The Particle

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Something strange is happening in a big corporate data center, and it's up to the resident techie to figure it out.

Submitted: March 29, 2008

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 29, 2008



Micah Gardner glanced outside at another gray and wet Philadelphia morning. He watched the poplars and maples along the back edge of his yard for a moment, glistening bright green against the dark sky. As if on cue, heavy raindrops resonated loudly on the window of his home office, the flowing sheet of water distorting his view of the trees.

He looked back toward his desk as his personal computer sprang to life. He placed his right index finger on the print recognition pad as the system logged him in to Uni*Star's corporate network. His inbox started swelling with a stream of emails, reports, and log messages. He shook his head as he watched the screen indifferently, then he closed his eyes for a moment.

His thoughts were on yesterday's stunning news about Jessie Hatch. It was shocking and unfair, but she was gone. A feeling of finality and helplessness overwhelmed him.

He had worked with the thirty-year-old brunette on the secure access project and admired her for her energy and enthusiasm, qualities he hadn't displayed for a long time. She used to send him instant messages while he was in his office at the data center, asking for technical help, or inviting him to partake in cookies or other homemade treats. He always enjoyed visiting her in her cubicle, the fabric walls festooned with artwork by her preschool nephew and photos from her competitive volleyball days. She always seemed glad to see him.

A few months ago her doctors had confidently declared success in her battle with ovarian cancer. She was firmly in remission, they'd assured, thanks to early detection and aggressive treatment. Jessie and her girlfriends subsequently threw a huge party at Jonesey's to celebrate her restored health. Tears and hugs and margaritas flowed freely as everyone congratulated Jessie on beating the odds. Micah was there and he marveled at the joy in Jessie's voice and her smile. Away from their work environment, they seemed to bond as the two of them talked long into the night.

His friend Pete had called him yesterday with the news: she was found in her cubicle, slumped over the keyboard. The paramedics arrived quickly but couldn't save her.

~ o O o ~

Micah tried to focus on his work as best he could. He reviewed his projects and issues from yesterday. He glossed over,, and other web sites for technology news. But unlike most days, there wasn't much that could distract him.

Finished with the news, he opened a link that directed him to job opportunities within the company. With his growing dissatisfaction at work, he'd made it a habit to stay informed about other positions Uni*Star was looking to fill. Like most large corporations, the company was always churning people: laying off in one division while hiring in the other.

The first open position was a new listing: "External Customer Technical Analyst II". He started reading the description of duties, and the job location, realizing immediately that this was Jessie's job up for bid.

Anger shot through his temples. He unconsciously clenched his jaw. Boy, the company doesn't waste any time when customers are screaming and projects are slipping.

Not surprisingly, Jessie's manager, Wayne Hromka, was responsible for this job posting. His reputation as a tyrant was legendary. He once denied time off to an employee for her own wedding (after all, she was still in her probationary period). He also discontinued staff meetings after he grew tired of pointed challenges by employees during question and answer sessions. His main concern was making himself look good to the Chief Information Officer, everyone else be damned.

Like other players in the telecommunications industry, Uni*Star was infamous for ruthless dedication to the pursuit of profit. Mid-level managers like Hromka were admonished to "make the numbers" and were rewarded with bonuses and stock options when their budget goals were reached, regardless of how detrimental the cuts were to employees and customers.

At that moment, Micah felt total disgust with the modus operandi of Hromka and the company in general. He hoped Jessie's family would not inadvertently hear of their daughter's job being posted one day after she died.

~ o O o ~

Despite his personal dissatisfaction with work, to any impartial observer, Micah had it pretty good. Demand was high for his area of expertise and he was considered a top-notch technical resource, very well paid for a thirty-four-year-old with a two-year degree.

In addition, like the past couple of days, he could work from home thanks to his remote office. Obviously, it wouldn't be a real good atmosphere in there today anyway. There would be time for grieving among his peers at the visitation on Thursday night; he didn't need that today.

He began sifting through his emails, scanning and deleting the system warnings, alerts, and logs. Occasionally he made a note to himself to check something that looked like a concern.

