Spirit of the New Machine
William E. Allendorf
Property of Black Hole Productions and William E. Allendorf, 1985
All Rights Reserved
There are very few times for a normal man when the frail web of
quiet constancies that make up his life are shaken by the magic
of what really is. There is a darkness in our theatre. We sit
passively in the seat and watch one act after another performed
in staleness. Still, one day we hope that the magician or the
hypnotist, the pickpocket or the mind reader, will point us out
and beckon to the stage.
--W. Von Schmitt
from Of Passing Winds
and Fairing Sons
Gwyllam Burton was about as odd a man as you would ever meet, but
data processing has always attracted the intelligent geeks of the
world. Gwyllam was a grunt programmer when I came on board as
coordinator of a small conversion project in a sleepy little shop
in Dayton, Ohio. He just sat through the staff meetings, wrote
his code, and never spoke much to anyone, except when he turned
in his time sheet each week. On those occasions, he would usually
tell me some helpful information about a fix to the operating
system-- a better way of handling this or that--that always
reminded me that Gwyllam Burton had a keen insight into the
computer system we were using.
Conversions are usually tough nuts to crack. The client never
wants anything of substance changed. Changing operating systems
or database packages is a lot like dropping a new engine into
your car: everything is supposed to work the same only better.
On this Dayton project, we were helping a small defense
contractor migrate his cost accounting and payroll from a cranky
old Burroughs machine to a network of mini computers. I can't
talk about what it was that they were making at that little
factory on the edge of Wright Patterson A.F.B., home of the
Strategic Air Command and the mystical Hanger 18. It was two
little doo-dads that I'll refer to as stealth toilet seats and
particle-beam coffee makers. The two items weren't nearly as
light-hearted as that; the names just made them easier for us to
stomach while we were on the project.
The system used to account for labor and material was split so
that the toilet seats and coffee makers were accounted for
separately. Each contract had its own peculiar way of handling
things, so whatever we did, we had to do it twice. Gwyllam was
on toilet seats, and a skinny hard-nosed technocrat named
Weinstein programmed the coffee maker side. There was constant
tension between the two. Gwyllam had a salt-of-the-Earth kind of
mellowness that allowed him to pull placidly in the harness of
his work ethic. Weinstein was a firm believer in unionization,
socialization and the two-joint coffee break. Weinstein let
Gwyllam do all the hard thinking, and then waited to tear him
down when it did not fit into his plans. Gwyllam would always
just shrug and turn in his work with whatever changes Weinstein
"Why didn't you stick up for your file layout?" I asked Gwyllam
one morning. "This one is really poor."
"I guess I didn't realize Weinstein had started work on his side
of the system. It makes no difference--just a few extra MOVE
"But Weinstein should not have started work without confirming
this layout with you."
"Weinstein is too behind right now, so there is no sense in
making him make changes to fit my file," he said. "I'll just
massage my data around until it fits his scheme. It's all the
"Weinstein is behind because he does not think," I said. "You
"That is how Weinstein gets his job done," Gwyllam said. "So that
is the way the system will be done."
I wanted to get mad at Gwyllam for not nailing Weinstein on his
mistakes, but Gwyllam was not to blame. Weinstein had been in
the business for too long, and he knew intuitively when he could
turn off his mind and let the job get done on inertia. That was
what separated them as programmers from me as a project manager.
Gwyllam would never rise above coding programs because he backed
off any human problem. Weinstein was a goldbrick. It was up to
me to size them up and get as much out of the mixture as
possible. This was a tight fix-bidded meat grinder contract, not
a professional enrichment seminar. A system can be Weinstein-ed
to death, but I had Gwyllam to pick up the slack and make sure it
all got done.
After three months of this tension, I was well on top of it. The
marketing manager was pulling me off in the afternoons to go
pitch the Middletown steelworks. The summer I had left behind
when I took the assignment had given away to late fall. It
surprised me to be out on the road and deal with the cold rains
that drench the Miami Valley from November until April.
One particularly grey morning, I blew into work early to get some
reports cleaned up. I was passing by the programmers' offices
when I noticed Gwyllam. His face was turned away from the door.
All I could see was his platinum hair hanging all shaggy over his
collar. He was shaking his fist in a jerky rythmnic fashion in
front of his tube. Then he stopped, picked up a cup of coffee
and poured it on his slacks. It must have been hot, for he threw
the cup down so the remainder of the coffee went all over a stack
of listings. He jumped up and brushed the coffee off his pants.
