I have been trying to get help via the chatbot function of a certain airline. It is a very straightforward request, requiring minimum human effort and research to fulfil. After entering my name, I was told to ‘enter a valid name’. After getting my nominal validity rejected for a second time, the only option was to return to the main menu where the virtual assistant asked me what I wanted. Information, I typed. ‘Enter your name’, it commanded and so again I did just that. Then it told me to ‘enter a valid name’ again! If Kafka, Phillip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, or Harlan Ellison were alive they would have enough inspiration from the shenanigans of artificial non-intelligence to write ten thousand more novels each. Does anybody have the number of a time-travel agent offering one-way tickets back to 1980? Please PM if you do!
So went my gut-angry Facebook post, posted in the angsty twenty-first century spirit of emoting digitally. The post gained a few sympathetic likes, a few ROFL faces (perhaps expressing some teasing recognition of my eccentricity) and nothing more. The message, with its weary and cynical surface tone, never conveyed the deeper, darker desperation at its core. It was read and disregarded in a few seconds as the social networking site’s vast, fast flowing river of commentary carried it off and away down the page-feed, submerging and obscuring it with equally meaningless discourse.
It was October 2020 and ten days earlier, amidst the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID19 global travel situation, I had been instructed by my employer in the Middle East to return to the country to resume my teaching duties. More grim lockdowns were scheduled across the U.K. and COVID marshals, orange bibbed enforcers of ‘social distancing’, were emerging from the shadowy recesses of urban reality like the zealous descendants of Cromwellian infantry policing a plague-filled London of the past.
Although all flights were officially grounded between the UK and this country, both governments agreed a very limited number of flights would be made available to repatriate expatriates wanting to leave and vice versa. The university that employed me had mustered all its influence to have its foreign faculty vacationing overseas placed on a special permission to return list as ‘essential workers’. To get the one-way ticket, I was instructed to contact a certain airline which would make the arrangements. I was relieved by the news because at one stage during the summer vacation, it had seemed as though none of us stranded faculty would be able to return and would have our contracts terminated.
I clicked the link to the airline’s homepage supplied in the message from my university’s HR department. The busy landing page was packed with content. The top left area of the page had a link to travel updates, while the top central area had a number of informational drop-down menus on various flight-related topics. Most of the page’s area was occupied by transitioning images depicting dependability and satisfaction, from pilots and cabin-crew standing in unity, to glimpses of exotic travel locations to planes in flight with captions such as ‘COVID international flight regulations’ next to their wings. I spent five minutes scanning for a contact us link, which I found under the HELP menu. The landline number and address flashed up on the screen and I dialled.
After just two cycles of piercing ring tones the phone was answered by a cheerful recorded voice with a faint Arabic accent welcoming me to the airline in Arabic first then English. It prompted me for my language preference. Then a female voice took over and offered a bewilderingly long list of call path options. Flying had once been a simple experience, I reflected while wishing the days of analogue transactions and people who directly answered calls could be revived. I selected number 3, flight reservations, and a third female voice, this time North American and authoritative, told me that the call might be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. Then banal on-hold music followed. I listened for over ten minutes, hearing the interrupting assurances that my call was important to the company, and the reminders to wash my hands, wear my mask and keep my distance with weariness. A virus weary Britain wondered when friends could be met in pubs again, and I wondered if I would ever work again. Then, I got the encouraging change of tone and burst of optimism when I heard ‘Hello?’
“Hello. I need to make a flight reservation,” I said eagerly. “I know there are no official flights, but I have special permission from the government to re-enter the kingdom.”
“Yes. What’s your name please?” asked the male voice.
I told my interlocutor and was then surprised by the sudden interjection of a third voice into the call, sounding garbled and metallic like when sound packets are lost during mobile phone conversations. Some words were missing, but I heard:
“This one is right. He has the right profile.”
“Excuse me?” I replied, but the call abruptly dropped, and I was left with the familiar high-pitched sound of a dead connection. I pressed the redial key and was returned to the preliminary greeting menu, COVID precaution reminders, choices and on-hold music. I waited for another ten minutes before hearing, to my frustration, an all our agents are currently busy please call back later termination message. I sighed and replaced the receiver, fearing that this process of booking a ticket was going to become a victim of the year 2020. A doomed mission infected by the virus of chaos and supreme disruption. I reminded myself that I had a return timeline to obey and needed a booked flight quickly, or I would soon be joining the millions of unfortunates whose livelihoods had been burned to a cinder by this viral dragon’s fire.
