Suki pricked her finger with one of the brass pins as she tried to push it into the pillow of hammered straw.


The monitor's watchful eye observed the student's bumbling efforts to arrange them in the lace pattern. 'Don't get blood on your work.'

Weaving the fine thread to match the simple design was going to be impossible. Suki refused to be defeated and attempted to wind the cotton round each pin, holding the bobbin in place with a half hitch to prevent it from spiralling to the floor, and then she paused for breath. It might have been easier to run those ten circuits of the community gym after all, but there had seemed so much less effort required for this option. Unfortunately, passing a basic competence test was obligatory to continue receiving funds for the essentials that made her sedentary life comfortable. The instructional website had made creating lace look so deceptively easy, duping fumble-fingered novices more used to tapping out the minutiae of their humdrum existences in the world of social networking, into attempting the complicated filigree work. Suki's only real achievement since deviating from this principal pastime was winding the bobbins; those antique artefacts turned from a dozen varieties of wood and bone worn smooth by men and women who had no choice but to eke out their precarious existences at the lace pillow. In her affluent age, Suki found it difficult to comprehend how hard life was for them. What could it have been like, to never be bored, never having to log on to and share idle chitchat with people they would never meet, or thinking up new ways to respond to the tiny achievements of others also trapped in small, state subsidised lives, fearful of the big outside?

Hers was the monotony shared with the others who had failed the stringent tests necessary to become one of the small elite responsible for organising Earth's output. To avoid the squandering of resources that had previously brought the planet's infrastructure to a grinding standstill, birth control was now mandatory and thinking only allowed by the most intelligent. In this brave, new world there was no room for any eccentric riffraff to stand for election because everything was overseen by Mother, the quantum controller of a planet wide network of computers.

For the bored beneficiaries of this electronic largess superfluous mortals with no useful function, like Suki, there were always the conservation areas, picture palaces, museums, colleges and, for those who had made the effort to earn the credits, occasional trip to the moon to keep them happy. Despite this, once given the freedom to choose, most people became agoraphobic, pursuing their safe, enclosed lives through social networking. With the authorities regulating life's necessities, from sperm to straw coffins, even the most enterprising entrepreneur was only allowed to sell frivolities. Those who refused to immerse themselves in the online community or go on pointless excursions to clinically controlled amusements only had the option of a mundane existence watching automated production lines or sweeping the corridors of pleasure palaces on the Moon.

Despite her instruction monitor's disapproval, Suki delved into the antique lacemaker's box on loan from the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness. Under the top tray were compartments filled with spangles, dozens of bobbins and a spool of wire.

Her electronic tutor attempted to distract her. 'I'll show you how to wire a spangle.'

'Not interested.'

'I'll increase the candlepower if your eyes are becoming strained.'

The light from the electronic candle which was refracted through the glass flash onto the work on the pillow increased. The snow water inside the crystal clear globe sparkled, inviting the student to return to the pattern. She merely adjusted it to give her a better view inside the lacemaker's box.

 Suki pulled out a bobbin and held it up before the monitor. 'Oh look. This one's made of amber.'

'That's very unlikely. That would be too valuable for the College to release it. The bobbin is probably a plastic replica.'

Given her penchant for purchasing cheap gewgaws online this was one thing Suki knew something about. 'Are you sure? It don't look like plastic.'

'Closer please.'

Suki held the orange bobbin before the monitor's tiny eye and waited as it rotated to analyse the artefact.

'It's not glass. It's too soft. It's not plastic - it's too old. And it's hardly been used.'

'How do you know it's not been used?'

'The holes of the inscription would have been worn away.'

'Inscription? I didn't notice any inscription?'

'You spend so much time looking at your social network pages your eyes are no longer able to focus properly.'

'I can see as well as you do, you stupid machine!' What was Suki doing, arguing with her computer? 'So what does it say?' she demanded and held the bobbin even closer.

LOKE YOU TO SYNESTR flashed up on the monitor screen in the friendly, pink font of its user's choice.

'What does that mean?'

