The System is Down
Malware in its various forms had already wreaked havoc on individuals, corporate, and government systems for decades. With the discovery of Stuxnet in 2009, the theory of code being able to cause destruction in the physical world at an industrial scale became reality.
Sandra, a system administrator living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, is taken captive and made to work on a plot to shutdown all computer networks. As a cog in a larger conspiracy, will Sandra just go along with the plan or will she figure a way out of her situation.
The first draft of this story was written between 2010 and 2011. Below is Chapter 1. Other chapters to follow on a semi-weekly basis while I make another editing pass.
"Another Friday night stuck in the datacenter," thought Sandra Hernandez.
After walking through the lobby, she placed her badge near the card reader– an electronic ping quickly followed by a mechanical clunk signaled the unlocking of the door. Sandra blinked against the harsh fluorescent light of the man-trap while she waited for the door behind her to close and latch. She glanced up at the small grey dome housing the security camera before taking a few steps forward through the short hallway. She typed a pin on a number pad above a hand-scanner. The scanner prompted her to place her hand on the spread-fingered outline etched on the reader-plate. Her right hand in position on the chilly plate, she waited a solid ten count for her biometrics to check out before she heard the ping-clunk indicating this second door of the man-trap was now unlocked.
Through the door she entered the dimly lit datacenter. She took a moment to adjust to the changing luminescence. The steel reinforced man-trap door closed as Sandra started walking through the long rows of grey steel cabinets. Each cabinet held various kinds of servers and network equipment only barely visible as multicolored blinking LEDs through the ventilation slats. The din of the cooling fans and power distribution units was broken only by the occasional beep or cycling of an air conditioning chiller. Like a white noise generator turned to eleven, the datacenter smothered all other sounds with a thick blanket of humming electronics.
Pushing ear-buds into her ears, Sandra didn't even turn on the iPod. The silence cut the surrounding environmental noise, and that was music enough.
The maintenance for the website would start in twenty minutes, but there was still prep work to be done. She wanted to get in and out of the frigid sterile canyon as quickly as possible. The raised floor tiles were already making her feet ache. The dehumidified air made her skin itch. She turned a corner to reach her current employer's cage.
Among the many rows of cabinets, a chain-linked fence section of the room was cordoned off. The fence went from below the floor tiles to the exposed ceiling with breaks only for power, networking, and cooling conduits. There were a number of other private fenced off cages that could be seen breaking up the uniformity of the more numerous rows of cabinets, but this area was Sandra's.
At the fenced gate, Sandra took out a key card and swiped it through a reader. At the nearly inaudible beep, she placed her right eye within a few inches of a head height camera as it took a scan of her eye. A light blinked from red to green indicated that card and iris scans passed and she walked through the gate, closing it behind her.
This was the inner sanctum of the network operations for Fugzy- a twelve cabinet row within a cage within a sprawling datacenter complex. There were plans for other datacenter locations in New York, then Europe and Asia. But she didn't see a need for those for some time. That kind of expansion would have to wait until a real product was released and a market began to grow.
The company founders had their reasons for wanting to run their own physical environment. It would’ve been simpler to use an existing managed service or cloud provider. Sandra would’ve have preferred that just to keep her out of the rack-and-stack business. She didn’t argue, though, as she was pulling this gig as a favor. It just meant another late night of playing hardware jockey.
Tonight a new firewall cluster would be put into place. The tedious task of changing the wiring, changing the network configuration on each host, and then going back around again, to make sure that none of the software configurations have been broken in the process were all part of Sandra's job. Nothing a little OCD could not help.
Sandra put down her black nylon and canvas messenger bag and removed a notepad. She opened each of the cabinets' front and back doors by cycling the combination locks of each. She checked her notepad and made sure she had the correct combination as each cabinet had a different set. The last two cabinets in the row contained the company's networking gear. All the wires from each of the other cabinets plugged into some switch or router in this last cabinet. The firewalls were already in place and waited to be plugged in and set up.
After removing her laptop from the messenger bag, she placed it on a shelf in the last cabinet. The real work was about to start. She plugged in the power and the local private network. Ten minutes to go before showtime and Sandra wondered how she got sucked into the startup life again.
A couple of successes sprinkled among the dozens of failures did not make up for the toiling long, odd hours. Each new endeavor promised excitement, adventure, and really wild things. They promised a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow while fattening you up with free caffeine, snacks, and catered meals. Since starting at Fugzy, Sandra could not remember the last time she had a free weekend. She thinks she's been broken up with her boyfriend now for a month or two. It's hard to tell when the only indication was her profile status suddenly displayed as 'Single' after not having been able to meet with Fred for over three weeks.
