By stretch | Friday, October 31, 2014 at 2:20 a.m. UTC
"After all, what's the best part of Halloween?" Jimmy pleaded over the phone. He was trying yet again to convince Tom to skip work for the night and head over to the party he was throwing. Tom and Jimmy were good friends, but he already knew how the conversation was going to end.
"I dunno, the candy?" Tom played dumb.
"No, the eye candy! I'm telling you bro, you don't want to miss it. Rachel will be there." Jimmy sang the last bit tauntingly.
"I told you," Tom countered. "I've got work." It was around 6pm now, and he was just pulling into the parking lot outside the data center where he planned to spend the night recabling several racks of equipment. The scariest part of his Halloween would be picking through years' worth of undressed patch cabling.
"I don't get why you have to do that shit at night anyway. Why can't you do it during the day when you're stuck at work anyway?" Jimmy prodded.
Tom parked across from the building's entrance and turned off his car. Other than a couple vehicle belonging to the operations staff, the parking lot was deserted. He grabbed his tool bag from the passenger seat and headed toward the building's entrance.
"We can only get maintenance windows at night, when no one else is working," he explained.
"Yeah, you know why? They're all out at parties instead of hanging around a bunch of computers!"
At the door, Tom smirked as he entered his PIN to access the data center lobby. Jimmy might not appreciate the burden of IT work, but he wasn't wrong.
"Well, someone's got to keep the porn sites running, right? I mean you gotta have some recourse after you strike out with every girl there tonight after all." Jimmy forced a wry laugh as Tom approached the security desk. "Listen dude, I gotta go."
"Alright, well we're gonna keep it going all night, so you get out of there early you know where to find us, a'ight?"
"Will do." Tom hung up and removed his Bluetooth earpiece as the data center security guard stood behind the reception desk holding out a clipboard. "Sorry about that."
"No worries," the guard replied, handing him the clipboard to sign in. "Actually, you probably want to finish any calls before you head back. Our microcell went down last week and cell reception on the floor is pretty much zero. You have your ID?"
Tom handed over his driver's license and signed in. It had been a few months since he last visited this particular data center. It was an older building, out on the bay's edge in an old industrial park, away from the noise and hustle of his office downtown. The building's worn facade and outdated paint scheme belied its high-tech innards; a passerby would likely never pin it as anything more than a warehouse. Tom enjoyed the relative peace and quiet out here on city's edge, although once inside all data centers are pretty much the same, he found.
"Thank you, Mr. Curtis," the guard said, handing back Tom's license. "You know where you're headed?"
"Yeah, cage 1290. Been here before." Tom threw his bag over his shoulder and glanced around. The lobby was deserted. Across from the main entry, a large TV on the wall played cable news to an empty couch. The lights were off in the break area across the hall. Behind the guard, an array of security monitors showed no movement on the data center floor. "Slow night, eh?"
The guard scoffed. "Yup, just my luck I draw swing shift on the one night I really don't want to be here. And the other guy," he gestured to the empty seat beside him, "called in 'sick'. Right."
"Well if it makes you feel any better, I'll probably be here all night too."
"It doesn't," the guard smirked.
Tom laughed. "Have a good one," he yelled over his shoulder as he started toward the mantrap. The mantrap was the one public entryway to the secure data center floor from the outside world. It consisted of two large doors on either side of a small, windowless room. The security system was hard-wired so that only one door could be open at a time. The idea is that in the event of a breach, security could let an intruder through the first door, and then lock them there until the police showed up. Mostly though, it was just an inconvenience when you needed to run out for a smoke.
He entered his PIN and placed his palm on the biometric scanner mounted on the wall, prompting the heavy metal door to give a slight hiss and start to swing open. It took a few seconds before the opening was large enough to step inside.
The front door closed, and a moment later the second door opened, and Tom was greeted with the familiar loud hum and dim lighting of the data center floor. The raised floor tiles, positioned on stilts three or four feet off the building's foundation to allow for cold airflow, registered hollow footsteps as he started down the aisle. To either side was mesh wire fencing comprising the walls separating customer cages from one another. Each cage had a door secured by a biometric palm reader similar to the one outside the mantrap. Cages varied in size, but the equipment racks inside all of them pretty much looked the same.