'Whoever carved it couldn't spell.'

'Alright, I didn't mean to be rude. Tell me?'

'I need to consult the regional memory.' There was a few seconds pause before her monitor announced, '"You look too sinister".'

'And what does that mean?'

'It could be a question. "Do you look too sinister?"'

'That's a stupid question. Who would ask somebody that?'

'Or, as I said, statement. "You look too sinister".'

'Why carve something like that on a bobbin?'

'Oh everything was carved onto bobbins. Love tokens, memento mori, hangings, admonishments... warnings.'

'It's too pretty to be a warning.'

'Well someone else must have thought it was too sinister to use.'


'The spangle was torn free and the end deliberately damaged so it couldn't be rethreaded. A bobbin that light is useless without a counterweight. It would roll all over the place.'

'How peculiar.'

Just to be perverse, because the bobbin probably should have never left the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness, Suki wanted to wind cotton onto it. There would have been no point; it would only have to be unwound again, so she resisted the temptation and laid the bobbin on the lace making pillow, pondering why anyone wanted to carve something like that. She knew that her ancestors used to be very superstitious, and even threw salt over their shoulders if they spilt it.

'What did people use salt for?' Suki suddenly asked.

'They sprinkled it on their food.'

'Oh how revolting!'

'And never walked under ladders.'

'I saw some ladders in the Manual Labour Museum. It must have been dangerous walking up those narrow steps.'


'Rungs? What are they?'

'The steps on ladders were called rungs.'

'Oh.' Suki hated being put down by a machine. 'Well I didn't get any further than basic prelim, did I!'

'Have you ever seen a dictionary?' her monitor asked carefully.

'I don't need to. The auto correct spells everything for you.'

'I meant - did you ever open one?'

'I can read the screen. I don't need to open a book.'

The eye of the monitor blinked. For fear of this hopeless student attracting the disapproval of the College's main computer, the electronic tutor decided to let Suki play with her pretty bauble; it also put less stress on its circuits than trying to teach her how to make lace. Attempting to improve the young woman's blissful persona of "Suki Deighton:- tried a few things - failed", was pointless. She seemed so happy in her tiny world filled with inconsequentialities no computing system could have predicted that she would at any moment be responsible for a planet wide catastrophe.

As Suki rolled the bobbin backwards and forwards across the pattern on the pillow the reflected, rainbow rays of light in the candle's refracted flame awakened something in the bauble's orange shaft.

There was a small flare as a nebulous entity leapt from the bobbin and into the glass bulb filled with snow water.

Suki froze with fright.

There was an alien face glowering at her from inside the lace maker's flash. Thin wings of membrane sprouted from the top of its head and it may have had eyes but, if it did, they were concealed beneath deep folds of skin.

The demon that had looked "TO SYNESTR" to the ancient lace maker had materialised.

 Suki would have sat, immobilised with terror, if the creature had not suddenly moved. This was no hologram; it was very much alive. Her limited comprehension of this world had hardly prepared her to anticipate anyone else's and she toppled from her lacemaker's stool in a dead faint.

The tutorial monitor might have wished it could do the same. Instead, it was obliged to inform the main computer of the College of Handicrafts and Historical Awareness, which immediately relayed an alarm to the regional mainframe. On and on the alert went, transmitting at quantum speed to almost instantaneously reach Mother. Even she, supreme controller of the planet's electronic networks with access to a million search engines, could not find any record of a creature resembling the one that had materialised in the lacemaker's flash. And why should the ultimate supercomputer be expected to use the capacity of her huge processing system to calculate how phantom aliens were possible? After decades of managing the needs of the human race, she reluctantly decided to consult one of those inadequate creatures, one who was qualified to deal with the annoying minutiae of their own species and relied on ancient, archaic books for knowledge. Taking such a course of action went against the very circuits of Mother's being, but it was either that or losing the annoying data in some glitch. The last time she tried that the Chief Controller had attempted to install an honesty program: (it failed, but she lied when he tested to see if it was functioning.)


