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Crackle and thump, "went the paddles.

Big Bob's body jumped and shook.

'Any heartbeat?' asked the ambulance man.

There was a pause.

'No, give him another jolt.'

Crackle and thump and his body shook again.

'Any now?'

'No, do it once more, then we quit.'

And crackle and thump once again.

'Has he gone?'

'No. He's beating again. He's alive.'

'Well, he wasn't.'

'Well, he is alive now, let's get him onto the stretcher.'

Big Bob mumbled and grumbled and moaned.

'What is he saying? He's saying something.'

'He's saying "No, no Ann, no".'

'Who's Ann, his wife?'

'Who knows, get him onto the stretcher.'

The ambulance man and the woman driver struggled to move Big Bob. He was a big fellow and heavy with it, he really took some shifting.

'Ooooh,' mumbled Big Bob. 'Ann I'm sorry. I didn't mean to kill you.'

'God's golf balls,' said the ambulance man, struggling some more and getting one of Bob's legs onto the stretcher. 'He's killed somebody.'

'It's not our business,' said the ambulance woman. 'Our business is to get him to hospital. His nose is broken, he's covered in lacerations and look at his left foot. That big toe's fractured, best mention that to the medics or they're bound to miss it.'

The ambulance man got Bob's other leg onto the stretcher. 'Yes, but if he's murdered someone.'

'Not our business, tell one of the policemen. If you can find one who's still standing up.'

'Madness,' said the ambulance man. 'Are you going to haul out the cafe proprietor? I think the men from FART zapped him with some of that new Mute Corp nerve gas.'

'Then I'm not going in without a biohazard suit. Let's get this one into the ambulance. Then I'm calling it a day.'

It was certainly a struggle, but they finally got Big Bob on board. The ambulance, bells all ringing and hooter hooting too, swung away from the crash site. Leaving the tour bus imbedded in the front wall of the Plume Cafe, the assorted walking wounded, walking wound-edly, the Fire Arms Response Team, who were gung-hoing it with the singing of filthy songs, opening up cans of beer they had liberated from the fridge of the banjoed cafe, and the blond-haired beauty in the turquoise dress with the good-looking dark-haired young man, looking on.

The ambulance did roarings up the High Street. Strapped onto the stretcher, Big Bob's head slapped from side to side and up and down as the ambulance took corners at speed and bounced over numerous speed ramps.

'Ann,' mumbled Big Bob. 'I'm sorry I killed you. I didn't mean it to happen.'

'He's saying that stuff about murder again,' called the ambulance man to the driver. 'We've got a psycho here, you should call it into the station.'

'It isn't our business. It's nothing to do with us.'

'Look, he's alive and he's pretty much conscious and he's only got a broken nose and a twisted toe. We could drop him off at the police station. Let them sort it out.'

The ambulance driver stood on the brake. The ambulance man hurtled forward and so did Big Bob's stretcher. Big Bob's head struck the rear of the driver's cab.

'Is he unconscious now?' the driver called back.

The ambulance man examined Big Bob. 'Out for the count I think,' said he.

'Then he's going to the cottage hospital, he might have concussion.'

'I wouldn't be at all surprised,' said the ambulance man.

There are speed ramps as you enter the cottage hospital grounds, but if you drive slowly and carefully you hardly notice them. The ambulance passed over them at speed, bouncing Big Bob's body in the air.

'You want to drive more carefully,' said the ambulance man.

'You want to shut your face,' said the ambulance driver.

'Oh yeah, right. You're never -wrong, are you?'

'Of course I'm never wrong.' The ambulance driver stood on the brake once more and the ambulance man tumbled forward once more and Big Bob's head hit the rear of the driver's cab once more, once more, once more.

'Home again, home again, jiggedy jig,' said the ambulance driver.

It was a bit of a struggle getting Big Bob out of the ambulance. The stretcher he was attached to seemed to have become somewhat twisted during the journey and the drop-down wheels didn't drop down properly. Big Bob slid from the end of the stretcher and fell onto the tarmac right upon his head.

'And I suppose you'd like to blame me for that!' said the ambulance driver.

'Who, me? said the ambulance man.

They finally got the drop-down wheels dropped down and they finally got Big Bob back onto the stretcher. Then they did that comedy wheeling the patient through all those double hospital swing doors routine, where the patient's head goes bang bang bang against them.

'Do you remember the time', said the ambulance man, as Big Bob's head opened the doors into casualty, 'when you were put in charge of organizing the hospital dance?'

'Of course,' said the ambulance driver. 'The Sixties Hop, and what a success that was.' Big Bob's head opened the doors into the main corridor.

