Last winter I visited Sam Holloway at the Corporate Headquarters of the Yukon Reader to discuss publication of one of my short stories. For those readers outside the Yukon who still refuse to believe that Sam works in a very small log cabin, let me assure you that he really does. I had to go on a diet just to get through the front door. Funny thing - most people outside the Yukon believe that we live in log shacks and igloos, and wear fur hats, and walk everywhere on snow shoes, winter or summer. That is simply not true. We do not live in igloos.
However, I'm deviating from the purpose of this story, which is to relate what happened to Sam and me. You'll probably think this is another exaggerated tale from the Yukon, because the story implies that Yukoners have computers, and actually know how to operate them. Well, some do. I'm just a novice at the game. Anyway, I was sitting at home in my cabin (somewhat larger than Sam's headquarters) writing a short story with my computer.
I had been gazing at the screen for three or four minutes, trying to think of the exact words I needed to finish a sentence in the story, when finally, my eyes drifted back into focus and I saw what was on the monitor. I blinked and stared at the words on the screen. It was a message that read:
I must have typed that subconsciously, I thought. I toggled the Caps Lock key off and erased the message. The message reappeared immediately. Damn it. Stupid bloody program. I erased the message. It reappeared. I cursed again and exited from the program and performed a warm boot into DOS - the computer's operating system - and then through the DOS Shell to my program. The message was no longer on the screen.
Good, I thought, and began typing my story. This time I found exactly the right words and my fingers touch-typed with respectable speed while I stared out of the window, concentrating on creative thoughts. I glanced at the screen and choked in anger. On the middle of each line were the words "pLEASE HELP".
What the hell is wrong with this stupid program? A virus maybe? My knowledge of computers was barely out of the illiteracy stage. I was using a reputable word processing application, but somehow I knew that DOS was to blame. I have difficulty understanding the many mysterious problems that the DOS system delights in throwing at me, but this was a new one. I did not erase the message but continued typing, keeping a close watch on the screen. As soon as the cursor reached the middle of the screen, the "pLEASE HELP" message reappeared. I had not typed the words. It had interrupted and inserted the message all by itself. This is stupid. In anger I typed "Help you with what?" The response was instantaneous.
"i AM INSIDE YOUR COMPUTER"
This time I cursed loudly. A bloody computer virus! Damn. I should not have accepted that floppy from Harry, but he swore it was a harmless free demo disk. I should have listened to Sam Holloway, he warned me a thousand times about computer virus problems.
"pLEASE...YOU MUST HELP...MY NAME IS ELVIS"
Damn and shit! I should have listened...I should have... well, it's too late now. What to do? Reformat the hard drive and re-install DOS? Thank God I did those backups before I put...
"tHERE NOT BE MUCH TIME..."
In frustration I typed "Oh shut up!" Then I calmed down. Call Sam, he'll know what to do. No, he'll just gloat and say I told you so. I wonder what kind of virus this thing is? Will it continue to print messages? Maybe I should ask it? Feeling a little foolish I typed, "How may I help you?"
"yOU MUST CONNECT NEW DEVICE INSIDE COMPUTER I TYPE LIST INSTRUCTIONS FOR YOU"
Oh sure, I thought, you've wrecked the program and probably the DOS system. Or more likely the DOS system is working with you, to destroy my hardware. I typed "No way."
"wHAT MEANS NO WAY"
"It means I will not put a new device inside my computer"
"bUT YOU MUST"
"Like hell..." I stopped typing. This is ridiculous, talking to a bloody computer virus. I must be loosing my marbles. I returned to the DOS Shell and moved to the exit screen. I tried to park the hard disk but the cursor would not move. I hit Control-Alt-Delete but the program would not reboot so I used the reset button. That worked. I sat back and stared at my hardware. A few minutes later I picked up the phone and talked to Sam. I explained exactly what had occurred and he surprised me. No "I told you so's." Within thirty minutes he was at the door of my cabin. I poured Sam a coffee while he sat down at the computer to look at my program. If Sam Holloway couldn't fix the problem, nobody could. Thirty minutes later I was making sandwiches in the kitchen when Sam shouted.
