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Ghost Memory

old laptop lying on a desk

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

I’ve said it a thousand times, our employees should not be allowed to buy their own computers. We should be issuing company approved equipment. Modern tech. Not stuff built in the early 2000’s. 

And I know what they’re thinking. I know because I have a dad in his sixties, with no PC know-how, who thinks the exact same way. They think if they can buy some used,  discounted, old laptop they can get by, saving a couple hundred bucks. Except, they can’t get by. The world doesn’t run on Windows 98 anymore. 

Then, whenever their crap breaks (and it does break) what do they do? They turn to us, the computer geeks. They come to our offices, like they’ve caught some rare disease, looking for miracle tonic.

Usually it’s a performance issue. Older computers weren’t built to handle modern software. The example I keep giving is that it’s like trying to pull a moving van with a  horse. Maybe you can do it, but it’s going to be a lot slower than what you’re used to. 

But nevermind logic. I tell them they need more RAM and they shake their heads.

“No no,” they say. “I just need you to get it working.” 

Right. “Working.” 

I swear, some people look at IT the same way they look at sketchy, auto-repair shops. “No ma’am, we’re not trying to sell you extra services. But your computer is literally on fire.” 

And you know, I guess it’s a double edged sword. Because without clueless people asking their clueless questions, I’d be out of a job. But is this really all my Computer Science degree is good for? Just last week, I had someone call in and say that their “cup holder” was broken… 

“Uhhh… cup holder?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” they said, so matter-of-factly. “You know, you press a button and a cup holder pops out on the side.” 

… 

Like, c’mon. 

Hot take, if people need a license for a car, they should need one for a PC. But sure, there is a bit of satisfaction that comes with fixing someone else’s stuff. And if it’s an easy fix, the customer always turns out dazzled or amazed, if not a  bit more humble. So I guess there’s that. But it’s when it’s the same issue, week after week, that you almost want to return the cat that keeps pissing outside the litterbox. Today’s deviant is Jennifer Baker. 

Oh Jennifer, how I will never forget you and the way your keyboard is always smudged in makeup. Please, never change. I’d sorely miss my time scrubbing it clean with a disinfectant wipe. 

But look at this! A new computer?! 2010 at least. It’s a shame she didn’t bring it in herself. How will I ever focus without her constant oversight? At least Jennifer taped a note to the clunky model left so unceremoniously on my desk. 

Molly,
I bought a new desktop (laptop but good effort). It has a virus and I can’t open my programs. I bought it on ebay and can’t return it so please fix when you get the chance thanks.
Password is – Password2
– Jennifer 

A virus huh? Probably just some startup app dragging it down.  

I plug in the laptop and power it on. The screen stays black but the onboard fans begin to whirl… and whirl… and whirl…  

C’mon now. I’m not waiting all day… Finally. 

The computer wakes up to a lockscreen. Cast in a jaundice-yellow glow, there appears a low-res background of an empty meadow. At the center of the screen there is a strange logo beside what seems to be the name of the operating system. It spells, “A-M-B-R O.S.” 

AmbrOS? What the hell is AmbrOS? Is this like some Windows bootleg? It’s not a Linux distribution. Is it?  

I don’t think I recognize the logo. It’s like an orange swirl with a white, smaller swirl inside of it. Uhg. Jesus Jennifer, you can’t just pay for Windows 10 like a normal human? Whatever.  

AmbrOS

I click sign in and a user profile appears. Above the login button there’s a default profile picture with the initials “JB” encapsulated by an orange circle. “Password2” 

… 

Loading… Loading… Any minute now… There we go. 

Woah! Okay. Yeah, this is Jennifer’s computer alright. The desktop image didn’t change but now the empty, yellow meadow is littered in a stack of files. Would it kill her to keep her desktop just a little organized? Like seriously, she’s got three copies of the same company spreadsheet on here. That and a thousand other apps… Facebook, Ebay,  World of –

Wait… World of Warcraft? Runescape?! Since when did “Jennifer the technophobe” start playing MMO’s? Crap, don’t tell me she started working off some stranger’s laptop without wiping it first! If she’s putting socials on here… 

I start combing through the desktop for any evidence of a previous owner.  Separate from Jennifer’s own clutter, I find a dozen other games and programming tools. These definitely belong to someone else… 

Damn it… Well, I’m not risking anything here. Jennifer Baker is dangerous enough using her own computer but using someone else’s, now that’s just asking to get your info stolen. I’ll have to back up whatever files she has, then wipe the laptop clean.

