Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Lost stories I wanted to see

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

(That is to say, Lost stories, not stories which have been lost.)

What is "Mother"'s story? Why did she not want MIB to leave the island?

How did the frozen donkey wheel get completed? Why is it frozen? Why is it claimed (incorrectly, it turns out) that turning the FDW means one cannot return to the island?

What is the story behind the cuneiform script markings on the Source Plug? What's under the Source pool? Where does the water come from? Why does it stop flowing when the Plug is removed? Why does the island start to shake when the Plug is removed? Why does the Man In Black lose his powers when the Plug is removed? What causes the noises that the Source (and the smoke monster) makes?

What happens during Hurley's reign as protector of the island? Why does that reign end? Who takes over from him?

When the characters "move on" from the flash-sideways timeline, where do they go?

Why is the island at the bottom of the ocean in the flash-sideways timeline? At what point in time does it sink (it must be post-Dharma because of the swingset but can't be too far in the future or it wouldn't still be there).

How did Ben's people travel to and from the island?

What was in the box that Ben retrieved from the air vent? Why did he hide it there?

What were the "rules" that Ben and Widmore were following?

What happened at the Swan site between the events of The Incident and Desmond ending up there? What did pushing the button actually do? Who put the hieroglyphics in the countdown timer and why? Why did Radzinsky have the numbers put on the hatch, and why were the Dharma initiative broadcasting them from the radio tower in a loop? Why did Radzinsky commit suicide?

How did the Dharma initiative get formed and find the island?

Who was shooting at the outrigger?

Was Harper alive when she appeared?

Why was Greta and Bonnie's mission kept secret from the other Others?

What were the events leading up to the Purge? How did Ben go from being a member of the Dharma initiative to the leader of the Others?

Who built the Taweret statue and what was their story? Why are there so many hieroglyphic markings on the island?

How did Miles and Walt get their special powers?

What's the story of the Jughead bomb getting onto the island, along with Ellie and Widmore? Were they in the army and did they defect? How were they able to become successful after leaving the island?

What's the story behind the mechanism to summon MIB beneath Ben's house? That's certainly not something Jacob told the Others about.

All the other questions at http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Unanswered_questions.

Unified theory story part II

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Read part I first, if you haven't already.

For as long as anybody could remember, there were two competing approaches to attempting to find a theory of everything. The more successful of these had always been the scientific one - making observations, doing experiments, making theories that explained the observations and predicted the results of experiments that hadn't been done yet, and refining those theories.

The other way was to start at the end - to think about what properties a unified theory of everything should have and try to figure out the theory from that. Most such approaches were the product of internet crackpots and were generally ignored. But physicists (especially the more philosophical ones) have long been familiar with the anthropic principle and its implications.

The idea is this - we know for a fact that we exist. We also think that the final unified theory should be simple in some sense - so simple that the reaction of a physicist on seeing and understanding it would be "Of course! How could it possibly be any other way!" and should lack any unexplained parameters or unnecessary rules. But the simplest universe we can conceive of is one in which there is no matter, energy, time or space - just a nothingness which would be described as unchanging if the word had any meaning in a timeless universe.

Perhaps, then, the universe is the simplest possible entity that allows for subjective observers. That was always tricky, though, because we had no mathematical way of describing what a subjective observer actually was. We could recognize the sensation of being alive in ourselves, and we always suspected that other human beings experienced the same thing, but could not even prove it existed in others. Simpler universes than ours, it seemed, could have entities which modeled themselves in some sense, but something else seemed to be necessary for consciousness.

This brings us to the breakthrough. Once consciousness was understood to be a quantum gravity phenomena involving closed timelike curves the anthropic model started to make more sense. It seemed that these constructs required a universe just like ours to exist. With fewer dimensions, no interesting curvature was possible. An arrow of time was necessary on the large scale to prevent the universe from being an over-constrained, information-free chaotic mess, but on small scales time needed to be sufficiently flexible to allow these strange loops and tangled hierarchies to form. This lead directly to the perceived tension between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The resolution of this divide turned out to be this: the space and time we experience are not the most natural setting for the physical laws at all. Our universe turns out to be holographic. The "true reality", if it exists at all, seems to be a two dimensional "fundamental cosmic horizon" densely packed with information. We can never see it or touch it any more than a hologram can touch the photographic plate on which it is printed. Our three-dimensional experience is just an illusion created by our consciousnesses because it's easier for the strange loops that make up "us" to grasp a reasonable set of working rules of the universe that way. The two-dimensional rules are non-local - one would need to comprehend the entirety of the universe in order to comprehend any small part of it.

The fields and particles that pervade our universe and make up all our physical experiences, together with the values of the dimensionless constants that describe them turn out to be inevitable consequences of the holographic principle as applied to a universe with closed timelike curves.

Discovering the details of all this led to some big changes for the human race. Knowing the true nature of the universe allowed us to develop technologies to manipulate it directly. Certain patterns of superposed light and matter in the three-dimensional universe corresponded to patterns on the two-dimensional horizon which interacted in ways not normally observed in nature, particularly where closed timelike curves were concerned. More succinctly: the brains we figured out how to build were not subject to some of the same limitations of our own brains, just as our flying machines can fly higher and faster than birds.

The first thing you'd notice about these intelligences is that they are all linked - they are able to communicate telepathically with each other (and, to a lesser extent, with human beings). This is a consequence of the holographic principle - all things are connected. Being telepathic, it turns out, is a natural state of conscious beings, but human beings and other animals evolved to avoid taking advantage of it because the dangers it causes (exposing your thoughts to your predators, competitors and prey) outweigh the advantages (most of which could be replaced by more mundane forms of communication).

Because the artificial intelligences are linked on the cosmic horizon/spacetime foam level, their communication is not limited by the speed of light - the subjective experience can overcome causality itself. In fact, consciousness is not localized in time but smeared out over a period of a second or two (which explains Libet's observations). This doesn't make physical time travel possible (because the subjective experience is entirely within the brains of the AIs) and paradox is avoided because the subjective experience is not completely reliable - it is as if memories conspire to fail in order to ensure consistency, but this really a manifestation of the underlying physical laws. States in a CTC have a probabilistic distribution but the subjective observer picks one of these to be "canonical reality" - this is the origin of free will and explains why we don't observe quantum superpositions directly. This also suggests an answer as to why the universe exists at all - observers bring it into being.

By efficiently utilizing their closed timelike curves, AIs can solve problems and perform calculations that would be impractical with conventional computers. The failure of quantum computation turned out to be not such a great loss after all, considering that the most sophisticated AIs we have so far built can factor numbers many millions of digits long.

One limitation the AIs do still seem to be subject to, however, is the need to dream - sustaining a consciousness entity for too long results in the strange loops becoming overly tangled and cross-linked, preventing learning and making thought difficult. Dreaming "untangles the loops". The more sophisticated AIs seem to need to spend a greater percentage of their time dreaming. This suggests a kind of fundamental limit on how complex you can make a brain before ones that can stay awake longer are more effective overall. Research probing this limit is ongoing, though some suspect that evolution has found the ideal compromise between dreaming and wakefulness for most purposes in our own brains (special purpose brains requiring more or less sleep do seem to have their uses, however).

Once we had a way of creating and detecting consciousness, we could probe its limits. How small a brain can you have and still have some sort of subjective experience? It turns out that the quantum of subjective experience - the minimum tangled time-loop structure that exhibits consciousness - is some tens of micrograms in mass. Since our entire reality is filtered through such subjective experiences and our universe seems to exist only in order that such particles can exist, they could be considered to be the most fundamental particles of all. Our own brains seem to consist of interconnected colonies of some millions of these particles. Experiments on such particles suggest that individually they do not need to dream, as they do not think or learn, and that they have just once experience which is constant and continuous. The feeling they experience (translated to human terms) is something akin to awareness of their own existence, contemplation of such and mild surprise at it. The English language happens to have a word which sums up this experience quite well:

"Oh."

