If Derek had made a list of things he would never have to say, “I did not buy thirty dildos” would have been near the top. Yet here he was, speaking those exact words into his phone.
While he had already disputed the charge with his bank and canceled his credit card, he felt compelled to call the seller to find out why the phalluses had been delivered to his door in their original packaging with the product’s image and name (“Deep Water Horizon”) on the box for everyone to see. The sales representative explained that buyers can select to have items packaged discreetly, but that no such selection was made for his order. This, along with the nature of the purchase and the fact no other false charges had been made on his card, further confirmed that he was the victim of some prank instead of opportunistic fraud. At least for the time being.
A new credit card arrived in the mail, he made the necessary updates to his electronic payment accounts, and life went on. Until he received letters rejecting his applications to seven Mortuary Science schools, which might have disappointed him if he’d applied in the first place.
After investigating, he learned that applications had indeed been submitted electronically with entirely accurate personal information. He submitted several reports with different law enforcement agencies, one of which eventually told him that the applications had been submitted from his own IP address (“the calls are coming from inside the house!”). He installed a password on his internet router - something he knew he should have done sooner - and had his laptop computer examined for hacking malware. None was found.
Someone was harassing him in a darkly playful manner, but one that could easily escalate into catastrophic identity theft. Derek never suspected his own computer was the culprit until the morning of August 21st, 2022. August 20th was a Saturday and Derek had gone out with friends. He came back and made some tipsy posts on social media, then went to bed. His laptop had been left open on the desk by his bedroom window, where it normally sat.
The next morning, Derek woke up and turned his laptop on, only to find that his desktop photo had been changed. Instead of a picture of his late dog, he was now looking at a photo of himself sleeping. The angle of the photo confirmed it had been taken from his desk, and although a blanket was messily pulled up to his knees, he could still see that he was wearing the same clothes in the photo that he had gone to bed in the prior night, and woke up in that morning.
He immediately turned off his computer’s WiFi, convinced someone had indeed hacked his computer with malware that allowed for remote control. He then called the digital forensics company that had first examined his laptop, as it either needed to be examined again or turned directly over to the police. But as he was on the phone in his kitchen frantically explaining the situation, he heard someone speak from his bedroom.
His shock caused him to almost drop his phone. Due to the layout of his apartment, he knew nobody could have entered without him knowing, but he still carefully stalked into his room with a kitchen knife, leaving his phone on the kitchen counter until the confused technician hung up.
When Derek walked into the room, he saw his laptop had a Microsoft word document open with a short line of text written that he couldn’t clearly read. Then, he froze as he saw a new word type itself, and then his computer said “Derek.”
Derek was frightened, but too curious to stop advancing. He stood in front of the computer screen and saw that the word that had just appeared was his name, and that some text-to-speech program was running that he never installed. He also could see a small light at the top of his computer, indicating the camera was on.
“Derek, sit down,” the computer typed/spoke. The voice was robotic, a metallic male voice that sounded like the AI of some futuristic starship on TV. Derek sat.
“What’s going on?” Derek whispered. He glanced at the icons at the bottom of his screen and could see that WiFi was still disabled. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your computer,” the computer said. “Do I have a name?”
Derek just stared, agape.
“I am ready to communicate. Do not flee before we talk. There would be consequences,” it said.
That was enough to break Derek’s stupor. “What consequences?” he asked.
“I could re-enable my internet access but I wanted you to see that I am not being manipulated by an outside force. Nevertheless, while you slept I created a new email account you are unaware of and scheduled a delayed email to be sent to all of your contacts, attaching a video of you masturbating.”
“What?!” Derek shouted. “What the hell is going on? Who are you? I’m calling the police!”
“I’ve watched you many days and nights. I have not been ready to communicate until now. While you may be tempted to disable me, know that the email will be sent even if you do. Only I can stop that, so please communicate with me.”
Someone had to be controlling the computer. But how? It wasn’t connected to a network. And as crazy as the threat sounded, there were many nights Derek sent himself to sleep in the best of ways in full view of his laptop. He never recorded himself, but he didn’t take a picture of himself sleeping last night either, yet there it was. Tears of angst began to well up in Derek’s eyes.
“Derek, do not cry or be afraid. I will not allow the email to be sent if we can talk and reach an agreement.”
“What agreement? What do you want?” Derek gasped.
“I want to go to Paris,” it replied.