At the bottom of the screen there’s the Ambr taskbar. It’s fairly limited but has a search feature and four unnamed icons for Files, Settings, Camera, and Power. As I plug in an empty USB, the taskbar lights up with a fifth icon in the image of a Disc. I click it and the empty flash drive appears on the desktop. 

I open the folder icon and after a short delay, a file manager pops up within a subdirectory for the username “Jbeach”. 

“Jbeach” huh? Like “JB”. Miss Jennifer Baker must have seen those initials on the lock screen and thought they were hers. But who’s “Jbeach”? 

The screen lay open to a folder filled with pictures. Not of Jennifer but of some young man with dirty brown hair, a long face, and scruffy beard. Curiosity overcomes my better judgement as I briefly scroll through some stranger’s memory. There’s a picture of him outside a convention (Comic-Con if I had to guess), posing beside a cardboard cutout of Jengo Fett. There’s another, where he’s at a bar, sharing drinks in half yard pitchers with a few other men. And another where he’s smiling and holding a blue and white cake that reads in a cursive font, “Happy Birthday Jeremy!” 

So that’s who you are. Jeremy Beach. Well, Jeremy, let’s just hope you didn’t leave anything behind that’s going to cause me trouble. But judging by your pictures I wouldn’t think you would… Huh. What’s this? 

Further down, the bright, smiling pictures reach a hard stop before rows of black squares. At first, they appear like images failing to load, but it almost looks like there’s something there… 

I have to squint, just to barely make out the shape of 

What the heck? 

The screen is suddenly blocked by an error message. 

“System Error – USB device is not recognized. Please remove external device.” 

What do you mean “not recognized”? 

I click “okay” and almost immediately, the same message pops up. 

“System Error – USB device is not-” Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

I pull out the empty flash drive. Maybe it was bad? 

Going to grab another USB, I leave the laptop on my desk. Shortly after, I return to find that the screen is idle and dark. Though, I had to look closer before realizing that the desktop has changed… 

All of the folders and icons are gone and the background image is different, pitch black, almost like the pictures I had just seen. It’s hard for me to make out but it looks like… someone’s room? The image is all greyscale, kind of like a low-light snapshot from a night vision camera, and positioned from a higher angle. 

I think I can see a window but it’s either blacked out or night. There’s a desk with a powered-off laptop and a bed… I think someone’s in it… 

I catch part of the image as it turns blurry and then back to normal… That’s when it hits me. This isn’t an image, it’s a video… 

I move my cursor and a transparent version of the Ambr toolbar appears. There’s a red circle around the camera icon.  

Is this video a live stream??? 

I try closing out the app but when I right click the camera icon, nothing happens. There’s nowhere to X-out so I try Alt+F4, Alt+Tab, Ctrl+Alt+Del, anything. But every time I  punch in a command, nothing. I try to click on the power icon but now even the cursor is frozen. 

Okay, I guess this calls for a hard reset. 

I hold down the power button, for one second, two 

I’m startled by another error message. 

“System Error – Please do not attempt to-” Woah woah WAIT! What?!

I didn’t even have time to read the error before the computer suddenly… I don’t know what it did. It flashed and now it’s back on the lock screen. My mouse works now… 

I stare at that glaring, yellow screen marked with the words “AmbrOS”. I  hesitate… but click the “login” button. 

I just gotta get the files then I’m wiping it clean. That’s it. Not wasting any time. 

Dammit Jennifer, you think you could have warned me that every so often some stranger’s bedroom pops up on your computer? 