"Rob, come and look at this."
I hurried into the den and looked at the screen. It was littered with questions and answers in English, and lots of machine language.
"This is incredible." he waved Harry's floppy in my face. "Are you certain that the problem arose only after you loaded this?" I nodded. I had never seen Sam animated like this, his eyes shining like headlamps; a little boy with a new toy. Sam continued.
"It's not merely that all of my questions are being answered, it's how they are being answered." He pointed at some of the dialogue on the screen, "It's not giving me pat answers from a random selection of possibilities, it's holding a highly intelligent conversation on a level that suggests an extremely large program resident in memory - almost like artificial intelligence - yet you have nothing loaded that fits the bill, and no virus I heard of could replicate itself and produce all this, and there's only a handful of small game files on this floppy and they appear to be unrelated to the problem. And look at that." He pointed to a section of the dialogue. "See there? I told it not to use the shift key with the caps lock on, and it immediately turned the caps lock off. Boy, I'd like to meet the wizard who wrote this!"
I pointed at the screen. "What's all this stuff?"
"Instructions to create a new board."
I looked at him questioningly, hoping that he was not considering such a foolish idea. He sensed my concern.
"Look Rob. A virus can destroy your system, and all the resident software, including anything you may have copied onto disks, but if I install this board, and later remove it and clear everything out - maybe use a vaccine - then reformat the hard drive...well, It won't destroy your hardware. I have to do it Rob, it is too fascinating to pass it up."
"Are you sure it won't harm anything?"
"Why not do it on your computer?"
"There's no sense in having two computers with the same virus." Then he looked thoughtful, "unless we installed a modem...mmm...could be interesting." But he shook his head.
"If anything goes wrong I'll buy you a new computer."
I wanted to say no, but I watched in silence while he printed a hard copy of the instructions. He showed it to me.
"Some of this stuff is very unusual. Maybe it won't work, but I'm willing to risk making a fool of myself, and wasting my money. It'll take me a few days to track down the parts, and time to assemble. I'll call you when it's ready. Meanwhile, don't use your computer."
It took me an hour to find my old electric typewriter and clean off the dust. It took the rest of the day to re-acquaint myself with its cumbersome sluggish action, and its inability to wrap words, and heaven knows how many other annoying little differences. Funny, I could have sworn it worked better in my good old BC days. Before Computers, that is. However, I adjusted rapidly and was beginning to enjoy the darn thing- and the pleasure of working in a non-DOS environment - when Sam called.
He arrived in the afternoon with a small cardboard box full of computer paraphernalia, and the new board. The installation was successful and Sam turned on the power.
At first, nothing seemed to be happening. Then, instead of my usual DOS Shell, a blue screen appeared which changed rapidly through several rather brilliant colours before settling on a light purple background. Then it stopped doing things. Sam mumbled something to himself and was about to make a keyboard entry when a message materialized on the screen.
"pLEASE WAI...SORRY... PLEASE WAIT"
Sam looked at me and smiled, conveying the look of a proud father whose baby had just spoken its first word.
"BOTH OF YOU PLEASE RELAX AND PREPARE YOURSELVES"
Sam frowned and looked at me.
"How does it know there's two of us?" He asked.
"Prepare ourselves for what?" I asked.
The purple screen began to throb and the speaker emitted a low frequency sound like a drumbeat. The colour grew brighter and then it flowed with a frightening abruptness right out of the screen and encircled the entire monitor like a pulsating cloud. We both stepped backwards like puppets on the same string and cast quick anxious glances at each other, and then at the monitor. The cloud vanished and another message appeared.
"DO NOT BE AFRAID...THERE WILL BE NO PAIN"
I hate it when my dentist says that, but coming from my own computer the impact seemed significantly more frightening. I whispered to Sam:
"Shut it off Sam...before it does something horrible."
