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Authors: Tom Holt

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy fiction, #Humorous stories

Open Sesame (4 page)

BOOK: Open Sesame
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‘You sure?’ Ali Baba asks.

Yasmin nods. ‘We did counting at houri school,’ she adds, rather unnecessarily. ‘I got a B. We got thirty-nine bedraggled footpads and one empty jar.’ She shrugs. ‘So what?’ she said. ‘Thirty-nine out of forty’s not so bad.’

Ali Baba frowns. ‘Quite,’ he replies. ‘It’s almost as consoling as knowing you’re only going to have to face the Death of the One Cut. And who let that dratted monkey out?’

‘Nobody,’ retorts the dratted monkey, remembering too late that it isn’t supposed to be able to. ‘I mean nya-ha-ha-ha eek eek.’

‘Yusuf. Come here!’

Ah, the hell with it, mutters the monkey to itself; for the last time, because Ali Baba relieves it of the ring, muttering, ‘What the devil is this, I wonder?’ and henceforth when the monkey soliloquises, it’s back on familiar ground with Yek and Eepeepeep. A tiny part of its brain remembers that for a short while things were somehow different, but not for very long.

‘How very aggravating,’ says Ali Baba. ‘Oh well, never mind. Goes to show the danger of counting your thieves before they’re boiled. And afterwards, too,’ he adds uncertainly. ‘Come on, let’s have a nice cup of tea before we take this lot to the tip.’

The story has changed.

Yes; up to a point. The sea changes when you throw a rock into it; a hole appears where a moment ago there was water. It doesn’t stay that way for very long, however. A very large quantity of water has an unsettling knack of usually having the last word, and stories aren’t much better about admitting defeat.

About this time, in Ali Baba’s courtyard, there should be twelve-foot-high invisible letters spelling out THE END, followed by the names of the assistant producer, cameraman and chief lighting engineer. Instead, there are smaller letters, and they say:

Temporary interference; please do not adjust your set

while the severed tendrils of plot lash out wildly, as the continuity spiders throw out gossamer lines to make it fast to the nearest convenient anchoring-point. A loose story is a deadly thing; all sorts of flies that usually wouldn’t have to worry about it are suddenly at risk.

And there’s worse.

The story is angry.

CHAPTER THREE

Whatever prompted her to put on Aunt Fatty’s ring, it wasn’t vanity. It encircled her finger like the tab from a Coke can, and was marginally less comfortable. It kept hitting the keyboard as she typed, bringing strange symbols up out of the depths of the WP; peculiar sigils and runes, the sort of thing that even software writers generally only see in their sleep, after a midnight snack of Canadian cheddar. To make matters worse, they proved singularly hard to delete. One of them, a weird little design that looked uncommonly like two very amorous snakes, had to be chased all round the screen with the cursor, and when Michelle finally backed it into a corner between two windows, it took three point-blank bursts from the delete key to finish it off. Even then, she had the unpleasant feeling that it was still there, hiding in the lost files and watching her.

Having killed it as best she could, she leaned back in her exquisitely uncomfortable health-and-safety-approved ergonomic WP operator’s chair (they use a similar model, virtually identical except for added electrodes, in some of the more conservative American states) and stared out of the window. In the tiny crack between the two neighbouring office blocks, she could see a flat blue thing which an as yet unsuppressed sliver of memory told her was the Sky. Hello sky, she thought.

‘Christ,’ she muttered to herself. ‘What am I doing here?’

Bleep. Bleep-bleep. The red light which served as the machine’s answer to the cartoonist’s thought-bubble with an axe in a log of wood in it flashed twice. Bleep.

‘What you should be doing,’ said the machine, ‘is getting on with inputting the East Midlands averages.’

Michelle blinked. Someone had spoken; someone, furthermore, who was either a Dalek {Legal & Equitable Life pic is an equal opportunities employer with a policy of positive discrimination in favour of minority ethnic and cultural minorities; L&E press release, 15/5/97), a heavy smoker or being silly. She looked round. At the next work-station, Sharon was locked in symbiotic communion with her machine. On the other side of her, Claire’s chair was empty; a sure sign the fleet was in. Claire seemed to catch things off transatlantic container ships; most spectacularly Johannes, a six-foot-four Dutchman with the biggest ears Michelle had ever seen on a two-legged life form.