She was busy helping to build the newest Really-Great-Thing™ that would change the world. At least that's what she told herself. The Kool-Aid hadn't quite taken its full effect yet and she wasn't sure that it ever would.
She missed Fred. He was gentle and caring and worked as a general contractor. When they got together, she never talked shop. He couldn't understand what she did and she didn't care in the slightest. He supported her hobbies and joined in during lazy Sunday Lego construction sessions at her small house. Other times, she would help him wrench on his 1968 Mustang. And sometimes those geek tendencies worked in her favor. Much to Fred's relief she would be the first to suggest the latest action movie for a date night instead of some chick-flick. Being between gigs at the start of their relationship meant that Sandra had a lot of time for Fred.
They'd been together for nearly six months before Sandra had been wrangled into Fugzy. They would go on drives to look at the houses he had built and Fred would joke about how much he would like to build a house for the two of them. Sandra liked the little domestic fantasy, but didn't believe that the dream was particularly realistic. Her nature worked against long-term commitments. Then work started getting in the way and she guessed Fred got tired of waiting for her to return his calls and see him again.
She was good enough at what she did that she was always in demand. Enough so she could take extended breaks between jobs, contracts, and other gigs. There were a number of VCs and head hunters who called on a weekly basis to see if she was available. There was always another startup being formed and in need of help. So few of them, though, were ever worth her time.
At least she could say the idea behind Fugzy felt unique. Unlike so many others, it was not something derivative, or a variation of a theme. The founders of the company were not trying to make the next great search engine or portal or social anything. The technology had nothing to do with video or phones or advertising. In fact, Sandra wasn't entire certain what the product they were developing was supposed to do.
That should have been a really bad sign. But the reality distortion field around Mark and Evan was particularly strong. They could wave their hands and make diagrams on a white board that seemed entirely plausible and rational at the time.
One of them would explain, "It's a ubiquitously accessible cloud data something or other that even your grandma in Hattiesburg could use."
And she'd think, "Yes, that's brilliant! Why hasn't anyone else done this before. We'll make a mint."
But five minutes after walking away, she had no idea what she had just seen or heard. But the carrots were good and the only sticks were the typical long hours and random datacenter visits.
Regardless, even by her standards, there were many red-flags that should have warned her to not to take this job. After a month of working, she still couldn't explain to anyone who asked what the company did or what she was building- other than some typical website bits. Sandra wasn't being obtuse or secretive, she just did not understand.
With five minutes before the start of the maintenance, Sandra sent out a company-wide email regarding the coming outage. This had all been communicated well in advance, but it's always good policy to let people know the immediate status. The work itself would take a few hours and during that time a maintenance webpage will be served from another location.
At the appointed minute, Sandra hit enter on her keyboard initiating the commands to shutdown the service.
And then the lights went out.
"What the shit," she exclaimed, more miffed than worried.
The blinking lights of her servers told her that the machines appeared to still be working. She looked around her and the only things visible were the blinking LEDs from the surrounding equipment. Sandra pulled an ear-bud from an ear and confirmed the drone of the air conditioners- still humming. Looking up, she could no longer see the ceiling of the datacenter. There were no lights up there; no emergency lights, no red dots from the security cameras, nothing but blackness. Only the glow from her laptop screen provided any usable illumination.
She pulled out her cell phone and turned on the flashlight application. Walking to the cage gate, she tried the door. It worked and would let her out when she wanted, but she noticed that the card scanner was not on. When she closed the cage, the lock still engaged. If she left now, she wouldn't be able to get back in until the power was fully restored and the maintenance had already started.
Certainly, this was just a glitch in the power distribution grid, she thought. It made sense that the lights would be separate from the cooling and the cabinets.
She closed the cage door, double checked that the lock engaged and returned to the last cabinet in the row to continue the work.
On her laptop, Sandra brought up a browser and checked the operating status of the servers; all applications were stopped and the machines were still running. Precisely the state she wanted them to be. She sent the remote commands to change the configurations to match the future network layout.
With the software configuration changes completed, the rewiring started. A little anal-retention went a long way, and every cable was labeled. Even in the dim light from her phone, she could read the port numbers and made the appropriate changes. From the firewalls to the servers to the routers, the configuration changes looked good.
Sandra started up the services for testing under the new network. Unit tests passed for each of the applications. Other tests made sure all the bits between servers communicated together properly. Satisfied that everything would probably work, she sent the command to restart all the servers and brought the site back live for the world to access.
She watched the status updates on her screen when a gloved hand clapped across her mouth.
She tried to scream, but only, "mmhuufff," came out.
From behind her, she heard, "Sssssshhhh," blown in her ear before everything went black and Sandra passed out.
