Network

by Sally Quilford


“He’ll be missed.”

That seemed to be the consensus of the assembled guests at the funeral. Not that there were many there. Just a few friends and his parents.

Damian Thomas, known as ‘Data’ to his small circle of friends, had been a typical computer geek. He had lank, greasy hair covering a spotty face that resembled the pizza that constituted his main dietary fare. His life, lived in a network of cables, monitors, hard-drives, floppy drives and COM ports, was solitary. Even his death took place among the same network of hardware and peripherals.

His only friends were other computer geeks just like him. Pale young men and women, whose only contact with other human beings was via a computer keyboard. His parents had to learn how to email him if they wanted to get his attention.

“What’s going to happen to his stuff?” asked Motherboard, new to computer geekdom and not as religious about it as her new friends, trying hard not to salivate at the thought of all the computer equipment going spare.

“He wanted Rom to have it.” Replied Data’s father. “As far as I’m concerned, anyone can have it. I swear that computer killed him!”

Rom (christened Michael by his parents) could barely contain his excitement as he opened the box. He was back home in his tiny bedsit, surrounded by his own computing equipment, which littered every surface, even the bed. It all seemed old to him compared to the muddle of mysterious grey casings, cables and plugs that filled the box.

He had not seen Data’s new stuff. Data only bought it from a computer fair the previous month and after that seemed to have dropped out of contact. That was normal in the world they inhabited. Computers crashed, internet connections went down, or people just took time out. The sort of people who used the internet, despite their contacts with people on every continent, valued their privacy. The idea was that you could switch off whenever you had had enough, and no one questioned your reasons. Picking up the phone (even if you had a number) to ask why someone was not online their usual 24/7 was not ‘netiquette’.

A couple of hours later, Rom sat at the small desk in the corner of the apartment, staring at the monitor as it buzzed and flickered into life. There had been no system disks with the computer so he felt a quiver of excitement, wondering what programs were already installed.

From what he could see, the desktop had a standard graphic user interface, with slightly dull looking grey icons for the recycle bin, My Computer and other generic utilities. It was with a feeling of dismay that Rom realised that the operating system for the computer was not that which sold billions all over the world, and for which he could easily get programmes.

For a start, the background appeared to be made up of swirling grey cables. The internet connection icon was a large black ‘N’, also made up of cables, which Rom took to be a version of Netscape Navigator, though he had not seen that particular graphic before. Maybe they were trying out a new one. Odd that he had not heard about it though.

Checking that the modem was connected to the phone line, he clicked the connection button and waited for the familiar hisses and beeps that would tell him that a connection was in progress. A browser window sprang up, but as it did, a pop-up window covered three quarters of it, virtually obscuring the page beneath. The pop-up, a dull grey background, similar to that of the desktop, had a picture of three slightly darker grey computers and three disconnected cables, with a logo that exclaimed:

“Play Network ... The game of your life!”

Rom sighed and closed the pop-up window, only for it to be replaced immediately by another pop up with the same picture. Three more times he tried to shut the window, but it persisted in reappearing.

“Okay,” muttered Rom, “have it your way.”

Using the mouse, he swiftly dragged the cables to connect to each computer until the graphic formed a triangle.

“Well done,” the screen announced. “Now try the next level!”

Sure enough, four computers appeared on the screen, with four cables. Rom swore under his breath and tried to close the window, but as before it kept reappearing. Again, he used the mouse to drag the cables to each computer, creating a network between them all. The game was repeated several times, with extra computers being added every time Rom succeeded in networking them.

“Boring!” he said aloud, and decided to shut the computer down, but it refused to accept his commands. He tried for ten minutes, hitting ctr/alt/del, with no effect. Frustrated, he pulled the plug from the wall. Satisfied at last that the screen had gone black, he made his way to bed, tripping over some cable, which seemed to have spread out into the middle of the room.

The following morning, before he had eaten his breakfast of cold pizza, Rom switched the computer on again. He decided to try going into MS-dos first, so that he could install Windows over the existing, and in his opinion, boring operating system. His attempt failed. The computer refused to take his installation commands, and booted up of its own accord. Without even having to click on the icon, the modem sprang into action, leaving him looking at the Network game again.

He sighed, tried to shut it down, and then realising it would not go, played a few games. This time, it was different. The computers all had different connections, and he had to find the cables that fit the connections. The more computers that appeared on the screen, the more difficult it became, until he was looking at a sea of cable, very similar to the background of the desktop. He could not be sure, but he began to suspect that there were more cables than computers, or more computers than cables, or that some of the cables were not meant for these computers, and that some of the computers were hiding from him, not wanting to be networked ...

