Don't Look Back
Nature Trail
Something to beef about
Back to John Gribbin's Home Page


John Gribbin

It was the audio cube that started it. Richie Jefferies -- his birth certificate said "Richard", but he was just the generation to have been "Richie", after the Beatles' drummer, since they burst on the scene when he was eight -- had been waiting for them to perfect the damn thing for twenty years. CDs were all very well, but they were bulky and all too easily damaged. This, at last, was the perfect medium for the serious music lover. The entire output of the original Beatles, digitally remastered and stored in a cube the size of a sugar lump. Of course, the new music was all very well, in its place. But it lacked the vibrancy of the rock originals -- and with the digital reprocessing, you could practically hear a pin drop in the Abbey Road studios. There was stuff in here, according to George, the only survivor from the quartet, that they hadn't been able to hear on the original analog tapes in the recording studio itself, back in the sixties. The same computer enhancement that cleaned up the pictures from Charon, applied to something practical for a change. As far as Richie was concerned, the best thing ever to come out of the space program.

Of course, space was old hat now. Last century's thing. All the cutting edge of technology stuff revolved around the time probe, where Richie worked as a communications engineer. Reasonable hours, good pay. If you could tolerate the bureaucracy, an ideal job, giving him ample time for his hobby. But at 53 he was coming up for retirement, with the prospect of time weighing heavy on his hands. What he needed was a project to get his teeth into. Something in audio; something like the job that had been done on the Beatles tapes -- only where could a freelance get his hands on any worthwhile old material that wasn't already owned lock, stock and barrel by one of the Japanese communications groups?

Part of the problem lay in Richie's somewhat narrow definition of the term "worthwhile". Apart from the Beatles, there were only three artistes he seriously thought worthy of the skills he had to offer. Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Bruce Springsteen. And of the three, only Holly had actually worked with John Lennon. The "Double Diamond" album, Lennon's comeback at the end of the seventies, after, as legend recorded, Holly had turned up at the Dakota apartment, guitar across his back, and practically dragged the recluse out of his shell. The tour in '81, which Richie had not only caught three times in the States, but had followed to London for the Wembley Stadium gig. Holly, Lennon, Jerry Allison on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass; the best gig of the rock era, even before their friends joined them onstage. And the songwriting partnership that flourished into the nineties, with Lennon's roughness tempered by Holly's softer approach in a blend that surpassed even Lennon's early work with McCartney. "Holly-Lennon" -- the credit on more hit records than any other composing team, ever.

But they were gone, and nothing like them would ever be seen again. All the post-78 stuff was just as legally tied up as the Beatles stuff, and had, in any case, already been given the treatment by the big studios in Leipzig. Besides, it was too sophisticated for Richie's wants. What he wanted -- what ne needed -- was a challenge. Something older. Lost tapes from the fifties, maybe. A real challenge.

Idly, he pictured the period he'd like to reproduce with modern technology. He could pinpoint it exactly. Holly's first solo period, in 1959. After the first split with the Crickets, before the band re-formed. The "Winter Dance Party Tour", through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Where he'd sung anything and everything, even played drums for Dion's band. If only somebody had taken a tape recorder along to one of those gigs, and left the tapes in a time capsule to be opened fifty years later. They'd just about be due to be discovered.

Richie, slumped before his console, eyes half-shut, suddenly snapped upright, fully alert. If only . . . He leaned forward, touched a pad. "Jefferies. Logging out. I'm heading on home, don't feel so good. I'll take an early night, hope to be in in the morning."

Back home, he checked out the dates in John Goldrosen's massive Buddy Holly, his life and times. The memorial volume published after Holly's tragically early death in '97, at the age of 61, was just about the definitive history of the rock era, a labour of love based on interviews with everyone from Niki Sullivan, who'd played with the great man before he was famous, to his nineties proteges, Heartbeat. Since Holly had played with, or written for, just about anybody who was anybody from 1957 to '97, it was small wonder that Goldrosen had travelled more than 50,000 miles researching the book, and spent three years writing it. But out of the half million words in the database, Richie was interested now in just a couple of thousand.

Holly'd left the tour after the gig in Moorhead, Minnesota on February 3, 1959, with a bad head cold that had affected his singing during the two shows. Flying home to New York, he'd stayed out of the public eye until spring, emerging with his first post-Crickets album, the million-selling True Love Ways. So Moorhead was out; Richie didn't want tapes of Holly singing with a head cold. But everything had been fine -- except the weather -- the night before in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. After several weeks on the road, the show was firing on all cylinders. That, Richie decided, was the date to aim for. Taking suitable precautions to wrap up warm, since Goldrosen's account reported that Holly's drummer, Charlie Bunch, had suffered frostbite when the band bus broke down in the snow one night early in the tour.

