Another short story first draft of about 4,680 words uploaded for criticism / entertainment. A dark little satire on ever more intrusive attempts by governmental agencies to meddle in the lives of their citizens.
No light penetrated this far down. Down in the gentle darkness of the all encompassing earth. Behind heavy steel doors set in heavier concrete walls shielded against all harm.
Here and there shone solitary pools of bright white, spotlit oases in the whispering backroar of many tiny blades pushing tinier air currents. Banks of steady green lights flickered in identical grey steel skyscraper-like stacks set in row after row. Each stack three metres tall, half a metre on a side. Hardly substantial on their own, but all together an intimidating wall of electronic babel. Countless quadrillions of calculations per second driving the silicon heartbeat of this hidden cavern.
The heavy doors hissed open and a solitary slightly built figure wearing a second best light blue shirt and dusty black chino’s entered. This was Neville Malus, senior hardware engineer, whose job was mostly replacing failed modules in this massive data centre.
As though for effect, the doors hissed closed behind him with a double subsonic thud.
Ah well, another working day thought Neville. Blade twenty one, stack 12, row forty two showed a drive with too many bad sectors. He’d have to manually shut the power down when data processing had mirrored the drives across and shut all the stacks data processes off. Once that was done he would safely strip out the offending components, and clone the special operating system onto the new module. Then data processing would remotely spin the server stack up to speed and set it running.
There was the usual on foot visual check, a four kilometre walk all told, just in case the data-shovellers upstairs had managed to shut one or more of the server stacks down by accident. It happened. He’d come back from a long weekend last month to find his departmental management replaced and several of the data processor posts filled with unfamiliar faces. He hadn’t asked questions, just went down to his desk in the server room and fixed the hardware problem like he was told. That was the nice thing about being this projects sole hardware technician. He built the stacks from base components as per spec and kept the online documentation up to date. And he got to work alone. Which he enjoyed. None of the office politics of the guys ten basement floors up. All Neville cared about was doing his job and saving for a house, because the money on this job was good. Very good indeed. His girlfriend liked that idea. A house meant security, and Mel was very keen on security. She wanted a family and it was only a matter of time before she brought the topic of marriage up, again. Then there was her grandma’s ring that her mother had given him for when the time came. All he had to do was not screw this contract up.
The job. Yes. Big government contract. Serious bucks. Neville wasn’t quite sure what it was about, but it was very secret, which is why as the projects only senior hardware engineer he took home a nice fat paycheck. Two hours later, with the last hardware upgrade finished, he was at his desk updating the record database when his team lead phoned on the land line. Cell phones weren’t allowed in this secure area and Neville, for all his other shortcomings, was very conscientious about security. His personal old fashioned flip phone stayed in his backpack in his locker upstairs.
“Data centre, hardware.” Neville answered.
“Hi Neville, it’s Claudia, data processing.” Claudia was one of the new people after the last lot had been fired. Neville didn’t mind her so much. She was short, dumpy and plain, but very good at her job. Which to Neville meant letting him do his and not interfering too much.
“Hi Claudia. What can I do for you?” He liked Claudia.
“We’re going live at three this afternoon.” she said without preamble.
“Oh. I thought project said it wouldn’t be ready at your end until next month.”
“Project deadlines have been moved.”
“Everything’s ready down here. I’d best stay in the data centre just in case something breaks.”
“You sure? There’s the Minister of something or other coming. Senior management is going to be there. They’ve even brought in caterers.” She tantalised without success.
“No. If something breaks I want to be down here to fix it. It takes at least ten minutes to get into the secure area. Twenty if the lift breaks down, yet again.” Neville replied, running his hand through a mop of dark hair. “I’ll pass.”
On the other end of the line he heard Claudia pause. “Nev.” That was strange, she didn’t usually shorten people’s names. “Do you know what this project is for?”
“It’s a big government IT project in one of the biggest data centres in the world. Muy dinero. Big money. Why?” He asked. Claudia sounded nervous.
“Nothing. Nothing.” She said hurriedly and hung up. Neville checked his watch and decided it was time for lunch.
Up in the beigely austere lunch room he found himself a solitary corner to eat a machine vended sandwich, vaguely waving greeting to several of the other groups huddled round their individual tables, most of them plugged into their smartphones like always. Should he call Mel? He checked his old fashioned watch. No, she’d be in a meeting for the next hour, not worth going to his locker for. He took a bite of his sandwich and munched thoughtfully. He’d call her later.
A harassed looking senior manager entered and caught his eye, hurrying over. Neville took one look at the man’s haunted expression and stopped munching his sandwich.
