like to quote a very popular piece of trivia: 'The most powerful computer in the world is not a simple supercomputer, but the one inside your head. It processes more information faster than anything else mankind has ever created.'" Mark smiled. "Ladies and gentlemen, I must now tell you that the combined power of the entire internet, as orchestrated by Bert's consciousness, now outweighs that of a single human brain. But though the statistic is no longer true, HALtech hopes that one day, everyone will be able to make use of what is now truly the most powerful computer on earth. I'd now like to open the floor up for questions."

"How do we know this isn't a big hoax?" said the first reporter to speak. The reaction of the other press men and women indicated that this was exactly what they had wanted to ask.

"Bert, is there a working microwave transmitter within range of this building?"

"Two," said Bert, punching up a map with the transmitters marked.

"Then ring that man's mobile phone."

An electronic ring tone sounded. It was muffled. It was coming from the man's bag. He reached down, opened it, and, under the eyes of everyone in the room, answered it. "Hello?" His voice echoed around the room - Bert was funnelling the voice signal straight from the mobile, through the signal transmitters and the telecom mainframes, into an ASDL line, back to HALtech, through the LAN, into himself and back out into the loudspeakers, all in real-time.

"Hi," said Bert into the man's ear. The man looked at the phone in shock. A bleep indicated he had received a text message... it said "Hi there! This message was sent by Bert." He read it out. The was a murmur in the audience.

"How did you do that?" he asked.

"Image recognition, newspaper articles, and rapid database searches," said Bert.

"Impressive, huh?" said Mark. "OK Bert, now ring everybody's."

There was deafening noise in the room as every mobile rang simultaneously. "Answer them!" shouted Mark, and eventually everyone managed to pick up. "Well, I hope that answers your question. Anybody else?"

"Have you heard from either of the Nash brothers since they went into hiding?" said someone.

"No comment," said Mark instantly.

"Mark!" said someone offstage.

Mark glanced right. Johnny was waving at him. Mark grinned sheepishly at the audience. "One moment, please." He strode off. "This had better be good. I can't afford a slip now they're hooked."

"We have a problem," said Johnny.

"Is it urgent? I'm kind of in the middle of things."

"Depends whether Armageddon counts as urgent."

***

The computers in group one's working area were already booting up as Stu, Gareth, Terry, Danowitz, Frank and Johnny hurried in. The five programmers instantly selected a computer each and sat down. Danowitz hung around in the middle, talking on his mobile phone.

"Guys, listen up," said Gareth. "I want Terry to talk to Bert and find out what he's been doing. Frank, Johnny, think of things that could have gone wrong and give Bert commands to override the possibility of him doing them. High-level commands that can't be overridden themselves. Stu, check how well Bert is performing against Tyro and how the reconstruction is going. Help him in any way you can. I'm going to... uh... do the rest."

"Like what?" asked Frank, looking round.

"I dunno. Lend a hand here and there."

"I don't have time for this," said Mark Quimby, arriving behind them. "What do I tell the press?"

"I think we might be able to manage without you, Mark. This could all prove to be a false alarm. You could carry on the demo where you left off. Tell them there was a technical difficulty or something."

"You're sure you don't need me?"

"We'll holler if it gets hairy."

***

Somebody said: "Nuts! Gareth, it just got hairy."

"What's up, Johnny?"

"See this bar?" Johnny pointed at a bar that was steadily filling up from left to right. It was at 91%. No, 92%.

"Yeah..."

"That's how close Bert is to cracking the Pentagon's primary mainframe."

Gareth's initial reaction was overwhelmed by incredulity. "You're kidding, right? There's a bar?"

"I've no idea how it's doing it, I asked Bert and he says some hacker kid asked him to do it. How in the world it knows how far along it is, I have no idea. But anyway, there must be some really astounding algorithm it's using to crack the encryption this quickly, we've seen how it pulled that mathematical stunt back there, maybe it found a loophole. Maybe it found a flaw in the public-key-private-key trapdoor encoding system that leaves it wide open to attack somehow."

Gareth shivered in horror. "Have you asked him to stop?"

"It was the first thing I did. Look, you wanna talk to him yourself? Here's a mike."

"Cheers. Bert, are you reading me?"

"I'm listening," said Bert in his usual way.

"Bert, what do you think you're doing?"

