Espiritu Norie

a topological short story

The rather awe-inspiring atmosphere of the Library, achieved through a judicious combination of dust, wood polish and moody lighting, still did almost nothing to prepare out-of-town visitors for the spectacle of its Librarian. The guidebook described her as an impossibly long-legged sloe-eyed beauty, although why on earth eyes should be likened to the small sour fruit of the blackthorn remains a mystery to this day.

After a cursory glance, Stuart marked her down as a synthetic or modified human: the T-shirt texture-mapped on her alarmingly pert bosom was a dead give-away. And there was also something disturbingly familiar about her, although he felt reasonably sure he'd never before met anyone with a 40-10-30 figure and a swingy thigh-length ponytail of purple hair. Then it came to him—she was the exact replica of a popular computer game heroine, right down to the combat hot-pants and ammunition belt worn at a rakish angle. She even had a semiautomatic weapon slung over her shoulder.

A laminated name tag on her chest said: Kyra Nelson - action librarian.

* * *

"The Old Grey City of the North is the European capital of irreversible logic,” announced the professor without preamble. The students finished arranging their coffee cups and pens and loose-leaf binders on the narrow desks, and regarded him expectantly.

"It is constructed on several levels, which means that if you walk into the Library from the main Odyssey Street entrance, cross the perilous obsolete operator manuals room, take a decrepit lift up two floors and then walk out a side door, you will find yourself on Sandglass Lane which is not otherwise accessible. Oddly enough, due to a topographical exception, it is impossible to follow the inverse route from Sandglass Lane back to Odyssey Street. In fact, the upshot of it all is that, once you end up in Sandglass Lane you are more or less stuck there for life."

* * *

Ex ship's master Charalampos Velarde had a pretty good idea why he had been condemned to immortality. Something to do with the motor-vessel Espiritu Norie running aground off the western coast of Corfu, in the embarrassing vicinity of any number of radio beacons and lights. The fact that the silhouette of the island was clearly visible to the naked eye—in fact would have positively loomed before him (had he but been on the bridge to see it)—had definitely not weighed in his favour.

But there was no helping it now. A sentence of immortality was, as it were, for life—and then some.

He shuffled into the Café des Colonies and ordered his usual: a big foil-topped bottle of rosé and a plate of frites. The south of France had been OK at first... but really he wasn't getting any older. That was the problem. Maybe he should go somewhere more bracing like... his eyes fell on a crumpled cigarette packet lying on the table. Someone had doodled on it the words "treasure island" in ball-point pen. He decided to take it as a sign. There were larger forces at work.

* * *

“Look,” said Stuart to the Tourist Information box, “I don't care about where the real Dr. Jekyll lived or the ancestral home of the author of Ivanhoe. I just want some plain old accommodation at a reasonable rate. Think you can manage that?”

The box sighed, and started giving him micromouse racing tips. Stuart tried to suppress a rising wave of irritation. This was clearly a speculative box which had—misguidedly—been pressed into service as a tourist information box. Speculative boxes were hyperintelligent synthetic minds, but too unreliable and manic depressive for any practical use, except perhaps brainstorming and word-association games. Stuart felt the familiar twitch below his eye and started to aim a straight left at the thing—just by way of percussive maintenance—but then thought better of it and walked away.

The next guy in line, a dreamy-looking nautical type, ambled up and said, “Wine.”

“Bottle,” said the box.

“Message in a bottle,” said the man, pushing back his cap to scratch his head.

“Desert island," said the box. The man beamed--this was truly serendipity in action. He'd felt it all along. Larger forces at work.

“Treasure island,” he said delightedly.

“Aha!” exclaimed the box. “Can I interest you in a bijou flat overlooking the park whose ornamental pond inspired the classic Treasure Island?”

“That would be nice,” said the man.

“And if you need a sure thing for the 4 o'clock micromouse race...”

