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'Yabba-dabba-dooby-dooby-do, [12]' said the doctor.

'Yabba-dabba-dooby-dooby-do-do, [13]' Kelly replied.

The doctor wore a stunning white concoction, wrought from bogusynthecatedextroselectroline, which had been sprayed over her body and a pair of Doveston holistic thigh boots with on-board chaos-generators, double reticulating splines and personal matrix engines, with rather spiffing Minnie Mouse bows on the toecaps.

'You have a working knowledge of Runese,' said the doctor. It was a statement rather than a question. 'It's only really the plebs who use it all the time. We professionals need more than forty words to get the job done. Don't we?'

'I'm sure you have accessed my file,' said Kelly. 'I have a degree in the Universal tongue. Did it on a night-school course six months ago on the Web. Along with Origami and Macrame. Not to mention Mantovani.'

The doctor didn't mention Mantovani.

'Please be seated,' said the doctor.

Kelly seated herself.

The doctor's office differed from that of Mr Pokey's, in that it wasn't the same. The walls of this office were adorned with garish blown-up photographs of industrial injuries. The doctor's desk was a transparent slab of plexiglas, and encased within it was a human skeleton. A two-headed human skeleton.

On the wall behind the desk were shelves. On these shelves were numerous preserving jars containing dissected human organs, heads, limbs and assorted bits and bobs.

Kelly was impressed by the collection. 'An impressive array of exhibits,' she observed. 'All the work of Hartley Grimes [14]?'

'Not my personal choice,' said the doctor. 'Mute Corp employed an interior designer to give the offices a makeover. An old chap called Lawrence someone-or-other. He was very fashionable back in the 1990s. And style never dates, does it?'

'Apparently not,' said Kelly.

'So let us get down to business, would you care to go behind the screen and remove all your clothing.'

'I had a medi-check only a month ago,' said Kelly. 'I was declared Double Al. It will be on my medical file.'

'Oh, it is,' said the doctor. 'But company rules are company rules and rules must be enforced.'

'But I am officially Double Al.'

The doctor fluttered her eyelashes. They were fibre-optic, tiny green and blue globes glittering at their tips. 'Everyone has to have six-monthly health checks,' she said. 'You and I both know this. Most illnesses have been eradicated. Disease is virtually unknown, the universal panacea chip that everyone is implanted with at birth sees to this. But there are certain specific minor ailments that I have to check for.'

'Such as?' Kelly asked.

'Have you ever heard of keamerphybriosis?'

'No,' said Kelly. 'I haven't.'

'Or haemoglottism? Or Sterling's syndrome?'

'No,' said Kelly, slowly shaking her golden head and teasing at her hair. 'I haven't heard of those, either.'

'Nor have I,' said the doctor. 'Nor has anyone else. Because I just made them up. But if you don't consent to me giving you a full body examination, they will be just three of the totally bogus incurable complaints that I shall type into your file to prevent you getting this job.'

'Why?' Kelly asked.

The doctor sighed. 'I would have thought that was patently obvious,' she said. 'I just want to see you with your kit off. It's a doctor thing. I thought it was taken for granted.'

'Oh,' said Kelly. 'Well why didn't you just say so?' And she went behind the screen and got her kit off.

'We seem to have got off to a rather poor start,' said Mr Speedy to Derek. Mr Speedy was sitting in the chair of Mr Shields. The chair that Derek should have been sitting in. Mr Speedy had his feet upon Mr Shields's desk and Mr Speedy was now sipping Scotch from the bottle Mr Shields kept in his drawer.

Derek sat upon a boxed computer part, which somehow had been overlooked when the rest went off to the Brentford constabulary.

'You see,' said Mr Speedy. 'Mr Shields has a job for life. It's in that absurd contract of his. But you don't. And you know it. Mute Corp pays your wages and Mute Corp expects each of its employees to give of his or her best. Do I make myself thoroughly understood?'

Derek grinned painfully and made a show of rubbing his hands together. 'So,' said he. 'Shall we get started on this exciting project? You were joking about the fence being put around the borough though, weren't you?'

Mr Speedy shook his head. And Mr Shadow shook his head. And slowly Derek shook his head as well. 'You weren't joking, then,' he said.

'It will benefit every Brentonian,' said Mr Speedy. 'Keep the riff-raff out and preserve the borough in its state of stasis. Mr Shields wanted to avoid any change here. Clearly you wish the same. We wish the very same. What could be more harmonious than that?'

