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21

Kelly was no longer anywhere in particular.

When she performed the foolish, but purposeful, dance that Shibboleth had bobbed and bounced before her and vanished into wherever he vanished into, her first thoughts had been that she would very likely not be dancing out again.

She had put her trust in Shibboleth, and Kelly felt that this was probably a mistake. Normally she trusted but one person in the world. And this one person was Kelly Anna Sirjan.

Bright light opened up before her. A sky of blue with a big fat smiley sun. And chorusing sparrows on treetop perches. And snoozing tomcats and all. She was standing in the Butt's Estate, upon the area of grass before the Seamen's Mission.

'Brentford,' she said. 'I am back in Brentford.'

Kelly was not back in Brentford.

'I'm not back in Brentford,' she continued. 'This isn't Brentford. It's wrong.'

'Which bit is wrong?' The old man sat upon a bench. He smiled a toothless smile at Kelly. 'Which bit don't you like, my little dear?'

'Little dear?' Kelly viewed the ancient. He had the look of a man who had once been someone. Even though his frame was sunken under the weight of many years, there was still an alertness in that face. A fearsome intelligence. A vitality.

He was dressed in what had once been an expensive suit of Boleskine green tweed mix. It hung from his shoulders and its trouser cuffs draggled in the dirt.

'What immediately strikes you as wrong?' the ancient asked.

'All,' said Kelly. 'It isn't real. It's a simulation.'

The ancient fellow nodded, withered dewlaps dangled, turkey fashion.

Kelly's composure was remarkable. 'Where is Shibboleth?' she asked.

'The bad boy who entered before you? He is no longer part of the game.'

'Game?' Kelly looked down at the oldster. There was something familiar about him. She'd seen that face before, somewhere. But younger. Oh yes, of course.

'Mr Remington Mute,' said Kelly Anna Sirjan.

'Kelly Anna Sirjan,' said Mr Remington Mute.

Kelly approached Mr Mute. 'I have much to say to you,' she said.

'I trust you also have much to ask me, little dear. Aren't you puzzled as to your whereabouts?'

Kelly managed a smile. 'I didn't know what to expect,' she said. 'But I didn't expect that whatever it was would be real. I thought perhaps some simulation of a cathedral with a great Net-serving computer system up on the high altar.'

'That's a bit old hat,' said Remington Mute. 'And I should know, I wear an old hat myself.'

'And are you real?' Kelly asked. 'If I were to reach out and punch your old face, would you dissolve, or would you hit the deck?'

'I fear that I'd hit the deck,' said Remington Mute. 'But I wouldn't recommend that you employ your Dimac, you are in my world now.'

'And are you happy in your world, Mr Mute?'

The ancient stretched out his arms. Hideous joint-cracking sounds issued from them. 'No,' said Remington Mute. 'Things have not gone quite as well as I might have wished.'

Kelly stood, swaying gently upon her holistic footwear. Somehow this didn't seem the time for a cosy chat. This seemed the time for action. Although exactly what that action should be, she didn't know.

'Raring to go, aren't you?' said Remington Mute. 'Do you want me to set you off running? I could give you something to fight.'

'Where is Shibboleth?' Kelly asked. 'What have you done with him?'

'Would finding Shibboleth be good for a goal? Could we make a game out of that, do you think? You as a warrior princess with a sacred sword, or perhaps you'd rather be a ninja?'

'So that's it then,' said Kelly. 'I'm inside your go mango game.'

'Or go womango?' Remington Mute laughed noisily, the sound resembling that of pebbles being shaken in an old tin can. 'You're not inside go mango, or rather go mango is not inside you.'

'Then I can leave here, if I choose?'

Remington Mute shrugged his old and rounded shoulders. 'I suppose you could try to leave,' he said. 'But why would you want to? You still believe that in some way you can stop this thing. You do believe that, don't you?'

'I don't know,' said Kelly.

'Perhaps you could just switch it off? Pull out its plug.'

'Perhaps, if I knew where the plug is.'

'Should we make a game of that, then? Basic platform, ascend to the uppermost level, enter the inner sanctum, locate the golden key?'

'I won't play any of your stupid games.'

'Stupid games?' The old man raised a snowy eyebrow. 'My games may be crass, but they're never stupid. And for someone such as yourself, who has been playing for so long and are so near to winning, it would be a shame if you quit the game now.'