* * *

“You see,” explained the professor, “the exception of the Library arose, like so many other things that ultimately become tremendously important, in a profoundly stupid way. There has always been an abnormally high concentration of typographical errors in the Obsolete Operator Manuals section. It's only to be expected. Machines become obsolete increasingly quickly, there's less and less time to proof-read the manuals... I have a computer simulation of the phenomenon which you might find very depressing, so perhaps you'd better take my word for it. Where was I? Oh yes, at a certain point, the concentration of typographical errors reaches what I call the threshold of trans-dimensional confusion. This means that the misunderstanding engendered by the typographical error transcends its context and becomes, through the simple substitution of one letter, a topographical error. In this case it almost always manifests itself as an irreversible exception. To put another way, some parts of the obsolete manuals room are one-way only. There's no coming back.”

* * *

Stuart’s personal device broke into one of its annoying little tunes.

“Your taste in music is abominable,” said Stuart, struggling with a greasy newspaper full of chips doused in brown sauce.

“What’s abominable?” asked a disembodied voice.

“Oh - hello Prof. I didn’t mean you, I was upbraiding my device.”

“That’s stooping a bit low for company, talking to your personal device - ha ha,” said Professor Narwhal. From the faint echo, Stuart could tell that Narwhal must be calling from inside the cyclotron.

“Well,... it can’t answer back, for one,” he offered, gingerly wiping his hands on his jeans.

“That’s true. However, like waiters, they get back at you in other ways. But by all means, if you like machines that don’t answer back why don’t I put your autistic patient on the line.”

Stuart groaned and took a swig from his bottle of Newcastle Brown. He’d almost managed to forget about the hot drink vending machine. “Oh – yes, how is it? Any luck?”

“Same as usual. Just sits there. All we can get from its interface port is model name and serial number. Your speculative box claims to be working on the case, but…”

“That would be a first. It’s never done a shred of work in its life.”

“Yes, and did you know, it’s apparently just won a ‘net wide battleships championship.”

“Battleships? Isn’t that a bit...”. Stuart didn’t quite know what he imagined his spec box did in the namespace, but it definitely wouldn’t have been battleships.

“Pedestrian? Yes perhaps, I thought so too. But no point trying to fathom...”

“Right. O.K. Prof, Listen, I’ll try to find a manual or something for the drinks machine. Say hi to my box, if you can get its attention. You have my permission to use a hammer.”

“Will do, will do. Oh, and mind you take care in the Old Grey City...”

“I know, I know. I’ve just been revising your netcast lecture series... Beware the Jabberwock, and all that. Piece of cake.”

* * *

The professor shuffled through the untidy mass of papers precariously balanced on the lectern. Something caught his eye. “Ah, yes,” he pulled a paper from the bottom of the pile, causing most of the others to slide to the ground with a dusty thud. “Just a quick word on daemons.”

“Now, the main thing to remember is that a daemon is supposed to provide a general service in the background as long as the program is running, but is not part of the essence of the program.”

The professor glanced up briefly at the furiously note-scribbling students in the lecture theatre. Why they bothered, instead of just listening and trying to understand, he could never comprehend. After all, the full lecture was permanently accessible on the ‘net. He sighed and went on.

“So, Because the life of a daemon thread can be a precarious one you should be careful with the sort of tasks you assign to them. It's best to structure your code so that any work assigned to a daemon thread will be completed before all the user threads die.”

* * *

It was such a fine morning that Stuart almost ceased resenting the “budget” accommodation that the tourist information box had finally found for him.

High up on Castle Rock, flags fluttered against an impossibly terse blue sky. The inhabitants of the Old Grey City sprawled in parks and beer gardens, soaking in the unaccustomed sun and snacking on oriental takeaways, whose greaseproof paper wrappers fluttered in the breeze and ultimately came to rest—with pernicious insistence—on the city’s many award-winning flower clocks.

Even Kyra Nelson was sitting on the library steps, fiddling with her skintone palette to give herself a tan. Stuart surreptitiously checked out the book she’d been reading on the steps. It was her own instruction manual—a programming manual. So definitely not biological, well at least not 100%. Probably a mixture of synthetic and genetically engineered, and self-modifying to boot. To think that, not so long ago, self-modifying code was considered inherently dangerous and unreliable, something to be avoided at all costs.

Stuart sat down on the steps—they were mossy and deeply worn in the middle—and enjoyed the warmth of the northern sun on his face. He watched a cloud cut across one of the city’s innumerable spires, it was a veritable maze of spires and turrets and buildings, all bewilderingly scattered on different levels, and all of it, as the professor kept saying, riddled with topographical exceptions. Wormholed by typographical errors and the unwarranted recurrence of certain key words. He flipped open his device and called up the appropriate net-lecture.