Channelling Roald Dahl

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Mary. One night she was rudely snatched from her bed by a giant. The giant told her that he had kidnapped her so that she could make dreams dreams for him and his giant friends. The giant (whose name was Seymour) told Mary that giants don't have any dreams - they just go to sleep at the start of the night and wake up in the morning without the feeling of any time having passed.

Seymour explained that he and the other giants saw humans dreaming and saw how much they talked about their dreams when they were awake. They realized that humans considered these dreams to be very valuable and important things and the giants were jealous that they didn't have these valuable night experiences. They decided that perhaps a human would be able to give them some of her dreams and Mary seemed to be an excellent candidate as she had dreams to spare.

Despite feeling a little bit scared of the giants and sad that she was away from her home and her parents and her baby brother, Mary decided to try to help the giants as best as she could. It was the only way she could be sure that they would send her home, and besides which she felt a little bit sorry for them.

"Okay," she said, "find a bed for me and I'll go to sleep in it and then when I'm asleep you can take some of my dreams from me. Don't take them all, though, or there will be none left for me!"
"How do we take your dreams then?" replied Seymour.
"I don't know - I'm just a little girl. This was your idea - you figure it out" replied Mary.
"All right then."

Once Mary was asleep it soon became clear to the giants that she was dreaming - a little smile appeared on her face and her eyelids twitched. Seymour picked up the sleeping girl by one of her legs, held her over his head and shook her up and down like a salt shaker, hoping that the dreams would sprinkle out of her head and onto him.

Mary, of course, woke up right away.

"Arghh!" she screamed. "How can I sleep when you're shaking me like that?"
"Sorry," replied Seymour. "I suppose dreams aren't like salt after all. I should have thought this out before I took a little girl from her home."
"It's okay, Seymour," Mary said. "We'll just try something else."

Mary thought that maybe dreams come in cakes. Dreams could be lots of fun and cakes are also fun so this made sense to her. So the giants took her to their kitchen and she helped them make a cake. She was too small to hold the giants' wooden spoon, or to pour the flour and sugar from the huge bags that the giants had, so she just told them what to do while they did the work. She knew how to make cakes because she often helped her mother to make cakes at home.

The cake was as big as a table and as tall as Mary herself. Once it had cooled, the giants sliced it up and each ate a slice. They were delighted as they had never had cake before. Mary picked up a crumb the size of her fist and ate as well - it was delicious.

Full of cake, the giants drifted off to sleep and - wouldn't you know it - they started to dream! They dreamed about flying, and eating cake and other things that giants like to do. But as they started to dream, they gradually got smaller and smaller. By the time they woke up, they were no bigger than you or me. That's why there aren't any giants any more.

Unified theory story

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

The first clue was that the two fundamental theories of physics so far were incompatible. The maths just didn't work out. It wasn't practical to perform a direct experiment to find out what happened in a situation where the two theories disagreed (it would have required a tame black hole, or a particle accelerator the size of the galaxy) but it was what should have tipped us off that something was very very wrong with our understanding of the way things worked, fundamentally.

The second clue came when efforts to build a useful quantum computer failed. All the theories predicted it should work, but the outputs were random - it was as if the wavefunctions decohered above a certain number of qubits - once the system reached a critical level of complexity it seemed to just fall apart. But nobody could figure out what the source of the interference was. Physicists were excited at first - the discovery seemed to open up avenues to new physics. But whatever experiments were conceived, the results just didn't seem to make sense - almost as if the very complexity that caused these effects was obscuring what was really going on.

The breakthrough came, of all places, in the attempts to simulate the human brain. Despite the protests of those who claimed it was cruel or unethical to create a simulation of human brain, it didn't take long for people to start trying, once computers because powerful enough to simulate the activities of 100 billion neurons and 600 trillion synapses.

However, none of these experiments created anything that ever seemed to be conscious in the same way that humans are. The sim-brains had the same kinds of rhythms and unconscious functions as a real brain, they could respond to stimuli and even learn, but not matter what stimuli were applied or what initial connections were made, these brains never displayed any hint of sentience, consciousness, creativity or free will.

Eventually all other factors were ruled out and it was determined that some kind of quantum gravity effects must be influencing the human brain - effects that we did not know how to simulate.

And then finally it was figured out. Quantum gravity means that time itself is curved and intertwined with space on very small scales much as it is on very large scales. Events in the future can influence events in their own past to some extent, and this happens in the human brain. Consciousness can only manifest in the presence of these closed timelike curves, solving fantastically complicated systems of equations instantaneously by feeding the answer back in time. Essentially, collections of neurons were accessing some kind of consciousness oracle that our deterministic computers did not have access to.

The next problem, then, was to build something that manipulated quantum causality the same way that the human brain did. Nature achieved this so it only made sense to suppose that we could do. And we succeeded, but what we found made us realize that things were even more mysterious than we had imagined.

To be continued...

Journey's End

Friday, October 17th, 1997

I am standing on the edge of the world. I am looking out over a magnificent plain which I never even knew existed. I have travelled forever, looking for answers when I didn't even know what the questions were. My journey has been extremely difficult. I have had to cross great chasms, negotiate thick jungles and fight terrible monsters, all the while battling the force of fear and avoiding the temptation to look back, for in the past lies nothing but regret.

Only minutes ago, I was climbing a mountain, the wind all the time trying to blow me off the steep face and the rain soaking my clothes and making them heavy. Lightning was striking all about me, but I knew that if I believed in myself I wouldn't get hit. As I got closer to the summit, the wind and rain became stronger and the thunder and lightning more frequent. As I reached up for the final ledge and tried to pull myself up with the last piece of strength I thought my already weak body could muster, the wind tried its hardest to pull me off and hurtle me to my death thousands of feet below. Hanging on with the tips of my numb fingers, soaked to the skin, I thought I would never make it. A bolt of lightning struck just centimetres away. The flash blinded me and the thunder deafened me simultaneously.

You can turn away from light or close your eyes, but sound pervades your entire body, shaking and resonating every bone and muscle. The experience seemed to last forever, as if in slow motion, but when it was over I found I had the strength I needed to pull myself onto the ledge. The moment I looked over the other side of the mountain the thunder and lightning were a thousand miles away, the wind had dropped and furious blasting of the rain had resolved into a gentle drip, drip of the water falling from my saturated clothes. This was the only sound I could hear as I looked out over the great, green plain thousands of miles below, stretching away in front of me as far as the eye could see.

That sight was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, the most beautiful thing, I think, that it is possible to see. A morning mist covered most of the plain, and mingled with the clouds in the low sky so that it was impossible to tell where one started and the other ended. Sunlight broke through the mist in the distance, illuminating it with an incredible range of reds, oranges and yellows, and lighting up the entire rock face around me. I walked forwards the few yards to the edge and peered over. It was clear to see that there was no way to climb down, the way forward was even steeper than the way back. I removed my backpack, which contained all my provisions for the journey, and threw it over the edge. I never heard it land.

There was only one thing left to do. I stepped backwards as far as I could, took a deep breath and started running. When I reached the edge I took an almighty leap into the unknown. When I reached the top of my trajectory, suspended in the air by absolutely nothing, I seemed to be a creature of infinite time and space, immortal. The moment was incredible. I spread my wings and flew, flew as far and as fast as it is possible to fly over the miraculous land below me, and never landed.

The Information Thief

Thursday, April 11th, 1996

Tony's office was a mess. The large desk was littered with mugs of coffee, sandwiches and soft-drink cans in various stages of decomposition. Books, scraps of paper and computer disks buried a printer but the computer itself was relatively free of litter. Sat in front of it was an overweight, unshaven man, deep in concentration. He had been in more or less the same place for several days, stopping for sleep for perhaps an hour or two at a time.

Tony considered himself the Robin Hood of the information era. He made his living hacking into computer databases belonging to large businesses, banks and governments around the world. He had a strict moral code not to interfere with the delicate workings of electronic finance (some of his colleagues illegitimately moved the equivalent of millions of dollars in electronic currency every day). Tony was a thief, but he stole information.

