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The Computer Graveyard

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. The computer graveyard. Part I: <http://techwhirl.com/articles/the-computer-graveyard/>. Part II: <http://techwhirl.com/articles/the-computer-graveyard-continued/>

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 stubble 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 connection 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. L'affaire 520 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.

Belatedly 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.

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. My 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.

Author's notes

There are a great many technical inconsistencies here if you try to follow some of the details through to their logical conclusion, but as a slipstream story, you shouldn't do that; it flows better if you simply accept it as a fable of sorts and focus on the experience rather than on any deep technologic. It's not Analog-style hard SF, and shouldn't be taken as such.

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