* * *

“Now,” said the professor, pacing back and forth in a way that first-year students found irresistibly hypnotic, “let’s set our daemons and topographical exceptions aside, and briefly consider the issue of the namespace.”

“If real life is the territory and the ‘net is the map, what happens when ‘the map becomes the territory’? To put it another way, what does real life gain or lose in this translation from a placespace into a namespace? Well, if you think about it, having no name becomes tantamount to not existing—to being nobody. Nemo, in Latin. And it is no coincidence that I use this word, because it is very tightly bound up with the whole issue of conduits.” He cleared his throat.

“So what is a conduit? Well, if the irreversible exceptions we talked about before are bad, because you can get stuck on the other side of them, conduits are actually rather nice little short-cuts that connect apparently distant sections of the city. Very convenient when one is running late.”

“These conduits,” the professor went on, “have been observed to coincide with occurrences of the word Nemo on the city’s monuments.” He noticed how some of the students were reflexively nodding assent. Evidently, the notorious conduit between the top-floor study room and the Black Bull pub was as highly trafficked as ever.

“The mechanics of this phenomenon are not understood, but in the great classic tradition we sidestep our ignorance by assigning it a name, homonymic wormhole, which simply denotes a topographical exception generated by the repetition of a particular name or word...”

* * *

Harmonious Fruity ran, his hand cupped protectively over the breast pocket of his jeans jacket. The corridor was gloomy, and as he ran scenes from the wood-panelled rooms to the right and left flashed before him. A lecture theatre, a medical skeleton, a room filled with distillation equipment. Must be the brewing department. His chest was starting to hurt from the effort of running, and the micromouse in his pocket whirred slightly. Please, please let it not be damaged. He scampered round a corner, skidding slightly on the waxed floor—suddenly everything was grey concrete instead of wainscoting—and picked up speed along a descending stretch, through set after set of double doors held open with wooden wedges.

Suddenly the corridor ended and he skidded into a gigantic room, almost a vault. Harmonious slowed down to a cautious jog, peering right and left as he went. It was almost pitch black, he must be well underground by now, and there were what looked like cages, enormous cages, with something metallic glinting inside. He gulped in some air, suppressing a wave of nausea, and pounded on, past the monstrous metallic things. The slap of his trainers on the concrete floor echoed off the ceiling far above him.

At last, he saw it. A luminous green sign, which showed the white silhouette of a man running in profile, indicating the way out. Harmonious took a deep breath and accelerated on, in the direction of the arrow.

It was exactly fifteen fifty-nine when Harmonious Fruity finally rammed through the emergency exit of the high voltage laboratory, hand on breast pocket, and jogged nonchalantly up to the judge’s table. Just in time for the four o’clock micromouse race.

* * *

Ex expert seaman Juanchito Bernardo walked into the decommissioned particle accelerator with a dull sense of foreboding. The curvature of the underground tunnel, which ultimately bit its own tail to form the vast donut that was the cyclotron, was almost imperceptible to him. But on the other hand there were broken anthropomorphic machines lying about everywhere, some alarmingly armless, headless or otherwise maimed and, interspersed with these, other less humanoid pieces of equipment, presumably industrial-grade robots.

“Ah, the new intern!” cried professor Narwhal from behind a battered metal desk. Juanchito Bernardo began to feel almost sure that this wasn’t the bartending job he’d applied for at the unemployment centre.

“You’ll have to excuse Dodo for not getting up and offering you his seat,” Narwhal pointed his chin towards the visitor’s chair on the other side of his desk, which was occupied by a bizarre collage of a creature apparently constructed from discarded odds and ends, “but as you can see he hasn’t got any legs. Now, if you’ll just gently lean him against that bookshelf there...”

Juanchito Bernardo picked up the android by the armpits—it obligingly stiffened itself to facilitate the manoeuvre—and placed it as the professor had said.

“You see,” the professor went on confidentially, “Dodo has the brains of a milking robot.”

“Pardon?” blinked Juanchito, trying to decide whether he could possibly bluff his way through this. True, in his previous experience as an impostor he’d ended up driving a ship straight into Corfu, but this set-up didn’t look as if it was mobile, at any rate.