“Neville.” Mortimer Moranis, all pinstripe suit and trendy open necked shirt sat down at Neville’s table. Heads turned briefly then turned back to their own business. This was unusual. Neville swallowed.
“Hi Mortimer. We’re all ready for the big event downstairs.” He tried to sound cheerful and failed. Senior management didn’t seek people like him out in person unless serious shit was about to hit a massive fan. Even then you usually got summoned into a ‘meeting’ so you could be fired in private so as not to make a fuss. Or by text. HR did that far too often.
“Sorry about this, but we’ve had to do a last minute reorganise of your team structure.” Mortimer sat at the table.
“Okay.” Neville said doubtfully. He added to reassure Mortimer that whatever was going on, he was doing his part efficiently. “That’s not mission critical at the moment. I’ve got everything under control downstairs. Green board.”
“Erm..” It wasn’t like Mortimer to be hesitant. “It’s about Claudia.”
“Yeah, I think she’s got big project launch nerves.” Neville shrugged, not understanding why Mortimer of all people sounded jittery. “Is she okay?”
“Yes of course.” Mortimer sounded relieved. He was also lying. Even someone of Neville’s limited social skill set could see that. “Just to let you know she’s been reassigned.”
Ah. ‘Reassigned’. Management-speak for ‘fired’. Neville shrugged again, people came and went all the time. He relaxed a little, this fell under a ‘Not my problem’ heading. Then Mortimer leaned toward him and dropped his voice. “She called you just over half an hour ago. What did she say?”
“Isn’t our conversation on the internal call log?” Neville said, successfully faking surprise. All conversations were logged and monitored in a place this secure. It went with the territory.
“Well, before she.. left.” Mortimer left an ominous pause in the phrase. “She scrambled her call logs. Can you tell me if she said anything to you?”
“Not much. Just that the project deadlines had been moved to three this afternoon and did I want to come to the big launch party.” Neville said. “I said I was fine but wanted to stay on duty downstairs just in case anything went wrong during the roll-out.” He added but wondered why Mortimer had sought him out in person instead of via text or email. “That’s all.”
“Just checking, we were worried in case there was some kind of harassment issue.”
“With Claudia?” Neville failed to keep his face blank. “No.”
“Fine. Excellent. Glad to have you on the team.” Mortimer gave Neville a faux-hearty slap on the shoulder as he stood up and hurried out of the lunch room.
“What was all that?” Bonnie Feynman asked, slinking over from two tables away. Bonnie was wearing far less makeup than usual for the big day, long black dyed hair tied back in a severe ponytail, Goth tattoos hidden by roll neck sweater and long sleeves.
“Data processing team lead’s quit.” Neville said simply.
“Oh.” Bonnie pouted and took her perfectly upturned nose back to her own peer group. Nothing for her to get all bent out of shape about. Maybe even an opportunity. Neville could hear the whisper rattle round the lunch room, furtive eyes glanced his way. At least more personnel changes weren’t due, yet.
After finishing his sandwich, Neville headed downstairs into the secure area and took another walk round the kilometres of servers. Everything was fine. No active requests on his job queue, so he opened up YouTube and sat down at the hardware bench computer to watch a livestream of the official channel with the sound muted. A ticker with the dialogue scrolled across the screen. “Project rapture”, apparently the projects official name featured prominently amongst the subtitles. A project designed to spread joy around the world. According to the dialogue ticker the method had been tested and found so successful that the UN itself had funded this massive data centre to push out the technology globally. Oh, right. Happy people. That would make a nice change.
Not giving what he’d seen further thought, Neville turned his attention to more practical matters, picking up a faulty unit and testing it in case the unit could be fixed. He did this even though there were enough sealed spares in the racks. At a pinch he could remotely park a memory array and keep things ticking over, so even if the whole data processing team got fired this afternoon he could probably keep things functioning. At least until Friday lunchtime.
At around four-thirty he glanced up from his work to see the YouTube livestream was over. He’d identified the problem with the faulty unit and replaced the malfunctioning flash drive. Now the faulty unit worked perfectly. Feeling mildly pleased with himself, Neville placed it in an anti-static sleeve and put it in his box of emergency spares. The land line rang.
“Hi Neville.” It was Mortimer again. Only there was something not quite right. He sounded like he was high or something.
“Hi Mortimer. We’re all good here.” Neville said faux-cheerily. Well, it couldn’t hurt if his ultimate boss was high as a transatlantic flight. It meant Neville wouldn’t get fired. At least today.
“Fabulous job.” Gushed Mortimer over the phone.
“Thanks.” Neville was taken aback. Compliments from management? That was a first.
“No, I mean it, well done. Truly excellent. Smooth with a capital S.”