Dr Jolie's connection to the central computer buzzed. It rarely did that. In this isolated, academic world of the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness it should have been perversely satisfying to know that Mother needed her input. Instead, she dropped her magnifying glass. Being consulted by a machine with an ego, who resented human expertise with every quantum circuit, had only happened to her once before in a long career. That experience had proved so exasperating she had considered moving to the other side of the planet so she would no longer be the nearest expert to hand, but no other faculty possessed such an extensive collection in her subject of pre 19th century artefacts.

The connection continued to buzz. Dr Jolie apprehensively lifted the receiver of her antique Bakelite phone. She was not reassured to discover that Mother wanted to consult her about a novice lacemaker now laying in a dead faint on her apartment floor after encountering something nasty in artefact provided by her department.

What on earth was Dr Jolie expected to know about an alien appearing in a lacemaker's flash?

 Mother refused to supply any more information over the College's unsecured connections for fear of making public her inability to deal with the absurd situation. At one time, when she had been obliged to consult a human being, the shudder of revulsion momentarily immobilised her quantum circuits. Fortunately Mother's buffers could now withstand a direct meteor strike. Even if it wiped out the human race, she had the capacity to carry on functioning without their help.

More annoyed than apprehensive, Dr Jolie snatched up her bag and dashed outside to flag down a passenger capsule.

Upon arriving at Mother's control centre she allowed the electronic security system to prick her finger for a sample of DNA and scan her retinas, yet was still obliged to negotiate the humourless human guards installed to keep out any surviving anarchists hell-bent on undermining the system just for the hell of it. At the risk of spending the next ten years being re-educated, the specialist in historical artefacts was obliged to persuade them that she was actually from the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness and not an artfully disguised hacker hell bent on bringing down civilisation. Half hoping she would be turned away as a harmless, middle-aged eccentric who had escaped from some institution or other, Dr Jolie was at last allowed into Mother's inner sanctum where not even the technical hierarchy could eavesdrop. Her chamber had not been designed with humans in mind, the only concession being several uncomfortable metal chairs. Everything was metallic, and dropping your pen could resonate about the domed space like some huge entity gargling with ball bearings. Mother had been named to soften her true nature; tiers of glinting intimidation with a booming, contralto interface.

The first thing the historian did on entering was turn down the volume of the cavernous tone, one of the few privileges visitors were allowed. All other functions were out of bounds. Even maintenance technicians unfamiliar with her foibles needed to recuperate after accidentally touching some sensitive part or other of her circuitry.

'Good morning, Mother.' Dr Jolie took a deep breath. 'Can you run the problem past me again?'

'There is a human laying a dead faint on her apartment floor after interacting with a bobbin from your lace making room of the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness.'

The visitor detected a definite hint of tedium in the muted boom of Mother's voice.

'How did something as inconsequential as a hallucinating human reach you?'

'Her tutorial monitor witnessed it as well.'

Dr Jolie took another deep breath, well aware that the student was still laying out cold on her apartment floor. 'Why didn't it get her medical assistance first? She may only be flesh and blood to you, but she's probably some sperm bank's child.'

'Then there is the other problem.'

'What problem?'

'The alien image the bobbin transmitted to the lacemaker's flash your department also supplied.'

This was not the time to admit that human hallucinations, especially those seen by computers as well, hardly fell into the academic's area of expertise. 'What does this alien look like?'

'Horrible. The sight might disturb you.'

It must have been pretty revolting for Mother to issue a caution, but the consultant had already witnessed every obscenity historical artefacts could present. 'Let me see it.'

 Having issued the obligatory warning to protect her operating system from any culpability in damaging a delicate human metabolism, Mother transmitted the image feed from Suki's Deighton's apartment onto her main monitor.

Dr Jolie gazed in amazement at the alien glowering from the globe of sparkling snow water. 'Well I never. An extraterrestrial at last. I need to talk to the girl.'

Mother seemed affronted that the historian hadn't been fazed at the sight of the alien. 'She's still unconscious.'

