The Computer Graveyard, Part I

Our second story for Tech Writer Halloween Horror Stories Week comes in two parts, the first today and the second tomorrow.  Why spoil the story in one day? We’re celebrating Halloween and the scary, nee terrifying, things that happen to technical communicators.

When I awoke that morning and stumbled past my office door, the 420XL was gone and in its place sat a new 520. While I washed and scraped the beard from my face, the significance escaped me, but a few cups of coffee later, what passed for my brain at that hour noted the discrepancy. Hadn’t it been only a couple weeks since I’d unpacked the 420XL? Not that it was a really big deal, but taking the time to check it out would give the old wetware a few minutes to warm up to operating speed.

Digging among the bones of credit past and credit due, I came across the receipt I sought. Indeed, the date was a little over a month ago, and the model number was unmistakably 420XL—and the e-invoice confirmed this. Yet the number embossed beneath the display read 520. I was morally certain I hadn’t purchased a new computer system within the past week, and I was willing to trust this random access human memory now that it was reinforced by hard copy. Still, even computers sometimes err, usually due to the human operator, so this new lead was worth checking. Especially so as an alternative to making myself begin the daily telecommute that paid for necessities such as a second cup of coffee.

Braced with more caffeine, I Skyped my credit company. Though they sent me gushing Christmas cards every year in gratitude for my contributions to their pension fund, their representatives were notably less friendly in person. “Yes, Sir,” said a bored voice over the faint echo of stagnant Musak as their avatar feigned interest, “your last major purchase was five weeks ago. Two thousand dollars, paid late,” (the voice chided), “to NewEgg.com. Thanks for doing business with us, Sir.” I delayed too long in my reply, and the connectoin closed, leaving me listening to an ergonomically modulated dial tone. It was pleasant, but I did have work to do after all. Shaking my head, I chalked it up to a database error. Surely it was easy enough to transpose a 520 for a 420? A simple wordpo by the third-world drone who’d created the e-commerce database. Wasn’t that why North American companies used computers instead of people to process numbers?

Greatly relieved, and unable to delay much longer before the monitors noted my absence from the office, I returned to my desk and got to work. The 520 affair was soon forgotten in the day’s rush of events.

But the next morning, to my horror, a model 620Y reposed majestically where, not a dozen hours earlier, the lowly 520 had sat. With the previous day’s phone call still in mind, this meant one of two things: either my computer had disappeared overnight and been replaced with a newer model, or this “better living through chemicals” concept had side-effects not mentioned on the coffee package. I worked at home, and my security system was state of the art—to the continuing joy of my credit company—so there was no way anyone could have snuck in and replaced my computer. Anyone good enough to evade our mutual notice would be doing takeout, not delivery. So I did the logical thing: I called in sick and booked an appointment with my technotherapist. That the model 520 hadn’t possessed this capability when I’d RTFMed to see whether there was anything of interest in “Read Me.xml” only increased my anxiety.

I poured more coffee to help calm down while I waited. That afternoon, at the doctor’s office, I made the mistake of peering over the receptionist’s shoulder while she confirmed my appointment.

“Say,” I exclaimed with great originality. “New computer?”

“New computer?” she responded, brows knit in concentration. “We’ve had this model for months!”

A polite beep announced my appointment, but I was already headed for the door. The model number on the monitor? 720. Remembering a discussion I’d had with my computer dealer last month, I was prepared to swear on a stack of Bibles or their digital equivalent that the 420 was state of the art, “guaranteed not to be obsolete for at least six months”. Indeed, it was the remarkable six-month warranty that led me to upgrade my old hardware in the first place.

The sense of relief evoked by my apparent sanity battled confusion over the mystery of the new computers. Needless to say, I was more resigned than alarmed to discover a brand new model 720 blinking beatifically on my desk when I returned. The obvious course of action was to keep on with business as usual, while pondering what to do about the situation. To be safe, I checked that my pocket iProd—model 720, by malign coincidence, but still guaranteed to “tase ’em dead in their tracks”—was fully charged… just in case my security system had been Microsofted. Its serial number hadn’t changed—I checked twice. That meant it was probably already obsolete, so perhaps I was not being overcautious.

Armed and ready, I checked my nightstand; the third cup of coffee had spent the day thickening on the hotplate, and was ready to wake the dead. Lastly, I slid the iProd under my pillow and turned off the light. Then I waited.

In no time at all, a quiet creak came from the direction of my office. I sat up in bed, and swallowed the bitter, oily coffee to clear away any lingering dullness. Then, iProd in hand, I catfooted to the light switch and prepared to catch the nefarious person or persons in the act.

My hand froze on the switch.

In the dim light from the surge suppressor, an oddly jointed mechanical contraption atop the desk was lowering my computer to the floor. The keyboard was already down and being towed rapidly towards the open door by the whirring mouse still attached to it, lying on its back, scroll-wheel whirring. Two other mice waited beneath the descending computer, and once it touched their backs, bore it quietly away across the low carpet, plastic-coated tails streaming out behind them. As they left, the miniature crane lowered itself gracefully to the floor and followed its partners in crime.

If this was a dream, it was a queer one by any standard. The coffee had dried my mouth and calmed my nerves, but of course that could all be part of the dream and proved nothing.

Shrugging, I tucked the iProd in my pajamas bottom and quietly pursued the tiny carpetbaggers. It seemed unlikely they’d hear me, not having microphones—unless they too had been silently upgraded—but I took pains to be silent, just in case. I also followed at a judicious distance. “Three blind mice” they may have been (thank goodness I’d gotten rid of my optical mouse!), but they had to have a lookout somewhere. I passed my security system and pantomimed a savage kick at that electronic traitor on the way out the door. On I went, down the wheelchair ramp and across the street to where a small truck lay waiting. Its power lift lay flat on the pavement, laden with a medium-sized fortune in consumer electronics, and as I watched, the tokens of my own contribution to the Silicon Valley executive compensation fund were loaded carefully into the back of the truck. The licence plate bore the fiery red eye logo warning the truck was automated, so I waited for the last of the thieves to climb aboard before I hopped onto the tailgate myself. Off we sped into the night, coming to a stop some time later before an abandoned factory that had fallen victim to offshoring.

I dismounted and hid behind an empty dumpster, watching the entire process repeat in reverse, hordes of little mice trailing their insulated tails across the loading dock and into the building. Then I ran inside before the heavy doors closed, and, to my wonder, saw a scene that would have felled a Luddite in their tracks. Rank upon rank of computer equipment gleamed in the stray light of street lamps, and the floor seethed with purposeful motion as the mice moved aside to let other equipment enter. And enter it did, accompanied by a mournful dirge that came from a battered old Yamaha synthesizer upon a low workbench. The leader of the procession was a small personal Asimo of the type that had been so common a few Christmases back, draped in an ornate purple anti-static cloth and bearing a cordless soldering iron in one hand. Behind him trooped a seemingly endless line of lesser robots, each followed by a remote-controlled vehicle bearing a covered tray. As the purple-clad robot moved among the computers towards a low dias, the clustered mice sank down on their scroll wheels, almost as if they were genuflecting, buttons clicking in reverent harmony. The purple-garbed robot ascended the dias, and pausing only to kiss the hems of his cloth, turned to face the assembly.

To be continued tomrrow…

Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

Read more articles from Geoff Hart