'The locals won't take to any fences,' said Derek. 'They're all wound up at the moment as it is. People have been vanishing, the locals believe that The Rapture is in progress. They nearly killed this chap called Charker last night. Some lunatic bishop had them believing he was the Antichrist.'

'Charker?' said Mr Speedy and he looked at Mr Shadow. Mr Shadow did noddings towards Mr Speedy's briefcase laptop jobbie and Mr Speedy keyed letters in and peered at the tiny screen.

'Do you know where Charker is now?' he asked Derek.

Derek shook his head.

'But you would say that some kind of Christian fundamentalist revival is going on in the borough?'

Derek sadly nodded his head. 'It will probably blow over,' said he. 'These things usually do.'

'Oh no,' said Mr Speedy. 'We wouldn't want that. In fact I think we should positively encourage it.'

'What?' said Derek.

'Is there a shrine?' asked Mr Shadow. 'There's always a shrine. A place where some miracle occurred. Like Lourdes, or Fatima, or Guadalupe, or that underpass in Paris where the spirit of Diana cured the beggar of athlete's foot.'

'I thought it was scabies,' said Mr Speedy.

'No, definitely Paris,' said Mr Shadow. 'But there's always a shrine. Do you have one here?' he asked Derek.

Derek hung his head in dismal affirmation. 'There is,' he said gloomily. 'My mum told me about it this morning. The Plume Cafe, where the tour bus crashed. People have been piling up bunches of flowers there. They say that the first man to be Raptured, was Raptured from there after the crash.'

'Malkuth,' said Mr Speedy, and he pronounced the unpronounceable name.

'Indeed,' said Derek. 'But how did you know that?'

'Everything is on file,' said Mr Shadow. 'Everyone is on file. We at Mute Corp always make a point of disclosing this fact to those we deal with in business. It reinforces trust and discourages duplicity.'

'You mean you resort to blackmail, if they don't do what you want them to.'

Mr Speedy looked once more at Mr Shadow. 'Of course,' they said. 'It simplifies matters no end.'

'Well / have nothing to hide,' said Derek.

Mr Speedy laughed. 'You certainly have no secrets from us,' he said. 'But a bit of advice for the future. And strictly off the record. The next time you buy an old-fashioned computer game from a dodgy supplier, do it in cash. The movement of stolen goods is far harder to trace that way.'

Derek's jaw fell open.

'So let's not waste any more time,' said Mr Speedy. 'A massive marketing exercise is about to be put into motion. The Suburbia World Plc web site will be going online tomorrow and shares will be floated on the stock exchange by Monday next. We all want this to be a big success, don't we?'

Derek's jaw was still hanging open.

'Crad barges,' said Mr Shadow.

Derek's jaw moved up and then came down again. The word 'What?' came out of his mouth.

'Oh yes,' said Mr Speedy. 'The crad barges. Part of the Brentford Waterworld experience. The crad barges used to come down the Grand Union Canal to the Thames. We'd like some. At least three. To convert into floating restaurants. They'll go down the canal, into the Thames, around Griffin Island then back again. Serving local delicacies. One will be dedicated exclusively to sprout cuisine.'

'What?' went Derek. 'What?'

'Best get at least four crad barges,' said Mr Shadow. 'We can cannibalize one for spare parts.'

'I'm sorry,' said Derek. 'I don't understand what you are saying?'

Mr Speedy shook his head and a look of a certain sadness was to be seen on his face. 'You are to organize four crad barges,' he said. 'Acquire them.'

'Me?' said Derek. 'I'm a newspaperman.'

'You may now consider yourself a company man,' said Mr Speedy. 'And company men do whatever the company requires that they do. Unquestioningly.'

'Have you quite finished?' questioned Kelly. 'I fear that I have no more places left for you to probe.'

She lay naked and spreadeagled upon a cold steel table. About her lay a range of hideous intrusive medical instruments.

The doctor removed her surgical gloves and wiped away beads of sweat from her brow. 'You must want this job very much indeed,' she said.

'Oh I see,' said Kelly. 'This was some kind of initiation test, was it? To see how much humiliation I would be prepared to endure?'

Ill pass you Double Al,' said the doctor. 'Please get dressed and report to Mr Bashful in Training.'