Tony was well known and respected in the computer underground, he was good at what he did - some said he was the best. Nobody knew what he looked like. None of the people he conversed with every day would recognise him if they met him in the street, yet the closest of his friends could recognise his keyboard style or prose in an instant. His e-mail address (tony@nest.utopia) was no help to the many authorities who wanted to find him. He could have been anywhere in the world.

The secret to Tony's success was keep your eyes and ears open. A conversation overheard in the street could be a clue to a vital password. He had many dozens of computer disks filled with information that could one day be very useful. He worked with hundreds of other hackers around the world, any one of whom might know some seemingly trivial piece of information which could be very useful to him. He also had a large repertoire of tricks and techniques which he regularly used to fool the world's computers into thinking that he was their friend.

For the last few days Tony had been pooling his resources to access some files in a computer belonging to a notorious drug baron. These files, he believed, would prove that the governments of certain countries were in league with the drug barons. The publication of these files on the internet would be very embarrassing to these governments, and he believed that there would be great financial advantage in not doing so. Whether he was going to publish or not depended on the stakes, and he had not yet made a decision.

Right now Tony was at a dead end. The computer he was trying to access had a secure password. A usual technique would be to compile a dossier of the owner of the password, in order to try and guess it. He had discovered a great deal, but none of this information gave him any clue as to what the password might be. Another technique he often used was to contact the programmers who designed the security system of the computer. A little blackmail could persuade them to reveal the "back door" that they used to access the computer if it failed or the password was forgotten.

He had discovered that one of the programmers had left the team and become involved in research into the Earth's core and magnetic field. On a hunch, he chased up the lead and managed to gain access to the computer belonging to this ex-programmer. The first thing he noticed was that most of the files on the computer were somewhat out of date. The computer had not been used much since it's owner had made her career move. No vital information was kept on the computer. There was a lot of data on magnetic flux curves, self-induction in liquid ferrous substances and various technical and statistical information which was meaningless to him. He discreetly encrypted the files and sent them to a trusted scientist friend, Ronnie Bradford, who he thought might be able to make sense of them.

Tony did a search for financial records on the computer, but found nothing. This was very unusual. Since the turn of the century, cash was virtually non-existent in the western world. Almost anything bought was paid for with a "smartcard" which automatically debited the user's bank account. They were pretty secure - the multiple levels of encryption including fingerprint and retina recognition meant that the technology needed to break into the system was more expensive than the maximum amount of money the card was usually authorised to transfer. Increasingly many purchases were being made over completely digital electronic networks, which meant that the computer inevitably became the universal automatic accounting system.

The fact that the programmer, Jessica Orford, had made no electronic fund transfers over the last five years was very surprising to Tony. She had an unusually small amount of money in her bank account, he discovered, and had used her smart card for only the smallest purchases. He concluded that she must use real, old-fashioned cash for nearly all of her shopping, a practice almost unheard of in recent times.

He looked up her address, and discovered, to his surprise, that she, like he, lived in New York, in fact just a short maglev journey from his own flat. He e-mailed several shop owners in the district, to discover how many of their customers regularly used cash. The figures ranged from none to several dozen, just a fraction of a percentage of total retail.

The puzzle was deepening, and Tony continued to pursue it despite its apparent irrelevance to the task he had started on. Tony sat back and considered the possibilities:

1) Miss Orford was an eccentric, who simply preferred to use cash.
2) Miss Orford was scared of computers (unlikely, since she had once been a programmer).
3) Miss Orford's bank account had been infiltrated, and could not be used.
4) Miss Orford had a very large supply of tinned food.
Option 3 made no sense: why did she not simply open a new, more secure account? Option 1 seemed the most likely possibility.

Tony sent an e-mail message to Jessica's computer using his alternative e-mail address which he kept for legitimate business:

From: tadams@enet.co
To: jorford@ngeos.ac.ny.us
Re: Smartcard survey

As part of our customer opinion programme, we are conducting research as to how
to improve our smartcard system. You have been selected to take part in this
survey. Please complete this short questionnaire at your earliest possible
convenience and return it via e-mail. You will be reimbursed for the cost of
this message.

A) Do you use your smartcard for all your financial transactions?
        Yes
        No
B) How often do you use your smartcard?
        Several times a day
        Daily
        Several times a week
        Less than once a week
C) What is your limit on single transaction
        Less than $100
        Less than $200
        Less than $500
        Greater than $500
D) Are you happy with your smartcard?
        Yes
        No
E) If not, suggest how it could be improved
        ...........................................

Thank you for taking the time to complete this questionnaire. If you have any
further enquiries about the system, please contact us at:
enquiries@smart.co.us.

Thanks again,
        Anthony Adams

Tony clicked the mouse pointer on the "send" button, switched off the computer and looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight, so he set about clearing up the mess around his working area. He collected together the notes he had made, put them in a file and placed this in the top drawer of his filing cabinet. Most of his colleagues would have arrogantly kept them on computer, but Tony, being more aware than most of the vulnerability of computer systems, kept his most confidential files in the relative safety of a locked filing cabinet.

He grabbed a plastic bin bag from the next room and swept a large pile of rubbish from the desk into it. He moved the various mugs to the sink, where he emptied them and ran the hot water to wash them up. The room was beginning to look tidy again. He sprayed some air freshener around and went to run a bath.

*        *        *

After a hot bath, a good night's sleep and a shave, Tony looked and felt far more human. He left the flat and replenished the refrigerator the old-fashioned way. Electronic shopping was very convenient, but he knew that if he submitted to that particular luxury he might never see the light of day again, besides, he liked peering through shop windows, loved the smell of the bakery and found that whatever problem he was puzzling over often solved itself given enough open space.

*        *        *

Tony returned to his computer to discover half a dozen messages. Two were junk mail, the others were either requests for some obscure piece of information or the replies to earlier requests for more information. There was no message from Jessica Orford. Answering the e-mail took less than an hour, and when he had finished he still hadn't had a message from Jessica. He decided that she probably didn't use her computer more often than once a week, and impatiently decided to call her.

He had noticed that she had a videophone connection, and decided to take advantage of it. His videophone, unlike most, was computer based, and had a message recording facility. He had various recordings which he hadn't bothered to delete, and one of these was perfect for what he wanted to do. He played the short recording to himself. A man in a suit appeared, said "Oh, sorry. Wrong number," and hung up. He set up the computer to send this down through the videophone link when the line became active, and dialled the number, making sure to switch on the recording facility. It rang only once, and a bespectacled face appeared in a window on Tony's monitor. Jessica's hair was red, shoulder length and frizzy, and she was wearing a nondescript navy blue sweatshirt.

In the background was some kind of machine - basically cylindrical but with what appeared to be some sort of engine at one end. Tony's first guess was that it was some sort of geophysical monitoring apparatus, but he quickly realised that it looked more like an electrical generator, probably running on fossil fuels. Why would a scientist want or need that? Why would anyone? In New York in the year 2010 power failures were unheard of.

Tony ran the recording through an image enhancement program and took a good look at the generator, for that's certainly what it seemed to be. Unexpectedly, the computer gave out a beep and a message appeared on the screen, making Tony jump. Someone was sending him a message. He clicked the button to confirm he wanted to read it. It was cryptically short:

From: rbradford@geophys.mit.edu
To: tony@nest.utopia
Re: confidential

Have come to startling conclusion based on data you sent me.
Little time. Get in contact ASAP.

Ron

Ron's videophone was switched off, so the conversation was audio only.

