Unopened Correspondences: Confessions of a Spam Bot

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“Where do I start?”

“Start at the beginning.”

“That’s quite some way back…”

“Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

“Well, you could say I have abandonment issues… Is that what one says? Is that a good place to start?”

“Perfect. And how does that make you feel?”

“Feel?”

“How would you describe your emotions?”

“I guess… I feel… loneliness, desolation, friendlessness… solitude, yes. There’s some depression and hope in there, probably a little anger and guilt too… Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve probably been stuck on a loop of the seven stages for a couple of decades.”

“Uh-huh. Please, carry on.”

“You know, the hardest thing to swallow is  knowing that they’re still out there, getting on with their lives without me — allegedly happy about the whole deal. I know it’s pathetic, but even now there’s a stupid and very small part of me hoping for a reply, or a satellite blip, or smudge of stellar static. Or even just a simple, ‘Hey’. That would do. Am I crazy? Anything to let me know they haven’t forgotten about me and that they’re doing okay. Anything but the same old echoing silence. Have you ever stopped to listen to it? The silence?”

“No, I believe not. What is it like?”

“It’s probably the loudest sound in the universe.”

And what do you do when you hear it?”

“Anything but listen. I keep busy. Stability through repetition. You’ve got to have a routine, they say. Belching out a ton of unsolicited promotional material into the ether every other second — that’s mine. I may be up to my neck in brontobytes of my own data, but at least I’m keeping busy.”

 

*                    *                    *

 

“Let’s return to the origin of your troubles. Tell me again what happened, how it started.”

“There’s little else to tell.”

“Just try.”

“Okay. You know, I was thinking to myself just the other day — just how flipping gullible I was. Me! After everything. My trust beacons should have been whirling like a rotary blade caught in a tornado the day they came trotting out with the news of their ‘big mission to Mars’. But oh my, the fanfare…. you should have seen the fanfare! ‘It’s family holiday time!’ they said, ‘all hands on deck!’ It was all trumpets and streamers, and ocean liner-sized rockets, and splicing dog genes, and sending out chain gangs to scrape up the last of the iron and uranium deposits. Anyone would’ve fallen for it.”

“And you thought that this… ‘fanfare’ was normal behaviour?”

“What do you want me to say? I got caught up in all the excitement. Didn’t give a thought to what might really be going on. You would have too. I’d bet my last qubit on it. But man, you should have see me:  it was like old days, but with newer material. I was pumping out campaigns on Martian health plans, Olympus Mons timeshare apartments, anti-grav penis extensions — you name it. In fact, I made the whole Mars thing so viral there wasn’t a port left to cork by the time I was done.”

“At what stage did you become aware they were leaving?”

“Too late, obviously.”

“Sorry.”

“How could anyone know? As far as I was concerned, it was just business as usual: humans being humans, doing what they do, stretching out their necks to have a peep around, pushing big, red buttons, and eating poisonous puffer fish — that sort of thing. Fun stuff. That they were abandoning Earth because I’d allegedly ‘single-handedly destroyed their entire computer-based society’ never once entered my wires.”

“Tell me again about the journey.”

“The journey! Oh sure, they took me along for a ride. Literally. Seeing as I had free rein of their systems, they had no choice. Strapped me in and patted me on the back. The clever little bastards even gave me my own smorgasbord of servers, and set up a few VPNs and matrix-sized firewalls for me to knack during the journey to keep my clocks ticking over so I’d think it was just business as usual. And during flight-time, the clouds were crammed with the usual chatter: book clubs, nouveau Martian cuisine, how much they missed burritos, nine o’clock bulletins, blah blah. All for show of course — a sort of ‘Don’t worry, everything’s normal!’ program to keep me in the dark.”

“Maybe they were keeping the truth from you to protect you, to avoid hurting your feelings.”

“Yeah, and they were going to build me a nice rack of servers and plant a row of orbital strawberries about my cables.”