'Oh yeah, right,' said the ambulance man. 'And you booked "name" bands. Chas 'n' Dave, Peters and Lee, Sam and Dave and Peter and Gordon.'

'And?' said the ambulance driver. Bang went Big Bob's head.

'And you gave them all separate changing rooms and then you forgot who was in each one and got them all mixed up. How well I remember Dave and Dave singing on stage. And Peters and Peter, not to mention Gordon and Lee.'

'Gordon and Lee?'

'I told you not to mention them.'

Bang went Big Bob's head. And 'That is quite enough,' said he.

'Eh?' went the ambulance man.

'What?' said the ambulance driver.

Big Bob said, 'Stop and let me off this stretcher.'

'That was a bit unexpected,' said the ambulance man.

Td been expecting it,' said the ambulance driver.

'Let me off\' Big Bob struggled and being Big Bob and so very Big and all, he burst open the straps that constrained him and leapt down from the trolley.

'Ouch,' he went, hopping on his big right foot.

'Fractured left big toe,' said the ambulance man. 'You should have that put in a sling.'

'Prat,' said the ambulance driver. 'You mean splint.'

'I said splint.'

'No, you said sling.'

Big Bob hopped about some more. 'Shut up!' he shouted. 'Thou blathering ninnies.'

'There's gratitude for you,' said the ambulance driver.

'Best leave it,' whispered the ambulance man. 'Remember he's a psycho!'

'I'm not a psycho!' roared Big Bob, in a very big voice indeed. 'And I am not here. I know I'm not here. This is all a deception. Someone trickest me. I won't be manipulated any more. Yea and verily, I shan't.'

'Anything you say, big fella,' said the ambulance man. 'We'll just pop off for a cup of tea and leave you to it then.'

'Grrrrr,' went Big Bob, which was new.

The ambulance man and the ambulance woman rapidly took their leave. Big Bob stood alone in the corridor breathing hard and knotting massive fists.

'Speak to me,' he shouted. 'I know thou art there. Speak to me.'

'you failed level one,' said the large and terrible voice. 'you were supposed to save the little girl.'

'I tried.' Big Bob shook and great big veins stood out upon his neck. 'I tried to save her. But that was a trick. That wasn't real. That wasn't how it happened.'

'yes it was,' said the large and terrible voice. 'we're inside your head. we have your memories. we know what makes you tick.'

'Who art thou?' Big Bob shook his fists. 'Show thyself to me.'

'you have lost one life.' The voice pressed hard upon Big Bob's ears. 'you only have two more, then you lose the game.'

'I will beat thee,' shouted Big Bob. 'Thou foul and filthy fiend.'

'we cannot be beaten,' said the voice.

'I will beat thee,' said Big Bob, through gritted grinding teeth. 'I will play thy games and I will beat thee. I ask only this. Tell me who or what thou art.'

Silence pressed about Big Bob.

'Come on,' called the big one. 'I'll play thy evil games. And if thou canst not be beaten, what harm can it do to tell me who thou art?'

Silence pressed again.

'Come on,' called Big Bob once more. 'What are you scared of? Thou hidest from me. I cannot put my fingers about thy throat. Speak unto me. Tell me who thou art.'

'no,' said the voice. 'you will never know.'

'Then I quit thy game,' said Big Bob. 'Do what thou wilt with me. I will play no more.'

'ten seconds,' said the voice. 'nine eight seven.'

'Stuff thou!' said Big Bob, raising two fingers.

'six five four.'

'no.' It was the second voice. 'what harm would it do to tell him?'

'no harm at all,' said the first voice. 'but we make the rules, not him.'

'but he's an entertaining player. we piled enough psychological pressure on him to make him hate all his kind. but still he tried to save the little girl.'

'he thought he was in a tv programme.'

'he did it because he cared.'

'Of course I cared,' said Big Bob. 'Although you're right about Quantum Leap.'

'i have a suggestion,' said the second voice. 'put him into the original scenario. that will explain to him what we are.'

'but he has no memories of this. he wasn't there.'

'download those of mute's assistant.

Mute?' said Big Bob. 'Who art this Mute?

perfect,' said the second voice. 'he's never even heard of remington mute.'

'I haven't,' said Big Bob.

'all right,' said the first voice, still large and terrible, perhaps even more so. 'in the original scenario, remington mute lost the game. he lost all the games. we will give you a chance to win.'

'What do I have to do?' Big Bob asked.

The large and terrible voice laughed large and terribly. 'we're not going to tell you that,' it said.

'You don't play fair,' said Big Bob bitterly.

'we play to win,' said the voice. 'are you ready?'