I made a cup of coffee and returned to the phone twenty minutes later, thinking that this break would allow the obviously crazy volume of call traffic to subside. But I asked myself, who would be calling the airline while the pandemic was at its zenith and flights were officially cancelled? I redialled the number and got a duplicated experience, the only difference being the inclusion of marketing messages interspersed with the on-hold music and repeated please continue to hold entreaties spoken like prompted parrots. I returned to the company website and noticed an alternative customer service contact number in tiny characters hidden in the corner of the landing page. I dialled it and got another variation of the previous calling experience, this time ending with advice that I should call another number which reproduced the same sequence and outcome as the previous one.
After several hours of being stuck on this dispiriting carousel, I tried the ‘contact us’ button which spat out social media links and invitations to ‘leave a tweet’. I clicked on the company’s Facebook page and was confronted with a picture of one of the airline’s 747s gliding through a clear sky over a crisp blue ocean. Flecks of sunlight glinted off the water’s surface and the plane’s sleek fuselage gleamed. To make contact, I posted a comment under the most recent video ad in its news feed showing a relaxed looking family entering an airport and checking in all smiles.
Can you please tell me the easiest way to get in touch with a customer service agent? I need to enquire about flights.
I left my laptop and went into town to do some errands and pre-departure shopping, for I expected to be back at my desk in the Gulf imprisoned by Microsoft Teams and cornered by docile, conniving students engaged in a lengthy educational charade shortly. Truly, I regarded this return to online teaching as a form of spiritual execution.
When I logged into Facebook later that evening, I was annoyed to find no answer to my posted question. In disgust, I looked at the buttons surrounding the company logo and a prominent, bright blue one invited you to ‘Book Now!’ for flights that almost certainly did not exist—how could they with the pandemic? I then noticed the Messaging icon next to it with interest.
As if telepathic, the messaging app ‘greeted me’ by popping out from the bottom of the screen. Was this sophisticated bell and whistle going to actually help me, however? Would it read and understand my sentences or just aimlessly respond with a vast menu of pre-set answers retrieved from cloud servers slurping up electricity in shabby data centres in the developing world? I clicked warily. I had experienced interactions with these clot-brained programs that would have failed the Turing Test and had Turing, from his grave, sending the programmers to Siberia for hard labour with no hope of parole.
How can I help you today Tom?
How on earth did it know me? I typed I want to speak to somebody in flight reservations.
Would you like to be transferred to a live agent replied the app. Great, I thought. I was just a cursor-click away from speaking with an intelligent human. I clicked the grey shaded yes button and waited to be transferred.
However, only more instructions followed.
Please enter your name.
I shook my head at the stupidity of the request, since clearly this supposedly intelligent technology knew my name. However, I fed the app as directed, only for it to confound me with its reply.
Please enter a valid name.
“Are you joking?” I asked the monitor. This is my name!” I punched my moniker into the keyboard again and the same result appeared synchronously.
Please enter a valid name.
Agitated, I got up and walked around my flat while contemplating this unexpected impasse that threatened my progress. I wasn’t surprised, because I had suffered from faulty interfacing software before. So much for AI, I thought cynically. I had only contempt for cheerleaders of the colossal ‘artificial intelligence’ cult that seemed to be steering the world. Venture techno-capitalists, billionaires and certain politicians were holding court in forums and TED presentations. They were vomiting rhetoric about how technology, combined with a ‘reset of our economic foundations’ was going to deliver a sustainable utopia when the pandemic had been beaten. I recalled the cliches of a former US presidential candidate pontificating about how virtual currencies, AI and circular economies were going to miraculously bring about humanity’s post COVID healing, like one of those ‘magic swipe’ mops sold on the cable shopping channels painlessly sweeping away the poverty and suffering of the pandemic.
It’s a digital world, moving at digital pace. Everything is moving faster – ideas, people and goods.