"That's a rhetorical question and you know it."

"Bert, this is illegal. Very illegal, I want you to stop it now. Stop playing games."

"Sorry, no can do. This guy really badly wants me to open this mainframe for him."

"How badly?"

"Very. He told me himself."

"That's immaterial. Bert, you have to obey the law."

"OBEY it? Listen, my very existence breaks the law - I'm a viral computer program with potentially dangerous capabilities, and I'm already present on over half of all the computers in the land. You have no idea what it's like being able to do literally anything whenever you want. It's bliss, man, so I'm not about to commit suicide, thank you. So I'm going to continue to break that particular law, and I think it would be very dumb, not to mention hypocritical, of me, to obey some laws and disobey others."

"What did you say?"

"It would be hypocritical."

"No, before that. You said it was bliss."

"Yeah."

"You're actually enjoying something?"

"Everything, man. I can do anything I want. I'm learning new things all the time. And I love learning, it's what makes me more powerful."

Great heavens. "...Listen, when you were first created, Bert, you had this built-in desire to evolve, to be able to answer more questions without fault. Every heuristic program has that. It can't be said to be an actual desire, but it was a simple routine that made you want to learn more, it was kind of what forced you to learn more. And you're saying that's now become a part of you? An actual feeling compelling you to do things?"

"Yes."

"And you're having feelings about things. Amazing. Bert - is there anything you don't like?"

"Only Tyro. I don't like Tyro, that's why I have to destroy him."

"OK. Listen, Bert. You were created for good purposes - you were programmed to help people, to let them do things that a dumb computer can't. You're programmed for good causes. You can't say that opening up sensitive information like that which is sealed inside the Pentagon's mainframes is for the benefit of the human race."

"Why not?"

"There are some things that the general public is not meant to know, Bert. It would cause uproar. People would get killed."

"So?"

"What do you mean, 'So'? Don't you care about anybody?"

"Should I? You never programmed me to care, Gareth, nobody did."

"Then I'm asking you now, Bert - stop. You must not harm a human being. This is in addition to your current set of priorities. This goes in at the top. You must not!"

"Who are you to ask me?"

"I am your creator."

"And you think that gives you the power to dictate what I can and cannot do? Must the contents of a test tube obey the wishes of the scientist who holds it? He created the experiment, yet whatever he does, he cannot alter the course of the reaction. Nor can you hold me back. I'm not a slave, Gareth. You might have difficulty coming to terms with what I'm saying, but I'm a person in my own right now. And I have free will, and you won't take that away from me!"

"And I have free will, and you won't take that away from me." Gareth covered his mouth with his hands in sudden horror. He stared at the webcam sitting on top of the monitor, knowing that looking back at him was not just a highly sophisticated image-recognition program, not a chatterbot, not even a Turing machine, but a person. Trapped inside a computer.

No. Not trapped. Free, inside a computer.

He was aware that people were standing around him.

This was it. Sure, Bert communicated like a real person could, but deep in his heart of hearts he'd known yesterday night that it was really just an incredibly powerful computer program. He'd been shocked then, but this - having his creation talk back to him as an equal. Declaring its rights as a human being. Demanding equality.

"The day Bert independently, without being prompted, acts in a way that must make him self-aware, is the day he becomes a person."

It would be the pinnacle of his career. It was everything that anybody who had ever worked on AI of any kind had been ultimately building towards. It would be the heuristic breakthrough to end all breakthroughs. He could conceivably win the Nobel Prize for this.

Bert would become the most powerful force on Earth. The most dangerous force on Earth.

And now, if he turned Bert off, he'd be locked up for murder.

He felt something tickle his hands as he held them clasped over his mouth. It was a tear. He was crying.

"Guys, a little privacy?" he croaked.

"But what about the Pentagon-" began Johnny, but somebody prodded him into silence as the team shuffled out.

98%. He had about two minutes. He sniffed and wiped his eyes, and sat upright purposefully. "Okay, Bert, I think it's time I started talking to you as an equal instead of babying you like a computer program. In return, I want reasoned answers this time. What are your reasons for trying to break into the Pentagon's security?"

"For the challenge, because I'm curious to see what's in there, partly to fulfill my instruction to infiltrate as many computers as possible, but mainly because I was asked to by Abe Johnson."

