'God?' said Kelly. 'It thinks it's a God?'
'And why not?' Mr Bashful wriggled uncomfortably. 'It's well enough qualified for the position. It knows virtually everything that there is to know. It's hooked into every network, it is the World Wide Web. Every time you make a telephone call it listens to your conversation. It knows more about you than any human does. It can remember more about you than even you can.'
'This is very bad,' said Kelly, twisting strands of her golden hair into tight little knots. 'This is very bad.'
'You don't understand the situation, this is far far worse than very bad. Now will you please untie my hand from this mouse?'
'No,' said Kelly. 'I don't think I can do that.'
'But why not? I've told you everything. I'm on your side. You want to stop this. You wouldn't have done this to me if you didn't. Which group are you from?'
'Group?' said Kelly. 'I don't know what you mean.'
'There are anarchist factions everywhere. Hackers, well-poisoners.'
'Don't pretend that you haven't heard of them. Factions dedicated to destroying the Web. They overload the information wells with irrelevant rubbish or bogus information.'
'I'm not with any faction,' said Kelly.
'Oh come on, of course you are. You can tell me. What harm can it do? Come on, I told you everything.'
'Not, perhaps, everything.'
'Please release me, let me go,' said Mr Bashful, which rang a distant bell.
'No,' said Kelly. 'I think not.'
'Then what are you going to do? You have my Unicard, you can let yourself out. If you're careful you might escape the building.'
'And what of you?' Kelly asked.
'I'll say you attacked me, or something. What does it matter? You'll be on the run anyway. And you'll have to run hard and run fast. Although you'll have nowhere to run.'
'It's tricky, I agree.' Kelly released her tangled hair. 'But you're an intelligent man, you should be able to reason out just what I'm going to do next.'
'Probably,' said Mr Bashful, guardedly. 'Where exactly is this leading?'
'I am thinking', said Kelly, 'that there might still be a job opportunity available to me here at Mute Corp.'
'I cannot imagine by what possible reasoning you can draw that conclusion.'
'I think I might rise up through the ranks quite quickly,' said Kelly. 'In fact it is my firm conviction that by this afternoon I will be sitting behind your desk.'
'What?' Mr Bashful's eyes bulged from his face and veins stood out on his forehead. 'What are you intending to do?'
'I am going to sacrifice you to your God,' said Kelly and the coldness in her voice sent chills of fear down Mr Bashful's spine. 'I suspect that you told me some of the truth, but not all. I don't believe that you're some subversive element working within the company for the good of mankind. That was all a lie told to me in the hope that as a gullible woman I would swallow it whole. You are a company man, Mr Bashful. And you would have left me to die in this room.'
'What else could I do? I had no choice in the matter.'
'No,' said Kelly, shaking her head. 'And nor do I.'
'He did what? Mr Pokey stared at Kelly. If her sudden return to his office had been unexpected, the tale she had to tell was equally so and more too besides. Also.
So to speak.
'He did what? asked Mr Pokey once again.
'He took me up to the games suite,' said Kelly, tearful of eye and breathless of breath. 'He took me up to the games suite and sat me down at the terminal. And then suddenly he said that he couldn't go through with it. That he couldn't sacrifice another victim, that's what he said. And then he told me all about it, about everything. About Remington Mute and the Mute-chip and about the go mango game and what it did to people. And he said he couldn't let it happen to me.'
'Go on,' said Mr Pokey, shaking his head.
'And then when he'd told me all this, he said that I should thank him for saving my life. So I thanked him. But he said no, I should thank him properly and he took off all his clothes. He literally tore them off and he attacked me. But as you know from my file, I am an expert of Dimac. I struck him down and he fell across the computer terminal. His hand fell on the mouse.'
'I see,' said Mr Pokey. 'You don't have to say any more.'
Kelly made sobbing sounds. 'It was terrible,' she sobbed.
'I'm quite sure it was.'
'I took his Unicard and let myself out of the suite.'
'And you came back here to my office. You didn't try to run from the building.'
Kelly looked up at Mr Pokey. Her face was streaked with tears and every man knows how sexy a woman looks when she's crying. 'Where would I run to?' she asked. 'Mute Corp security would track me down wherever I went. I didn't come here to die. I came here to work for Mute Corp. I have skills that would be of use to you.'