I was stunned.
I would have just made a mental note and turned away, but Gwyllam
saw me and announced, "I guess it's Okay. They're dark pants
"Did you burn yourself bad?" I asked.
"No,uh, the coffee had been sitting there awhile."
I had seen programmers crack before. We had one take a shotgun
into the men's room in Buffalo--blew out the mirrors and then
blew off his own head. He'd just been some old Vet whose wife
left him for a Chinese delivery man. Those guys and the alkies
are easy to spot. Gwyllam was cool-- a bit quiet--but cool. I
wondered if this was the kind that guy that is nice all his life
and then goes up in somebody's bell tower with a rifle. That was
a hell of a thought. He was good programmer though, and I needed
him in one piece and out of jail if I was going to bring this
conversion in on time, so after finishing the reports, I drifted
on back to Gwyllam's office. Gwyllam was busy coding away on a
month-end reconciliation program.
"Hey," I said, as I was always a little afraid to use his name.
"What say we go tip a few at Friday's tonight?"
Gwyllam finished a line and then, without looking up, said, "Is
Weinstein going along."
"Weinstein is too much above us for that," I said. "He can go
home and snort coke with his old lady." I could see Gwyllam's
smile in his reflection from the tube.
"Weinstein is a trip," he answered.
I got out of Middletown late in the afternoon and drove back up
to Dayton. Gwyllam was working when I came in a half hour or so
after quitting time. We headed on out to Friday's, a franchised
theme bar with lots of free food.
"So what kind of name is Gwyllam?" I asked after my fourth beer
and about as many plates of nachos.
"It's Welsh." he answered. He sipped on his scotch and added, "
Grandpa was a coal miner. When they closed the pit, he picked up
the family and moved to Kentucky."
"That's a pretty big leap," I said.
"The coal is just as dirty." he said.
"But that doesn't explain you." I said, looking over his tall,
powerful frame. His hair and skin were like the sun on snow--
almost fluorescing under the black light that reflected on him
from the stage. He had a sophistication, a proud elegance, that
Weinstein was always taking for haughtiness. That night, that
elegance appeared to me as a special knowing, as though he could
feel each mind in the bar, and still pick mine out and see what
was inside. I was probably too drunk already, but before he
could answer me, I flagged over a waitress and ordered another
"No, it doesn't." he said. "Grandma was the real power in the
family. She cut Grandpa off after two kids. She raised one to die
in Nam, and my mother got sent away to school and then to Miami
University. Ma took a husband who was going for is masters in
horticulture, and then moved back to the coal country. Ma and Pa
are taking over all the unworkable land in the county growing
hydroponic tomatoes. They build greenhouses over the limestone
caves. They can pump the air out to keep the tomatoes at a
constant temperature, and the water is just the right pH.
They're getting into mushrooms too, but they've got a bacteria
"That still doesn't explain you." I said.
"Maybe you should ask questions," he answered.
"Why did you pour a cup of coffee all over yourself?" I shot
There was a cold silence. I felt it creep down my throat with
the beer. I had put him on spot, but I was the one getting
jumpy. Looking at that geek just staring me down and sipping
scotch was making me weird. He just smiled and looked at me, and
his eyes asked me if I wanted to withdraw the question.
"No, " I said. "Why did you do it? I've got a project to finish,
and I don't need anyone going wacko on me."
"I'll get your project done," he said.
"So what gives?"
"I'm quite certain you don't want to know."
"Try me," I answered.
"All right," he said. He downed the last half of his drink and
then turned around on his stool to face me squarely. "I don't
expect you to believe this, but I have come to the conclusion
that something is tampering with the system."
"Who? Weinstein? The client? You better not say that around the
site if you think it is. We could all get fired if you don't
have proof," I said. It was too close to finishing the project to
let things queer.
"If I thought it was one of them," he reassured. "I would have
had proof by now. What I am talking about goes far beyond that."
"Look," I said, "I'm tired of guessing. Just spit it out."
"I think the system is infected with BMOS." he said.
"Not quite a 'what,' but not really much a 'who' either," Gwyllam
answered. "BMOS are beings from the lower realm. They feed off
"Well, they're getting a frigging overdose from me right now." I
"I don't expect you to believe me," he said.
Without boring the world with the six more beers and two hours of
arguing it took to convince me, we ended up back at the job site
around eleven that night. Gwyllam was at his tube, and I was
sitting up on top of the little mainframe that handled the
storage and telecommunications for the system.
