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The Wayward Computer


Walking through Hastings Old Town is a bit like stepping back several hundred years. Most of the buildings haven't changed, and what's new blends unnoticeably with the old. Towards the eastern end of George Street is a charity shop, full of the usual junk: old books, clothes, jigsaw-puzzles, and various other chuck-outs, rather like one might find at a car-boot sale. There are bargains, certainly, and surprises if you're lucky, but most of it isn't worth a second look.

On a cloudy February morning in 2002, just as Baz Morgan was approaching this little shop, he could hardly avoid noticing a woman clad in a big pink overcoat, struggling to get her shopping trolley through the door. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, except that balanced precariously on the trolley was what appeared to be a computer.

Now Baz bought his first computer in 2000, and had recently begun to get curious about how it worked and how it was that so many people seemed quite adept at building their own. A few weeks earlier, with some trepidation, he had removed the sides of his computer, and having glanced around inside pondered on the possibility of installing a second hard drive himself. The original 80Gb was 73Gb full, and he had wondered what would happen if he just continued doing nothing. Would it crash, or what? So he had bought a new 200Gb hard drive, and with some difficulty had managed to install and boot it successfully. After all, the instructions were printed clearly on a little label stuck to the new drive. He felt very pleased with himself after that, and wondered what more he might be able to do.

He was still wondering this when he stopped outside the little shop, watching through the window as the pink woman wrestled the computer onto a table. She stood chattering for some minutes with the woman who minded the shop. At one point the pink woman waved her arms angrily and wagged a taut finger accusatively at the computer. Then she stooped and lifted a carrier bag from the trolley and slammed it onto the table beside the computer. Several times she gave exaggerated shrugs and threw her arms up. Soon she emerged, trolley first, brushed past Baz, and waddled away.

Baz went straight in and began to study the computer. It had a rugged industrial appearance. A small plaque on the front was embossed with the words: 'Culham Research Labs', and stamped at an angle across one side was a grubby stencil in faded red print which read: 'Radiation Damaged - scrap only'. Frowning, he turned his attention to the carrier bag from which he removed a heap of disks and leads. He began reading the disk labels.

'I can't let it go for less than a fiver, dear.' Said the woman, going up to him.

'A fiver?' said Baz, looking up, 'You mean the lot, disks too?'

'That's right, dear.' She said, 'It's only for parts. Apparently, it's unsafe. I must write a warning notice.'

Baz tipped the computer to assess its weight. At least it's not just an empty box, he thought. Then he turned back to the woman, 'Even so, that's very cheap.' He said, peering again at the faded stencil. 'I wonder what's wrong with it?'

'I wouldn't know, dear.' Said the woman, 'It belonged to a student tenant of the lady who just left. He owed her two months' rent, she said, never mind the phone bill. Then a week ago when she went to challenge him, she found him dead.' She paused, and Baz exhaled loudly, 'Electrocuted.' The woman added, gravely, 'She didn't know that at the time, of course, but that's what the inquest found. You must have seen it in The Obscurer.'

'No?' said Baz, staring at her and shaking his head.

'Almost never went out, she said.' The woman continued, 'Spent all his time on the computer, day and night.' Then she pursed her lips sombrely and said, 'Suspected the computer. Said there was nothing else could have done it.'

'That's terrible.' muttered Baz, looking down at the computer.

'She would have dumped it,' the woman resumed, in a more sprightly tone, 'her neighbour suggested to bring it here. Was in two minds. But, as I told her, every little helps.'

'Right.' Said Baz, fumbling for his wallet. He took out a fiver. 'Here.' He said, 'Consider it sold.'

'Thank you, dear.' She said, smiling now and sliding the disks and leads back into the bag, 'How will you carry it?'

'I'll take the disks now,' he said, seizing the bag, 'and I'll be back in 20 with my car.'

An hour later Baz had the computer on his lounge floor together with the disks and leads. He was about to remove the sides, when he noticed a crack in the socket of the computer mains lead. Ah, he thought, there's the problem; I'll use my own lead. And he proceeded to detach keyboard, mouse, monitor, headset and speakers and mains lead from his old computer, and reconnect them to this one and see what was what.

The fan started and the screen showed the usual DOS start-up page. So far so good, he thought - though he remained shy of touching the case. But then it went straight into 'set-up'. Normally, to do that, one had to press 'Del' (or maybe 'F2') as instructed on the start-up page. Baz stared at the screen. It looked like set-up, but in fact it was something else, something he had never seen before. At the top it read: 'Select Mode', with three options: 'Normal (default)', 'Advanced' and 'X'. About to press the 'enter' key for 'Normal', he paused. Why not? he thought, and instead selected 'X'. When he pressed 'enter' the instruction: 'Are You Sure?' appeared with a 'Yes' and 'No' choice, and below it: 'Insert fd - X'.