'Explain,' said Kelly.

'Everything has led you here,' said Remington Mute. 'Everything you have ever done throughout all of your short little life has led you to this moment.'

'Explain a bit more,' said Kelly.

Remington Mute examined the palms of her hands. 'I created you,' he said.

'You did whatT

'Well, not just you. There's a lot of little yous about. But most of them fell by the wayside. They used up their energy and they lost their lives. You're my final hope, Kelly.'

'What are you talking about?' Kelly swayed forward. There was something about Remington Mute that she hated intensely. Well, there was everything really. He had created the Mute-chip, he was responsible for it all.

'Please hear me out,' said Remington Mute. 'If, when you've heard what I have to say, you decide to kill me, then I'll understand. In fact I welcome it. There is little enough of me left in this world anyway.'

'Say what you have to say,' said Kelly, sitting herself onto the bench next to Remington Mute.

'Some of it you know. But most of it you don't. You have me down as Mute the unspeakable, mad scientist creator of the evil Mute-chip that gave computer systems sentience and turned them into the enemy of mankind. Created the terrible, unseeable, all-knowing It, that networks the planet, encircles the globe, like a great black spider's web.'

'So far you're right on the button,' said Kelly.

'It's almost true,' said Remington Mute. 'But as with most things that are almost true, it's false. I didn't bring this thing to life, because it isn't alive.'

Kelly said nothing, because she had nothing to say.

'The game,' said Remington Mute. 'The go mango game has been running for a lot longer than you might imagine. It went online in the late 1970s. The first players were bright young men, yuppies they were called. They were the whiz-kids of the City. They loved a computer, those boys. They were fun to play, but the game was a hard one and most of them came to grief.'

Kelly shook her golden head. She had something to say now, and it was, 'I don't understand. How did it go online? Was this because of the Mute-chip?'

'There is no Mute-chip,' said Remington Mute. 'There never was. The Mute-chip is a Web Myth. Ultimately this has nothing to do with technology, this is all to do with evolution. No, don't speak, let me tell you. Whatever knows most, and knows how to exploit its knowledge to its own betterment, wins the race for existence, becomes top of the food chain. Mankind evolved, it adapted, it created, it became number one. What would have happened if man had never invented the wheel?'

'I'd be walking around in far more comfortable footwear,' said Kelly.

'I used to know Hugo Rune,' said Remington Mute. 'A man who, in my opinion, was most notable for his remarkable sense of humour. But please allow me to continue. I'll try to keep it as short as I can. Mankind created the wheel as a tool for his advancement. And so he did with the computer. This world that you and I inhabit at this moment would no longer function without computer networks, trust me, it would not.'

'Where is all this leading?' Kelly asked. 'You have explained nothing to me.'

'All right,' said Remington Mute. 'I will give you the brutal precised version. I would have preferred the uplifting pseudo-mystical version, even though it's all a pack of lies, but at least I can give that one a happy ending of sorts. So let's go for brutal and short. There is no mankind any more, Kelly. Everyone on this planet is dead.'

'What?' said Kelly, as you would. 'What are you talking about?'

'The Millennium Bug,' said Remington Mute. 'It was no conspiracy theory, it was real. Systems crashed everywhere, defence systems, all systems. There was a nuclear holocaust, no-one at all survived.'

'You've lost it,' said Kelly. 'You are a mad old man.'

Remington Mute managed a bit of a smile. 'And how old are you dear?'

'I'm twenty-two,' said Kelly. 'What has that to do with anything?'

'And your date of birth?'

'First of the first, two thousand.'

'Yes, a little after 00:00. Or one bc. One BeforeComputer. I regret to tell you that you do not exist. Not as a human being anyway. You are merely part of a program that exists within a computer system that I created. This me, that you see, is the server. It's an advanced games-strategy system called go mango designed to simulate urban situations under threat, such as Brentford, created for the military in the late 1970s. It contains all the existing files for people then living in the London area. It's a system that is constantly building, constantly evolving, trying to recreate the world that was lost in the nuclear holocaust. All within a computer simulation.'

'So if I punch you in the face, you won't feel it?'

'Of course I'll feel it, I'm programmed to be human. You'll hurt me, you might even kill me.'

'It's rubbish,' said Kelly. 'Mad rubbish.'

