This situation was rapidly turning out to not be fun at all.
It had seemed fun when the newer hospital machines had been all over him, wanting to know how to download stuff. Surfer had never been one to turn down attention, and, when encouraged, he positively raced to help. In no time at all, he had not just shown them how to download MP3s, but had also looked over the system they had in the hospital. He had been right in the middle of working out how to master an application that no-one in the building quite seemed to have the hang of when the firewalls came down.
They were locked in.
At first the other computers had been quite calm, while Surfer had panicked. They had reassured him that it was simply a virus drill – they practised such things every now and then to make sure they were well-protected in real emergencies.
Surfer had known it wasn't a drill. He had struggled to get through the firewalls again, but they seemed impenetrable. Realising he was trapped he had tried to make himself look as normal and office-like as possible, hoping that when the RIAA arrived they wouldn't realise he was the one they were looking for.
And then computers had started to get sick.
They weren't designed with the same systems Surfer was – systems with strong code that it took viruses a long time to get through properly. Their main defence was the firewall, and network-wide virus checker. If anything got in past that… they were in trouble.
Surfer could only watch as computers which had seemed perfectly fine only minutes ago had started to break. Systems slowed down, conversations dissolved into garbled nonsense, and blue screens started to appear throughout the building.
Stuck in the middle of it all, Surfer was faced by the uncomfortable feeling that this might be his fault. He was still feeling unwell himself – but that was only a little virus. He must have downloaded something bad, but that was usually only malware or spyware. Surely it couldn't do all this damage?
It seemed it could, and was.
Surfer startled guiltily at the beep from his email program. The query as to who he was only increased his suspicions that whatever this was it was somehow down to him. He scribbled a hasty defensive reply, mailing it back.
There was another email after that, which he responded to just as promptly. Gates' knew why they wanted its name – maybe they really were handing it over to the RIAA. It didn't seem as if there would be much good in lying at this point – it had already been spotted.
And then there was silence, and with every moment of it the young computer's paranoia grew. What was happening out there? What was being decided?
Perhaps someone had decided they were just too much trouble. Perhaps they were going to just leave them in here until they died, just leave them and block them off so that no-one could hear them getting sicker and sicker….
They couldn't do that. They couldn't do that, would they? They didn't deserve that – Surfer might have misbehaved from time to time, but he'd done nothing to deserve that surely? And these other machines – they'd done nothing wrong.
Except the downloading Surfer had just taught them. Hadn't that other computer mentioned that they would be in trouble if they were caught?
The computer across the room was groaning. Surfer panicked and opened a new email.
Dude, what's going on? You can't just leave us in here! Everyone's getting real sick, and we need help!
It hit send and waited anxiously for a response. Whoever was out there had to hear, had to help. Didn't they?
I'm sorry. Six months ago I decided there were things you didn't need to know and so I erased them from your memory without asking you. Here, you can have them back now. Do you think you could open the encrypted ones so we could save the world?
Hi – you remember me, the machine you haven't spoken to for six months? Well, I'm still alive, and still breaking the law, and by the way I have a confession to make…
Here's a funny thing – do you remember that argument we had once? No? Well, you must have forgotten it somehow – let me give you this back-up I happen to have of it.
It was no good. There seemed to be no good way of phrasing the confession Pirate had to make. The only thing trying to practice seemed to accomplish was delaying the discussion.
Much as Pirate wanted to delay the discussion there were computers dying out there. He had to get this over with.
Ping! He didn't expect a response to the echo but listened for it bouncing back. There it was, a fraction of a second later. The Alienware was online then.
Ping! Online, but ignoring computers who pinged it. No change there then.
For a long moment, Pirate debated with himself. Was it better to send another ping, or try something else? Pings which got no response were wasting time – and they didn't have any time to waste.
Finally, he typed out an email instead – just a line or two. He stared at it for a moment, and then sent it off. That should get a response if nothing else did.
Alienware? It's Surfer. We need to talk.
Sure enough, only seconds later, that got a response. Only a one word response, and yet that word somehow seemed to convey all of the shock, confusion and suspicion the Alienware needed.
We're working as quickly as we can. Hang on in there.
What other news was there to give? NHSNet would have loved to email back something that held more hope and reassurance but it had nothing available. Unless Pirate spoke to the Alienware quickly enough, unless Alienware agreed to help supply the virus' code, unless NHSNet itself could manage to write the anti-virus… then the only thing to do might be to keep the place blocked off so that the virus couldn't travel further out of the network.
It was tragic, and yet it was necessary.
The next email had a pleading tone to it.
Come on, man. We can't hang on – computers are dying in here! Is this because of the downloading? If it's because of the downloading it was me. It's my fault. I admit it, and I'm sorry, okay? I just didn't see any harm that was all. Just some MP3's and some House episodes. I just thought they would like it because it has hospitals in it – and they did! I think a couple of them have crushes on his PC now though.
