There was a sticky note at the top of Hunter’s monitor that read in case of emergency, call Shawn. He’d hardly noticed the sharp black lines of the text before, but now, as the time passed two in the morning, he’d taken to reading the hastily scribbled phone number over and over again.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
He found it hard not to be nervous. He was, after all, new to the team at Reticular Code, and had only worked his midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift a few times since Monday. Shawn Henderson had been with the company since its inception back in 2012. He was the most senior engineer and for some reason, had given Hunter his personal cell number to call in case anything went wrong.
No call-down list. No escalation chain. Just straight up the ladder as high as he could go without talking to the CEO.
The job wasn’t supposed to be this nerve-wracking. Hunter was already taking a fifteen hour courseload at UT; his engineering apprenticeship at Reticular was just something to pad his resume and maybe put a few extra bucks in his pocket. When they’d assigned him an overnight monitoring shift, basically a glorified digital security guard position, he hadn’t complained. The extra hours allowed him to do the homework he’d put off while he slept in the late afternoon and evening.
For most of the week, he’d done just that. After logging in and bringing up a matrix of graphs and gauges, he spent most of his time studying diagrams for an Electrical Engineering course or trying to prove or disprove the estimated efficiency of various array-based sorting methods. But it was all theoretical, and whether he got the answer right on his homework or not had no impact on the real world, except for maybe his final grade.
And really, his digital security gig was theoretical too. Watch the graphs; call if something was out of the ordinary. Shawn had even told him that no one ever called, at least not in the last few years. The MESH had been stable for a long time; Hunter was just there in case something catastrophic happened. So far, nothing had. And even when the alarms started flashing shortly before 2:00 a.m., Hunter couldn’t believe it had anything to do with the MESH.
His palette clicked as he put it sleep and pushed it off to the side. Pulling the keyboard closer, he ran a command to tail the alarm notifications file. At first, the warning message repeated every few seconds, then every second, until finally the tail was just scrolling continuously.
WARNING: Gigabytes Received Rate is Incrementing.
Hunter sighed, and the sound echoed in the spacious control room everyone called the Bridge. He thought it had something to do with Star Trek, the way desks were set up like battle stations, all facing a single vidscreen that took up an entire wall. All of the desks were empty now and LEDs in the ceiling were graded all the way down. Not that it mattered; the vidscreen on the wall was giant enough to light the entire room.
The warning message wasn’t tagged with any of the MESH’s subsystems, which meant the problem wasn’t with the project. Instead, it seemed to be coming from a basic infrastructure monitoring daemon. Hunter switched out of the terminal window and brought up a web app to view the office’s network. Sure enough, one graph was highlighted in red, and when he clicked on it, the problem became clear.
Gigabytes Sent/Received, read the title of the graph.
Over the last twenty-four hours, bandwidth usage for the offices of Reticular Code had hovered at a nominal twenty to thirty megabytes per second, dipping a little after 10:00 p.m. after the last developer had gone home for the day. That traffic was represented by a squiggly blue line at the bottom of the graph, all of the detail lost as the Y axis grew to accommodate a massive spike.
Now the incoming traffic had leveled off at a sustained four hundred Gigabytes per second, which was so unbelievably high for a non-VR environment that at first, Hunter didn’t think it was real. The problem had to be with the monitoring or with a router sending back bad data. There was no way an empty office could be sucking down that much data from another server on the network. Maybe if they were muxing the connection, but even then…
Hunter thought about the various systems running in the server room next door to the Bridge. There didn’t need to be anyone in the office for those servers to kick off some automated processes that sucked down updates in the middle of the night. Maybe operating systems were getting updated or code backups were being delivered.
No, he thought. Code backups would be going the other way.
His eyes jumped to the yellow sticky note. Was it worth waking up Shawn? How pissed would he be if it turned out to be nothing?
Hunter brought up the company chat window and typed a message into the general channel.
Anyone up? he asked.
No response came; all of the status indicators on the profile pictures in the sidebar were red. Everyone was offline except him.
Seeing some weird bandwidth spikes, he wrote. Not sure if it’s a normal Friday morning thing, but I wanted to check.
He let the message sit for a minute and then minimized the window. As he watching the bandwidth graphic, the thin blue line representing incoming traffic suddenly fell off a cliff. The gauge on the right side of the screen showed the 1-minute average traffic falling back to normal levels.
Whatever it was, it was over. Now there was no reason to call Shawn; it wasn’t as if the building were on fire. There’d been a spike in traffic, but nothing else. Hunter would probably find out later that it was just a scheduled download and nothing more.
Hunter stood up from his chair and tried to shake the nervous energy out of his legs. When pacing behind his chair didn’t work, he left the Bridge and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. There was a cold pot sitting on the counter near the coffee maker. As he washed it out, he thought about whether he should have called Shawn anyway.
Maybe the engineer would have appreciated a call that had come not from inexperience and panic but from an abundance of caution. Thanks for letting me know, he imagined Shawn saying. Keep up the good work.