Gwyllam showed me a stack of shredded tapes, a few botched
listings, and a couple of leaky pens. He told me to feel them,
whatever that meant. One of the pens was a pressure-fed ball-
point. Gwyllam showed me three leaky refills, all of which had
been left overnight on the little pencil ledge on the keyboard.
I asked him what it all added up to, and he kept coming up with
the same story about beings from another world that live off
"Just try to calm down," Gwyllam said. "What I am about to show
you will probably convince you."
He turned off all the lights in the office and closed the door.
The room was only lit by the light of the two video display tubes
and the indicators on the mainframe, looking like a little
apartment refrigerator in the corner. He then had me sit down in
a chair and talk to him, warning me not to look at the computer
We talked for a long while about nothing: schooling, childhood,
the computer business. He told me about growing up in the hills
of Kentucky, and I told him about life in a WASP ghetto in Upper
Suburbia. He was always getting beat up on for being pale and
funny looking. I was always catching it for wearing last year's
style of leisure wear. In a lot of ways, we had a lot in common.
"Can you believe it?" I said. "They knocked me down and broke my
bike, just 'cause my mother wouldn't let me have a Nehru shirt."
"Still bothers you, huh?"
"Damn right it does!" I said. "I blamed my Mom for it for years,
but then I caught myself running over it again, and I realized
what a pile of shit those friends of mine really were. What
really burn me is that I did the same exact thing to them!"
"Look at me," Gwyllam said. "Look right at me, and tell me what
you see in the corner of your eye."
"What, look over there?" I asked, pointing off to the side.
"No, don't look directly," he said.
I looked at him and tried to pay attention to what was going on
beside me. I immediately realized that the screen of Gwyllam's
tube was pulsating with an eerie glow. I was startled and I
turned and looked, but it was gone. I looked back at Gwyllam.
"What did you see?" he asked.
"Nothing." I replied. "I thought I saw something, but I must be
I did try again to look at Gwyllam and concentrate on what was in
my peripheral vision. As soon as my eyes settled, I could see
the glow again. This time, I kept looking at Gwyllam.
"What is that?" I asked.
"BMOS," he replied "But they are already beginning to fade.
While you were telling your story, though, they lit up the entire
room. You were very upset. They like you."
"Why didn't I see these BMOS?"
"You were paying attention to the story. You were back to being
ten years old again." I thought about that and realized that I
really had started feeling myself back in my old neighborhood,
feeling my skinned knees as I walked home crying with my Schwinn
Stingray all dented and lopsided.
"What's going on here?" I said.
"Look," Gwyllam said. "These beings are nothing new. My people
were dealing with them long before the Romans came. BMOS is just
the nickname I give them. It stands for 'Blue Meanies On System.'
They are actually a form of spirit that inhabited the huts of my
ancestors. They are like cockroaches, and just as they've got
cockroaches that live on electrical insulation, these like to
live in computers. They like the flavor of frustration that
programmers generate. They just sit there on the other side of
the screen slurping it up."
"Are they going to kill this project?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But there is something more important here."
"All I care about is-"
"Forget your precious project for a moment!" he snapped, and I
distinctly saw the screen beside him glimmer and fade. "Do you
realize what this factory makes? Do you realize what would
happen if these BMOS get into the circuitry of those toilet
"So what?" I said. "There will be plenty of frustration for them
to feed on once they get a taste of military life."
"They don't just sit there and soak it up." he said. "When they
are not getting enough, they go out and cause it. Look at these
pens! Look at these tapes! Look at all the foul-ups Weinstein
has been making lately. Can you imagine what will happen if we
give them access to the Strategic Air Command?"
I finally realized the gravity of the situation. All of a sudden
I had visions of Dr. Strangelove, General Jack Ripper, and
Colonel Bat Guano dealing with nuclear blackmail at the hands of
BMOS. Trigger happy generals I could live with; thrill seeking
bogeyman were a little bit beyond my threshold.
"Why don't they affect you?" I asked.
"They do, but I feed them frustration that does not impact on my
work." he said. "That is why I poor hot coffee on myself. That
is why I do all sorts of things to keep them happy and away from
my code. What's more, I can coax things out of them. If I'm
real cagey, I can trick them into showing me problems with the
operating system. I can beat my head against it a few times for
their pleasure, and then turn around and fix it. They're really
quite handy to have around if you know how to care for them." The
trick is to give them what they want. They are less intelligent
than dogs, and the only thing that governs them is their
bellies--fill their hunger and they will do anything for you.
