Thomas was on best behaviour. It was the first time he'd been allowed to spend a day with daddy in the office and he didn't want to do anything wrong. He was careful not to bump into anybody when running alongside the windows, although it was tricky because the view was so distracting. On one side, the Thames and Greenwhich, on the other side the huge monoliths of One Canada Square, Citigroup Centre and HSBC Tower. From here on the twenty-first floor he could actually see inside the other buildings, see the people and the desks and wave to anybody who came near a window, though daddy soon put a stop to that.
"Sorry, Thomas, but they're not used to seeing children in offices. We don't want to cause a fuss now, do we? We don't want to get daddy into trouble."
Thomas shook his head.
"Good boy. Now, I have to do some important work in the Secure Office, and I'm afraid they won't let you in there, so you'll have to stay here with Rachel and Sharon and the others for a while. They'll look after you. Look, you can play on daddy's laptop. I've put your favourite games on it. And you can sit on this big chair. There, how does that feel?"
Thomas wasn't sure how it felt. It wasn't very good that daddy was going off somewhere else, but on the other hand the laptop was usually out of bounds, so maybe that made up for it. Dutifully he tapped at the keyboard and launched a session of his favourite game, SimCity.
"You don't mind, do you, Rachel?" daddy asked the woman at the next desk. "He won't be any trouble."
"No, not at all. You go ahead. You'll be late. It's really cute when they can touch-type but their feet don't touch the floor."
"Thanks, I owe you. Give me a buzz on the mobile if you need me."
Rachel was OK, decided Thomas, in fact quite good-looking in a sisterly kind of way, but she could be more careful about the 'cute' word.
He buried himself in the game, starting off with high-density housing, far too many restaurants, a big power plant, low taxes and heavy public borrowing. Sometimes this strategy could all go wrong, but if you wanted to build a big city in double-quick time, it was the only way to go.
Daddy was a risk-taker too, and look how well things had worked out for him. Three years ago they'd had no money, no car, no holidays, no training shoes. Back then daddy had a pony-tail and spent all day on his laptop. Mummy was always complaining how stupid she'd been to marry a worthless hacker. Then daddy had gone away for a few years and when he came back his hair was short and he put on a smart suit and stepped into this very important job at C-Sweep, the world's largest computer security firm. Daddy wasn't as much fun now, and they saw a lot less of him, but they had a big house and holidays in Florida and Australia and more trainers than you could walk in.
After twenty minutes at the keyboard Thomas had built his first Sim high-rise and a major corporation moved in. The SimCity workers went on strike just once, which wasn't bad considering how far behind they were on pay. It wouldn't be long before the population reached half a million, unless the monsters attacked or along came a tornado.
What was the point in sitting in daddy's office, on daddy's machine, playing a game that he'd played a thousand times before and could easily play at home?
"You OK, Thomas?" asked Rachel.
"Just taking a break."
"Can I get you a Coke or anything?"
"Coke makes me hyperactive."
What other games had daddy put on the laptop? Lord of the Rings. Oh no, he just had to be joking. Lord of the Rings had gone out of fashion weeks ago.
Thomas checked for a wireless Internet connection. Yes, got one of those. There had to be something of interest on this machine. Ah, how about this? Breach-It, hidden away in Program Files.
Hmm, the graphics were terrible. Was this the kind of game adults played? Maybe they were less bothered about pictures. It looked interesting though, a kind of cross between SimCity and a war game. Many of the regular city-building options were there, things like the water network, electricity grid, financial institutions, but also with menus for the armed forces and intelligence services.
Actually the graphics got better as you went further inside. Under Armed Services, Air Force, he could see a map of England and all the virtual fighters on patrol. There were two Jaguars flying up the Thames Estuary right now, just west of Rochester, and a little dialogue box to get in touch with them.
<Fly between the towers of Canary Wharf, at 300 feet.> typed Thomas.
And the game replied, <Comms error? Resend instructions.>
Fantastic! A game that talked back! It was very unfair for daddy to keep this to himself.
Thomas retyped and the machine sent back the instruction as a query, in duplicate. But he persisted and eventually the message came up, <Roger. Will do.> Wow, this game even gave the pilots names.
The electricity grid menu was much more difficult than SimCity, with all kinds of technical words that he didn't understand, but eventually he tracked down Canary Wharf and the Citigroup Centre, one of the tall buildings he could see through the window. And if he'd had any doubts about the game then now they all disappeared, because when he pressed Z all the lights in Citigroup went out, and when he pressed R they all came back on again. Just like the real thing! Forget the bad user interface, this game really rocked!