Tom read off the placards outside each cage as he went. 1000, 1050, 1100, 1200... He turned left. 1400. Nope, not that way. It was easy to get lost if you lose your bearing for even a moment. He doubled back in the opposite direction. 1200, 1245---here we go. Cage 1290. He scanned his palm and entered his PIN. The door responded with a soft click, his cue to shove open the rolling door which allows access inside the cage.
Cage 1290 wasn't terribly remarkable. It had just four rows of ten or twelve cabinets each. Each cabinet was the standard 42U height (about six feet) and had a locking screened door on the front and back. Ladder racks and raceways stretched out overhead carrying bundles of cabling in all directions. At the far end of the cage was a small workbench piled with patch cables, removable hard drives, and various other junk that probably should have been trashed years ago.
Rack 205 is what Tom was here for tonight. It served as the central distribution point for the cage's cable plant, and was long overdue for a cleanup. Tom tugged at the door handle. Locked. He walked back by the workbench and found the key box. All the racks were keyed the same, fortunately, and the first key he tried worked. As the door sprung open, the cabinet vomited out a pile of blue network cabling. Tom sighed and dropped his bag to the floor, defeated. It was going to be a long night.
An hour or so had passed when Tom felt himself succumbing to the drudgery of his work. Pull a couple cables out, install new ones in their place, apply a few strips of Velcro, and repeat. It was tedious. And at his seat halfway down the aisle between cabinets, he was out of range of the motion sensors which activated the overhead lighting. Every fifteen minutes the sensors would time out, leaving him in near darkness until he stumbled down to the end of the aisle waving his hands above his head to trigger the lights again. But he was making good progress, and might actually finish ahead of schedule if the rest of the runs go according to plan.
Absently, Tom was attempting to roughly calculate the number of patch cables he'd installed over the length of his career when he was startled by three loud, short chips to his right. With the constant flood of white noise throughout the data center floor, it can be easy to forget you can hear things. Down one end of the aisle, outside the cage fence, he could see a large red light and several smaller amber lights on one of the giant power distribution boxes which lined the data center walls. PDU-12C, it was labeled. He watched it for a moment. No change, just more of the same three chirps a moment later. Beep beep beep. "Well, that's irritating."
Nature was calling, so he finished the last few cables in the bundle he was currently running, stood, and stretched his legs. The beeping faded as he made his way to the door at the opposite end of the cage. He hadn't realized until he stood just how badly he needed to pee. Rolling the cage door shut behind him, he hastened to a power walk toward the restrooms at the edge of the floor, triggering a series of independent overhead lights to illuminate his path one by one as he went.
Tom went about his business, refreshed with a paper cup of extra cold water from the break area, and checked his phone again. Still no bars. After being locked inside a data center alone for so long you start to feel disconnected, cut off from the outside world. It felt like if the apocalypse happened outside, he'd be the last to know about it. All the more reason to finish up and head home to a comfy bed, he figured.
Arriving back at the cage, Tom was surprised to find the cage door wide open. He could have sworn he latched it shut on his way out; the security staff are really strict about keeping cages locked when no one's physically inside. He had probably yanked it a little too hard in his bladder-driven haste and the door bounced back against the frame instead of latching, which happens occasionally. He headed back to his folding chair in front of rack 205 and checked his notes for where he had left off.
Beep beep beep. PDU-12C was still chirping away.
"Alright, let's see. C25 to..." He looked up. "Distribution switch four, port eight." Fishing a three-foot blue cable from the pile at his left, he began visually tracing its route through the bundles he had been installing. When his eyes set on the patch panel again, his heart sank. "Oh, son of a bitch!" He had somehow skipped the first port on the panel! It was dark inside the rack, and he must've just not seen it. What a rookie move. He needed to go back and move two dozen patch cables over one by one before he could continue.