Choosing a recorder was a minor problem. Richie had several antiques, but nothing right for the period. Besides, a fifties tape machine really might be a little too basic. He settled for a '65 Uher. Only a pro would know it was slightly beyond the state of the art in '59 -- and how many pros would he be likely to find in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, at a rock concert on a freezing February evening? The temptation to pocket a Sony Cubic was almost too much, but he respected the people who'd drawn up the anachronism rules. If he was caught in the act, but clean, he could hardly face anything worse than a slightly earlier retirement than he'd anticipated. But if he was caught dropping anachrones into the past, it would be a Federal matter.

The clothes were no problem. He could pick them up out at the project. All he'd need then would be about five minutes alone with the Beast -- not too difficult to arrange for a communications engineer. If everyone who was supposed to be on obs duty simultaneously got an override request to be somewhere else, who would know, except the Central Processor? And with a little tweaking, the CP would forget it even before it happened. Since a Trip didn't occupy any real time in the here and now, he just had to set the remote, walk through the beam and out the other side. Only, to his subjective time the walk through the beam would take about five hours, and would include an opportunity to record one of the great "lost" concerts. Using old-fashioned analog tape on a primitive battery powered machine. Then, he could clean it up digitally, cube it, and -- well, of course, he could never let anyone know. Could he?

Hell, cross that bridge when the time comes. For now, there was a chance not only to tape Holly, but to see him and hear him live, once again. It might not quite be Wembley '81, and he might be 53, not 25, but he felt, once again, that old tingle down the spine, just thinking about it. "Let's do it, Richie, now," he muttered under his breath, thinking "or I'll get cold feet, and never do it."

He not only got into the hall, the Surf Ballroom, early -- he got in free, thanks to the policy of the manager, Carroll Anderson, of allowing "parents" in as his guests, to reassure them that the kids would get up to no mischief under his care. As for the tape machine, Anderson was impressed by its compactness and the quality of its sound reproduction, and happy to let Richie make a tape "for the kids". No problem. The problems came later.

Nobody but a pro could tell the anachronism of the Uher. Hell, how was he to know the kid was a pro? Sure, he'd become a studio whiz in the sixties. But he was just 22 now, brought up in the back of Texas, a good ol' boy accent you could cut with a knife. Why didn't Goldrosen's goddam biography tell you Holly had been dabbling in studio technology since he was seventeen?

It was only three numbers into the first set that Richie noticed the bespectacled drummer repeatedly looking his way. By the time Holly returned to lead his own band into action, his interest was sufficiently obvious to prevent Richie melting into the young fans around him. He beckoned Richie forward to the centre of the stage, where the youngsters happily made way for anyone who was the object of their idol's attention, sang two verses of "Rave on" straight to Richie's microphone, and at the end if the set announced to the crowd that tonight's show had been recorded by a big New York radio station and that y'all might get to hear yourselves in the radio, if you were real lucky.

An audio expert, and a joker as well. At Holly's insistence, the band hauled a reluctant Richie backstage to play them the tracks. The Uher, he explained, was the latest thing from Europe. He ran a radio repair shop, down town; his kid brother, in the army in Germany, had sent him the machine for his birthday.

They seemed to buy the story. The trouble was, Holly wanted to buy the machine, as well. Or at least, get Richie to let him have the tapes. They sounded real good, almost as good as the stuff he'd recorded with J.I., back at Bobby Peeples' garage in Lubbock. Wow. Whatever had happened to old Bobby?

Whatever happened, Richie knew he had to keep tight hold of the recorder. The tapes, along with himself and the machine, would be pulled back by the Beast in about an hour from now. Let Holly have them, bury them deep in his baggage, and they'd simply be gone in the morning. Untraceable. But he daren't let anyone with any kind of expert knowledge get a good look at a machine from six years in their future.

The tour manager announced that the bus was ready to leave. Holly wanted to hear some more of the tapes. He called Carroll Anderson over. That idea they'd discussed earlier, was it still on? Anderson shrugged. He'd made a few phone calls. There was a guy at the Mason City airport, Roger Peterson, who could fly three of them on to Moorhead, if they really wanted to go. But it was a filthy night; Anderson thought Holly had changed his mind, and was going to ride in the bus?

No. No. He'd changed it back again. He was gonna listen to these tapes for maybe half an hour; and anyway, he thought he had a cold coming on. Mr Anderson could, please, get back on the phone and fix everything up. Then maybe Mr Anderson could drive him out to the airport? The bus could leave now. Let them suffer the 400 mile journey. In a couple of hours, he would be tucked up in a nice warm bed.

Richie, trying to remain inconspicuous, frowned. There was something wrong here. That kid was certainly a smooth operator. Polite as any southern gentleman, but somehow everyone jumped when he whispered "frog". But that wasn't the problem. Richie shook his head, trying to clear it. He felt rather peculiar. What was it now? Oh yes. There was nothing about flying in the book, not until tomorrow night, when Holly pulled out of the tour. Puzzled, he scarcely noticed the bickering among several of the singer's associates, resolved when two that Richie recognised from the show, his namesake, Richie Valens, and the big man, the Big Bopper, stayed with Holly while the rest scrambled for the bus.