Hunter set a new pot to brew and snagged a foil package of Pop Tarts from the basket next to the fridge. The free snacks at Reticular were definitely a perk, especially considering the only food he had in his dorm room was ramen and half a bag of Doritos. All things considered, he’d have waived the fifteen dollars an hour and just taken the free coffee and snacks.
When he sat back down at his desk, he started to tear the foil package opened but stopped. Prior to getting up, he’d minimized all of the windows on his desktop. They were still down, but a single window now sat in the center of the screen. The path showed it to be his personal Downloads folder. He clicked the X in the corner to close the window, but another popped up in its place, this time his Documents folder. Before he could even move the cursor, another window appeared slightly offset, then another.
Hunter shook his head and looked around the room, looking for someone to confirm he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. The room was still empty, but every computer had woken up. Even behind the blur of lock screens, he could see windows opening on the desktop.
Someone was searching the computers.
Hunter tossed the Pop Tarts onto the desk and fumbled for his cell phone. He held it up to the sticky note and thumbed in the numbers.
The ringing rattled his chest, and it went on seemingly forever. Hunter was sure he was going to get dumped to voicemail, but finally, Shawn answered.
“What’s up, Hunt?” he asked, sounding groggy.
Hunter vomited the words down the line, unable to control his panic. “I think we have a hacker!”
Shawn responded with a dismissive chuckle. “Oh yeah? What makes you think that?”
“There was a traffic spike ten minutes ago and now all the computers are on and folders are opening everywhere like someone’s controlling them remotely.”
A groan. “Alright, give me a second.”
“What should I do?”
“Just… just wait.”
A rustling sound came down the line, followed by the clacking of a keyboard. At first, Shawn typed tentatively, almost as if he were annoyed. Then his speed picked up. Hunter heard him pounding the Enter key a few times.
“Well, shit on a biscuit, you’re right. Something definitely spiked. Here’s what I need you to do and I need you to do it right away.”
“Okay, I’m ready.”
“Go to my office and open the drawer on the lower left. Reach inside and taped to the roof is a cage key. Get that and head to the server room. And fucking hurry, Hunt.”
Hunter ran out of the room and into the dark hallway that led to the engineering and development offices. LEDs bloomed from racks of equipment, casting beams on the long windows that looked into each room. Shawn’s office was at the end, one of the two larger offices in the suite. The door was unlocked, and once he was inside, the lights came up automatically.
He had to push a chair aside to get at the bottom drawer. It slid out and stopped with a clang that echoed back down the hall. Groping blindly, he felt for the key with this sweaty fingers.
“Did you find it yet?”
Hunter dragged his finger over a jagged piece of metal and then dug at it with his fingernail. The cage key popped free of the tape and fall into his palm.
“Got it,” he said.
“Alright, come on, move your ass. You need to get to the server room now.”
He ran again, the intricacies of red-black trees forgotten, along with his fatigue and the brewing coffee. All he knew was he needed to get to the server room and save the company, because that’s what he was doing, right?
Hunter smiled and threw his shoulder against the server room door. The lights inside clicked on as chilled air rushed over his damp face.
“Turn right and go to the back of the room. Take a left at the while until you’re in the far corner.”
Loops of Ethernet cables and fiber reached out for him, like the woody skeletons of trees in the winter. Hunter kept his arms close and pounded the raised floor with his sneakers.
“Unlock the cage and look at the top of the rack. Do you see the patch panel?”
“Hold on,” said Hunter. He fumbled with the key, dropped it, and scooped it back up again. His second attempt to unlock the cage succeeded, and as the gate swung open, he looked to the top of the rack. “Patch panel, got it.”
“Look for the orange fiber coming in from the top of the cage. That’s the link from Time Warner. Pull it.”
“Yeah, yank it out.”
Hunter gave the thin cable a tug, but the connector was securely joined with the patch panel.
“It won’t come out.”
“Just pull on the cable. Break the glass inside.”
Hunter looped his fingers and pulled. The orange cable came free of the connector and dangled lifelessly in the cage.
“Okay, okay it’s done,” he stammered. “Cable’s out.”
“Good job,” said Shawn. “You just isolated us from the network. Whoever was going through our shit just lost their connection.”
The whir of thirty server cages pressed down on Hunter. He no longer wanted to be in the server room or the building for that matter.
“Alright, then I’m gonna go outside. I need some fresh air.”
“The fuck you are,” said Shawn. “You’re gonna sit tight until I get there. Don’t touch any of the computers. Don’t leave the building or even go out in the main hall. If you see anyone other than me at the outer door, you call the police. Got it?”
“I… yeah,” said Hunter, confused. “Am I danger?”
“Won’t know until I get there,” said Shawn, his smile detectable even over the phone. “I’ll see you in twenty.”
The line clicked dead. Hunter’s whisperer defaulted to the last media he’d played—a mix of old Country music from the previous century. Hunter listened to Randy Travis sing about the secret daddy’s tell their children as the office grew still, quiet, and somehow… dangerous.