This bug's life

Our proud but primitive society lies helpless before a multi-eyed enemy. It's time you were introduced …

Deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, the seeds of an insect revolution are being sown. Crawling beneath the wires and chips of the world's PC-producing headquarters is a six-legged species whose impending dominance may spell the end of global communication as we know it.

This is the fabled Millennium Bug, christened "Y2K" by an abbreviation-obsessed media, but known merely as "Tookie" to computer analysts with a love of colloquiality and too much time on their hands. Belying its affectionate appellations, however, the increasingly fearsome pest holds in its feelers the keys to a new Dark Ages of information blackout.

"Tookie's emergence raises enormous implications for us all," warns Dr. Hiram Schlesinger, associate professor of entomology at San Fernando Junior College and the author of "Publish or Perish: What Do They Want from Me?" "According to all reliable studies, this resilient, highly adaptive new genus will truly come into its own on the first day of the new millennium, when the latest stage in its ongoing evolution will grant it the power to devour hard drives as swiftly and completely as my mother-in-law attacking the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at a Holiday Inn."

If unchecked, Schlesinger warns, the bug will run rampant through the planet's fragile geekosystem. Its incessant chewing will cause malfunctioning mainframes everywhere to hopelessly confuse the year 2000 with the year 1000. Family fortunes will instantly vanish as years of accrued interest are lost. Visitors to CNN's Internet site will instead find themselves connected to the Holy Roman Empire Home Page. Onscreen text boxes that once warned of insufficient memory will now caution of low lamp-oil levels. E-mail delivery on the America Online service, however, will continue to operate at its normal rate.

At a time when science desperately seeks to preserve endangered life forms, the race is on to find a method of genetic engineering that will wipe the doomsday insect from the face of the Earth. Soon after the crisis became apparent, teams of experts were set to work on a program that would cripple the species' ability to reproduce. These efforts proved fruitless when it was discovered that the Y2K mates only in chat rooms, and always under assumed names that it deletes once its urge to spawn has been fulfilled. Attempts to trace some of its past aliases -- including Buggy4U, TendrilBoy and MacDaddy -- were to no avail.

"The project was doomed from the start," Schlesinger sadly notes. "This cleverly mutated order is simply too crafty to be caught with its exoskeleton down. And I really wonder if we'd be within our rights to cajole it into a position of fatal weakness. The bug may be a vicious bringer of wanton destruction, but it has the First Amendment on its side, just like you or me."

Some microchip kingpins counter that the scientific community just isn't trying hard enough. Though Schlesinger points out that the coming catastrophe will decimate his own personal website, a player with substantially more to lose -- Microsoft chairman Bill Gates -- has taken matters into his own hands in an inimitable fashion. Not content to wait for physicists to hand him an ersatz can of Raid, Gates early last year took out a full-page ad in USA Today, in which he offered to buy off the bug with one lump-sum payment of cold, hard cash.

"You're a plague, I'm a plague," the highly personal ad read. "Why can't we work this out? Forget about gnawing on silicon. Sink your teeth into some gold for a change. This offer isn't going to be repeated, and you'll regret it for the rest of your life if you don't act now. Don't go away poor .... just go away."

The results, needless to say, were less than spectacular. The following day, a replying ad appeared in the newspaper's pages, in which the startlingly sentient creature met Gates' attempted bribe with a counter-offer to join him in the ring of Trump's Castle Casino in Atlantic City for a winner-take-all bout. "Bring your family," it taunted. "Bring your friends. Bring your whole colony. Hell, bring the cast of "Antz" for all I care. You're goin' dooooooowwwwwnnnn, sucker." It was rumored that the rant's original draft had included a nasty physical reference to Stephen Hawking before it was excised at the 11th hour by jittery editors.

Reason had failed. Greed had failed. Even wholesale slaughter -- always mankind's brightest hope -- had failed.

Now, the world can only wait in queasy anticipation of the arrival of a calamitous new paradigm. Our proud but primitive society lays helpless before the marauding intentions of a shadowy, multi-eyed enemy. Burned-out monitors line the highways, abandoned by their fatalistic former users. Modems act as paperweights, holding down the freshly crafted missives of correspondents whose desks haven't felt the touch of papyrus in over a decade. Stock in quill pens continues to rise.

And saddest of all, our children look up at us with eyes full of dread and betrayal. Desperate to feel connected to a keyboard-centric world they know to be in its death throes, they dig through their closets in search of long-forgotten Speak 'n Spells. As they burrow, their plaintive, muffled cries call out to us, searing our souls.

"Them ... " the mantra echoes. "Them ... Them ... "

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