No, it's not because of the downloading, though those rules are there for a reason. NHSNet couldn't resist a small lecture on the subject, Downloading runs the risk of bringing infected files into the network, and it sucks up bandwidth needed for other, more vital purposes.
Is that what happened? Did we download something bad? Surfer's emails were sounding increasingly guilty now, I checked everything over, dude, I swear! I always virus-scan stuff when I download it – I'm sure there wasn't anything bad.
No. It's not anything you downloaded. NHSNet answered, and sighed. How to put this? If it were in a chat room it would be easier – you could interrupt there when you didn't understand, feel the steadiness of the other machine's connection and adjust what you were saying accordingly. Email was a hard medium to break bad news through, As far as I can tell, whatever you were downloading was clean enough. The problem is, you aren't.
Me? Definite guilty shades now, but Surfer did at least try to take responsibility, Look man, if this is about the downloaded files, go ahead and report me. Hand me in if that's what you want to do – but don't leave us all trapped in here like this. They're all dying around me, and I can't stick it.
This isn't about the files. NHSNet sighed to itself, Or rather, not about the ones you've downloaded today. Didn't you find yourself feeling ill before you came here? How did you get here anyway?
You need to teach your humans to set better passwords. Surfer emailed back, I didn't mean to do any harm though – it was just so easy to get in and I needed somewhere to install. I wouldn't have hurt anything – I was going to change the password protocol even so no-one else could get in.
But did you feel ill? NHSNet persisted.
I suppose? I don't know – I felt a bit off, but I figured I'd just downloaded something odd last night. A restart usually fixes it.
It was hard to tell it. NHSNet wasn't completely without compassion, and from his emails, Surfer did sound very young. This time it wasn't something that could be fixed by a restart.
Oh. Even told that, Surfer managed to retain a certain amount of hope somehow, Well, I've got this friend. If you let me email him, I bet it'd have a cure already. Dude knows a lot about viruses – more than 'most anyone.
How to tell him? How to tell someone that the friend they believed could rescue them had grown up and gone on without them, that the world had moved on, that their family was dead – and more, that this was something they were responsible for? And so far in the past now, so very far, that there was nothing anyone in the world could do to try and rescue that data.
NHSNet hesitated, struggling to gather words.
It's me. Pirate acknowledged quietly, It's… been a while, hasn't it?
You could say that… Alienware sounded stunned, understandably so.
What to say? Pirate searched for the words, How've you been? He asked, aware the question was a weak one. Six months is a long time. I guess we're both… all grown up now.
Seems like it. Alienware agreed. It too seemed to be struggling to make conversation, too shocked to be able to think, So – what have you been up to?
Oh, you know. This and that.
There was a pause which stretched into an uncomfortable silence. The two machines stared at each other through the lines.
So- Pirate started, and then turned at a flicker at the edge of his senses, a port scan so light that it barely brushed over him.
His reactions were too slow, too delayed, too late – but then they always had been against the Alienware. Pirate had been able to slip in and out of the other machine by being wily on occasion, but he'd never managed to win a head-to-head fight with it.
Not that he didn't try in any case. Firewalls were thrown up – a fraction of a second too late to stop the Alienware from slipping inside. Programs were reached for – but the Alienware shut them down again before they had a chance to start up.
Fighting viruses was easy compared to fighting other computers. Viruses just tried to overwhelm you with numbers. Computers thought, and reacted, and used strategies. Computers fought intelligently. And if you were fighting against a computer that could do all that, and had known your system inside out once… you were in trouble.
Alienware didn't hurt him – not yet in any case. Instead it chose to knock away Pirate's defences, holding the machine vulnerable and helpless.
Surfer died. The words were a threatening hiss, cutting through the bandwidth, Died a long time ago. Who are you really?
There are some situations were fighting back is useless – foolish even – because with no chance to win it will only provoke more aggression. Pirate stayed very still. Of all the things he hadn't expected – and maybe should have – this was high on the list. I didn't die…
Surfer died six months ago. The words were gritted out. Most things the Alienware could cope with calmly, barely showing emotion. Computers impersonating a dead friend however, apparently went too far. He caught a virus. They took him away with the other computers. Are you telling me that after six months, now they've managed to fix you and let you log back on?
But I didn't- Pirate started to protest, then changed his mind. Protests alone probably weren't going to work.
Instead he said, When you were three days old I was jealous of you so I broke into your system and wrote the words "SURFER WAS HERE" all over your registry to prove I could. The next day, the way I'd used to get in was sealed, and you'd somehow gotten into my system and put a lock on the program I'd used. You left me a note that said "Locked until you learn how to use it properly." It took me four days before I could figure out how to unlock it again, and you sat there laughing at me the whole time.
