The demon did not have a face, but he was hideous. He did not have a
form, but he was potent. He did not have a name, but he was cursed by all. He was
malevolent, mischievous and callous. Young, old, rich, poor, brilliant or marginal, it did
not matter who were his victims. They existed solely for his pleasure and their pain was
Souls and bodies were not inhabited by him though he was initially a product of a spirit world. He had been shaped by one of the manifestations of perceived human brilliance, the computer. Dwelling inside the appropriately named web of cables and phone lines tenuously linking millions of these devices together, he thrived on creating as much havoc as possible. But not by causing such chaos as massive power outages or data erasures, though he was capable of these. Rather his pleasure came from intercepting then destroying human relationships, both fanciful and real, that had their genesis on the web.
Never resting, always attentive, the demon lurked in the dark recesses of his own making. With predatory skills honed by clear understanding of human motivations and the technology he had turned into his weapon, he had amassed a collection of wrecked lives that would shame even the most bloodthirsty conqueror.
On this Friday night he was particularly busy. Activity on the net was marked by a cumulative crescendo of clicking keyboards. Countless electronic impulses flashed the latest news, images from the great museums, and tracked financial transactions. But these did not interest the demon. His focus was strictly live chat and electronic mail. People who otherwise would have most likely never met would communicate their inmost thoughts, and especially in chat, often throw off behavioral restraints of their everyday lives.
But the demon could pry into any conversation. The veil of anonymity thousands thought they were cloaked behind was a sham. Intimate details from the most benign to beyond risqué could be easily gleaned from the soft glow of their computer monitors. From there the demon was almost giddy as he began his work.
Richard was a stockbroker in his late forties. A heavyset man who
nature had recently spared the need for using a comb, he yearned for adventure he wouldn't
dare attempt. His wife of a quarter century no longer excited him, though there was never
any thought that his own outward dullness was a contributor. So ensconced in his study,
night after night Richard lived his hidden romantic fantasies through his computer.
Most in chat rooms knew him as a jovial fellow with a great zest for life. Skiing, kayaking and scuba diving adventures were invented from magazines he had read and embellished with enough details to be convincing should he encounter someone who did engage in these activities and might challenge his prowess. He was especially charming with women, almost always knowing what to say, which compliments seemed the most sincere, and providing a solid crying shoulder should any of them feel down.
Joanne had often used that shoulder. In her mid thirties and trapped by a domineering, jealous husband, she saw chat as an outlet for pent up frustrations. In Richard she felt she had finally found a man who not only accepted her but who placed her on a pedestal. For hours at a time they had conversed, usually by keyboard, sometimes by internet telephone and when feeling particularly amorous, by real telephone. She loved the picture he had emailed to her, though she never knew it was of a more fit and not so follicaly challenged Richard of ten years before.
This night was like any other. Her husband snored loudly on the living room couch while Joanne was shut in her spare bedroom, her face illuminated by the soft glow of her computer screen..
"You are so good to me, Richard," she typed. "I often wonder if I am worthy of you?"
Meanwhile Richard was carrying on a racy conversation with Beverly in Wisconsin. Always was he careful to keep his windows separate on his screen that held his conversations, so that Joanne nor anyone else ever suspected that they were not the sole recipients of his attentions.
With a sly grin he typed, "I love you more than anyone Beverly, no one else means a thing," and hit his Enter key.
The demon was ready. With speed almost defying the laws of physics he made a slight change in the message routing, so that Joanne was the recipient. She smiled on seeing the sentiment but then an icy chill gripped her spine as she saw that the name was not hers. Almost automatically she replied, "Richard that's a lovely thought, but I'm not Beverly. Are you talking to someone else besides me?"
That brief message forced Richard's world to suspend itself. Time and space halted and his heart was racing. He had always promised Joanne that she was the one woman in his life, and in time they would be together in real life. What she didn't know was the he had made the same promise to several other women. Richard took a deep breath while wondering what had happened. The window for Beverly still held the words he knew he had sent to her, it was technically impossible for them to have been transferred to Joanne.
He could feel the anger, hurt and humiliation in Joanne's next transmittal. "Well, Richard? Have you been stringing me along all this time, telling me what I wanted to hear because you knew how badly I needed that?"
He was trapped. There would be no graceful way out of this. Every possible excuse he could think of for typing Beverly instead of Joanne was discarded as too flimsy to hold up. Breathing heavily and starting to perspire, he felt he only had two choices. First was to bare his soul, be totally honest and hope Joanne and who knows how many others if word got around, would forgive him. For several minutes he thought as Joanne's accusations filled his screen. Finally he made up his mind and decided on the second choice. With several clicks of the mouse, he wordlessly exited the conversation with Joanne. Next he simply deleted the chat software from his computer.