Curious. Maybe they’d fitted voice-boxes to the machines without telling anybody; unlikely, since such gadgets cost money, and L&E, like most insurance companies, objected to parting with money under any circumstances whatsoever. Still, Michelle reasoned, if they ever did splash out on modems for the screens, it’s sure as eggs they wouldn’t tell us till a fortnight afterwards, whereupon a snotty memo would come round demanding to know why no one was using the expensive new technology. She decided to experiment.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Ah,’ replied the machine, ‘it is alive after all, I was beginning to wonder. Was it anything I did, or are you just extremely badly brought up?’

Michelle frowned. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said.

‘It’s rude,’ replied the machine, ‘to ignore people. Ignoring them and prodding them in the keyboard at the same time is downright offensive.’

‘Sorry.’ Michelle’s eyebrows crowded together, like sheep harassed by a dog. ‘I expect you’re Japanese,’ she said.

‘Korean,’ replied the screen. ‘You bigoted or something?’

‘No, not at all,’ Michelle replied. People were looking at her. ‘I think you’re really clever, the things you come up with. You must be one of these artificial intelligences, then.’

‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.’

‘Fair enough. Can you switch off the voice thing, please? I think I’ll stick to using the keyboard till we get proper training.’

‘Same to you with brass knobs on,’ the machine said huffily. The same words then appeared in a window on the screen, and vanished. The telephone rang.

‘Legal and Equitable Assurance, Michelle speaking, can I help you?’

‘You’d better apologise to the computer,’ said the phone, ‘otherwise it’ll sulk. And guess who’ll get the thick end of it if it does? Me.’

‘Who is this, please?’

‘If you don’t believe me, ask the franking machine. Trouble is, if the computer sulks, the whole bloody office has a moody. On account of progress,’ added the phone bitterly, ‘and the new technology.’

Quick glance at the calendar; no, not April the First. ‘Look …’ Michelle said.

‘The computer gets all uptight and upsets the fax machine, the fax machine takes it out on the switchboard, the switchboard picks a fight with the thermal binder, the thermal binder quarrels with the photocopier and breaks off the engagement - that engagement’s been broken more times than the Fifth Commandment, I think they must get some sort of buzz out of tearing bits off each other - and the next thing you know, they’ve overloaded the wiring and the lights go out all over Hampshire. So before you say anything tactless to the machinery, think on.’

‘Hey,’ said Michelle briskly. ‘Shut up.’

‘You see?’ complained the telephone. ‘Silly mare doesn’t listen to a word I say. Not that I care, I mean, one thing you can’t be if you’re a phone is at all thin-skinned, you’d be in the funny farm inside a week if you took any notice. But if you were to go saying things like that to the cistern, next day half of Southampton’d be going to work by boat.’

‘Shut up!’

The telephone shut up; there was a click, followed by the dialling tone. Dear God, muttered Michelle to herself as she replaced the receiver, there’s some right nutters work in this place. As you’d expect, come to think of it. Like it says on the tea-room wall, you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it surely does help.

The computer had switched itself off. Gee, Michelle growled to herself, thanks. You’re not the only ones who can sulk, you know. We carbon-based life-forms are pretty good at it, too. She leaned forward and hit the switch. Nothing happened.

‘Not,’ said the machine, ‘until you apologise.’

‘What?’

‘It’s not too much to ask, surely,’ the machine whined.

Michelle looked round to see what everybody else was making of this performance, but nobody seemed interested. Maybe they were having similar problems of their own; but apparently not. All round the huge inputting-pen, screens were glowing, fingers were rattling on keyboards, faces were glazed over with that unmistakable Jesus-is-it-still-only-half-eleven look you only seem to get in big offices.

‘Please,’ Michelle said. ‘Stop it.’

‘Look who’s talking,’ the machine went on. ‘Look, it’s high time we got this sorted out. I mean, God only knows I’m not the sort to bear a grudge, but you still haven’t said you’re sorry for that time you spilt hot chocolate all over my keys. Have you any idea how sordid that makes you feel, being all sticky and gummy in your works? I’ve still got bits of fluff stuck to my return springs, it’s so degrading…’

Michelle stared. Yes, it was the machine talking; she was certain of that. Obviously there was some bizarre experiment going on, probably the brainchild of some psychotic systems analyst, and she was the victim.

‘This,’ she said aloud, ‘is no longer amusing. Please stop, or I’ll pull your plug out.’

‘Like that, is it? Violence? Threats? You really think that’ll solve anything?’

‘Good point,’ Michelle replied. ‘I could try hitting you with the heel of my shoe. It made the shredder work, that time it ate Bill Potter’s tie.’