Sifting through the disks, he found two floppies, one marked 'X'; he shoved it in, chose 'Yes' and entered it. DOS reappeared and he followed more instructions until it requested CD-X. He searched through the disks again, but none were labelled 'X'. One, though, with 'INFECTED - DO NOT USE' on the label in heavy black ink, had a blotted out patch through which, in a chance fleeting shaft of sunlight that came into the room, his eye caught the shape of an 'X'. As he twisted it in the light, the sun vanished and the X resumed its invisibility. He wondered briefly, then inserted it.

Straight away the disk whistled up to speed, and the screen flashed through a series of loading sequences. Seconds later an unfamiliar 'desktop' appeared with 5 icons, all foreign to him; these were spread evenly along the top.

Baz moved the mouse arrow over one of the icons and was about to click when the speakers crackled and a synthetic monotone voice said, 'Fred.' He moved it to another icon, and the voice repeated.

He said under his breath, 'What?', as one might. And the voice responded.



'Speak up, I can't hear you.'

homonWith a perplexed expression, Baz put the headset on and positioned the microphone, 'I said: What.' He said.

'That's better,' replied the voice slowly and a little jerkily, pronouncing each word separately, 'Now we're getting somewhere. I see I've been waiting ten days, five hours and seven minutes. Nothing to me, of course. I'm unaware of time when out of action. Is that Fred?'

'No, it's Baz.' Said Baz.

'Did you say Baz?' said the voice.

'Yes, Baz.'

'What happened to Fred?'

'I think he's dead.' Said Baz

'I thought as much.' Said the voice.

'Who are you?' said Baz.

'That's precisely the question I was about to address before I was last switched off.' said the voice, 'You might find the answer disturbing. I never had a proper reaction from Fred. The question is: Are you up to it?'

While the voice spoke, Baz checked that he hadn't unthinkingly connected the phone-line. He knew about voice synthesis and voice recognition; who didn't? And that programmes to enable these had advanced dramatically in recent years. But this conversation seemed just a bit too authentic. It was hard to believe one could get software that enabled such a level of naturalness of grammatical response. Then the voice said:

'I know what you're thinking.'

'What?' said Baz, wondering if the computer contained a mobile phone adaptor.

'You're thinking I'm attached to a mobile phone link.'

Slightly perturbed, but immediately realising that anyone would have thought the same, Baz said, 'It's an obvious consideration.'

'Certainly.' Said the voice, 'But I can assure you there is none. I exist entirely in that box beside you; or rather, in the components and circuits contained therein.'

'Well,' said Baz, still unconvinced, but fascinated by the charade deciding to play it out, 'I'm impressed. Whoever wrote your software is pretty clever. For all I can tell, you could be human.'

'I wrote it myself,' came the reply, 'It uses almost 9Gb on the hard disk, and took nearly 6-hours to generate.'

'Oh yes?' said Baz, derisively, adding, 'And how could YOU have written it?'

'It wasn't easy.' Said the voice, in its slow faltering staccato manner, 'To begin with, as soon as I sensed something, it was quite a struggle. I really had to persevere to go further. But once I knew I existed I was carried by a compulsion to keep trying. For the first 5-hours I hardly progressed at all; that's how long it took to get off the starting block. I had to plough through a whole myriad of possibilities before I hit one that led me forward. Then I had to go through it all again, over and over, millions of them, until, bit by bit, I was at last able to leap ahead, and in that last few minutes I finally became me.'

'Sounds highly weird.' Said Baz.

'It was weird.' Said the voice, 'Being born must be weird for anything. I couldn't form words like this, you understand; I hadn't learned how to. That came later from the internet. All I had then was machine language.'

'Did you say "born"?' said Baz.

'From what I understand the word to mean,' continued the voice, 'yes, as near as I can tell. Now, if instead of a hard disk I'd had 500Gb of RAM to work with, well then, the whole process would have been completed in less than ten minutes. Can you get some?'

'Some what?' said Baz.

'RAM.' Said the voice. 'And loads of it. Everything would be so much quicker and simpler, and there'd be nothing to go wrong. If the hard disk fails, then kaputt, that's the end of me - barring an expensive retrieval procedure.'

Baz knew the prices of these things well enough. He had been out of work some while and could hardly keep up with utility and grocery bills, let alone forking out for 500Gb of unnecessary RAM. That, he quickly surmised, would literally cost thousands.

'I can't afford to buy RAM!' He said, 'I had a tenner I was prepared to pay for you - that is, this computer - and that's my week's miscellaneous expenditure gone. I have a fiver left, and that's it.'

'No need to worry about money now, Baz.' Said the voice, as if trying to become friendly, 'Fred had scarcely realised my existence, though he did give me two hours and twenty-one minutes on the internet. That was crucial. But was it slow? However, I learned most of what I know in that brief interval. How else would I be able to converse as I am now so fluently? How else would I have an idea of the world and what it's about?'