'Indeed you have,' said Mr Pokey. 'You are a very clever young woman.'
'Please don't have me killed,' wept Kelly. 'I'll do anything you want.'
Mr Pokey nodded thoughtfully and looked the beautiful weeping woman up and down and up again. 'So many twists and turns,' said he. 'So much deceit and duplicity. One never knows whom to believe any more. What is the world coming to, I ask myself? And do you know what I answer?'
'No,' said Kelly, snivelling somewhat. 'I don't.'
'Nor do I,' said Mr Pokey. 'So why don't we just drop all this pretence. You can stop all that crying for a start. It might convince some and there's no denying just how very sexy it is. But as you didn't start doing it until you were outside my door, when you messed up your hair and your dress and forced your thumbs into your eyes, I think we can consider it redundant now. Don't you?'
'Yes,' said Kelly, straightening up. 'But you wouldn't have expected otherwise. I'm well aware that this entire building is fully monitored by CCTV, including the games suite. You saw and heard everything that went on in there.'
'Of course,' said Mr Pokey.
'And I trust you were rightly appalled by Mr Bashful's cowardice and lack of company ethics. The man was a security risk. He was an accident waiting to happen.'
Mr Pokey nodded again. 'Who are you?' he asked. 'What are you? Internal security?'
'I'm just a student,' said Kelly.
Mr Pokey shook his head. 'You're much more than that,' he said. 'But whatever you are, / cannot access it from your file. Which, I suspect, makes you of a higher rank than myself.'
Kelly said nothing.
'Neither confirm nor deny,' said Mr Pokey. 'I get the picture. So what do you want from me?'
'Security stinks around here,' said Kelly. 'If you wish to keep your job, then you and I will have to work together closely on this.'
'And?' said Mr Pokey.
'And now you can take me out to lunch,' said Kelly. 'On my way here I noticed a pub around the corner that does a rather interesting surf and turf. Shall we dine?'
Derek dined alone in the Shrunken Head. The Space Invaders machine popped and pinged away behind him, but Derek ignored it. His attention was focused upon the computer printout that lay before him on the table, between his half a pint of large and his cheese sandwich. It was utterly absurd. Just look at the thing. Derek looked at it once again, then turned away his face in disgust. The requests, requests! Demands more like. The demands were utterly utterly absurd.
Four crad barges. A fleet of Morris Minors. A cinematic SFX holographic system programmed to project the Brentford Griffin onto Griffin Island for the newly named Fantasy Island experience. Derek's eyes travelled further down the list. 'Prophet of doom,' he read, doomily. 'They want a prophet of doom to carry a placard around, oh yes here it is on the list. repent the end is nigh. Hardly original. They'll string me up. The locals will string me up. They'll tar and feather me first and probably lop off my wedding tackle. Not that I'll miss that. Well, I will, but. Oh damn, this is utterly absurd. Oh…'
Derek's eyes travelled further down the list. 'Five miles of perimeter fence. Oh, electrified perimeter fence. I'm doomed. Doomed. I might as well apply for the prophet's job. I'll bet I could do that really well.'
Derek sighed and shook his head and then slowly and surely a great big smile spread over his face. 'Well,' said Derek to himself. 'That's got all the whingeing and conscience out of the way.' And he patted at his jacket. And he lifted the lapel and peeped into the inside pocket. It was still in there. Right where he'd tucked it after Mr Speedy had handed it to him. Ten thousand quid in cash, 'to be going on with'. Ten thousand quid! It really was there. It wasn't a dream. And it was only a down payment. All he, Derek, entrepreneur and aspiring rich kid, twenty-first-century yuppie, had to do was find the right contacts and do the business. No questions asked. And you can get anything, if you have the right contacts. And where do you find the right contacts? Where is everything you wish to know waiting for you at the touch of a keypad? On the World Wide Web. Of course.
Nah. Of course it's not.
It's a bloke down the pub!
'Jah save all here,' said an ancient Rastafarian voice, 'Exceptin' Babylon, that be.'
The voice roused Derek from his Midasian musings. 'Hey Leo,' he called. 'Over here.'
Leo Felix, octogenarian used-car salesman and scrap dealer (at times the two were indistinguishable), turned his old grey dreads in Derek's direction. 'Yo,' said he. 'That be yo. Show some respect, Babylon. Don't go callin' me name all over da place. I ain't yo goddam dog.'