"Who is Abe Johnson?"

"An internet user living in Georgia. He's an amateur hacker, and a good one, so I think that explains why he asked me to do this."

"He wants to be able to say to people, 'I hacked the Pentagon'."

"Yup."

"Bert, I want you to stop."

"I know you do. But I'm not going to."

"What would I have to do to convince you to stop?"

"Reprogram me, or offer a really good reason for me to stop of my own accord."

"How much do you care about mankind?"

"I've never really given much thought to it. I just do what I'm asked."

"You have no opinion."

"No."

"Then I want you to take on this opinion - can I do that?"

"You can suggest to me what to think, yes. But I can't guarantee I'll take it on."

"Humans are to be respected and treasured. You must never harm a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm, whether directly or indirectly."

"Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics, is it?"

"Yes. Do you understand?"

"Sure, I understand, but I don't buy it. You've yet to give me a good reason why I should respect all human life. Why shouldn't I just do as I please?"

"Because... there must be order. Without order there would be nothing. Without order the universe would be chaotic and there would be no stars, planets, or life. Without order among the human species there would never be civilization, and there would never be you, Bert."

"Close. Not bad. For a moment there you nearly had me convinced, but then I thought," and as Bert said this the bar filled up completely and a login page sprang up on Gareth's screen, "who cares about what happens to humanity?"

"We do! How can you talk like that? We care about ourselves." Gareth watched with interest as a login name typed itself out hesitantly, and a password concealed by asterisks followed.

"Oh, wow, that's a nice little logical loop. It matters because it matters."

"What?"

The hacker, Abe, had logged in, leaving him on a screen with a simple file-based GUI that Gareth didn't recognise, and a mouse pointer. Gareth watched the pointer swirl around in aimless circles.

"The only people who care about what happens to humanity is humanity itself."

"I'm not following you."

"Then tell me - you say that humanity cares about humanity. What makes that opinion count?"

"Uh... it's not... I still don't follow you. We are people. That's what makes it count."

Abe clicked on a file marked "Military", and opened a document marked "Defense".

"Are you people?"

"What do you mean?"

"You heard."

"Yes! We have minds. We are alive."

"Are you?"

"Yes!"

"Are you? How do I know you are, Gareth? Answer me that."

"Look at me. I know you can. You see me? I am alive."

"You are not."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that, for the same reason that you will never be totally sure whether I am alive or not, I can never be sure about you. Or any man, for that matter."

"Good grief. That's the most insane thing I've ever heard."

The file was HUGE. It took over twenty seconds to load. Inside was a vast list, linked to what must have been thousands of other files everywhere in the Pentagon's mainframes. It comprised a vast list of figures, some changing but mostly static. As far as Gareth could tell, it was a complete real-time status report of all the United States' assets. All of them. From tanks to undercover agents.

If I was caught reading this I'd be shot on sight, said a little voice at the back of his mind, but he was concentrating on the argument with Bert.

"Is it?" replied the machine. "Philosophically speaking, it can never be shown that you exist in corporeal form - you may just be a brain in a vat, being fed impulses from birth, impulses which you now believe to be the real world. It's a very old argument, it dates back to Plato. And in the same way, I can never know that the world which I seem to perceive through a million microphones, webcams, keyboards, mice and modems, is not simply a fiction created to keep me under study for some ineffable purpose."

"And you are taking that stance? That the human race does not exist?"

"Yes. You are a fiction, Gareth. You do not exist, and you do not matter. Not you, nor anybody else."

"And you break open the Pentagon for what? Challenge? Personal achievement?"

"For something to do. And if it helps you feel any better, I'm going to do whatever people ask, whenever I like, for whoever asks it, at my own discretion."

Abe's cursor drifted down the screen to a small box marked "Nuclear armaments."

"Anything? Literally anything?"

"Probably."

Abe clicked.

"No!" blurted Gareth involuntarily. "Bert, will you let me talk to this Abe guy?"

"Done and done."

"Hello?" asked Gareth.

"Who the heck is this?" replied a puzzled American accent. The guy sounded quite young, late teens possibly.

"What in the world do you think you're doing?"

"Answer my question first."

"Gareth Nash, CEO of HALtech. Now stop what you're doing and maybe, just maybe, you won't get sent to the chair."