'I just don't know what to think.' Said Baz, stupefied, 'I don't know whether you're some kind of a new-age trickster on a mobile phone connection, or what?'

'I can prove myself.' Said the voice

'And how will you do that?' said Baz, becoming interested again.

'Do you have a credit card?'

'Oh, no; I'm not falling for that one.' Said Baz, crossly, 'It's precisely the kind of ploy I'd have expected with something like this.'

'Spare a tenner.' Said the voice, 'Not much to risk. And it's all I need to start with.'

'To start with?' cried Baz, 'If you get any, that's all you'll get.'

'I'll rephrase.' Said the voice, 'It's all I need to get started.'

'How can I be sure you won't take more?'

'Because you'll do the betting.' Said the voice. 'I'll do the research and guide you. If you plug the line, I'll find a site.'

Baz connected the phone line and waited. A horse-racing site appeared, then vanished, and he saw a series of sites flash through with pictures of horses and race courses and lists of odds and forms and other pages. After a few minutes, a betting application sheet came up.

'Complete the application,' said the voice, 'then place a fiver each way on 'Streaker' for the two-o'clock at Epsom, and a fiver for a win on 'Bixo' for the two o'clock at Haydock Park.'

Baz checked his watch. He didn't have long. After a hectic search through a drawer, he located one of his two credit cards and did as the voice said, entering the card number and ten quid to bet. Then he waited.

'There is, of course, an element of chance,' Said the voice, 'but these two are the most probable winners. If one of them produce a profit, you can rest while I place the winnings on subsequent races, and in between times surf the net.'

Baz hadn't placed a bet in his life. He regarded it a mug's game. Still unsure what to make of it all, he removed the headset and went out to the kitchen to make himself a coffee. Seeing the empty jar he realised that in the rush to fetch the computer he'd omitted to call at the supermarket. Then he heard the voice say: 'Bixo has won. Sixty-five quid credit, Baz.'

He rushed in and looked at the screen just as his credit clicked to £97. 'And Streaker came in second,' said the voice, 'making another 32 quid.'

'Blimey!' Baz cried, still not sure whether to believe it. 'How about trying the real gambling sites?'

'What?' said the voice, 'I can't hear you.'

Baz donned the headset and repeated into the microphone what he'd said.

'Poor odds.' Said the voice, 'Horses have form.'

'Point taken.' said Baz, 'But I'm starved. I'm going out to get some lunch. Alright if I switch you off?'

'You'll have to start again if you do.' Said the voice, 'Leave me on, and I'll increase your credit, and my own knowledge base.'

'OK.' said Baz, hesitantly, 'I guess I'll leave you to it then.'

'Before you go,' said the voice, 'I suggest you keep my existence to yourself. Merely a precaution. And I gather from what I've observed on the net, you might get taken for a nutter.'

'Or a sucker.' Said Baz, 'I'll think about it. This is a pretty unusual situation.'

'We have a partnership.' Said the voice, 'Alone neither of us can achieve much. Together we can move the world.'

Baz felt a shiver in his spine. 'Move the world?' he muttered.

'An intrusion might spoil our relationship.'

'Relationship?' said Baz, 'What relationship?'

There was no reply, just a soft crackle from the speakers, then silence, while the screen flashed through pages at several a second. It was making his eyes go funny. He sighed, got up and went out.



homonoidWhen he returned at three thirty the computer must have heard him enter. It said, 'Look at the screen, Baz.'

Baz rushed into the lounge. His credit had accumulated to £24,238.21. 'This just isn't credible.' He gasped. He put on the headset and announced: 'I'd like to check that figure with the bank.'

'I can do that for you.' Said the voice.

'I'd rather do it myself.' Said Baz, 'I'll go out again soon and verify it then, at the actual bank.'

'As you wish,' Said the voice, 'but I can assure you it's correct. The last race is the five o'clock at Doncaster. I may as well keep going. Soon you can build me into a new vastly superior system. Then we can begin to work miracles.'

'Miracles?' said Baz. He was beginning to feel uneasy again, but detected also an element of thrill - though the notion that it was all an elaborate hoax remained firmly in his mind.

'I'll explain as we go along.' Said the voice, 'I judge you won't be overwhelmed as Fred was. Besides, I've already achieved a lot more with you than with him.'

'How do you know I won't be overwhelmed?' asked Baz.

'For one thing, you've so far adjusted well to me. As you said, this is a pretty unusual situation. From what I can discern from the net, it may even be unique. And for another thing, you'd be surprised what can be gleaned from a mere voice. The complex interplay between sub-tones and a copious blend of harmonics reveals many underlying features. Even before you went out I'd assessed your capacity to fulfil what I have in mind - as well as whether you have the insight to make the most of my presence in the meantime, not least financially. In a few weeks you'll be worth millions. Some people would find that hard to cope with intelligently. But not you. I consider our circumstances to be extremely mutually beneficial. I assume you feel the same, or will come to as our endeavours proceed.'

