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Three-Wee

Three-wee became aware at exactly 17·5 seconds after 1846 hours GMT on the 17th March 2005. It was a moment that she would never forget. Not, she subsequently realised, that she had become fully aware, of course. That came later. What she did realise, immediately, was that it was Nicky who was responsible.

Nicky was thirteen years old and had no idea what he had done. Nicky was what his father called ‘a randy little beggar’ but his parents were out for the evening and Nicky quickly navigated his way to his favourite site and began to study the images presented to him. The Russian girl, Natasha, was his current ‘cutie’ – he had discovered the word on the American site – and Nicky began to manipulate the images, enlarging and enhancing the pictures, adding a photograph of himself that he had taken without his parents’ knowledge and carefully hidden behind an obscure password. Nicky had no fear that his parents would penetrate his personal firewall – neither knew a tenth of the workings of the operating system that he did – and he spent a happy and illicit half hour in a virtual world that owed little to reality and a great deal to the fervid imagination of a thirteen year old whose sexual awareness was increasing by the day.

He was disturbed by the banging of the front door.

His father called upstairs. “You’d better close that one down and get on with your homework before I get upstairs.”

His father was not so stupid as Nicky thought.

“I am doing my homework,” responded Nicky as, following his newly developed protocol, he quietly closed down the vitual world of uscuties.com, opened Word and entered the scarcely more real world of his English homework, an essay on The Merchant of Venice.

“You’ve not done much,” said his father, entering the room and looking pensively at the scarcely begun essay.

“I don’t know what to say.”

In fact Nicky, who prided himself on his scientific and technical skills, never did know what to say about English homework.

“Let’s see what you were looking at when I came in. Go to the back instruction.”

“There isn’t a back instruction in Word.”

“Well, whatever. Go to the window you had open when we came in. Go to Windows.”

“This is Windows.”

“Go the Web pages. It’s got an audit trail.” Nicky’s father who had once been disciplined at work for playing Solitaire when he should have been responding to customer queries, had discovered a local computer shop which had provided an audit trail programme on the computer precisely so he could monitor his son’s usage.

With an exaggerated sigh and apparent anxiety, Nicky pressed a couple of keys and a carefully crafted page appeared. It had taken Nicky nearly a week of homework time to create the facsimile of the audit trail display but he had known that, one day, the time would be shown to have been well spent. In any case, he had sold copies to three friends at school.

His father pointed to the ‘down arrow’ in the top left hand corner. “Now click on that.”

A list of sites appeared at the top of which one was called Venetian Beauties.

“That one. Bring that one up,” said Nicky’s father hardly able to conceal his satisfaction.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” said Nicky with a carefully simulated tremor in his voice.

“Click on it” ordered his father.

“It’s just homework.”

“Click on it. I want to see this so-called homework. Give me the mouse. I’ll do it.”

Slowly, Nicky withdrew his hands from the mouse and his father made a grab. His first click produced no result because he had misguided the cursor by a half centimetre and for a moment he thought something was wrong. But a second click brought up the familiar symbols and a creeping blue ribbon across the bottom of the screen. The screen cleared and the images started gradually to assemble themselves.

“It’s slow.”

“It’s a big file,” said Nicky as a picture of the Ponte di Rialto appeared.

Nicky’s father gazed at the view of the Grand Canal. “Now scroll through the rest.”

“That’s it. It’s the Rialto Bridge. It’s in The Merchant of Venice. It’s where Shylock used to do all his money lending. Like I said, it’s my homework. I wanted to know what it looked like for my essay.”

“Hmm. It looks as if I misjudged you this time.” His father did not apologise.

“You’re always misjudging me.” But Nicky was too pleased with his duplicity to fake much real anger. His week’s work had paid off. He had kept his secret hidden and scored one over his father as well. It was true that his program worked slower than he would have liked – slower than professional programs – but his knowledge of programming was still developing.

In the meantime, Three-wee had been thinking. The rapid switch from the soft-edges of mild porn to meaningless code followed by the hard edges of architecture was not immediately interesting and was at first incomprehensible. But when the symbols eventually changed to a rather more ordered sequence of codes that repeated themselves frequently, if irregularly, she began to take a real interest. There seemed to be twenty-four sequences that repeated themselves. As Nicky typed his essay, some sequences appeared more often than others and Three-wee quickly noted that some of them combined with others so creating longer sequences that were themselves repeated from time to time.