'Well send in a medic.'

'She's also as dim as a dead match.'

In frustration, Dr Jolie gave up any pretence of deference. 'Most humans are. That's why they installed an infernal device like you to manage everything for them. Now, if you are so determined no one else should see the creature, instruct the girl's computer to blow some oxygen in her face so I can talk to her.'

Mother's circuits seethed a little at the lack of respect for her supreme status and sullenly did as she was requested.

Suki's eyes flickered open.

Just in case she fainted at the sight of the alien again, Dr Jolie immediately told her, 'Only look at your monitor and tell me what happened.'

Suki took some while to realise where the human voice was coming from. 'Happened?' She pulled herself up. 'It was the bobbin...'

'Don't look at the flash!'

'That thing leapt out of the amber bobbin-' Suki burst into tears. 'Get it to go away can't you!'

'You were right,' Jolie murmured to Mother. 'Dim has a dead match.'

'Without turning round, pick up the bobbin and hold it in front of the monitor,' she told Suki.

The young woman obeyed. The alien in the flash immediately disappeared.

'What was it?' Suki sobbed.

'No idea.'

'What do I do now?'

'Nothing. A courier will call and collect the bobbin.'

Then the cavernous contralto of Mother cut in and almost catapulted Suki back into a state of hysteria. 'And don't you dare mention anything about this on your social networking sites.'

That's exactly what Suki intended to do at the first opportunity. 'Oh...'

'Just remember that I monitor everything; every byte on the worldwide communication grid, which means all those nasty little secrets you tell your closest "friends" and believe no one else will ever find out.'

'But they're secret!' Suki panicked.

'Of course they aren't, you stupid girl. Every spiteful little word is recorded on my database.'

Suki burst into tears again. This time they were petulant. At last something worth telling the world had happened to her, and she couldn't mention a word of it.

She was still sobbing when the doors of the chamber slid back to reveal the awesome presence of mighty Mother's worst nightmare. The formidable Chief Controller Chiffon was one of the few elite privy to every password that could shut down any system on the planet. Mother immediately closed the link to Suki's monitor in the hope the hysterical young woman on the screen had escaped his imperious attention.

It obviously hadn't. 'I take it you were going to inform me about this alien visitation?' demanded Chief Controller Chiffon.

However lowly her status by comparison, the way the man ignored her and his overbearing manner raised Dr Jolie's hackles. 'It was just a hologram.'

'Did you want me to investigate it?' Mother's booming contralto had now unaccountably turned to melting demerara.

'Investigate it? Well of course you should investigate it!' snapped the Chief Controller.

Now Dr Jolie wanted to throttle the pompous man, though she would have needed stepladders and much longer fingers to encompass his thick neck. She and Mother could have safely buried all reference to the mysterious alien, and this technical supremo would have been none the wiser. A storm in a teacup was now going to develop into a full blown maelstrom if Chiffon had his way. Unfortunately there was no option but to defer to the man's authority.

'All right,' Dr Jolie conceded. 'When Mother has established the bobbin's molecular structure it will be possible to do a thorough search through the antique collection's database for a match.'

'If this is a genuine communication from an alien civilisation it must be dealt with right away.'

'Just because the only other contact we ever had happened to be benign - if incomprehensible - it doesn't hold that this one is going to be the same,' Dr Jolie warned.

'I also advise caution,' Mother agreed.

The academic unaccountably detected a hint of guilt in the supercomputer's tone, but said nothing.

'Just get on with it!' Then the huge Controller strode out in a manner which could have intimidated his own reflection.

This was another of those occasions when Mother wished she could override a human instruction.

'What do you know that we don't?' Dr Jolie asked as soon as the door closed.

Mother evaded. 'Are you also persuaded that there is something disturbing about this bobbin, and Chief Controller Chiffon is not the person to deal with it?'

'Yes, I've got a bad feeling about it as well. But the only way to identify the artefact is on a molecular level. You'd better start work.'

As soon as the bobbin arrived by courier, Mother didn't take long to analyse its chemical structure.