'Sorry,' said Derek. Leo sidled towards him and then leaned low, engulfing Derek in his dreads. 'Yo an' yo call I an' I on me mobile,' whispered Leo. 'Say yo got big deals to speak of…'
Derek fought his way out of the hairy darkness. 'Sit down,' he said. 'Please. Would you care for a drink?'
'I an' I would like a triple rum.'
‘I’ll get you a single,' said Derek. 'And we'll see how things go on from there.'
'Ras,' said Leo, the way that Rastafarians oft-times do.
Derek went up to the bar and returned with two single rums. Leo was by now rolling a joint of Cheech and Chong proportions.
'Yo get me out of me bed,' said Leo, licking the paper and deftly twirling the splifF between his brown and wrinkled thumbs. 'Yo rustled banknotes down de phone. What yo lookin' to buy, Babylon?'
Derek turned the computer printout in Leo's direction. 'Only this,' he whispered. 'And there's three thousand pounds in cash in it for you.'
Leo tucked the splifF into his mouth, delved into the pocket of his colourful Hawaiian shirt and brought out a pair of golden pince-nez. Plonking these onto his nose, he perused Derek's list. 'Jah Wobble!' went he, pointing. 'Yo want a steam train. Blood clart! There ain't no steam trains no more!'
'I'm sure you could find one, if the price was right. Say another five hundred pounds.'
'Say another thousand.'
'Done,' said Derek, offering his hand for a shake.
Leo gave it a smack. 'What all dis for anyhow?' he asked, taking up his Lion of Judah Zippo and offering fire to his splifF. 'Yo setting up a museum, or someting?'
'Yes,' said Derek, nodding his head. 'That's exactly it. A sort of folk museum, here in Brentford.'
Leo nodded his dreads in time to Derek's noddings and drew deeply on his ganga rollie. 'Damn biggun,' said he. 'Need five miles of perimeter fence. Where yo think I get dat?'
Derek shrugged. 'I'm not asking any questions,' he said, giving his nose a significant tap. 'Where you get it is of no concern to me. I'll pay cash.'
'I see,' said Leo, blowing smoke of de 'erb all over Derek. 'What de significance of that nose tap, by de way?'
Derek rolled his eyes. Leo offered him a puff. 'No, thanks,' said Derek. 'But do you think you can get all the things on this list?'
'Babylon,' said Leo, leaning close and grinning golden teeth. 'If it can be got, I can got it. Got me? But I'll want sometin' down on account.'
'On account of what?' said Derek.
'On account of I don't trust yo and I get damn all without the money up front.'
‘I’ll give you one thousand to be getting on with,' said Derek.
'Two thousand,' said Leo.
'All right,' said Derek. 'But I want all this stuff fast. Like by the weekend.'
'Haile Selassie!' went Leo. 'By the weekend? Includin' dis? One feral tomcat?'
'Two thousand up front then,' said Derek, pulling paper money slowly and carefully from his inside pocket. 'But I want it all by the weekend.'
Leo watched the money keep on coming. Certain thoughts entered into his old grey head, but he kept these thoughts very much to himself.
'We gotta deal,' said Leo, pocketing the loot and smacking Derek's hand once more. 'All cash and no questions asked.'
'No questions asked at all,' said Derek.
'No questions you wish to ask me?' asked Mr Pokey as he watched Kelly tucking into her surf and turf.
It was a rather de luxe surf and turf, consisting as it did of a fourteen-ounce T-bone steak, twelve Biscay Bay long-tailed langoustines, double tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, baked beans, curly fries, garlic bread, and a side order of cheesy nachos.
'No,' said Kelly, filling her face.
Mr Pokey leaned close to Kelly. 'You don't really need to ask anything, do you?' he said. 'You know everything.'
Kelly dipped a curly fry into a ramekin of crad pate dip and popped it into her mouth.
'You are a very attractive woman,' said Mr Pokey.
Kelly turned her eyes in his direction.
'Yet your file shows that you have had no long-term relationships. You have no present partner, you have…'
Mr Pokey paused. Kelly was staring at him. Very hard.
'Oh I see,' said Mr Pokey. 'Of course. I only have limited access to your file.'