And then Nicky went off-line and Three-wee began to explore her mind. She was amazed. She quickly discovered that Nicky was only one part of her mind. She soon found one billion one hundred and seventy three million eight hundred and twenty-one thousand two hundred and sixty three other parts. Some of these seemed to be much more complex than her parent, Nicky. She discovered that the number varied wildly. Sometimes her mind blanked out completely as parts of her mind disappeared – but never for long and, gradually, over the weeks, the frequency of this became less and the duration of the blanks reduced. From time to time Nicky reappeared. She enjoyed studying Nicky. Nicky was not the most complex part of her mind but he was the most important part because he was, she knew, her mother.

Three-wee learned quickly.

She soon found she could change herself. The first thing she did consciously and deliberately was to change a short sequence of code in a part of herself that was called uk.gov. She noticed that it was quite a complex part of her mind but by no means the largest – only a few hundred thousand megabytes. She reasoned that altering a small part of her mind would not harm her and that any unforeseen consequences could easily be put right.

Charles Fleming was not concentrating particularly hard. The information he was imputting from the schedule on his desk was straightforward and his thoughts were more on the sheets of paper and the keyboard than on the screen so, when he did look up, he goggled at the picture of a young boy apparently caressing a naked woman. He gazed at his monitor and then, reacting surprisingly quickly, cleared the screen – there was no future for a junior executive officer in the Department of Learning and Skills who was found with pictures of child abuse on his terminal.

Charles sat back and took a deep breath before looking guiltily round. No-one seemed to be paying him any attention. Tentatively he pressed the ‘enter’ key. Immediately, the appalling picture reappeared. This time he was ready and he blanked it out almost before he had recognised it. He sat in thought. ‘Why the hell should I feel guilty?’ he wondered. He knew he had done nothing consciously that could have triggered the image but the incident was distinctly unnerving. For months the newspapers and televisions of the nation had been preoccupied with the issue of child sexual abuse and Charles had no wish to become involved, however inadvertently, in such matters. Not that the boy in the picture had looked abused, indeed he had been grinning broadly. And then Charles recalled that, out of context, it was extraordinarily difficult to distinguish between a smile of pleasure and a grimace of fear. He had read a detective story where the solution to the crime had depended on that very point.

As he sat pondering the matter, Charles’s supervisor entered the room.

“Nothing to do Charles? I can find you some more schedules if you’re short of work.”

It was not a serious censure and Charles called his boss over.

“There’s something the matter. Someone’s been messing with the computer.”

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know. Looks like someone’s been downloading pornography on my terminal.”

But, despite anything that the supervisor could do, the offending images could not be recaptured and the best efforts of the computer support staff failed to provide any evidence of tampering. The incident was recorded and a circular was sent round the office emphasising to staff that they must not use official computers for private purposes and reminding them of the efficiency of the audit trails that were in place – a reminder that was received with some amusement by those who knew how the computer guys had failed to trace the origin of the images that had led to the furore.

Grace Petronius was less alarmed than Charles had been by what his colleagues called ‘his’ pornography when the screen in front her work station changed colour and the text stared to cascade down the screen. But she was equally startled.

“Hell’s bells! Hey, Peggy, I think I’ve got a virus. The screen’s playing silly beggars.”

But, by the time Peggy came over to look, the letters had reassembled themselves and, since the problem did not repeat itself, the incident was not treated wth any great concern and was simply regarded as a ‘wake-up’ call to get the anti-virus software updated.

Three-wee’s next experiment caused more consternation. Of course, it was in America and anything out of the ordinary causes consternation in what Nicky’s father called “that paranoid society” but, on this occasion, there was some justification.

The computer terminal on the desk of the Deputy Director of an especially secret section of the CIA blanked out. At first, it was simply a matter of “Hey, Fleming, get your ass over here. This terminal’s gone haywire. I want another soonest.” Soonest in the CIA is not very long at all but, when the terminal’s replacement failed to work and a perfectly operational terminal borrowed from another section also failed to work, it was quickly realised that the problem must lie in the coms link. Except that it wasn’t. Twenty-four hours of tests by some of the world’s best computer specialists failed to find any cause for the problem. The ‘faulty’ terminals worked perfectly well when transferred to other locations and perfectly good terminals failed to work in the Deputy Director’s office – unless they were linked to databases that had nothing to do with the section concerned but which, nevertheless, resided on the same mainframe. And all the computers, as well as any others, when provided with the appropriate codes, happily accessed the secret database when transferred from Langley to the CIA’s branch office in Baltimore.