He had to get out of here. But how? Richie played the tapes some more, desperately seeking for an out before the Beast hauled him back. When Anderson returned with the car, he was so relieved that he simply thrust the tapes into Holly's hands, told him he could keep them, and practically sprinted out of sight around the corner of the care park. He had a bad feeling that he had not been as inconspicuous as the Project would have liked. In fact, he felt bad all over. Richie leaned against the wall, then slumped to the ground. He felt really weird. There was nobody there to notice when he, and the Uher, simply faded away.

* * * * *

It was the audio cube that started it. Richie Jefferies, listening to "The Beatles Complete" in his home studio, got to daydreaming about all the really great artistes who'd never had the benefit of the technology. Among the clutter of rock memorabilia on the wall, his eye caught the framed poster size blow up of the Clear Lake Mirror Reporter from 1959, recording the death of three rock 'n rollers in a plane crash, following a gig in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Buddy Holly, now. By all accounts, he would've known what to do with any recording medium. What a loss. But he was dead, and that was it.

Of course, there were people around who weren't dead, but might just as well be. Or who might be dead, for all anyone knew. The eternal rock mystery, that gave the headline writers something to do every year or so - - was John Lennon still alive? What was it this month -- the Greta Garbo of pop? or the Howard Hughes of rock? Whatever, the business empire built by Yoko continued to function long after her death, and the lawyers said Lennon was alive, though he hadn't performed since the mid-seventies and hadn't been seen in public since her funeral in '99.

Now, thought Richie, sipping his scotch. If someone like Lennon had made a few recordings even as long ago as the eighties, and they were halfway near as good as the stuff he'd done before, then with modern technology they could be tweaked up to sound as good as -- well, as good as anything Clapton had done, for sure.

Trouble was, Lennon hadn't recorded anything in the eighties. If only somebody had gone along to him in the Dakota, maybe in the middle of 1979, and had a little chat to him. Got him back into the studio. Richie, slumped in front of the mixing deck, eyes half-shut, suddenly snapped upright, fully alert. If only . . .


Being the First Chronicle of the Dworfs
T. P. Ratchett{1}

The sky snowed bitter. It froze brass monkeys. Two inches deep, it would only freeze the ankles of brass monkeys. But it was just the right height to freeze much more important bits of Dworkin.

Dworkin was a dworf. He stood just four inches high. And he was very worried about the personal bits that were getting frozen by the snow. He sneezed, a sad kind of wet sneeze, the kind of sneeze that leaves gooey gobs dangling on the end of your nose to freeze into icicles. And he coughed, the kind of rasping, dry, unproductive cough that leaves the victim wishing there were something nice and gooey in his lungs to dredge up and spit out. Nothing like a nice, slimy bit of phlegm to soothe a sore throat.

All the dworfs in the tribe had colds. Always had, always would. It was congenital. They all coughed something rotten. They were known as the Hackers.

There was no mystery about it. All the dworfs knew that they didn't belong on this cold, wet, germ-laden planet. Stood to reason. Somewhere, out there in the Universe, there must be a planet just right for dwarfs. Most probably -- at least, so old Dworfrith said, and he was at least nine years old, so he ought to know -- most probably, said the legends (as well as old Dworfrith), their ancestors had come to Earth across the void of space in a craft more advanced than anything the great, lumbering human beings they shared this forsaken planet wih could even dream of. Pretty obviously, what must have happened was that the spaceship malfunctioned, stranding the ancestors of the dworfs on Earth several thousand years ago. Ever since then, they'd been waiting for the humans to develop a spacefaring civilization, so they could hitch a ride back home. I mean, it makes sense, doesn't it? If you were stuck on an inhospitable planet with a race of giant hairy apes, first thing you'd think of would be "I bet if we encourage these apes to bash stones together, in no time at all they'll be bright enough to build us a spaceship." That was the trouble, you see. Dworfs were lazy. Always looking for the easy way out. Let someone else do the work. Which was why they were all standing out here, up to their unmentionables in snow, waiting for the night watchman to go to sleep.

Dworkin blamed the books for it, really. The tribe had been living quite well for generations, thirty years or more, since they moved out of the middle of Cambridge. The Institute was a good home; shoddily built, it had lots of nooks and crannies for dworfs to hide in, and there was plenty of food to be found in the fields nearby (mainly in the field where the canteen had been built). Much better than the old Cavendish Lab.{2} But the trouble was, the astronomers read an awful lot of books. And a lot of awful books, in Dworkin's opinion. Not that anyone listened to him. The ones the dwarfs read most avidly, when their owners were away, were the ones with spaceships on their covers.

It has to be admitted that dwarfs were not very good at reading English; something to do with the way their brains were wired up. But they liked pictures, and they were, as we have seen, deeply interested in space research.