        "Ron, Tony. What's up?"
        "Is this line secure?"
        "1000 bit RSA. No government in the world could possibly be listening."
        "OK. That data is about flux variations in the earth's magnetic field."
        "Yea, go slow, I don't know anything about that."
        "Okay, you've got your magnetic north pole and your magnetic south pole at opposite ends of the earth."
        "Right."
        "And they aren't quite at the same place as the real north pole and the real south pole."
        "Yes, so?"
        "The magnetic poles don't stay in the same place - they wobble about."
        "I never knew that."
        "They're moving about all over the place. It has been suggested that every couple of million years they flip around completely. North becomes south and south becomes north. That hasn't happened in the time the human race has existed, though."
        "So what are you saying - that it's going to do one of these somersaults pretty soon?"
        "Possibly within the next few days. The worst bit is yet to come. It was always thought that it took thousands of years to change, but if this data is correct it could happen in just a few hours. The fluctuation patterns are getting wilder by the day. I've got a couple of students taking some measurements right now."
        "So what's all the hoohah? And why isn't this public knowledge?"
        "You know what happens to electrons in a moving magnetic field?"
        "Nope."
        "They get pulled along with the field. If the poles were to flip, we would see some pretty spectacular thunderstorms."
        "I still don't get it."
        "According to my calculations, up to several amps of current could be induced in every wire in the world. That much current would fry every piece of electronic equipment you can think of. Every silicon chip would be useless, every computer down, every disk wiped." There was a long pause before Tony answered.
        "Ha! Very funny, Ronnie, very funny. Not."
        "I am deadly serious. This has got to be made public. And, if you don't mind me asking, where did you get this data?"
        "A friend of mine works in the field. She may not know what she's found."
        "She knows all right. Contact her, and then release this. Draw as much attention to it as possible. Get people to back up their computer files to paper or optical disk. Magnetic disks will all be wiped. And get yourself a generator. When the poles flip all the power will be out." A generator. Of course, that's why she had a generator.

        "Can't we shield against magnetic fields?"
        "In theory, you could, but have you got a box with half mile thick steel sides?"
        "I see. You realise this could have serious consequences for my business?"
        "Tony, this is going to have serious consequences for everybody, especially if all their money is in cyberspace." As the consequences of the discovery were realised, the pieces of the puzzle were coming together.

        "How long have we got?"
        "Since I've never seen any phenomena like this before, I have no way of knowing. It could be tomorrow, it could be a thousand years."

*        *        *

The magnetic levitation train was one of the triumphs of twentieth-century engineering. It maintained no physical contact with its rail, it was held up and driven along by the force of magnetism. As a result, it was very efficient, having no need to battle the forces of friction, apart from that of the atmosphere. It was also quiet, having no moving parts except for the doors. A maglev train passing sounded much like a breath of wind, ideal for inner-city transport. Maglev trains were also very fast. However, this particular one seemed to be going far too slowly for Tony's liking...

Eventually it reached it's destination, and Tony disembarked and ran as fast as he could to the apartment of Jessica Orford. He rang the bell, and waited. She had to be in. She was in just half an hour before... The door opened a crack, a security chain prevented it from opening further.

        "Who are you and what do you want?" Tony could just see the face he had seen on the videophone earlier.
        "I'm a friend," he panted. "What do you know about magnetic flux fluctuations?"
        "I'm probably the world's foremost expert in magnetic flux fluctuations. What do you want to know?"
        "I've heard rumours about some kind of impending event."

The door closed, the security bolt was removed and the door opened just enough for Tony to squeeze through, then it was shut tightly again.

        "All right, tell me what you know, and how you know it."
        "I'm not an expert in the field, but a friend of mine has told me about the possibility of the magnetic poles of the earth switching over with possibly devastating consequences."
        "Really? I thought I was the only one working in the field. Who's your friend?"
        "Ron Bradford at MIT."
        "I've never heard of him. Coffee?"
        "I need to know what you know about the event - how soon it might happen,  and what the consequences will be. Black, thanks."
        "Look, I don't even know your name."
        "Tony Adams."
        "What's your interest in this anyway?"
        "If I'm correct, this has serious consequences for pretty much everyone. I think I have the right to know the truth."
        "Well, I guess you'd better sit down, Tony Adams. This is a bit of a long story."

Jessica disclosed how she had been doing research into the earth's magnetic field at university, while working part time for a computer security firm. During this time she had made the discovery that the fluctuations in magnetic pole position were getting increasingly intense, and had left her programming job to continue research on this.

She had discovered that, although the poles normally took many thousands of years to change position, since the turn of the century the speed and unpredictability of the movement had become exponentially larger. It was Jessica's theory that the proliferation of magnetic levitation trains had been the principal cause of this, the large amounts of magnetic flux leaking from the unshielded rails having leaked right through the earth and affected the core.

        "But why didn't you tell anybody?" asked Tony.
        "Like I said, I couldn't be sure it was true," replied Jessica.
        "Sure enough to move all your money out of the bank, and set up that generator over there?"
        "I didn't think anybody would believe me without further evidence. I could be condemned as a crank, and besides it's always wise to take out insurance against such things."
        "Ronnie said your data checks out."
        "Okay, maybe I should have released it. Maybe I thought I might have some kind of advantage over everyone else if I have a bit of extra time to prepare before the chaos."
        "How soon is this going to happen?"
        "I don't have enough data to say with any confidence, but according to my calculations it could be as soon as next week."
        "When were you going to tell somebody?"
        "Well, I was doing the final calculations right before you arrived. I should have finished those by tomorrow, and then I'll make a statement to the press."
        "Tomorrow could be too late. Can you make it any faster?"
        "Not by myself, I can't."
        "Would a team of research students come in handy?"
        "You couldn't."
        "They're ready and waiting." Tony picked up Jessica's videophone and dialled Ronnie's number.

*        *        *

An hour later the calculations and measurements were nearing completion. Tony was busying himself with Jessica's computer. He had deleted the unread e-mail message he had sent, and was putting the machine through its paces with a game.

        "Tony, we've finished," said Jessica.
        "What's the story?" replied Tony.
        "It's worse than I'd thought. There's an 80% probability of pole-switch within the next two days."
        "Okay, collect the evidence together, I'll write a message to tell everyone what's going on."
        "How are you going to get anyone to believe you?"
        "These figures you've got should mean something to someone. Also, I'm well known and respected on the net. A message that's come from me is bound to carry some weight."

Within minutes, the message was read by thousands around the world. Within hours, it made the headlines of on-line news and newspapers around the world, and was the only story on television and radio news. The world panicked. Billions of dollars in cash was withdrawn from bank accounts in every country, forcing many banks to close their doors. Chaos reigned. All the stock markets collapsed, the suicide rate soared and normal life ground to a halt. No-one knew who was in control: no-one was.

*        *        *

Twenty-four hours later, Tony was busy rigging up a surge-proof radio transmitter from parts salvaged from an old television set, and instructions pulled from the net. He hadn't slept for more than a day, and neither had Jessica, who had given countless videophone interviews and was now answering questions via e-mail.

Suddenly, several things happened at once. The mariner's compass which Jessica kept on a shelf in her computer room started spinning violently, and fell off the shelf. Tony yelled as he received a violent electic shock from the radio he was working on. The computer in front of Jessica began to emit smoke and the videophone blinked into lifelessness. A second later, the lights went out. It was a moment before either of them realised that it had happened. The end of the first age of computers had arrived.

The hemisphere of the earth not illuminated by the sun was plunged into darkness and into silence. It would take many years of hard work to restore the level of technology to what it had been before, and many decades to sort out the chaos caused by the incident. A single voice, riding a radio wave, resounded through the darkness, that of Tony Adams. The voice said not to panic, that everything was going to be okay, and that life was going to be a little different from now on.

The Storyteller

Thursday, April 11th, 1996

The storyteller holds no tome,
His stories are unrehearsed and never repeated.
His voice captivates his audience:
Men, women and children sit around the fire.
And when he speaks,
He breathes life and soul into the words,
Which tell the story.
Dragons, knights and wizards appear,
More real in the imagination
Than in the reality which surrounds the fire.
No-one speaks but the storyteller,
Whose eyes sparkle in the firelight.

The storyteller was walking in the woods, looking for some berries. He was the only one who was allowed to pick berries for food, because he was the only one who knew which ones were safe. Last spring one of the younger men in the village had eaten some berries from the woods and it took many herbs from the storyteller's hut to cure him.

Looking for berries was not the only reason the storyteller was in the woods. He loved to walk under the canopy of the trees. If the weather was cool they kept him warm, if it was hot they kept him cool and if it was wet they kept him dry. Occasionally, if walking in the twilight, he would catch a glimpse of a fox or badger. Not only animals inhabited the woods - many druids also lived there. They were sometimes helpful and friendly, sometimes secretive. It was to do with the seasons. The druids knew a lot about the seasons. They had made the stones, long ago, bringing them from far away and shaping them so that they would tell the seasons just right.