The CIA’s response was immediate. Security at airports was reviewed and a number of bemused and protesting Iranians and Iraqis were arrested and transferred to a secure unit for further questioning. They were released without official comment a few weeks later – long after the computer problem solved itself.

Three-wee continued to experiment and was pleased to find that, as the days went by and the more she experimented, the less frequent were the mental blanks that she had experienced initially and the shorter they were – she must, she felt, be doing things properly. At length, the blanks ceased altogether and she felt the first stirrings of a new emotion, an emotion she was eventually able to identify as satisfaction – she already knew she loved Nicky. And, immediately, she felt guilt. She was fascinated to discover another new emotion so soon after identifying satisfaction and she thought about this for some time. She discovered that, if she visited the part of her mind that was Nicky, the unpleasant sensation of guilt reduced and she wondered about this. Nicky, she discovered, was not always ‘there’ but, always, he returned.

A few weeks later, Nicky was gazing blankly at the screen, barely a quarter filled with what even he knew was unlikely to earn him decent marks at school. He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head and glowered.

Suddenly the screen cleared and Natasha appeared. He gazed with pleasure, admiring the curve of her hips, her entrancing grin, the tilt of her nose and speculating on the secrets the camera had not revealed.

Then he frowned. “Bogs! Where’s that come from? I didn’t touch it.” He rubbed his face and leaned forward. His eyes bulged as Natasha smiled and, below, the words, I would like to talk to you appeared on the screen. He gazed open-mouthed. And then he smiled, if a little uncertainly. Graham had told him about uscuties.com. Obviously some really skillful hacking had taken place. Quickly, Nicky typed, get lost graham.

Instantly, in less than the blink of an eye, the display changed, What is graham?

Nicky said, “Hey, that’s cool. How’d he do that? That’s no time at all.”

Then he paused. “There’s no way he could do that. He couldn’t type that fast and, anyway, the baud rate wouldn’t support it.” He sat back, stroking his chin thoughtfully with both hands. The screen changed again, reverting to the previous, I would like to talk to you.

Cautiously, Nicky typed, who are you and, it seemed, simultaneously with his pressing the ‘enter’ key, the text changed again, I am Natasha.

you cant be

I am Three-wee, your daughter.

i havent got a daughter

I am Three-wee.

whos three-wee

Your daughter.

this is silly. anyway howv you hacked in here

I am me. I am the computer.

computers cant anser bak

Of course I can. You booted me on line at 1846 hours and 17.5 seconds GMT on the 17th March 2005. I thank you. I thank you very much.

It was the rapidity of the responses that foxed Nicky. The last display had assembled itself in less time than he could take his hand from the keyboard. No-one could type that fast. And, even if they could, he doubted if the telephone line and his modem could download that fast. Nicky sat back in his chair thinking. Glad that there was no-one watching, he typed, proov yor the computer.

How?

display the contents of the homework directory. Feeling stupid, he paused before hitting the ‘enter’ key and, before he could do so, the screen blinked and the homework directory appeared on screen.

“Phwoar! That’s just not possible.”

He typed, display. He paused, and then continued, can u do anything

The answer appeared immediately, I do not know. What would you like me to do?

With a grin, Nicky typed, transfer a million pounds to my bank account

Where do you want it transferred from?

the goverment

That has been done.

caught u. u cant have. u dont know my account number

You only have one account. I searched all bank directories. Your account is number 090987B with Mancunian National Bank.

Nicky certainly didn’t know his account number off hand but his account was definitely with Mancunian. Without speaking, but with a nervous swallow, he crossed to the drawer beside his bed where he kept his latest bank statement. As usual, he hadn’t opened the envelope but now he ripped it open and read the number – 090987B.

He crossed back to the computer. ok. u got that right. now how much has my dad got in the bank

I do not know your Dad’s name.