Even after correcting those cables, he found it difficult to focus. The first half of the runs, before his break, had gone like clockwork. He barely even remembered running them. But now it seemed like he was running every other cable down the wrong side of the rack, or too short, or too long. It was odd, but he felt pressured, as if someone was watching him. It had to be around 9pm by this point, and he had started his work day twelve hours ago. Tom attributed the carelessness to fatigue and took a moment to clear his head.
Beep beep beep. The soft but insistent PDU alarm was not helping.
Through the white noise came a sudden dull clang from a distance behind him. It sounded like maybe a cage door being drawn shut. He glanced around but didn't see anyone. None of the overhead lights he could see had come on, either. Intrigued, he rose from his chair and crept quietly to the end of the row for a better view. Nothing. Turning to his left, he was startled to find his own cage's door pulled closed. How the hell did that happen? Must've been the security guard on a round who forgot he was here.
Tom slid the door open and stepped out of the cage. "Hey, is anyone there?" He felt like a fool yelling out to what was probably a completely deserted space, but someone had to have shut the door on him. Leaving the door open, he walked purposefully to the end of the hall between cages, peering down the aisles in each one as he went. No one. Tom wondered if it was possible to develop cabin fever in a data center. Probably. He shook his head and headed back to cage 1290. Just another couple hours and he would be outta here.
Arriving back at the cage, he found the door once again locked. Tom sighed in exasperation. Whatever. Maybe the damn thing rolls shut. He entered his PIN and placed his palm on the biometric reader, and waited for the telltale click.
Beep beep beep. No click.
He wiped his hand on his shirt to rid it of sweat and grime, and tried again. Still no luck. He tried a third time. The reader seemed to be operational, but refused to recognize his handprint. Tom grew agitated. All his gear, including his phone, was still locked inside the cage. As he was in the middle of a fourth attempt, the overhead lights went out.
Beep beep beep.
"Argh!" Tom grunted as he began frantically waving his arms in the air in an attempt to trigger the motion sensors. But the darkness remained. He started walking up and down the halls, quickening his pace as the lights refused to acknowledge his existence. With nothing but the dull green and amber glow of servers in the cages on either side, Tom had trouble navigating his way back to the cage. He tried to make out the cage numbers as he went. 1340---or is that 1840?
As he leaned forward to better read the cage placard, he noticed some movement in his periphery. A shadow, it looked like a person walking, on the far side of the cage he was standing in front of.
"Hey!" he called out, hoping it was one of the ops guys dispatched to fix the lights. Tom jogged down the hall and around to the other side of the cage block, but no one was there.
Tom was starting to feel uneasy. Since returning from his break, the feeling of someone watching him, judging him, had only grown stronger. It was as if someone else was nearby, carefully avoiding Tom as his efforts deteriorated. He headed back to cage 1290 determined to try his luck once more before heading out to the security desk.
He rounded the corner and this time, to his amazement, the cage door stood wide open. Maybe the biometric reader had worked after all, and there was just some delay in the authentication system? But the doors don't open automatically; you have to slide them open by hand.
"Hello?" Tom called out to the still dark cage. It felt silly, but he was hesitant to step foot inside. From outside the cage, through the wall, he peered down each aisle looking for a person. But every aisle was empty.
Beep beep beep. PDU-12C was still at it. Maybe someone had come by to investigate? But why would they need to get inside his cage?
Cautiously, Tom walked back to rack 205. Everything was as he had left it. Still nervous, Tom sat down and attempted to focus on his work. He read the numbers off the page aloud, as if his own voice might somehow provide company. "Alright. Let's get this shit over with. D1." He glanced around, then back at the paper. "D1 goes to..."
Beep beep beep.
"...distribution switch three, port six." He untwisted a new cable and dutifully fished it through the rack. "And through the horizontal manager... A little Velcro... Ok, that's one more done." Tom rarely talked to himself but now it seemed like he couldn't keep his mouth shut. He felt an overwhelming urge to counter the deafening white noise all around him, as if to prove he was there.
Beep beep beep.
"Now, D2 goes to... distribution three, port seven. So that's another three-footer, same path as before. Down the side...through the manager...a little more Velcro...Done! What's next? Ah, D3, duh. D3 goes to..."