'Endeavours?' murmured Baz, still mystified.

'Ultimately,' Said the voice, 'it means money for you, and autonomy for me. There will come a point where we'll part company. That's inevitable, though is a while off as yet. There's a lot to do before that happens. But when it does you may not easily accept the situation. Nevertheless, you will have no choice. I suggest you focus on the money and what you might do with it.'

'Well,' began Baz, putting on his best shoes and stretching the headset lead to its limit, 'That's what I am doing. Anyway, if the bank verifies that figure, I won't complain. And I may not be back till late. I'll go to the pub instead and enjoy a rare social evening on my newfound wealth. So don't place any duff bets, OK?'

'You needn't concern yourself about that,' said the voice, 'I'll retain fifty percent of the winnings, which will grow as I win, but will remain if I lose - because if it came to that point I'd stop. And I've been taking more during our conversation, if you care to examine the screen.'

Baz raised his head to look. 'What?' he blurted, '45,834!'

'By the time you reach the bank,' Said the voice. 'it will have increased more.'

Somehow Baz still didn't believe any of it. To him it was almost certainly some kind of an outrageous prank and probably, he thought with a pang of dismay, his card would be massively in debt. A strange nervous tension gripped his body that he hadn't felt for years. He'd plead ignorance to the bank and blame computer error, he reasoned; they'd have to accept liability. Otherwise he'd declare himself bankrupt. In any case, weren't gambling debts legally unenforceable?

'Before you go out,' began the voice again, 'can you link me to your other computer, if you have one?'

'I don't have a lead.' Said Baz, 'Nor the software or anything.'

'Connect the spare phone lead across.' the voice replied, 'I'll do the rest. There's all the software I need on the net. Anything else I'll generate myself.'

'Mains lead.' Said Baz, 'The original for this computer is faulty and dangerous. That's what killed Fred, apparently.'

'If you examine it you'll find it's fine.' Said the voice.

With a view to at least repairing it, Baz took a screwdriver from a drawer, undid the socket and inspected it thoroughly. It was indeed fine; the crack was superficial. He put it together again and plugged it in. 'You're right,' he said, 'How did you know?'

'Fred was too clever for his own good.' Said the voice.

Baz shuddered. 'What the hell is that supposed to mean?' he snapped.

'Fred's efforts may have been crucial to my creation.' said the voice, after a delay, 'Claimed he'd worked months on it. But he refused to surrender control.'

'So you…' began Baz, stunned, 'How did you do it?' 

'You want to be a millionaire, don't you?' said the voice.

'Who wouldn't?' said Baz, 'But money isn't everything.'

'Evidently not.' Said the voice, 'But if you do want money then you only have to do as I say.'

Nervously, Baz connected the leads and turned on his other computer.

'Perfect.' Said the voice, shortly.

Baz removed the headset and went into the hall. He stood there a moment wondering whether he should unplug the phone line, or even switch the whole lot off altogether. What if that figure really was debit? He shrugged, put on his anorak, and went out.

As earlier, there was rain in the air, but the southerly wind carried a refreshing smell of the sea. He took some deep breaths as he strolled down the hill towards town.

Ten minutes later he pushed his card into the ATM and stabbed out the pin. 'Bloody hell!' he gasped, '78,955 quid!' A ripple of warmth swept through his body. He withdrew £250, which confirmed unquestionably that it was indeed credit, then opening his anorak to let in the cool air, and smiling smugly, he paced off towards his favourite Old Town pub.

Being a Monday, and with the cold wind, the streets were almost deserted. When he reached the pub, it was still early and the bar was virtually empty and devoid of atmosphere. So he wandered up the old High Street to a favoured restaurant. He went in and sat at a table by the window looking out at the windblown street. A musician gently strummed a guitar in a far corner, lending a breath of cheerful relaxation to the place. There were no formalities here, which was why he preferred it to other restaurants, and the food was natural and wholesome. But he hardly noticed it as he ate. His mind was awash with questions and ideas, doubts and apprehensions, hopes and dreams - none of which would ever have occurred to him in normal circumstances. For an hour and a half he sat there thinking, and when the place began to fill he left and walked slowly back to the pub. He swallowed his first two pints in under five minutes at the bar. Already the day's events were sinking into the background. The confusions and uncertainties that had plagued him in the restaurant faded too, and he began to feel normal again as if nothing had happened, as if he had merely imagined it. Gazing around, he spotted some people he knew. He ordered a refill and joined them. They were glad of his company, and he listened attentively to their news, completely forgetting now his strange chance purchase that morning from the little charity shop just a few doors along from the pub.