"But the Air Force isn't going to know." I said, "And I can't
really see us sending out care and feeding instructions for BMOS
with our release tape. . . Jeeez! I just remembered. The Air
Force is going to be testing the telecommunications link next
week. Can they travel over phone lines?"
"Things have changed a lot since my Grandmothers pampered them
with soured milk and broken broomsticks," he said, "These are
high-tech spirits. They can probably jump from machine to
machine using the bad sectors on diskettes. My guess is that we
can't take a chance."
I told my bosses that we were having problems with the year-end
processing part of the system. That gave us an extra week or so
to figure out to get them out of the system. I thought of just
shutting the machine down, but Gwyllam said they lived
independently of the power supply. We finally decided that our
only hope was magic. Gwyllam had his grandmother Federal Express
some stuff from Kentucky. I watched him work day and night with
his spirit catchers and what-not. The BMOS retaliated by blowing
the power supply on the mainframe and trashing Weinstein's test
On the Tuesday of that next week, Gwyllam came into me and said
that he had all but given up. He had been sucked dry trying to
beat them. He looked drained too. His eyes were sunken, and his
hair hung limp on his white skin that had gone grey. He said he
was going to give it one more try, and then that would tell. If
he succeeded, he would not have enough strength to face them
again, but he could tell me of a way to get rid of them. I
didn't like the sound of all this, but Gwyllam persisted. I
closed the door to my office and gave him a hug, trying to give
him whatever strength and support I could. He left shortly after
that. I had been reading over the final draft of my development
phase report when Weinstein called me and said there had been a
terrible accident in Gwyllam's cubicle.
I ran up the back stairs, pushed past a couple of secretaries.
and all but made it from the firedoor to Gwyllam's office in one
leap. Weinstein grabbed me at the door and told me not to go in--
it wasn't pretty. I told him I had to, and asked him not to
bother me for a while. It would not be long before Weinstein
broke down and called security. I would have to work fast.
Gwyllam was slumped over his keyboard. The tube was blown.
Glass slivers were everywhere, but mostly in Gwyllam's face. I
pulled his head off the desk and looked; I wished I hadn't. In
Gwyllam's right hand was a small oaken rod, heavily engraved with
runes. There was also just enough mistletoe left on the floor to
make what passed as a garland. I knew what I had to do.
I bolted Gwyllam's office door and propped a chair under the knob
for good measure. Then I put the mistletoe around my head and
began shaking the stick at the operator's console. I tried to
think of all the weird Gaelic words Gwyllam used to say, but all
I could think of was "BMOS, Hear me."
I chanted that over and over. It fit the rhythm that I was using
to shake the stick, and the more I chanted it, the calmer I felt.
I knew the BMOS would not get me, and that they were afraid of
me, and that I ordering them out--not merely asking politely.
In a little while the console screen began to turn watery, and
melt. There was a chorus of tittering laughs, and I was no longer
in an office, but rather in a clearing of some great primeval
forest. Ground fog oozed all about. The scene was lit only by the
light of a greenish panel surrounded by a semi-solid ooze shaped
into a mound about the size of a compact car. It resembled an
altar made out of dung. Coarse graffiti was scrawled on its
sides so that it resembled a freshly poured sidewalk left
unattended. The panel set into the altar was brilliant, but I
could make out through the glare a vague definition of Gwyllam's
office on the other side of the panel. The world I was in was
lit by the light of the world I had left.
They were on me before I had any idea I was being watched. At
least half a dozen BMOS pulled me down an were drooling on me as
they held me. They were less than three feet tall, and colored
an outrageous shade of electric blue. Their gnarled bodies
looked dysfunctional with long arms, stubby legs, and a round
mouth meant for sucking. They were comically gruesome, but heavy.
Each one felt like a ton as they sat on me. They took turns
holding me; some would jump on, while others would leap up and
pull out tails that they would use to sting me. The tails were
long, limp and hairless, strongly resembling animated power
cords. The resemblance went further, for there was a knob on the
end, much like a plug. I watched when I could, and the little
buggers were forcing them into my body at various places on my
legs with their hands. Each time I felt a new one go in, I felt a
tingle, and then felt as though someone had taken a straw and
sucked out part of my strength. Each time this would happen, the
BMOS would undergo an orgasmic display of zeal and either jump or
be thrown off. They would land several feet away in a dazed
state, and then pick themselves up and try again. As I watched
myself being sucked dry, fights were beginning to erupt as some
BMOS were going for seconds and thirds while some had not had a
chance to get their first shot. They screamed in weird
gibberish, and would get up and beat themselves to show
While I was getting sapped in this way, I realized that I was
probably going to die in this other world if I did not do
something in a hurry. More were arriving all the time. The
more I fought with them, the worse I got. Gwyllam had said
something about that--something about giving in to them. My mind
I screamed in nervous excitement, "Ooooooooooo! that feels
wonderful! Tickle me more! Pleeeeeeease tickle me!" My voice
grated with a raw edge that frightened the BMOS and they flew
from me as though I had thrown them off. I stood up and felt how
weak and dizzy I was from the attack, but the BMOS were cowering.