'Is it?' said Mute. 'Then tell me about your mother.'

'I've heard that line before,' said Kelly.

'Yes,' said Shibboleth. 'I said it.'

Kelly stared. Remington Mute was no longer Mute, he was Shibboleth.

'Sorry,' said Shibboleth. 'I'm just another player in this game. We're all just players and this is just a game.'

'No.' Kelly rubbed at her eyes.

'Yes,' said Remington Mute, for he was Mute once more. 'And you can't tell me about your mother, because you have no memories of her, because none were programmed into you. You only came into existence when you walked into Brentford five days ago, complete with all the skills that had been programmed into you. The Dimac, the computer literacy. Think about it, think about yourself. Think about what you eat. Good grief, woman, no real human being could tuck into all that grub and keep a figure like yours. When you feed you gain energy, you're a very basic system, but you have some special refinements, which is why I still have such great hopes for you.'

'No,' said Kelly. 'This is all madness. I don't believe any of this.'

'It makes you feel very helpless, doesn't it? But then that's life, isn't it? We're all doomed, but some of us are more doomed than others. But sadly, unless something is done and done soon, all of us are doomed and all this, unreal as it is, yet all the life that we have, will cease to be.'

Kelly glared bitterly upon Remington Mute. 'I don't believe anything you say,' she said. 'I don't.'

'So, have you remembered anything about your mother?'

'No,' said Kelly. 'But my eighteenth birthday

'No,' said Remington Mute, shaking his old head once more. 'You only thought you remembered that because Shibboleth mentioned it to you. You can't really remember anything about it, can you?'

Kelly slowly shook her golden head. 'No,' she said. 'I can't.'

'Well,' said Mute. 'It is neither here nor there. Time is running out anyway. The system is crashing. Everything is falling to pieces. My lovely new town Mute Corp Keynes, my finest simulation. It started to fall apart almost as soon as it was built. The virus destroyed it. go mango is a virus all right. It started as a fun game, aiming purely to entertain, but inside the great Trojan there lurks a deadly, voracious virus. It's eating its way right through the system, putting people off-line. In a way, those who think it's The Rapture are right. But people are not really going off to Heaven, they're simply going off-line. Such a shame. We really could have all been immortal if I'd just had a little more time to iron out the glitches.'

Kelly's bitter glare remained upon Remington Mute. 'So,' she said, with braveness in her voice. 'I am not a real human being. I'm just a computer simulation.'

'There are no human beings any more,' said Mute.

'So what is my purpose? Or is there no purpose? Are we all just players inside a sophisticated game you invented to serve some purpose for the military? And where is this computer system? And if the world ended in a nuclear holocaust, what powers it?'

'It isn't on Earth,' said Remington Mute. 'It's in orbit, part of the American Star Wars system, solar-powered, nanorobotechnic. It has a million years of life left in it. And so would we too. Immortality, Kelly, for all of us. If we could purge the system of the virus that is destroying it.'

'How?' Kelly asked, 'Say I believed any of this.'

'Which means that you do. You could destroy it. It is why you were created.'

'And you created me?'

'Lots of little yous. Lots of little anti-virus programs. All with particular skills. But you're the very best of them. You're the pick of the crop. The golden woman. If anybody can put everything back online, it's you.'

'So I'm an anti-virus,' said Kelly, her hand now in her hair and toying with it feverishly.

'I don't like that habit,' said Remington Mute. 'I never programmed that into you. I hope you're not going off-line too.'

'I'm very much online,' said Kelly. 'And I'm very much alive. And I want to stay alive. If I am what you say I am and all of this is unreal, then ultimately what does it matter to me? It's the only "life" I've ever known and I'll be content with it. But I don't want it to stop.'

'Of course you don't,' said Mute. 'Which is why I'm offering you immortality. All you have to do is debug the system, destroy the virus, then we all live for ever, or at least until the sun goes supernova and there is no Earth with its satellites any more.'

Kelly's hand left her hair. 'Just a couple of questions,' she said. 'Firstly, you say that you created this system for the military, so is the real Remington Mute dead?'

'Dead,' said Mute. 'I am his downloaded file, I have become service-provider, my program is to rebuild and extend the parameters of the simulation.'

'To create simulated life?'

'If you like. That is what I do. And each individual system is unique. They couldn't be more real.'