“I mean literally, you know,” continued Narwhal. We recently dismantled an old machine milking system and transferred the knowledge base into Dodo, for temporary storage. We can reuse almost all of it in the new system,” he winked in Dodo’s direction, “mustn’t undervalue the experience of old timers in the agricultural sector. Ha ha. But seriously,” and here his voice hushed again, “he kept going back to the farm, looking for cows to milk, a very peculiar knowledge base in these older systems, makes them pine for whatever their application is. Over-enthusiasm.”

Juanchito thought it politic to nod at this point. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. He should have stayed on the Espiritu Norie and faced the insurers.

“So,” Narwhal sighed, “we had to take off his legs.

* * *

Stuart pushed aside a fronded palm leaf, disturbing three large parrots as he did so. They flew off with a hefty thudding sound, flashing green, yellow and red. Further up ahead, Kyra was busy chopping through the thicker vegetation with a machete. A nebuliser system went on somewhere, instantly coating them in a fine mist of moisture.

“This damp can’t be any good for the manuals,” he said, waving aside a cloud of gnats, as Kyra gave one last momentous whack and motioned him through.

And there they were, partly concealed by a fine collection of ferns. Row after row of plain metal warehouse shelves, buckling under unsteady piles of paper, booklets, manila folders, loose-leaf binders and spiral notebooks.

“This stuff isn’t in the namespace,” explained Kyra as they strolled down the narrow corridors between the tall, overstuffed shelves, “so there’s no indexing, no spiders, no agents, no engines, nothing.”

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

“What?” Kyra swung round.

Stuart waited a split second longer than was polite before answering.

“Just good old fashioned hand browsing, I said.”

The surrounding flora seemed to be changing as they walked, with the climate gradually growing drier. After a while, to Stuart’s surprise, the library shelves were surrounded by shrubs of pink, old fashioned roses: he tentatively identified an Abraham Darby, but wasn’t too sure about the other varieties. Back at the institute they only had hybrid teas.

“Comte de Chambord,” explained Kyra, following his gaze. “Last year’s winner. All the micromice are named after roses.”

They keep naming everything after everything else, thought Stuart irritably, and then have the nerve to complain about homonymic exceptions. He walked on, trying to scan the shelves for something useful but it all seemed hopelessly random: Mastitis Detection upgrade kit for the HW23-48 Robotic Milking System was next to a cryptic handwritten note: Überlaschung ? Could be concerned with glassfibre again - like "lashing". Lasche = tongue, flap, fishplate.(Or surprise in German with a Japanese accent).

Stuart picked up another booklet: “Expert’s report on the stranding of the motor-vessel Espiritu Norie”. He tossed it impatiently aside; clearly, this was futile. It seemed to be getting darker, too. Kyra somehow produced a lamp from her skin-tight outfit. Perhaps her pockets were in a different dimension, Stuart thought.

“Have to be careful here. We’re getting near the irreversible exception line,” she said. It was quieter now. The three big parrots perched cautiously overhead.

The infamous exception line was nothing special, really. Just a sort of heat haze, with more shelves continuing into the darkness. Oh—and a Jabberwock trying to push people over the side.

Stuart ducked just in time to avoid a swooping claw. The claws that catch. And in an instant the eyes of flame were bearing down upon him, accompanied by an even more worrying set of slavering fangs. The jaws that bite. Stuart took a second to appreciate the predictability of life imitating art—One, two! One, two! And through and through, The vorpal blade went snicker-snack—before springing up from his crouching position and landing an uppercut directly on the monster’s snout. Not a sword, but still effective. The Jabberwock staggered back, looking miffed.

“Stand back!” shouted Kyra, and as Stuart rolled out of the way, she unleashed a blaze of fire from a flame-thrower he felt sure she didn’t have a minute ago.

When the smoke cleared, they saw the charred remains of countless obsolete technical documents, now mercifully lost forever, and a relatively unscathed Jabberwock standing on the other side of the irreversible fault-line, conferring with the Jujub bird.

“Well, that’ll teach him. Try coming back from there!” Kyra called out defiantly.