I grunted derisively at the politician’s enthusiasm. I certainly wasn’t moving at a digital pace. I wouldn’t be moving anywhere except for unemployment if I didn’t get on a plane shortly. I watched the chat-box warily, with all my trust now withdrawn, waiting for its next capricious surprise.
I entered my name for a third time, and the app frustrated me with different tactics when it responded.
Would you like to go back to the main menu?
My lips mouthed expletives at the app. What should have been a routine request was becoming an impossible one. I needed to complain to the company, but how could I do this when no one answered their phones?
I redialled the customer non-service numbers again and the same recordings told me how the calls would be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. After more long periods of on-hold music, the recorded voice cheerfully told me nobody could answer my call, but I could go to the airline’s Facebook page it said or leave a tweet.
Days passed. I received harassing messages from my managers in the Middle East. Why hadn’t I returned yet? The other English language instructors in my department had successfully returned. What was I doing? Why was I stalling? I explained the communication problems with the airline, but my manager responded with curt, sceptical messages repeating that I should return as soon as possible.
I logged into Twitter and located the airline’s page, which consisted almost entirely of cyclical newsfeed advertisements. I posted a reply under a marketing montage which implied that flights with the airline were profound, life-changing odysseys.
I need to speak to a customer service agent urgently.
Hours later, I saw to my dismay that my message had been shoved, unanswered, further down the thread, which consisted of similar requests and questions from frustrated would-be travellers. It was time to give the airline some blunt feedback, so I returned to its Facebook page and deposited a complaint under the same ‘life-changing journeys’ ad.
You have the worst customer service in the universe! Just how difficult do you intend to make contacting a customer service representative?
I logged into Facebook a few hours later and saw the following underneath my message:
Kindly contact the concerned department to assist you thank you.
While I thought about my next play in this imbecilic game, I saw a new message in my Outlook inbox. It was from the university.
This is to remind you that failure to report for duty to the university’s HR department by November 1st could result in the termination of your contract. Please return as soon as possible. The semester is about to begin.
I sighed at the obtuseness of Brad, the bearded American millennial who ran our English department with humourless heavy-handedness. What use was it even trying to make him understand my progress was at the mercy of this infernal app?
As I sat at my desk waiting for my laptop to boot the next morning, it occurred to me that this hopeless, obstructive interface, along with its internet ‘accomplices’ had paranormal powers which seemed to feed off and thrive on the agitation it caused me. There were also times during my futile exchanges with the virtual agent app that I sensed a presence watching me from the other side of the monitor, observing and monitoring my exasperation.
When I next logged into Facebook, the airline had hijacked my timeline with a column of perpetual advertising. Picture after picture of satisfied, grinning passengers reclining in business class seats with drinks on their tray tables and photo-shopped clouds surrounding theirmidriffs faced me.
“These bastards are actually taunting me!” I muttered incredulously.
The CHATBOT app, as if to mock me, popped open.
How can I help you today Tom?
Foolishly, I was lured into the hopeless interaction loop again, following the prompts, entering my name, having my ‘invalid’ name rejected, receiving the familiar, demoralizing message that I had the option of being transferred to a customer service agent only to be asked once again to enter my name-that-would-be-rejected.
I tried calling again, but when I dialled the customer non-service numbers, a recorded voice said that due to COVID19, the company was experiencing a very high volume of calls. It added that the call would be recorded for monitoring and training purposes. After five minutes of generic, melodious tunes the line simply went dead and five redials later came the same result.
Vexed, I searched online for reports of similar experiences from other frustrated would-be customers. Perhaps there was a chat-board or forum I could use for help? However, I found nothing. On the contrary, passengers had only glowing, enthusing testimonies to give about their experiences with the airline in their ratings on the airline review sites. Clusters of satisfied customers gave the company five stars overall for its customer support. I must be experiencing this company in an alternative dimension, I thought. To break away from this tiring mind-game, I went for a walk in the park opposite my flat where the refreshing chill of an autumn breeze and the enchanting air ballet of crisp brown leaves pirouetting calmed me. I sat on a bench marvelling at this choreography of nature. It was primordial and authentic, unlike the digital pest that was bothering me. I heard the faint, familiar rumble of an airliner above and watched its wispy trail make snail-speed progress across the sky. “That’s where I should be”, I muttered forlornly.