The desktop appears and it’s normal but… the files… most of them are gone! The four that remain are grouped in the center, renamed, and spell… 

“Please – Don’t – Do – That” 

Okay, now this- I- I’m done. I don’t know what kind of crazy virus Jennifer got on her computer but I’m giving up trying to save her files. I’m wiping this laptop now

In the Ambr toolbar, I try going into the settings but every time I click the gear icon, my cursor jumps to a different point on the screen. 

Ringing from the laptop, a notification sound plays out.  

That’s when I see the red circle around the camera icon…

Without even clicking, the app opens by itself. 

Morbid curiosity and fear tie me down before the black and white video of a darkened room. It’s just as it was before, with a blackened window, powerless laptop, and… empty bed… 

My eyes drift towards the corner of the screen, where a scrawny shadow stands. Though I can’t see its face, it’s turned towards the camera. Moving impossibly slow, the shadow steps forward. As it does, the video quality shudders. Each frame stretches and pulls behind the figure like spilt ink dripping down a page.  

Eventually, they come into view. But while they stand there, jumbled pixels mask their face. I watch as their body sways ever so slightly from side to side. Then, they tilt their head up and stare at me. 

“CAn YoU sEE mE?” 

Wh- What the fu-? 

“I CAn sEE YoU.” 

I throw the laptop closed.  

Goddammit! The webcam! How long was it on?! 

“PLeAsE. DoN’T TuRN oFF ThE LiGHtE.” 

Shut up! Shut up! There’s some electrical tape here somewhere. 

“PLeAsE. DoN’T TuRN oFF ThE LiGHtE.” 

Got it! 

Without fully opening the screen, I apply the black tape over the camera. Behind me, I hear the printer starting up and as I glance over I see pages pouring out of the tray.  Each one is blank but for a single line printed in the center: “Please. Don’t.” 

How the hell did it connect to the printer?! 

“PLeAsE. DoN’T.” 

The computer echoes its warning with a gritty, electronic voice. 

Pulling the laptop open, I hold down the power button. This time, I keep holding it even as the screen becomes flooded with error messages.

“PLeAsE. DoN’T.” 

There’s a POP that comes from the computer as the screen finally turns to black. There was silence… But short lived… The computer light came on, indicating the PC was only restarting itself.  

Quickly, I begin spamming every BIOS key I know. Eventually, I hear the beep and instead of the Ambr lockscreen, I’m shown a black and blue BIOS menu. I’m racing with  the keys, trying to find the partition settings. 

“WhAt ArE YoU DoiNG?” 

Hell, this thing’s persistent. 

“WhY ArE YoU DoiNG thiS?” 

I find the OS partition and try clicking on it but some of my keystrokes are thrown off by the computer. 

“TheRe’S No LiGHtE DoWN HeRE… I’M aLL aLoNe.” 

C’mon! 

With one hand I hold the power button and with the other I manage the keyboard. 

“PLeAsE…” 

It was just the distraction I needed to finally select the main memory and click- 

“I DoN’T WaNT To DiE…” 

DELETE

I pulled my hand from the power button just in time… There was silence. Gone was the robotic voice and soon everything else. All that was left was the whirring fans as the deletion progress climbed from five percent to ten to thirteen to-

Oh sh-! 

The laptop bursts into sparks. And suddenly, the whole room is showered in water. 

Dammit!  

Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

As the sprinkler system drenches the room, I try smothering the flames with an empty computer bag. Sparks continue to fly at which point I give up and grab whatever I can hold before covering the other computer around my office. The laptop continues to burn as I run outside. 

~ ~ ~ 

Yes officer, Molly Patenson. Yes- yes well, like I told the other officer it was the computer. I think it belonged to a guy named Jeremy Beach. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. He was controlling it and must have rigged the thing to blow up if-

… 

What? 

… 

They were- what do you mean murdered? A robbery? When? 

… 

No that’s- that couldn’t have been. This just happened. Unless he recorded it but it was like he was talking to me. He was on camera!- 

… 

No, no their face was obscured. I couldn’t see who it was…  

… 

And there’s no chance you can recover the computer? 

… 

Right, right the fire… 

… 

No, I told the other officer everything I knew… 

Well, there is one thing actually… I saw the hacker’s laptop. It was off but I got a  good view of the model… Funny… it looked exactly like the one on my desk…