Chapter 3: Tanked
After the big “tank party,” as he’d thought of it, Stan spent a few more days in town saying “Hi” to friends who’d stayed in Boston and popping into his old haunts. It only served to remind him how out of touch you could get in just five or six years.
A week later he was thinking, You shouldn’t get jet lag just flying from Boston to Buffalo. But by the time you wait while the cab takes you to Logan, wait through the Big Wet Dig, wait through the security lines, wait through the plane being delayed, wait in the air over Buffalo, wait for your luggage, wait for the shuttle, wait in your car to get out of the parking lot and wait through seventeen traffic lights… he felt as if he’d lost 12 hours, when he’d really only lost six.
So as he drove up the street in suburban Kenmore, he was feeling like it was time to go to bed, even though it was only about 7pm. Pulling into his covered parkway spot he noticed two dark blue vans parked across the street from his place.
Randall got his duffle out of the trunk, and went around the back of his small, rented house. He never used the front door; it was easier to keep the bolt and chains up and have a security coded entrance around back, where the doorway was covered with a small roof.
Small roof over door in Buffalo good, he thought, as always, as he approached. He keyed in his password and pressed his thumb to the print detector plate and waited for the pleasant, low chime to tell him it was OK to go in.
The display read “CLEAR,” which was right. He tried the thumb plate again. The display blinked off, and then “CLEAR” again. Still no chime.
Sound circuit must be fucked up, he thought.
He opened the screen door and wedged himself between it and the back door. A moment’s fumbling with the doorknob, and he shouldered the heavy wooden door open into the kitchen. He could see the display of the security panel across the room, and it, too read, “CLEAR.”
Just as he let his duffle bag thwump to the kitchen floor, he heard tires screech and squeal out front. He ran across the narrow kitchen, through the tiny foyer (“boot room,” his friend Casey called it) and pulled the curtains on the front window back. The two dark blue vans were peeling out, tearing down Dushane at about 50 miles an hour.
Randall let the curtains fall back and thought, Fucking kids.
Then he turned to his right, towards the living room, and saw the tank.
It was nowhere near as large as the one from the hotel lobby. Maybe only 10 feet long, 4 feet deep and 4 feet high. Set up on a 2 foot high slab of the same, black rock-or-plastic substance. There was an envelope scotch-taped to the side nearest the front door.
He pulled off the envelope and opened it to find a store-bought greeting card. On the outside, it had a photo of a good-looking, well dressed, James Bond type, leaning against the hood of an expensive looking car. A gorgeous blonde stood behind him with her arms around one of his. He was smiling and looking at his expensive watch. The caption below read, “For the man who has everything…”
Randall opened the card, and inside was a penny, heads-up, taped to the middle of the card. “You can never have too much good luck,” it read. “Happy Birthday.”
What a dumb-ass card, Randall thought.
The phone rang and Randall put the card and envelope down on the small coffee table that had been shoved up against the wall to make room for the tank.
Interrupting the second ring, he said, “Yeah. This is Randall.”
“Randall! It’s Stan!”
Ah, thought Randall. Now two and two make five.
“Stan. I think I have something that belongs to you.”
“Did belong to me, Randall. Did. Not anymore. Now it’s yours.”
“Don’t these things cost…”
“The big ones do, yeah. A couple-hundred-thousand dollars or so. Before programming costs cut in. Which I don’t care about anymore, since we’re just selling the… Shut up. Anyway. If we were going to market these small ones, though, it would be more like twenty-five or thirty grand.”
Randall paused, letting that sink in. “So why,” he asked, “are you giving one to me?”
“It’s an experiment that Caitlyn cooked up.” Stan sounded out of breath. Like he was excited. Like he’d been running or something. Like…
Randall checked the Caller ID on his phone; “CELLULAR CALLER NUMBER BLOCKED.”
“That was you in the blue vans,” Randall said. Not a question.
“We thought you wouldn’t be home for another couple hours. My plane got delayed a bit, and the boys didn’t want to do it without me there. Seemed to think you wouldn’t believe that they were breaking into your house for your own good if’n I wasn’t there in person to back the story up. Can’t say I blame them.”
Randall shook his head and half grinned, half grimaced. Standard MIT friend-prank bullshit. Hack someone’s security. Leave them a “present” that was usually more trick than treat.