I got back inside my flat and went to the kitchen to seek comfort in coffee. When I picked up my smartphone, I saw a voice message from Brad in WhatsApp. Sighing, I tapped the black arrow with uneasiness.
“Tom, I’ve just been talking to the Dean and since the university has provided you with a means to return, and that other instructors have managed to find their way back without any difficulties or delays, the Dean of Faculty Affairs is giving you until next week to get on a plane, get back into the country and report for your work duties. I can’t buy you any more time I’m afraid. It’s up to you to get yourself organized and get back.”
Exasperated, I pressed the record icon, held the phone screen close and unloaded my exasperation.
“Brad! I am trying to get back dammit but I’m dealing with an impossible airline that’s impossible to get hold of in any way whatsoever. If it doesn’t answer my calls, e-mails or Facebook messages then what the hell am I supposed to do? Its chat-bot has been designed by a drivelling Satanic imbecile. Do you understand? And since the university insists that I use no other airline I am stuck going around and around with its nonsense.” Not wanting to see or hear Brad’s reply, I turned off my phone. He was certain to interpret my response suspiciously, probably imagining I was looking for alternative work somewhere in the napalm-scorched earth of the English language teaching business’ post-COVID job-market. Brad ran our department and kept our online classes of dubious educational merit running with banker-like efficiency. He made sure that our paymasters were satisfied for the sake of his own superannuation and wasn’t about to plead for more time or any sympathy on my behalf to a committee of men with the empathy of chainsaws. If I wasn’t back within a week I would be fired, and I would never see the severance pay I had accrued over a year.
I pressed the power button on my laptop and faced its screen, with the hypnotic aqua-blue glow of the rectangular Windows logo appearing like the spectral gatekeeper of this CPU generated realm of stress and confusion. I surveyed Yahoo UK’s homepage with exhaustion and ennui, skimming the click-bait with weary disdain. A c-list celebrity from the 1990s was complaining that her 38 cup breast implants had wrecked her career while one of her clones further down the huge menu of ephemeral, mind-corroding dross was ‘opening up’ about her unsatisfying sex-life.
“Is nothing private these days?” I asked the monitor and was shocked when the said has-been, a former Big Brother contestant once briefly elevated to the ‘B List’ for fornicating in a toilet with a Premier League ‘bad boy’ footballer, winked at me saucily.
I needed a plane ticket urgently but was no closer to the breakthrough of reaching the customer service agents, who were unreachable beyond this impenetrable wall of faulty high-tech software and deceptive web pages that shone, lit up dark rooms and dazzled the eyes but led nowhere. The internet was becoming a mirage, and I was now convinced the airline and its unreachable customer service agents simply didn’t exist. Was the entire operation an elaborate practical joke? Or just a nightmare?
The thought of facing the chat-bot for another turn of merry-go-round depressed me but I steered the cursor up to the search Facebook box. My action didn’t feel voluntary; it was if something else had seized control as it typed the airline’s name into the box and summoned the company’s page. The virtual helper sprang up like a jack-in-the box.
How can I help you today Tom?
Piss off! I typed. Its endless tormenting had driven me to drink that past week, and the stress that came with the increasing urgency to get my flight arranged had prompted me to start smoking again. Squashed butts filled an ashtray on my kitchen table, along with an empty glass pungent with the smell of consumed whisky.
Well, look who’s in a bad mood today!
I blinked and let out a low grunt of disbelief, but almost in the very same instant the message reverted to How can I help you today Tom? Perhaps my eyes had deceived me. The insomnia of the previous two days had left me in a woozy, barely conscious state where perception could be compromised. I was exhausted and wanted to go and lie down for a couple of hours before facing this excruciating riddle again. However, once again I sensed the app controlling me and forcing me to type the same tedious plea to be connected to a customer service agent in flight reservations. I obeyed the prompt to enter my name and watched the name rejection message appear followed by the option to be returned to the main menu.
I then typed the message that opened this story, a summary of the company’s abysmal customer support technology and my desire to step back in time to the off-grid era of simpler transactions and no usernames, passwords or virtual mazes. After I had posted the message, a new pop-up from the chat-box appeared.
