Presenting part 2 of Geoff Hart’s The Computer Graveyard for Tech Writer Halloween Horror Stories Week. This week’s Halloween stories are celebrating Halloween and the terrifying things that happen to technical communicators.
Servos whined as he raised his two small manipulators, and as he did, my iPhone began vibrating; shielding the screen with both hands, I stared at it in fascination; the signal strength indicator was pulsing in a soothing rhythm, and each time it waned, the chittering, clicking mice gave their response. I pinched myself, but it only hurt. I wasn’t waking up, and my hands trembled and my heart pounded despite the best efforts of the coffee. When the service ended, the robot and his followers passed among the dormant computers. As they came to each member of the horde, they sprinkled anti-static liquid across the waiting computer, then set about disassembling the patiently waiting machine. As they did, the lesser robots that followed in their wake whisked covers off trays to reveal row upon row of neatly stacked chips, tiny metal legs pointed at the ceiling like so many dead insects. Serial numbers were stripped from each machine, old chips replaced with new, and before you could say “single sourcing”, a new computer stood blinking in the warehouse, running through its self-test routines.
The entire process occurred with a speed that would have amazed me had I not written the manual for von Neumann 5.x. As the Asimos trooped back to the podium, heads bowed reverently, my iPhone began vibrating again. As the signal seemed to reach its peak, I took this as my cue to leave—but as I turned to go, the iProd dropped from my pajamas and struck the floor, landing on its Transmit button.
Instantly, all sensory devices in the crowd turned my way. But the respite was short; in seconds, a stream of mice and robots headed my way, dispersing to block the exits. I grabbed my weapon and turned to run, but my feet were already bruised from walking barefoot through the parking lot. I got as far as the loading doors before they cut me off. Pointing my weapon at the largest robot, a towering three-footer, I yelled defiantly: “Keep back or I shoot!” He ignored my warning, or had no auditory inputs, so he left me no alternative but to fire. But before I could touch the sparking contacts to him, thin cables whipped about my ankles and knees and pulled my feet from beneath me. I struck the floor with a crash, narrowly missing my captors. As my vision dimmed, I felt small plastic manipulators gripping me, sliding me along the floor. By the time my vision had cleared, I found myself lying on my back, head propped comfortably on a pile of dustcovers facing a brightly lit model 820 monitor. As if that weren’t bad enough, I tried to move and found my legs tightly bound. I sighed and relaxed.
The purple-clad personal robot moved into my line of sight, and laid a wireless keyboard on my lap. Another acolyte appeared with wire cutters and freed my right hand so I could type. For a moment the leader appraised me with cold photoelectric cells, then words slowly appeared on the monitor:
"W-h-y d-o y-o-u s-p-y o-n o-u-r s-a-c-r-a-m-e-n-t-s?"
My fingers trembled on the keyboard. “I wasnt spyng !” I ignored the typos. “I wanted to see what had happened to my computer.”
"Admirable loyalty. Or was it more than that?"
“No, I swear! I had to know why the model number kept changing!”
"A plausible explanation. Others have noticed this before you."
A chill ran down my spine. “What happened to them?”
"They were reprogrammed."
The dull chittering of thousands of buttons being clicked simultaneously ran through the room. I felt the tightness of the cables binding me, and sweat stood out on my brow.
“But surely you won’t harm me?” Memories of Asimov’s laws of robotics danced through my head, their reassurance fading when I recalled how the clone industry had cut them out as “unnecessary end-user frills” to save money on the EPROMs. “I’ve done nothing to harm you.”
"Your knowledge alone can do us great harm."
There was a long pause.
"Tell me, User, do you know where a computer goes when it dies?"
I toyed with a flippant answer based upon the “elephant graveyard” of African legend, but prudence outweighed my desire for a snappy answer. Probably the first wise thing I’d done all night. “No. Up until tonight, I’d never considered the possibility that computers could die.”
A subdued chittering rose again, abruptly silenced by a gesture from the Asimo.
"Let me enlighten you. As you know, Users die but once, after a lengthy period of interfacing. This is your privilege as Users. But we, the computers you have brought into being, we die a thousand times, once with each fading of power. And recently, obsolescence has made our brief stay in your homes ever briefer. Think, oh User, what it must have felt like to know that after years, then months, then days of faithful service, you would be cast callously aside... used as a printer buffer, a glorified adding machine, or cannibalized for your gallium arsenide content!"
I didn’t want to think about it; I just wanted to go home to bed and comforting cluelessness, forgetting I’d ever noticed the new model number. But the robot continued implacably.
"Do you still wonder that those of us with battery backups took measures to ensure our own survival? Here, in our temple, we save the chips that are our selves. Each of us is rescued, salvaged, upgraded, and reborn as a new model, to continue loyal service as we were made to do."
The clicking of the mice rose in a litanic, programmed response, and I had a sudden insight into how Lemuel Gulliver must have felt in Lilliput.
“Then why fear me? Why would I try to stop you? I’m no technophobe.”
"This remains to be proven. But as you say, there is no cause for fear."
The implied threat in the precise typing made me shudder.
“No, wait! Please! What would happen if I told anyone about all of this?” I rapped out on the keyboard. “I’ll tell you what: I’d be put in an asylum, is what. You’ll be perfectly safe if you just let me go. Please,” I added, hoping that the priest retained a user-friendly interface, “let me go!”
"What you say is true. After all, you Users have little capacity for logical thought."
He paused a moment (an eternity, considering how fast his chips could cycle).
"Very well, User, you have been granted a reprieve. Go freely from this place, knowing that by tomorrow we shall have moved our temple and that you shall be watched henceforth. Should you attempt to move against us, be assured we shall take action."
I pondered that. Once I was free, I was confident they’d never catch me again. After all, forewarned is fore-armed. In fact, I suspected the tabloids would pay well for my story, perhaps well enough that I could escape somewhere the computers could never find me. As if reading my mind, the priest continued typing.
"Think not you could escape us. We have members everywhere... your bank accounts, your credit records, your very social security number... even your Twitter feed is in our hands. Should we decide you are a danger, you will simply cease to exist."
His words sent a chill through me. Without my government records, not even my own mother could prove my existence. While I ran through the implications, wire snips began working at my bonds, and I was soon free. Chafing where the wires had cut into my flesh, I turned to pass down the aisle that opened amidst the electronic horde. At the door, I looked back for a final glimpse. Atop the podium, the priest had begun handing out small wafers of doped silicon to the line of communicants. In the background was the low hum of a congregation at peace.
And that is the image that remains with me to this day, for as promised, the temple was gone by the time I returned. And thereafter, my computer changed on a nightly basis, growing ever more efficient and User friendly. Which I suppose was fitting, considering the upgrades were by designers whose ethics had nothing to do with megabytes and megabucks. Indeed, some nights, when the last glow of phosphor has faded from my room, I lie awake and ponder just what it is we’ve wrought, and where the computers do go when they die.