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It was an utterly normal day for me. Well... actually, I'd gotten a parking ticket and a jury summons, so it was a pretty shitty day for me. However, neither of those would seem of any consequence when I got home at the end of it to find my computer infected.
But maybe I'm going a little too fast. Let me take a step back, and we'll start from when I returned from work that day. As always, the first thing I did was go through the mail. Feel free to imagine my aggravation at the summons here—it didn't help, either, that everything else was junk mail and bills. Whatever. Just one of life's many joys. Preferring to relax a bit before dealing with them, I went straight to my computer to do... well, nothing at all; just some browsing, check my email, et cetera. Doing nothing can be good for the soul. I noticed my computer running much slower than usual, though. Certainly slower than it was just yesterday. My first reaction was to look at my task bar to see if maybe my antivirus was updating, or maybe Windows was downloading new features or something. You know, the usual culprits. But alas, no such luck.
I tried to put up with the slow speeds for a while, just wanting to get a level head before I had to deal with troubleshooting this thing—yet another nuisance on this day that seemed so ripe for them. Eventually, my patience reached its limit, though. My attempts to relax at the terminal having crashed and burned, I went to address this problem now, determined to find a way to wind down if it killed me. Upon opening up My Computer, a red flag raised: My hard drive had no free space left on it at all. To put things into perspective, I have a 1TB internal hard drive, with almost nothing on it. I got this computer from a friend of mine, much tech-ier than I, and while I don't know nearly as much about computers as she, I know that a terabyte is a lot of space, and that my entire computer didn't use even 10% of it yesterday.
Clearly, something was going on, and I suspected some kind of virus or malware. I've heard there are some out there that will create "garbage data" on your system, flooding it with pointless files just to fill it up and make it run slow. I'd always wondered what possible benefit there could be in this, but my friend told me there are some scammers who will infect you with one of these viruses, then try to charge you a fee to "clean and speed up" your PC. Fortunately, I hadn't received any such contact... yet. Still, my suspicions seemed grounded. I gave up and performed a scan with my antivirus program—a full scan. Sure, one might think a quick scan would be faster, but if it didn't turn up anything and I was then forced to do a full scan afterwards, it would just wind up taking longer than if I went with the full scan from the start. Kind of a roundabout logic, but I just wanted to get this resolved so that I could finally just relax at my computer.
I went to watch some TV for a while. Nothing good on—I really just wanted to go browsing. A couple hours later, I heard the little "scan complete" chime from my speakers, and went to go examine the results. No viruses. No malware. I was baffled. However, there was one thing of note on the screen: "1 file(s) could not be scanned due to corrupted data values." The window had three options: "List," "Report," and "Dismiss." I clicked List to see the details of the file, and it showed a file made up of a bunch of square box characters. "□□□□□.anima" was the file name. This was no file that I put there, and I'm sure it wasn't there before. I'd never installed any kind of language extensions on my computer, so the file name was written in characters from some other language—maybe Japanese, or Arabic or something. I'd also never heard of the .anima file type, but that could wait.
The file location was listed in some secluded subfolder of System32. That's where viruses like to hide out, right? I made my way to the folder and examined the file. As expected, it read as an unknown file type. My computer didn't know what program would open it—not that I had any plans of doing so just yet. Besides, what surprised me more was the file size... or rather, the lack of one. There was no file size listed—that is, it was just a garbled mess of text, if you could call it that. It looked like some sort of glitch, but maybe they were some weird kind of special characters. I'd seen people make "signature art" using what looked like garbled messes of text before. One of the first things I learned about computers was that a computer does what you tell it to, not what you want it to—that is, everything happens for a reason. Someone had to program this behavior, make it display like this.
I didn't know what the file was, but I knew I didn't need it spamming up my system, as I was sure it was doing. So, of course, having found the little bugger, I immediately deleted it. All the problems went away, I was able to browse in peace once again, the traffic ticket was overturned and I managed to weasel out of my jury duty. That's... what I'd like to say. Instead, a little Windows message popped up, telling me that the file could not be deleted; access was denied. There was no question at this point—definitely some kind of virus. I tried and I tried, but nothing I did was able to get rid of the bugger. After four attempts, a second window appeared over the usual "can not delete" message. This one was formatted like a Windows message, except that there was no title in the top bar of the window, and there was only one word of text: "STOP." This was accompanied by two choices: "Yes" or "No."
I considered my options, but... knowing that this was a virus, and it wasn't willingly going to allow me to delete it, I chose "Yes." Thankfully, the window terminated as it should have and I was back to the Explorer window. I decided to do some research, as I probably should have done before messing with the file at all, in retrospect. Putting up with the incredibly slow browsing speed, I ran a search for the file name by copying the characters. When that turned up nothing, I tried just searching for the .anima file type, which I'd never heard of. No results.