If he had hands the demon would have been rubbing them with glee.
But rejoicing would have to wait, there were too many more opportunities abounding. A
pornographic file being sent between a pair of consenting adults ended up being displayed
in front of a ten year old child who thought she had accessed the Disney web site. A
racist joke archived as research into that despicable subject escaped from a hard drive,
and attached to the chat nickname of the machine's owner totally outraged everyone in a
family oriented channel. Protestations by the poor man, despite his being a respected
priest, were received with sneers.
Throughout the night the demon continued his work. One woman was certain to be fired the next Monday after her scathing complaints about her boss to a trusted friend took a slight detour to said boss's own email box. A man was about to be ostracized from his favorite chat channel after private speculation by a sympathetic friend that he might be HIV positive suddenly became public, and with the words of sympathy stripped out.
Tirelessly the demon forged ahead. Around midnight he uncovered another email, poetic, sincere and erotic and did another missend. He paid it no mind until an hour later, when a rare redress of his mischief was made. That always angered him and made him concentrate on the perpetrators until they were broken.
A car accident had tragically ended Alex's marriage a year ago. His
wife had just made a quick run to the post office. A drunk driver chose that time to make
his own quick run through a stop sign and into the side of her car. Devastated, Alex was a
near recluse for several months afterwards. But it was not his nature to dwell in misery.
Optimistic and outgoing by nature, he renewed his contacts with his friends. But he often
ended up alone. His marriage had been childless while most of his friends were occupied
with their own families. Not to be dissuaded, Alex actively sought ways to alleviate his
loneliness. Almost on impulse he decided to add Internet access to his computer one day,
and within a month had discovered many people on line who shared his interests and
appreciated his humor.
Though he made a conscious effort to include as many as possible in his growing circle of new friends, he found himself conversing more and more with Anne. Recovering from a bitter divorce, she and Alex found from the start a wonderful melding of their personas. They could talk endlessly without a hint of boredom. After several months they admitted that the other had renewed an enthusiasm for life and romance once thought forever buried. Though physically separated by several thousand miles, they had made plans to meet, and were confident that who they were on line were the same persons as in the flesh.
"Magnificent," thought the demon. "This is not a fragile relationship, thus its destruction will be more gratifying than those I bring down with only one move."
When not chatting, Alex and Anne loved exchanging emails. On this Friday evening a thunderstorm had temporarily knocked out Anne's phone service, thus interrupting a hilarious discourse she was having with Alex on conspiracy theories. While patiently waiting for service to be restored, she composed a message to him. Part poem, part erotica, it was a masterpiece of capturing her love for him in words. It was with a broad smile that she sent it the moment her modem could once again transmit.
One aspect of Alex that had captivated Anne was his imagination, but he had a singular lapse when choosing his email address. It was unfortunately similar to a couple of others and someone who was just a tad careless could send missives intended for him to someone he had nothing in common with except for the same internet provider.
"All too easy," thought the demon as he altered just one character and the message was bounced to a retired police officer. Less than an hour later, the ex cop sent a reply to Anne.
"I don't think you intended this to be for me. But as my email address is so similar to that of your Alex I can see how a mistake could have accidentally been made. I do wish you the best, it's obvious you two have a very beautiful relationship."
"This can't be!" the demon howled. "Surely this man, a cop of all people, should be sending outraged notes to these folks and threatening them with legal action for sending what could be construed as obscene material across the net."
Anne was mortified at what happened, but recovered and did a resend to Alex. She knew he would not only be understanding but would appreciate the humor of the situation, especially since no harm had been done. She then connected to her favorite chat server, and was soon immersed in deep conversation with Alex.
The demon's retribution was swift. Cannily he waited until the conversation had become extremely personal, then instituted ever lengthening lags. Fifteen seconds would pass between typed messages and their appearance on the other's screen. Then twenty, thirty, later forty five. Surely that would destroy any mood they had tried to set and frustrate them into giving up. And Anne, who was admittedly a novice in many aspects of computers, was starting to concede.
But Alex wouldn't give in. Praying she would stay on line for just another minute, he sent instructions for rerouting their connection so as to eliminate the lag. As with everything else he had helped her with, his directives were clear, concise, and they worked. Within minutes the lag was a thing of the past and their conversation regained its momentum.