The office of Mr Bashful was hung with artworks. These were of the old school. Possibly St Trinian's. Mr Bashful wore an eight-piece light blue suit that was cut from a man-made fabric. His desk was made of wood and very dull indeed.

'Fabarooni, [15]' said Mr Bashful, as Kelly entered his office.

'Fabarooni-do, [16]' said Kelly.

'I'm very pleased to welcome you aboard,' said Mr Bashful. 'I think you're going to love it here at Mute Corp.'

'The experience thus far has been positively orgasmic,' said Kelly.

'Really?' said Mr Bashful. 'I was watching your medical examination on CCTV and you didn't seem to be smiling very much.'

Kelly chewed upon her Cupid's bow and teased at a lock of golden hair. 'Broadcast throughout the building, was it?' she asked.

'We have no secrets here.'

'Perhaps you'll let me watch the recording of your medical later, then.'

'You can watch it now if you -want.'

Kelly raised an eyebrow. 'No thank you,' she said.

'So,' said Mr Bashful. 'To work. To work. If you'd be so good as to walk this way.'

Ill try,' said Kelly. Ill try.'

Mr Bashful led Kelly from his office and through many corridors. All were hung with priceless artworks. Some led somewhere, some led back from somewhere, others led to other somewheres, others back again. Finally one led to a single door, which Mr Bashful opened, with a special plastic card kind of jobbie. 'You'll be issued with one of these,' he told Kelly. 'It's a Unicard, gives you access to all the areas you're allowed access to. I'm allowed access to almost all areas, but that's because of my status.'

Kelly smiled at Mr Bashful. 'Security must be a big concern here,' she said. 'Are all these corridors and rooms covered by CCTV?'

'Gracious no,' said Mr Bashful. 'Only the reception area and the doctor's office. We have no need to spy upon our own operatives.'

'And this door leads to?'

'To your personal games suite. Come.' Mr Bashful ushered Kelly through the doorway. The chamber was small and had no windows. The ceiling was low. The walls were white. There was a desk with a computer terminal, there was a chair before the desk.

'Sit down,' said Mr Bashful, pointing to the chair. 'Key in your name and then follow the instructions you are given. What could be simpler than that?'

'Nothing,' said Kelly. 'But I do have a couple of questions.'

'Go on then.' Mr Bashful looked mildly irritated.

'Firstly,' said Kelly. 'I noticed that the door closed and automatically locked behind us. How do I get out if I have to use the toilet, or something?'

'Key in your request, someone will come.'

'I see,' Kelly nodded.

'So if that's all right, I'll be off.' Mr B. looked slightly nervous now.

'Secondly,' said Kelly. 'This computer terminal. It's a Mute Corp 3000 series. Surely a bit antiquated. I expected something far more state-of-the-art here.'

'You get what you're given,' said Mr Bashful.

'I see,' said Kelly. 'Would you mind putting it online for me then? It's a while since I've used this particular model.'

'Just click the mouse,' said Mr Bashful, in the manner known as brusque.

'How?' Kelly asked. 'Would you mind showing me?'

Mr Bashful's hands shot into the pockets of his eight-piece suit. 'All you have to do is click it,' he said. 'Even a woman can do that, surely.'

Kelly fluttered her eyelashes. 'I am only a woman,' she said.

'Just click it, go on, I'll be back later.' Mr Bashful turned to take his leave.

'Oh, one more thing,' said Kelly.

Mr Bashful turned back again. 'What is it now? he asked.

Kelly smiled and said, 'Only this,' and then she punched his lights out.

Derek's lights were on, but no-one seemed at home. 'Can I just get this straight?' he asked. 'You want me to acquire four crad barges?'

'And some Morris Minors,' said Mr Shadow. 'About fifty of those should do the trick.'

'Fifty Morris Minors? Why?'

'The car most seen on the streets of Brentford. It's all on file. Please let us not waste any more time.'

'But you can't expect me to do all this. I have a paper to put out. News to gather. Things of that nature generally.'

'You'll be issued with press releases,' said Mr Speedy. 'All will be taken care of. You have been chosen for this task on the grounds of your suitability. You know this borough. You are the local reporter.'

'I'm the features editor,' said Derek.

'And you know the locals. You know where to acquire what we need.'

'I suppose I do,' said Derek.

'And you will be handsomely rewarded.'

'I will?' said Derek.