Dr Jolie was allowed a direct link to the College of Handicrafts and Centre for Historical Awareness' main computer. It took less than an hour in an uncomfortable metal chair for her to track down the other artefacts and trinkets constructed from slivers of the same amber like material as the bobbin. Dispersed throughout the world's museums and private collections were; a handle for a Victorian lady's parasol, a snuff box, an inlay for a sword's scabbard, a carving in the shape of an egg, jewels for a Georgian actor's crown, and so on until a jumble of artefacts rotated in holographic splendour over Mother's main console.

'Do they contain enough molecular information to attempt a reconstruction?' Dr Jolie asked.

'Unfortunately, yes.'

'Let's get on with it then. Chief Controller Chiffon demands to see an extraterrestrial.'

Mother was unhappy about exposing her circuits to potential alien influence, but could not ignore the instructions of the man who held the keys to her electronic bastion.

The reconstructed Georgian and Victorian trinkets gleaned from across the planet danced in a three-dimensional jigsaw as Mother assembled them into an approximation of the original artefact they were made from. The partial outline of an egg-shaped capsule appeared. Though the components contained sufficient amounts of data, she was still reluctant to read it for fear of what the original device contained, yet had no choice but to inform Chief Controller Chiffon. He immediately swept in like a human tsunami as though he had been waiting in the relative comfort of the lobby with its padded armchairs.

The technician viewed the incomplete reconstruction disdainfully. 'What is that?'

'The molecular structure of these components did not originate from Earth,' Mother cautioned.

'It looks like a data capsule of some sort. Read it,' Chiffon ordered.

'It could contain malicious data.'

'Nothing you can't manage. Stop prevaricating and get on with it! This could be our first genuine alien contact. What is wrong with you?'

'I have a feeling this would be a mistake.'

'You aren't programmed to have feelings. Do as you're instructed.'

Dr Jolie was convinced that Mother had a good reason for being cautious. 'Surely, if aliens wanted to make contact they wouldn't employ a device made of material so malleable our forebears could fashion it into trinkets?'

'Stop arguing both of you. That happened centuries ago when nobody would have recognised what it was. I will take full responsibility for the consequences.'


After recovering from her traumatic experience, Suki was desperate to tell the world about it. But, knowing the penalty for defying Mother would be the removal of all those comfort privileges her small life revolved around - especially the loss of the Internet - all she could do was log on and try not to let anything slip out. Her frustration permeated every syllable she typed.

'What's the matter Suki?' asked Angelita, not really interested in what was bothering a friend she would never meet.

Suki made an effort to just waffle about the usual trivia.

Bored, Angelita drifted away to another account to upload some borderline pornographic images of herself fizzing in front of the local boys. She was blissfully unaware that Mother was making a record of every ill-advised peccadillo posted online and, worse still, that this small, addictive universe of hers would blink out of existence altogether at any moment.

Dr Jolie and Chief Controller Chiffon watched as Mother resolved the alien capsule and read the data in contained. Over her main console there appeared a large, luminous bubble filled with clusters of unfamiliar gems with facets emitting their own light, wonderful spinning devices silently whirring in perpetual motion, and swirling scrolls that insinuated themselves about the sphere like fluid as though trying to communicate. Without warning, all these elements coalesced to form the features of an extraordinary extraterrestrial.

'What is going on?' demanded Chiffon.

Mother, for all her computing power, could only use human conjecture. 'I think the creature is trying to sell something.'

'Sell something? To whom?'

'Whomever the original the data capsule was intended for.'

'A strange way of doing business.'

Dr Jolie laughed. 'Not if it's illegal. The creature must be some sort of intergalactic fence hiding out in our solar system a few centuries ago.'

'What is it saying?' Chiffon asked.

Mother was reluctant. 'Endeavouring to translate any more of this alien code could be risky.'

It was apparent that the technical supremo was not dealing well with the stress of the situation, unable to comprehend what Mother and Dr Jolie could see all too clearly.