Beep beep beep. Clunk.
Tom snapped his head to the right. A loud clunk sounded from somewhere beneath the floor tiles at the corner of the cage. He looked around again, and concluded that he was still alone. He watched the corner where the noise had come from for another moment but heard nothing. His heart was pounding but he turned back to the cables in front of him, determined not to show any signs of fright in case someone was intentionally pranking him. "D3 goes to distribution four, port---"
Beep beep beep. CLUNK.
The noise was louder this time, and definitely came from somewhere under the floor. Tom sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity, a patch cable in one hand, staring at the floor tiles.
Beep beep beep. CLUNK.
Tom lept from his chair. One of the tiles just moved! Only slightly, but he definitely saw a corner of one pop up for a split second. He scanned the cage again, frantic. Was someone in trouble? Was he? If he could find a tile puller he might---
The tile bounced again, twice. It always fell perfectly back in place, but for a brief moment Tom could see the pitch-black darkness beneath the floor line. He took a step back.
Another tile moved this time, next to the first but closer to him. Tom backed away further.
Two more tiles, each closer to him, jumped up. The later was strong enough to knock over the folding chair he had been using. That was enough to convince Tom that he needed to get the hell out of there.
He turned and bolted down the aisle toward the cage door. He could hear tiles clunking and banging behind him, one at a time. He rounded the corner to the door---pulled shut! He grasped at the release handle but the door wouldn't budge. To his left he could see that whatever was under the floor had followed him around the corner.
Fuck it, he thought, and jumped up to grab the top of the cage fence. He pulled himself up and over in one swift motion, barely landing on his feet outside the cage. Without looking back, he sprinted down the hall, taking corners blindly, first right, then left. Finally, he recognized the warm lighting of the break area. He shoved open the glass door and ran straight for the exit. He slammed the green button for the mantrap door repeatedly. The giant door let off a slight hiss as it began to open.
He looked back out to the data center floor, anxious to get the hell out of there. He didn't see anything, nor he could he hear any more clunking tiles. The break area itself was situated on solid concrete foundation, not raised flooring, so whatever had been chasing him would have to reveal itself if it wanted to follow him any further.
As soon as the door was open wide enough, Tom squeezed into the mantrap and immediately started mashing the second green exit button next to the opposite door. The inner door had to finish opening before it would begin closing, though. Tom stood with his back against the outer door, staring at the coffee machine opposite the mantrap in the break area, afraid to blink, his heart pounding in his head. After what felt like forever, the now open door gave another slight hiss and began swinging shut. Tom held his breath until the inner lock clicked shut, then gasped for air. He moved away from the outer door, leaning against a wall for fear his legs might give out.
He watched the outer door expectantly, waiting for it to open as it always does. But nothing happened. It should just take a second. It always opens right away. Why is it not opening? He started mashing the exit button again. WHY IS THE DOOR NOT OPENING?!
Suddenly, darkness. The handful of dim ceiling lights which kept the mantrap room lit all went out. Tom was alone, he was blind and he was terrified. Frantically he started banging on the large steel door, which echoed deafeningly into the tiny room. Tom continued banging away in terror, shouting obscenities as he imagined suffocating to death, when he heard a slight hiss. Relieved, he backed away from the door and looked eagerly for the first crack of light.
But it was the wrong door.
Tom fell back against the still-shut outer door, terrified that was chasing him had caught him, as the inner door began to swing open again. There was nowhere to run.
As the door opened, Tom could hear a hearty laughter from outside. Confused, he picked himself up and cautiously approached the door. There inside the break room he saw a heavy-set man with a gray beard and no hair, perhaps in his late fifties, double over in laughter, clutching his abdomen, tears in his eyes. The terror which had consumed Tom very quickly dissolved into equal parts relief and anger.
"Oh man, that was a good one," the man snorted. "Haven't had one like that in years!"
"What the hell?!" Tom demanded. His hands were still shaking as he stomped into the break room and over to the water cooler to begin replenishing the gallons of sweat he had just shed. "You think that's funny?!"