I pointed at them, and a blue-white spark flew from my fingertip.
"If you want it, here it is!" I
boomed, and with that, I went down on my knees in front of them,
ripping my shirt and exposing my navel, which was glowing red and
pulsing with my breath and heartbeat. "Come on, you beasties!
Come and take it from me."
A titter went through the pile of BMOS. One little feisty bugger
took a cautious step towards me. A bigger one did not like it
and yanked the little one by the arm. Several of the big one's
cronies figured that he was going to get there first, and rushed
me. I grabbed one tail like a drunken whore and slammed it into
my navel. I tried with all my might to force every last ounce of
me through that tail, but instead of getting sucked dry, I felt
the life essence of the BMOS being drawn into me. I sucked as
much as I could, and when I felt a vacumn forming on the other
end, I ripped the tail out of my belly. The BMOS took off
explosively, like a balloon let go, only backwards. It hissed and
zig-zagged as it bloated then rose straight up into the air and
popped with a wet bang.
This seemed like great fun for the BMOS. They became frenzied
and crowded around. Each one let himself be sucked to complete
emptiness, and then allowed to inflate and explode. In no time, I
had destroyed several dozen BMOS in this way. It was great fun--
the petty destructive sadism we usually abandon with childhood
had gone wild within me. I found I could pull their legs and arms
off as I sucked them. They did not seem to care--each BMOS was
caught up in his own suicidal ecstasy.
And then I realized what I was doing. I was sucking the life out
of living things. I was brutally destroying them, and I was
loving it. A wave of revulsion gripped me as I reached for the
tail of the last living BMOS-- the last of a race older than
mine. Part of me wanted him, and part of me hated myself for
wanting. I tried to think of poor Gwyllam, killed by these
beasts. I tried to feel sincere hatred, but did no good. I had
the last little BMOS by the tail. I wavered as I fought over
whether or not to stick it in. I looked at him with compassion,
which only confused the BMOS. It whimpered, and tried to pull
away. I reacted by yanking the tail closer, and realized my duty
to the race of Man.
The little BMOS shrieked, and tore away from me. I pursued him
around the makeshift altar with the screen. He grew in power as
I pursued him, getting stronger and quicker. I leaped for him,
but he jumped high and landed on top of the altar. I landed in
the dirt, and rolled over. I saw the BMOS smile with
satisfaction, and I attempted to lunge for him. He was quick and
managed to dodge me and place his tail into own belly button.
There was an odd sound that was somewhere between a siphon going
dry and a firecracker going off. The BMOS laughed and schlurped
himself into another universe.
I was alone amid an altar to Chaos. the stinking remains of BMOS,
and a world that was nowhere. I thought about this for a moment
and then realized that I still had Gwyllam's magic stick in my
hand. I walked of to the altar and peered into the screen. I
could see the room, the tape racks, Gwyllam's corpse and the
blown tube. I wanted to be back there, but a pane of glass and a
universe blocked my way. I clutched the magic stick, closed my
eyes and wept, for I knew that even though I had saved my world,
the BMOS had defeated me.
They found me crying, perched on top of the tape rack, clutching
mistletoe and a small oak stick. I had electric blue goo all
over me that smelled terrible. I was placed under psychiatric
care, after it was decided that I had cracked when I had seen the
corpse. My bosses told the authorities about how I had discovered
one of my programmers in the men's room, missing his head. It
seemed like a plausible explanation. I ended up with a cute lady
therapist that asked me a lot of questions about my childhood and
playing with myself. They never did ask about the mistletoe, and
somebody really slipped up when samples of the goo were not sent
for analysis. I was finally given a clean bill of health and
terminated as a patient. The consulting firm paid for
everything. I now have a staff position with the home office in
Rochester, New York--better pay, but no subordinants, and a small
oaken staff and a sprig of mistletoe concealed in my brief case.