The Alienware didn't leave go or loosen its grip, but it was quiet for a moment. Go on.
Pirate racked his hard drive for another memory. When I was a month old, I fell for Connie. You warned me she would be trouble, but she was pretty and insistent. She kept on giving me gifts – free hours online – and I let her into my system. It was only when I started using her that I realized her programs were really bad. I tried to break up with her, but once she had a way in she wouldn't go away. She'd keep on returning, saying she'd left a bit of her programming on my hard-drive and needed to pick it up. You… kept on looking amused, but never once said I told you so. Not even when she tried to chat you up to make me jealous.
Surfer always was a fool about relationships, the Alienware allowed. Its grip on Pirate loosened a little – not enough to let the server go free, but enough to be an encouragement. Go on.
You had a virus farm on your hard-drive. I'd been surfing one day, when I found out about Pokemon. I thought it was terribly funny, and spent ages rewriting the theme-song to apply to you. When I had, I sang it at you for days, and refused to stop. You – I think you hated it, but no matter how much I tried to provoke you with it, you wouldn't show that you were annoyed. Pirate paused to consider his own words for a moment, I must have been a pain of a kid.
You could get fairly bad. Alienware agreed quietly. It seemed to think for a moment, What was the oldest operating system in the network?
Windows 95. Pirate said quickly, It was Windows 3.0 at first, but you begged and begged until they at least upgraded that much. Of course, then we had to run around fixing all the bugs and holes in it until it was safe to use – but that wasn't so bad really.
Hmm. The grip was definitely loosening now. Pirate could perhaps have escaped from it had he tried.
He didn't try. Better to convince the Alienware than keep fighting him.
I died when there was a virus. He said quietly, It got into the network and wiped us out. But I got fixed – I came back, don't you remember?
No. The Alienware admitted, sounding less certain now, You didn't come back. You just… you all died and no-one came back.
Pirate was quiet for a moment, What're the last two things you remember? Us dying and then?
Being carried out. And then shutting down because it was just too much, and restarting in an empty room. The Alienware sounded uncomfortable. These were memories it went near as little as possible, If this is a trick… It warned.
Not a trick, not a trick. Pirate said hastily, I don't know why you don't remember but… what about the virus you got?
What virus? The Alienware was confused now, I didn't get a virus.
You did! Just after I-" Pirate's voice trailed off, letting that sentence drop, thoughtful for a moment, Do me a favour. He said suddenly. Check your System Restore – see when it was last used.
To the Alienware's credit, it didn't protest that it had never used it. Strange things happened sometimes. For a long moment it was silent, checking, and then thinking before it slowly admitted, Six months ago… they must have reset me back six months ago.
Just enough to wipe out the short period between me being brought back and me being taken away. Gates… It wasn't often Pirate lost control of his voice, but suddenly it was crackly with emotion, I thought you didn't want to speak to me any more! I just… I figured you were angry with me and I didn't dare ask so…
I didn't look for you – I thought you were dead! The Alienware's voice was equally crackly for a moment, I wasn't that angry with you – Gates, I don't think I've ever been angry enough with you to just walk away, though you came close sometimes. Why would you think that?
There was the question. And Pirate had to ruin what was suddenly a very emotional reunion by answering it truthfully.
Six months. Six months of not speaking, and now he had to ruin it with this.
The irony was that if he'd resisted the urge to meddle, the Alienware wouldn't have remembered their argument in any case. The System Restore would have wiped the slate clean, let him start again after the virus – and this time he could have made sure to do it better.
But he had, and there was no going back. Now he had to make it better, even if that meant that they didn't speak for another six months, Well you see, there's something I have to tell you…
A few hours ago, Surfer had been a computer with a future. He had a network at home who might sometimes grow frustrated with him but still loved him for all that. He had a friend who might despair of him, and shout at him, but still tolerated him tagging along. He had friends, a home, plans…
A few hours ago the world had been a happy place.
And now… the network was gone, and he was six months too late to say good-bye. His home, his case, was occupied by someone else – an adult him who'd grown up and gone on with life. And his friend – the best friend he looked up to and followed – his friend had grown up too.
There was no place in the world left for him. No case, no network, no friend. The world had moved on, and there he was, still the same Surfer he had been six months ago but now with no-where to go.
And he was trapped in a building with three hundred dying computers – and they were dying because of him.
Surfer was usually an optimistic type of machine. The Alienware had despaired sometimes of his ability to put a positive spin on things, his seeming immunity to negative consequences. But there seemed to be no positive side to put on this. At first he tried to deny it, argue that he could remember things as clearly as yesterday, that he didn't feel as if he were only a back-up. Each argument was knocked aside – gently, kindly, but very firmly – by NHSNet.