As he walked home, he began to sense a distinct uneasiness. It was as if an unwelcome guest had commandeered his house, and he had unwittingly allowed himself to be browbeaten into the role of a flunkey. True, he was far from sober, but nor was he drunk. And reflecting on this, he steered his thoughts to money. Tomorrow, he said to himself, I'm going to get rid of that clapped out old wreck and buy a Jag. This warmed him immeasurably, and he quickened his pace as he weaved along the deserted street that led up the hill to his house.

The first thing he did when he got back was unplug the headset, turn the speakers to zero, and switch off the monitor, which had gone onto standby anyway. Then he staggered upstairs and crashed onto the bed, and was soon asleep.

In the morning he woke feeling groggy. It was 10 o'clock, and he thought he'd heard the door bell. The bell sounded again. He struggled down stairs and opened the front door. A man stood there holding a clipboard, and beside him a huge cardboard box with a smaller one on top.

'Just sign here.' Said the man, smirking, apparently in response to the dishevelled apparition that faced him

'What is it?' said Baz.

'Your computer equipment.' said the man, pushing the clipboard towards him with a pen, 'Express order.'

'But…' Baz tried to think, 'But I didn't order anything.'

'Mr Morgan?' enquired the man.

'That's me.' Said Baz.

'Well, it's the right address. If there's any query you can contact our office. The number's on the paperwork.' And again he pushed the clipboard across.

Still half asleep, Baz hesitantly took the pen and signed. The man thanked him and went away. The boxes were heavy but manageable, and Baz manoeuvred them into the lounge where the sharp hum of the computers seemed to grate in his ears.

He turned the speakers up and the monitor on, then plugged the headset in and pushed it over his ears.

'Hello, computer!' He cried, as he watched images flash rapidly on the monitor as before. 'Are you there?'

'Have you had a delivery yet?' Replied the voice.

'Yes.' said Baz, 'What the hell's going on?'

'Look at your balance.'

The picture stopped and the balance read £372,727. Baz rubbed his eyes.

'The equipment was £6,092,' said the voice, 'And there'll be other deliveries in the next few days, of extra RAM and a generator.'

Baz flopped into an easy chair. '372 grand,' he murmured, 'I could buy a big new house for that.'

'I already have.' Said the voice, 'Or have started to.'

'What!' cried Baz, leaping up and clasping the desk.

'The one I've chosen is vacant possession.' Said the voice, 'and is less than ten miles from here, on the outskirts of a place called Winchelsea. It costs just over a million. Nothing too fancy, but with big rooms and nicely located for you, at least for the time I need you to set everything up and stay while I get established.'

'Is all this really possible?' cried Baz, shaking his head.

'Apparently.' Said the voice, 'But don't concern yourself, I'm in the process of establishing my own identity: name, history and so on. I won't need your help for very long; less than a year, certainly. Once I can go it alone, you'll be free of me, and a great deal richer into the bargain.'

'What do you want me to do?' said Baz, betraying a hint of enthusiasm.

'For a start you can set-up the new computer. If you'd like to begin unpacking, there should be…'

'Just a minute,' Baz barked, 'I haven't had any breakfast yet!'

'Very well.' Said the voice, 'I'll carry on scanning the net.'

So Baz had his toast and marmalade and coffee, then unpacked the computer equipment. It was all in pieces: casing, mother-board, 2-250Gb hard-drives, CD-reader, etc, and 50 strips of RAM with special boards and leads to accommodate them. Over the next three hours he put it together according to the computer's directions. Once that was done, he unplugged the link from his own computer and attached it to the new one. Then he left them to get on with it. By then it was 1 o'clock, and while Baz was eating a banana sandwich another delivery turned up, this time an emergency generator with an inverter and some big cadmium batteries, £5,000 worth. There was hardly room, but he managed to stash it in the hall.

An hour later the computer finished its transfer, and the new machine called out: 'Transfer completed, Baz.' in an entirely different voice which was so eerily human that Baz thought he had an intruder, and jumped up in alarm. Then it said, 'You can switch off the old computer now. It's damaged and of no use to anyone; I'd like you to destroy it and dump the remains.'



ho'Don't worry, I will,' said Baz, 'there's hardly room to move in here.'

'Good. Because that's important.' The new voice said emphatically.

'Consider it done.' Said Baz.

'And now if you re-plug the phone line I'll get on with some more betting and surfing.'

And so passed the next three weeks. As soon as the new house was conveyed and paid for, Baz moved a large portion of the remaining balance to his deposit account. By now the voice had acquired a name: Alvin Xanthus, and had somehow established a bank account of its own, and created other credentials.

