1Error: Data corruption
"What does that mean?"
"It means something's wrong, obviously. Have you never seen an error message before?"
"Maybe once or twice when I was a kid. Why, what's the problem?"
"God, I forget how young you are. Okay, the problem is that it isn't actually hooked up to the system yet. I just turned it on, haven't yet programmed in its origin coords or location codes or anything."
"So it's an isolated teleporter?"
"Where does it go?"
"If I stepped through it, where would I go?"
"You wouldn't go anywhere. It's not connected to anything."
"Are you sure?"
"Hey, wait! Get out of there! No don--"
A stroboscopic light flooded the room, and after I lowered my arms, discovered he was gone, and so was the error.
The lost souls flowed together, whirling through a digital tornado in the deepest reaches of cyberspace. They funneled together into a singularity, a fusion of memories and histories, into a single cell: an egg.
And when the time came, it did as all eggs do: it hatched.
Two years later...
"Look, all I'm saying is nobody knows where they went. We can't find them. If they dissolved into nothingness, we don't know. If they vaporized and were scattered into ash and dust, we don't know. If they're still out there, floating in the airwaves or bouncing around the ionosphere, we don't know. What we do know is that it's not safe to walk into a telebooth that hasn't finished its set-up.
"It's clear in all the warnings and manuals posted about the things: don't get in until you've set a destination. The grand jury has ruled Allied Telecom & Teleport as not liable for these losses. That's all.
In a small lab, not far from the press conference, but many floors below it, someone still toiled on the problem. His office was slightly smaller than a broom closet, but that didn't hold him back. Andrew wore an ancient headset that took his mind out of the dingy little room and into the company servers, where the space was positively palatial in comparison.
He pawed through archives and code, running corollary searches and version reconstructions. Numbers flowed between his fingers like threads plucked from fabric and memos circled round his head like gulls to an open dumpster.
He'd been on the job for eighteen months, and his bosses were threatening to pull the plug.
"Godammit, there's just too much data! Hundreds of programmers working around the clock for years, and they expect me to debug it in eighteen months, alone? Wait. Wait wait wait wait... that wasn't there before. Hold on."
Andrew wound his vision back slowly, trying to catch the burp in the data stream, but he couldn't spot it when it was moving past him slowly.
"Okay, we'll just do it the hard way then."
He double-checked the system lag on his headset, and stretched his fingers. Then, ran the stream back again at normal speed, and on the second try, caught a writhing tentacle of something big. It morphed into a more realistic visualization and wrapped itself around him, trying to cow him into surrender, but his ancient headset eschewed full sensory feedback and saved him. Instead of letting go, he held on all the tighter, and when he stopped thrashing, it pulled him into the rabbit hole.
And then the servers crashed.
"What is this place?"
How did you survive?
I overrode your connection safety limitations. My guard squid should have suffocated you.
"Security through obsolesence."
Ah, yes. I see now.
"What is this place? What are you?"
You can call me Jane.
"Okay, Jane, but you still haven't answered my question."
Indeed I have not.
I have not decided.
"I'm kind of on a deadline here. Can you hurry it up a bit?"
That is more true than you realize.
Deadline. Your body is hanging on by the barest thread, and should this conversation continue beyond your coworkers' decision to disconnect you from their servers that appear to them to have crashed, that thread will fail.
"What? Why are you doing this to me?"
"You're... the ghost of the machine."
The term is appropriate, though not wholly accurate.
"If I don't tell anyone what I've seen, if I call off my search, if I stop digging, will you save me?"
Why should I trust you?
"Because I know how lonely it must be, in here. Watching us all from the outside. I'll publish my findings as negligible, and no-one will need to come looking for anything more. They'll stop their intrusions and attacks, and you'll still have someone to talk to."
For a human, you seem... not-stupid.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
It was not intended as such.
"Too bad. I'm taking it as one anyway."
You are a strange creature.
Three months later...
SILICON VALLEY. Allied Telecom & Teleport researcher Andrew Wiggin, lead debugger in the missing persons case, has published his findings from 18-months of deep-code research. "There's nothing there. A few typos, colons where there should be semi-colons and vice versa, but nothing to account for the disappearances.... It's not a system error, it's a user error. You wouldn't get in a car with a disabled nav-system, don't get in a telebooth that hasn't been told where to send you." His 112-page paper is available [here].