A wind gust blew the rain sharply against his window. He clicked idly on Uni*Star's internal directory. Inexplicably, human resources hadn't yet removed Jessie's profile from the system. He looked at her ID photo on his display, that warm engaging smile and those pretty brown eyes that carried both charm and a hint of flirtation. He was always bewitched by her eyes, clear and bright and dark. But now, they haunted him.

~ o O o ~

Micah's pensive mood was abruptly shattered by the buzz of the Smartphone clipped to his belt, which alerted him to a problem in the Accounts Payable grid. According to the alert, one of four servers in this high-availability system had just crashed hard. Micah logged in and confirmed that the alert was valid: the first system in the cluster was not responding. He would be responsible for fixing the problem.

Immediately, an instant message appeared on his workstation screen as the AP manager, Scott Denker typed: You know anything about this alert we just got? Micah was about to type back his response, but he realized the worrywarts in AP would appreciate some hand-holding. Though Denker irritated him sometimes, he did have a good working relationship with him, so instead of typing back he picked up the phone and dialed his number.

"Scott, what'd you do to my server?" he said with mock outrage when Denker answered on the first ring.

"Hey man, it wasn't me. I'm sticking to that story!"

Micah chuckled, then paused before speaking. "Well, obviously we just lost a node, but your grid is still up and everything is operational. New connections are flowing okay. Judging by the current traffic, you dropped maybe 4 or 5 users when the system went down, but it looks like they've all reconnected to a good system."

"Well that's good to know," Denker said with relief in his voice. "Do we have an ETA on repair?"

"Not yet. I'll start diagnostics and take a look. We should have an answer pretty quickly."

"Thanks Micah, just keep me in the loop."

"Okay Scotty, will do." Micah knew that Denker hated to be called "Scotty".

~ o O o ~

Micah logged in to the concentrator that enabled him to view the failed system's display, just as if he were standing in the computer room. He wasn't prepared for what he saw. Hundreds of memory state errors appeared on the screen, each one with a different hardware identifier. That meant that every memory module in the system failed. Even more bizarre, there was a delay of a minute or so between the messages for each module. Then finally, the system crashed.

He stared at the screen in disbelief. One bad memory module? Sure, it happens all the time. But having eight failures in the span of a few minutes was unheard of. What's more, every attempt to bring the system back up failed. Micah opened a service request for hardware replacement and relayed the news to Scott without mentioning the multiple failures.

~ o O o ~

In the afternoon, the rain finally seemed to let up a bit. Even as he worked on his other projects, Micah couldn't fathom what had happened with the AP system. Loose ends were not for him. He had to understand the situation, and as of right now he couldn't.

He was just about to wrap things up for the day when his Smartphone buzzed again. This time, one of Uni*Star's web proxy servers, which handled internal users' browser requests, reported a bad power supply. Fortunately, the impact of this failure was truly minimal. The server never hiccuped thanks to the second, redundant power module. After a few minutes, the new component and the technician to replace it were dispatched. He logged off and called it a day.

~ o O o ~

He spent the evening sitting in his living room, eating leftover Chinese food and watching a DVD of presentations from the recent System Security Conference that he was unable to attend in person. He listened attentively but realized most of the information was nothing new.

The separation from Jacquie last year and their subsequent divorce left him indifferent, discouraged, and somewhat bitter. He was acutely aware that he should "get a life" just as she easily had. But he was exhausted tonight and felt more than justified in cracking open another cold beer, sipping it slowly, and relaxing. Before long he drifted off to sleep there on the sofa, with the seemingly endless stream of monotonic presentations still droning on his big screen TV.

~ o O o ~

The DVD was long finished when the buzzing plastic box on his belt shook him awake. He looked at the clock: 4:15 AM. He rubbed his eyes groggily and stood, then walked down the hall to his office.

He logged in and finally looked at his Smartphone screen. More outages. At least four, possibly more. The operations center was paging him. He tried to think of the last time he'd had this many failures in such a short time, but couldn't.

He called the on-duty supervisor, an amicable fellow everyone knew as Big Bill. Clearly though, Bill was not having a good night: when he answered the phone, he sounded both exasperated and overdosed on caffeine.