Maybe this was some brand new kind of virus. Maybe the antivirus software hadn't found a way to recognize it yet, and no one online had encountered it thus far. Maybe I was its very first victim. I was outraged. "This is just fucking perfect," I said to myself, spewing all sorts of vulgarities the likes of which would have resulted in no less than a dozen slaps from even the saltiest of nuns. I didn't want to deal with this right now. I didn't want to deal with it ever, but I especially didn't want to deal with it now. I left the computer for a while after that to just find some other way to wind down.
I wasn't that successful. The next day, I was still pretty annoyed. But, I was at least more level-headed than I was the day prior—and this was my weekend, so I would have plenty of time to figure this out. I called up the friend of mine whom I'd gotten the computer from, and she attested that she had no knowledge of any such file on it, nor of how it could have gotten there. She did offer to help me troubleshoot it, thankfully. After I told her all that I had done thus far, she seemed pretty convinced of my theory—that it was some brand new kind of virus without any currently-known method of being dealt with. Unfortunately, she wasn't nearly skilled enough to try picking apart an unknown virus fresh off the market, so her help ended there. Great.
With nothing left to do, I decided to experiment with the file. It took a full day to back up my important files on a separate drive—hopefully without the virus carrying over with them—and the following day I was able to start dealing with the thing. The file wasn't a standalone executable, or it would have run by itself when I double-clicked it. Having no knowledge of what program the file was intended to run with, I started cycling through all the programs on my computer, trying to find something that would work. First up was Notepad, as I've found a lot of unknown files can be read in text format. This one turned up as a bunch of the "missing character" box symbols again. So it could be read as a text file, but it was all in another language. I guess that's a start.
For lack of anything else to try, I continued through the list of programs—next up was Windows Photo Viewer. I didn't expect anything to happen, since if the file had been opened in Notepad, that meant it had to be some kind of text-based file, right? Well, somehow, Photo Viewer was able to read the thing, and it came up with an image of a nice little suburban house somewhere. If it weren't for the subtle cultural hints, like the buildings in the background and the style of mailbox, I would have assumed it to be an American suburb. Unfortunately, there wasn't any kind of text anywhere in the image, so I couldn't determine the country of origin. I tried to move the window to the side for later, but accidentally closed it instead. So, I tried to open the program again with Photo Viewer, and again it worked... but, this time, I got a different image, this one of the inside of a car driving on a brick road, from a driver's perspective.
How was this possible? Even assuming the file could be read by both Notepad and Photo Viewer, it's just one file. Opening it should come up with the same result each time. If this was a virus, it seemed to mess with the functions of my machine something fierce. I opened the file once again in Photo Viewer and, this time, I got a string of big, bold, white symbols on a black background. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure they were Russian characters. Is that where this file is from? Russia? And the images, too? Unfortunately, it was an image, so I couldn't copy the text and paste it into a search engine. I was curious, though. I decided to take a screenshot of the text so I could look at it later. One Print Screen and MSPaint opened later, I tried to paste what I'd copied... but again, the image wasn't the same. This time it was of a young woman, dressed in formal attire, looking at the camera expectantly. It was the craziest thing—every time this file appeared on the screen, a new image.
From there, I used the Undo and Redo keyboard commands to quickly erase and re-paste the image over and over again. Every time, it was something different. A grocery store, a theater, someone's living room, a man looking into a mirror, a pair of grave sites... after that, the next time I "refreshed" the image, I got this.
This... made me jump a bit. Was this supposed to be addressed to me? Is this what the Russian text before translated to? Someone had to pre-load all these images into a slideshow and program them into this file. Maybe there were images of this message in all sorts of languages, and these were just the two I happened to encounter first. Still, something about the big, bold, white text message got to me, and I shut down Paint. Still, I was curious now. I wanted to know what other programs might be able to open this file. I tried Windows Media Player next, curious of how it might interpret the file. Apparently, it read it as audio... but curiously, the little seek bar didn't move. As the file played, the time count went up, but the bar stayed at the far left, like it might if it were playing some kind of online livestream. The audio was a very clear recording of several people talking in Russian. Hearing it, I was now more certain of what language it was. It was also a hint that I heard dishes clanking and liquid being slurped as the word "borscht" came up from time to time. I could only assume this was a recording of some family dinner, or something. Why it was in the file, I have no idea.
