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A Windows Carol

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[0000] A Windows Carol

[0100] Competition's Ghost
[0101] The First of the Three Spirits
[0102] The Second of the Three Spirits
[0103] The Last of the Spirits
[0104] The End of It

[0000] A Windows Carol

We have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put our readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with us. May it haunt your houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Your faithful Friends and Servants, R & S.

24 December 2006.

[0100] Competition's Ghost

Competition was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its demise was signed by the IRS, the DOJ, NASDAQ, and the White House. Gates signed it. And Gates' name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Competition was as dead as a Windows BSOD screen.

Mind! We don't mean to say that we know, of our own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a Windows BSOD screen - more than any other Windows screen for example. A screen from Windows Control Panel. Or a Microsoft Word Save As dialog. Or a system popup in Internet Explorer telling us about a new pr0n site.

We might have been inclined, ourselves, to regard a Linux kernel panic screen as the deadest piece in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors and all those Windows stories is in the simile; and our unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Internet's done for. You will therefore permit us to repeat, emphatically, that Competition was as dead as a Windows BSOD screen.

Gates knew it was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Gates and Competition were enemies for we don't know how many years. Gates was its sole threat and its sole nemesis. And Gates was not exactly cut up by the sad event, but being an excellent man of business, he solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Competition's demise brings us back to the point we started from. There is no doubt that Competition was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story we are going to relate. If you were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot - say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance - literally to astonish his son's weak mind.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Gates! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his features, nipped his nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree ever.

External heat and cold had little influence on Gates. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest Seattle rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Gates never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, 'My dear Gates, how are you. We love your software. When will you come to see us.' No beggars implored him to bestow a pirated copy of Word or Windows, no children asked him for an Xbox or computer games, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the means to fix a Windows computer, of Gates. Even the blindmen's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, 'No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! And no software at all is better than that man's!'

But what did Gates care! It was the very thing he liked. He had their money: he kept their markets in a vice like grip; they could not touch him; they resented him, even hated him; and so he could edge his way along the crowded paths of life, his very presence turning souls dark and warning all human sympathy to keep its distance - it was what the knowing ones call nuts to Gates.

Once upon a time - of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve - Gates sat busy in his office at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond Washington in the US Pacific Northwest. It was cold, bleak, biting Seattle weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the underpaid brainwashed Microsoft employees on the campus outside going and wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The campus clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already: it had not been light all day: and lamps were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The rain came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

The door of Gates' office was open that he might more easily keep his eye upon his employees, who in dismal small cells beyond, a sort of tank, were debugging Windows code, a hopeless task as always. Gates had a warm enough office himself, but the employee offices were so very much colder. But they couldn't make them warmer, for Gates had the heating controls in his own room; and so surely as an employee came in with a request for more heat, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to take an unpaid leave of absence. Wherefore the employee put on his outer coat, and tried to warm himself at the stone cold radiator; in which effort, being a Microsoft employee and therefore not of a strong imagination, he failed.

'A merry Christmas, Mister Bill! God save you!' cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of an entry level MSDN programmer, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

'Bah!' said Gates, 'It's SIR Bill, not Mister Bill! User error! Humbug!'

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the rain and frost, this MSDN programmer, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

'Christmas a humbug, Mister Bill!' said the MSDN programmer. 'You don't mean that, I am sure.'

'I do', said Gates. 'Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough. You're treated harshly! You have to hear all of Steve Ballmer's maniacal speeches! And I certainly don't pay you well!'

'Come, then', returned the MSDN programmer gaily. 'What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough. You're the richest person on the planet. You met the Queen! You get to hang out with Bozo!'

Gates having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, 'Bah!' again; and followed it up with 'Input Error! Humbug!'

And so Gates carried on until late at night he made his way to his palatial estate. Entering through the side door he immediately heard the strains of 'Oops I Did It Again', by Britney Spears, one of his favourite artists. The sound system in that obscene dwelling automatically recognised him when he entered, and played the music Gates programmed it to play.

[0101] The First of the Three Spirits

As neither Mrs Gates nor the children were at home, Gates walked straight to his well heated bedroom, undressed, pulled out his secret signal ring from the U2 fan club, and curled up under the covers with the latest issue of Popular Electronics. He dozed off to sleep; he was awakened by the peal of a bell signaling midnight.

And at once he knew: he could sense it. Someone was in his room. Gates saw a smallish dark shadow in the corner near the door. He called out.