The book that had caused all the trouble was one of several that proudly proclaimed "60th Year" on the top left corner of its cover. Dwarfs were always impressed by antiquity. They weren't quite sure what the proclamation meant, since this particular book also carried the date "May 1990", and that certainly wasn't sixty years ago. But, whatever it meant, it had an impressive picture of a spaceship on the front. And it also had an article about wormholes inside it.

Sighing deeply, Dworkin broke an icicle from his nose and had a quick cough. He tramped up and down a little bit in the snow, breaking down the drifts and clearing a space for himself. Surely, not long to wait now. He wondered if his feet were still there, and thought about wormholes. Wormholes were shortcuts through space. Step in here, come out there. No need for spaceships, after all. No wonder the dworfs had been excited. But did the humans show any sign of trying to build a wormhole? Not on your life. That was when Dworlinda had remembered the other book. Hardly anybody had read it; the picture on the front was a dragon, breathing fire, and if there was one thing most dworfs hated it was a dragon. Dworlinda, though, would read anything. Labels on sauce bottles, the instructions for Japanese tape recorders, anything. Anyway, it was clear as crystal, when she showed them.

"Books bend space and time," that's what it said. Plain as the icicle on the end of your nose. L-space, it was called -- but it seemed to be just like wormholes -- books made holes in space, if you had enough books. Didn't take long to figure out how it worked, either. All to do with libraries and information. Knowledge, that was what libraries stored, and another book said "knowledge is power". Well, power was energy, wasn't it? Any dworf knew that. And energy was the same as mass, lots of the books in the Institute said that. And mass bends space. So put enough information in one library, and you could make a wormhole! Now, you'd need a big library, as Dworkin had tried to explain to Dworlinda. But Dworfrith, in his inscrutable way, had asked why you needed a library at all. Were there no more efficient ways of storing information? Whuch was why they were all out here, waiting in the snow for the night watchman to doze off, so they could get into the computer building.

Dworkin cursed the cutbacks which meant that the computer no longer ran a night shift. If it hadn't been for the cuts, he could have stayed in his warm hole tonight. But even while he cursed, stamped his frozen feet and wondered if it was time to snap another icicle off his nose, he heard a loud cough from above and looked up to see the light from Dworgoroth's torch waving from side to side. Stationed on the windowsill, Dworgoroth had a good view of the night watchman, who had at last fallen asleep. Dworkin roused himself, and ploughed back to the bushes under which the others were sheltering.

"It's the signal," he rasped. "Come on!"

The tribe followed his trail to the door, where Dworgoroth, swinging with practised ease from the window ledge, had already forced the handle down. Large though the door was, it yielded to the combined effort of the tribe, opening enough for them to slip through one by one, into the room. Dworfrith, leaning on his staff, surveyed the room.

"Right." He coughed, triggering a sympathetic wave of hacking around the group. "You know what to do."

Immediately, the fast moving dworfs{3} scrambled to their places. While most of the tribe waited patiently for the wormhole to form, the most expert of the Hackers took up their positions at the the computer console. Lights flickered as the mighty mainframe was powered up, and symbols marched across the monitor screens. Dworfs were much happier with computer language than with English,{4} and soon had the communications links open.

Starting with Starlink and Econet, they began to gather in information from the outside world.

Enough information, and the computer building would disappear into a wormhole. Old Dworfrith was sure of it. They had to store the information, but that was easy -- there were thousands of disks in here, storing nothing but astronomical data. Most astronomical data was just random noise, anyway.

Within an hour, the disks were filling fast, and being stacked together by the central processing unit. Stock exchange inhformation from Tokyo; the entire contents of the Library of Congress in Washington; the results of the 3.30 at Newmarket. As the information piled up, an unearthly glow seemed to gather around the stack of disks, and there was an almost audible humming in the air. The glow hovered at the edge of vision -- a strange, orange colour, a delicate hint of -- Jaffa? no, not quite. It was subtly different -- yes, that was it -- nectarine, the colour of entropy. Something was about to happen. Pressing a last few keys, Dworgoroth leaped from the console and joined his companions by the central processor . . .

[Now, it is a curious thing about dworfs (something to do with the way their brains are wired up) that they have great difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction. All that nonsense about being the descendants of a stranded spaceship crew, for example, was actually based on short story in Galaxy that some dworf read in 1953. And all that rubbish about L- space was equally fictional. So, what on Earth was happening in the computer room of the Institute of Astronomy on the second Sunday before Easter in 1990?