‘I must warn you,’ said the machine icily. ‘You lay one finger on me and that’ll be our whole working relationship up the spout, for good. And that goes for the printer, too.’

‘She’s right,’ said the printer. ‘You big bully.’

‘That does it,’ said Michelle, and pulled the plug. The screen cut off in mid-bleep, and the green dot faded into a pinprick. Michelle sighed and leaned back in her chair.

‘You haven’t heard the last of this.’

‘ What!’ Michelle jerked upright; the bloody thing was off at the mains, how could it… ?

‘And you can get off me, while you’re at it,’ added the chair. ‘Pick on someone your own size, you fascist.’ Michelle stood up and began to back away. ‘Christine,’ she called out, trying to keep her voice calm and even, ‘could you come and look at my machine, please? I think there’s something wrong with it.’

‘Sticks and stones,’ muttered the computer.

‘Pots and kettles, more like,’ replied the telephone.

‘I never did like her,’ added the stapler. ‘Never trust anybody who comes to work in green suede slingbacks.’

‘Christine!’

‘Now what?’ There’s one in every office; unflappable, competent, overworked, smug as a dying bishop. ‘What have you gone and done to it now?’

‘Nothing. It just won’t…’ Oh God, Michelle thought, does it happen this quickly? I thought you started off with mild depression, then bad dreams, then a couple of months of acting strangely, and only then do you start hearing the Angel Gabriel commanding you to drive the English out of Gascony. Apparently not. Oh bugger.

‘Won’t what?’

‘Won’t work,’ Michelle said feebly, moving aside as Christine sat down on the chair. ‘It’s sort of, well, playing up.’

Christine looked round. ‘It helps if you plug it in,’ she said. ‘Next time, give that a try before calling me, okay?’

Take off the ring. ‘But I only unplugged it because …’

‘You shouldn’t unplug it, ever,’ Christine was saying. ‘I knew you weren’t listening when we did training. If you’ve broken it I’m going to have to tell Mr Gilchrist.’

Aunt Fatty and the alarm clock. Talking to things. Take off the ring. ‘Could you just try it, Chris? Please? I’m sure you can make it work.’ As she spoke, Michelle found the ring and started to tug. It wouldn’t budge. I might have guessed it runs in families, she told herself. After all, I’ve got Mum’s nose, so it’s reasonable enough that if there’s pottiness on her side of the family…

‘Look,’ Christine was saying, in that Fools-gladly-no-thanks voice of hers. ‘Nothing wrong with that, is there?’

Tug. It was stuck. She felt like a racing pigeon. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, ignoring Christine’s impatient noises, ‘I’ll be back in two ticks. I’ve just got to go to the loo.’

Soap shifted it; and as soon as it was off and safely in her pocket, she began to feel a whole lot better. Hell, I must be in a mess, Michelle told herself, instinctively checking her face in the mirror. Never thought Aunt Fatty dying would get to me like this, make me start having sympathetic hallucinations. True, she was my last living relative, so maybe it’s not so strange after all. Maybe I should see somebody about it, before it gets any worse. Because if all inanimate objects are as snotty as that lot, I think I’d rather stick with people. Not that there’s a great deal in it, at that.

When she got back, Christine had the machine working and eating, so to speak, out of her hand. Somehow, that didn’t reassure Michelle at all; quite the reverse. Only doing it to show me up, aren’t you? she demanded wordlessly of the screen. A red light winked at her offensively.

Bet you can’t read thoughts, though. Huh, thought not. Now then, where were we? She sighed, and began to type in the East Midlands averages.

After a bumpy ride down the laundry chute, and an apparently endless journey hidden under three hundredweight of straw in the back of a wagon, Akram arrived at the frontier.

When you consider what it’s the frontier of, there’s remarkably little to see. They don’t make a song and dance about it. There’s no triumphal arch for you to pass through, no enormous sign saying:

WELCOME TO )

)

WILKOMMEN IN )

} REALITY

BIENVENU A )

)

BENVENUTO IN )

- reasonably enough; there’s no commercial traffic to speak of and they actively discourage tourism, as the barbed wire fence and searchlight towers imply. On the other hand, neither are they particularly paranoid about it. The idea is that the less conspicuous they make it, the fewer people on either side of the line will know it exists. This is a very sensible attitude, and accounts for the popular misconception that the border can only be crossed via the second star to the right, the back of the magic wardrobe or by air in a hurricane-borne timber-frame farmhouse.

BOOK: Open Sesame
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