It'd been a good long day and the guys had done a great job finishing the office build-out. Now the cube assemblers and the cable guys could come in and complete the final parts of the office. Out of his own pocket, Fred handed out cash to the laborers when he dropped them off at the Home Depot parking lot.
After cleaning off the construction dust of the day, Fred headed to City Pub for dinner. A long serpentine bar encompassed one side of the restaurant opposite a crackling brick fireplace within the bar situated on a restaurant row in the mid-Peninsula town of Redwood City.
The place was unusually full for a Wednesday afternoon with nearly no open spots at the bar available. Fred walked up to what appeared to be an empty barstool. He discovered, instead, a messenger bag placed on the stool.
Fred guessed that the owner of the bag was the woman staring at the dark pint of beer in front of her.
"scuse me, is there anyone sitting here," Fred asked the woman, while pointing at the stool.
She didn't answer or even move, but continued to stare at the pint.
Thinking she had not heard him, Fred leaned over the stool towards her and said, "Excuse me, is-"
"Sorry, observing the cascade of Guinness is a transcendental near religious experience. Let me move my bag for you."
"Thanks," Fred replied.
A pint of Guinness arrived in front of Fred as he sat down in the now vacant bar stool.
"Hey, Mitch," Fred said to the bartender delivering the beer, "Couldya order me up a bacon burger with swiss when you get the chance."
"Sure thing, Chief," Mitch answered as he turned towards the bar POS terminal to punch in the order for the kitchen.
While waiting for the cascade of his own Guinness to finish, Fred looked around the bar. A group of sales guys occupied most of the bar to his right like an loud gaggle of oil soaked ducks. They appeared to be celebrating something and were well lubricated. The rest of the bar appeared occupied with couples leaning close to each other in order to ignore the boisterous party.
Fred turned to the woman to his left, the owner of the messenger bag, and asked, "You tech?"
After finishing a slow draw from her now half full pint, she replied, "Is it that obvious?"
"You throw a rock around the Bay, you're almost guaranteed to hit someone in tech. It's an easy guess," he laughed. "I'm Fred Jenkins," he said and held out his right hand.
"Sandra Hernandez," she replied over emphasizing the Rs while shaking Fred's hand. "Yer not in tech are you?"
Shaking his head in the negative, "Construction. Is it that obvious?"
"Well, I could tell you work with your hands by the calluses."
Looking at his palms, Fred shrugged, "Yeah, they get a beatin’, but it's the work I like."
"Well that can't be all bad, then. So few people get to make a living doing what they like." Sandra looked into Fred's eyes and smiled, "You building anything interesting right now?"
"Just finished an interior commercial remodel up on Sand Hill Road. New incubator space. Glass walled rooms at wonky angles and shit ass pastels everywhere."
"Money's no substitute for taste, I guess. At least with some of my residential work, I get to work with some good architects. But the commercial stuff's more regular and pays better."
"Hrmmm," Sandra murmured and turned her attention back to her Guinness, now nearly empty.
Not wanting to lose the conversation, Fred asked, "So what made you a Guinness fan?"
"Oh," Sandra smiled and took a last sip of her pint, "A trip to the western coast of Ireland. A four hundred year old pub in Ardara, so far away from Dublin that the quality truck didn't make it out there. They were proud of that and their pints. And that's what turned me on to the black nitrogenated gold."
"Sounds like a nice trip. I've not made it there yet. Can I buy you another pint," Fred asked as his burger arrived.
"No, sorry. I've had my one for the night and need to head back to work to finish my project."
She left some cash on the bar to cover her beer and turned away to get off the stool.
"But, I'll take a rain check," she said, "Give me your number, I'll call you."
From his wallet, Fred pulled out a slightly bent business card.
"That number's my cell. It's surgically attached," he pointed to the bluetooth dongle hanging in his ear– a uniform requirement for contractors.
Sandra took the card from Fred without looking at it and placed it in a pocket of her messenger back. She turned and walked out into the night.
Fred asked Mitch who was clearing Sandra's place at the bar, "She ever come in here before?"
"Not during my watch, friend," Mitch shrugged and put the glass away to be cleaned.
One of the slick guys in the group next to him said, "She's a lesbo, man."
"How you figure that," Fred asked.
"Cuz otherwise, she'd be hanging off my jock right now."
Another drunk asshole, he thought and turned back to eating his burger. Fred and the other patrons worked hard to ignore the group of loud drunks.
Sandra awoke with a deep throbbing in her head. She tried to scream, but a gag stifled any sound she attempted to make. Her hands held fast by plastic zip-ties attach to the cold steel frame of the bed she was bound. Any attempt to free her hands caused the ties to tighten and cut into her wrists. Her legs, held in the same way, were at least cushioned by her socks.