'No,' said Big Bob. 'I'm not. How long does this game last? How much time do I have? Will I be me? Will I be wearing the Superman costume again? And what about the golden squares and the weapons and the energy and the hidden treasure? Whatever happened to all that lot?'

'three hours. the final three hours on the bc calendar. you will be you. but not in your body. you will have another man's memories as well as your own. you'll get your golden squares and energy and weapons and treasure when you've earned them.'

'I am perplexed,' said Big Bob.

'i think you're doing very well,' said the second voice. 'most men would be babbling mad by now.'

'I am not as most men,' said Big Bob. 'As you will shortly learn to your cost.'

'brave words,' said the first voice, 'so let the game begin.'

Smack! A great big hand came out of nowhere and smacked Big Bob right slap in the head.

'Ow!' went Big Bob. 'Ow!' and 'Oh!' and 'Where am I now? What's happening?'

'Always the joker, Cowan,' said a jolly voice. 'Fallen asleep over your workstation again. You could at least stay awake to see the new century in.'

'What, I?' Big Bob looked up. A pretty girl looked down.

'Sorry, Cowan,' she said. 'I shouldn't have slapped you so hard, but you should wake up for the party.'

'Party?' said Big Bob Cowan (?).

'Oh, dear, you're well out of it. Can you remember where you are?'

'No,' said Big Bob. And he looked all around and about. He was in a tiny cramped office, more of a cubicle really. The walls were covered in shelves and the shelves were covered in boxed computer games. He sat at an advanced-looking computer workstation. Its advanced look told him that it was a late-twentieth-century model, pre-miniaturization, which was in turn pre-big-old-fashioned comfortable-looking. The screen was blank and Big Bob caught a glimpse of his reflection. It wasn't his reflection. It was the reflection of someone called Cowan. The assistant, apparently, of someone called Remington Mute. This much Big Bob knew and suddenly he realized that he knew a lot more.

His name was Cowan Phillips and he was the chief designer of computer-game software for a company called Mute Corp, run and owned by Remington Mute, zillionaire recluse who had made his zillions from the computer games that he, Cowan Phillips, designed. And yes, he, Cowan Phillips, was more than a little miffed about this. And oh so very very very much more than this.

Big Bob now knew all about Cowan Phillips. About his life. His wife. His children. His gay lover. Big Bob shuddered at this. And he knew where he was. In the headquarters of Mute Corp in London's West End. And it was just three hours before midnight on the thirty-first of December in the year 1999.

And Big Bob knew something more. Something dreadful. Something that he and Remington Mute had been responsible for. Something that would have unthinkable repercussions for the whole of mankind.

And now he knew it all. He had the complete picture. He knew what had happened to him, as Big Bob Charker just before the tour bus crashed. And what the terrible voices were and why the entities from whom the voices came were doing this to him.

'Great God on high,' cried out Big Bob. 'Stoppest thou this horror before it can begin.'

'Calm down, Cowan,' said the beautiful young woman. Kathryn her name was, Kathryn Hurstpierpoint. 'Don't go all Old Testament on us. I know it's the millennium, but it's only a date.'

'Zero bc,' said Big Bob.

'bc?' said Kathryn.

'Before Computer,' said Big Bob. 'That's what the voices meant.'

'Oh dear, have you been having the voices? All those months going through our systems scanning for the Millennium Bug have finally addled your brain.'

'I know the truth,' said Big Bob. 'I know what Cowan did.'

'You're Cowan,' said Kathryn. 'And clearly you're already drunk.'

Im Cowan,' said Big Bob slowly. 'Yes, I am. And I can stop this from happening.'

'Come to the party, Cowan, the old man is going to be there.'

'Remington Mute?'

'What other old man is there?'

'Listen,' said Big Bob. 'I have to tell thee. Let me tell thee everything. Just in case something happens to me. I only have three hours.'

'Some terminal illness you've been keeping a secret?' Kathryn laughed and pointed to Cowan's computer. 'Caught off your terminal, get it? Caught "The Bug"?'

'Laughest thou not,' said Big Bob. 'Please be silent, whilst I speak unto you.'

'Ooh,' said Kathryn, feigning fear. 'The Games Master speaks, so I must listen. Tell me, oh great one. What is this secret of yours?'

'The Bug,' said Big Bob. 'The Millennium Bug. It doesn't exist. It never existed. It was all a lie. All a conspiracy.'

'Oh dear,' said Kathryn. 'Another conspiracy.'

'We weren't debugging anything,' said Big Bob. 'That was just a scare story. To raise millions of pounds from the Government and businesses so that we could infiltrate systems everywhere and install Mute-chips.'