Right on cue came the ear-splitting roar of two jet-fighters screaming through the narrow gap between the towers. Fabulous! Awesome sound effects! Everybody in the office got up to go to the windows. Thomas decided he'd better turn the laptop volume down, though he found it was on mute, which was a bit of a puzzle.
Daddy cool, daddy cool. My daddy has better games than any other daddy in the whole world.
There was a time when Thomas wasn't so sure about his daddy. When he'd disappeared for more than two years, mummy said he was working in Dubai, but some of the older boys at school had said this wasn't true, that Thomas's daddy was in prison, and for a while they teased him about this, until they found out that he'd gone to prison for computer hacking, which they said was "kewl", and they were good to Thomas after that.
And it was true, just like they said, that when daddy came back from Dubai he was as white as the moon, like he hadn't seen the sun for more than two years, which was strange if you looked up Dubai in the Yahoo! World Climate pages.
One thing that you couldn't set in SimCity was central bank interest rates, so in the Breach-It game Thomas followed the financial services menu and played around with the National Bank Rate to see what would happen. What he found was that if you halved it or doubled it then all the people in the HSBC Tower, and in Citigroup and even One Canada Square started moving around a lot faster, like bees in hives prodded with a stick. If he tripled it then some of them actually started running.
Then he wondered if it was possible to control the buildings separately, so he set interest rates back to where they were and found the HSBC share price and halved it, and sure enough all the people in that one building ran around like mad ants, while the other two buildings were relatively normal. He could do the same for the Citigroup tower by halving the share price of Citibank. And then, very cleverly, he worked out that if he doubled the National Base Rate, but at the same time doubled the share price of both HSBC and Citibank, it was only in One Canada Square where the people buzzed around like bluebottles, and the other two buildings were relatively calm.
He stopped when chairs crashed through a couple of top storey windows and the occupants climbed out to stand on the ledge. Clearly the system could only cope with a certain amount of tinkering.
Now he turned his attention to other matters of state. What about the intelligence services? Well he could see a use for MI5 and MI6, but if you were playing this game in the UK, why would you want a CIA? Surely it would just get in the way.
Under the CIA menu he pressed Delete, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake because now the laptop was locked up for twenty minutes and refused to do anything. Another example of a terrible user interface. On any decent game you would just press the button and move on.
But eventually it came up with the message <12,523,783,710,002 files deleted>, and he was able to transfer his attention to the Royal Navy's ballistic submarines. The big question was, would the nation grow fastest if its nuclear warheads were fired at America or at China? Ideally, both at the same time, making it look like they were attacking each other. Brilliant! Bet nobody's thought of that before.
There were two Vanguard Trident submarines in the Pacific right now, each with 28 warheads, so it was just a matter of tracking down the top 28 targets in each country. He was a little shocked to learn that China had over 100 cities of more than a million people, and that he'd barely heard of any of them, but went ahead anyway, putting the submarines on standby and sending out target coordinates.
His finger hovered over key F, for Fire.
"Thomas! Sorry I've been away so long."
Daddy's hair was all untidy, his tie askew, his face red and dark patches disfigured his white shirt armpits.
"Apologies to you too, Rachel. I didn't mean to be away this long, but all hell's broken loose out there. Bank of England, Stock Exchange. Some idiot's got into everything. American Intelligence had a lead but now they've pulled up the drawbridge and we can't even reach them. It's chaos. Do you think you could keep an eye on him for a while longer? I'm really needed. The whole system's falling apart."
"He's been as good as gold," said Rachel.
"Have you seen what's happened to gold today?" joked daddy. "Thanks."
Daddy made a move to leave, then stopped and decided even in the circumstances this was too abrupt and he had to make thirty seconds for his son.
"And what have you been up to, young man? Is your city already over half a million, or did the monsters strike?"
Daddy looked at the screen, at the list of Chinese and American cities and their populations, at the Admiralty Red-Code dialogue box and list of coordinates, at the Fire button, at the Breach-It logo in the top corner of the screen. His face wasn't red any more. It was as white as the moon.
He was very impressed. It was a long time before he could speak.
"Ok," he croaked. "Slight change of plan. Rachel, do you think you could do me yet another favour and get me a coffee? I probably need a break."
When Rachel had gone, abruptly and with a slightly sour face, daddy carefully pressed the Cancel button and said quietly, "Now, Thomas, some games are so secret that we must never tell anybody about them, not Rachel, not anybody, not even Mummy."
"Because otherwise daddy will have to work in Dubai for a very, very long time."