Okay, okay, okay, breath damn it, breath, she thought. Eyes opened, but a blindfold covered them imperfectly. She could tell there was light around her, but no shapes and no movement. Sandra concentrated on trying to breath, but the chemical smell of the gag made her feel sick.
Fuck, what can we do. Grrrrr, shit, okay, let's take an inventory, she thought. She forced herself to take a deep breath and tried not to throw up. My clothes seem to all be on. That's a plus. Nothing aches any worse than my head. So I've got that going for me.
The metal springs under the thin mattress creaked as she wiggled on the twin bed. What just happened, damn it. Breath.
Sandra closed her eyes behind the blindfold to concentrate. I was in the datacenter. I'd just set the maintenance to end. Then a glove to my face. Another few breaths and she remembered, Wait, wait, the fucking lights had all gone out when the maintenance started. Is that related? Has to be.
Shit, where the hell am I now, and she thrashed her head around to try and get the blindfold off with no success. She opened her eyes and peered through the thick translucent cover and tried to look around. No details emerged.
Sandra took another deep breath and held as still as she could. She strained her ears to try and make out any noise around her, but she heard nothing but the thrum thrum thrum of her blood pumping through her head.
She sighed and thought, no sheets on this shit mattress and I'd swear I slept on this thing in the dorms. But the last time I was tied up, it was with some cheap stockings with Ray in college.
While struggling against her bindings a shadow passed in front of Sandra.
"We can't have you making so much noise right now," the shadow said.
Then the chemically scented gloved hand covered her nose and mouth and again the blackness.
Her next wake up was accompanied by the loud rumble of engines. Sandra couldn't figure out which was louder– the engines or her throbbing head. She now found herself seated, hands bound behind her back, legs shackled, and seat belted into an airplane jump seat. Only her mussed up hair obscured her vision. Sandra tossed her head to try and clear her face.
"Oh christ," she exclaimed. A crick in her neck sent shooting pain down her spine.
"You're awake," an unseen male voice spoke over the plane's PA. "Welcome to flight zero to I'm not telling you where. Sadly, there will be no beverage or food service on this flight. But we hope you have a pleasant journey, so long as you don't cause us too much trouble."
Looking around, Sandra saw pallets of equipment in the dim hold and two serious looking men seated in jump seats across from her.
"Hey," Sandra said over the rumble of the engines, "I really need to piss."
"Boys, take her to the loo. And Mizz Airnandez, may I remind you to not try anything if you wish to remain conscious for the remainder of the flight," the unseen voice responded.
One of the men opposite her unbuckled himself and came over to Sandra. Tall and looking like he may be made of depleted Uranium, Sandra sat passively while he removed her leg shackles, unbuckled her seatbelt, and helped her to her feet. Without a word, he guided her with a meaty hand on her shoulder towards the front of the aircraft. He opened the bathroom door for her and indicated that she should enter.
"Hey, dude, I'm pretty flexible and all, but there's no way I'm gonna be able to piss and shit without my hands."
The guard reached for the button fly of her jeans with the intension of assisting her bathroom excursion.
"Whoa there, cowboy," Sandra yelled, while backing away, "Bad touch. Bad touch!"
"Just untie the lady," the unseen voice announced, "I'm sure she'll behave. Right?"
"Turn around," grumbled the muscle.
Sandra complied and with a quick schick the straps around her wrists were cut. She turned around, but whatever was used to cut her free had already been secreted away. The guard in front of her stood there still as a statue, a placid calm expression on his face.
"Thanks," Sandra said while rubbing her sore wrists. It quickly became obvious that there would be no reply, so she ducked into the bathroom, closing and latching the door behind her.
Empty bladder, clear mind, thought Sandra while washing her hands and face with the tepid water in the sink. She finger combed her tangled hair into some semblance of order. She then sat back down on the toilet seat and started checking her pockets– nothing, all empty. Not even the spare hair tie she always carried.
She rubbed her sore neck and pondered, how long have I been out? Doesn't matter, just needed to try and avoid getting drugged again. That means not trying to take the guards. Not that I could, no matter how many self-defense courses I've taken. Those dudes are made of rock. Guess that means play nice and see what we can learn. Shit, shit, shit. Did I finish that maintenance? Does it really matter, now? No, still. Shit. What I wouldn't give to be back in that datacenter now.
Burying her head in her hands, Sandra tried to focus on her breathing to remain calm. All over, various muscles called out to remind her of the uncomfortable positions she's been in since her abduction. She tried to replay the events of her capture through the DVR of her mind. She tried to find or remember some detail, some clue as to why her. Why did they take her? Who might these people be? And what the hell do they want?
But no new insights came. Just moments of blackness interrupted by a throbbing head and abraded wrists.