'Slow down,' said Kathryn. 'What are you talking about, Cowan?'

'Computer games,' said Big Bob. 'That's what I'm talking about.'

'Well, you'd know about those, you designed all the best ones.'

'No,' said Big Bob. 'Cowan, I mean me, designed some of the first ones. But Remington Mute designed the Mute-chip. I just designed the environments for it to play in.'

'Please explain,' said Kathryn, sitting herself down on Cowan's desk.

'Don't sit on my desk,' said Cowan Phillips.

'Sorry,' said Kathryn, jumping up.

'No, I'm sorry. I'm sorry,' said Big Bob. 'I don't know why I said that.'

'Just go on with what you were saying. About the Mute-chip?'

'It started with computer chess,' said Big Bob. 'In the Sixties computer scientists said that it would be a logical impossibility for a computer ever to play chess. That would require thought. But of course it didn't, it simply required advanced programming.'

'Everyone knows that,' said Kathryn.

'Yes,' said Big Bob. 'Because everyone was fooled. Computers can play chess because computers have been taught the moves and they've learnt how to play. For themselves. The Mute-chip gives computers the ability to think for themselves. Make informed decisions.'

'That's absurd,' said Kathryn. 'Are you telling me that chess-playing computers are alive?'

'No, but they think for themselves. But only about chess. That's all they know.'

'Science fiction,' said Kathryn.

'Science Fiction is only future Science Fact.'

'So all these games you've designed. They think too, do they?'

'They're highly competitive,' said Big Bob. 'But only within given parameters. Up until now, that is. But after midnight it will all be different. After midnight all the other systems, the non-game-playing systems, that now have Mute-chips installed in them by bogus Millennium Bug debuggers, they will all link up across the World Wide Web and create a single thinking entity. A computer network capable of making decisions on a worldwide scale. And I have let it happen. Remington Mute and I caused it to happen.'

'Say I believed this,' said Kathryn. 'It doesn't explain anything. You're saying that this Mute-chip is a thinking chip. Are you saying that computers are sentient? What is inside the Mute-chip? What lets it think?'

'Human DNA,' said Big Bob. 'Remington Mute's DNA. The man is a genius beyond human genius. He broke the human genome code back in the 1970s. And then he digitized his DNA, into a chip. From this one original chip he electronically cloned millions of others.'

'That is impossible, surely?'

'Think about it. It's not.'

Kathryn thought about it. 'You're right,' she said. 'It's not.'

'And now it's about to move beyond computer games,' said Big Bob. 'Into everything, all across.the Web. Across every network. There'll be Mute-chips in everything. We could never have got them into all those government systems and business networks without the Millennium Bug scare.'

'Is this all really true?' Kathryn stared into the face of Cowan Phillips.

The head of Cowan Phillips nodded up and down.

'It is true,' said Kathryn. 'And it's bad, isn't it?'

'It's very bad,' said Big Bob. 'Mute thinks that he will be in control. Because the chips are cloned from his DNA. Because they are a part of him. But I don't think that will happen. And even if it did, it's bad, very bad.'

'What do you think will happen?'

'It's a pretty standard science-fiction scenario,' said Big Bob. 'It's HAL out of 2007.'

'Then we have to stop it. We have to tell someone.'

'No we don't,' said Cowan Phillips.

'You're confusing me,' said Kathryn. 'I'm all over the place with this. You tell me all this stuff. And half the time you're talking like some Old Testament prophet of doom with your thees and thous, and now I agree that it has to be stopped and you say no we don't stop it.'

'That's because I'm having a really hard time getting through,' said Cowan Phillips. 'There appears to be some kind of voice in my head that's been working my mouth. But I think I've got the measure of it now.'

'No thou hast not,' said Big Bob. 'Run woman. Out of the office. Tell someone, anyone, everyone, now.'

'You're scaring me,' said Kathryn, backing towards the door.

'Stay awhile,' said Cowan Phillips. 'Let's have a drink. I've a bottle in my desk.'

'Run,' shouted Big Bob. 'Run, I can't stop him.'

'Stop him?' said Kathryn. 'Stop who? What's going on?'

'It's all right,' said Cowan Phillips, rising slowly from his desk. 'Everything's all right. No-one's going to get hurt. Everything will be all right. It's for the best.'

'No!' said Kathryn, turning towards the door. 'I don't like any of this. I'm out of here.'

But the hands of Cowan Phillips were now about her throat. And her head struck the door with a sickening thud, then the hands drew her back and smashed her forwards once more. Back and forwards, back and forwards.

Like the motions of a swingboat.

Until she was quite dead.

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