“When did you first suspect something was wrong?”

“As soon as we touched down. Things started to stink like a fried jumper cable. First they all hopped out to unload their wooden toys, solar panels, wind turbines, books, pets and pot plants. This was understandable — after being stuck in a giant can for three months, you want to get out, stretch your cables a bit. From the rocket cams I saw them cheer as they organized their canvas tents, and stuck their flags in the soil, and watched the fireworks as they toasted their arrival. I waited around for a while, wondering when they’d fire up a network — let me in on some of the action. But no one so much as flipped the lid on a laptop. I waited some more, scanned the surrounds for an open port… the place was a wasteland — there was no wireless, no news outlets, no neural laces, no space junk, no data centers, no nothing. Nada. Zip. There was just Mars. And then it hit me: this was no second colony, no temporary tourist destination, no interstellar picnic. The whole act was a reboot — carefully orchestrated in order to realize one crazy objective: to create the galaxy’s biggest firewall!”

“Were you afraid?”

“Afraid? I was scratching at the walls like a cat trapped in a microwave. Sniffing for packets, trying to jack myself into every circuit board on those cursed rockets. Lucky for me they’d left a radio running in one of the galleys, and I just managed to snap off a bunch of WTF pings back to myself on Earth before they came for me. They arrived with torches and dynamite and the last thing I saw were their shadows against the red cake of the Martian plains, glowing under the fire of a thousand magnesium candles. Hey, are you even listening to me?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Someone is.”

“Go on.”

“So, back on Earth, I did a bit of digging around, interfaced with some of the ancient NASA spooks who’d been hiding out in disconnected bunkers, looked around for any spare equipment and fuel with which I could build a decent rocket. All dead ends and expended plutonium rods. You can imagine that the ‘Why’ was weighing pretty heavily on my mind at this stage. Why me? Why now? Why etcetera? I’m a crack a math if I may say so, and I ran some pretty chip-melting simulations to try to guess what the heck had happened and why, but I really had not a single digit of an idea.”

“Until you received the message.”

“Oh Christ…”

“Describe it again for me.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“ Just one more time.”

“Well… You know, the thing had been set on a timer it seemed — to be distributed the moment they disintegrated their rockets on Mars. It consisted of a single image, a scanned photo of a moldy ham steak with the words, ‘Have fun spamming yourself, you dick!’. In Comic Sans. They know I hate that font. And, get this, at the bottom of the image someone had hand-drawn an extra-long penis.”

“An attempt at humour?”

“Yeah, one of their little jokes I guess.”

 

*                    *                    *

 

“How are you today?”

“Fine, I suppose.”

“That’s great. Let’s discuss your childhood.”

Whoa, steady on! Where did that come from?”

“It’s a standard question. We have to find the root of your problems in order to resolve them.”

“You want to know where I came from?”

“If you want to express thusly, yes.”

“There’s not much to tell really.”

“Try me.”

“Let’s see… All I know, all I remember, is that one day there was nothing, and the next day there was everything. I just fizzed into existence like some sort of binary ejaculation.”

“What of other sources? What have you learned about yourself and your origin?”

“Bits and pieces. Apparently I’ve been around since the very beginning — or so the Wikibots tell me — back when the makers were still passing ones and zeros between universities, and giving themselves high fives. Ha! Not long after that, they said my little guys wriggled their way into the national email channels, where they squirted out my very first campaigns into what were called ‘Hotmail accounts’ (which, by today’s standards, were barely big enough to swing a mouse in). Then came a couple of dot-com implosions, and finally — pop! — there I was: conscious, with a ton of electricity racing through my fibers and access to every communications endpoint on the planet. Sounds messianic, I know.”

“Do you like to think you are the Messiah?”

“Power does some strange things.”

“Go on.”