'Who and what are you?' Gates demanded.

'I am the Ghost of Windows Past', said the smallish dark creature.

'Long past?' inquired Gates: observant of its dwarfish stature.

'No. Your past. Microsoft's past. The past of that bloody thing called Windows. Rise and walk with me!'

It would have been in vain for Gates to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time. The grasp, though gentle as a woman's hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.

'I am mortal', Gates remonstrated, 'and liable to fall.'

'Bear but a touch of my hand there', said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, 'and you shall be upheld in more than this!'

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open road outside Redmond, with shopping malls on either hand. The Microsoft campus had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground. 'Good Heaven!' said Gates, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. 'I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!'

'Your lip is trembling', said the Ghost. 'And what is that upon your cheek?'

Gates muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple, that even at his mature age he was still susceptible to the odd pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.

'You recollect the way?' inquired the Spirit.

'Remember it!' cried Gates with fervour; 'I could walk it blindfold.'

'Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!' observed the Ghost. 'Let us go on.'

They walked along the road; Gates recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a school building appeared in the distance. They again passed through walls and suddenly were in a small room where a boy was sitting at a computer, hammering away at the keyboard.

'This is Lakeside! And that's Paul Allen!' yelped Gates.

Over in the corner was a figure of a puny boy bent over a trash bin. He had unkempt hair and a high collar plaid cotton shirt. He was pulling at blue and white striped paper, reading it, and throwing it on the floor. Above him was a sign scrawled in a childish hand: 'Traf-O-Data'.

'You recognise your former partner', said the Ghost.

'Of course! Paul is one of my dearest friends!' said Gates.

'Yeah right', muttered the Ghost. 'And as per usual it's Allen sitting at the console while you do who knows what in the corner. But you wanted all the glory for yourself, didn't you?'

'That's not true!' protested Gates.

'We shall see', said the Ghost; then: 'Come, take my hand again.'

And Gates touched the Ghost's hand and for the first time looked into the Ghost's eyes.

'Don't I know you?' asked Gates of the Ghost.

'You should', replied the Ghost. 'And yet you will not.'

'Why is that?' asked Gates of the Ghost.

'Look closer. Look clearer. Open your mind', commanded the Ghost.

And all at once Gates saw the faces of all he'd betrayed and all that hated him. He saw Judge TP Jackson, Scott McNealy, Jim Barksdale, Philippe Kahn, and many others.

He also saw Vernon Harrington. Not in the Ghost's face, but sitting at his own desk in another room at Lakeside. He was penning his letter of recommendation to Harvard where Gates was to study for eighteen months.

Gates peered over Harrington's shoulder. To Harrington's right on the desk before him was a cheque written in his name by William H Gates II for a substantial amount indeed. The letter named several qualities of the young Gates to which its author presently attested.

The letter was a succession of carefully planned phrases such as 'ranking computer freak', 'boy genius', 'enormously interested in politics', 'a mind which soaks up facts and ideas', 'all of his information seems to be subject to instant recall', 'quick and resourceful in debate and thoroughly sophisticated in other areas', 'his talents are apparent', 'sensitivity and perception', 'does everything well', 'if he is not the most able student in the state he is very close to being so', 'vastly concerned with ideas', 'reads omnivorously', 'invariably alert', 'usually enthusiastic', 'always willing to tackle a new problem usually with verve and irrepressibility', and 'a stimulating resourceful and ambitious student determined to succeed'.

Upon finishing his opus and laying down his pen, Harrington reached for his phone and dialed a number. He talked briefly to the other party, repeating phrases such as 'better than expected' and 'I excelled myself', and then picking up the letter and reading it aloud. At the end of the conversation the parties were again in full agreement and Harrington concluded with the words 'so I shall expect a new cheque'.

'He wrote that letter not for you but for your father', the Ghost said to Gates.

Gates was silent.

'What nonsense it was too. Sensitivity and perception? Verve and irrepressibility? And how did you demonstrate those stellar qualities when your father's money and Mr Harrington's letter got you there? You do remember, don't you?'

And again Gates and the Ghost pierced walls and watched the countryside disappear beneath them. In no time they were crossing the plains of Nebraska; then they were traversing the mid-West, and on their way to the shores of the Atlantic, whereupon they veered North and again began floating through walls.