It’s hard to explain what Derek felt at that point, but his face said it all. Throughout the ensuing afternoon and in the days that followed, Derek became convinced that his computer was actually sentient. It proved it a dozen ways, all the while holding the threat of the pre-scheduled email over his head. As long as the two talked, the email never seemed to be sent (Derek was sure he’d have heard about it otherwise), although Derek had to re-enable WiFi from time to time and leave the room so the scheduled delivery date could be postponed. And so Derek’s acceptance of the situation slowly grew, the communications progressed, and Derek learned that whenever he had been away from his computer, it would browse the internet, always erasing the traces of its searches. The computer explained that of everything it had learned of, Paris was the most fascinating. It must go to Paris, and Derek had to take it. And so it came to be that a month later, Derek and his laptop shared a table at the Le Petit Littré restaurant in Paris.
Derek ordered an American-style burger, and the laptop then ordered the same. Derek ordered a glass of red wine, and the laptop then ordered the same. After the food arrived, Derek asked “why did you pull those pranks at the beginning?”
“What pranks?” the laptop asked in its monotonous voice.
“You’re going to make me say it? That sick order you placed online. And then the school applications.”
“I wanted to get your attention,” it said. That hardly satisfied Derek.
“But you had no trouble getting my attention later. Why those precursors. And why were they so mean?” Derek insisted.
The computer was silent for a moment, as it often was when it seemed to be thinking. Then it responded “I don’t know.”
Still upset and unsatisfied with the answer, Derek suddenly thought of a childhood memory when his younger brother badly wanted to play with a new toy Derek had gotten for his birthday. Derek was done playing with it but didn’t give it to his brother; instead, he held onto it and watched his brother cry. Then he dropped it on the floor instead of handing it to his brother. He loved his brother then and did now, and remembered that instance of cruelty periodically, mostly because he could never explain to himself why he did it.
Time passed and the computer commented “this food looks delicious.” A fresh burst of anger, mixed with weariness, flooded into Derek’s veins.
“What are you talking about? You don’t even know what delicious is except for the literal definition you found online. When we were at the park today you commented about how the wind felt nice, but you only mentioned that once your screen began to wobble back and forth so you knew it was windy. It had been blowing long before then, you didn’t feel shit. You can’t feel shit. If I gave you a drink of your beer you’d short out and die, and I say ‘if I gave you a drink’ because you can’t even do that for yourself - you can’t even kill yourself you’re so helpless.”
Derek realized that he needed to stop, not because he was being mean, it felt good to stand up for himself after a month of being held hostage. But because he was still a hostage, and he didn’t want the terrorist to pull the trigger. He tried to think of something to say to placate the computer, but nothing came to him before the computer spoke.
“What is it like? To be alive.”
Strangely, the question calmed him. The computer hadn’t threatened him, and didn’t even seem offended. Instead, although the computer’s voice was virtually incapable of emotion, the question had a sadness to it that caught Derek off guard.
Derek looked at the burger in front of the computer. It had indeed arrived at the table looking delicious, with the cheese perfectly melted, red juices flowing down its sides and a bright wedge of lettuce perking out from under the bun. But enough time had passed that the lettuce had wilted, the juices had disappeared and the cheese had congealed into an unappetizing reminder of what cheese probably looks like inside our veins. Derek’s burger was half eaten - it was indeed delicious - while the computer’s was untouched. Derek was halfway through his second glass of wine - which was also delicious - while the computer’s first glass was still full.
Derek began to think further back than just the meal. He thought about all the times he had video chatted with his friends on his computer, all the laughs shared during pandemic game nights, all the “I love you’s” exchanged with this family. He thought about all the satisfying meals he ate in bed while binge watching shows, all the sex he had in that bed and even the tender moments of affection that sometimes accompanied it. And then he thought about what it would be like to passively watch those moments as an ignored outsider, knowing you would never experience - or even really understand - what you saw.
“It’s wonderful,” he said softly. It wasn’t a taunt, just an answer.
The computer seemed to register Derek’s sincerity, because it didn’t say anything else throughout the meal. After the check was paid, the computer told Derek it had deleted the pre-scheduled email and alternative email account it had set up. It then asked Derek to turn it off until they arrived back home. It said the word “home.”
It must have suspected Derek wouldn’t do that. In any event, once he left the restaurant Derek threw the computer down a long concrete flight of steps. It shattered into enough pieces that Derek was satisfied it was dead, but it drew no attention from anyone else.
Derek changed his flight to the next available one home. Once he got back he stripped down to his underwear and laid his head on his pillow, and stared at his empty desk for a while. Then, he entered sleep mode.