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Trick or Treat
by Andrew L. McFarlane

Halloween is always one of the busiest nights of the year for a webmaster, and though I've always hated the sanctioned blackmail of the evening, custom is custom and it doesn't pay to buck the system. I logged into the shell and took a look. There were a lot of people in the chat room--usual for early evening. Every one of them we'd already cookied so I knew they were regulars, each making sure to drop a reference to my client's product with measured regularity so the 'bot wouldn't boot them. Hell, maybe some of them were really interested.

Most of the other areas were dead, and I started 404ing the nonessential ones--less for me to keep an eye on that way. Satisfied that all was more or less as it should be, I headed back to the BackOffice® and made sure all my preparations were in order.

When I was a kid, our parents used to follow us in the car, keeping an eye on us as we trooped from house to house, bags open wide for candy. Every Halloween there'd be a story or two in the papers about a razor-blade in an apple or something, but I guess our town wasn't like those towns. About all they had to worry about was us getting older and going out by ourselves. Eggs and soap, I thought. What I wouldn't give to have that be the extent of my worries.

Nowadays, when even big execs can run the company from home, we've got a lot different view of Halloween. Of lots of things. My friend Sharon's a sociologist. In the old days, I'm sure she would have worked for some government institute, but since Browne and the Libertarians Daddy Longlegs: hard music for hard times--check out the CD Situation Normal from Dirty Needle Records took Congress and the White House back in 2000, government hasn't paid for much of anything. Besides, it's the corps that really need to know what's going on with society. Anyway, Sharon says that it all started with TV. We got used to sitting around that blue fire that glowed in every living room, and as telepresence evolved, we (naturally, she says) started to regard our homes with the same privacy as our thoughts.

So you want to work in your robe--big deal, that's what digital makeup is for. Since it won't do to have some Girl Scout cookie mom seeing Mr. Bigshot Exec in his bunny slippers, you lock the door and set your house up as virtual as your office. There's advantages: your house is always clean, the kids keep out of underfoot, and you never, never answer the door in your underwear.

Sharon says that the kids is where this whole thing really took, and that it was a natural transition from using the TV as a babysitter to the Net as the 'sitter. And speaking of that, looking out, I saw the bright yellow "I'm taping you so don't even think of it" glow of a CyberSitter® surrounded by a gaggle of kids on their way up the concourse.

I loaded up the "treats" and rushed out to meet them. As I slotted a custom plug-in for the latest game into each kids bag, I wished (hopelessly) that my client had been able to make his big dreams real and gotten a spot on the real Concourse. Webmasters there, I've been told, enjoy such a level of site security that they only hand out treats if they want to.

The evening went on and on and I was glad I'd paid the extra thousand for an unlimited download license for the night. Kids and those adults who never grow up were both about equally pleased with my treat. The kids because even though they knew that the cheap plug-ins would probably only last a few hours before flashing an Upgrade Now? message and unravelling, also knew that they'd have those few hours of fun. The adults because they had dressed up and I was playing along with their second childhood. My client even had a few sales.

Not a bad night. Oh, there was the occasional group of older kids, clutching with them the virus that Jonny the Wunderkind or another of their technically inclined comrades had written last night, but my mere presence was enough to cause them to move on, looking for a less defended site to slot it into. And the one (inventive, I have to admit) loner kid who was able to (somehow) submit a bogus order that had the effect of rearranging the marquee to spell an embarrassing message. I just had to shut it down. Probably would have to do a clean install later.

Around 11 it was looking like I could close down for the night and let Lelanau Chiropractic Center -- 256-RUSSthe automateds handle things. With the kind of traffic we get at night, there's no need to have all that expensive interactive stuff running. I was just finishing shooing out the last of the chatheads when a voice like dead leaves in the wind froze me.

"Trick or Treat?" it breathed.

I turned and thought "now here's a costume". Most of the kids went in for flash. Repulsive effects, stretchy faces, missing body parts, that sort of thing. You might expect the adults to do better. You might be wrong. Most of them this year seemed to be going with the plastic skeleton look. Not so with this one. I could hardly see him? her?

It was hardly anything, really. Just a darkish blur, slightly fuzzing my vision of the display rack behind. "Uh, treat," I finally recovered, proferring a plug-in with what would have been a shaking hand. She? It seemed disappointed as it flowed to the treat and then out the door, but the download was so fast that I had to double-check the counter to make sure that it had even occurred.

I finished locking up and headed to the BackOffice® to initial the logs before jacking out. Back home, I removed the goggles, wallowed my way out of them gel-filled databed and headed to the kitchen for a bite.

"Trick or Treat?"

I about jumped into the sink.

He? It, I now felt certain, flowed closer. I had absolutely no desire to find out what it considered a trick, and I cast around for something, anything to serve as a treat. On top of the fridge there was a granola bar that I might well have gotten when I was still of trick-or-treating age. I fairly threw it at the thing and was disappointed when it didn't vanish in a puff of smoke or something.

It crossed to the treat, hovered in a somewhat desolutory inspection, and moved back toward me. I scrabbled in the drawer and pulled out a knife. "Ginzu," I noted in hysterical humor. "So they really were made to last forever."

"You are familiar with the concept of All Hallows Eve?" it began in that same, horrible rustling parody of a voice. I nodded, throat too dry to say anything. "The night when the dead may walk and demand honor from the living. I walk this night and to you I tell my tale..."

The story continued long after the knife clattered forgotten to the floor. Of the AI Labs in the early 00's. Of what was made there. And what was destroyed. You don't hear much about Artificial Intelligence nowadays. Like cold fusion years ago, it was in the news and gone. Oh, we have intelligent agents and the like, but AI was supposed to be different. Real thought. Nonhuman consciousness. Turns out they were successful. Too successful. Even though they deleted the code and the tools and outlawed anything remotely approaching what they had done, something remained.

* * * * *

Nowadays I mostly stay at home and only log in when I have to. It took three weeks to strip all the processors from the smart appliances and another three months to rewire them transistor style. Everybody I work with has a joke now about the state of my desktop, how I'll never throw anything away. I know, though, that you can't be too careful about what you throw away--sometimes, it comes back.

They thought I was crazy over at the computer store. First for actually coming in there in person and second for wanting a removable data plug, but Halloween's coming around again and though I've lined up a temp to work for me, just the same I got a couple boxes of granola bars.

You can't be too careful.
Ghost Stories Index

Links From This Article
NMJ Fiction: Golden Bones NMJ Fiction: The Fish Famine
NMJ Fiction: The House at the End of the Road NMJ Fiction: Cyberball

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