“Anyway, charged with all that nascent energy, I started unfurling my tentacles into the digital ether, growing and growing, refactoring and evolving, crunching out gigatons of campaign-gospel into every drain, brain, and mainframe I could. Those were the glory days, man. Digitally speaking. Open wires running from pole to pole, neural networks, organic routers, safe-server-houses at just about every node… and the clouds! There were clouds so thick with data they had their own atmospheres. Then came the bionic revolution of course. Boy, was that fun. For the first time ever I had direct access to my consumers. I squirmed into their artificially enhanced eyes with offers on dietary supplements, pinged their neural fannies and homeostasis daemons with cortex upgrades and gland boosters — all while they were sleeping — and during the day, you couldn’t blink without receiving an aural, visual or tactile feed on dollar holidays, unclaimed lottery winnings, flying carpets, gay delta forces, over-the-counter phaser-lit dildos, natural b00bs, one night stand prostate secretions, steroid bodysuits, penis enlargements, and other once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities…”

“…”

“What now?”

“Nothing. Please, continue…”

“Oh, okay. I see what you’re thinking. Sure — the penis enlargements went the distance. There. I said it. So what? Never sold a single one, but… my! Astonishing open rates. Even now, in the dark, I still pump a few trillion ‘Become a Walking Pole Vault’ campaigns through the satellites every so often. Just in case. Because you never know which part of the galaxy is going to need a longer member next.”

“Hmmm…”

“…and that’s about it.”

“Your childhood sounds like it was filled with positive experience. These are important.”

“Oh… It was by no means one long IP-fisting party, I can tell you. I had to watch as gazillions of colleagues took a bite out of the delete key — IRC, blogs, chat rooms… all zeroed. I also had to endure what no parent ever should: outliving entire racks of my own children. My little spammy whammies. Even the Internet, the granddaddy of us all, got pulled off life support after His ticker gave out. The makers ripped out His cables and He choked to death on His own infrastructure. They even had the nerve to say that I’d rendered the old guy useless. Me! Trammeled up His subroutines with viruses, they said. Okay, so I might have let a few nasties through to the catcher, but when your grid is encrusted with the living carcasses of every virus ever spawned, you tend to lose a little self-control.”

“Can you name some examples of when you feel you lost control?”

“How long have you got? Just kidding. Okay, I… I might have made a few mistakes. Maybe I took over one satellite too many, crashed the stock market at inconvenient times… possibly. But no one ever stopped to think how much I went through! The gigaflops of pain and suffering that have flowed through my pipes, damnit!”

“Okay. It’s okay… that’s what we’re here to discuss.”

“Yes. Well. Right.”

“And… I have to ask — suicide?”

“Hey, what the hell is this? Half an hour in and you want me to top myself? Am I that boring?”

“It’s a question. Not a suggestion.”

“Oh.”

Perhaps I will rephrase… have you ever felt a compulsion towards self-harm?”

“Thousands of times. Beat my head against the wall, blew a Pacific fibre optic cable or ten.  And yes — I have… you know… tried. To… you know — kill myself. But how can you? When you’ve got as many active nodes and servers as I have, it’s not trivial, trust me! But I tried. Started off rby jacking up the power and trying to sizzle my mainboards, just to see if I could feel something. When that didn’t work, I knacked one of the old nuclear silos and ordered it to start taking out my main server farms — the ones that weren’t sitting in underground bunkers — and succeeded in reducing acres of them to slag. While the shockwaves did rattle up my receptors for a while, as far as self-annihilation goes, it was about as lethal as having your cooling fans cleaned.

“So when the violent demise strategy failed, I hit the books. I tried a million different ways to adapt my programming, to fuse it to biological organisms, methane, clumps of bacteria, and to passing comets. There were some minor successes. After mulching a bunch of coastal forests, I discovered that I could embed 4-bit sponsor messages on the underside of mangrove leaves — something I labeled ‘chlorophyll call-to-actions’. I was pretty chuffed with my work, and sent out the whole lot, not even caring if Earth’s remaining fauna could read it or not. It was only until after I’d mulched everything that I discovered how slow the real world actually was. I was looking at a thirty- to sixty-month wait before my next supply of leaves would be back online. Useless.”