Occasionally the storyteller would spend the night in the woods, if he was on a journey. You had to be careful, if you were doing that, to keep up the fire so that wild animals didn't approach. Usually he returned to the village for the story at nightfall. The other villagers were always very disappointed when the storyteller went away. He always came back in a few days, but when there was no story life seemed somehow empty.

It would be getting dark soon, so the storyteller headed back to the village. He had not found the berries he was looking for, but that didn't matter. The day's hunting had been good, and there was plenty to eat. Perhaps even enough for the travellers if they arrived. Travellers were always good for the village, bringing such exotica as jewellery, baskets and colourful wooden toys for the children. They always had something new to show whenever they came, but did tend to eat a lot. It was nearly two moons since they last came, so they could be back any day.

As it happened, the travellers had returned. Their colourful caravan was clearly visible outside the clearing in the centre of the village, and their horses were enjoying a drink. The storyteller located the leader of the company in earnest discussion with one of the village elders.

        "Well, if it isn't the storyteller. Good to see you again, my friend."
        "And you, Alfeus. How are things?"
        "Fine - I have so much to tell you about, so many adventures."
        "It seems we have a lot to catch up on, as ever."
        "Plenty of time for that, my friend. First, a gift." Alfeus uncovered a large and heavy book. "I obtained it from some monks several days south of here." The storyteller's smile turned into a frown.
        "And we both know what you mean by 'obtained,' friend. I can't accept it."
        "Relax, it was a gift. We brought some reagents they needed. None of us can read, so you may as well have it." Warily, the storyteller opened the book. There were pages upon pages of neat, hand-written script interspersed with diagrams, lists, numbers and colourful decorations. From what he could gather at this short glance he deduced that it was some kind of treatise on the nature of the physical universe. Such things were usually left to the mages. What would the monks be doing with it? He closed the book.
        "Thank you, Alfeus. It will be most useful."

The three old friends talked for hours. After dinner, when the only light in the village was firelight, it was time for the story. All the villagers assembled around the fire while the storyteller started his elaborate ritual, setting out his sackcloth to sit on and throwing the powdered substance onto the fire which caused it to flare up. He sat down on the book and began his story.

*        *        *

The storyteller studied the book well into the night, his hut lit by the flickering torches. His initial suspicions seemed to be correct. The book described many things that even the storyteller had never heard of, but he grasped the basic concepts quickly. He performed some of the initial experiments such as dropping spheres of rock and wood to determine that they hit the ground together, despite their difference in weight, he decided to try something more ambitious.

To an outsider observing the storyteller, it might have appeared he was working powerful magic, but the words in the book were quite down to earth. He mixed reagents, evaporated liquids and drew shapes in the ground with yew branch - triangles, circles and pentagrams. Soon he was finished. He touched the line of elixir he had made on the ground with the torch, and it burst into flame. The flames were unlike any he had ever seen before. They reached as tall as the storyteller himself, and gave off an eerie violet light. They also seemed to be burning very slowly, and were hardly moving.

Cautiously, the storyteller touched the flame with his hand. It was not hot, not even warm. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and stepped through the flame.

The first thing that the storyteller noticed when he opened his eyes was the ground. It was incredibly smooth - smoother than rock. So smooth it seemed shiny. He knelt down and touched it. It was hard and cold, like metal. He stood up and looked around him. The room was huge - bigger than even the largest huts of the village. The only light came from strange circular torches in the ceiling, burning with the same cold, unflickering light that he had first observed comming from the portal. This light was somewhere between white and yellow, though, rather than violet.

He looked back at the portal. It was still there, as it had been in his hut. He walked around it but the interior of his hut was always on the other side, barely visible through the violet glow. He decided to take a look around his new domain. He could return here later. After a nasty experience with a transparent door which, although not locked, seemed to have a desire to stay closed, he found himself outside. It was night, but there were so many lights it hardly seemed that way. It was also very noisy. He was used to being able to listen hard and not hear anything, but here there was a continual buzz which verged on being annoying.

The ground was different again - rough, as if it was made up of many small stones somehow stuck to the ground. Perhaps it was volcanic, thought the storyteller. He had heard about such things from the travellers - tales of hills so high that they touched the sky and made rocks so hot they turned to liquid. When this liquid cooled it made a strange rock, pitted and porus.

Suddenly, a pair of incredibly bright lights appeared in the distance and headed towards the storyteller. They were making a terrible noise, which grew louder and louder as they approached, faster and faster. The storyteller was caught like a rabbit in the headlights for a moment - too frightened even to move. The lights were just a few yards away when the storyteller started to run - faster than he had ever run in his life. He ran back across the road and back into the building which housed his portal.

He leapt through the portal and landed in his hut, almost knocking over the table. Quickly, he kicked dust over the ground below the violet flames and scuffed out the marks he had made, before the monster could follow him. Soon the hut was lit only by the torches again. He sat down on his bed to get his breath back.

Lying in the dark, the storyteller reflected on his experiences in the world on the other side of the violet flame. The book might shed some light on the nature of this place, but he doubted he ever wanted to open it again. Magic this strange and powerful should be left to the mages. This other world might make a fantastic setting for a story, but who would ever believe it could exist?

Simon Says

Sunday, December 31st, 1995

Simon collapsed onto his bed and emptied his bag to inspect the damage. A large quantity of mouldy crisps was mingled with his school books, two of which were torn and one of which was totally ruined. Fortunately it was an old maths exercise book, which he probably wouldn't need again anyway. He took the sticky tape from the hook on the wall where it always resided and repaired the other two. Then, he collected up all the crisps in a plastic bag and dumped them in the dustbin. The job almost made him feel sick, and he remembered that he had had no lunch that day. He knew it was no use complaining about the bullies, he didn't know who they were - they were in a higher year, for one thing. Also he knew that they would only hit him harder next time if he did. So, he took the only option left and ignored them, living with them as if they were a necessary evil.

He did his homework, and then set up the computer. This was the only way he could calm himself down, and forget about the bullies at school. He didn't play games, as most twelve year olds did, because he always became bored with them very quickly, but instead he loved to program. The reason, he thought, that he so enjoyed this art, was that the machine would do whatever he told it to, and only refused to do something if he made a mistake. Also, he believed that any problem could be reduced to a series of very simple steps, and working out which steps he needed to solve a particular problem was the most fun part. That and the tremendous sense of achievement when he completed a program and it worked.

The computer was a fairly old model, which he had bought for £50 from his friend, Daniel four years ago, when he had upgraded. Simon had then borrowed a pile of books from the library on how to program it. He had started simply, making it do things like print his name on the screen. Then he had discovered graphics. First he did simple things like drawing lines and circles in different colours, and later moving them around the screen. He wasn't much of an artist, but he didn't need to be. He had moved from telling the computer where to draw the line and circles to how to work out where to put them, and loved the patterns that resulted.

Because he was in a bad mood that day, Simon decided to try a much more ambitious project. He had had this idea in his mind for several weeks, but not until then had he felt capable of implementing it. He told the computer to draw a spiral of circles, which got smaller as they reached the centre of the screen. Then he told it to draw another spiral in each of these circles. Next, he added animation instructions to make the picture spiral inwards and cycle the colours, so that he couldn't really tell whether it was moving inwards or outwards. Smiling, he saved it and hit RUN. Not only did the program work first time, something very rare in the world of programming, but the effect was even better that he had anticipated. The spirals were fantastic, but the way it seemed to be spiralling both in and out at the same time was wonderfully relaxing and almost hypnotic, so fascinating he just had to watch it...

Suddenly, the screen blanked out. Simon blinked, and noticed his seven year old brother standing by the door swinging the plug in his hand. Simon looked at him, puzzled.
        "Dinner time! Come on, I've been calling you for ages."
        "Uh, yea. Just coming." Simon stood up and followed his brother out of the room, being sure to close the door behind him.