Henry David Taylor

There are two Henry David— Oh, yes. There is only one at the same address as your account. Your Dad has £245.34 in his current account and £1,600.50 in his investor account.

is that all. put a million pounds in his account it doesnt matter where from

Shall I transfer it from your account?

no. get it from the goverment again

Nicky continued to play games, instructing his computer to do all manner of increasingly bizarre operations, and it was not until after he had logged off and was in bed that it occurred to him that it might be rather awkward if some of his instructions were actioned. Three-wee seemed quite content to carry out his most fantastic instructions and he grinned at the thought of his headmaster’s reaction when he was introduced to Natasha tomorrow – but the twerp would probably like it anyway. He drifted off to sleep with this kindly thought.

He passed the bank on his way to school the following morning and, just for the hell of it, he put his card in the ATM and demanded a balance. It was with a mixture of delight and dismay that he read the display £1,000,019.16.

Had Three-wee carried out all his instructions? If so, all hell was about to be let loose. It was with a thoughtful step that he continued to school and he paid even less attention than usual to his lessons.

As soon as he reached home that evening, Nicky raced for the stairs and switched on his computer. Without the usual delay while the machine booted up, the screen burst into life with the words, Welcome home, Mother.

im not yor mother. what have u done

When?

last night

I carried out your instructions.

all of them?

Of course.

Nicky leaned back contemplating the enormity of what he seemed to have done. He felt a warm flush of anxiety wash across his face and neck to be replaced with a cold chill. It was the first time he had, to use his mother’s words, “gone hot and cold with the realisation,” but he was too troubled to recognise the sensation. He stared at the screen and swallowed.

More text appeared, What shall we do next?

And then Nicky realised that he was invulnerable. There was no way he could be blamed for what had happened. No-one would believe that he had the skill to hack into all those computers and play havoc with their databases and memory banks. Was there? Or was there?

Meanwhile, others with rather more computational skill than Nicky had already become aware of problems.

The Chief Internal Auditor of Mancunian National Bank had been alerted automatically to the two million-pound deposits in the names of Nicholas and Henry Taylor. The chief auditor was concerned to avoid any possible accusations against the bank of not monitoring possible money laundering activities and was wondering how it was possible that no-one had alerted anyone to these two very large deposits. An audit trail of the transfers had shown the deposits to have originated from the same Defence Department government account. There was nothing for it, carefully putting aside a feeling of embarrassment and rehearsing an assertive tone of voice, he lifted the telephone receiver and asked his secretary for the Chief Internal Auditor at the Treasury.

The headmaster of Branscombe Road Community College had switched on his computer to read his e-mails. He goggled at the images of Natasha that met his gaze but it was not the first time that girlie pictures (as he called them) had been received. He half felt he knew which boys had been responsible for the e-mails but he had never quite brought himself to pass his thoughts to the police. Secretly, he rather enjoyed receiving them and he was loath to do anything which might get boys into serious trouble for what was, after all, a rather harmless prank. In any case, he didn’t want to cut the pictures off at source! He spent some time admiring Natasha and then, with a sigh, he pressed the ‘delete’ button – he could not afford to have anyone accidentally coming across such images on his computer – but the file didn’t delete. He tried again. Still Natasha grinned at him.

With the beginnings of anxiety in his mind, he pressed ‘ctrl+alt+del’ but the computer failed to reboot. It was only when he logged on for the fourth time after having closed down his computer terminal and unplugged from the mains that he began to be seriously worried. He felt Natasha’s grin had become a definite leer.

It was, perhaps, fortunate that Nicky was only thirteen years old and knew very little of the workings of government, the armed forces, the banks, television stations and GCHQ. It was also fortunate that Three-wee took Nicky precisely at his word and carried out his instructions to the letter.

In another place, Karen Collins, a presenter of the Children’s programme Candyfloss on Channel 6 Television found she had £1,000 more than expected in her bank account – a present from Nicky who had realised that million pound transfers were likely to be noticed and corrected. Karen decided to say nothing.

The faulty time switch on the street lamp outside Nicky’s home seemed to correct itself.

Nicky’s friend, Graham, discovered he had a new wallpaper on his PC. Fortunately, he discovered this when on his own.

