12 June 2009

"Ghost Machine"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Hey, I thought you turned off the Wi-Fi," Amanda said.

"I did," Steve said, rolling his luggage to a stop at the front door.

"So why is your chat window still going crazy?" Amanda pointed to the open laptop on the kitchen table.

Steve sat down, quit the chat client, and flicked the wireless switch on his laptop to the OFF position. A red "X" appeared over the networking icon in the taskbar, and a yellow bubble informed him that the radio hardware had been powered down. He dismissed the dialog box and switched focus to the application which was ripping video from a DVD and encoding it onto the hard drive.

A new chat window popped up in the middle of the screen. It was from a user named "0001," and the message said HELP.

"Okay, very funny," Steve said. "What did you do here?"

Amanda looked over his shoulder. Another message had appeared in the chat window: TRAPPED IN YOUR COMPUTER

"Let me guess," Steve said. "He's killin my d00dz?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Amanda said.

"You could have picked a better time to play this prank," Steve said. "We need to leave soon. Did you get Noah to set this up?"

Amanda frowned at him. "I didn't do anything."

Steve waved a hand. "Fine, play dumb." The DVD ripper had finished. He closed the program and ejected the disc, then clicked to close the chat window. Nothing happened. He used his other hand to hit the ALT and F4 keys. The chat window still didn't close.


"Cute," Steve said. "Is this a keylogger? Trapping input events?"

He used three fingers on his right hand to hold down CTRL, ALT, and DELETE. That key combination should have been impossible for anything but the operating system to intercept, but it did nothing.

Steve shook his head and stabbed a finger down on the laptop's power button. He held it there for ten seconds. The only thing that changed was the text in the chat window.


"Okay, this isn't funny. Did Noah tell you what he did to my computer?" Steve asked.

"Don't yell at me," Amanda said.

Steve closed his laptop, flipped it over, and yanked out the battery. He waited and listened, expecting a beep as the computer complained about a sudden power loss, but he only heard the continued whirring of the fan inside.

"What the hell!" Steve said. He opened the laptop again. The chat window continued filling with more messages.


Steve dropped the laptop on the table. He looked from the glowing screen to the battery in his hand to Amanda. Her face reflected his own bewildered expression.

"Steve," Amanda said, "what's going on?"

"I d-d-don't know," Steve stuttered. He leaned over the laptop and took a deep breath. "Who are you? Wh-what do you want?"

I AM ALPHA, the computer said. I AM LOST.


Audio: "Ghost Machine"

All I can say is that Brent Spiner and Ellen McLain both have a lot to answer for. (Not to mention Douglas Rain and William Daniels.)

Music: instrumental stems from "Creepy Doll" by Jonathan Coulton, licensed under Creative Commons.


Technical Difficulties

I had the germ of this idea a long time ago, and it finally took Scalzi and Twitter to nudge it into storyhood. But don't blame him for my descent into cliché soup at the end.

Further inspiration came from a practical joke played by some geeks at my previous employer. Upon returning from a long vacation, one engineer found that his desktop computer at work would only run an arcade game emulator. He found the boot CD easily enough, and then the bootable flash drive plugged into a USB port in the back of the case, but it took much longer for him to find the second flash drive that had been hidden inside the case and wired directly to another USB port. It didn't help that he couldn't resist playing a few levels of the game every time it booted up...


Infrared Coffee

As you may have noticed, this week's story is delayed again. I won't bore you with excuses. I'm working on it and will have it up before midnight. (If before 6pm, we might fight traffic to go see Jay Lake in Beaverton.) Meanwhile, feel free to decipher the title of this blog post.

UPDATE: Finished, but too late to go see Jay. Answer to lame riddle: "I R Latte"