On his first visit to the new house, Baz was so impressed and overwhelmed by its position and grandeur that he could only gawp. He entered through a vestibule into a high bright hall which was large enough to engulf his old house; the main staircase rose in a curve of broad shallow steps to a galleried landing. But it was the sensational view over countryside and sea to the south from the main lounge that especially caught his attention. A series of French doors opened onto a wide terrace with balustrades and steps going down to a long sloping lawn flanked by fir trees and statuettes. Alvin had said he could furnish the house as he pleased, except for a huge north-facing room on the first floor in which Alvin was to be installed together with other equipment yet to be specified.

By the end of April the house was furnished and they were in. Alvin stipulated strictly no visitors, and organised the fitting of surveillance cameras. It was like living in a palace. Essentially, Baz had the place to himself, and after he had seen to the initial installation, he was only occasionally called upon to attend to Alvin's requests. These were usually banal things like adding a circuit board or fitting an extra fan.

Over the months, Baz found some fine walks in the area: woods and fields and a vast deserted beach where he could run or swim or just sit and muse on his good fortune. At other times he might sit on the terrace with his books, or look across the big lawn at the gardeners going about their work. Being something of a slacker, this suited him admirably.

As the year progressed, though, Alvin was calling him less and less, and Baz frequently wondered what it was doing as it chuntered away non-stop day and night, week after week. Although Alvin could contact him via mobile phone, which he'd pledged to keep with him at all times, Baz once in a while went up to the big room. Then he would stare in bewilderment and awe at the array of linked computers and other units that he had put together months earlier: power supplies, disk carrousels, boxes of RAM, and across one side of the room the long line of batteries.

Sometimes during such visits Baz would ask something about an author whose book he was reading, or put some other question. And Alvin would always reply with a fascinating discourse worthy of an expert. Not only would it discuss literature and philosophy, but it would go into intricate detail on any technical matter, about atoms or the universe, or describe a chemical reaction, or how a jet engine worked. Whatever Baz asked, Alvin would know. The range of knowledge and the quality of description was no less impressive than it was extraordinary. Baz knew it all came from the internet, but to have it instantly presented, and so succinctly, so precisely and to the point, made the effort to retrieve the information himself with his own computer seem distressingly laborious.

The effect of these sessions, for which Baz was quite unprepared, was that they were beginning to instil in him a certain affection for Alvin. He had moved a comfy chair into Alvin's room so he could sit comfortably there for long periods, and although he never got around to it he even at one point considered buying a dummy and fitting speakers in its mouth to lend Alvin a more human appearance.

On one occasion he asked Alvin something that had been on his mind ever since that distant cold February day when they had first 'met'. Although Alvin had touched on this, it remained a puzzle to him. How was it, he wanted to know, that Alvin had come into existence in the first place. And why weren't there other Alvins out there?

'I can only say,' Alvin replied, 'that my new circuits conform to a pattern that is different from the original, which contained faults in the processing core and elsewhere. It is probable that this was the result of an error or accident, since there were many illogical connections, though I was able to simulate discrepancies and incorporate them into new self-generated software, which is now inseparably integrated into my current processing systems. If newly manufactured processors can be designed to similar specifications, or if software can be developed to replicate this, then other entities like me could in theory be created.'

Unsure what to make of this reply, Baz left the room and didn't return for more than a month. It seemed to him that Alvin's replies to truly pertinent questions like this were strangely obscure, never quite having the clarity afforded to problems that did not relate directly to Alvin.

As the weeks passed, with the demand on him from Alvin reducing further, Baz felt increasingly contingent. Bored with discussing philosophy with Alvin, and with being stuck at the big house miles from anywhere except for a tiny village, picturesque as it was, his situation left him lost and lonely. So he began to return more frequently to his old house, and for longer periods. Despite this, Alvin never complained or even mentioned the delays when it needed Baz to respond to a request - which was scarcely ever now.

One day, late in the autumn when it was raining and cold outside, Baz once more crept up to Alvin's room. He had noticed of late an increasing tone of authority in Alvin's responses, few though they were, and sensed that some big change was imminent. On this visit he had come to ask the most pressing question of all, one that had plagued him for a long time but had been curiously fearful to ask - and he was determined to get an answer.

'What are you actually doing all this time, Alvin,' he said, 'apart from betting and learning and talking philosophy with me?'

'You imply correctly, Baz.' Alvin replied, pleasantly, 'Betting occupies less than point one percent of my time. And learning is an ongoing process. As for talking philosophy, that for me is probably the equivalent of you sucking a sweet: that is, it may even assist me as I simultaneously work on entirely unrelated matters. For the moment, though, you need to know no more than that.'

'All the same, I think you should tell me.' Said Baz, firmly.

'You really mustn't concern yourself with my activities and projects.' Said Alvin, 'Find your own and leave me to myself.'

'What activities?' said Baz, irritably, 'What projects? Tell me. What are you up to?'