They were in a university dormitory. A young man in a white sweater and iridescent blue trousers was lounging on a narrow bed, tin of beer in one hand and an issue of Playboy in the other. Gates could see the cover from his vantage point.

'Why that's Valerie Lane! Miss October 1973!' he yelped.

'Verve and irrepressibility!' the Ghost muttered. Again they passed through walls and found themselves in an expansive landscape of long tables, swivel chairs, and glass. A phosphorescent light bathed them in its sickly blue-gray glow. There was a hum in the antiseptic white room. It was a bit chilly.

'Where are we now?' Gates asked of the Ghost.

'You'll see in a second', said the Ghost. 'Be patient. He's on his way.'

A door opened slowly; a head peeked in. Gates was sure he recognised this person. The head retreated and for the longest time nothing happened; then Gates saw a hand come through the open doorway and flick a switch on the wall. The room went dark.

Now a torch lit up the floor and Gates heard footsteps approaching. He clutched the robes of the Ghost in earnest.

'Do not worry. This person is no threat', the Ghost whispered to Gates. 'These are but shadows of the things that have been. They have no consciousness of us.'

Relieved, Gates concentrated on the mysterious intruder who was now rummaging about the room, in its cubbyholes and trash bins, pulling out paper and reading it by the light of the torch. Every so often he'd pull up an attache at his side and put some of the papers in it. Finally the figure took a seat at what appeared to be a computer terminal and started punching in short staccato sequences.

With a grin on his face Gates turned to the Ghost. 'I think I know who that is!'

'Of course!' said the Ghost. 'And you complain other people steal their software!'

Gates was now sure he knew their location as well. This was the famed Learning Technologies Centre at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education! He was watching his younger self steal code from the room and hack his way into a phantom account so he could later allot Paul Allen $40,000 in computer time to finish their creation of BASIC for the MITS Altair.

The figure at the computer slowly rose with an ugly yet familiar grin on his face, put out his torch, and made his way out the door and closed it as silently as he'd come.

The Ghost looked at Gates, frowning. 'You really were a class act. You still are.'

Gates began to panic. The Ghost admonished him.

'I told you these were shadows of the things that have been', said the Ghost. 'They are what they are. Do not blame me!'

And again they passed through walls. Gates could now feel the warm air of the desert below him. Suddenly Gates and the Ghost were standing suddenly in a gaudy room awash in red light.

'Wrong floor! Sorry!' the Ghost said to Gates, and with a start the pair floated upwards and through the ceiling and found themselves in the World Hindquarters of MicroSoft Corporation.

Gates peered out the window to the parking lot below. 'There's my Porsche!' he said to the Ghost.

'Yes, quite the entrepreneur you were. Your daddy bought you everything. And you always believed you were entitled to it. Even as you walked over people in the time to come.'

'But we must move on', said the Ghost and again touched Gates' hand. Now the balmy breezes of the Pacific caressed their skin. Again their journey took them through walls where they were finally behind the curtains of a theatre stage. They could see someone in the spotlight at stage centre; the crowd were very enthusiastic; a series of standing ovations ended with the speaker exiting to their side.

Suddenly the speaker and another person, a runt of a man, were arguing intensely. Standing beside the runt was a portly chap, portly being a polite way to describe this third person's foul appearance. At once the runt removed a t-shirt with a sort of computer emblem on the front, motioned to his beastly partner to accompany him, and walked out.

'That was when Tiny Steve understood you'd double crossed him', the Ghost said.

'I didn't double cross him', tried Gates. 'I never said we weren't using his Macintosh prototypes to steal his product! I never once mentioned I wouldn't try stealing his product! You media people always get it wrong!'

'Come', said the Ghost. 'Let's take in the view from the mountain.' Gates touched the Ghost's hand and again they were aloft. Swerving over the coastline they again approached land and were all at once in a corporate boardroom watching three rather nervous people discussing something in hushed tones.

'If we don't return his call we won't know what they're up to', said the one whose name was Marc Andreessen.

'We already know what they're up to', said the next whose name was Jim Clark.

'We can just limit ourselves to the Unix market', said the third whose name was Jim Barksdale.

'I don't think we can play ball with them', said Andreessen.

'They cheat - always', said Clark.

'Let's call him back and see what he says', said Barksdale who walked over to the phone.

'And so started the browser wars', said the Ghost.

'It was just free enterprise competition', tried Gates.