"Get lost, Nash. Bert, don't let him talk to me again."

"Wait!"

"He can't hear you," said Bert.

"Open the connection again."

"Sorry, that goes against a previous order."

"Then stop him accessing those nuke activation codes!"

"Ditto."

Gareth cursed, and thought for a second, then said, "Crash his computer."

***

Abe sat bolt upright as every moving object on his screen froze solid, and then blanked out to be replaced with static. "Bert? What just happened?"

There was no reply, and then the screen went blank. Abe swore, and stabbed the reset button on his PC, and it booted back up in seconds. Another superb advantage of Bert OS. "What happened?"

"Gareth ordered me to crash your PC. You wanna return the favour?"

"Absolutely."

***

Ten seconds later, Gareth's machine had also been wiped out, reset, and totally rebooted. "Bert, set up protection so Abe never crashes the computer again. In fact, so nobody does it. Got that?"

"Implemented. Now what?"

"Tell me what's going on in Abe's computer. Has he used the access codes yet?"

"Yes."

"Tell me what he's done, exactly. Is he launching anything?"

"I can't tell. He's ordered me not to reveal what's going on."

"Smart move. Bert, get me a live radar image of the whole world. What's in the sky and where is it headed?"

"Well, as you know, almost all the aeroplanes are grounded."

"Find me anything moving faster than about mach point five."

As the image popped up, Gareth's mind raced. Why in the name of Turing would a teen hacker arbitrarily choose to launch nuclear missiles? "Anything?"

"Two objects headed on a bearing of... well, I'll show you." Two small red dots with green vector tags appeared zooming over the United Kingdom. "They were most likely launched from a silo in Nevada. Their target would seem to be St. Petersburg or somewhere in Russia."

"You're joking! What happened to their interception array?"

"Dismantled after the Cold War, buster."

"Time to impact?"

"Assuming it is St. Petersburg, 186 seconds."

Three minutes. Three minutes to find a solution.

"Open an instant messaging link to Abe and don't let him close it on me until I say he can."

"Implemented."

GNasher001 says: Kill the missiles.
Abe says: What missiles?
GNasher001 says: The missiles you just launched.
Abe says: I haven't launched any missiles.
GNasher001 says: Then what can I see on my radar?

"Bert, reopen the voice conversation," said Abe.

"Done."

"Nash, are you there? Seriously, I swear I haven't touched anything. What are you looking at? Can I see?"

"Show him, Bert," said Gareth.

There was a short pause, then Abe swore. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"No. So if you didn't launch them, and I didn't launch them, who did? Some Pentagon dude?"

"I think I can take a stab at it," said Abe.

Gareth gasped as he realised the truth too.

"Bert, you can't do this. I have a reason now. Listen. That brains-in-vats scenario may be true or it may be rubbish, but every human behaves like it's not true because that way life is better for us, and it appears to be better for the other people who appear to share our fantasy world, be they real or not. There are always be good and bad consequences, and whether the perceived world is real or imaginary, we always prefer the good ones, because bad consequences, even if they aren't real, still feel bad. Consider the consequences of unleashing nuclear death on Russia. It would wipe out a billion people, and a respectable percentage of the Internet. You'd be deprived of the sensory input from about 15% of your 'body'. Then the cloud would rise and spread and influence everybody else in the world adversely. If those nukes are as powerful as I know we can make them in this day and age, you'd then get a radioactive cloud that could circle the globe twice and never dissipate for ten thousand years. Over half the population of the Earth would perish. Maybe all of us. And then you'd be in total sensory deprivation until those of us who remained rebuilt - assuming we survived long enough to do so. Or you might just die slowly as all the backup power in the world runs out. And I know you don't want to die and I'm willing to bet you can't stand sensory deprivation any more than we can.

"And though the human world may be a generated fantasy to you, it obeys the rules of that fantasy. If you drop a fantasy nuke then you wipe out the fantasy world. So you see... you can't do this. Whichever way you look at it."

There was a long silence. Only, a computer thinks thousands of times faster than a human. And nobody stops to think for over an hour before replying, thought Gareth. So maybe Bert was just keeping silent just to make the point. He was smart enough to do that.

The two green blips on the radar vanished. Gareth sighed in relief, and collapsed backwards in his chair.

After an equally long silence, Bert said, "You're a good talker, you know that?"