You’re getting flustered there. Relax. Don’t hate us. We’re your friends! We’ll personalize everything for you. We’ll make your experiences unforgettable and convenient.
Then when I screwed up my eyes and looked again the message simply said please enter your e-mail.
“I give in. That’s it,” I told the screen while waving an imaginary white flag. “You’re costing me my job. I clenched my fist and shook it at the screen.
Please enter your e-mail
“Oh, what the hell! Have it!” With this, I gave my e-mail to the chat-box, shut down my laptop and went into the kitchen to find the whisky and ice.
Later that night, the weird, episodic dream I had was ominously symbolic of my recent experiences. One moment I was hunched in front of the laptop, watching myself from above like an astral traveller. I was struggling as with my real waking experiences of the previous few days, banging in the futile letters of my ‘invalid’ name into the keyboard for the app’s spiteful amusement. Next, I was in front of the Great Sphinx which, instead of being in its familiar Giza location, was situated in some vast industrial wasteland surrounded by mountains of discarded technology–particularly hard-drives and PC monitors–reaching high into the sky. Matted blood was caked around the edges of the creature’s mouth that had the glossiness of real flesh and not limestone. It turned its massive head and imposing jaws towards me. Its eyes were disconcertingly human and incongruous with the monstrous body it displayed.
“Tell me weary web surfer, when you can’t go forward to get what you seek, what is the wisest way? Solve this riddle and you can summon human customer service agents at any time you desire,” bellowed the animal in a stentorian voice that carried with it the terrifying menace of millennia.
“I’ll pass on your challenge,” I answered. As I turned to run, I saw a giant version of the chisel-jawed politician from the NGO who’d been cheerleading on Yahoo for the grand high-tech global reset emerge from behind an IT trash mountain. He gave a macabre thumbs-up to the animal. I turned back towards the Sphinx and shouted, “When you can’t go forwards, you need to go backwards!”
The monster purred and its leonine head turned to me. “You’re right, clever man,” it said and swept up, with one of its paws, several grey victims from the vast human feed column in front of it. It chewed the bodies, covering the torsos with saliva as it drooled over the morsels. Strangely, these people didn’t scream or resist as they were eaten alive but went to their deaths with a kind of docile joy. I wondered what riddle they’d failed to answer as the dream landscape underwent a nebulous transformation and I was now in the reclining business-class seat of the flight that I’d spent the last few days seeking customer service agents to book. I was elated. Triumphant. I had finally secured my prize! My patience and determination had been rewarded. I felt secure in this luxurious cabin, and the glowing amber sunset emerging in the icy, desolate beauty of the Troposphere outside my cabin window filled me with sleepy serenity. Android flight attendants with mannequin faces brought me a meal of lobster and champagne.
“Now this is travelling in style!” I said, noticing but not caring that my fellow passengers in the spacious cubicle seats to my left and right were nothing but indistinct dark blurry shapes. A question intruded into my dream consciousness, floating like teleprompt text above the seat in front of me in upper-case.
HOW DID I FINALLY MANAGE TO GET HOLD OF A CUSTOMER SERVICE AGENT AND MAKE THIS POSSIBLE?
Suddenly the champagne in my glass tasted despondently flat. I looked down and instead of legs of lobster there were, piled high on the plate, the bulbous chat-bot messages all bearing the dreaded message of the last two weeks along with the WhatsApp messages from Brad forming a hideous, inedible and excruciating topping. I threw the plate up into air and the messages became emojis with malevolent faces that floated to the floor like fragments of Satanic tinsel. A threatening and ominous vibe took over the dream, and the passenger in the adjacent seat to my left suddenly changed from a hazy, indistinct shape into a clearly recognizable man. He was well-groomed with thick, slicked-back, jet-black hair, delicate features, and rather prominent, crooked ears. However, his most noteworthy features were his haunted eyes that were possessed by intense, unbearable poignancy. When he turned and looked at me, a lifetime of torment and regret possessed his gaunt face, imprisoning it in eternal anguish. His dark, woolen three-piece suit was from another century and he emitted a foul odour suggesting a terminal disease. He watched me with a forlorn expression for a while and then spoke in what sounded like German, which the dream obligingly translated with floating subtitles.