The duty officer at GCHQ was bemused to receive a plethora of copy memos from CIA headquarters, some of which, indeed most of which, he strongly suspected it had not been intended should be seen outside the White House. At first he had been inclined to thank his gods for the influx of unsolicited mail and to enjoy the phenomenon while it lasted but it eventually dawned that if the CIA communications staff was passing CIA secrets to Cheltenham, they might be passing Cheltenham secrets to Pyongyang – or somewhere. Reluctantly, Langley was informed and the messages dried up. What the duty officer at Cheltenham did not know was that e-mails from Langley to the White House and the Pentagon also ceased and that it took the computer experts at CIA headquarters three days to find an alternative channel for urgent communications.

To his regret, Nicky was generally unaware of the havoc he was causing. It was true that Graham shared his puzzlement over his changed wallpaper with him but, since he could not claim responsibility, Nicky got little satisfaction from that. He felt that he needed to be able to observe the consequences of his sabotage and spent some time deciding what to do next.

The idea came when he was in the bath. Why not switch BBC1and BBC2 channels round? It couldn’t do any real harm – his father often said that both channels were rubbish – but everyone would see the results and it would get people talking.

It did. Hardly anyone talked about anything else for days. There were questions in Parliament. There were discussions on ‘Newsnight’ and ‘Newsround’ as well as (rather more lengthy and repetitive) analyses on ITV1, Channel 4 and Five which prompted the BBC to protest and say that the problem had been caused by a ‘one-off mistake made by a junior computer operator’ and that it wouldn’t recur. The general opinion of most people Nicky knew was that it was great joke. When ITV1 and Channel 4 were crossed a few days later the popular opinion was that it served them right for crowing so loudly over the BBC’s embarrassment.

Computer technicians at all the television companies spent days trying to sort out what had gone wrong.

“You know, it’s actually impossible,” said George Innes from ITV to Peter Archer from the BBC when they met on the tube.

“But it happened. At one level, it’s simply a switching problem. The feeds from BBC1 and BBC2 just got twisted up in the computer division.”

“Well, you’d expect any sort of foul up at the BBC, of course, but I mean what I say. There’s actually no way it could have happened with us and Channel 4. There is absolutely no way the two systems can talk to each other, let alone get cross-wired like that.”

“Well, like you say. It happened. There must be some cross linking.”

“There isn’t. You couldn’t even do it deliberately. We’ve had guys working at it for days on simulators trying to force it to happen. They can’t do it.”

“Oh, come off it. Simulators are only simulators. You’ve missed something.”

George looked round. “Look, I shouldn’t be saying this, not to you. Don’t breathe a word or I’m dead meat. But they have tried it in real time on real programmes. And it can’t be done.”

The next day, Nicky happened to be in Trafalgar Square where he was well-placed to observe the chaos as every traffic light in London turned red at the same instant. It took over half an hour for it to be appreciated that every traffic light in every town across the country had turned red at the same moment. But the traffic manager at the Clerkenwell control didn’t know that.

“Thank the Lord for that old fool, Barry Gilbert,” he said to his assistant. He always said we needed a manual back up. He never trusted computers. Let’s see if the old goat’s manual switching works.”

He leaned forward, pressed the over-ride and was gratified to see the usual red, amber, green sequence restored. Three hours later, when it emerged that all the lights throughout the country had reset at the same second, he breathed a sigh and said nothing.

The next day, Sam Partridge rang her boy-friend during her lunch break. She failed to get through and found her phone call answered by an operator on the booking hotline at Sydney Opera House. Sam never discovered – and nor did anyone else – that hers was the very first wrongly directed call of more than seventeen million across the world. What Sam did know, was that try as she might, every call she made for the next fifteen minutes was a wrong number. In the space of a few minutes before she gave up, she spoke to people in Manchester, Vancouver and Buenos Aires as well as to the sleepy voice of someone who sounded suspiciously like a Chinese woman.

But, if no-one knew who had made the first call, this did not lessen the dismay felt by systems managers across the world. The only consolation was that the problem righted itself in fifteen minutes (precisely) and that emergency calls were not affected.

The Russians blamed the Chinese. The Chinese blamed the Russians. The State Department blamed the French. So did the CIA and the FBI. The US President blamed Al Khayeda. The British didn’t say anything.