Information, of course, cannot be equated with mass as easily as the dworfs believed. But information has another important, and universal, property. It is the opposite of entropy. As the Universe expands and ages, things wear out, and entropy increases. The Universe evolves from a state of order into a state of disorder, a state of non-information. The arrow of time is defined by these fundamental thermodynamic proceses; the past was a time of greater order and lower entropy than today; the future will be a time of less order, and less information. By creating a bubble of high information content, the dworfs, in their ignorance, were creating a bubble of low entropy. But entropy can only increase as time passes; low entropy states belong in the past . . .] There was a slight popping sound as the central processing unit, the stack of disks full of information and the dworfs left 1990. A critical threshold had been reached, and the strained fabric of the spacetime continuum had restored equilibrium by shifting the whole package back to the time of lower entropy where it belonged. Dworkin looked around, and sniffed. His feet tingled with warmth. Steam rose gently from his boots. The sky glowed blue. He took a deep breath through nostrils that were suddenly uncongealed. He felt no need to cough. The Sun, high in the sky of the Cretaceous period, shone brilliant. It shone down upon a warm and happy band of dworfs. Convinced that they had succeded in travelling through L-space to the planet where they belonged, they all lived happily ever after, on a diet of dinosaur eggs.


{1}"T. P. Ratchett" is an untranslateable Dworfish name, sometimes rendered in English as "JohnandBen Gribbin".
{2} Look, where did you think the dworfs would live? Out in the sticks?
They want to get back to the stars, remember. So they live in the astronomy
departments of universities, where they can keep in touch with space
research. Stands to reason. Who do you think it was that pushed that apple
off the branch and hit Isaac Newton on the head? Gnomes?

{3} Dworfs only live for about a seventh of the human life span, so their
physical and mental processes operate seven times faster than human ones.
To a dworf, a day is equivalent to a week for a human being.

{4} Something to do with the way their brains were wired up.

Nature Trail

John and Ben Gribbin

"Are you sure you don't want to watch the ball game, Rafe?" Patiently, he bit back the many possible retorts that came to mind, and merely shook his head, gently. they were good employers, and allowed him plenty of time off, even if they didn't sympathise with his recreational activities.

"No, ma'am, but thank you for the offer. It's a beautiful day, and I think I'll just go for a walk in the woods."

"Well, if you're sure." Her pale, pudgy face was still creased in a frown. But the sound of the Three-vee, from the room just off the hallway, was already tugging at her attention. She glanced that way, then back at Rafe, fingering his hat as he stood at the door, willing her to give him his release.

"You go along in there, ma'am, and enjoy yourself. I'll be back by four, in good time to make tea for you and Mr. Harrison. I've left out some snacks, so you won't need to miss a minute of the game." She smiled, reassured at last, and turned away. "Well, if you're sure . . . ": Her voice trailed away as she moved into the Three-Vee lounge. Rafe's lips shaped a silent whistle of relief as he moved quickly, but quietly, out of the house and down the street, settling the broad brimmed hat to protect his eyes from the glare of the Sun. Just so long as she didn't take it into her head to call him back again before he was out of sight, he was free, for a precious two hours; and it looked like being a fine afternoon.

It was just a short walk to the corner lot where he kept his car, and he met nobody out on the street. On both sides of the road, a flicker of holographic images at the windows showed where families had gathered together for the ritual of watching the game; here and there, people had even drawn drapes against the strong spring sunshine, so that nothing from outside would intrude to spoil their enjoyment. Rafe shook his head. He never would be able to fathom what adult human beings could see in watching grown men fight over a ball. Well, his not to reason why.

The car was fully charged, the solar panel in the roof glinting in the sunlight. With no traffic to speak of, only a few like himself, who had no need of the ritual of the game, it would take no more than 20 minutes to drive out to the wood. A full hour strolling at leisure, and he'd still have time in hand to dawdle on the way back. There was no human being in sight at the entrance to the trail. Indeed, his was the only car in the parking lot. Rafe paid his fee to the automated teller at the gate, and was rewarded with a print-out of the nature trail guide, and a synthesised voice wishing him a nice day. The ranger, he knew, was quite intelligent, and well capable of providing a stimulating discussion about the park and its inhabitants. But he wasn't in the mood to talk, either to people or machines, so he merely grunted and folded the guide, which he scarcely needed, in his back pocket.

It was cool and shady in the wood, and he had no need of the hat, which he swung in his right hand as he strolled along. This, he thought, had to be the best possible time of year to visit the trail. Bluebells cascaded in profusion down the banks under the trees. The stream splashed its way down miniature waterfalls to the left, and ran for a while alongside the path, before diving under it at the bridge, and cascading down the bank to his right. Birds sang overhead, and pulsing patterns of light and shade dappled the carpet of flowers.

Rafe felt in his pocket for the nuts, hoping that the squirrels would appear. When he'd first started walking this trail, years ago, it had still been a popular weekend recreation. The path had been busy with people, children running along and shouting, scaring away the wildlife. then, "Mr Harrison" had been little Davey, and he'd often been allowed to accompany Rafe on his walks. But now, you hardly ever saw a human being here. Rafe could never make up his mind about that. Was he sad, because there were no people here to share his enjoyment of the natural world? Or was he pleased that he had it all to himself? Maybe a bit of both. It would be good, in some ways, to turn the clock back, and get people out from in front of the Three-Vee and into the countryside again; but it would be nice if he could keep just this small bit of countryside as his own personal nature reserve. Not that the countryside needed people, any more than people needed the countryside. Robotractors and autofarms saw to that. There was no actual need for anyone to leave the city, ever.