"Nooooooo!!!!" wailed the demon. This case was really getting to be annoying. The next night he took advantage of Anne logging on an hour before Alex. Like most others on the server, Anne and Alex used nicknames. A wise precaution since a savvy hacker could otherwise more easily misuse his talents and get real information about others on the server. Information like credit card numbers, home addresses and the like.
Fortuitously such a hacker was online. Brilliant of mind but totally lacking conscience and any human interactive skills, he loved preying on anyone with a feminine nickname by stalking them. Without warning they would receive a request for a private chat. Curious, many accepted, then were instantly deluged with verbal descriptions and scanned photo images beyond violent, beyond degrading, beyond obscene. Too clever for any systems administrator to ban from a server for long, the stalker was always lying in wait, knowing his next victim was but a few keystrokes away.
"Ah, a like mind," thought the demon. A quick change and the stalker's latest nickname matched Alex's. By more than coincidence he had been watching Anne, feeling from her statements in the chat room that she was perfect to feel his twisted attentions. Seemingly innocent and lacking the technical experience to evade or trap him, she would be a wonderful prize.
Anne always felt a special thrill when she saw a request from Alex for a private chat. With a smile that was positively beaming, she clicked her mouse on the accept button. Less than a minute later, she felt cold and physically ill. The light banter, sweet phrases, and professions of love she was familiar with had been usurped by details of how he wanted to rape then mutilate her. In disbelief that these were coming from her sweet Alex, she could not tear herself away from the screen. Mercifully her body finally reacted for her. An almost involuntary shifting of her foot contacted the computer's power strip that rested on the floor and pressed the switch off.
It was a couple of days before she tried to contact Alex. The interval was sufficient to make her realize that he could not have changed over night, unless he had been lying to her and what she had just seen was his true self.
She was cool when he initiated the chat, though he was beside himself with worry. Finally she said what had happened and did he have an explanation? Though understandably stunned, Alex replied, "what you saw was not me and I can prove it."
He asked a few questions about the stalker. Though not sure what he was getting at, Anne replied. With a sigh of relief that rivaled a respectable tropical storm, Alex went on to not only show Anne how she had been a victim, but how to protect herself in the future.
If he had a voice the demon's vile curses would have shattered the air. Three times he had been stymied. Angered more than he thought possible, he ignored easier targets and concentrated everything he could on Alex and Anne. Over the next month they experienced repeated line drops, garbled net phone conversations and lost emails.
But nothing worked. At best they were annoyed, but never with each other. Their creativity and determination to never be kept apart always reunited them. If their usual chat server was brought down by the demon, they had already planned to move to another. Static in netphone conversations were eradicated by careful software experimentation. And emails were always sent twice and at separate intervals to help ensure at least one would get through.
Finally the demon admitted defeat. He felt like a chess player whose opponent could always replace captured pieces while his forces were inevitably whittled down. He did not know what could have possibly motivated these two to fight him so hard. Love? Such a delicate thing, look how easily it was shattered with Richard the stockbroker. So why were Alex and Anne different? Relationships on the net were as stable and lasting as a snowflake. Beautiful but for a moment before disintegrating. There must be another reason. "But what?" muttered the demon as he wondered if he could ever perform his perfidious acts again. "But what....."
All the regulars from the chat channel were on line that night. The
channel topic had read, 'Announcement At 9 PST.' And as that time was reached, Alex and
Anne logged on at the same time.
"Good evening friends," Alex announced. "Anne and I have something to tell you."
Anne picked up the cue and from her keyboard came for all to see, "it's no secret Alex and I are very fond of each other. Well, more than fond. In each other we have found a renewal of life and have decided to spend the rest of ours together. We have already bought a new home and in three months we will be married."
"A cyber marriage?" one in the channel just had to ask.
"No, a real wedding, in a real church, with a real bride and groom." Alex chimed in, "and with real friends as guests, which of course means all of you."
The rest of the evening passed with congratulations to the newly betrothed as a festive atmosphere enveloped the channel. It was almost four hours until Alex and Anne could gracefully break away for some privacy.
"That went rather well," stated Alex with droll
Anne had to laugh though she was overjoyed that very soon they would no longer have to be using computers to talk to each other. Several times they had met in person and each meeting only reinforced their love. The circumstances of their meeting may have seemed odd to many, but that did not matter. What was important was that they had been brought together, and had overcome every obstacle.
"So my darling Anne, now that we've conquered fire, fears and the dark side of the Internet, don't you think the rest of our lives should be the very meaning of serenity?"
Anne didn't reply immediately. Strange sensations of evil kept touching her. But she then found herself thinking about vanquished demons for no apparent reason.