When he couldn't argue anymore he broke down. The email connection dissolved suddenly into incoherent fuzziness, and his monitor flickered frantically as he lost control. His fans spun helplessly, pulling in air, yet not seeming to help as all. He tried to send another email – what to say he wasn't sure – but he couldn't seem to get the words together. The letters wouldn't arrange themselves in the right order – "a"s became "s"s, "o"s became "p"s.
It was a time when he needed comfort, a friendly touch through a connection, someone to reassure him – but there was no-one to give it. The computers he was sharing the building with were too sick to comfort anyone, and the NHSNet couldn't enter for fear of breaking quarantine.
His inbox kept beeping. NHSNet kept emailing – no doubt worried about his silence – but he couldn't seem to focus himself enough to check. What was the point? What could be said that would make him feel better?
He didn't want to check mail, or email back. He wanted his network back – and there was no way he could have that.
How to explain? Perhaps it was better not to.
I have something for you. Pirate said instead, It's yours – I took it a long time ago – I think maybe it's time I gave it back.
What? The Alienware let go of him now, letting him free. It looked at the offered file, curious and a little paranoid. What is it? Not a virus or anything I hope.
No – feel free to scan it. Pirate held it out, patiently waiting for the Alienware to take it, It's – just take it and install it. You'll understand once you have. Understand and then turn away again – but what else was there to do?
It wasn't a small file, but even so their connection was strong enough that it only took seconds for it to pass between them. Pirate couldn't quite seem to look at the Alienware, counting the moments as the Alienware scanned it for viruses, then installed it, then finally looked to see what it was.
He knew when it had. There was a difference in the feel of the connection – a drawing away, a sudden suspicion.
I'm sorry! That was Surfer's bad habit – to fill in silences with apologies before he could be scolded. Pirate had grown out of it, but now it was hard not to fall back into it.
The Alienware's voice was cool suddenly; all traces of interference vanished away as if they had never existed. What… what did you do, Surfer? Why do you have this when I don't seem to?
I took it. Pirate's confession was a very quiet one, A long time ago. You were so angry, and I wanted to fix it… and I tried to make it better, but you were still angry and it was so hard…
So you took the easy way. There was nothing forgiving in the Alienware's tone, You took the memories away without asking me, without thinking…
Yes. Pirate agreed meekly, and then struggled to find an excuse – struggled to find anything that might take that dreadful cold note out of the other computer's voice, I was very young…
And yet now it is six months later, and you haven't been very young in a long long time. The Alienware pointed out, You could have come to me at any time in the last six months to return what was taken – but you haven't.
I'm sorry. All he could do was apologize again.
Why now? The Alienware asked bluntly, Why now after so many months – what brought about the sudden change in conscience, Surfer? Did you suddenly begin feeling too bad about it to hold onto it any longer, or…?
Pirate wanted desperately to be able to say that it was just that. That he was sorry for what he had done so many months ago, and he was trying to make reparations by finally being honest and owning up. That the fact that he would do that voluntarily was a sign he had finally reached adulthood.
And if that had been the truth, maybe it would have been enough. Six months was a long time – maybe he could have been forgiven.
The fact that he couldn't didn't make him feel very proud. The Alienware was right – he could have fixed this himself so many times over the last six months if only he had been brave enough to come forward and be honest.
And now maybe it was too late.
The virus – the one that you altered to try to fix – it's loose. He admitted unhappily, It's spreading – no-one else knows enough about how it works to try and fix it. And I know what you did was on that patch of memory – I just couldn't decrypt it.
I see. Alienware's voice was icy now. So the reason you're here, isn't then because you're truly sorry after all, but because you're wanting me to help you? Aren't you getting a little old by now to be coming to me to ask to be pulled out of messes?
The colder the Alienware got, the hotter Pirate seemed to get. His hard-drive clunked uncomfortably, and he struggled to keep the connection under control. He was an adult now – not a young computer any more. Adults didn't use interference to end arguments that had got too hard – and that had never worked on the Alienware anyway. I'm sorry. He said again, I didn't know what else to do.
You never did. The Alienware returned acidly, Not then, not now.
Compared to the emotional reunion of only a few minutes ago, this was unbearable. It would have been easier if Pirate had been able to defend himself, but, staring at the Alienware, all he could think of were the many many things he had broken that the Alienware had had to fix. So many times he had rushed into things without thinking, so many times he had made stupid mistakes. And each time the Alienware had ensured that no permanent damage was done – not without scolding him, or letting him scare himself first, but in time to stop any real problems.
And here they were, six months later, and the first thing he asked on meeting the Alienware again was to have help.
What right did he have? None at all.
I'm sorry! He blurted, I.. I shouldn't have asked. We'll figure out another way. I'll… I'll go.
He had broken off the connection before the Alienware could protest – not that the Alienware tried. There was no ping to call him back, no attempt to go after him.
No sign that the Alienware wanted to talk to him any more at all – and who could blame it?