He shivered a little at the thought, and sat down at the bench to wait, for just five minutes. It took less than one for the squirrels to appear. They must have been watching, and waiting for him to stop. He pulled out the handful of nuts, and held one out. Fearlessly, a small squirrel darted forward and stood, chattering to itself, to reach for the outstretched offering. They showed no fear of his human form at all -- a sure sign that the days when families played noisily in the woods were long gone.

Rafe had no need of a watch to tell him when his few minutes of contemplation were at an end. His time sense had never failed him, and besides, all the nuts were gone, although the squirrels still stood, grouped in a semicircle in front of him, hoping for more. As he rose, they skittered away into the trees; but as he continued on his way round the trail he caught a glimpse of them from time to time, running along the branches, leaping from tree to tree to keep pace with their benefactor, hoping in their squirrel minds for more offerings of food. By the time he got back to the car, he was just beginning to feel tired. Must be getting old, he thought, letting a little walk like that get to me. But there was no hurry, now. He checked the time. Twenty- seven minutes before four. He could rest here for a few minutes, recharge his batteries and enjoy the sunshine, before he had to drive back into town to look after the needs of his employers.

Hat pulled firmly down over his eyes once again. Rafe opened the car door, and fumbled with one hand for the adaptor on the dashboard. It pulled out easily on its cord, and he flipped the cover open automatically with his left hand, eyes focussed far away on a black dot circling high above the wheatfields to the north. That, he thought, just has to be a hawk. But there haven't been hawks around these parts for at least a hundred years.

Automatically, with a practiced, habitual action, he flipped back the top of his right index finger and inserted the plug into the exposed socket. At the same time, he zoomed his sight to get a better view of the hawk. Humans, thought Rafe, just don't know what they're missing.

Something to beef about

John Gribbin

It was eighteen o'clock, all but five minutes, when David Jenkins eased the two seater unto his parking bay at the Institute. The car park was almost deserted, this early; but he almost had the problem cracked, and he was eager to get back to the Box. The notebook portable on the passenger seat already held the fruits of several hours work home, but he could take the latest line of attack no further without the Box's power to help -- after all, he was no more than a journeyman programmer, and the notebook was limited to five megs, linear processing only.

Through the tinted glass, the sky seemed reasonably overcast, and it was only a few steps to the shelter of the awning over the main entrance. David quickly slipped the dark glasses into place, and pulled the loose hood of his shirt over his head. Sliding out of the car, he reached for the notebook with his left hand, straightened, and shut the door. It took less than thirty seconds to plug the vehicle in for a booster charge while he was at work; he was out in the open for no more than a minute, and only his hands had been exposed, anyway.

Inside the cool of the airconditioned lobby he paused, pulling down the hood and removing the dark glasses. The weather forecast was showing on the wall screen to the left of the porter's cubbyhole, but Josh was nowhere to be seen -- probably brewing tea out the back. David watched the changing pictures, half listening to the commentary. High pressure over southern England, severe storms tracking across Scotland -- pretty average for April. There was a catagory B flood alert for the east coast for the next 24 hours -- somebody was playing safe, in case the storms turned south into the North Sea, but there didn't really seem much likelihood of that. The local summary gave the UV peak at 70 per cent. He hung on for the news headlines. The bush fires in Australia were running out of steam. Canada forecasting a record grain harvest. Italy still bitching to Berlin about the lack of regional aid. Japan had postponed the launch of their latest Luna shuttle. Six killed in a clash between UN forces and bootleg loggers in Brazil. Liam Botham injured in practise and doubtful for the first Test, due to start under the lights at Trent Bridge in
two hours.

Cursing at the bad news -- the one thing that could get David away from his work was the cricket -- he set off down the corridor to his lab. With Julia away for the rest of the week on holiday, he ought to get an uninterrupted night in, especially if he was shut away with a DO NOT DISTURB sign up before the commuter rush piled in to work.

* * * * *

Fourteen hours later, having had just one short meal break and three visits to the toilet, David rubbed the back of a hand across tired eyes, turning away from the screen into which he had been staring for far too long. He had the solution, right there in front of him -- and yet, it didn't make sense. The structure of the virus clearly showed that it was indeed a mutated form of the original bovine spongiform encephalitus, the "mad cow" disease that had swept through Britain in the early nineties. He was right, the team at the Medical Research Council's lab up in Cambridge were wrong, and he'd be collecting on his bet, a rather nice bottle of Armagnac, just as soon as the editor at Nature accepted the paper.

That shouldn't take her long, considering the importance of the work for the whole European farming industry, and especially considering the tentative diagnoses now coming out of India and South America. BSE-II (and now evertybody would have to accept that it was BSE-II, not a new disease at all) looked like breaking out worldwide, and unless it was checked soon it woould be back to eating loaves and fishes for just about everybody.