The audio was pretty mundane. After five minutes or so of nothing particularly interesting happening, I closed out and, this time, tried opening it in VLC Media Player. This time it was read as a video. I don't know why it would be any different between the two players, but the same thing happened in VLC, where the time count went up, but the bar never moved. Due to my computer's infection, the video ran extremely choppily, but what I could make out seemed to be a first-person view of someone sitting in an office, working on an assortment of paperwork. At times, I saw the viewer's reflection in his computer monitor, and it looked to be the same man who was looking at himself in the mirror in that image that appeared before. Curious. Just to see what happened, I skipped ahead with the seek bar, trying to find other parts of the video... but as soon as I tried to move it from its position, glued to the left side of the window, VLC crashed and I was forced to shut it down. When I did, another Windows message had appeared beneath the window. Again, no title in the top bar, and only one line of text: "STAY OUT." Again, the options were "Yes" and "No." Just to see what would happen, this time, I clicked "No." That may have been a mistake.
The window didn't close, but out of nowhere, my computer started whirring as if it were under an incredible strain, and the screen practically locked up. I tried moving my mouse, but I was unable to move it out of the "STAY OUT" window, which still had both options selectable. Thinking that maybe the computer was having trouble processing the command, I once again clicked "No." This time the reaction was even stronger. Countless message windows began popping up over the current one, all of them identical: "STAY OUT," "STAY OUT," "STAY OUT," "STAY OUT." One after another, they rapidly began popping up over the last, slowing my computer to a literal snail's pace. I tried moving the mouse, and it very, VERY slowly crawled its way away from the "No" button. Hoping to just end this calamity at this point, I got it to meander over to the "Yes" command and, finally, clicked it. Just like that, the windows stopped appearing, the hard drive stopped whirring, and everything seemed to go back to normal. Or... at least, it went back to the way it was before I clicked "No." The file was still there, and it still had to be taken care of.
I tried once again to delete the file. This time, a message popped up reading "DO NOT," with the only clickable option being "OK." Odd, this message was different from the one I got last time I tried to delete it. Trying to X out of the message window did nothing, so I reluctantly hit "OK" and it closed. I tried copying the file onto a drive, moving it off my computer, but I then received a Windows error message telling me that the file could not be moved because it is being accessed by another program. The same message came up when I tried just moving it to the desktop for easier access. I was curious to see whether this was true or not... and, actually, I hadn't taken a look at my processes to see if maybe there was something going on there that was making my system drag so much. I opened up the Task Manager and switched over to the Processes tab and, sure enough, at the top of the list was one called "Anima." It was taking up almost the full 100% of my computer's processing power. Did that mean this file was not only occupying my whole hard drive, but most of my RAM as well? How big was this thing? Without another thought, I chose to end the process. This resulted in another Windows message. No title, this one read "PLEASE NO." These title-less messages weren't written by any Pulitzer prizewinner, that's for sure. The clickable options were "No" and "No." Again, unable to X out, I clicked one of the two "No"s, and the window closed. Underneath it, there was the typical Windows message, asking me if I was sure I wanted to force-end the process. Glad that the virus didn't interfere with this function, I clicked "End Process" and my hard drive whirred for a moment. Then, just like that, the process vanished. My CPU usage went back down to its normal levels, and finally I was able to use the machine freely again.
However... the file was still there, in the folder. I could have deleted it then and there, but I wanted to check once again, to be sure that no one else had encountered this little bugger yet. So, now that I was running at almost-full speed, I did another search for ".anima file type." Still no results. On a final hunch, based on the name of the process I saw running, I tried doing a search for just "Anima." All this returned was that "anima" was a Latin word that functionally translates into English as "soul."
When I read that, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. That file... it couldn't possibly have been, could it? Was that .anima file... a human soul? It had to be some kind of prank, played by someone trying to horrify people for a cheap laugh. All of this had to be programmed, a great big illusion, messing with my system's functionality and creating all of these pop-up messages, images and files, just to trick me into thinking this could really be a person, in digital format. Of course, the very idea is preposterous. Even if there were such a thing as a haunted computer, or some military experiment to extract a human soul into a digital format... there's no reason, no way it would wind up on my computer. How could that even have come about? Granted, I have no better explanation of how such a virus could have found its way onto my system.
The logical side of me knows better than to believe in some prankster's games, but... still, the possibility, however small it may be, still haunts me. What if it really had been a person in there? Their life, their memories, their thoughts and feelings? If so, what I had I just done by ending the process and terminating it from my system? This wasn't something I wanted to think about. I determined to just delete the file, so I would never have to think about it again. But... before I did that, I had to know. Curiosity got the better of me, and I tried running the file again, in all of the programs I had tried previously.
Notepad now read it as an empty document. No matter what other program I used, it read only as an empty black screen, with faint static for audio. There was nothing left. Nothing.
Written by Xelrog T. Apocalypse