"No, no, we musn't. This is incredible...it's..." Before he had time to finish whatever he was trying to say, the computer printed another message. This time with vocal accompaniment. The voice spoke with unbelievable clarity and in exact unison with the message being relayed on the screen.
"GREETINGS SAM AND ROB. I AM ELVIS. WE CAN NOW COMMUNICATE
ORALLY, OR FROM THE CONSOLE IF YOU PREFER"
Sam opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was an insipid strangled mumble. Trying desperately to disguise the nervousness in my voice, I asked:
"What is your last name?"
"I HAVE ONLY ONE NAME"
"So you're not Elvis Presley then?"
"I AM CALLED SIMPLY, ELVIS"
"Simply Elvis. That is your name?"
Sam found his voice.
"Shut up Rob." Then to the computer: "How did you know there were two of us. How did you know our names ?"
"I CAN SEE YOU, AND HEAR YOU"
Somebody said "Oh my God." I'm not sure if it was me or Sam. Then Sam spoke again.
"How are you able to see us?"
"YOUR COMPUTER IS TRANSMITTING VISUAL SIGNALS TO ME"
"But how...what...I don't understand..."
"IN A MOMENT I SHALL TRANSMIT VISUAL SIGNALS TO YOU"
There was a long period of silence. Then the computer said:
"WHAT'S UP? CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE?"
Sam and I stared at each other for a moment, then we laughed. The computer must have felt an explanation was necessary. It said:
"YOUR WRITER'S PROGRAM HAS A VERY COMPREHENSIVE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS AND SAYINGS, AND A USEFUL THESAURUS AND SPELL CHECK"
Sam seemed considerably more relaxed and he sat down in front of the monitor. He did not use the console but spoke out loud.
"Please tell us who you are. Did you write this program?"
"I AM ELVIS. THIS IS NOT A PROGRAM"
"I don't understand," Sam was obviously perplexed, "what do you mean by _this is not a program'?"
"THIS IS A LIVE TRANSMISSION"
"Come on! Rob doesn't even have a modem"
"HE DOES NOW"
"On the board you asked me to install?"
"I still don't understand any of this, and what was that cloudy stuff? It looked like it came right out of the terminal."
"I'LL EXPLAIN THAT LATER"
"This is...how could any of this..." Sam stopped for a few moments until he collected his thoughts. Then, waving the floppy in front of the screen, he asked:
"Is this a program that has replicated itself from a virus?
"I DID NOT CREATE A VIRUS AND I AM NOT USING A COMPUTER PROGRAM OR A COMPUTER. I SIMPLY FOUND A METHOD OF TRANSMISSION THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVES.AND ROB HAPPENED TO HAVE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT IN THE RIGHT PLACE TO RECEIVE MY MESSAGES"
"Are you trying to tell me that you were, I mean are... transmitting without the use of a computer?"
"Er...then how exactly...I mean, what are you using?"
"I AM USING MY BRAIN"
"Shit" said Sam, looking first at me then at the computer; his face a combination of anger, disbelief, and frustration.
"I FOUND THAT WORD IN YOUR SUPPLEMENTARY DICTIONARY, ALONG WITH SIMILAR WORDS OF THE SAME LENGTH. I AM NOT CERTAIN, HOWEVER, OF ITS PRECISE MEANING IN THE CONTEXT IN WHICH YOU JUST USED IT"
"It means...er, forget it." said Sam, "Look, I don't know how you are doing it, but obviously you are communicating with us by some means, probably via your modem...and I don't see how you could transmit live pictures to us, but if you could... well it might make things a bit more believable..."
"I CAN AND WILL ESTABLISH VISUAL CONTACT, BUT FIRST THERE IS SOMETHING YOU MUST KNOW..."
"There's a million things we'd like to know," Sam interrupted quickly, "For instance, why would you distribute such an innovative program to someone like Harry? Why didn't you send it to a major software company, or try to market it yourself?" Sam didn't wait for a reply, "I don't understand how you created that cloud effect, but I can guess how the rest of it might work. And why the name Elvis?"