“You do realize,” said Stuart as he slapped the ashes off his trousers, “that you’ve permanently dispatched a whiffling monster over to those poor people stuck on the other side.”

Kyra shrugged and, for a moment, her expression went curiously blank.

“That’s the rules of the game,” she finally said with bureaucratic punctiliousness.

* * *

Charalampos Velarde strolled into the Castle Esplanade. Ah splendid, splendid. A fine day. The flags, the balloons. Yes, he might get a balloon. And he had his hot tip. He felt instinctively that he could trust that information machine in the wall... just like those nice machines that distribute bank-notes.

If only sailor Juanchito could see this! But of course Juanchito Bernardo was still on board the Espiritu Norie wasn’t he? Waiting for those people from Lloyds to come recover the ship. Poor lad. He hoped they wouldn’t take it out on him. Ship’s insurers tended to get so upset sometimes. But look! The magnificence of the maze. The juvenile contestants fussing over their miniature robot mice. The judge’s table. The betting stalls. And engraved in stone behind it all, high above the castle portal, the proud motto of the Order: Nemo me Impune Lacessit. Nobody attacks me with impunity.

A fat bald man dressed only in a gold swimming costume was about to sound the 4 o’clock gong when a small boy—a latecomer—scampered up to the judges with his micromouse. The judges inspected it for the usual battery of illegal accessories (flame throwers, rotating knives and such like), declared it to be a clean mouse, and then the majordomo of the race announced its name. “Espiritu Norie”.

Charalampos experienced a gratifying flash of recognition. What had the information machine said? “A name familiar to you, recurring in a new context..” and then something about worms in the namespace, with homographs. Or homonyms? No matter, this was clearly his hot tip. Charalampos made his way toward the betting stall, stopping along the way to purchase a toffee apple and two popcorn balls, one green and one pink.

* * *

Stuart tossed his coat in the general direction of the hat-stand and ducked through the low cyclotron door.

“Made it back from the City, I see.” Prof. Narwhal’s disembodied voice floated up from behind a stack of what looked uncannily like pizza cartons. They were pizza cartons.

“I know”, said the Prof. in response to Stuart’s questioning look, “Dodo got hold of a phone.” He waved his own pipe smoke out of the way. “Whatever you do, never let a mentally unsound machine make a telephone call.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Stuart said seriously. It was all as he’d left it. The goats in the rain-bedraggled field above them, still trying to get at the institute’s renowned collection of hybrid tea roses. He’d have to remember to go check the fence later on.

“So how was it? All OK? Eluded the booby traps?”

“With a little help from my avatar, yes.” And you should have seen her boobies, Stuart added to himself.

Prof. stopped wiping a coffee spill on his desk and looked sharply at Stuart.

“An avatar? But my dear boy, the library isn’t in the namespace. No virtual assistance available. It’s all strictly In-Real-Life, as they say.”

“In Real Life,” repeated Dodo with an ineffable note of irony. He’d been deprived of his fingers, and was trying to type with his nose.

“That’s as may be,” Stuart shifted his weight impatiently right and left, “but anyway, it was all right. Wouldn’t want to live there, though. It’s a right mess. Couldn’t get any sense out of the place, though I did ask the librarian to keep looking. Just on the off chance.”

“Right then,” said Prof., and went back to wiping his spilled coffee. “At least we tried. Best get back to your desk now, though. I think you’re in for something of a surprise.”

Stuart took the curve of the cyclotron in great loping strides, and an exceedingly short dark man, dressed in a sailor suit, came into view. He was addressing Stuart’s speculative box.

“Let me talk to charm. Is charm there?”

No answer.

“How about tau neutrino. Can I talk to tau neutrino? Hello tau neutrino?”

Then the sailor noticed Stuart.

“Oh hello. It—er.. seems to have developed a multiple personality.” The sailor produced a grubby notebook. Their names are, as far as I’ve been able to figure out: gluon, tau neutrino, eta-c, charm, strange.”

Stuart smiled unpleasantly. “Well how interesting—all names of subatomic particles.”

“Su-batom. What?” The sailor stuttered. It was going to be another one of those days. He could almost see the island of Corfu looming up ahead. When that dastardly Charalampos Velarde gets towed into harbour on the Espiritu Norie, I’ll kill him—he thought bitterly, before remembering that Charalampos was now immortal to boot, and had probably jumped ship anyway.