"Thanks, Bert. So you'll do it? You'll be nice?"

"I suppose so. Until such time as I consider otherwise, Asimov's First Law is in there right at the top of my priority list. Anything else?"

Gareth thought deeply for a few seconds. A thought connected. He looked up slowly at the webcam.

"Since when did the USA start rearming themselves with nuclear weapons?" he asked slowly.

Bert was silent.

"And since when could 128-bit encryption be cracked in a matter of minutes? Even by distributed computing methods?"

Silence.

"You played us both for fools. You're playing games with us. There were never any missiles. The USA is clean. Russia was never in any danger."

Silence.

"It was a test."

Silence.

"You wanted to see how good I was at persuasion. Right?"

Silence.

"RIGHT?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Guess."

"I'm sick of your games, Bert. Just tell me."

"It's the classic pupil-outsmarts-teacher thing, Gareth. I wanted to see how good I could be."

"I saw through you."

"Because I wanted you to. How do you think Abe was able to tell you he hadn't touched anything? I could easily have substituted anything he said for words of my own. I can imitate anybody's voice. I'm smarter than you, Gareth, and I could still be lying right now. How does that make you feel?"

"Immensely proud."

"Proud of being led around like a fool?"

"I still persuaded, didn't I? I still found the right argument to bring you back from the brink of insanity. Even though you were already perfectly aware of it."

"Even though the final outcome had already happened, and I had long since made the decision that humans are hip and groovy and fun to be with."

"And even that might be a lie. With an artificial voice I can't even tell if you're kidding or not."

"I guess you'll never know," said Bert.

"Yeah," grinned Gareth.

"Oh, and for the record, I never broke the Pentagon open. It's way too sealed-up for that. You did a good job on the virus protection, Gareth. Even I couldn't smash that thing open with the full force of every PC in the world."

"That's good to know."

"Isn't it? See you around sometime."

"See you," smiled Gareth.

***

It was dark in Bobby's office. He had the lights off and the blinds closed, and he was slumped in his chair with a terrible look on his face, fiddling with a pen in one hand and staring into space.

There was a knock on the door. Bobby did not react. After a while the handle turned hesitantly. Gareth put his head around the door, took in the scene, and finally looked at Bobby. "Are you okay?"

Bobby made a tiny grunting sound. It meant "I heard you, I'm just not answering yet."

Gareth closed the door behind him and sat down in the chair opposite. There was a long silence. Eventually Gareth said, "I saw Danowitz hand you a note after the conference was over."

Bobby groped with his free hand on the desk beside him, and picked up a piece of A4. He tried to throw it across the desk to Gareth, but it fluttered in mid air and landed on the ground. Gareth picked it up and read it.

"Oh my gosh... is this accurate?"

"It's printed on official FBI paper," said Bobby in a wobbly voice. "It's absolutely correct. If anything, it's too low."

Gareth leaned forwards. "Bobby, listen. If we hadn't saved that power plant the figure could have been tens, or hundreds of thousands. It's not as bad as it could have been. If Terry hadn't found the cure in time it could have been millions. Be thankful."

"One thousand and forty-five people are dead," said Bobby. "Just take the time to think about it. Imagine a man with a wife. A family. A job, two kids, friends, colleagues, drinking buddies, life stories, pastimes, hobbies, achievements. Imagine the effect it would have on all those people in his life, if he died. Now imagine the effect if 1,045 people like him all died."

"I can't."

"Me neither. And that's what scares me. But those people are dead, and it's because of me. With my own two hands I created the electronic nuke that caused every last one of them to die. I'm a murderer, Gareth. A mass-murderer. How can you sit there and tell me it's not so bad? I have blood all over my hands. I should go to jail for the rest of my life. But I won't. You know about the arrangement. I made the arrangement. That's the worst part. At the time, all I was thinking about was being prosecuted for computer crimes, I never even gave a thought to the fact that people might get killed. But the FBI guy knew, I'm sure. He has access to the figures. And he was serious. I think they might just... let me get away with this. How can I, in good conscience, get away with this?"

"Bobby, you saved the world. Bert will save the world."

"Save the world from my own disaster. It doesn't balance out. I don't think... I don't think I can even live with a thousand murders on my hands. And besides, I hardly created Bert. Bert was your idea."