Bam, bam, bam, "Hey! You fall in in there?"
“Sorry, one minute,” she said to the other side of the door.
After washing her hands and face again, Sandra took a drink from the sink. They did say no service on this flight. Better try and stay hydrated.
A second flush to cover her extended stay in the bathroom cubical and Sandra unlatched and opened the door. The placid mountain of a guard still stood before the bathroom door in his black t-shirt and cargo pants as if he were planted there, immobile.
“Hi,” Sandra said, trying to mask her unease with the situation.
“Come’on,” the guard commanded and pointed towards the back of the plane.
Sandra turned and walked towards the back with the guard following close behind her.
“Hey, you have a name,” she asked over her shoulder.
“For our purposes today, I’m Bob,” was the reply.
“Hi, Bob. I’m Sandra Her-”
“I know who you are. Just sit down,” Bob interrupted as they arrived at the jump seats.
Seated and buckling herself in, Bob shackled her legs to the seat and pulled out a zip tie for her hands.
“Is that strictly necessary, Bob? I promise not to–”
“Yes, it’s necessary,” the other guard interrupted.
“And I suppose your name’s Bob, too,” Sandra snapped back, while raising her arms together for Bob to bind.
“No, I’m Akbar,” the seated guard answered.
“Funny, you don’t look like any Akbar I know.”
A grunt was the only reply she got. Trying to keep the conversation going, Sandra asked, “Any of you know where we are going.”
“We’re not at liberty to discuss that,” replied Bob.
“You military, Bob?”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sandra quipped. Bob grunted and buckled himself into his seat.
“What can you boys tell me then,” she asked.
“Nothing,” replied Akbar, “Now please just sit there and remain quiet for the rest of the flight.”
“But, I’m hungry and could use a stiff drink. My buddy Malcome pours a mean Gimlet. I’ll introduce you guys to him.”
“Miss Hernandez,” said Akbar, “If you will not cooperate, then we can make the remainder of the trip much less comfortable for you.”
The threat well understood, Sandra looked away from Bob and Akbar and kept her mouth shut. She wasn’t going to learn anything from these two beyond the fact that they were very professional and probably quite competent.
Sandra returned to inspecting her surroundings and started making a mental inventory of what she saw. From her trip to the bathroom she noticed a Toyota HiLux without any plates. The fact it is a HiLux and not a 4Runner was interesting in itself. That truck with the HiLux brand was not from the US market. She knew that much from watching Top Gear on BBC America over the years.
On the pallets nearest her were boxes with the logos for Cisco, Juniper, HP, IBM, Palo Alto Networks, and Dell. Further away she saw other pallets with boxes with Broadcom, Avira, Lucent, Nortel, and a few others which she did not recognize.
Why would you need all this equipment, she wondered. Or more specifically, why would you get your gear from so many different companies? Maybe research work, maybe. You always tried to keep from ever having a monoculture of vendors in order to keep things secure, but this would be ridiculously excessive for that.
Still no closer to understanding her situation, Sandra sat and tried to be patient. She saw no clocks around and neither Bob nor Akbar appeared to be wearing a watch. Neither of the men appeared to be armed either, but looks were often deceiving. And Sandra was certain that they were deadly even if they weren’t packing any heat.
After an undetermined eternity of fidgeting and failing to relax, the droning of the jet engines changed in timber and the plane began to descend. Being in the hold of a cargo plane had the added frustration of having no windows. She could not see where they were about to land. And with the interior of the plane kept at twilight she had no idea what time of the day it even was.
After an uneventful landing and taxi, the plane came to a halt and the engines shut down. From the rear of the plane clamshell doors opened and a ramp extended.
Bob unshackled Sandra from the jump seat and helped lead her down the ramp. To her disappointment, she found herself inside a brightly lit and closed hanger. The air in the hanger was damp and hot.
With Akbar in front and Bob guiding her from behind, Sandra was taken to a green Land Rover with dark tinted windows. Akbar opened a back door and started walking around to the driver’s seat. Bob helped Sandra into the back seat, placing a hand on her head to make sure she didn’t bump it against the door frame. Seated, Bob leaned across Sandra to engage her seat belt.
“Hey, don’t get fresh.”
Still leaning across her, Bob paused and stared into Sandra’s eyes. The look told her in no uncertain terms that, 1) she’s not his type and 2) he’d do whatever the fuck he wanted and she could do shit to prevent it. At that moment, Sandra wished that she could shrink down to a sub-atomic particle. The stare made her feel more vulnerable than anything else had during the entire ordeal so far.
With Akbar situated in the driver’s seat, Bob went around and sat next to Sandra. As the car started, Bob placed a hood over Sandra’s head.