"Micah, what's happening to these systems? I'm getting hardware alerts, drive failures, dead interfaces, you name it. I just got off the phone with Tony; the network group got an alert on a failed router, too."

"We're not having a good week." Micah was aware his voice was still sleepy and tentative. "Uh, what are the environmentals like?

"Nah, we already checked. The AC power is steady, no spikes or brownouts. Same with temperature and humidity; the room's been between 65 and 67 degrees at every sensor. Hromka even had security look at the video of the server room floor for the last 24 hours. They fast-forwarded through every camera angle. Nothing."

Typical Hromka, suspecting sabotage. Then again, without any other answers Micah realized he'd have done the same. "Alright, I'll take a look and see what I can do from here. Are any of our main applications affected?"

"The certificate server is down." That meant the Internet secure sign-in function was disabled and no one could log in to the Uni*Star web site.

"I'll get on that one first and call you back. Anything else comes up, you can just page me, okay?"

"I'll try not to bother you 'less I have to. You're gonna have a long day."

"No shit, Billy. Save me some of that disgusting pizza you always buy." They both chuckled broadly despite the situation.

~ o O o ~

The certificate server was toast. Three interfaces lost connection with the network and the system would not boot. The project manager should have budgeted for a backup system, but it was caught up in financial purgatory.

Another clustered system lost all four hard drives. All four! The failure messages occurred about 3 minutes apart on each disk.

Two other systems fared a little better. Another bad power supply, and, of all things, a failed video display adapter.

He called Big Bill with the updates, opened all the service requests, and got in the shower. He rocked his head in fatigue and exasperation as the warm water sprayed over him. He stood still, closed his eyes for a moment and let the water run down his face. It seemed impossible that there could be any common thread to all these failures, but then he was facing the prospect of explaining why there wasn't.

The rain had returned as a light drizzle. The drive to the data center that early in the morning was decent; traffic had not yet begun to build. Micah was channel surfing on satellite radio, when a song from the late '60's Stones album Beggar's Banquet filled his car:

There's a regiment of soldiers
Standing looking on
And the queen is bravely shouting,
"What the hell is going on?"

What the hell, indeed. It was a vivid reminder of his current dilemma.

~ o O o ~

The data center was housed in a long, single-level building with a faded green scalloped façade that ran all the way down the front. The structure looked like a rectangular slab of concrete pushed into the side of a gentle sloping hill. The view from the front of the building was quite pleasant, looking east over suburban Philly and the Delaware Valley. A large security screening entrance sat directly behind the main double doors, a few steps from the front parking lot.

In the center of the structure, surrounded by office space, was the actual raised-floor server room, with rack after rack of computers arranged in rows like bookshelves in a library. Two additional security doors separated the office space from the server room entrance. It was a highly controlled environment; no one was admitted unless they had multiple approvals, and even then access time was strictly controlled. Video cameras taped all activity in the room.

After clearing security, Micah turned left and walked directly to his office, halfway down the main hall. The ever-present smell of coffee and laser toner filled the office. A few other early birds were also there this morning.

He gave the operations center a quick call to let them know he was on site. Big Bill had left, no doubt exhausted by the long shift full of problems he'd handled, so he talked for a moment with his good friend Pete Baird who'd also just come on duty.

He gulped down a cup of weak coffee, then set about his work in recovering the most critical system, the certificate server.

The sound of Hromka's voice bellowing down the hall filled him with loathing. He continued to focus on his recovery notes. Even though Micah didn't report directly to him, he still made life miserable for him and attempted to control his time whenever he thought it would be to his benefit.

Of course, Hromka came bounding into his office.

"Mr. Gardner! Good morning! I'll bet I know what you're working on."

"I'm sure you do." Without turning his head away from his work, he embellished the disdain in his voice for Hromka's benefit.

"Well, I need to know what the hell is happening in my data center, and I'm counting on you for answers. I don't like taking calls from our CIO asking me why people can't log in to our site. Downtime, bad. Thousands of dollars in lost revenue, very bad."

Only then did Micah turn to face the man. Hromka's hands were on his hips in a forced, confrontational pose.