Pranking was part of a geek code almost as complicated as that of medieval chivalry. First, you couldn’t actually hurt anyone. Not physically, not academically, not legally (much) not financially (much). Embarrassment was fine, usually mandatory. The prank had to be clever. It had to be slick. And the fewer people who knew about all the “levels,” the better. Wheels within wheels within mazes within boxes within tin cans.
“So I get a dragon now, too?” Randall finally asked Stan.
“Nope. You get a… well… I’ll let you figure it out. We’ve already connected it up to your grid, but Pankaj thought it needed more bandwidth than your cable line. Plus, we don’t trust the utils, do we? Anyway, we tapped into nearby white-fiber so you shouldn’t notice much lag at all. There may still be some though. Especially early on during the… learning curve stage. Before the system hockey-sticks.”
Three questions occurred to Randall simultaneously, but he asked only the important one. “You tapped a white line? Stan? Into my place? Is this going to get me cop-fucked?”
“Moi? Get tu arrested? Oh ye of little faith. You know the old railroad tracks just two blocks down toward Niagara Falls Boulevard?”
“Back in ninety-seven Qwest dropped eight parallel white strands four feet under the right-of-way of the Buffalo-Niagara line. It junctions at an original backbone node on Suny Buffalo’s Amherst campus. You know how many of those eight strands see any throughput? Even on the busiest night of the year?”
“You got it. So… how many?”
“I don’t know.” He figured quickly in his head. How many terrabytes per second a line of G3, “white” fiber optic cable could handle. How many people live around Buffalo? If all of them were on the phone on Christmas Eve, using low-no compression POTS…
“How many?” Stan repeated. Randall could hear the traffic noise outside Stan’s van.
“I’m going to guess three.”
There was a moment of silence. “I forget, Randall boy, that you are a truly sharpened bone. The answer is three. A bit less than three full bore, actually. That third line is only pinging about sixty percent full load. But that’s because some of the big local plexes have converted to a high-compression data-voice model.
“I’d heard about that, but didn’t know the percentages.”
“Anyway. Close enough. What that means is, there is more than twice as much bandwidth available in your neighborhood as is needed even at the highest traffic moment of the year. Most days they barely touch strand numero duo.”
“Which leaves me with…”
“A full strand all your own. Directly plugged into the ‘net backbone through the Amherst switch.”
That took a few beats to sink in.
“Randall?” Stan sounded like he was on the highway, now. More Doppler in the background noise. “Randall?” He also sounded a little worried. Like will Randall take this in the spirit intended, or is he going to be a dick.
“Yeah, Stan. I’m here. I’m just kinda freaked out.”
“Why would that be, Randall?”
“Because the audio on my alarm system is busted.”
“Shit. I’ll send Lenny back to fix that.”
“No big deal. I don’t have anything…” Randall paused. “What will the university think?”
“They already think it’s Qwest. Or whoever the hell owns Qwest these days.”
“I think it’s Sprint.”
“Isn’t Sprint owned by somebody else now?”
“Who the fuck can keep that shit straight. I think it’s AT&T, though.”
“That’s ironic. But I thought some cellular company bought… Never mind. Anyway, you’re in the clear. No worries. I promise. The university thinks line eight is a checker and repeater for LD voice traffic.”
“And what does Qwest… or whoever… think it is?”
Stand was quiet for a moment. That was worrisome.
“Stan…” pushed Randall. “What have you done, Stan.”
“It’s not really illegal, Randall.”
“OK, OK. Qwest doesn’t know it’s there at all.”
“How can they not know I’m tapped into their fucking fiber!?”
“Since lines four through eight have never been touched, they have no sensing software set up on them. When they got close to hitting three the first time, they set up the monitoring and billing software to check against the switch on three, so that when that line pinged for the first time, they didn’t lose any volume. When they get close to eighty percent ping on three, they’ll hook up four. And so forth.”
“And when will they be close to filling up number seven and checking number eight?”
“About thirty years. Unless someone comes up with a phenomenally successful, bandwidth-hog app before then.”
Pause. “High-res porno shot in 360-degree, Matrix-style surround-cam?”
