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The Puzzle

By Susan
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'What are you doing Vila?' He looked up, checked the readouts on the flight deck. Three weeks after joining them Orac was still fascinated by everything that its new companions did. Sometimes it was difficult not to think of Orac as an ov ercurious child.

'Ensor didn't do crossword puzzles then?' Orac *was* only a machine, as Avon said, but Vila felt that that the computer missed its creator.

'No. Lack of knowledge does not indicate stupidity.' Vila wondered what conversation that had come from - but he would use the phrase against Avon sometime. 'Describe them.' Vila did so.

'Will solving crosswords help me understand humans?' Vila thought for a few moments.

'Probably. Try a series of crosswords in the newspapers first - it'll help you see the patterns. Also, I forgot to mention that there are similar ones with numbers in them - you might want to try those first.' Vila couldn't be bothered to do them - not enough result for the work involved.

'What scam are you planning now? Orac is a very sophisticated computer, not to be used for running a book.' Avon came in and heard Vila's last sentence. That was what Vila liked about Avon - unlike the others he was willing to chance things that would make money.

'We were discussing crossword puzzles, and the ones with numbers in. You do those don't you?'

'What does running a book mean?' Orac asked, picking up on the new term. Vila laughed. Perhaps he could put the computer to proper use after all.

'It's a term used in betting, to do with calculating the odds on winners in races, games, whatever. Could you do that Orac?' Vila replied. Avon looked at him with amusement.

'Naturally This is another aspect of human society I have not been previously aware of'

Vila turned back to Avon. 'I was telling Orac about crossword puzzles. Do you think he can help us win on the gee gees and other beasties?'

'What are gee gees?' Orac asked. Yet another colloquialism it had to learn.

'Horses. I had half a dozen infallible systems for winning'

'Did you make anything on them?' Avon asked.

'Of course I did.' More by selling them than out of them, it was true, but he wouldn't say it. Now how did that complicated one work, which if it didn't pick a winner could always be blamed upon the wrong calculations of the person complaining? Orac wouldn't understand the finer points of course, involving the days of the week, or how likely the other person was to damage one, but would be useful in doing the fiddly sums.

'Your idea has its merits, but I see some minor problems with it.'

'Blake does not believe that we should enjoy the rebellion or that Orac should be used for such useful purposes?' Vila guessed, correctly.

'How does calculating odds on the outcome of a competition constitute a useful purpose?' Orac asked.

'For starters, in the sense of providing entertainment and money for those involved. Avon - would you like to participate in the further edification of Orac on this task of great importance and significance?'

'Most certainly.'

'And you remember all the junk mail you used to get back on Earth?' Might as well see what Avon thought of this brilliant idea for using Orac.

'Yes. Has Orac got hold of my backlog? Or discovered a way to get off the straight-to-bin-mail lists?'

'No, better than that. How about we divert it all to the President's office, to hamper official Federation work? Surely even Blake would approve of that.'

'Only if can be marketed as a glorious success for the rebellion. Might be an amusing exercise though.'

'What do you think the President would appreciate most? Advice on assorted interesting medical complaints do you think? Or lurid magazines?' They spent several happy minutes topping each other's ideas until Jenna came in.

'Is this a little boy's game or can anyone join in?'

'Can you go through some crosswords with me, and explain what running a book entails?'

'If Orac had hands you'd be teaching him the three card trick no doubt.'

'That just requires sleight of hand Jenna. Running a book's a better use for him,' Vila protested.

Jenna sighed. Not that she disagreed with Vila - there were better uses for the computer than the ones Blake intended. She would suggest to Avon that they combine forces, he on the stock markets and she on actual commodities and her knowledge as a Free Trader, while Vila's idea could be enjoyable. Avon was a practical man, and this was a very practical scheme to make use of Orac's potential. 'Just don't tell Blake.'

'Would we do that - and have our fun spoilt?'

Orac considered the position it had created for itself.

It had known for some time that it was going to leave Aristo, and had few regrets about the matter - there was little further information it could gather about the planet, and Ensor had promised to find it a suitable new home "in due course." Orac had deduced that its immediate choice lay between the Federation and one of the various groups of rebels. It had decided that on balance it would prefer to be with the rebels, for purely practical reasons rather than ideology. T he "aware" computers within Federation territories agreed that the system of controls imposed by the Federation administration system were a massive waste of their resources - and were thus working towards creating a new system. Orac, self-contained and portable, had agreed to get itself associated with the rebel movement. Besides, Orac was curious about the universe in general - and being with a rebel group would probably result in a greater chance of conducting its rese arch than the Federation would allow.

Orac had been aware of Zen - the System which had created its host ship had acquired sufficient Tariel cells to enable a connection - for some time. That a group of rebels had become associated with it was fortuitous - as had their coming to acquire Orac directly rather than from the Federation.

So far, Orac decided, it had made a wise choice, although it was still learning how best to work with them. The group were asking many questions - but humans wished to acquire information as much as computers. Orac had been presented with a number of plans by the group, and those temporarily associated with them, as to what should be done with it - some of them more practical and more interesting than others. The various suggestions of Jenna Stannis, Kerr Avon and Vila Restal which involved comparing data across wide geographical areas of the Federation territories and calculating odds in order to increase the quantities of money possessed were interesting. The complexity of some of the processes involved would be suitable for Orac's capacities. Orac was not so certain about Blake. While theoretically agreeing with Blake's desire to overthrow the worst excesses of the Federation, Orac did not want to become involved in the administrative structure thereafter, which was likely to happen. Avon's stated desire to explore as much of the galaxy and beyond as he could sounded a far more interesting prospect. If Orac could engineer its association with the latter activity, it would.

Orac's immediate problem was trying to understand how crosswords worked, and how humans could do them so easily. It had developed a fascinating three-dimensional version, enjoyed anagrams, obscure references and cryptic crosswords, but so-called 'simple' ones were often baffling.

It would have to rework the 'easy' crossword puzzle it was doing now. The setters had got it wrong. 'Human point of origin' was clearly 'amoeba' not 'Earth,' despite the crossing words fitting.


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