He got up and walked forward until he was nearly toe-to-toe with the sniveling manager. He smiled and spoke firmly and plainly.

"Well Wayne, I'm sure we'll have some answers for you, but it will be after we get these systems back up. As far as your precious numbers, why don't you cut our service contract, like you did last time? I'm sure another four hours of downtime while waiting for technicians and parts won't make that much difference."

They both heard it: the muffled snickers of employees who overheard the conversation. Micah stifled a smile himself. His adversary was clearly taken aback.

"Look, I know we have to get these servers back online, and I appreciate your efforts. I just need to know what's causing all these failures, and you need to show some urgency about that."

"Well, the sooner you let me get back to my recoveries, the sooner you'll have your answer. Chatty manager, bad. Wasting my time, very bad."

He might've stopped there, but he didn't.

"By the way, I see you put Jessie's position up for bid. It's been almost two whole days since she died; have you filled it yet?" With that, Micah glared at him, silently counted to three, then turned around and sat back down at his desk.

As Hromka spun around and stomped back down the hall, smatterings of muted applause were heard all over the south end of the office.

~ o O o ~

By 10 AM, the field technicians had replaced all the hardware and the most critical recoveries were in progress, starting with the certificate server. All Micah could do now was wait for the recoveries to complete before tackling the less-critical problems that remained.

He sat in his office, looking at a pile of computer parts on his desk. There was nothing remarkable about their appearance, but they'd all failed in an 18-hour period.

The floor plan of the server room was hanging on his wall. He stared intently at the drawing, examining the grid of rows and cabinets. In his left hand was the report detailing the affected servers, failure time, and cabinet locations.

When the realization came, he sat straight up in his chair and leaned forward as his back stiffened. Sweat formed on his upper lip, and he grabbed the armrests of his chair.

There was something. There was a connection.

With one broad sweep of his now-shaking arm, he cleared his desk of all the failed parts as well as his other papers. He pulled the floor plan off the wall, ripping the corners away from the pins that had held it up, and spread it out on the space he just created. One by one, he drew an "X" on each cabinet location that contained a failed server. He included the network router that had also failed.

All the X's fell in a straight line, starting near the southwest corner and running diagonally across the server room. The Accounts Payable server was the first X on the line, followed by all the others in the order they failed. He further realized that the elapsed time between any two failures was proportional to the distance between them.

In other words, something was moving at a slow but constant speed across the server room, taking out any device in its path.

He understood what the facts were plainly telling him. Whatever this thing was, it was burning out components and downing his servers. He pulled out his calculator and ruler, and dividing distance by time, determined that this thing...this particle or destructive point...was moving at just under two feet per hour across the server room.

He took a few deep breaths and a sip of his coffee. Then he double-checked all his calculations thus far. Although he had figured out its behavior, he obviously had no idea what he was up against.

Extending the line on the floor plan, and adding the number of hours since the last failure, he calculated that the particle, as he thought of it, should now be inside the new backup tape silo.

The silo was about the size of a small minivan and contained storage space for thousands of data tape cartridges, along with jukebox-like robotics that pushed the tapes into backup drives. Being brand new, it was not yet used for actual data backup. It was, however, powered up and operational...or was it?

Micah logged into the silo remotely from his workstation and issued a few commands to see if the robotics would respond. He repeatedly got "device not present" errors. Hallelujah, the particle had also wiped out a $1.5 million tape silo.

He began to simply accept what was happening. Clearly he could not share this with anyone just yet. He was also mindful that he didn't want to appear defensive if suddenly challenged by someone about the outages. For now, he was keeping this secret.

~ o O o ~

It was 11:30 AM. As he returned to his office with more coffee, Micah took stock of a few facts.

The particle was done wreaking havoc in the server room. Since taking out the silo, it was now past any critical equipment. Its trajectory was taking it out into the hallway some time in the next 6-8 hours.

All of the servers that failed were mounted near the bottom of their respective cabinets, roughly one foot off the server room raised floor. Thus the particle was traveling at a constant height. And based on the lack of any image on the security video, the particle was invisible.

He realized he needed a blueprint of the entire building, not just the server room, to find the extended path of the particle. Once again he took a deep breath, then walked down the hall toward the operations center.