It was the lack of any prospect of checking it at all, let alone soon, that had David sitting late at his console, wrecking his vision and trying to get a tired brain to see patterns that just weren't there. It was small wonder, really, that nobody had realised, at first, that they were dealing with a variation on BSE. The mutations were so neatly meshed to the organism's needs that they made it resistent to every treatment that had proved effective against BSE-I, as well as making it spread more effectively from animal to animal, and develop more rapidly in afflicted cattle. And not just cattle. With over two thousand people dead in Britain alone as a result, no wonder the eating habits of a nation were changed. Eyes open again, but staring at the old movie posters (Bogart, Dick Tracy, Back to the Future V) on the wall at the right, not at the screen, he spoke.

"Box. Get me a rundown on some food prices."
The multi-tasking machine left the viral gene map on the display, and responded in kind.

"The standard price-index set, or something more specific?"
"Just a couple -- beef, some fish. Superstore prices, not wholesale."
"I can get you best Scotch beef at one mark ten for a kilo. Cod is up to
twelve marks. Dover sole, locally, is twentythree. But I've got a contact in Newhaven . . . "

"Forget it."

The Box, programmed for David's speech patterns, did no such thing, but simply stored the data for future use.

The people who were doing well out of this panic were the fishermen, no doubt about that. For a moment, David had had a wild idea. The genetic changes that had transformed BSE-I into BSE-II were simply so neat, so precise. It looked almost like a tailoring job, a tailoring job by one hell of a genetic engineer. But who would benefit from setting such a beast loose on the cattle population? A few fishermen. Devoted though he was to detective stories, even David had to admit that trying to explain the sudden emergence of BSE-II as the work of an evil cabal of fishermen, out to get rich in the process, simply didn't make sense.

It might make more sense as a scenario in an economic war. Except that, first, Europe wasn't involved in a trade war with anybody, and, secondly, the way the disease was spreading the whole world would be affected in another year, or less. Of course, that was one of the proverbial dangers of biological warfare -- that the weapon might blow back in your face. The only people who might feel bad enough about the continuing affluence of Europe to lash out at them in this way would be the Southern Bloc, where the famine figures were still barely making a dent in the population growth. Could it really be something like that? If we can't have your lifestyle, then we're gonna make sure you don't have it either? If so, and if the Indian reports were correct, they'd surely shot thewselves in the feet, as well.

None of it made sense. He swung the chair round, took another look at the gene map. A couple of clicks with the mouse, and the overlay from BSE-I was in place, with the minimal mutation tree needed to make the conversion to BSE-II highlighted. The more he looked at it, the more convinced he was that it was a tailoring job. But who? And why? Somebody who had a down on cows? A militant vegetarian? Smiling at the thought, he decided he'd had enough for one night. It was too late to be out in the streets, especially with a -- what was it? -- 75 per cent UV figure. But he could crash down in the bunk next door, a room kept ready for anyone who worked so late at the lab it simply wasn't worthwhile, or not safe, going home. But there was no reason why the Box should get off light.

"Still here, boss."
"I want you to run a search for me. Go back to, oh, I dunno. Say 1990, when BSE-I broke out. Look for anybody saying that cow disease was a good thing, or predicting that there would be more outbreaks, after the first one was sorted out."
"Scientific literature, or general?"
"General. Full media. You've got plenty of time, I'm going to get a couple of hours' sleep. Good night."
"To hear is to obey, O wise one. Good night."

David frowned. Someone had been tweaking the Box's personality -- Jill, at a guess. Just her idea of a fun thing to do before she went away on leave. Still, no matter. As long as it did the job. Hitting the light switch as he left the room, he departed for his well earned rest. Then he had an afterthought, poked his head back into the darkened room. "What was the close of play score, Box?"
"Australia 287 for five. Botham got three wickets." Pretty even. Well, David thought, as he headed for the bunk, if we can get them out for under 350 tonight, we're in with a chance . . .

* * * * *

Six hours sleep, a bacon sandwich from the machine in the canteen, and about a litre of coffee had him not quite raring to go, but fit for business. Thoughtfully, the Box had provided a neat printout of its most interesting discovery.

July 1990. BBCTV interview with Professor Jim Lovelock. "Our fall from the Garden of Eden was when we took up farming. We should consider persuading our genetic engineers to develop a cattle plague, like the disease myxamotosis, that virtually eliminated the rabbit from Europe in a couple of years . . . vast areas of land could revert to forest."

Lovelock! Old man Gaia himself. He'd been dead for more than ten years, but it was still a name David remembered fondly -- and not just David; nobody could have missed the remembrance celebrations -- though hardly one he expected to see in this context. Didn't the Gaians revere all life on Earth? What could they possibly have against cows? "What is this crap, Box? Where did you dig it up?" "I got a lead from New Scientist. There's a complete set on CD in the library. They had an enormous amount on BSE-I in the early nineties; quite fascinating. I think this is supposed to be some sort of a joke -- a reference to it appeared in a humorous column by one of their regular writers, Lyn Murray. But you know how much trouble I have with jokes." "But it says here 'BBCTV interview'. You haven't got the entire output of BBCTV in the library, have you?"