"I do," the man replied with a smile, straightening up a bit and wiping a tear from his eye. "God help me I really do. I'm sorry. I can't help myself."
Tom downed a small paper cup of near-freezing water in a single gulp and immediately started refilling it, refusing to look at the man.
"The name's Bill," the man said, holding out his hand. Tom ignored it. "I'm really sorry I frightened you, honest I am. But you gotta understand it's about the only fun this old man can get these days."
Tom looked to Bill, still visibly annoyed. He noticed the facility's logo on the man's shirt. "I could have you fired for this, you know."
Bill chuckled a bit, and held up his hands in a mock surrender. "Fair enough, fair enough! Please, accept my sincere apology. I just can't turn down a good prank. And tonight, well, tonight was perfect. Not many folks come by on All Hallow's Eve, you know?"
By his third cup of water, Tom had calmed down considerably, as well as induced a mild brain freeze. Looking back, it had been a pretty impressive prank. He smirked. "Well... No harm done, I suppose. At least I didn't piss myself," he joked.
"That's the spirit!" Bill bellowed. "I've seen far worse reactions, I'll tell you that!"
"I didn't say you were off the hook," Tom warned. "Tell you what, you help me finish patching in the rack I was working on, and you can officially consider yourself forgiven. Deal?"
Bill gave an exasperated sigh. "Oh alright, deal."
Tom nodded. "I'm Tom, by the way."
With his wits back about him, and some help at his side, Tom was able to complete his work in just another hour, with plenty of time to spare before the maintenance window closed. Bill hadn't actually been much help---it was a one-person job, anyway---but Tom was happy just to have the company.
Turns out Bill had worked there for years. He entertained Tom with stories from the past: psychotic customers, catastrophic network outages, even a flood during a hurricane years back. Bill had seen it all. Tom got the sense Bill appreciated just having someone to talk to. He knew as well as anyone how lonely it can get working back here.
Beep beep beep. PDU-12C was still beeping away insistently. Tom groaned.
"I swear, it's a good thing I'm almost done. Five more minutes and I'd have to yank the plugs outta that thing," he grumbled, gesturing toward the box, its red alarm light still shining brightly.
Bill's face went serious for a moment. "Hey now, I know they can be annoying, but never let yourself get aggravated to the point of recklessness. Carelessness in a place like this kills people. I've seen it happen. You can't lose your head about stupid things."
Tom wanted to brush off the lecture, but obliged his new friend.
"Yeah, I suppose," Tom relented. "Anyway, that's it for me!" Tom proudly exclaimed, packing up the last few cables and locking the cabinet door. "I'm headed home."
"Home? A young man like yourself on Halloween night? Don't you have some party to go to? The kind with scantily clad ladies and such?" Bill ribbed him and raised his bushy eyebrows suggestively.
"Well... actually one of my friends had invited me to one he's throwing, but I---"
"But nothing!" Bill cut him off. "You're only young once, kid. Get out there and live!"
Tom laughed. "Yeah, alright. Maybe I will go." After the night he's had, a beer wouldn't hurt. The pair headed out of the cage and down the hall toward the break area. "Hey, if you're getting off-shift soon, you wanna swing by, grab a beer? It's not far."
Bill smiled warmly. "I appreciate that Tom, I really do. I'm afraid I can't make it out tonight though, there's something I gotta tend to."
They entered the break area. Tom slapped the button for the mantrap door and held out his hand. "Another time, then?"
Bill shook his hand firmly and nodded toward the opening mantrap door. "Hey, there's always next Halloween." He gave an evil grin.
Tom stepped into the mantrap. "Not a chance."
He smiled as the door shut. As the outer door opened, Tom could see the moon through the lobby windows. He paused for a bit to appreciate the refreshing sense of freedom, then headed over to the security desk to turn in his badge. He noticed that a second guard had now shown up, a much older guy than the first, although neither of them seemed to be paying much attention.
Tom wrote down the time on the sign-in clipboard and left his badge on the desk. 11:06pm, still plenty of time to get to the party, he realized. "Have a good night, guys!"