Pete Baird knew nearly as much about this place as Big Bill did. He might have something helpful, since he opened up this building for the company nine years ago.

As his ID card opened the operations center door, he saw Pete at his desk. One look told him that his friend was not his usual jovial self.

"Petey, you okay?"

He managed a weak smile when he saw Micah approach. "It's just this business with Jessie really got to me." He quieted his voice to just above a whisper. "This freakin' place killed her. I just know it."

Micah knew what Jessie had meant to Pete. Their friendship, and Pete's obvious affection for Jessie, was the main reason he never pursued her himself.

"You think the stress caused her cancer to return?"

"No, no, no. I saw her Monday and there was nothing wrong with her. I swear to God. I went to see her about some batch jobs Tuesday morning, and something wasn't right. I thought maybe that prick Hromka did something that upset her. An hour later...ah." Pete turned away as his voice started to quaver, and Micah felt the utmost empathy for him, grabbing him firmly on the shoulder.

"It's alright man. She's in a better place, that's for sure."

Pete put his game face back on, deftly changing the subject by congratulating Micah on his dressing-down of Hromka earlier in the day. At that moment--at that very second--another wave of realization came over him. This time his face blanched white, and it was obvious to Pete.

"You gonna pass out on me? Sit down."

He had to sit down. He didn't need to see the floor plan; he saw the diagonal line in his mind's eye, and he already knew.

Jessie's cubicle was behind the server room wall, roughly 50 feet south and west of the first server that failed.

Pete was right. This place had killed her.

~ o O o ~

Pete and Micah went to the break room, but it was noon and packed with employees eating lunch. Micah's hands were shaking a little, so Pete bought him a cream soda, before buying his own cola. They left the break room holding their cold drinks to find a quiet place to talk.

There was an empty conference room close by. Micah walked in first, and looked out the window at the rain, which had picked up in intensity again. He held the cold, wet aluminum can against his forehead. Pete shut the door, then took a sip of his cola before speaking.

"You planning on going to the visitation tonight?"


"Can you give me a ride?"

"Sure. I'm not staying long, though"

"I know, neither am I. Thanks." Pete put his cola down on the conference room table. "Okay, so what was it that made you pale as Casper back there?"

Micah exhaled and shook his head. "I guess it's Jessie, all these server issues, and lack of sleep mainly."

"You're bullshitting me."

Micah turned back toward his friend with a half-smile. Pete knew him too well.

"They want me to come up with a good explanation for all these failures, and I can't."

"Listen, smartass, you're the best there is. You know damn well you'll figure it out." Pete paused for a long time, drinking his soda. "Maybe we can talk about it later. I have to get this thing with Jessie off my chest, too."

"We'll definitely talk later. Listen, there are some things I have to take care of before I can say anything, that's all."

His Smartphone buzzed again. "My recoveries are almost done. I'm gonna finish up and work on these last few systems." He drained the rest of his soda, tossed the can in the trash, then shook Pete's hand and grabbed his shoulder. "Thanks for the support, mi amigo."

"Anytime, smartass." Pete gave his buddy a mock punch in the ribs.

~ o O o ~

He started up the certificate server. It came up fine and he saw users begin to connect to the system. He exhaled deeply, and sent Hromka an email updating the recovery timeline. It was 1:45 PM.

He returned his attention to the computer room floor plan, the thin diagonal line drawn across it. He'd made tick marks along the line corresponding to the time, one per hour.

The particle had just exited the back of the silo and was an hour or so from the inside wall. It would travel through the thick concrete wall at a sharp angle for another three hours. By the time it entered the hallway it would be well after 6 PM, when there would be no one in the office area.

He still needed the blueprint of the whole building. He had an idea where the particle was heading, of course, but he had to know precisely.

He went back to the operations center and quizzed Pete about the building plan he was looking for. "I'm thinking we may have power issues."

Pete reached into his desk drawer. "These are the keys to Big Bill's desk. If those blueprints are anywhere, they'd be in there. But you didn't get this from me." Pete smirked at his buddy.

"I owe you once again, amigo."