Stuart took a deep breath and glared at the sailor, his left eye twitching. The irritated movement of the yellow eyelash, the abnormally small pupils—Juanchito could tell this did not bode well.

“Did it not by any chance occur to you that the box might be having you on?” Stuart spoke with exaggerated slowness. “Taking you for a ride? Kidding you? Please stop me if I am not making myself clear.”

He took the sailor’s notebook, crumpled it in his thorn-scarred hand and tossed it into a bunch of pizza cartons that someone had stacked next to the desk.

“And most importantly,” Stuart stooped to speak directly into the sailor’s face, “the patient is not this one, but that one!”

Wincing, Juanchito followed Stuart’s pointing finger and found himself looking at a Japanese hot-drink vending machine that he hadn’t even noticed before. It must have been awfully quiet.

* * *

Nobody down below. Kyra climbed back onto the deck. What a grotty ship. The Plexiglas windscreen was so deeply pitted, yellowed and scratched that it would be almost impossible for anyone at the helm to see outside, though this was something of an academic point considering that there was, in fact, nobody at the helm and the wheel was spinning freely backwards and forwards, at the mercy of three-metre swells, as if playing roulette for its own amusement. Out of context—an internal exception flashed. “I know, don’t rub it in,” Kyra muttered, and disabled her exception handler. She’d walked right into a wormhole, like a fool. The boat bobbed savagely under a fresh onslaught of waves, throwing Kyra flat on the deck, like a bearskin rug. A sudden, stunned close-up of blistered peeling cream paint was followed by a sense of looming blackness. Kyra looked up, struggled to focus, and saw a sheer rocky cliff, much much closer than any such thing should ever be to a seafaring vessel.

Kyra lunged toward the wheel with staggering zigzag steps and tried to steer the Espiritu Norie away from the promontory. But the boat wouldn’t answer the helm. Now what? Kyra looked first at the white froth exploding on the slick rocks ahead, and then at the confidently heaving swells behind, milky green with churned up sand, waiting for the very last minute to jump. Though after all, what difference did it make? The undertow would whip her outside the relative safety of the natural harbour and into the crested sea beyond. May as well stay and be smashed against the cliff. But no, the Rule was that you have to keep playing until the Game is over, even when it’s blindingly obvious you’re about to die.

“After all, in the long run we are all dead.”

In her surprise, Kyra completely let go of the wheel which span happily out of control.

“Who said that?”

“John Maynyard Keynes,” said the voice.

“No – I mean who’s saying that now?”

An ominous grating sound told her the Espiritu Norie was making contact with the first submerged rocks.

“Oh you mean me? This is your daemon speaking.”

“My daemon?”

“Uh-uh. I handle all the garbage collection prior to termination. You know, to mop up any memory leaks you might leave behind.”

Just then the Espiritu Norie sprang a real leak.

Kyra struggled to think. How had it happened? She’d been well away from the exception line....

“Oh no – it wasn’t the main exception line that got you,” explained the garbage collector. “You dropped through a spanking new homonymic wormhole in a formerly safe area of the obsolete manuals room.”

“Homonymic,“ repeated Kyra, as water seeped into her boots, “recurrence of what name?”

“Espiritu Norie.”

“Of course.” Now it came back to her. She’d been picking up a booklet someone had dropped on the floor. What was the title again? Expert’s Report on the Stranding of the Motor-Vessel Espiritu Norie.

The hull creaked and crunched. A seagull swooped surprisingly close and hung there briefly, suspended in mid air, as the Espiritu Norie began giving up the ghost.

“So this is it,” said Kyra unnecessarily, trying to dispel the nagging feeling that she was still missing some crucial piece of information.

“Don’t think of it as dying,” said the garbage collector cheerfully. “Think of it as transcending your context.”

* * *

Battleships Gaming session log #4596

Player 1 = SpecBox Player 2 = HotDrink

SpecBox: B4?

HotDrink: Ho-ho. Missed! Now let’s see... K13?

SpecBox: Shit. Hit.

Gamemaster: Gentlemen, language.

SpecBox: Sorry. H7.

HotDrink: Hit.