“Do I get a rise?” Neville said. “Five hundred a month?” He asked, steeling himself for a laughing “No.”
“Yes of course. Whatever makes you happy.” The line went dead.
“That was weird.” Neville spoke aloud, his voice sounding alien among the whispering roar of the server fans. On a whim he took another walk around the massive banks of servers. All green. Not an amber or red in sight. Oh well. He checked his watch. Five? Almost time for home. Did he want to chance rush hour? No, he’d wait an hour or so while the all the usual commuter lemmings got out of the way.
Later, out on the freeway he found everything strangely orderly. None of the usual road rage, lane hogging and cutting by other drivers. Which didn’t strike him as odd at the time. Reaching home he slowly became aware that everyone he passed was smiling. What had happened? Had someone put something in the water? As he turned into the car park behind the flat he shared with Mel he noticed a woman, dreamily intent on her phone, walking straight across four lanes of traffic without looking. Instead of the usual cacophony of horns, cars pulled to gentle halts and the drivers, instead of raising their middle fingers and fists, waved her across. Neville was so surprised he almost rear-ended the car in front.
On the way in to the apartment building, he passed the janitor, a man reputedly never to have smiled in his life. “Good evening!” The shaven headed Janitor beamed with snaggled teeth before resuming his mopping. Neville almost fell over. He hurried past beatifically mugging people who all greeted him like a long lost friend. This was spooky. What the hell was going on? He made it indoors pursued by delighted cries of “Beautiful evening!”
Mel said nothing but threw herself at him, smothering him with passionate kisses. “Er, hon?” He said as she hugged him tightly, humming a happy little tune.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m just so happy that you’re back.” Mel burrowed her tawny crowned head ecstatically into his chest.
“I’m happy to be home. It’s crazy out there. Everyone is, is…” The sentence petered out.
Around midnight he crawled out of bed and staggered into the bathroom. He stared woozily at his reflection. What in the name of Satan’s left buttock was going on? Everyone was acting so full of joy. This felt incredibly weird. As for Mel, he hadn’t found her this enthusiastic since their first few nights together. Possibly not even then. “I need something to eat.” He muttered to himself and stumbled off to raid the fridge. As always there was very little, just a half litre pack of skimmed milk and a carefully wrapped piece of slightly suspect cheese. No bread or margarine. Typical.
Mel was fast asleep, so he dressed as quietly as he could and snuck out of their flat and into the car park. The midnight 7-11 clerks happily served him a hot dog and chattered away like they were his oldest best friends while he waited. On the street outside, two Policemen in high viz yellow passed by, quietly smiling as several girls danced and gyrated ecstatically in the middle of a flower decked divider to a beat only they could hear. A trans man was having his / its / whatever private dance party on Main street. No one seem to care that it was raining. Another figure was standing right on top of the building across the street, arms outstretched, palms upwards, in a gesture of rapturous rain worship.
Neville finished his hot dog and decided to take a walk in the sodium lit drizzle. Carefully avoiding the hyperactive revellers he finally slid back between the sheets at around two. Mel turned over in her sleep and cuddled up. Then it was six in the morning.
Instinctively he swung his legs out of bed and killed the alarm before it could wake her up. A quick tepid shower and breakfast on the run saw him on site for seven forty five. Security was briefer and much friendlier than usual. What was it with everyone smiling? Had he slipped into an episode of the Twilight Zone or something? He checked his diary before switching off his phone and stowing it in his locker.
Down in the relative sanity of the server stacks, he did his usual patrol, noting that everything was working properly. No calls flagged up on the server support job queue, which was strange. Data processing always wanted some new stack brought online or someone on the admin team had a hangover and forgotten their password. At lunchtime the lunch room was empty, even the offices were only sparsely populated by a few blissed out individuals. Wasn’t this Thursday? He’d never liked Thursdays. Too early for Friday, too late for the midweek hump of Wednesday.
That afternoon, Neville stared at his monitors, desperately trying to remember his orientation lecture, most of which he’d simply zoned out of. Something about using social media to transmit a signal which generated a sense of low level euphoria. Something like that. Words like dopamine and serotonin floated in and out of his mind.
On the way home, the opposite lane of the highway was barricaded by smiling police officers, which was creepy in itself. Neville slowed down and rubbernecked over the crash barrier just past a bridge. He caught a glimpse of three mounds of plastic covered bodies in the middle of the carriageway. Dark fluid seemed to be leaking from under them, then he was past and accelerating away.
Pulling into his street he stared upwards in horror as a grinning man swan-dived showily off a four storey building to an ecstatic crowd. To rapturous applause the falling man pulled a full mid air somersault before hitting the pavement head first. Neville pulled over onto the side of the road, hand to his mouth, trying not to vomit. Oh God! What was going on? This was terrible!