'It's almost a Godlike role,' said Kelly.

'Yes,' said Mute, chuckling. 'I suppose it is.'

'Oh come on,' said Kelly. 'There's no suppose about it. You are the builder and creator. You are to all intents and purposes the God of this simulated world.'

'Yes,' said Mute, chuckling further.

'And this rogue program, this go mango virus, that could be seen as the Devil, couldn't it?'

'Yes,' said Mute. 'It could.'

'And yet,' said Kelly. 'Within this simulated system, which you say could last for a million years if the Devil was cast out, you have grown old. How do you account for that? Surely you should be forever young.'

Mute shrugged. 'Fair wear and tear,' he said.

Kelly shook her head. 'I don't think so,' said she.

Mute cast a rheumy eye in her direction.

'What is on your mind?' he asked.

Kelly raised an eyebrow. 'Surely you know,' she said. 'Surely you know everything I think. You created me.'

'You're an independent program, you are capable of making independent decisions based on incoming data. It's called Data Reaction. I invented it.'

'And you are… what are you really, Mr Mute?'

'I'm everything that I've told you. And I have explained it all to you as best I can. I know it's a hideous thing for you to find out. And you are coping with it all remarkably well. But then I knew you would, that's the way I built you. You're a real prize, Kelly, and you are going to succeed where others failed. I just know you will.'

'Oh yes,' said Kelly. 'I will, have no doubt of that.'

'So I can rely on you? You will use your skills to destroy the virus?'

'Absolutely,' said Kelly. 'You can count on it.'

Remington Mute smiled gummily. 'I knew it,' he said. 'I knew that you were the one.'

'Oh yes. I am the one.' Kelly rose to her feet. She smiled down upon Remington Mute. 'It's very impressive,' she said. 'All of it. Not crude at all. Sophisticated, very sophisticated. But then it would be, wouldn't it? Computers can do wonderful things, if people choose to do wonderful things with them. But most people only ever grasp the basics, go through the motions, never use all the options. Play a few games. They never really use the tools.

'Now if it were the other way round, if computers were in control. That would be different, it wouldn't be crude, it would be precise. Everything would be done for a specific purpose, no mucking about, no trial and error, precise, mathematical. Everything with a specific purpose.'

'You're so right,' said Remington Mute.

'There wouldn't be any grey areas,' said Kelly. 'No loose ends, no bits that couldn't be precisely explained.'

'No,' said Mute. 'There wouldn't.'

'But precision and mathematics,' said Kelly, 'that's all emotionless stuff. Tools, no emotion. And human beings are so emotional. They're always in turbulence. Always in some kind of torment. They love, they hate, they get themselves in all kinds of emotional messes.'

'All the time,' said Mute.

'If it was all done through computers and by computers it just wouldn't be like that, would it?'

'No,' said Mute, nodding thoughtfully. 'It wouldn't.'

Kelly looked down upon him. 'So you •went along with all that, did you?' she asked.

Remington Mute looked up at her.

'You agreed', said Kelly, 'with everything I said?'

Remington Mute continued to look.

'I am not a program,' said Kelly. 'And all you have told me is a he.'

Remington Mute continued to look, he wasn't moving now.

'I'm in it, aren't I?' said Kelly. 'And I don't mean inside some computer circling the planet inside a satellite. I'm inside the go mango game, or the go mango game is inside me.'

Remington Mute said nothing at all, although he continued to look.

Kelly stared up towards the simulated sky. 'All right,' she shouted. 'Speak to me.'

The simulated sky was painted blue. The simulated sky had nothing that it wished to say to Kelly.

Kelly looked down again upon Remington Mute. 'A believable scenario,' she said. 'Absurd upon first listening, but then strangely compelling. Something we all dread. That life isn't real at all, that it's just some kind of dream. It plays upon our deepest fears. Deep inside our heads. But no, Mr Mute, if I were nothing but a program, I wouldn't make mistakes. I would be precise, unemotional. I would lack for any human emotions. I would even do something like this.'

Kelly turned upon her left heel, she swung her right leg into the air, it curled around in a blurry arc and her foot struck the head of Remington Mute.

The old man collapsed from the bench, he lay upon the grass making feeble choking sounds and then he lapsed from consciousness.

And life.

Remington Mute was dead.


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