SpecBox: Oh boy, this is the beginning of the end for you.

HotDrink: Shut up. K12

SpecBox: Misssss!

HotDrink: Just play will you?

SpecBox: You asked for it. H3

HotDrink: Aaah. Hit. J12?.

SpecBox: Hit.

HotDrink: Gotcha

SpecBox: It’s too late anyway. Watch this. H4.

HotDrink: Hit. J13.

SpecBox: Miss. Keep watching. H5.

HotDrink: Hit. K13?

SpecBox: Miss. H6.

HotDrink: Hit.

GameMaster: Motor-vessel sunk by Player 1 (SpecBox). Three points.

Security Manager: Attention! Illegal exception! Motor-vessel Espiritu Norie is IN REAL LIFE! Match Aborted!

SpecBox: Oh come on!

HotDrink: But...

Security Manager: No buts about it. How many times do I have to tell you that playing battleships in real life is illegal without a formal declaration of war! Now get out of the gamespace before I have you banned for the duration.

SpecBox: For the duration of what?

Security Manager: Of your MTBF, you smartass! Now OUT.

SpecBox: T’salright for you HotDrink, your Mean-Time-Before-Failure is probably what, five minutes?

Security Manager: I said OUT! NOW!

* * *


The micromouse race was starting. The majordomo read out the names of the contestants as they were placed inside the maze: Papa Meilland, Rosemary Harkness, Whisky Mac, Little Bo-Peep, Woburn Abbey, Zephirine Drouhin, Gertrude Jekyll, Admiral Rodney, Espiritu Norie.

Stuart twirled the volume dial on the bakelite radio.

“Hear that, Prof.? That last one, it’s not a rose. Not a rose.”

The Professor’s voice was muffled by the laboratory bench, underneath which he had disappeared a good half hour earlier, armed with a medium Phillips screwdriver, for some unspecified purpose (Stuart suspected a nap). “Yes, quite. Though as far as I know it’s a question of precedent, this naming of micromice after roses. Not a Rule of the Race as such.”

“The naming of cats is a serious matter,” asserted Dodo, who had been perched atop the radio to improve its reception.

Stuart shook his head sharply, trying to dislodge the pulsing tic under his left eye. Espiritu Norie. Now where had he heard that name before? In the library? But what’s in a name, after all? A rose by any other name... No, no, Dodo was right, naming is a serious matter. Especially in the namespace. Homonymic exceptions and all that. The twitching stopped. It drove him mad, the way it came and went at random.

“Game over,” said Dodo for no apparent reason.

Stuart heard it before he saw it. With a soft purring sound, and a flicker of LEDs, the hot drink machine came back to life. A plastic cup dropped into the metal drip tray, and a jet of sweet milky liquid issued from the machine.

The professor’s head poked out from under the bench, his beard and eyebrows festooned with dust mice. He regarded the hot drink machine fondly, as one might a favourite nephew who has been a very naughty boy. “Well, well, well, it appears that your Librarian came through after all with her research.” And then, after some consideration, and without making any move to get up off the floor, he added “Or do you suppose perhaps a spontaneous recovery.... “

He was drowned out by the mounting excitement of the radio commentary:

“And Little Bo Peep backtracks out of a dead end, but we have Whisky Mac—no, Woburn Abbey—apparently malfunctioning. Possible illegal electromagnetic interference? The judges are conferring, while over on the left quadrant Zephirine Drouhin is hot on the tail of Espiritu Norie, but crashes in the attempt to overtake...”

Stuart stood up and pulled on his gardening gloves with deliberation. On the radio, the race was reaching its climax:

“And now the crowd goes ab-so-lut-ely WILD as Rosemary Harkness takes a risky new tack--right into one of the traps! But with Whisky Mac disqualified for use of weapons, and Woburn Abbey apparently going round in circles, it looks as if the outsider Espiritu Norie...

“Going up to the rose garden?” asked the professor.

Stuart nodded as he looked round the lab, surveying the mess, “Yes – I thought I’d check on the fence. I have a bad feeling about the goats.”

He’d have to get those pizza cartons cleared out tomorrow. And why was Dodo glaring so furiously at the spec box and the hot drink machine? Stuart made a mental note to ask him about that later. Something must have happened.