Wrung between the twin rollers of guilt and cowardice, he pulled away from the kerb and drove back to his flat. The door was open, with enthusiastic moaning coming from the kitchen. He looked cautiously through the gap between door and jamb. Mel and two of her girlfriends were happily doing something unspeakable with courgettes. Neville’s embarrassment meter flashed over into shock, making him back away, carefully closing and locking the apartments front door as he left, disgusted and red faced. Courgettes were normally his favourite vegetable, but no longer.
Getting a tank full of petrol for free at a service station whose attendant was so euphoric he no longer cared about taking money, Neville drove as far from towns and civilisation as he could, looking for sanity, somewhere, anywhere, finally stopping at a scenic viewpoint. In the distance, something was burning, a bright red glow at the base of a tall oily smoke column. “No, no, no!” Neville pounded the steering wheel and began to cry.
Whilst he was beset by the agonies of guilt, a battered old Dodge pickup pulled over in front of his car and a heavy set baseball capped yokel got out. “Oh God!” Neville stared in terror as the figure shambled over to his drivers side window and tapped on it. Shaking inside, Neville wound the window down a careful inch.
“Say friend.” Said a gruff, friendly rural voice. “You know what’s going on?”
“No.” Neville said, using a soiled tissue to blow his nose.
“People acting crazy, like they’re high on drugs or sumpin?”
“Er, no.” Neville replied. Was this some kind of alt-right survivalist weirdo come to kill him?
“You blind?” The voice enquired sceptically. “Folks smiling all the time and doin’ stupid stuff. You not noticed?”
“Well..” Neville frantically searched for an excuse.
“My wife went a little strange yesterday, just sittin’ in her chair, smiling like she’s touched in the head. Won’t let go of her smartphone.” The stranger continued amiably. “You know anything ‘bout that?”
“No.” Neville said unconvincingly.
“I reckon someone’s been messing with the phone network. Makin’ people go strange.” He produced a smartphone with a heavily cracked screen. “Mine’s only good for talking.” The man explained. “Not that I use it much.”
“I-I wouldn’t know.” Neville stammered. Realisation began to creep across his mind.
“See that smoke?” The man pointed. “Looks like somethin’s burnin.”
“You sure you don’t know what’s going on? You look like you might.”
“W-Why do you think that?”
“Cause you got a Federal parking pass hanging off your mirror. ‘Cause you’re acting real scared.” The man scratched his stubbled chin. “I figure you’re in denial.”
“Oh really.” Neville fell back on unconvinced sarcasm.
“Yep. I figure from the way you look, you might have an answer.”
“It’s not my fault! I’m just a hardware tech!” Neville broke and began to cry again.
“Hey, hey now.” Said the man gently. “There’s a time for tears and it ain’t right now. If you’re one of those people that made this craziness happen, you got a duty to set things right.”
“Why don’t you?” Neville said, sniffing.
“I ain’t a technical type. Wouldn’t know what buttons to press. I don’t have no Federal access pass on my dashboard, neither.” The man pointed out, a little too observantly for Neville’s liking.
“So what do I do?” Wailed Neville.
“What you have to.” Said the man. “That’s just my opinion ‘o course.” He turned away and went to watch the smoke rising, clambering up to stand on the rear bed of his pickup truck for a better view. A battered sedan swerved along the road, narrowly missing the man’s pickup, spitting gravel as it clipped the roadside before disappearing off the road into some bushes. The man on the back of the pickup truck gave Neville a pointed look. Neville decided it was time to go home.
All the way back to his apartment, Neville felt that stern expression haunting him. The man had seen right through him at a glance. How could that be? Was this some kind of Karmic justice? A supernatural judgment for caring nothing but for his paycheck? Thankfully Mel was asleep in bed, her friends occupying the floor wrapped up in duvets. He tiptoed in and slunk guiltily between the sheets. Mel opened her eyes. “Oh hi.” She smiled. “You’re late. You missed a lovely time.” She closed her eyes and wrapped herself around him before Neville drifted off into a guilt-ridden sleep.
In the morning he slipped out of bed and left Mel sleeping before six, not bothering with breakfast. He stopped at the lunch room vending machine for a half stale donut and coffee, noting that no-one else was around. Two or three of the night crew were half dozing in the main office, but a short walk around showed that the remaining personnel were still in total bliss mode. He had no idea what had happened to security. A screen showing the ubiquitous news feed showed a happy looking female presenter laughing at plane crashes and sundry other disasters around the globe.
