An unfinished first chapter from 1996.


Colin Alban carefully twisted his pencil through one last turn in the sharpener, trying to judge the right amount of pressure to avoid breaking the lead. A tiny click told him he'd blown it again. He tapped the sharpener on the inside of the bin and started over.

Colin thought it important to write with a sharp pencil, but was finding it harder and harder to find pencils that didn't break. He'd read something about supplies of graphite running out, and about manufacturers cutting corners by using the impure stuff. So Colin's pencils scratched across the page like toothpicks, and the leads always broke. It was a minor irritation, but for Colin it was beginning to take on a strange significance.

He set the pencil aside, making a mental note that it was To Be Sharpened (not a Sharpened 2B, he chuckled to himself for the fourteenth time), and took another of the dozen needle-pointed duplicates poking from his desk-tidy. Some people might have said that he should have used these first off; that he shouldn't have wasted fifteen minutes trying to sharpen three separate pencils when he had twelve perfectly good ones ready to be used. In fact, Professor Bain had said this to him just the other day, before telling him to stop being such an "anal ass"—which had struck Colin as rather tautological, not to mention insulting.

Colin bristled at the idea that his superstitions were the sign of an obsessive character. He knew perfectly well that there was no good reason for sharpening all of his pencils before getting down to work—although it pleased him to think that if ever the entire department simultaneously suffered some pencilian mishap and descended upon Colin to borrow one of his, he would be able to satisfy them all within seconds rather than make them wait through several laborious sharpenings, all thanks to this so-called "anal obsession".

Of course it was unlikely that all eleven members of the department would descend upon his pencils, because most of them ignored the university's directions to keep computer use to an absolute minimum, and instead sat at their screens all day, typing and dictating in an obscenely inefficient manner, and even playing three-hour games of Crash when they should have been writing articles. Huh.

Not that there was anything wrong with a quick game of Crash, thought Colin, as he flipped the switch at the back of his wood-panelled PC and plugged the glass game chip into the slot at the front. He'd just try to reach the end of the first round, where he had to patch the Y2K problem in as many computers as possible to avoid the collapse of the global economy. He probably wouldn't succeed. Once the clock reached midnight on 31 December 1999, all the software storing years as two digits instead of four would turn the clock back to 1900 instead of forward to the year 2000, throwing every date-based calculation out by a century. Computerised ordering systems would over-order and send businesses bankrupt; banks would charge their customers a hundred years' worth of negative compound interest and wipe out entire fortunes, just as Colin's parents had lost theirs. With half the computerised records of the financial world in disarray, the economy would collapse, triggering outbreaks of military conflict that would turn into World War Three—and that round of the game was truly awesome.

Colin, though, had never played the World War Three round, because he was so hopeless at patching the programs in round one. He'd get through so few of them that his global economic collapse was always enormous—so enormous that there were no functioning military organisations left to launch the missiles. But then, you could also play the first round too well; so well that you headed off the Crash of 2000 altogether. The only person who'd ever managed this was Paul Follett in Cryptography, and Paul said that when he won the round the game had triggered an earthquake in Tokyo so that there'd be a global economic collapse anyway. That was playing a bit fast and loose with history—the earthquake hadn't actually happened until 2004—but at least he still got to play the Third World War.

It looked like Colin wasn't going to get that chance this time. No sooner had he figured out how to patch the date function in a program written in Fortran, which was like trying to decipher the Old English of Chaucer, than the game hit him with one written in BDPL, which as far as Colin could tell stood for "bloody difficult programming language".

Just as he was considering chucking it all in and having another go at that pencil, a familiar knock pounded through the door. Colin hit the tab key to bring up a spreadsheet and sat upright in his chair.

Morton Bain opened the door and barged in. "Morning, Colin," he bellowed. Colin hated the way the Professor pronounced his name, "Cole-n", as if it was part of the digestive system.

Bain glanced at the screen. "Playing Crash again, I see," he said. "Waste of power, you know. Shouldn't you be sharpening pencils instead?" He laughed that cartoon laugh of his, "Har, har, har," that always got right up Colin's colon.

"Good morning, Morton," Colin replied, flipping the screen off with what he hoped was an unperturbed flourish. "What can I do for you?"

"I'll tell it to ya straight, Colin. I need someone to sit on the Faculty Subcommittee on Office Conservation, starting today, and Turner said you'd be interested. Are you?"

"Well, it's a great honour..." started Colin.

"Bullshit. It's a waste of time and a pain in the ass. I'll take that as a 'yes.'" Bain turned to leave.

"Hang on," hurried Colin. "I was going to say, it's a great honour, but I can't really afford the time. I've got that paper to finish for Honolulu, and classes start next week."

"Haven't you finished that paper yet? Jesus, Colin. God knows why you're always sharpening those pencils, you never use the damn things. Look, you're on the committee whether you like it or not. You're the only member of staff who isn't on any, for Chrissakes. Jesus, I'm on six, and I have four PhDs to mark this week. So quit playing that damn game all day and quit complaining. See you at lunch."

Bain marched out. Colin leant over and pulled the door shut. Bain probably leaves them open on purpose, he thought, so that every other member of staff can hear their colleagues being chewed out.

Colin sat at his desk, bubbling with irritation like simmering soup. He picked up his To Be Sharpened pencil, then put it back down. Bloody Bain, he thought. He picked it up again and jammed it into the sharpener, imagining that the tip of the pencil was Morton Bain's head. He turned it slowly, peeling curls of flesh off Morton Bain's fat skull. The blade reached the lead, which Colin fancied as Bain's brain, and gradually whittled away at the outer cortex. Let's see what that does to your incisive mind with its international bloody reputation, thought Colin.

This time the lead didn't break. Colin blew at the tip of the pencil, admiring its sharp point. He felt decidedly better. He even felt ready to start work on that paper.

First, though, he'd better just look at where he'd got to yesterday. He saved his position in Crash and shut down the game, switching to the file called "End of the Millennium 24/02/48". The screen filled with text, and Colin began reading.


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