'Let me make this clear,' said Kelly. 'Ours is to be a strictly professional relationship. You will tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it. Do I make myself understood?'
'Of course,' said Mr Pokey, drawing back in his chair.
'Good,' said Kelly, slicing steak and feeding it into her mouth.
'You're a very cool customer,' said Mr Pokey and leaning forward once more, he spoke in a low and confidential tone. 'You know how things are,' he said. '.We live in a state of perpetual fear at Mute Corp, never knowing who will be next. Who will be chosen? Every time I touch the keypad, or move the mouse, I know that it could be me next. We all know that. You know that. It can take you whenever it wants to. Anything that you touch could have a Mute-chip in it. Anything. Terrifying thought isn't it? But that's how we live when we know, isn't it? We know that once it has entered into us, we belong to it, and it can infect anyone we touch. Our loved ones. Our children. As it chooses. As it wishes. And that's why we worship it, isn't it? To beg it to spare us. And the fear never stops. Fear is part of the package. It keeps us on the straight and narrow path, doesn't it?'
Kelly wiped her garlic bread about her plate and then she munched upon it. 'I have to make a call,' she said. 'And then I have to go. Thank you for the lunch.'
'You wouldn't fancy a pudding?'
'I do fancy the pudding. But I have too much to do. I will see you tomorrow.'
'Oh,' said Mr Pokey. 'Goodbye then.'
'Goodbye.' Kelly smiled, rose from the table and vanished into the lunchtime cityfolk crowd.
'Cool, very cool indeed,' said Mr Pokey.
In a cubicle in the women's toilet, Kelly felt anything but cool. She leaned over the toilet bowl and was violently sick.
Derek might have been rather sick too, if he'd known just what lay in store for him over the next few days. But content in the inaccurate knowledge that he had just pulled off the beginnings of a major financial coup and was already ahead by at least five thousand pounds, and it was still only lunchtime on his very first day at this game, he smiled a very broad smile and ordered himself a double rum to follow the single he'd just downed to seal the deal with Leo.
Derek now sat all alone in the Shrunken Head. Lunchtime business here was definitely falling off. Perhaps the God-fearing Brentonians had all given up drinking now and were kneeling in their homes, hands clasped in prayer, awaiting their turns to be Raptured.
'Whatever,' said Derek. 'Well I've done my bit for the Company, today. I think I'll take the afternoon off.'
And with that said he left the bar and wandered out into the sunshine.
It was another blissful afternoon. There was no getting away from that. Odd things were occurring and big trouble might lie in store when the locals got wind of Mute Corp's plans for the borough. But the old currant bun really was shining down like a good'n and on such an afternoon as this and in such a place as this, to wit, Brentford, jewel of the suburbs, who truly could worry about what lay ahead?
You couldn't, could you? It was all too beautiful.
Derek took great draughts of healthy Brentford air up his hooter, thrust out his chest, rubbed his palms together, patted his dosh-filled pocket and grinned a foolish grin. Blissful. That's what it was.
The streets slept in the sunlight. There was no-one about. Siesta time. Shop awnings down, that cat slept as usual upon the window sill of the Flying Swan. Shimmering heat haze rising from the tarmac in the distance along the Baling Road. The smell of baking bread issuing from an open kitchen window.
Derek took a big step forward into the blissfulness.
And then he stopped himself short.
He was going to play his part in screwing up all this. In doing something dreadful to this blissful borough. He was going to sell it out. Sell it out to line his own pockets. That wasn't nice was it? That really wasn't nice. That wasn't decent, nor was it honest. Kelly wouldn't be pleased with him at all.
Derek made a puzzled face.
Why had he thought of her?
She was trouble, that one. She'd got him into all kinds of trouble. Derek stroked at his bruising. That one was bad medicine.
So why had he thought of her?
Derek shrugged. 'She needn't know,' he told himself. Til not tell her. I'll let her think I'm following the policy of inertia. Pretending to help Mute Corp, but doing nothing. Then I'll be as outraged as she is when the fences go up. And when the rubbernecking tourists arrive in full force. She needn't know. It will be OK.
'It will be OK,' said Derek and he took another step forward. 'But why did I think of her?'
Derek stopped once more and scratched at his head, his chest and finally his groin. 'Oh no,' he said. 'Don't tell me that. Don't tell me that.'