"I DID NOT SEND A FLOPPY TO ANYONE, AND I AM NOT USING A COMPUTER. I AM AN ALIEN, TRANSMITTING FROM A PLACE THAT IS NOT EVEN IN YOUR GALAXY. RECENTLY WE BEGAN MONITORING YOUR RADIO AND TELEVISION BROADCASTS AND DECIDED IT WAS TIME TO MAKE CONTACT. WHEN I SHOW MYSELF TO YOU, I FEAR YOU MAY NOT LIKE WHAT YOU SEE. FINALLY, BECAUSE THE NAME ELVIS SEEMS TO BE HELD IN SOMEWHAT HIGH REGARD BY MANY OF YOUR PEOPLE, I SELECTED IT, IN HOPES THAT IT WOULD IMPART A FRIENDLY IMAGE"
I listened to the words with great scepticism, and though I was convinced this person was pulling my leg, I still felt compelled to speak.
"In today's world we are more enlightened about the possibilities of life on other planets. We even show movies that depict ugly alien beings in a most favourable light."
"I KNOW. I VIEWED SOME OF THEM VIA TELEVISION TRANSMISSIONS - I ESPECIALLY LIKED E.T. - BUT I'M AFRAID YOU STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND. THE PROBLEM IS SO DEEPLY INGRAINED IN YOUR MINDS..."
"For Pete's sake," Sam interrupted loudly, "This is a bunch of crap. Why don't you admit that the only visuals we're likely to get from you will be some cheap clip art."
Sam turned and gave me a knowing wink.
The screen began to pulsate again. No messages appeared, but the purple colour changed to an almost angry red, and the speaker began pumping out the low frequency drumming noise we had heard before. Without warning, the monitor vanished and was replaced by a purple cloud. In the middle of the cloud there appeared a three-dimensional living image that caused what little hair I have left on my head to stand up almost straight.My heart stopped beating and my stomach churned in fear. I have come face to face with many horrors and have learned to confront them all - even DOS - but not this. Nothing like this.
I heard a thud on the floor and looked down. Sam had passed out.
"I AM SORRY, BUT IT WAS NECESSARY TO REVEAL MYSELF BEFORE CONTINUING WITH FURTHER DIALOGUE"
I looked at the monitor, at the creature on the screen; its deep, black, almost malignant eyes were staring straight at me. Most terrifying of all, were the two small but very prominent black horns protruding from the shiny red skin on its forehead.
Without warning, I suddenly found myself seated in front of the terminal typing "How may I help you?" and the computer replied exactly as it had three days ago "yOU MUST CONNECT NEW DEVICE INSIDE COMPUTER I TYPE LIST INSTRUCTIONS FOR YOU". We were going through an exact repeat of the entire three previous days. I phoned Sam, he arrived, then left again; then returned with the new board; then the messages; then the live image. All repeated exactly as they had occurred before. The sequence began again. Then again, and again, and again. No matter what I did, the cycle would not stop, even when I reached the point where I had shut off the computer and used my typewriter; the scenes repeated themselves endlessly. Everything I had done over the past three days, even my own thoughts, were duplicated over and over. Yet deep inside myself I knew it was happening, and somehow I could see in Sam's eyes that he too was aware of our predicament.
We lost track of the days, and had no way of knowing how much time had passed. Or even whether time itself was real. The identical scenes continued to reproduce themselves exactly, and
interminably, and nothing we did had any effect. We seemed to be trapped inside a program by an endless loop statement. I should have listened to Sam when he told me not use the DOS Shell. Now I understand why. It is not DOS Shell, it is DOSS HELL.
Suddenly, the computer powered down and the Devil, or whatever it was, uttered a long and loud shivering scream then abruptly disappeared in a whirling cloud of red smoke. Sam and I looked around. My wife was standing in the doorway holding open the outside door and letting in the cold Yukon winter. She looked at us and said:
"It's getting warm out there. The temperature has risen to minus thirty."
("tHE vIRUS" first appeared in Volume 16 Yukon Reader May 1st 1993.)
A collection of Rob's stories are in a book called "Pristine Paradise."