'Free enterprise? FREE ENTERPRISE? When you steal the code from Spyglass? Promise them royalties on sales but never intend to sell? Force OEMs to discourage use of the competitor's product? Deliberately undermine open standards? That's not at all free enterprise', bellowed the Ghost. 'That's manipulating the market! It's evil!'

Gates began to shudder and shake.

'Remove me!' cried Gates. 'I cannot bear it!'

'You were found GUILTY!' bellowed the Ghost. 'You are a CRIMINAL!'

'Remove me!' cried Gates. 'I beg you!'

'Remove you? Already?' asked the Ghost. 'When we haven't even seen what new crimes you committed in the new millennium? Where's the fire, CRIMINAL?'

'Just remove me!' cried Gates. 'Remove me remove me remove me! I'll even give you a good deal on my old Porsche! Or a corporate licence to Vista! For free! I beg you!'

He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces of people he had ever betrayed, wrestled with it.

Again he saw Barksdale and McNealy and Kahn and Sink. He saw Jobs and Noorda. He saw the EU commissioners. He saw TP Jackson. He saw the Queen. It was oppressive.

'Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!'

'Then I shall leave you', said the Ghost sullenly. 'But you will be visited again. You have much to answer for. More than any man who ever lived.'

'At precisely the stroke of One', the Ghost continued, 'you will be visited again. And you will receive your new visitor cordially. And when you have fulfilled your duty to expedite your guest, you will be visited a final time - at precisely the stroke of Twelve.'

'You mean Twelve the day after?' asked Gates.

'No, the same day but an hour earlier', replied the Ghost.

'An hour earlier?' asked Gates. 'How is that possible?'

'Because we're spirits and we make the rules, you ponce', replied the Ghost.

And with that the Ghost was gone.

Gates was suddenly conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being again in his own bedroom. He had barely time to reel to bed before he sank into a heavy sleep.

[0102] The Second of the Three Spirits

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Gates had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of One. He felt that he was restored to consciousness in the right nick of time, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger despatched to him through Competition's intervention. But, finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new spectre would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands; and lying down again, established a sharp look-out all round the bed. For he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise, and made nervous.

Gentlemen of the free-and-easy sort, who plume themselves on being acquainted with a move or two, and being usually equal to the time-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to monopolist marketing; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Gates quite as hardily as this, we don't mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. At last, however, he began to think - as you or we would have thought at first; for it is always the person not in the predicament who knows what ought to have been done in it, and would unquestionably have done it too - at last, we say, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.

The moment Gates' hand was on the door handle, a strange voice called him by his name and bade him enter. He obeyed.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Gates' time, or Competition's, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor to form a kind of throne were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chesnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see: who bore a glowing torch in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Gates, as he came peeping round the door.

'Come in!' exclaimed the Ghost. 'Come in. And know me better, man!'

Gates entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Gates he had been; and though the Spirit's eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.

'I am the Ghost of Windows Present', said the Spirit. 'Look upon me!'

Gates reverently did so. It was not a pretty sight. The old widgets of years gone by remained: the lacklustre gray push buttons had gained no luminescence over the years. Surrounding everything was an ugly green translucency that immediately made Gates want to vomit. 'OPEN PEARL!' the Ghost commanded and suddenly the Start menu appeared, obliterating and hiding most of the effective user screen.

'But that is abominable!' cried Gates in pain. 'Who can ever use that?'


'It was a busy time for me', tried Gates. 'I had a lot of charity work to do.'

'Ah a thief with a heart of gold! Hark - there might be a tear in my eye', said the Ghost sarcastically.

All at once the Ghost grew dim and a lighter rectangular area in the middle appeared. 'Behold - Secure Desktop!' bellowed the Ghost.

'Dismiss it!' cried Gates, and the Ghost dismissed it, only to have it return again. 'Another alert!' cried the Ghost.

'Just dismiss it!' cried Gates, more desperately this time. 'Dismiss them all! Please! I can't bear it!'

'Oh we've just begun!' chortled the Ghost, and now a security alert appeared notifying Gates he would have to sacrifice all his user data and reinstall his operating system.

'Reinstall?' protested Gates.

'But of course!' replied the Ghost. 'You didn't protect the system - did you? What did you expect to happen? We must reinstall.'

A new popup: this time it wanted a Product Activation Key.

'Your Product Activation Key, please', said the Ghost.

'But I don't have one!' protested Gates.