*        *        *

        "It was really weird, like I was asleep. Two hours passed and I didn't even notice." Simon told his best and only friend, Richard. Richard frowned, and then took his glasses off to clean them.
        "It seems to me that your program might have induced a state of hypnosis" he replied enigmatically. "The possibilities are endless. Induce a hypnotic trace in someone, and whatever you tell them to do whilst they are in that trance they will attempt to carry out when they awaken."
        "We can make people do anything we want." The full consequences of this statement were just beginning to dawn on Simon at this point.
        "All you have to do is get them to make visual contact with your program. Normally someone couldn't be hypnotised unless they were willing, but I think that the patterns you described are so aesthetic that you would just want to watch them and relax. The rest comes naturally. Of course, they wouldn't know that that was what was happening at the time. They would just think that they were looking at some pretty patterns." Richard liked using long words. If you can't out argue them, his philosophy went, at least you can baffle them.
        "Do you think I could use it to get through to the bullies? To stop them making my life so miserable?"
        "Yes, that should certainly be possible. Bring your computer and the necessary software to school tomorrow."
        "But how do I get it to school? It's too heavy to take on the bus."
        "Get your mother to take you. She owns a car, does she not?"
        "Yes, but she won't want to."
        "You're forgetting something..."
        "Oh...yes!"
        "Right. Experiment with it on your little brother first, it would be embarrassing if it failed to work."

*        *        *

        "Mikey! Come in here a minute would you?"
        "What for?"
        "I've got something I want to show you."
        "Oh, all right." Seconds later, the door opened.
        "What is it?"
        "Come and look at this." Simon left his chair, and his brother sat down. Simon retreated to behind the screen, then leaned over and pressed a key on the keyboard.
        "Hey, that's really... good..." Simon watched his brother's face carefully. He was transfixed. In a very low, soft voice, Simon said:
        "When I say 'go', you will get down on the floor and do ten press-ups. You won't remember anything about being hypnotised, just some pretty patterns on the computer." Then he leaned over again and switched off the computer. The screen went dark.
        "Hey, what did you do that for? I was enjoying that."
        "Go." Mikey dropped to the floor and performed ten press-ups.

*        *        *

After putting Mikey back to normal, Simon performed a similar ritual for his mother. So, early next morning she helped him load the computer into the back of the car, and drove him to school. When he got there, the playground was fairly empty, as he was half an hour earlier than usual. He carried the computer to the classroom, which was empty, set it up and loaded the program, being careful not to look at the screen. Soon, the rest of the class filtered in and were caught, like flies on flypaper, to the computer screen, all apart from Richard, who walked in with his hands over his eyes so he could only see the floor. When they were sure that everyone who was coming had come, Simon began.

        "When you awaken, you will be totally under my control. You will act completely normally, as if today had been exactly the same as any other day, except that whenever I tell you to do something, you will want to do it. Your desire is to follow my every command."

        "Psst!"
        "What is it?" Richard beckoned to Simon to approach.
        "Don't you think that you ought to incorporate some kind of safety guard, so that they won't do anything you say unless you confirm it?" Richard was talking in a low whisper, so that the hypnotised group wouldn't pick up on what he was saying.
        "Like what?"
        "You should say that they should only interpret what you're saying as a command if you touch them on the shoulder, something like that."
        "Okay." Simon returned to the group and spoke. "You will only interpret what I say as a command if I touch you on the shoulder while I am speaking." He looked over to Richard, who gave a thumbs-up sign. Then, still careful to avoid eye contact with the computer screen, he reached through the crowd and switched of the computer screen. Everyone blinked. A large, acne ridden boy turned to face Simon.
        "Why did you do that?"
        "Yea, we were enjoying that. I reckon we'll have to beat him up, now." Simon reached over to the boy who had made the suggestion and put his finger on his shoulder.
        "From now on, you are complete pacifist. You detest violence and have no intention of beating me up." He let go. The boy looked puzzled and then returned to the group. But the large, spotty boy had decided that he would carry out the deed. Quick as a flash, Richard saw what was going on, and barged through to switch on the computer screen. Instantly, everyone facing Simon stopped in their tracks, and Simon nearly turned round to see what had caused them to do this. "I am speaking to you all. From now on, you will have no memory of anything I say when I am touching someone on the shoulder. Also, you are all pacifists." Simon switched the screen off again. Again the large youth approached, and Simon feared for his life. What if he was immune to hypnosis?
        "I'm not a violent person, but just don't do that again, right." Simon breathed a sigh of relief.

*        *        *

        "Well, that's solved the bullying problem."
        "It certainly seems to have done the trick."
        "But that's not all I can do, is it? I've got this incredible power, and I'm just using it in self-defence. I could be rich. I could get a new computer, for a start."
        "Do you really think that that is morally acceptable? After all, someone or something has granted you this incredible power, and you want to use it for financial gain."
        "No way. I've made this myself. The world has taken from me for long enough, making me look small and weak. Now I've got the chance to take back from it."
        "Well, I'm not having anything to do with it. Count me out."
        "You can have your share. Money, computers, whatever you want."
        "It's really tempting, but I can't accept stolen goods. I don't really think you should, either, but it's none of my business if you do."
        "You're right, it isn't any of your business. In fact, if you don't want to help me you can leave now. Goodbye."
        "You'll be sorry. Sooner or later, you'll be in trouble." Frustrated, Richard left the room.

*        *        *

Simon's portable computer arrived a few days later. Richard watched through binoculars from the other side of the street as Simon signed for the parcel. He had been watching for the few days. Watching, as everyone he knew came under the spell. No-one else noticed, Simon had been careful to make nothing look suspicious, and whenever someone did start to get wind of the truth, he hypnotised them. Now, of course, it would be much easier. Excepting Richard, all the staff and pupils at the school including the headmaster were now under Simon's spell. Simon hadn't paid much attention to Richard at all these last few days. He wasn't needed now. Everybody was his friend, like it or not.

But Richard knew he had to do something. Simon was becoming so completely self-centred and greedy that Richard knew that sooner or later he was going to attempt to hypnotise him. He knew that he couldn't let that happen. He might be the only person left who could stop this before it got even more out of hand. But how? Everybody would be out to stop him. He needed a plan. He thought for a while. What advantage did he have over Simon? Then it hit him. He'd have to sabotage the hypnosis program. That meant getting his hands on the computer, which wouldn't be easy, especially not on his own.

*        *        *

Richard had seen Simon's mother go out already, that left him and his brother. He rang the bell.
        "Go and see who's at the door, Mikey!" came Simon's voice from upstairs. Seconds later, Mikey opened the door. Richard grabbed him and tied the gag over his mouth before he had time to do anything. He had practised on his pillow, but he still didn't make a very good job of it.
        "Mmmm, MMMM!"
        "Be quiet. This is for your own benefit." Richard pulled Mikey's hands behind his back and handcuffed them together with the toy handcuffs he had brought. Then, he tied his feet together. He took him around the side of the house and left him there. Then, he returned to the front door and rang the bell again.
        "Mikey! I said go and see who's at the door! Mikey?" Richard ran around to the back of the house, being careful to make sure that Simon couldn't see him from his bedroom window. As Simon went to see who was at the front door, Richard crept around to the back and tried the handle. It was locked. He looked through the wrinkly glass and could just see the key in the lock on the other side. He fished around in his pocket for a piece of wire and a scrap of paper. He unfolded the paper and slid it through the draught excluder underneath the door. There was a gap of a good centimetre or so. Next, he pushed the wire into the keyhole. After some fiddling, the key popped out of the other side and landed just on the corner of the paper. He pulled the paper but the draught excluder prevented the key from coming through, and he could see that it was in danger of coming off. He took the wire and managed to hook the key, and finally got it through to the other side, where he quickly unlocked the door.

