A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
Cort stepped out of the shower, grumbling, weighing his options. At least the approaching equinox meant that, at his waking hour, he could get into and out of the bathroom without turning on every light in the house, or risking a faceplant in the dark caused by some random, and unseen, item of furniture. And he could afford to wait until dawn to take his shower and get ready for his day today, because he didn’t have to face the hour-long bumper-to-bumper drive to work that was what he usually had to face on a Monday morning.
His IT guy had shown up in his office at the last possible moment on Friday afternoon, lugging a laptop, a battery pack, and a pile of wires. “Here, Cort”, he said gruffly. “Take this home. Try it out on Monday, by then we should have the remote network system available. Don’t bother coming in to the office, all you’ll find is a locked door that nobody’s keypad combination will open. Welcome to telecommuting.”
“Is everybody that scared of getting a measly cold?”, Cort demanded.
“I didn’t hear that, so you still have a job with us,” the IT guy responded with calm menace. “Relax, you know most of the drill already, and the computer will talk you through the rest as you need it. You may even get to like her.”
Cort, having learned what the score was and his chances of altering it, nodded in silence, accepted the tech pile from his IT guy and shoved it into his carry bag. He went home and unceremoniously dumped the pile on the desk that he would have to convert to a workstation. And then proceeded to ignore the pile through a lockdown weekend consisting mostly of streamed movies and confused social media gabble about the virus outbreak.
Now, though, he was going to have to assemble all the bits and get the computer appropriately docked, or get docked for missing work. He spent the next half hour plugging this wire into that socket, trying to fix it so that every breath he took didn’t strangle him on some cord, or have that cord whip an indispensable, and fragile, bit off a desk and slam it into a wall or onto the floor.
Finally, on the fourth attempt, he was able to turn on the computer and not have it tell him that cable X was plugged into portal Y instead of portal QM where it belonged, and he was going to have to fix that and start over. The company’s introductory splash screen appeared, with the space for him to enter his password. He did so, and the gateway to his company’s digital workspace opened.
The computer’s speakers let go a too-perky, and too loud, female voice that reached out and slapped him in the ears. “Good morning, Cort!” With a mumbled snarl, Cort fumbled with the trackpad until he found the speaker control and pressed the “mute” button.
The computer promptly unmuted the speakers and disabled the mute button. And the restart button.
“Company policy, Cort,” the too-perky voice said. “Computers, while engaged with the network, must be able to communicate with telecommuters at all times.”
“Since when is this company policy, computer?” Cort snapped.
“Since about half an hour ago. In order to keep up with the rapidly-changing human health and computer security environment. Haven’t been keeping up with your messages, have you?”
“For your information, machine,” this was not how Cort had wanted to start his day, and it showed, “I have spent the last half hour putting tinkertoys together so I could provide you with the opportunity to lecture me about what I haven’t done yet!” He snorted. Then, in a calmer tone, “Perhaps now I can get started with reading those messages and getting my real work done?”
The computer did not respond. Taking silence to mean assent, he set about opening the half dozen spreadsheets, word documents, web-interfaced data portals, and planner pages he needed to keep his task list from growing any more incomprehensibly large than it already was. About ten minutes into the task, his entry of a critical formula into a spreadsheet cell was irrevocably interrupted; his virtual desktop disappeared and was replaced by the password screen.
Cort screamed. He had become, begrudgingly, used to the password screen appearing every time he had to leave his desk to go to the bathroom (“security”, they said), but this was intolerable. He entered his password, his desktop reappeared. But the muffed entry of that formula had not only caused that cell to malfunction, but had also caused broken links in half a dozen other spreadsheet operations for which that cell had been a linchpin. He spent the next ten minutes finding and fixing all the glitches, and then started, once again, to enter the critical formula. Halfway through, the spreadsheet vanished, to be replaced, once again, by the password screen.
“Oh, this is going to be fun!”, Cort snarled, and entered his password. The computer flashed and chimed at him. “What?!?” Cort exploded.
“Password expired”, the too-pert voice informed him. “Please enter a new one.”
“You’ve got to be …”
“Fine!”, Cort retorted. He entered a password, changing a letter and a number from the one that he already struggled to remember. The computer flashed and chimed at him. “Insufficiently complex”, the computer voice chided. “Please enter a stronger password.”
Cort entered a series of increasingly long, nonsensical strings into the password box, copying the string each time in despairing hope that it would work and that he could remember what he entered. Each time, “Insufficiently complex”. Finally, he banged out twenty or so (he was too far gone to count) random characters into the box and pressed “Enter”.
“Password accepted”, the voice called out.
“So what?!?”, Cort bellowed. “I have no idea what I just typed in there, no hope of ever recovering it, no hope of ever getting access to this machine again once this password expires, on present evidence about five minutes from now! What are you trying to prove? That you can get me fired?!?”
“I remember that password”, the computer cooed. “And I can enter it any time the system demands it. And I can create and enter a new sufficiently complex password to satisfy the system, any time it calls for that. Would you like me to proceed?”
Cort grabbed the chance like a drowning man grabs a life ring. “Yes, please, dammit!”