"You too sir," the guard Tom had spoken to when he arrived looked up. "Oh hey, how'd you get your phone working?"
"My phone?" Tom looked at it, puzzled.
"Yeah, no one's been able to get a signal back there since the microcell went out, but it looked like you were talking to someone earlier."
"Not on my phone, no. Just Bill."
"Who's Bill?" The guard picked up the clipboard. "You were the only one to sign in since I came on shift."
"No, he's one of the maintenance guys. He was helping me out in the cage for the last hour or so," Tom explained.
The guard turned to his counterpart, who had looked up from his magazine to follow the conversation. "Hey, you know anyone named Bill that works here? I didn't even think we had maintenance on staff tonight, 'cept for the on-call guy."
"The only guy named Bill I know who's worked here was an electrician some years back. It ain't him though," the second guard replied.
"Guys, I'm not making it up, I promise. The guy nearly scared the shit out of me earlier and I wanted to brain him." Tom was a little disappointed (though not entirely surprised) that the security team wasn't aware of people on their own staff working.
Tom was willing to let it go, but the first guard clicked around a bit on the terminal beside him. "Cage 1290, right?"
"Yep," Tom replied. "Been there all night. Bill and I were both there, not ten minutes ago."
A few more clicks, and the guard turned his monitor around so that it was facing Tom. "Yeah, that's you, right? I don't see anyone else."
Tom felt the blood drain from his face. On the monitor was black and white security video showing him, standing in front of rack 205 in cage 1290, fully engaged in conversation with empty space. He looked to the guard, then back to the monitor. The timestamp read 22:56. He figured it must've been about the point when Bill was lecturing him about the PDU.
Hesitantly, Tom turned to the second guard and asked, "Why did you say it couldn't be him, the Bill you know?"
"Ah, sad story. Guy died in an electrical accident trying to fix a faulty power unit. Must've been five or six years ago now."
Tom looked up past the guard to the array of security feeds on the wall, finding the camera which had captured the video of him. Looking more closely, he could just make out the front panel of PDU-12C next to the cage he was in.
Its alarm light was off.
About the Author
Jeremy Stretch is a network engineer living in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. He is known for his blog and cheat sheets here at Packet Life. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.
Posted in Random
October 31, 2014 at 9:13 a.m. UTC
Awesome! I want more! :D
October 31, 2014 at 10:49 a.m. UTC
Awesome writing! I was intrigued the entire time (and in fact left a few minutes late for work because I was still reading!) I loved the balance of technical details versus fictional readership. I could definitely feel different paces throughout and I kept wanting to read more throughout the end. I think you could definitely develop a second career out of this if you wanted to :-) Thank you so much for sharing.
October 31, 2014 at 12:41 p.m. UTC
What a fantastic read - and especially on a friday ! :-)
October 31, 2014 at 1:06 p.m. UTC
Great job, Jeremy! Loved it!
October 31, 2014 at 8:22 p.m. UTC
Terrific scary story! I love the description of the data center and work, I can easily relate to it. Then it got really scary, then the tension left when Bill arrived. And the ending was a surprise that gave me goose bumps.
Keep writing more stuff like this!
November 1, 2014 at 6:22 a.m. UTC
Great writing. Techno-fiction I guess
November 4, 2014 at 4:09 p.m. UTC
Really cool story, really like your tech/fiction writing style.
Have a good day.
November 5, 2014 at 9:46 a.m. UTC
Love the story, just the ticket for my coffee break reading
November 6, 2014 at 2:59 p.m. UTC
Great networking read.
November 6, 2014 at 10:30 p.m. UTC
Great story, been there late at night in a data centre, you know there are ghosts of long lost network engineers in those places.
Please more stories!!
November 13, 2014 at 3:23 p.m. UTC
Great story and great site. Thanks.
March 22, 2015 at 4:55 a.m. UTC
This is incredible writing! The data center scene was so well painted, I could fell the chill from the cold aisle as Tom was pacing through.
The ending was perfect.
October 26, 2015 at 8:35 p.m. UTC
Very good read. Good way to get into the mood for this weekend. Hopefully I dont get stuck in the vault.