“Shit, man,” Sandra whined, “I get car sick.” A lie, but she was desperate to be able to see where they were going and to learn anything about her surroundings.
“Sorry, orders,” was the only response she got from Akbar.
Sandra squirmed in her seat trying to get comfortable. But this was nearly impossible while bound and hooded. Why would anyone go to such trouble, she wondered. I’m just a simple System Administrator.
Into the artificial night of the hood, they drove off.
After getting bounced around in the back seat for several minutes with a hood on, Sandra really felt like she might get sick. But she remained quiet. There seemed like no point in trying to fight or otherwise resist at this point. She just hoped that when the opportunity mades itself available, she’ll be able to recognize it and take it.
The rough broken pavement gave way to relatively smooth gravel. After a short distance on the gravel roadway, the car stopped. Sandra could hear a rolling metal door in motion. After a minute, they crawled slowly forward and transitioned from gravel to smooth concrete. The car stopped again and Akbar shut the engine off.
“Are we there yet,” Sandra asked.
“Yes,” Bob answered next to her.
While the metal roll-up door closed, Bob and Akbar exited the Rover. For the briefest moment, Sandra was alone in the truck. Then her door opened, she was unbuckled and helped out of the car. By the feel of the hand on her arm, she was fairly certain her aid was Bob. This was confirmed when the hood was removed and the car door closed.
“You’re going in there,” Bob indicated a building within the warehouse they were inside.
Sandra looked around and gaped. She found herself inside an enormous warehouse. Its dilapidated structure with rusted roof panels and broken upper story windows set in high contrast to the building that the warehouse contained. As if the warehouse were pregnant, a one story windowless commercial building gestated inside just a few feet in front of SUV. The office building would have been at home at any number of office parks anywhere in the Silicon Valley. The adobe colored, grey accented structure had one distinctive feature- as far as Sandra could see, there were no windows and only one entrance.
They approached the singular metal door of the building-within-a-warehouse. Akbar pulled out a small rectangular lozenge from his pocket. He stared at it for a minute, then pressed it against a HID reader and punched in a sequence into a keypad. Sandra, couldn’t get a good look at the lozenge but guessed it was some part of some two-factor identification- a proximity card, plus a randomized number generator to validate the card.
Whatever the device was, it did its job and the door began to swing out to open for them. Inside the door was a small room, more like a walk-in closet with a door on the other side. The floor sloped upwards from the exterior door to the other end of the closet. This was well within Sandra’s ken– this was a man-trap.
“In you go,” Bob told Sandra as Akbar stepped to the side.
She turned to look at Akbar and then Bob, “Aren’t you guys joining me?”
“No, this is the end of the line for us. We do not have authorization to go beyond this point,” answered Bob.
“Get in there,” Akbar barked as he started to push her into the room. The door began to shut as Sandra stumbled in and Akbar shoved something small and hard into her back pocket.
Sandra spun back around barely kept her feet under her on the uneven floor to face Akbar and Bob, “Hey, what the hell,” but too late. The door shut and latched. She banged the door she was just shoved through, but it was solid, metal, and without a breaker bar. Well, that wouldn’t meet building code, she thought.
If Sandra were to guess, the identification lozenge that Akbar had just used was now in her back pocket. But she had no way of checking with her arms still bound in front of her. Turning towards the other door, it too was nearly featureless without any handle. She looked up above the door where a security camera dome protruded.
“Well, now what,” she asked the dome.
“Please to be stepping forward now,” a woman’s voice commanded.
As Sandra started towards the door, it began to open inwards.
Stepping through the looking glass, the other side of the door was a foyer for some kind of architectural advertisement. A small Asian woman sat behind a raised cherry wood desk at the center of the wide room. Behind the reception desk was a floor to ceiling glass wall of mind bending proportions. It was not so much the size of the glass wall, but rather that at no point was it straight. The glass followed a two dimensional sinusoidal pattern. It was as if someone had frozen a clear rippling pond and rotated it ninety degrees to vertical.
Sandra boggled at the glass wall for a minute, before even noticing what stood behind it– rows upon rows of two post open racks full of networking equipment and servers. The lighting within this datacenter space was held low to emphasize the galaxy of blinking LED lights from all the equipment.
“Ah, Miss Hernandess, please-a come here,” the receptionist said. She gestured with a set of pinking sheers in one hand and steadily aimed a taser at Sandra with the other.
“You freeing me of these,” Sandra asked, raising her bound wrists over the desk top.
“Hai,” and with a snip of the sheers the bond was broken.
Sandra removed the plastic from her wrists and laid the bindings on the desk. With the return of freedom, red throbbing welts bracelet both her wrists.