'Cash,' said Mr Speedy. 'You'll be dealing in cash.'

'I will?' said Derek once again.

'Large quantities of cash,' said Mr Shadow. 'Your expenses will not be questioned.'

'Oh,' said Derek.

'Yes, oh,' said Mr Speedy. 'Which means that you fiddle your accounts and we'll turn a blind eye to it. You scratch our backs, we put an Armani suit upon yours. If you catch my drift and I'm. sure that you do.'

'I've never been an Armani man,' said Derek. 'Not since they dropped natural fibres anyway.'

'So,' said Mr Speedy. 'Do we have a deal? You do what we ask you, your secret, regarding all those stolen computer games in your possession, remains safe with us and you get a big cash kickback to do with as you please. Possibly purchase that Atari 7800 scrapyard dog game you've been bidding for over the Net from that dodgy American dealer.'

'Oh,' said Derek.

'And I could just possibly let you know how to get the three magic cans on Eisenhower Lane on level 2.'

'Oh,' said Derek.

'So do we have a deal?' asked Mr Shadow.

'You can count on me,' said Derek, putting out his hand for a shake.

Mr Speedy however did not shake the outstretched hand of Derek, instead he just poured himself another Scotch and raised his glass in salute. 'Welcome to Mute Corp,' he said. 'The company that takes care of its employees.'

'And that, I think, has taken care of you,' said Kelly.

Mr Bashful was struggling, muffled sounds came from his mouth, his eyes darted every which way.

'If you're trying to say, "What happened?" or possibly something ruder,' said Kelly, 'then allow me to explain. I knocked you unconscious. And then I tore up your clothing and used it to strap your now naked body into the chair. Your right hand, you will observe, is strapped to the computer mouse. Your mouth is gagged. I am now going to remove the gag. But if you cry out for help,' Kelly reached down and took hold of Mr Bashful's genitals, 'these will be put in severe jeopardy. Do I make myself absolutely clear?' And she gave Mr Bashful's gonads a far from friendly squeeze.

Mr Bashful's eyes flashed wildly. His head bobbed up and down.

Kelly released the gag from his mouth. The gag was knotted underpants.

'Untie my hand,' wailed Mr Bashful. 'Get it off the mouse.'

'How interesting,' said Kelly. 'Of all the things you could have said, you chose to say that.'

'Let me go, you bitch,' said Mr Bashful.

'When you've answered some questions.'

'I won't tell you anything that I'm not authorized to tell you. It's more than my job's worth.'

'You'll tell me everything,' said Kelly.

Mr Bashful shook his head.

'Firstly,' said Kelly. 'I want to know all about this Go mango game. Tell me more about that.'

Mr Bashful struggled some more. He seemed most intent on getting his hand away from the computer mouse.

'No?' said Kelly. 'All right then. Let's run the programme. Let's see you play the game.'

'No!' Mr Bashful fairly shrieked.

Kelly clapped her hand over his mouth. 'No, I didn't think so,' she said. 'What does the game do? Could it be that it infects you with something? Something that gets inside your head? Something contagious that can be passed from one unsuspecting person to another?' She released her hand.

Mr Bashful stared at her open-mouthed. 'You know,' he said. 'What do you know?'

'I know it's loose,' said Kelly. 'I know it has to do with Remington Mute and the Mute-chip.'

'I don't know anything more than you do,' said Mr Bashful. 'I just do my job. I don't ask too many questions.'

'Well, let's see you play the game then.' Kelly reached down towards Mr Bashful's mouse-bound hand.

'No, don't touch it. Don't click it on.'

'I think that perhaps you do know,' said Kelly. 'And I want you to tell me now. I don't think I'm cut out for a career at Mute Corp. I think today may be my very last day with the company.'

'You've made a very big mistake doing this to me,' said Mr Bashful. 'Do you really think you can get away with it? Mute Corp security division will track you down. You won't be free on the streets for twenty-four hours.'

'They'll make me vanish, will they?' Kelly asked.

Mr Bashful turned his face away. 'They'll make us both vanish.'

Kelly stared down upon the man. Perhaps, she thought, she had been just a little hasty. There might have been a more subtle way of doing this. And one that did not leave her as a criminal on the run. And on the run from Mute Corp, who were hooked into everything, her personal records, her bank account, they knew where she lived and where she went. They knew everything.

But then.