Neville watched in horror as ordinarily sane individuals took crazy risks on camera and paid the ultimate price of failure. The worst thing about it, he thought, was how happy everyone else seemed about the mayhem unfolding before their eyes. Like everyone was competing for a Darwin Award.
Okay, he was going to have to stop the machine, but how? If he simply cut the power to the data centre, wouldn’t someone just reboot the stacks once the power was back on? How long would he have to get away before people began to wake up? Would they stay happy? Would they go crazy? Would they find out he wrecked everything and do something horrible to him or throw him in jail with murderers and rapists? A brief nightmare vision of being strapped into the electric chair by laughing guards passed through his mind. He began to sweat.
Down in the familiar air-conditioned cool of the data centre he began to calm down a little. Outside were millions, maybe billions of happy zombies out there setting the world ablaze. Mel was one. He was sure it was only a matter of time before she and her girlfriends… No, that didn’t bear thinking about. He had to bring the world to its senses, but how? Neville didn’t have the admin codes or passwords and there was no single cable to be cut. He could try disconnecting all the main patch cables but that would only leave the monster ready for resurrection. The drives had to be wiped, irrevocably, the whole place wrecked, but where to begin? If he tried deliberately setting something on fire, there would simply be a massive halon dump from the fire suppression system and he’d suffocate.
All that day he pored over the online project specifications, looking for some way to patch a cable so that the system would purge itself. Nothing. The off-site backups would have to go too, or someone would just reboot the insanity he’d seen outside.
After seven solid hours he could not think of a single way to make it happen. Then his phone rang. “Hey, how’s everybody’s favourite hardware engineer?” It was Bonnie, newly promoted to data processing team lead.
“Busy.” Neville lied.
“Look, everyone is so super pleased, we’re going out for a beer or three.” Bonnie said happily. “You wanna come?”
“I can’t. Too much to do.” Well, it was kind of true.
“Hey, hey. If you can’t make it, can you hold the fort?”
“Is that okay? What if something goes wrong?” Neville said. “I’m just hardware. I don’t know about the data processing side.”
“It’s easy. All you have to do is make sure data volumes don’t go over limit.”
“How do I do that?”
“Just open up new channels as data volumes increase. Very intuitive. Easy peasy.”
“What will happen if I get it wrong?”
“Not much, but it might cook the processors. We’ve got them overclocked as it is. Just don’t untick the auto load balancing feature.” Bonnie didn’t seem concerned at all.
Neville’s mind raced as he began to see the answer to his dilemma. Overclocked processors tended to run hot. Sometimes very hot indeed. Maybe if he turned the data centres air conditioning up high and cascaded the data flows from server to server in sequence the processors would burn out and corrupt the whole system. “Oh yeah. You’ll need the admin codes and passwords. I’ll send them direct to your terminal. Hold on.” Bonnie giggled. Then his screen bleeped and there they were. Oh. My. God. Neville’s jaw dropped. Full admin access. The keys to the castle. “Play nice now.” Bonnie rang off.
Neville logged on with shaky hands. Once in he could see the whole network, all the data flows. It was incredibly big, using massive fibre links and satellites to connect the entire world almost instantaneously. All the special signals coded to trigger euphoria in anyone with a smartphone.
Setting the network load balancing to manual, he waited an hour before turning the air conditioning to full and shifting data flows through two of the server stacks. Ten seconds later the sound of multiple ‘pfft’ noises and a whiff of burning plastic announced the demise of two server units. Two stacks, a hundred processors in each, the fans driving weak smoke trails away from fire detectors.
Carefully opening one of the rapidly cooling cabinets he saw the heat discolouration on circuit boards and flash memory units. He pulled a circuit board. All of the chipsets were damaged and two had literally exploded but the automatic fire alarms hadn’t gone off. Neville gave a little shudder and looked around guiltily.
After a few minutes waiting for alarms that didn’t go off, he carefully began scheduling data flows, experimenting by shunting them across the network, setting up multiple cascades in the backup and emergency backup sites, watching displays disappear as servers went offline. Then he repeated the process with the data sub centres placed all over the world. He estimated three hours before the main server stacks began to run ever hotter until their processors failed. Then the beast would die and hopefully everyone would return to normal. He hoped. Logging off, Neville wrote a careful resignation email and left at exactly six forty five, leaving his pass at the deserted security post.
By the time the first main stacks overloaded he was three hours drive away, ten miles north of the Canadian border. By the time the last one went an hour later, he was heading west along a long straight gravel road north across flat Manitoban croplands. By the time the sun went down, he was heading toward Alberta and the Rocky mountains. Whatever happened, he was going to find somewhere very remote to hide until everyone had calmed down.