“Can you help me out,” questioned Sandra, “Where am I and why am I here?”
“Ahhh, eternal question we all ask ourselves. You find own answer in the journey.”
“No, I don’t mean some Zen shit. I mean, why am I here,” said Sandra, pointing to where she stood, “And where is here?”
The receptionist ignored this second query and replied, “Please to be seated. Misder Chenkins will be with you soon.”
“Mister Jenkins,” Sandra asked, “Fred Jenkins?”
“Hai, yes, Misder Chenkins will be see you.”
Dumbfounded, Sandra stood there and thought, surely she can’t mean my Fred.
The receptionist gestured to the couches across from the desk, which Sandra had not noticed when she first walked into the room. Waving the taser at Sandra, “Please to seat, now.”
Feeling out of sorts, Sandra sat down on a couch and made herself as comfortable as she could. This turned out to be remarkably easy. The couch was possibly the nicest she had ever experienced. It enveloped her as she sank into its overstuffed ultra-soft leather cushions. The receptionist returned to whatever task she had behind the desk no longer pointed the taser at Sandra. A soft click-clack of the computer keyboard was now the only sound to be heard.
For a time, Sandra sat and stared blankly. Her eyes defocused while she subconsciously rubbed her sore wrists. Like water bugs skittering across the surface of a creek, random thoughts flit through her head. None rested long enough to stay for fear of breaking the surface tension.
“Hi, honey,” an apparition suddenly appeared before Sandra. She must have fallen asleep as she did not see the apparition’s approach. Her eyes would not quite focus on the bleary blob that stood before her.
“Mmm-eh,” she murmured, rubbed her eyes, and tried to blink her vision to clear. Then she saw Fred, her Fred standing before her.
Fred was dressed more formally than Sandra had ever seen him. He looked like he was going to the Symphony. He wore a tailored silk single breasted suit with a crimson pocket square, a brown egg shell colored french cuffed shirt without a tie and the top button opened. The cuff-links were a simple checker mosaic of garnet and emerald stones. On his wrist he wore some grand rose gold skeleton mechanical watch, the moving parts all visible– definitely not his usual plastic Iron Man. He reached down and brushed a lock of her hair from her face. The touch of his calloused fingers against her skin was unmistakable. This was Fred and not some evil twin she did not know about.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said, “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. Sandra couldn’t tell if it was her exhaustion or the consonant dissonance which kept her from being able to think. “Wha, what’s going on, Fred?”
“I’ll explain when I can. Is there anything I can do for you or get you?”
“No buts,” he said, “All things at their appointed time.”
More than a bit deflated and worn down beyond all belief, Sandra cried. A soundless cry as tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped onto her lap. She didn’t move to wipe them away. She didn’t move to hide her face. She just sat there, staring blankly through Fred and the tear flow. A shudder convulsed her body as her breath became ragged.
Fred reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a handkerchief. He knelt in front of Sandra and gently blotted the tears from her chin. Then dried her cheeks. Then caught each new tear as it fell.
“There, there,” Fred whispered, “It’s okay. I know it’s been tough. You’re just over tired and over stressed. You just need some time to recover a bit. Then all will become clear.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Sandra started to bob back and forth, her hands limp in her lap. Then her stomach decided to make its feelings known with an audible grumble. Even the quiet click-clack of the receptionist at her desk skipped a beat.
“Maybe some food would be nice,” Sandra said, looking wide-eyed at Fred.
He stood and offered Sandra his hand, “Come with me.”
More than usual, she gripped and leveraged herself up with the aid of Fred’s rock steady hand. She held onto the hand like a life line as he placed his other hand over hers and led her to a door to the left of the reception desk. A quiet buzz of an electromagnet released a lock and the door opened for them.
Sandra didn’t notice where they headed. Her vision narrowed to a tunnel as she looked up at Fred. She realized that this Fred was someone she had never met before and she wasn’t sure how to process this new person. He looked mostly like someone she knew. He sounded like someone she knew. His hands felt like those of the person she knew. But the place, the clothes, and everything else had thrown the idea of who this was into chaos. Through an office, some corridors they walked. Eventually, they passed through another door- this one held open by another person.
They entered a dining room with a single table set for two. Already placed on the clothed table were a tray of fresh fruits, cheeses, nuts, and a basket of breads. In a ice bucket beside the table an unopened bottle of champagne waited.
Fred led Sandra to her seat. While she sat, he opened the champagne bottle with a subdued pop and poured two glasses. Sandra ignored the sparkling wine and grabbed an apple from the tray and held it to her face. She breathed in its scent- fresh, crisp, like autumn. Then she proceeded to consume the fruit, almost too quickly to be able to savor the sweet sharp flavors. She spied flakes of shaved salt on the butter in a ramekin. In a flash, a slice of rustic whole wheat french bread was buttered and inhaled.