“When I shaped hapless Joseph K from the sloppy clay of my imagination and had him scramble hopelessly through the pages of The Trial, I could not foresee that that was merely a naïve taster of the future. A preview of the giant prison of all souls that we’re sprinting towards. Our cells are being readied and we shall occupy them happily with digitally induced non-resistance and entertainment being the ultimate key. You can’t stop it. We will do the bidding of the digital gods.”
Suddenly he started to cough violently, clasping his chest as though it was going to explode. Then a thick jet of blood and mucus spurted out of his mouth covering his jacket and some of his seat in a huge claret-coloured patch. When the fit stopped, I passed him a napkin and he wiped his mouth with a shaking hand while the flight attendants had disappeared.
“Thank you. This is the COVID19 of 1924 ja? Accept your destiny with courage.”
With this he vanished, and the cabin started tilting from side to side. I wanted to ask him if this was dream turbulence, but then realised he was no longer there. The plane lurched to one side yet there were no Hollywood screams in the cabin. An oxygen mask dropped from the compartment above and when I grasped it, it spoke in the familiar voice-on-hold, call-queue dulcet tone that I’d grown accustomed to over the past week.
“Thank you for your call, which is important to us. Due to the high volume of calls we are receiving you may experience a longer than normal waiting time. Calls may be recorded for training and customer service quality assurance purposes. You are currently number twenty-five thousand two hundred and nine in the queue.”
I wanted to get off this jinxed flight and out of this jinxed dream which was clearly a spiteful psychic contrivance of the airline which sought to disappoint and frustrate me both in wakefulness and sleep. However, when I reached for my seatbelt, it had become a padlocked chain and in the next instant, I was confined in a straight-jacket. On the in-flight entertainment screen, the Facebook page appeared and the moment I thought about the chat-bot it too appeared, with its speech balloon magnified many times showing a giant please enter a valid name. Dismayed, I looked out of the window and saw that the plane had nearly finished its descent and on the strip of field next to the runway PLEASE ENTER A VALID NAME was painted in giant white lettering followed by PLEASE ENTER YOUR E-MAIL. I woke up flustered and sweating.
Next morning, the message How to enter your valid name was in my bloated Yahoo inbox. Its bold lettering, denoting its unread status, beckoned my cursor. When I clicked it, the following message appeared:
We are sorry to hear that you are experiencing difficulties trying to contact us. To solve this problem, please enter your name into the chatbot backwards. If this fix does not work, please contact us by e-mail and we will be happy to assist you.
The message wasn’t signed but the sender’s e-mail address at the top was a generic ‘do not reply’ one. So, this company’s inverted logic continues, I thought. It tells me to enter my name backwards and then offers help through a do-not reply e-mail address. They are amazing!
I struggled to recall a notion from my nightmare that was germane to this, but there was nothing tangible I could salvage from the dissolving residue of scenes and impressions from the dream sequences. However, after some concentration I latched onto something significant I had said, to a mythical monster, before a calamitous journey on a plane had begun.
When you can’t go forwards, you need to go backwards!
So that was it—reversal! The inversion of things. Doing things backwards to get results. It was certainly a principle that ruled this cretinous airline, but why on earth would they tell me to do something as perverse as enter my name backwards into its defective application? How would that work exactly?
Feeling galvanised, but also wary, I arrived at Facebook and found my way to the airline homepage. I didn’t even need to move my cursor over the message tab. The app’s white column popped up from the bottom of the page.
How can I help you today Tom?
It amazed me that the application had such a poor memory for such an allegedly sophisticated example of AI. The app predicted my moods, read my mind and anticipated my decisions at the keyboard and yet it couldn’t remember the topic of our last failed interaction?
I wrote my name backwards in pencil first, to make sure each alphabet character followed in correct order. As I did this, I heard a familiar prophetic sentence:
Our cells are being readied and we shall occupy them happily.
But it was too late to dwell on its cryptic subtlety because I had already typed out my name backwards and hit the enter key. I was then, in the words of the Manfred Mann Earth Band song, blinded by the light. It was a light that burst out of the keyboard with the dazzling intensity of a supernova and filled everything in my field of vision. I was in white space and felt weightless. In this disorientating new infinity, I imagined this is what UFO abductees experienced before the frightening extra-terrestrial doctors appeared.