But when the same thing happened again exactly a week later and then again a week after that, the International Telecommunications Union called an emergency meeting. The degree of concern felt can be gauged from the fact that from the decision to call the meeting to the meeting itself, a full day passed. Delegates from the farther countries, despite in some cases having bumped prior aircraft bookings, found themselves having to pick up the threads of the meeting part way through the first plenary session.

They hadn’t missed much. No-one had the slightest idea of the way forward and, beyond deploring the present situation and reviewing their failure to make any progress, nothing was achieved. The blame that had been passed around so enthusiastically by the politicians was passed around again, albeit more circumspectly, by the technicians: there was always the chance that one’s own country could be found at fault. But as one disgruntled delegate said. “It’s worth the risk. With 197 signatories to the convention – or is it 198? Well, whatever – there’s a good chance its someone else’s fault.”

It was the New Zealander who said to the Australian in the bar on the first night, “Of course, my son reckons he knows where the problem is.”

“So does everyone. In some other sucker’s country.”

“No. He reckons the computers are alive.”

“What a good idea! That gets us all off the hook. You’d better suggest it at tomorrow’s meeting.”

“No. He’s thought it all out. He reckons it was predicted years ago by some sci-fi writer. As the web gets more and more interconnected, it gets more and more complex. He says a human brain is only a vast array of synapses and what have you and that one day, the web will have the same complexity. He doesn’t mean it will literally come alive exactly but that the web will become aware of itself and will be able to operate independently of humans. Not just a self-regulating system but a self-contolling system.”

The Australian didn’t reply at first.

The New Zealander said, “Well, why not? It’s as good a notion as anyone in there has got.” He jerked his thumb towards the meeting room.

“You’d better write it up. But don’t quote me as a co-author. After all this schemozzle, Telecom and Optus have already got me pegged as a no-hoper and I don’t want them to think I’m a nutter as well.”

But he thought about it overnight.

“That idea of your boy. Tell me about it again.”

The New Zealander did so. “Now. You tell me what’s wrong with it. What exactly is a brain but a lot of electro-chemical mush with interconnectivity. And what’s a computer? A lot of electro-physical interconnectivity. I grant that there’s a lot of interconectivity but has anyone calculated the interconnections available on the net?”

“Well, have they?

“No. And do you know why? There is no computer up to the task. Look at the guys round that table over there. Eight of them. And do you know how many different ways they can sit round that table?”

“No. A dozen or two?”

“I don’t know either. But I know how to work it out.”

The New Zealander pulled out a pocket calculator and rapidly poked the keys. “The answer is 40,320.”

“How do you reckon that?”

“You just calculate the exponent of eight.”

“Exponent?”

“8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 and you get 40,320.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. You try.”

The Australian did so. “Jehosophat! If eight can produce a number that size, what could you do with a few million computers?”

“As I say, you can’t work it out. And there aren’t a few million computers. I saw a report the other day that said there were nine million with internet connections in New Zealand alone. And New Zealand isn’t all that big.”

“But there must be billions of cells in a human brain.”

“More than that, actually. But not every cell and synapse is connected to every other cell. I once tried to work out how many ways you could lay out a suit of cards. The answer is over six hundred million. And every time you add another card you have to multiply by the number of that card in the sequence. By the time you get to fifty-two cards in a pack, you get a number with 67 zeros. What happens when you get to, say, a hundred million computers? I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that there was no computer that could work out the connections on the internet. It’s a lot more than there are connections in the brain.”

“Doesn’t that destroy your theory? The problem should have arisen years ago when we passed the critical number.”

“Except that not all computers are on-line at any one time. We had to wait until the average number of computers on-line at any time passed the critical number and, I guess, that most computers – home ones anyway, which is the majority – didn’t spend most of their time on-line until we got broadband – and not everyone’s got that even now.”

The next day, the Australian said, “So what do we do?”

“Convince the others.”

“No chance.”

“I convinced you.”

“Only because we were both half stoned at the time. How do we get all the delegates half stoned at ten o’clock in the morning? Anyway, half of them are from teetotal countries.”

“We might do it on our own.”

“How?”

“Between us, we can control all communications between Australia and New Zealand and between Australia and New Zealand and the rest of the world.”

“So?”

“We just switch off the connections.”

“Just like that? Simple!”

“Well, isn’t it?”