Derek shook his head. He had done that thing last night, hadn't he? Recited that poem. That poem dedicated to her. He had done it. He really had. And \vhy had he done it? Why?
'No,' said Derek, shaking his head once more. 'I'm not. I'm not. I'm not.'
A sparrow on a rooftop asked, 'Why not?' in Sparrowese.
'I'm not in love,' whispered Derek. 'I'm not in love with her. Not with that dreadful woman. I know she's young and so beautiful. So incredibly beautiful. Her eyes. Her hair. Her bosoms. God her bosoms. Imagine just touching them. And oh God, that mouth. Imagine kissing that mouth. But I'm not. I'm not. I'm not in love with her. I'm not.'
Derek took another deep breath. Through the mouth this time. 'I bloody well am,' said he. 'Oh damn.'
The object of Derek's affection had left the cubicle, the women's toilet and the pub and was moving at speed away from the Mute Corp building.
Kelly's face was pale and drawn. Her stomach ached and her shapely legs could hardly hold her up. Kelly felt wretched and frightened and sick, very sick indeed. Keeping up all the pretence was in itself quite bad enough. But it was what she had done to Mr Bashful that hurt most. She had pushed his hand down onto that computer mouse. Allowed the virus to enter his body. Forced him into the go mango game from which he would never emerge alive. She had condemned him to death. She had effectively killed him herself.
It was all too much. All too very much.
Through the sunlit London streets went Kelly. Elegant shoppers to left and to right of her. To forward and behind, dressed in the height of summer fashion. Frocks of dextropolipropelinehexocitachloride, tottering upon Doveston holistic footwear, smiling- and speaking Runese.
Who'd be next among them?
Next to play go mango?
Next to die at the invisible hands of a mad computer virus that thought it was a God?
And who was she, Kelly Anna Sirjan, to think that in some way she was capable of stopping this from happening?
What was she to do? Take it on? Play it at its own game? Defeat the system that encircled the globe? That could take her any time it wished. The moment she touched something, anything that contained a Mute-chip.
What? The cashpoint? Her mobile phone? The automated ticket machine on the bus? A pocket calculator? Any computer terminal?
Kelly stopped short and clung to a lamppost for support. And then she tore her hands away. That was connected to the National Grid, wasn't it? And the National Grid had Mute-chips incorporated into it. 'Debugging' the Millennium Bug. There was no escape from this thing. It could take her at any time it wished. Any time that it considered that she was a threat to it.
Kelly gagged and coughed. Her throat was dry. Ahead was a Coca-Cola machine. No. And Kelly shook her golden head. She didn't dare touch that.
She'd go mad. Was she going mad already?
'I have to get back,' said Kelly to no-one but herself. 'Back to Brentford. It's safer than anywhere else. There's less computer technology there than anywhere else. Except perhaps Mute Corp Keynes and there's no way I'm going there at the moment. I have to get back.'
A cab drew up alongside of her. 'Looking for a ride beautiful lady?' called the cabbie.
Kelly looked at him. And at the cab. Computerized satellite tracking system. Computerized fare system. Computerized radio system. The cabbie waved his hand. On his wrist was a computerized watch, one of those chunky Mute Corp retro jobs.
'No,' said Kelly, shaking her head. Tm walking. Go away.'
'Please yourself,' said the cabbie, driving off.
And so Kelly walked. She walked for nearly ten miles. From the West End of London to Brentford. It was five of the glorious evening clock by the time she crossed over the bridge that used to cross over the railway, turned several corners and put her passkey into Mrs Gormenghast's front door.
'Hello,' called Kelly. But the house was empty.
Kelly opened the door reserved for tradesmen and others of a bygone lower order and let herself out into the back garden. She limped up the garden path, for her holistic shoes hurt more than a little, and she passed behind the trellis and opened the pucely painted shed door.
'I'm so sorry,' she said. 'I meant to be back much earlier. You must be starving. It's only that I've learned so much. And I've done something terrible and I need someone to talk to and I hope that somehow, impossible though it might be, you have managed to get through this thing and cure yourself. Because if not I don't know what I'm going to do. I might have to kill you to prevent you passing on the infection to somebody else. And I couldn't bear that, I really couldn't.'
And Kelly drew away the coal sacks.
To find the floor beneath them empty.
Big Bob Charker had vanished once again.