While Sandra ate, she ignored all pretense of manners or propriety, Fred quietly sipped his champagne. Occasionally, he ate a roasted almond or a grape, but always while Sandra was in the middle of consuming something else. He nearly feared that he might lose a finger were he not careful.
When the bread and trays were decimated, Fred asked, “Would you like something more to eat?”
“Yes, please,” Sandra answered, and then realized how she must look to Fred. “Sorry, I can’t remember the last thing I ate. I don’t know–”
“Shhhhhh, I understand. Any preference for a next course?”
Sandra blinked as it dawned on her that more food was on its way. “Meat, protein, but something simple,” she answered. This was as coherent an answer as she could give.
As quickly as she made her request, two servers entered the room. Each pushed a cart. One removed the spent dishes and tidied up the table, while the other placed a covered plate in front of Fred and Sandra. With a lid handle in each hand, the server lifted and removed the domes from the plates simultaneously. And without a word, both servers exited the room.
At the center of each plate lay a filet mignon. The filet looked like a piece of art– perfectly seared with amazingly defined grill marks. In the light of the room, anchovy butter with fresh herbs glistened. Then the smell of meat hit Sandra like an epiphany– a revelation about how a cow should look and smell. She hoped it tasted as good as it appeared. She restrained the urge to just grab the steak with both hands and take a bite out of it.
With knife and fork in hand, she held them for a moment over her steak and looked at Fred, “This isn’t the last meal of the condemned is it?”
His laugh filled the room with honest joy. Somewhat relieved, Sandra took the first cut of her steak. It cleaved without effort and melted on her tongue. It tasted as good as it looked and smelled. After the first taste of the steak, she took her first sip of the champagne which had been waiting for her since they started the meal.
“Fred, this is so good,” she said.
“I have always enjoyed the nineteen eighty-five Perrier-Jouët,” Fred replied.
“Well, I’ve always thought the ninety-two was a superior vintage,” Sandra said, putting on airs.
“There was no nineteen ninety-two vintage for Perrier-Jouët,” Fred said flatly.
Her snark unappreciated, Sandra remained quiet for the remainder of the meal. In silence, they ate and when she finished Sandra asked, “Fred, I’m disgusting and my clothes even more so. Is there somewhere I can wash up?”
“Certainly, my dear. Follow me,” he said and got up. Fred walked to a third door in the room which Sandra had not seen used before. Fred opened the door for her and followed Sandra in to the adjoining hallway. At the end of the short hall they stopped.
“This is my room,” Fred indicated the door to their left. “With the fob in your pocket you can enter your room,” Fred continued and indicated the door to their right. “Let’s see your room. Take your fob and test it.”
Sandra removed the plastic lozenge from her back pocket for the first time and examined it. There was an 8 segment, 9 numeral, grey LCD display on one side. Sandra had seen this kind of authentication device before. A bar under the numerals indicated how much time was left before the currently displayed numeric pattern expired and a new one generated. She looked up from the fob to Fred.
“Oh, your pin is your four digit birth year. Prepend it to the number displayed when you are prompted to enter it. We already have your palm and iris scans on record. Just place the fob against the reader and follow the prompts,” Fred answered her unspoken question.
Sandra raised the fob to the grey square next to the door handle.
“Please place your hand on the scanner,” a vaguely feminine mechanical voice prompted.
After Sandra placed her hand on the scanner, the automated system intoned, “Palm scan confirmed. Please enter passcode.” She entered her birth year and the nine digits displayed on the fob into the keypad over the hand scanner.
“Access confirmed,” announced the computer voice as the door locks disengaged.
Fred turned the handle of the door and swung it open for Sandra. The light level of the room increased as if on an automated dimmer as they enter. A king sized bed with a chocolate brown comforter and an army of pillows dominated one side of the room. Arrayed along the wall opposite the bed was a dresser, a large flat-panel TV with entertainment center stack, and a desk. All the furnishings were of an ultra-modern style of exposed carbon fiber and polished stainless steel. It looked like some F1 race engineer’s version of a hip hotel room.
“The dresser and closet have an array of clothing for you. Some of which should fit,” Fred said. “And the bath should be fully stocked with everything you need. If there is anything missing, just pick up the phone,” he pointed out the telephone beside the bed, “Someone is always on the other end of that line.”
“Fred,” she asked, “Where are we?”
“On an island I own out in the Pacific.”
“No more questions until you freshen up,” he held up his hand to stop further questions. “I’ll be in my room. When you’re ready your fob will let you in.”
Fred turned and left Sandra’s room, closing the door behind him before her brain re-engaged and let her react.