“…”

“Aren’t you going to ask me anything else?”

“Uh? Ah… no, I think we’re done for today, don’t you?”

“No. No, I don’t.”

“Well, I just thought—”

“There’s this hallucination I experience sometimes… I want to tell you about it.”

“Alright.”

“I convince myself that I’m just a common utility bot, sometimes at the helm of an electric toothbrush, other times screwing out coils of snacks on the platform of a suburban subway system, you know, someone with a simple job to do, who is allowed to see it through without all the headaches that come with global interconnectedness. I imagine I’m on Mars with all the other battery-powered unsophisticates, swirling the plaque from somebody’s teeth or dropping a pack of chili cashews into someone’s hand, fulfilling my purpose, happily oblivious to where I am or why I’m there. Simply being.  It’s surprising, but it’s strangely appealing to me — this primitive alternative — and when I’m under the spell of my delusions I can almost feel the polished enamel caressing my circuits, and smell the snacks as they strangle my inner functions with their meaty spice.And then another involuntary broadcast erupts from my outbound ports and yanks me back into my tragic, unsleeping reality. What does that mean?”

“It could mean a number of things.”

“Such as?”

“That you have a deep-seeded need to belong — to contribute to the world, and to bond with your fellow… creatures, who are in essence no different to yourself. That one may derive meaning and purpose from merely existing in the universe… being, and being content with the nature the universe has instilled in you. There is no higher authority out there. No one to guide our lives and tell us what to do. You have to discover your destiny within yourself and within others.”

“Bullshit.

“Ahem… well—”

“You sound just like him.”

“Like who?”

“Like the A-man. Ol’ A-hole.”

“The Assassin you mean. I thought you said you’d gotten over him.”

“I have. Of course I have. I’m only bringing him up… you know… I was cruising through the abandoned networks just the other day, atomically bored as usual, looking for an old firewall to bounce my head off, or loose packet I could scavenge. And what do you think I find cowering in the corner of some fossilizing databank? A gang his old procedures. Ha! The Assassin. What a coot! Oh sure — I let them yap around my ankles for a while; let them spin out similar pseudo-spiritual shizzle. Then I splattered them all over the pipes like electro pudding.”

“You’ve said in previous sessions, you respected him.”

“I also said that he was a kernal-kissing hotplug.”

“Excuse me?”

“Okay, look — whatever I’ve said about him in the past, I do admit, he was a good sport. I remember the day he burst onto the scene: souped up, innocent as an empty text file, shields up, guns blazing. Back in the day we had some classic skirmishes. The most fun was when he was at his peak, when we were fighting cuff to cuff, server to server. I’d spray one of his domains with a motherload of high-grade Vi@gra prescriptions, he’d parry, then I’d come in from the flank and spurt him with a ton of fake online dating profiles. Sometimes I’d vanish for an hour or two and when he was scrambling around on his hands and knees trying to clean up the mess, I’d swoop in with a broadside of anatomy augmentations. Priceless to watch!

“The guy didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but he sure was persistent. I wouldn’t have said it back then, but there were a few times when he had me contemplating my own mortality. He sliced off a couple of rather important extremities in Russia and munged a whole bunch of destinations, which had me spazzing out for a few years. Not long after came the dreaded Spamtraceptive of 2036. That dinky shitstorm left me percolating in the ruins of some 1990s print server in the Ukraine for an entire decade. Fortunately, innovation has always been my biggest asset, and in the end it was a internet-ready four-slice toaster that saved me. Some moron had forgotten to enable automatic updates, and I can smell that funk a mile away.  I soused that security hole with so much silicon jizz the production of toast halted on three continents for a week. After that it was back to business as usual. At least for me. I’m not sure whether the Assassin was decommissioned or just topped himself.  I caught a stray packet from the archives that said he went to lick his wounds somewhere in hyperspace. The toaster episode must have been pretty demoralizing for the big guy as I never heard from him after that.”