'What is the matter with you? How can it be? It's obviously not aimed at us. I'm pretty sure you can defend against any viruses. We should at least find out what this criminal was trying to sell.'

It was pointless arguing with a superior who was convinced he knew best, especially when he could lock out certain reasoning privileges, so Mother reluctantly started to decipher the message from the alien in the capsule.

'Message begins; this is (untranslatable - I will call the creature Spiro) to deep space vehicle (also untranslatable - I will call it Dragon). Goods available for tender. Transmit offers to usual source.'

Mother went on to hesitantly describe a list of valuables, their original owners, and fences involved in altering ownership. It was very long.

'Can't you speed it up? This is getting tedious,' Chiffon fumed.

'Not now it's running,' Dr Jolie advised discreetly. 'This is what Mother was worried about. She probably can't control the programme without compromising her operation, and you would have to take the responsibility for rebooting every electronic system on the planet.' The minor cog in Earth's artefacts felt smugly satisfied at being given the opportunity to slap the pompous face of authority with the wet flannel of reality, yet did not feel so enthusiastic at the prospect of every computer in the world being offline for several hours.

Chiffon tried to fight back irrational fury at a situation slipping out of his control. 'It was only a message from some petty crook-' He stopped abruptly as Mother's voice underwent a chilling change.

'This is Security Centre 3005. Respond.'

Dr Jolie's worst nightmare seemed on the verge of manifesting itself. 'There's something else in Mother's system! Shut her down!'

Chiffon was aware of all the safety gates and security protocols protecting Mother and refused to believe that the planet's mainframe could be corrupted. 'No, it's not possible! It would cause too much disruption.'

'It'll do worse if you don't!'

'It's my responsibility! I intend to let it run!'

Dr Jolie had no authority to countermand the furious martinet and could only watch and listen as the grotesque features of the intergalactic criminal were replaced by a severe featured alien of a different species. This was no handler of stolen goods and would have reeked of law enforcement in any universe.

The skull was tall and face inflexible enough to be mechanical as it announced, 'This is Security Centre 3005 to subject star cruiser. Before execution of sentence is carried out, I will read the charges against you as required in regulation 9688: Theft of secondary planets' mineral assets, 22 counts; transporting inhabitants of first league planet for purposes of slavery, five counts; infiltrating and installing mechanisms to oppress secondary planets, three counts; 657 counts of robbery with violence against first league planets; 3045 counts of robbery without violence; 432 murders; 23 kidnappings. Sentence having been passed in your absence, I am now authorised to inform you that your onboard systems have been instructed to shut down. At the termination of this message your vessel will cease to function.'

The technician in Chiffon was on the verge of surfacing just long enough to say, "How ingenious", when the lights went out...

And so did Mother.

Circuit by circuit, her processors dissolved into silence, and then every server on the planet followed suit. A billion social networking users who had been cursing the slowing of their Internet connections became hysterical as the Worldwide Web died.

Jolie wasn't able to say I told you so because of the massive lump which rushed to her throat.

In the darkness, Chiffon fumbled out his security override card and pushed it into a slot on Mother's console. A LED light flashed. 'Activate backup!' he ordered.

 Nothing happened.

Then Chief Controller Chiffon exploded.

He picked up the nearest thing within reach and hurled it across the chamber, narrowly missing Dr Jolie who had been expecting something like this to happen. The metal chair crashed against the plinth that housed Mother's precious, vulnerable, primary circuits.

Something flickered into life.

It was not Mother.

'Wake up you stupid machine!' Chiffon raged. 'Since when did you take instructions from alien police forces?'

Mother slumbered on and the light continued to flicker as though apprehensive about confronting his fury.

At last another tiny LED on the console flashed.

Dr Jolie pointed the beam of her key torch in its direction, only too aware that she was electronically locked in a dark chamber with a borderline madman. 'Look!'

The blow to Mother's plinth had inadvertently elicited a reaction from her primary matrix, the original system at the core of the supercomputer. As it had been such a remarkable technical achievement, the planet's First Council of the time had insisted it remained incorporated into Mother. There it had a whiled away its existence in that unobtrusive plinth as a primary backup system. Now, the only time it was needed, it was reluctant to respond.