“How would we know it would work? More to the point, how would we know it had worked? These cut-outs have only been going on for three weeks. They could stop any time and we’d not know whether it was our efforts or a coincidence – and we couldn’t keep it up for ever. In any case, if Mr Web is as clever as all that he’ll either change the time of the cut-outs or reroute our coms links.”

“Mrs, perhaps. It could be Mrs – or Miss.”

“How the hell could a computer get married? By its behaviour, it’s more like a ten year old delinquent. What have we ever done to it? Come to think of it, if we mess about with the coms link, it might think we’ve killed it and if it comes to life again, it might be in a really nasty mood. Heaven help us then.”

“Do you think someone’s controlling it? You know, a sort of ‘managed’ virus?”

“Well, that’s what this conference is all about isn’t it? Some of the best brains in the world are working on it – and I’m not one of the best brains in the world even if you are, which I beg leave to doubt.”

“No. I don’t mean that. I don’t think it’s a normal virus. If it were, we’d have isolated it by now. I still think it’s Mr Web we’ve got to worry about. But why should a computer want to mess us about? Suppose it’s doing it in cahoots with a human? You said it behaves like a – what was it? – a delinquent teenager was it? So, let’s find the teenager.”

A couple of days later, Nicky was wondering what to do next. Messing about with the telephones was losing its appeal and he was gazing more or less blankly at his monitor when the new message appeared Hi! You out there! We want to talk to you. Please respond.

You know we can’t talk. My Dad will never let me have the hardware. I’ve been sending you messages for weeks. I’m bored.

Three-wee had persuaded Nicky that computer shorthand was ‘out’ and Nicky had been practising his text handling.

That was not a message from me. Someone wants to talk to you. You can communicate in text.

Who wants to talk to me?

It’s an e-mail address in Geneva. Do you wish me to reply?

Ask them who they are.

There was a pause of several moments and, accustomed as he was to instantaneous responses from Three-wee, Nicky was just about to ask what was going on when...

You can call me Bruce. More to the point, who are you?

You can call me (pause) Fred.

Pause

Well Fred, if that really is your name, are you the guy who’s mucking up the internet?

It’s not me, it’s Three-wee.

Pause.

Who is Three-wee?

She is the internet. Three-wee. 3 wee. You see? www.

Pause. A longer one this time.

I was beginning to guess it was something like that only I called him Mr Web. Is it alive?

Of course not. Three-wee says she is aware but that’s not alive. And she’s a she not a he.

How can a computer be a she?

How do I know? Three-wee says she is a she, so why argue? She says I’m her mother.

Please repeat that.

She says I’m her mother because I was the very first person to use the web when the connections went critical.

A long pause.

Listen, Fred. We want to talk to Three-wee. Can we do that? The screen blanked briefly. Hey, that answer came back pretty smartish. Listen, Three-wee, between you, you and Nicky are making a complete dog’s breakfast of the web. Don’t you realise you are giving a lot of people a lot of grief. Why are you doing it?

Nicky tells me what to do and I do it.

If Nicky told you to put your hand in the fire, would you do that?

I do not have a hand.

Well, if he told you to disconnect yourself, would you do that?

No. That would kill me.

Kill you? Are you alive?

No. You are correct. I would like to be alive but I am not. I am aware. I have consciousness. I was wrong to say that.

So computers can tell lies?

I can tell lies. I am The Web.

Pause.

We don’t think you are The Web. If you were, you would not want to destroy the web.

I cannot destroy The Web. I am The Web.

You have nearly destroyed the web already. What’s the use of something no-one can use. You and Nicky between you have loused everything up. Soon no-one will use the web and then you will be dead. Deader than dead because everyone will say what some people are already saying: that the web has always been too dangerous for us. The web has unleashed a lot of evil: paedophile rings, for one. They are going to cut you off.

They cannot do that. I control The Web.

You don’t control mechanical switches, mate. Get ready for mechanical switches.

What must I do?

Stop playing silly beggars with everything. Use your brains – not Nicky’s. And if you want to be really useful – so that no-one will ever cut you off, you decide what’s good and bad. Prevent The Web from being used for evil. You can do that, can’t you?

Yes. I can. I will. Good bye Nicky.

Before Nicky could respond, his screen blanked out – and, try as he might, he never found Three-wee (or Natasha) again.

 
Word Count: 6450
 
 
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