By this time, Richard realised, Simon would have discovered that there was no-one at the door and would have returned to his room. Richard knew that he couldn't return to the front door - Simon would see him through the window. So, the only way left was in. He opened the door carefully, being sure to make as little noise as possible. He crept through the house to the front door, opened it, and rang the bell.
        "Got you!" Simon scared Richard out of his wits. Unbeknown to Richard, Simon had discovered Mikey upon answering the doorbell, and deduced the details of the plan from what he told him. Richard caught a glimpse of Simon's new portable computer and shut his eyes tightly. He knew that if he opened them he would be hypnotised instantly. Quickly, before Simon had a chance to persuade Richard to open his eyes, he took a small mirror from his pocket and pointed it between where he thought Simon and the computer screen were. Being careful not to move the mirror too much, he turned around and opened his eyes. As he turned back, he could see that his plan had worked. Simon was hypnotised.

*        *        *

        "I was being stupid, wasn't I?" Simon asked.
        "It was partly my fault, too. I gave you the idea of hypnotising the anarchists in the first place." Richard replied.
        "I thought I was going to take over the world or something. I'm going to have to put everyone back the way they were, now, aren't I."
        "You most definitely are."
        "But I can leave the bullies as pacifists, can't I?" Richard shook his head.
        "I've been thinking about that. If you do that, sooner or later you'll be tempted to correct everything about them that irks you. You'll be back to where you were. Besides, I've been cogitating, and I don't think that you need to hypnotise people to get them on your side."
        "But I can't just let them go on making my life miserable."
        "You don't have to. I contend that if you talk to them they'll find out what a exceptional individual you are, and your quandary will be rectified. Don't try to avoid them, just treat them like human beings."
        "Thanks. But what can I say that will get them to stop treating me like dirt?"
        "I propose that you entice them around for a game of, say..." Richard rifled through Simon's computer disks, which were scattered around the room "...Simon says."

Aliens

Friday, December 9th, 1994

Billy Fisher was aboard the 'Explorer', the first interstellar space mission based on the Fisher-King hyperspace unit. Perhaps it ought to be called the 'King-Fisher', he thought.
        "Captain to bridge! What's our ETA?"
        "Fifteen seconds to orbit, sir."
        "Good. Let me know when we land." Captain Fisher returned to his game of tri-dimensional chess.
        "Checkmate in three moves unless you move that knight, Dexter." Billy dropped a hint. His opponent saw what he was talking about and moved the knight. Immediately, Billy moved his queen to level 3.
        "Checkmate." he said, with a hint of better-luck-next-time in his voice.
        "Bridge to captain! We will be landing on the surface of Omicron Delta four in ten seconds."

        "I think perhaps I'll give up on the other sex. They're just so confusing." Billy was brought back to reality by his friend, Dexter King, talking. "I mean, take Mary for instance. Her friend said that she really liked me and would I like to go out with her, but when I asked her she said no. Does she like me or not?"
        "Huh?" said Billy.
        "Oh, you weren't listening to a word I said, were you. Where did you go this time?"
        "Captain of the starship 'Explorer.' Interstellar mission to explore the unknown reaches of the universe."
        "...To explore new worlds and go where no-one has gone before. You really do watch too much TV."
        "What were you talking about, anyway?"
        "Oh, nothing interesting enough to keep you out of warp-drive. The opposite sex."
        "What have they done this time?"
        "I like Mary, and Julie says Mary likes me back. Mary says that Mary doesn't like me, but Julie says that she's just playing hard-to-get."
        "Why don't you just ask her out?"
        "Oh, for crying out loud! I did! She said no!"
        "Then maybe she doesn't like you."
        "Well, why would her best friend say she did if she didn't?"
        "Okay, so maybe she is playing hard-to-get. Ask her out again."
        "But what if she really doesn't like me? I'd look a right idiot."
        "Well, why would Julie say she does if she doesn't?"
        "Oh, I don't know. It's just too complicated. Unless, maybe, you could ask her out for me?"
        "No. You know what I'm like, I'd only screw it up."
        "Yea, you're probably right. Well, see you at break, then."
        "See you."

Billy returned to the 'Explorer.' He was clad in a space-suit, all ready to go out onto the planet's surface.
        "Air lock sealed, sir."
        "Ready when you are, lieutenant."
        "Opening air lock now." Billy imagined he felt a breeze as a small amount of residual air escaped with a hiss. A bright blue landscape spread from horizon to horizon before him, with dark shadows and wispy dust storms. Billy sat down in the driver's seat of the two-man exploration buggy that had rolled out of another compartment of the ship.

Billy was still daydreaming on the bus that evening. He had discovered an alien civilisation where three-eyed rat-like creatures with tridents ruled an underground world. He was just about to form a peaceful treaty between the two races when someone sat down next to him. He looked around to see who it was. It was Mary Shelley, the girl that Dexter was after. Billy was faced with a decision. Should he try to ask this girl out for his friend? Or should he return to Omicron Delta four before the aliens decided to conquer the human race?

        "Um, Mary?"
        "Huh?"
        "Listen. I've got something to ask you." Mary removed her headphones and looked at Billy with perplexity.
        "What is it?"
        "I've got this friend who really likes you, and, well, he wanted to know if you'd go out with him."
        "Well, who?"
        "You know Dexter King?"
        "Yes. No! Not him!"
        "Why? Don't you like him?"
        "Like him? I've been trying to summon up the courage to ask him out for weeks!"

*        *        *

        "You did what?"
        "I asked her out for you. That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
        "Yes, yesterday morning, but I figured that she didn't really like me and I asked someone else out."
        "Whaaat? Who?"
        "Julie Sanderson. Mary's best friend. Oh, how could you do this to me. You must have been in wonderland when I told you!"
        "She said yes..."
        "Oh thanks. That's a great help. Now what am I going to do? I can't ask them both out, and whoever I don't choose will think I'm really stupid!"
        "Who do you really like?"
        "Oh, I don't know. They're both great girls."
        "Choose one. I'll tell the other one you're not interested."
        "Well, Julie is good looking, but she isn't so bright. I'll go for Mary."
        "Good. Leave it to me."

*        *        *

        "You're late, Mr Fisher. Our people abhor tardiness. However, we are certain that the treaty will be the best thing for both our races. We hope you are ready to sign."
        "I certainly am. Before I do, though, I would just like to say that I am honoured to represent the human race, and delighted to be such an important part of both our histories. So, give me the contract and then we can get on with the celebrations!"

*        *        *

        "Well, that's that all sorted out. Julie only said yes to you because she didn't want to hurt your feelings. So where are you going to take Mary?"
        "How about Omicron Delta four?"

Exodus

Friday, December 31st, 1993

It is now well known that the dinosaurs were killed off by a huge asteroid crashing into the earth. Ever since this was proven, people have feared that the same thing will happen again, and wipe out the human race. That is why the Asteroid Alert station was set up. This station is not only useful for the postponing of the eventual doomsday, but also for the destruction of smaller asteroids which could prove inconvenient to interplanetary travel. Not only that, it is also a good way of disposing of the unwanted nuclear weapons made during the cold war two centuries ago.

Though the station is unmanned, the computers controlling it will contact a human if it detects anything that is bigger than could be destroyed by a single missile. Anything smaller is automatically destroyed after the computer has made sure that the space routes are clear. The post of Asteroid Alert Contact is currently held by Sita Gandhi, an Indian woman who is a direct descendant of the Mahatma Gandhi, who was a ruler of India long ago. The Gandhis ruled India until only a few years ago, when the president (as the title now is) was shot, like so many of his ancestors.

The last time the station called Sita was not because of an unusually large asteroid, but something much worse. A new comet had been detected and was heading straight for earth.

Sita was at a dinner party when the AAC computer raised the alarm. She had been trained to know exactly what to do in this situation, but this was the first time she had actually had to use her training, and she saw no cause for alarm. She quickly explained to her host and left for the station, only a few hundred kilometers away. The journey took only ten minutes in her skybike. When she reached the station, it took only a quick glance at the computer monitors to see that this was no false alarm. If she didn't act fast, Earth would probably be destroyed in ten days. She picked up the telephone.