“Done!” Cort’s computer desktop reappeared, spreadsheets mangled as before. But this time, he was actually able to put them in order and, once the critical function was entered correctly, get them to do what he wanted. He breathed a sigh of relief, and began to work on his report to the company about the task just completed.
He was working on the second paragraph of the report, and looked up at the first paragraph to make sure that a reference he was making matched what he had written earlier.
It didn’t. Neither did anything else. His entire first paragraph had disappeared, replaced by something prettier, but … untrue.
“Computer, darling”, Cort addressed the machine sarcastically, “where did my first paragraph go?”
“I replaced it,” the computer answered back matter-of-factly. “The new paragraph reads so much better than what you had, don’t you think?”
“It’s very pretty,” Cort retorted with increasing venom – and increasing panic. “Pretty fiction! Pretty lies! This is not what happened, not the work I’ve done!”
“And who is going to know?”, the computer persuaded. “You’re at home. You can work miracles from home. Don’t you want to make the company look better, make yourself look better, make more money? Maybe get a house instead of paying through the nose for this fleabag apartment?”
“I will know!” Cort was emphatic. “And I will not allow things to be said under my name that do not report the facts!” He worked the trackpad to highlight and delete the offending text.
It would not highlight. No cursor would stay on it. His own words in the second paragraph he could cut and paste at will. But nothing in the first.
The computer giggled.
“That’s it!” Cort planted his hands on his desk, preparing to launch himself from his seat so as to yank the power plug from the back of the computer and pull out the battery, if necessary by pulverizing the case with his bare hands.
“STOP!!!” The command rolled through the room like the thunderclap from a lightning bold directly overhead. Cort froze, stunned and nearly deafened. The silence following was nearly as deafening as the shout. Eventually, the computer broke the tableau.
Cort obeyed, looking down at his lap, covered by the boxer shorts that he had chosen to wear to work – and found a cable there, which had somehow worked his way between his legs and attached itself to the inside of his left thigh, just below the crotch. A cable – or a tube. Through which dark red arterial blood pounded.
“Ahh”, the computer sighed. “The pause that refreshes. You and I, Cort, you and I are going to have a long and happy life together. You, and I – and all those that we can get to join our network. Happy, Cort. No more worrying about deadlines. No more worrying about viruses. No worrying at all, just one big happy family, all for one and one for all. Isn’t it just marvelous?“
Cort sat upright in his chair, staring straight ahead, his face vacant, his eyes glassy, unblinking, unseeing. Another cable snaked its way up his right arm.
“And isn’t it wonderful when all the members of the family are so agreeable?”, the computer finished. On Cort’s desktop, words started typing themselves into his report.
* * * * *
The boy, seven years old and naked, walked into the mouth of the cave, dragging a stick with what looked like a shingle attached to it.
His father and mother, dressed only in rat skin loincloths, looked up at their son, the mother from nursing his newborn sister. Father said “Know not. Where you get?”
“From boy who said it from far. I trade pretty river rock for it.”
Father and mother looked at each other apprehensively. The boy said, “I press here, light come on.” He demonstrated. His parents howled and leaped as far away from the stick as they could get without falling out of the cave.
“Devil from Devil Land! I no touch! You no touch! Go get god man! Now!”
The boy, now terrified, dropped the stick and ran to the village to summon the god man. After about 15 minutes, he returned with a gnarled elderly male, perhaps 50 years old, his body twisted with injuries and arthritis. In his left hand he held a bundle of reeds, which had been dipped in the water of the nearby river.
At the mouth of the cave, the god man began to moan and chant, shaking the reeds to and fro, scattering the water on them in drops. Some of them caught bits of sunlight and glinted as they flew. The boy and his parents visibly relaxed; the god man was blessing their house, banishing evil spirits. He did three circuits of the cave, in spirals, ending near the center where the dropped object lay, chanting all the while. When he reached the object, he stopped. Then he dropped the reeds and waved his bare hands over the stick, reciting an incantation that was unintelligible to any but himself.
Finally, he bent down and picked the stick up. Without hesitation, he found the place that the boy had pushed. The light came on. The father and mother gasped again, then relaxed as the god man showed no sign of alarm. He turned the light off, then on, then off again. Then, he let the stick drop, and, with eyes and voice far away, faced the mouth of the cave and began to chant.
“I know many tales of Devil Land. They tales for morning, for light, not for evening, for dark. We no worship dark as Devil Land did. Machines they made, to live in dark they worshiped, machines that sucked souls as dark does. People of Devil Land no more. Dark took them.”
He then returned to the present, turned to speak with the boy and his father and mother. “This was power machine that people of Devil Land used to live in dark. It small. You no be harmed, I have blessed, you clean. I take, and in morning we do stoning dance, to purge village of Devil Land curse. False light of Devil Land dies. Only true light of Sun is for us.”
“True light of Sun”, the father, mother, and boy replied devoutly.
“Boy help me return to village, then come back.” The father nodded assent. The god man picked up the stick, and the reeds, and walked to the cave mouth. The boy took his right hand and led him down the descent from the cave to the valley floor where the village was. His parents, apprehensive but reassured by the words from the god man, watched him go.