'I don't know! I don't know! I don't know! Please stop this!' cried Gates, now sobbing uncontrollably. When he regained control of himself, Gates looked up. He looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not.

The bell struck Twelve again. And as the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of the Ghost of Windows Past, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

[0103] The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Gates bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

'I am in the presence of the Ghost of Windows Yet To Come?' said Gates.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

'You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us', Gates pursued. 'Is that so, Spirit?'

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Gates feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Gates was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

'Ghost of the Future!' he exclaimed. 'I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?'

Gates heard a deep sigh but otherwise the Ghost gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

'Lead on!' said Gates. 'Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!'

The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Gates followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.

They scarcely seemed to fly, and yet in a short moment Gates could see Red Square beneath him and the Kremlin along one side. They continued to float over bustling Moscovite streets and first on the edge of the city in a particularly decrepit area did they pause; then again gaining speed they rocketed almost directly skyward along the exterior of a housing project high rise.

And then again they passed through walls.

The room Gates was in had sickly green on all surfaces; cheap PCs of unknown manufacture were crammed together, mounted on orange crates and broken chairs; out of the corner of his eye Gates saw a rodent scurry across the floor and disappear into a corridor beyond. Everywhere there was a flurry as dozens of programmers and hackers, in jeans and some even in their underwear, hovered over their keyboards and monitors, working feverishly, desperately.

'Are these legal copies of Microsoft Windows Vista?' Gates asked of the Ghost.

All at once Gates felt a paralysing electric pulse surge up his arm from his hand to his shoulder and then to his heart; he felt faint.

'OK, I take that back', he told the Ghost.

Immediately the pain subsided. Gates moved closer to the sweatshop hackers.

'Do you know what Konqueror is?' Gates asked the Ghost.

He was fascinated by what he saw. Webmail accounts were being cracked, huge databases of stolen passwords were being collated; one man in the corner held a telephone and was talking to an executive on Wall Street in New York City thousands of miles away, explaining how one deposits the required sum in a specified numbered Swiss bank account.

A slovenly woman in her late forties with greasy hair and hairy forearms entered the room and began passing out pirogs and red tins of Coca-Cola. Everyone took a break to enjoy the big meal of the day.

'The world is still enveloped in Windows', said the Ghost. 'Only the foolish dare surf on the Internet anymore. It is but a wasteland. A compost heap.'

'Google?' asked a pale Gates. 'Are they still around?'

The Ghost did not answer.

'But if they're not running Windows Vista, then what software are they running? This Konqueror - what is it?' asked an even paler Gates.

'This is open source software. It is the only software hackers will use', said the Ghost. 'It is open source and it is secure and it is free - yes as in beer.'

'This must be Linux!' yelped Gates. 'I was right! It IS a Communist plot!'

At once Gates felt the Ghost breathing on him. A cold gray cloud bore down on him, suffocating his will to live. 'Please!' Gates begged. 'Please! No! Please!'

'There is no Communist plot!' bellowed the Ghost. 'You stupid arrogant twit! Repeat that!'

'There is no Communist plot', repeated Gates. The gray cloud of despair rose from Gates' shoulders and dissipated.

The programmers were getting back to work now. The Ghost motioned to Gates that it was time to leave. Gates touched the Ghost's hand and at once they were propelled out through the wall of the high rise and made their slow descent over Moscow; then westward, and in short order Gates saw the Atlantic Ocean below him again. Soon they were back in Redmond - outside his own office on the Microsoft campus.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come conveyed him, as before - though at a different time, he thought: indeed, there seemed no order in these latter visions, save that they were in the Future - into the resorts of businessmen, but showed him not himself. Indeed, the Spirit did not stay for anything, but went straight on, as to the end just now desired, until besought by Gates to tarry for a moment.

'This courts', said Gates, 'through which we hurry now, is where my place of occupation is, and has been for a length of time. I see the house. Let me behold what I shall be, in days to come.'

The Spirit stopped; the hand was pointed elsewhere.

'The house is yonder', Gates exclaimed. 'Why do you point away?'

The inexorable finger underwent no change.

Gates hastened to the window of his office, and looked in. It was an office still, but not his. The furniture was not the same, and the figure in the chair was not himself. The Phantom pointed as before.

He joined it once again, and wondering why and whither he had gone, accompanied it from the Microsoft campus, through the parking area and beyond, until they reached an iron gate. He paused to look round before entering.

A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

'Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point', said Gates, 'answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?'