But then. There was a big man all tied up in a shed. An innocent man who had said he'd 'been to Hell' and all because of something that had issued from the Mute Corp Organization. Something dark. Something evil. Something that didn't care at all for a man.

'You're in deep shit,' said Mr Bashful.

'Yes,' said Kelly. 'I am. But do you know what? I don't care. Now speak to me, tell me all about the Mute-chip and all about go mango or I'll knock your hand down onto that mouse and see some of it in action for myself.'

'All right. All right.' Mr Bashful glared at Kelly. '-I'll tell you. What harm can it do? You won't even get out of the building.'

'So speak,' said Kelly.

And Mr Bashful spoke. He spoke very fast, almost to the point of incoherent babble. It was as if he had been wanting to get all this off his chest for a very very long time. But hadn't dared to do it. He was scared. Everyone at Mute Corp was scared, he said. Everyone feared that they might be the next to be 'possessed'.

'Now let me get this clear,' said Kelly, needing a break from the babble and trying to get it all clear. 'What you are saying is that sometime back in the 1970s'

'1972,' babbled Mr Bashful. 'It was a significant year. That's when he gave the thing birth.'

'OK. In 1972, Remington Mute developed the original Mute-chip, from his own digitized DNA. It was basically a chip that could learn and then make decisions based on its knowledge.'

'Effectively yes.'

'And the chips were put into games. Computer chess and so on. But he saw a greater potential for them in other systems. Playing the stock market and so on.'

'Became a millionaire, a billionaire, a zillionaire,' babbled Mr Bashful.

'And Mute Corp started off all the scare stories about the Millennium Bug and Mute's operatives, pretending to debug computer systems, installed Mute-chips into those systems.'

'Across the whole World Wide Web and they linked up into a vast thinking network.'

'Not thinking surely?' said Kelly. 'These chips aren't alive.'

'So what exactly is life?' asked Mr Bashful. 'If something can talk to you, communicate with you, reason \vith you, be more intelligent than you are, is that something alive? You tell me.'

'And this game? This go mango?'

'Men play computer games,' said Mr Bashful. 'So why shouldn't a thinking computer play men games?'

'The mainframe plays games with people?' Kelly was rightly appalled.

'Ironic isn't it?' said Mr Bashful. 'The tables well and truly turned.'

'And you at Mute Corp let this happen?'

'We didn't let it happen. It happened by itself. We're trying to find a way to stop it, before it gets completely out of control.'

'So what was I to be, another laboratory rat?'

'Something like that. But your death would have been for the common good.'

'My death?' said Kelly.

'Nobody survives the infection,' said Mr Bashful. 'Once the virus has passed from the computer into the human host, it will play the human until the human dies.'

'So you would have locked me in this room until the virus killed me and then what? Dissected my brain?'

'We have to find a cure. An anti-virus.

You bastards,' said Kelly. 'You utter bastards.

You don't understand.' Mr Bashful jerked about in his bondage. 'It's clever. Very clever. It knows everything. It could have infected everyone by now. But it doesn't. It hasn't. Myself and a few others are working behind its back, so to speak. In secrecy. The autopsies are carried out manually, using no computer technology. Nothing that could have a Mute-chip inside it. That's why there's no CCTV in this part of the building. Mr Pokey doesn't know what we do with the bodies, he thinks we just dispose of them in a tasteful and discreet manner. Once it has finished playing with them, they are surplus to requirements. It is in control here, don't you understand. People don't control this company, it does. And it has some kind of purpose. We don't know what it is yet. We few who are trying to stop it, we don't know what it wants.'

'What it wants*. You really believe that this virus is alive, don't you? Not that it's just some kind of rogue program that's gone out of control?'

'It's much more than a program,' said Mr Bashful. 'And it's much more than alive. If your particular skills hadn't earmarked you for this room and you'd got some other job in the organization, you'd have learned in time. You would have been told when you'd reached sufficient status in the company. When your rank admitted you into the inner circle. To the elite. Then you would have been taken to the chapel.'

'The chapel?' said Kelly. 'You have a chapel here?

Not here,' said Mr Bashful, shaking his head. 'It's in Mute Corp Keynes. In the black hole of cyberspace.

Only the elite are taken to the chapel.

And what do the elite do in this chapel?

We do what it tells us to do,' said Mr Bashful. 'We worship it, of course.'

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