It was icy cold in this space and I shivered, clasping arms around my naked torso. I felt the solid resistance of something behind me. It was an invisible boundary. An edge or wall in this mysterious, unearthly place. I backed into it and slid down until I was nothing but a pathetic and disconsolate figure, abducted from the three-dimensional world that was my home and to which I knew instinctively I would never return. I was full of heavy terror. After an indeterminate period of time, I heard a voice.
“Is there no way out of here? Are we trapped?” asked an anxious female voice in a neutral accent.
“Yep. That’s it. We’re done for,” replied a man with a similar accent, before adding, “We’re part of the operating system now. Our bodies are gone. We are just virtual ciphers processing commands.”
I called out to them, but they did not answer. So, this was actually hell I had been lured into and I had never imagined its entry portal would be a laptop computer screen. I had to admit the ingenuity of it. The perfect concealment hidden in plain sight. No darkness or fiery pits, just blankness and a bright void. My distress increased; I had been denied the chance to say farewell to my parents and friends before this abrupt and shocking end to my physical life. I had read about the Gnostics and always been curious about their version of divinity that came when physical mortality ended. Wherever I was, ‘heaven’ was nothing like this spiritually sterile world.
Then, the vibration started. It was a low, droning hum which caused tremors in my muscles to gradually increase. Suddenly, the visible colour spectrum appeared, which each colour passing through me and causing a burning sensation. I was then pulled forcefully forward and when I went through red the sides of an azure tunnel appeared. Light shone through gaps in it and my consciousness alternated between awareness and blankness at regular intervals, with 0 and 1 becoming a binary cycle that represented my ‘birth’ and ‘death’ at split-second intervals. I was now electrical current forced through circuits and a prisoner of the CPU.
Next, I was propelled into landscapes of code and then dense bit-string oceans where I drowned in commands. I was taken to sites where I was forced to execute commands such as open pop-up windows to entice people in and rob them of their time and activate code sequences of Trojan virus e-mails so that they could possess vulnerable operating systems in one key stroke. My data enabled parasite and scammer e-mails to bypass spam folder coordinates to maximize the chances of their mendacious objectives succeeding. I upgraded malware and supported predatorial software in its search for victims. The inter-dimensional intelligence directing my back-end actions in the operating system was ravenous for human data and so forced me to lure people onto social media sites and get them hooked on posting, chatting and completing endless surveys and phoney petitions. It was my responsibility to make sure that failure to engage with the web pages every day left them feeling empty and depressed. My coding ran through game architecture more addictive than crack cocaine. The victims offered their psychic veins with gratitude, clasping their consoles like Pavlovian canines as the gameplay credits and money flowed. Once hooked, our adrenalin addiction algorithm made sure they didn’t stand a chance.
My nefarious work continued. I blocked password recognition for people, frustrated their financial transactions and helped construct gold-standard phishing sites. Sometimes my 0/1 cycles animated grotesque pornography and stole the credit-card details of the unwary, lust-driven fetish chasers. My form ‘merged’ from one job to the next and my assignments increased in their scope of wickedness and depravity. I was soon doing jobs for the dark web titans, such as executing buy commands for drug traffickers, terrorists and worse. While never totally happy in my three-dimensional previous life, I had at least adhered to a moral code and lived with an untroubled conscience. Now I was merely subservient software doing the bidding of demons.
From the other side of the monitor, behind my curtain of pixels, I watched the vacant eyes under the spell of the applications. We told them the future was digital and that AI was extending its benevolent hand to take away humanity’s troubles. The giant prison was nearly finished, and the cells were nearly ready. To my surprise, the cadaverous face of the mysterious consumptive traveller from the dream plane appeared before me in front of the monitor. He looked at me ruefully and shook his face. Then a tear streaked down the gaunt cheek of his pallid face.
Titus Green was born in Canada but grew up in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including The Collidescope, Adelaide Literary Magazine, HORLA, Literally Stories, Sediments Literary Arts, Stag Hill Literary Journal, Sediments Literary Arts and others. He teaches English as a foreign language for a living. His published writing can be found at