It became a challenge to him, this game that he had dismissed as boring only the night before. Morning passed into afternoon, afternoon into evening. Every one of his senses were trained on the computer — he was sure that some of the cables he had connected wrongly were burning — so he was oblivious to the sickening, squelching sounds of some sort of organic matter growing beneath him, behind him and above him.

He finally left the computer at midnight, having to tear himself away because he desperately needed the toilet. He was sure that the dull grey swirling pattern on the tiny bathroom wall was only there because his eyes were playing tricks on him. Exhausted, he sunk down into bed, his mind a haze of wires and monitors, not at all surprised that it felt as if he was lying on some sort of uneven plastic coating. He was used to finding stray computer equipment in his bed.

When he awoke in the morning, the patterns on the walls, and plastic bedding had gone. He concluded that he must have dreamed them. It was that damn game!

Deciding that enough was enough, he unplugged Data’s computer and moved it to the floor under the desk. He found his own, safe, reliable computer and plugged it in, smiling as it whizzed into life, showing him the familiar Microsoft desktop.

“Hello old friend.” He murmured.

For some reason, he felt reluctant to go online. He knew he was being stupid, and that the game could not possibly be on this computer too, but he could not be sure. He got up and walked around the apartment, which did not take long. Then he made some coffee, ate stale pizza, and then lay on the bed, reading a computing magazine. He thought of ringing someone, anyone, to hear a human voice, but something stopped him. They would only laugh anyway, if he told them about the way the game had affected him. It was not even a good game. It was dull and pointless.

While Rom was avoiding the computer, there was a flutter of movement beneath the desk. A cable, connected to Data’s computer, was moving quietly up the desk leg, curling round like a creeping vine, until it reached Rom’s computer and slipped into com port, its plug morphing to suit the port.

Rom’s computer pipped loudly, almost in a cry of pain, causing Rom to look up sharply. He stood up and walked over to the computer tentatively, not sure why he should be so scared. As he watched, alarmed, the original desktop was replaced with the dull grey cables of Data’s computer.

“No!” shrieked Rom loudly, severely alarmed now.

The modem began its series of pips and beeps, and the same browser screen appeared, with the pop-up window.

“We didn’t finish our game.” The screen flashed.

Propelled by some unknown force, Rom found himself sitting at the desk, mouse in hand, and ready to do battle. It occurred to him that if he could win the game once and for all, it would have to concede. What did not occur to him was that a computer, especially one with a mind of its own, cannot possibly lose to a human. Neither did it occur to him to just open the door and get the hell out of there.

Hours later, Rom still fought the computer for supremacy. This time, it seemed, he was fighting two computers. Two pop-up screens appeared, and he played them simultaneously. It didn’t occur to him that he might win by losing.

Eventually, it might have been some days later, he became aware of the cables surrounding him, but he was past caring now. He had soiled his clothes, he was hungry and thirsty, but all that mattered was winning this game — this dull, boring game.

The cables caressed him, like an old friend, becoming part of his body, part of his mind. That was it! Finally, he realised what to do. If he could only become networked to the computer, then he would know its thoughts, work out its strategy. As he thought it, the cables began burrowing into his body, through his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, becoming a part of him.

Something was wrong! It was not working as it should have been. His system must be corrupt. He felt his vital organs breaking down, as if afflicted by a virus.

Rom was found a week later, by his landlord, who wondered why the rent had not been paid. Motherboard, breaking a cardinal rule of netiquette, accompanied him, wondering where her friend had gone, and interested in seeing Data’s ‘stuff’.

“So ...” Motherboard ventured, while they were deciding whether to ring the police and ambulance, “what’s going to happen to all his stuff.”

“Dunno, his parents are both dead, aren’t they? I haven’t been paid.” Replied the landlord, pointedly. “He owed me fifty quid.”

“Here.” Motherboard handed him five ten pound notes, then pressed another ten pound into his hands for good measure. “Let me take it all off your hands.”

With an agreement that it would all be gone before the emergency services came in (to save on paperwork and questions), a deal was struck.

Later, at home, Motherboard opened the box excitedly. She had just begun her own import and export company, selling used computers and peripherals via the internet.

“Yes babies,” she gloated, “you’re going to go global...”

With that, she placed them in her back bedroom, amongst twenty other computers that she had managed to beg, steal or borrow.


Copyright © 2006 by Sally Quilford

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