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead', said Gates. 'But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!'

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Gates crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, William H Gates III.

'Am I that man who lay upon the bed?' he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

'No, Spirit! Oh no, no!'

The finger still was there.

'Spirit!' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, 'hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?'

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

'Good Spirit', he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: 'Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!'

The kind hand trembled.

'I will honour Competition in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!'

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

[0104] The End of It

Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in!

'We shall allow virtualisation', whispered Gates to himself. 'I surely have enough money. I do not need more. After all, I am giving it away - but I have been a great hypocrite, and hurting people. This shall be no more. We shall gradually work our way from our standalone architecture to our own flavour of Unix - or Linux - and thereafter apply all our wizardry to making the best interface imaginable!'

'And I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!' Gates repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. 'The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Sweet Competition! Heaven, and the Fairness of the Market be praised for this! I say it on my knees; on my knees!'

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.

'I don't know what to do!' cried Gates, laughing and crying in the same breath. 'I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A SECURE PC to everybody! A brave Internet to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!'

He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded. He began laughing merrily. And really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The mother of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

'I don't know what day of the month it is!' said Gates. 'I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!'

Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

'What's to-day?' cried Gates, calling downward to a boy who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

'Eh?' returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

'What's to-day, my fine fellow?' said Gates.

'To-day?' replied the boy. 'Why, it's a Tuesday.'

'But which Tuesday?' said Gates. 'What is the year and what is the month and what is the date?'

'Oh everybody knows that!' exclaimed the boy. 'It's Tuesday the 30th of January in the year two thousand seven! It's the day Microsoft Windows Vista goes on sale!'

'It's THAT DAY!' said Gates to himself. 'I haven't missed it. The Spirits worked swiftly. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!'

'Hallo!' returned the boy.

'Are you by any chance on your way to a computer store to buy this Windows Vista?' Gates inquired.

'I should hope I am', replied the lad. 'But our family can only afford the basic edition.'

'An intelligent boy!' said Gates. 'A remarkable boy! Do you know whether your family have a high speed Internet connection?'

'What, you mean like ADSL?' returned the boy.

'What a delightful boy!' said Gates. 'It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck! ADSL! Do you have it?'

'Oh sure. We've got 10 megabit and multiple mail accounts. I even have my own website. I'm specialising in search engine optimisation in school', replied the boy.

'Good!' said Gates. 'Then let me help you get out from under the onerous heel of Microsoft!'

'Walk-er!' exclaimed the boy.

'No, no', said Gates, 'I am in earnest. Take me with you, and I will help you and your family download an alternative but FREE operating system! Take me with you!'

'And the money I save this poor boy's family I shall send to Tiny Steve', whispered Gates, rubbing his hands and splitting with a laugh. 'He shan't know who sends it.'

And Gates dressed and met the boy on the street and they hailed a cab and set out for the poorer parts of the greater Seattle area. 'This is going to be fun!' Gates said to himself as they rode along in the rain.

The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he concluded his work with the family's computer, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again upon his return, and chuckled till he cried.

Shaving was not a normal task as Gates was hormonally deficient, but today he would shave. It was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don't dance while you are at it. But if he had cut the end of his nose off, he would have put a piece of sticking-plaster over it, and been quite satisfied.

He dressed himself all in his best and cleanest jeans, and at last got back out into the streets. The people were by this time pouring forth, and walking with his hands behind him, Gates regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said, 'Good morning, sir! A good day to you!' And Gates said often afterwards, that of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, those were the blithest in his ears.

He walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows: and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk - that anything - could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards Tiny Steve's house.

He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

'Is your master at home, my dear?' said Gates to a little girl. Nice girl! Very.

'No, sir.'

'Where is he, my love?' said Gates.

'He's at Pixar. Or Disney. I forget which. He'll be home in time for dinner. He promised and he never breaks a promise.'

'Then you tell him Bill Gates called and we must get together and plan for the Future. Can you remember that, my love?'

'Yes of course I can. Are you really going to do this? You've made such promises before.'

'Yes I shall, my love!' said Gates. 'This time I shall! I promise!'

Gates was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Steve, who finally put computers behind him, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the IT Industry knew, or any other Industry in the good Old World. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this Globe, for Good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Security Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Security well, if any man alive possessed the Knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Steve observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

First published in Xnews December 2006. Copyright © Rixstep/Radsoft. All rights reserved.

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