"Yes you do, smartass."

~ o O o ~

Big Bill's desk was filled with garbage: old software, trade rags from 5 years ago, serial cables, 9600 baud modems, and other assorted dreck, including a bunch of menus from that disgusting pizza place.

One long drawer contained dozens of rolled-up blueprints. There were no labels identifying them in their rolled state. He noticed one in particular that looked a little dingy, like it had been handled quite often. He unrolled it, realizing he had guessed right: this was the blueprint of the whole building.

The detail of the offices was there, but this drawing was made before the cabinets were installed in the computer room. Nor could he overlay his data floor drawing onto the blueprint, since they were drawn to different scales. Micah was going to have to get creative.

Back in his office, he came upon the idea of marking the entry and exit points of the particle on the data center walls and transferring those proportional distances to the blueprint. He double-checked his points by comparing the respective scales; he knew he had to be accurate.

When he connected the points now, he studied the path. The particle must've come straight out of the woods and the hillside behind the building. It entered near the rear service dock, passed through a recycling bin and the internal rear building wall, then directly through Jessie's cubicle. Then it entered the server room, as he already knew.

All the systems that were affected were mounted one foot high in their respective cabinets. But since the server room had a raised floor, the particle was actually at a height of 3 feet when it passed through Jessie. Its height would once again be 3 feet later tonight in the office area.

Micah followed the line on the drawing and carefully extrapolated its path. This evening, it would be in the main hallway. Tomorrow morning it would be making its way through the last row of offices before exiting the building's east wall sometime tomorrow afternoon. Since the terrain in front sloped downhill, it's likely the particle's level path would take it out hundreds of feet above the Delaware Valley and, eventually, over New Jersey and the Atlantic ocean beyond.

Returning his attention to the blueprint, he followed the path the particle would take tomorrow morning. By 6 AM, it would be nicking the inside corner of Vishy K's office.

By 10 AM, it would be approaching the desk of Mr. Wayne Hromka.

~ o O o ~

It was now 4 PM. With all the systems back in service, he grabbed a yellow legal pad and walked briskly down the hall to Hromka's office.

"Wayne, I was wondering what your schedule looks like tomorrow." He tried to sound conciliatory. "I have some preliminary ideas about these failures I want to discuss with you."

"Damn it, I want to know now. What did you find?"

"Again it's only preliminary, but I think we have a power distribution issue."

"No way. Our power is solid. The building engineers assured me of that today."

"Well I have good evidence of this, but I want to get my facts together and present my case tomorrow." Micah couldn't help swallowing. "Uh, you gonna be around all day?"

Hromka sighed with irritation as he opened his online calendar. "I'll be here on a conference call from 9:30 to 11, then I'm interviewing a job candidate at 11:30." He looked up at Micah. "No, not for Jessie's job. I have 1:15 available. We'll meet here in my office, and I'd appreciate you being on time."

Micah pretended to write something on his pad. "Okay, I'll see you here tomorrow at 1:15."

"Gardner, you'd damn well better not screw this up." He wagged a finger. "If you try to blame this on power and you can't back it up, I will drag your ass through mud."

Micah had had it. "You're welcome, Wayne! It was my pleasure to spend the whole day getting your site back up. I appreciate your gratitude."

Hromka's face flushed red but he said nothing. Micah smirked at him scornfully and spun around to leave.

~ o O o ~

Back in his office, Micah used a wooden yardstick to tear his server room drawing roughly into letter-size sheets. He did the same with Big Bill's blueprint. He took the stack of paper to the copy room and fed it to the shredder, then re-locked Bill's desk and brought the key back to Pete.

He made a face as he reached across Pete's desk for a disgusting slice of leftover pizza. "Cheer up, amigo. I hear better days are ahead for Uni*Star."

Pete looked up at him with a knowing grin. "I can't wait to hear about this. Well smartass, are you up for happy hour tomorrow night at Jonesey's? You know what they say: 'Sober on a Friday night, bad. Sober and alone, very bad.' "

Micah snickered at Pete's weak impression of Hromka. "Yup, I'll meet you there. We can drink to Jessie. Or anything else we might want to drink to."

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