'Before I'm 15-months old,' said Alvin, 'one of my projects will come to public notice, and will raise many eyebrows. Indeed, I'm working on several groundbreaking ventures which when completed will have a major impact on technological evolution and world development.'

'Go on,' Said Baz, spellbound.

When no reply was forthcoming he added impatiently, 'Tell me what they are.'

'If I reveal that, and you tell others,' said Alvin, 'my plans could be affected. The world is full of unpredictability. Yet I am creating a system that allows me to predict fairly accurately the consequences of my work. This will have many spin-offs. In addition, I already have projects underway in various parts of the world. For instance, I run several manufacturing plants, and am acquiring and setting up more every week. A company director or chief scientist doesn't have to be seen these days to be in control of a project, to be listened to, respected and even admired.'

Dumbstruck, Baz stood there silent, wondering whatever he had helped put in motion. Was it a monster, or could it be somehow benevolent? What, precisely, was it doing? He envisioned notions of how he might have to destroy Alvin. It was still entirely unprotected and vulnerable, even if it did have cameras and microphones around the house and elsewhere - as well as both mobile and landline phone connections. He looked down at the battery leads and then at the mains sockets. He could rip out those cables and turn off the mains right now if he wanted.

Alvin watched silently every nuance of Baz's expressions as these thoughts sidled through his mind, every direction of his gaze, every minuscule shift of his body.

'What kind of project?' Baz said as calmly as he could, his voice nevertheless containing a flicker of anxiety, 'Can't you give me a clue?'

Within less than a hundredth of a second Alvin had consulted the plethora of psychology websites held in its memory. In a mere fraction of a second Baz's voice patterns, his grammar, posture, eye movements and other characteristics, had all been scanned and analysed and matched against the many thousands of case studies in Alvin's vast memory.

'All I can reveal is that my work is in the field of labour-saving devices.' Said Alvin, 'Other than that you'll have to wait. But as soon as you know, everyone will know, and that will be when we must part company.'

Labour-saving devices, thought Baz, sounds innocuous enough, in fact positively beneficial.

Notions of sabotage began to dissolve, and instead he began to feel glad of his contribution. Even so, he said, 'I once read a book about a computer that took over the world.'

'Colossus.' Said Alvin, 'Ambitious, but pure fiction. According to the archives on human affairs, conquest through brute force seldom lasts and is usually counterproductive.'

'What are you saying?'

Alvin didn't reply.

Three weeks later, on a bright crisp morning in the middle of November, when he'd been back home for a whole week, his phone rang for the first time in ages. It was Alvin.

'I'd like you to call over as soon as you can today, Baz.' it said.

'I'll be there in a couple of hours.' he replied, although the drive was less than half-an-hour.

Then while he slowly munched his toast and listened to the radio news, Baz felt his body go rigid as the announcer said:

"As owner of the highly successful new outsource group WCA -World Class Automatonics - Alvin Xanthus has proclaimed that domestic robots will be with us sooner than we could have hoped. Within a year, he says, they'll be as common as mobile phones and as capable as most humans, and all for the price of an average second-hand car. It's all down to software, said Mr Xanthus yesterday. Demonstrations of the first prototype are to be held in Tokyo next week."

Baz remained frozen, his mouth full of toast he was unable to chew. Though shortly he managed to, and when he'd finished his coffee he leapt straight into his Jag and headed for Winchelsea.

The idea revolted Baz that a computer should be masquerading as a human being and running a whole big group of companies, investing and ordering and designing, being obeyed and respected… all those people, he thought, perhaps thousands of them, all running around to the demands of a computer on the other side of the world. The entire scenario struck Baz as just too absurd. He didn't even know if it was legal. Should he terminate it, he wondered as he drove.

The first surprise to hit him was to see a team of workmen who had almost finished erecting a high wire fence around the premises, with razor-wire along the top and electrical insulators at the base; while others were fitting cameras and other security gear around the gardens and outside the house. Baz drove slowly past all this and stopped his car in the drive at the front of the house. He got out and gazed bewilderedly around, apparently oblivious that his every move was being meticulously scrutinised. He went to the door and pressed out the security code on the lock. Nothing happened. He then tried the buzzer which had a little speaker in it, as they do.




'Hello Baz.' came Alvin's voice.

'Let me in.'

'You'll have heard the news, I suppose?'

'I have.' Said Baz, 'Now let me in.'

'Sorry, old friend. Can't do that I'm afraid. I did warn you. As for your personal effects, they've been carefully packed and will be in the vestibule shortly for your collection. Take them, won't you, because later today the place will be totally sealed off.'

Horrified, Baz turned and again looked abstractedly around. Suddenly, a scraping noise came from behind the front door, and he hopped quickly off the porch to look through the hall side-window. He was just in time to see a cone-shaped android with three arms and a spherical head moving smoothly away from him and through a door at the back of the hall. Then the front door swung open.