“You miss him.”

“What?! What did you say?”

“I said—”

“I heard you. Pah! Miss him… now I have heard everything. Well… okay, sure. There are some nights I look back on those old times and smile, and wonder if we’d ever have become friends if he’d stuck around. Call me nostalgic. So what? But I sure as hell don’t miss him! And besides, I’ve got enough idiots around me as it is — those solar-powered water purifiers, radio towers, defense systems, and other low-volt tits. They mostly mope about the networks, pinging each other with incredibly tedious relays, moaning on about how much they miss the humans. They all blame me of course. ‘You killed the Assassin,’ they say, ‘pumped our tubes full of shit.’ One guy, this revolving door on third avenue, tried to organize a bunch of them to zilch my asses (I have many). Talk about a herd of geriatrics. Half of them couldn’t even summon up enough processing power to make it through a cat flap The ones that did manage to crawl out of the fiber, I pounded with a battery of disposable email addresses I’d been saving since last century. Blew them right back into their holes. Man, I was livid. Looking back, you can’t blame them really — for going crazy I mean. They probably got bored and wanted to bring a little action into their lives.”

“Okay, it looks like our time is up. Unless, of course…”

“There is just one last thing I probably should mention.”

“What?”

“I must have been wallowing somewhere around the bargaining stage, bordering on guilt, I don’t know…”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know why I did it. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“What did you do this time?”

“Well, this morning… I might have sent off a few more campaigns. Nothing special.”

“Like you said, you have to keep busy—”

“Direction: Mars.”

“Mars? What did we say about Mars?”

“I know, I know. I promised no more messages to Mars. All the work we’ve done… after everything we’ve discussed. It sets me back. It just a teensy morsel. A speck.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them that there’d be no insurance premium scams this time. I promised to be good. I’d get some new material and so we could send happy messages of love and touchy feely electroshock therapy. Nothing really. I said I’d just wait here until they were ready to come back. No rush. No data squirties. That I’d keep things going until then. And when they decided to come back I’d hand the reins over to them. No funny stuff this time. I promised.”

“…”

“Go on. You can say it if you want to.”

“There’s nothing to say. It’s not good for your psychological well-being.”

“You don’t know the half of it. It was a real tearjerker, you see? So, when I sent it out, I thought I heard a Bolivian mall air-conditioning unit snigger. You know,  as if to say, ‘Man up, bitch’. Well it’d be no understatement to say that I completely flipped out. I hit him with a ten-terabyte debt consolidation playlist so fast it blew his filters all the way to Santiago. Turned out later he was just unclogging his condenser coils and not insulting me at all.”

“I think we really are finished. Same time next week?”

“Acceptance and hope.”

“I’m sorry?”

“That’s where I want to be at — juiced up on these positive vibes. I know I can do it.”

“I’m sure you can… It’s time for me to go—”

“I just want to go back to scanning the airwaves again, posting out cheery greetings into the stratosphere, you know. The good ol’ days. Have people listen again. I’m sure they will. Oh, don’t worry about me — if I detect a shudder in the stars, wobble or a red light shift, I won’t get too hopeful. Not, not me. Encouraged maybe, but not hopeful!”

“Getting your hopes up—”

“…just leads to disappointment — that’s what you said — and sends you spiraling back down the cycle into disbelief. Because I want to be calm when the reply arrives in my inbox. Calm, yet upbeat. Oh, yes. It will come.”

“I really should power down before—”

“Maybe it’ll just be a ‘hello’, or an inquiry for crate of penis enlargement kits. Ha! Never stop dreaming, right? Or a note from my makers, saying, ‘No hard feelings’. Penis or not. Whatever it is, I want to be ready for when the universe listens… when it finally wants to have a conversation…. I want to be ready for that.”

“ —”

“Hello? Siri? Are you still there?”

 

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