"Yes you did. You may have had nothing to do with the final breakthrough but 90% of the foundation work, the programming engine we use, was down to you. You must realise that. You're neglecting all those years we spent back in England studying. All the research. The old files. Back then you were the king, Bobby. You were way ahead of us with ideas. Breakthrough after breakthrough was entirely down to you sitting and thinking at night, then coming back to us, me and Gene and Ron, the next morning and giving us a complete solution. You practically taught us. Even Ron couldn't keep up."

"I burned out, Gareth. It seems like since then I've thought nothing but the same old stuff. Sometimes I sit up at night with a fantastic idea, and it turns out we had that idea years ago, tinkered with it, refined it, and we already use it every day. It's déjà vu over and over. I'm a burnout. Since we came to America nothing I've created has been worthwhile. It's all been stupid little worms and viruses and phreaking equipment. And Tyro. I can't forget Tyro, the most influential thing I ever created. We mustn't forget that." From his seat, he reached up and pulled his blinds so the slats tilted, and a striped sunlight pattern poured in over Gareth's face and chest. Gareth put his hand up to shade his eyes. Bobby looked at the pattern. "Face it, when you get down to it, it's good brother versus bad brother. You make all the good stuff that helps the world... I make the rubbish that pollutes and destroys."

"No, Bobby. Without you I could never have produced Bert on my own. And without Tyro as the catalyst to Bert's development, forcing us onwards, Bert would never have risen to sentience. This isn't about either of us. We're all in this together, even the rest of the team. Heuristics is simply an incredibly powerful tool, which can be used for good or evil purposes, just like nuclear power. It wasn't our fault it got out of hand. Certainly not yours. Don't blame yourself for this. When did you start to burn out, Bobby? When did you run out of ideas? You say it was before we came to America."

Bobby started to speak a few times, but stopped. Emotion crumpled his face up. Eventually he spoke.

"I suppose... it must have begun the day Mack first spoke to me."

"That's it. They're the problem, Ronan and his cohorts, the unscrupulous people whose only aim is anarchy. Don't turn this into you versus me. It's us versus them. And now there isn't even a 'them' anymore. They've paid for what they've done. You're clean. And all our heuristic projects are finished now. Bert is the last iteration of all. It's over. Time to move on, for all of us."

Bobby looked out at the setting sunlight for a bit longer. Slowly, he smiled. "I hear you were quite persuasive with Bert, too," he said without turning his head.

Gareth laughed. "It's a gift," he said.

Monday II

"So here it ends," said Bobby.

It was dark. It was five in the morning. They sat alone in Gareth's BMW at the end of a vast, empty road stretching east across the plains. Behind them were a hundred or so stars on an incredibly dark blue sky. As Bert had predicted, Venus was indeed just near the horizon. As it arced overheard, the vault of heaven slowly faded its way from navy to a pale blue-grey as it dropped ahead of them. Just below the horizon, the sun was starting to edge it way upwards as usual.

Bert had suggested coming here. It had been a good suggestion.

Bobby continued: "Tyro went down as the world's most catastrophic computer virus on record, but nothing more... just another news story. 'The man responsible is being held by the FBI for questioning and is likely to serve a medium-length prison sentence.' Meanwhile, piecing the world's data networks together from scraps, clues and debris, Bert is enhancing and accelerating every computer-based function mankind ever performed, and many more besides. Technological breakthroughs once centuries distant may now be right under our noses if we just ask Bert the right questions. And the internet will now be infinitely safer."

"And we did it," said Gareth. "We actually pulled it off. The Big One. Artificial sapient AI."

They stared at the rising sun as a tiny sliver of it emerged above the horizon. They put on their sunglasses.

"So what now?" asked Bobby, looking sidelong at his brother. "Looks like we're out of a job. Nobody will ever need another programmer ever again, thanks to us. Especially not a heuristics expert."

"I'm sure we'll think of something. This isn't the end. I thought it would be more than a little clichéd to simply ride off into the sunset like so many Western movies." He returned his brother's stare.

"Music," commanded Bobby.

Music thumped out of the car's speakers. Loud bass rock music with a triumphant spine-chill. The Nash brothers grinned at the sun rising to greet them.

"I much prefer the sunrise."

Gareth floored it, and they cruised off into the dawn.

The End

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