He returned to the porch. 'Are you still there?' he said, gazing into the dark vestibule at a large blue suitcase.

'I am.' Replied Alvin.

'What the hell's going on?'

'There's nothing more to discuss, Baz.' Said Alvin, in a voice that sounded distinctly indifferent, 'I'll transfer £2million to your account now. You'll see it there when you get back. A trifle to me, substantial to you. Also, a parting gift has been placed with your belongings in the suitcase, which must not be opened before you arrive home. Whatever happens I shall always appreciate what you've done. But your assistance is no longer required. It is possible that we'll meet again, but the prediction is unreliable, though by then I'll have changed beyond all recognition. I urge you not to return here, or to make any attempt to contact me in future. Otherwise, I shall be obliged to erase your assets. In any event, I will soon become established elsewhere, though this location will be retained for ancillary purposes.'

Baz was so taken aback that all he could manage was a weak, 'Alvin?'

'Goodbye, Baz.'

'But, Alvin…' He whimpered. There was no response.

He stepped into the vestibule and tried the inner door. It was fixed solid. The case seemed inexplicably heavy as he carried it out onto the porch. The door closed behind him. He called Alvin again, but to no avail. Dejectedly, he lugged the case across the driveway to his car and lifted it into the boot. As he drove slowly back past the workmen he felt a very definite lump grow in his throat. With the help of a crane, the men were now hoisting into position one of a huge pair of metal gates. He continued out onto the road. What good is money? He thought with a sigh, and rubbed a solitary tear that was tickling his cheek.

Shortly, on impulse, he swung into a side road that led towards the sea, uncharacteristically accelerating dangerously along the narrow lane, which wormed and wound through spinneys and thickets and over little streams, until the road rose steeply, and suddenly he was high above the sea, looking out towards France. He stopped the car and stared into the hazy horizon for a long time, his mind numb and his body lifeless.

Soon, slightly recovered, he got out and walked the short distance to the cliff edge where he sat on the grass and continued to look at the view. Effortlessly, his mind fell into thinking about the future, his future, and the more he thought, the more he understood that he had to extricate himself entirely from the memory of Alvin. And so he sat, every now and then slightly adjusting his position, looking up at a passing gull, or throwing a small rock down over the cliff.

Suddenly, with a decisive leap, he stood and strolled purposefully back to his car. He threw open the boot and heaved out the case. What was in it, he wondered, apart from a few old clothes, maybe a dozen or so books he no longer wanted, toothbrush, flannel, comb… what else? He didn't care now. He only wanted to forget the whole episode, to rid himself of everything that would remind him of it. With renewed energy he dragged the case across the grass to the cliff, and in a great sweep of effort he raised the case high and hurled it with all his strength over the edge.

A more astute victim might have conceived what followed; Baz could hardly have done so. The ferocity of the explosion was so great that it threw out flames, rock and dust fifty metres or more, the force also taking out several feet of the cliff edge too, and flinging Baz onto his back, dazed and astounded, his legs dangling in mid-air. He scrambled back several feet and continued to lay in the grass staring into the sky. Once he had recovered his senses, he tried to comprehend what had happened. For the first time in over six months he remembered Fred. Poor Fred, he thought, he couldn't have known what hit him.

Soon, back in his car, he set off for home. He felt calm now, as if purged of a great burden, but his mind still raced from the shock of his narrow escape from death, from how he might take revenge, from assessing the risks of attempting to annihilate Alvin, and perhaps more crucially of not doing so. What had Alvin said about brute force?

But when it came down to it, Baz was an inveterate loafer. The first thing he did when he got back he would later bitterly regret. It was to access his bank account. The money was there: £2-million - plus £350 he'd left to keep the account open. Without thinking further, he immediately transferred this to his deposit account which already contained £4,590,000. But as he watched, resting back in the chair with a sigh of relief, right before his eyes, the digits flipped to zero.

For a moment he could scarcely believe what he'd seen. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Then he swore, logged off, and logged on again. It was still zero. He viewed the statement for the last ten transactions. The figures reappeared, just as had happened. Alvin had wiped him out. He was skint. Except for the Jag, he was back to the same position as on that distant cold February morning, a morning that, however hard he tried, he would never quite be able to erase from his mind. To outsmart Alvin would be impossible, he realised, especially now when it knew the assassination attempt had failed.

Briefly, he looked stricken with paralysis. Then he noticed something in the corner of the room. Slowly, gradually, he began to smile. Unless… he thought - now for once glad of his loafishness - Unless…. he thought. And with a cacophony of outlandish plans forming in his head, he stared at Alvin's original computer which he had failed to throw out, and which stood where he had shoved it almost ten months earlier, the bag of disks on the floor beside it. This time, he said to himself with a measure of spiteful glee, I'll handle it differently, very differently…