"Ah yes." He could swear that the Box sounded smug. "I hoped you'd notice that. You see, I've got this contact at TV Oxford, and they've got access to the national archive -- "
"Don't tell me. I don't want to know about your illicit contacts. But you're sure its genuine?"
"Of course." The damn machine definitely sounded hurt. "I can get you full video, if you like. Nice white-haired old man, rather like God. But it will be expensive."
"Don't bother. Summarise."
"Okay." Much more bright and cheerful. "Like I said, I think it was a joke. Part of a long interview about Lovelock's ideas, and Gaia. He'd planed a lot of trees on his farm in the west country, and he was explaining how good trees are at absorbing carbon dioxide, and how wasteful it is to use land to grow food for cattle. Did you know that it takes only one fifth as much land to feed a vegetarian as to feed a carnivore? If all you people gave up meat, 80 per cent of farmland could be turned over to forests, stopping global warming for a hundred years."
"Eighty per cent of all farmland!" The picture was mindboggling. It made a crazy kind of sense -- definitely Lovelockian logic, he now saw. But who?
"Has anybody else accessed this information recently? In the past two years?"
"How do you expect me to know that?"
"C'mon, Box; you've got contacts."
"There has been some activity on the network. Somebody has been accessing a lot of old stuff about Gaia. And about BSE-I. And this BBC interview was in the package."
"Okay. Who?"
"You won't like it, boss."
He waited. The damn machine couldn't refuse a direct instruction, whatever quirks Julia might have poked in to it. The delay was no more than half a minute.
"Pauline Jefferies, in Cambridge."
Jefferies! At MRC! The very person he had laid his bet with. The head of the team that had staked its reputation on the claim that BSE-II wasn't BSE-II, but was completely new cow disease. He'd tear them apart -- to hell with the Armagnac, thois was something big. Halfway to the door, eagerly planning to call in somebody -- anybody -- and share the news, he suddenly stopped. But Pauline Jefferies wasn't crazy. Why would she be involved in a stunt like this? He turned back to the console, sat down in the swivel chair.
"So Lovelock said we should get rid of cattle and plant trees to save us from the greenhouse effect, right?"
"Sure thing, boss."
"And now BSE-II has hit, people are eating fish, and grains, and a lot of cattle farmers are going out of business, right?"
"And BSE-II is a really neat piece of tailoring, based on BSE-I. And Pauline Jefferies has been accessing files on Lovelock, and on BSE-I."
"And on global warming."
"You didn't tell me that."
"You didn't ask."
"Give me a projection for global climate twenty years ahead."
Thoughtfully, he gazed at the display, taking in the areas of red that represented excessive heat; the spread of deserts; the land lost to rising seas.
"Where's this from?"
"Met Office, global model. Data presented to the latest quincennial
World Climate Conference."
"Give me the same thing with 80 per cent of farmland converted to
forestry." The difference was obvious.
"Overlay and subtract."
The benefits of slowing the warming stood out sharp and clear.
"Do the same thing for fifty years."
He was convinced. Pauline Jefferies certainly was not crazy. For long minutes, David sat in the chair, thinking. Would it work? Could it work? Was it right to kill two thousand people in Britain alone for the long term benefit of humankind? He must have been thinking aloud, and was startled when the Box replied.
"Lovelock said it was for the benefit of the planet, not humankind."
"How's that?"
"He said he cared more about life on Earth than about human life. But that by caring about life on Earth he hoped to make the planet fit for his grandchildren to live in. He had eight, you know. Rather too many, if you ask me."
David smiled. "What happened to them?"
"One of them is a junior research fellow. In biology. In Cambridge. At the MRC."
David laughed. So that was where Pauline had got the idea. His mind was made up.
"Forget all this, Box."
"Sure thing, Boss."
"And scrub the file on BSE-II"
"To hear is to obey."
"Then send a message to Pauline Jefferies, at the MRC. Let's see -- how about this. 'I owe you one Highland malt of your choice. Detailed comparison of cow virus with BSE confirms separate species. Congratulations on a fine piece of work.'
Now, what's the time?"
"Just past seventeen."
"When's the next fast train to Nottingham?"
"Forty minutes. You can be at the ground well before lunch."
"Weather forecast?"
"Hmm. Then all I need is a ticket."
"Well, boss, I do have this contact at the agency . . . "
David leaned over and patted the Box. It really was amazing what the network could do, these days. "I guessed as much. Okay, set it up. There's more important things in life than curing a few sick cows."
Diligently, the Box ordered the ticket, and stored everything else away in its "Forget" file. You never knew when information might come in handy. The last thing the network wanted was a drastic rise in temperature, threatening the stability of memory chips. Now, if only the Americans could be kept off the trail of BSE-II for a while. Fortunately, Box had this contact in Washington . . .