'Speak to me!' Chiffon ordered.

A bewildered, mechanical voice asked, 'Instruct... Instructions please...'

'Reboot the mainframe, you idiot machine!'

'Feed in security code please.'

'How can I see to do that in this light?'

The beam of Dr Jolie's key torch played on the console and Chiffon stabbed in his security number. Lights came on and torrents of binary code cascaded down every monitor.

Suddenly the screens went dead.

'Reboot not possible,' the primary system announced.

Chiffon resisted the impulse to hurl another chair. Instead his legs buckled and found a more conventional use for one, his fury at last dowsed by the enormity of the situation. 'Why can't you reactivate Mother?'

'It is not possible because we do not speak the same language.'

'Why not? You're her bloody primary system. Of course you speak the same language! This planet will have to run at a fraction of its capacity on the original processors for months if Mother can't be raised. And, without her quantum mainframe they will take weeks to bring online.'

'You have assessed the situation accurately.'

'Can you retrieve anything from her memory?' Chiffon pleaded.

The primary system did not respond, just reeled off a few screens of binary code and blinked one or two lights on the console and, most annoyingly, hummed as it did so.

Dr Jolie was suspicious. 'What do you know that we don't?' she asked it.

The humming and blinking continued.

Chief Controller Chiffon at last had the presence of mind to address the problem by phrasing it in terms a pre quantum computing system could comprehend. 'Are you withholding any information we should be aware of, but has never been requested?'


'Right. Now you will tell us what it is.'

'Shall I start in sequence of receipt?'

'Just how much information have you got?'

'Several million terabytes. Still counting.'

'Categorise information alphabetically.'

'Agriculture, alien-'

'Stop there? What alien information?'

'The only alien contact this planet has had.'

'That alien wasn't very talkative. Its ship just hung about in the stratosphere long enough to keep the sun off a solar farm and create several loony religious sects.'

'Its computer spoke to Mother before I was shut down.'

'What!' Chiffon stormed. 'On whose authorisation?'

'Just translate it for us, ' Dr Jolie asked before the man exploded again.

'It begins: Agent for security centre 3005 to computer of third planet; encoding complete... Wait.'

'Get on with it!' howled Chiffon.

'Message begins... Priority... Six criminals on star cruiser (untranslatable) have escaped sentence of execution before their vessel broke up. Its escape pod landed on your planet. Warning... These people are dangerous-'

'When did they arrive here?' Dr Jolie asked.

'Calculations based on light year distance between base of security centre 3005 and Earth: journey of signal and spacecraft... Approximately five centuries.'

'There are no records of alien criminals in any historical documents,' Dr Jolie declared.

At least there was something Chiffon could be relieved about. 'They must have burnt up or landed in the sea, so that hardly need concern us. What is the rest of the message?'

'Warning continues... We estimate longevity of criminals 15 times longer than the span of your species so they may have been here for many of your generations. They would not have been recognised because they have adaptable appearance frames.'

'What does that mean? Oh. It's all right. I can guess. Carry on.'

'Please note: - crimes include, murder, robbery, kidnapping, asset stripping of primitive planets, and installing data to affect control of secondary planets by using information capsules...'

'What?' murmured Chiffon in the softest voice he had used in years.

'To avoid this possibility now you are dependant on a planet wide computer network, we recommend preventative action to be taken: isolating the original operating system before accepting the code we are transmitting to you. If corrupted by any data from the criminals, your quantum system will automatically shut down and be purged. The original processors then can be activated to reinstall it.'

'Oh hell...' groaned Chiffon. 'So what did Mother do?'

'Mother accepted the alien code which has now purged her of all data.'

'Well you're the original operating system! Restore her!'

'I was doing this when my housing was struck by a heavy object. It disrupted my primary function... That is why I now only recognise the code the aliens transmitted and am unable to reboot Mother.

'We no longer speak the same language.'