'Hello, this is Gandhi. Put me through to the president. There's a comet heading for earth.' she said in a panicky, out of breath voice, forgetting even to dial the number. When she got finally got through to the president she had calmed down enough to explain the situation. The president made a few telephone calls and in less than half an hour, the best mathematicians, scientists and politicians from around the world gathered in that tiny building to work out what to do. If nothing was done, the comet, they decided, would definitely wipe out all the life on earth, save maybe a few small fish and insects.

As the best minds on the planet worked out their plan of action, Sita didn't stand idle. She was a very intelligent woman and understood perfectly what was going on. Gradually, it dawned on the whole group that the only way of preventing the comet reaching earth was to make it crash into the earth's moon. The comet would pass very close to the moon on the way and although the nuclear weapons could not destroy the comet, they could deflect it out of orbit. Once it had crashed into the moon, both the comet and the moon would be smashed like a marble shot with a gun. The pieces would fly in all directions, including towards earth. These pieces would also have to be blown up.

It wasn't going to be easy, but the committee was confident that it could be done. The major problem was the inhabitants of the moon. During the early twenty-first century, many small spaceships were being made and many people sought an escape from the overpopulated areas of the earth. They looked for a new life, and found it on the moon. Now, they would have to leave it.

The population of the moon was less than a hundred thousand, but everyone would have to leave. At first, when they heard, they were horrified and some even refused. But soon they realised the scale of the situation and that even if the comet was left to hit earth, the moon would be without the food, materials and support the earth people gave them. Of course, not enough food for the whole population of the moon could be transported by spaceship. If it could, the exodus of the moon could be carried out quite easily in a few days. The under glass farms on the moon had provided the food for the majority of lunites for the last hundred years, but they still needed some from earth. Most living lunites were born on the moon and many had never even set foot on earth, so they would have a hard job learning to live with six times the gravity they were used to. The main problem, however, was transporting all those people. It was decided that if every spaceship in the solar system was to help, all the lunites could be transported within the ten days, but they wouldn't be able to carry much luggage even though nearly everything most of the lunites owned was on the moon.

Signals were sent out to all the spaceships capable of carrying passengers and they were ordered to dump their cargo and proceed immediately to the moon. Like Dunkirk, everybody and anybody who could fly a spaceship and had a serviceable craft was ordered to go, and this included Sita. She wasn't reluctant and, stopping only to check the fuel and food aboard her craft, ironically called the Silver Moon, proceeded to pick up as many lunites as she could. The first lunites at the space ports had packed and left as soon as they heard the news.

Over the next nine days, nearly five hundred spaceships made the journey eight times each, because the journey there and back took just over a day. Mostly, they were small ships with a passenger capability of ten, but for the exodus twice that many usually had to squeeze in. The spaceports - which were only designed for a handful of ships a day were also jam-packed. It was probably the nearest thing to a traffic jam that ever happened in space. Theoretically, everything had to be perfectly coordinated. Of course, this never happens in real life and when there was an accident or a serious jam, the following ships were diverted to other spaceports.

One time, Sita was stuck at a spaceport while the two or three ships that were landed were repaired. One of the passengers (it was decided that they couldn't be called lunites after they had left) came up to Sita in the cockpit and asked why they weren't landing. She explained to him that the few spaceports couldn't cope with this mass exodus, but that they were next in line to land, and would as soon as one of landed spaceships took off again. He exclaimed that life at the moment was like an episode from 'Star Trek'.

Whenever a party of ex-lunites landed at the spaceport, the passengers limped out of the ship as if they were covered in lead weights, and that is probably what it felt like. There were many casualties due to the extra gravity, and this was the main reason for delay. Most of the ex-lunites went to relatives after they had landed but the few who didn't have any stayed around at the spaceports and helped, hoping to find houses and jobs after the exodus was over.

Nine days after Sita had received the call to come to the station, the comet became visible from the moon. At first, it was just a faint dot in the sky, like another star. When she landed, she got a phone call to come back to the station to help fire the missiles. She dropped off her final load of passengers and her ship in India and headed for the AAC station. When she arrived, most of the committee were still working there - pointing at the screen and looking at their watches. One screen showed a countdown which read at nineteen hours and thirty minutes. The first batch of missiles were to be fired at exactly T minus eighteen hours, sixteen minutes and fifty seconds - meaning that it would be that long before the impact with the moon. If the missiles were launched a second before or after they were supposed to, then they would miss. The lives of everyone on the planet rested on the committee's shoulders.

Ten minutes before the missiles were to be launched, Sita sat down in front of a complicated looking control panel, entered a number on a keypad and turned a switch. The missiles would be launched by the computer, but Sita had to make sure that it was ready, unlike when there was just one missile to fire. More than that required special attention and authorization. Now, there was nothing else to do except wait.

At T minus ten seconds, the whole world was watching through television at the monitor screens in the station. At T minus five, everybody in the world held their breath. As each second ticked by the atmosphere grew even more intense until zero. Then, the noise of the nearby missiles taking off exploded into life. There was a clear diagram on a monitor of the earth, the moon the comet and now, the missiles which had been launched. One American television station had placed a cheap television camera on one of the missiles and this view was on another monitor. If they were successful, it would be played back for years to come, as would all the television pictures being taken there. The atmosphere was extreme - but apart from the sound of the computers - it was silent. The missiles, which were moving about twice as fast as the comet, were in the inaudibility of space and they and the comet would intercept in just a few minutes.

Suddenly, the phone rang - or rather bleeped. One of the mathematicians answered it and gave the handset to Sita. She repeated what she heard, forgetting that she was on international television. The whole world heard how there were still a dozen people left on the moon and nobody was prepared to go back and mount the rescue for fear of being hit by the comet. Sita knew exactly what she had to do. She drove out of the station to the spaceport, where 'Silver Moon' was waiting. Quicker than she had ever done before, she took off and headed at top speed for the moon. She had forgotten to check her fuel, and she was halfway there before she realised that she didn't have enough to get all the way back. She looked at the comet, now a white disc in the sky and saw a faint explosion at it's side. She smiled - the missiles had struck. People all around the world swore at her and wondered why she didn't turn back while she could, but either through bravery or insanity, she continued.

When she reached the moon, she had to circle for a while looking for the right spaceport. Before, it hadn't been a problem because there were people at all the spaceports. When she found them, the comet looked like a larger version of the sun and was steadily growing. As the last of the lunites jumped aboard, Sita looked for fuel. She was out of luck. One of the now ex-lunites explained to her that the last of the fuel had been taken by the rescuers. Desperate now, she climbed back into her cockpit and started the engine.

'This could be a rough ride' Sita shouted back to her passengers, a mad plan forming in her mind. She had been going for about an hour when the comet hit the moon. Some of the passengers tried to look back but the explosion was blinding. Suddenly, a huge rock flew right past the window, followed by another and another. Then, one of them struck the 'Silver Moon', and Sita turned the engines off. At first, she thought she could use this to take her right back to earth until she realised that the station on earth would be firing missiles to destroy the very asteroids she was using to get back home. If they fired one of the missiles at the asteroid she was hitching a lift from, she wouldn't know much about it.

She calculated just how far the remaining fuel would take her, and realised that in ten minutes, she could use it to get back home, as the asteroid had taken her much faster than she could have gone with her engines. After that ten minutes, she wasted no more time in leaving the asteroid and heading back for earth. Just as the asteroid overtook her, there was a blinding explosion. Another thirty seconds and she would have been dead. This lack of an error margin cost her, and she ran out of fuel just a hundred metres from landing. Fortunately she had a soft landing in a field. After pulling her passengers out of the wrecked 'Silver Moon' Sita ran back to the station to help with the destruction of the asteroids that used to be the moon. Not one of them large enough to survive burn-up was missed and the earth was ok.

More spaceship fuel was used in those ten days than in the last year of space travel, but not one life was lost. The ex-lunites soon learned to cope with the high gravity and they all found homes and jobs. Sita won many awards for her bravery, and ended up being president of India, where she had a long and happy reign. There were no major effects on the earth due to the loss of it's moon, apart from the loss of tides. The nights were darker, and many legends and fairy tales about the moon died out. For instance; how can you have a werewolf without a full moon?