“Hmmm.” Stan paused. “That might do it. But the compression software gets better every year, too. One of my guys says that they’ll actually never even get to the seventh strand. His data shows compression values more and more…”
“What is this for,” Randall interrupted. “Why a big glass box and the mother of all bandwidth taps?”
“It’s a gift. From me and Caitlyn.”
“Yes. A gift. We really appreciate the help you gave us a few years back, and…”
“That was nothing.”
“Fuck ‘nothing.’ We call it driving three-hundred miles at a moment’s notice to testify…”
“Look. You’d have done the same for me. I was there when you started out. That Klauwaski guy…”
“Whatever. Fuck-head Anti-Santa, I believe Caitlyn dubbed him. He was stealing your shit. Just because he got funding earlier and was involved peripherally gave him no right…”
“Randall.” Very softly, Stan interrupted. “We don’t need to go over all that again. We were right, he was wrong. You helped prove that. The court told him to stop using our stuff without our say-so and he is now, I believe, humping tenure at Northwestern. So. Caitlyn and I want you to have… this.”
Randall paused for quite a bit before asking, “And what is, ‘this?’ My own dragon?”
Stan laughed quietly. “Oh, no, Randall. Something much more dangerous.”
“Well, at least tell me how to…”
But the line was dead. Randall tried calling back, but got, “The cellular number you are calling is either turned off or…”
Randall dialed Bocci’s Pizza from memory and ordered a medium sausage pie. Then he put down the phone and surveyed his living room. He’d never had a lot of furniture, so the big, glass box didn’t put as much of a crimp in his décor as it would have in most people’s houses. The coffee table, as has been noted, was against the front wall, beneath the windows. And they’d had to move the footstool in front of his wing chair back against the hearth. But, other than that, it had been positioned very nicely. It looked like a huge, glass, neo-retro-mod-Bauhaus sort of… thing.
The top plane was about six feet off the floor, which meant he could just see over it. It was centered nicely along the long axis of the room. He could sit on the couch and watch his TV without any trouble. It was just… there. Instead of a lot of nothing in the middle of his living room, there was now a lot of… well… slightly more solid nothing. The black base was matte and unobtrusive. Whatever Stan and his gang had done to hook the thing up to the Net was completely invisible. Randall supposed it was under the black box and that the cables must go through his basement or something.
He took his duffle bag upstairs, unpacked, and threw his clothes down the laundry chute. He put his travel stuff away and checked to see if he had a clean dress shirt for tomorrow. Yup. Blue. Fine. Clean socks, underwear, undershirt. Nothing really to do tonight except order a pizza, get a shower, go to sleep and…
He jogged back downstairs and paused to look at… it… again. He ran a hand along all four vertical sides and along the top edges. He felt the corners and the line where it met the base and it all just felt like glass. There were no visible controls. No hum of fans or click of relays. No hint of ozone smell.
Feeling foolish, standing there bare-chested, he made the only sign-language gesture he knew (well, one of two, but the other was more suited to traffic); index and middle finger extended, repeatedly pinching to touch the thumb. Translation: “duck.”
Apparently, “duck,” was not a visual signal that the apparatus recognized as a key.
Shrugging, Randall went up for a quick shower; Bocci’s always took at least forty minutes. He dried off while going down cellar to get his dirty laundry into the washing machine in the basement. Just as he started the load, he heard the doorbell ring. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants from the dirty pile, trotted upstairs and opened the front door enough to tell the guy he needed to find his checkbook.
“C’mon in for a second, if you want.”
“Thanks. It’s getting cold and I didn’t wear any jacket or anything.”
Randall came back with his wallet from the study and saw the pizza guy standing a few feet inside the doorway, staring past the half-wall that separated the foyer from the living room. Staring at the tank.
“That’s a big tank, man,” the guy said as Randall held out his debit card.
“What are ya gonna put in there? Fish or something?”
“Yeah. Fish or something. I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh. Well…” he looked down and slid the card through the slot on his iPhone. Handed it to Randall and waited for him to add a tip and OK the total with his PIN. That done, he handed the card back and said, “Thanks for the tip, man,” and headed back out into the night.
“Or something,” Randall muttered to himself and went to eat his pizza in front of the television, all the time feeling the transparent bulk of his new housemate, standing silent to his left.
When he slept that night, he dreamed of dragons living by a river.