THE MINA MARZ INCIDENT
A novel by Yvonne DeBandi
© Copyright Yvonne DeBandi 2019
Dean Zigaz stopped to catch his breath at the doorway of TNT Tower, a nickname given to the open-air office on the thirteenth floor of ExpoTronics Incorporated. Leaning against the jamb, heaving, he cursed himself for signing the No Elevator Challenge contract.
Sloan Maddox was to blame. The manager of the Human Resource Department was adamant with her every demand, this one being his least favorite thus far.
“As Team Leader, you need to embrace the Health and Ergonomics Initiative. You know the rule. Lead by example.”
Despite Dean’s position of company power, he knew not to argue with the woman. Pointless waste of time. Now, two weeks of stair climbing later, he found himself plotting her payback with every single step. He wasn’t ready to crumble, but a long Friday with only coffee for sustenance had his determination fading.
During his needed pause, he scanned the room. He was delighted, but not surprised, to find Melinda, Kenzie and Mina working late. Being the only women on his top-level programming team made them stand out on a daily basis, but that wasn’t the reason for his focused gaze.
For many years now, his eyes had misbehaved. No matter what he said to himself, what rules he created, professional guidelines he recited… his challenge remained the same. Melinda pulled his attention like she was a mountain-sized magnet.
She was actually the first person he met here at ExpoTronics, and the only one on the floor thirteen programming staff he didn’t hire. In fact, it was Melinda that interviewed him to become her boss. When asked, she made it very clear she had no desire to be in management.
“I understand code. We need someone who understands people.”
Dean was pretty sure that being both an accomplished programmer and a people person landed him the job. That combination was rare, and perhaps it was that very combination that won him the Team Leader Award for the past three years. While the personal award bore his name, he knew the credit went to those doing the hard work. He made sure they knew it too by hanging it on the bulletin board with a big label, ‘Go Thirteen’, above it.
Still standing in the doorway unnoticed, Dean chuckled at the two overflowing trash bins on either side of Melinda’s desk. She scribbled when she worked. Sometimes the papers contained doodles, artsy random images drawn as she manipulated equations in her head. Others contained maps outlining complicated scripting calls. The latter scrawled in a personal shorthand that made your head spin if you stared at it too long.
Damn, she is beautiful.
Dean noticed Melinda’s beauty the first moment he laid eyes on her, a beauty that could easily be overlooked by someone with more glamorous tastes. For at a quick glance, her appearance was deceiving. She never wore a speck of makeup and always had unruly hair twisted carelessly on top of her head. Her wardrobe consisted of the same t-shirt every day, but in a different color with sneakers to match. It had one word printed on it in bold letters: Geek. Dean found it funny that her attire resembled her programming code: organized, with a clear design, but levels of complexity underneath that would blow your mind.
Others might call Melinda an acquired taste. She was intimidating, for sure, but he enjoyed the challenge. He learned early not to ask her a question unless he could handle an honest and direct answer. The woman didn’t tap dance or put sugar on anything. He liked that about her.
To Melinda’s left sat Kenzie Finn, juggling three paper trash balls from one of the overflowing cans. Kenzie was a thinker whose metabolism clocked at a speed that matched her brain, and everyone agreed her new antics were much better than tapping a pencil against her desk. The juggling provided visual entertainment during a needed mind break, with no repetitive tap tap taps to interrupt their thinking space.
Dean not only respected Kenzie, he liked her. From her very first day, about two years ago, she altered the vibe of the team. Simply put, she was the Rainbow of Light on the thirteenth floor. She had a kind word for everyone and a smile that lit up a room. For her, it seemed, there really was a bright side to every situation, no matter how bleak it appeared.
Kenzie looked at everything as a game, a puzzle, a riddle to solve. Perhaps that was why she was the queen bee when it came to finding software vulnerabilities. Every bit of code produced on the lower floors, or received under contract, had to make it across Kenzie’s desk before it was released. If she couldn’t break it, it was ready.
Kenzie and Melinda became instant friends, and as a boss, Dean couldn’t have been more pleased. Once the code made it to the top of the tower, its final stop was their desks. Kenzie broke it… Melinda fixed it… Kenzie broke it… Melinda fixed it… rinse and repeat until Kenzie cried uncle.
The addition of Mina Marz, two short months ago, had been icing on the cake. During her first week, Kenzie had rearranged their desks to create a triangle of collaboration. They had been like that in the center of the room ever since.
Mina was indescribably exotic, and her creative flair had taken Melinda and Kenzie’s work up yet another notch. Her vision of user interface, and discovery of overlooked options, were like her own personal super power. On top of that, she rivaled Kenzie in the bug breaking department–albeit unintentionally. It wasn’t her job. While Kenzie had an organized method of testing and isolating the bugs, Mina just broke it with no rhyme or reason… much to Melinda’s chagrin.
A piece of wadded paper hitting Dean Zigaz squarely in the forehead removed him from his trance of stair climbing recovery.
“Hey Ziggy, welcome back. You over there trying to figure out how to get that nice Miss Maddox fired again?” grinned Kenzie across the space, now juggling two pieces with one hand and fishing for a replacement with the other.
Dean laughed and nodded vigorously as he entered the room, “I would never think such a thing.”
“Sure, you wouldn’t,” laughed Mina as she looked over her shoulder, tossing a candy wrapper and completely missing her target. Not budging her feet off of her desk, she stared at the wrapper as if to will it into its proper place.
“What has you ladies here late tonight? I see one of you is working hard,” he quipped, nodding towards Melinda. Grinning, he rubbed his forehead where the wad of paper smacked him, and picked up the candy trash now floating across the floor, powered by the ceiling fan.
“Kenzie broke it with logic and Mina… well Mina pulled a Mina. An illogical series of keystrokes that no one else would ever use, but still needs to be fixed. Caused an absolute explosion of script errors,” scowled Melinda as she volleyed between hand scribbles and typing, her eyes three inches away from whatever had her focus at the moment.
Kenzie giggled and shrugged. “So, we ordered delivery. We are waiting for pizza and round… what is it now… thirty-one?”
“Thirty-two,” corrected Mina.
“Oh, my. Is this still the defense contract piece?” asked Dean.
“Yep,” confirmed Kenzie. “Can’t believe they have been using this for so long. I could have hacked this when I was twelve. They should hire us to rewrite it, not just patch the holes. My humble opinion.”
“I agree,” nodded Mina, “Everything about it says ‘ancient.’ Probably costs more to keep patching it than it would to start fresh. You should tell them, ZigMan.”
“And miss out on all this fun?” smirked Melinda, looking up from her console for the first time since Dean’s entrance.
“Someone up here order a pizza… or two… or ten?” asked Porter Reid from the doorway, peeking around the large stack.
“Holy heck, you guys must really be hungry!” laughed Dean.
“Don’t be silly. We ordered enough for everyone… even you, Ziggy. Plus, they had a special on a ten pack. I figured we could have dinner… and breakfast too,” smiled Kenzie.
“You did? Everyone?” piped up Gus Ward, from the next set of desks over.
“We did,” said Mina. “You are the pineapple, Canadian bacon and onion, right?”
“How-how did you know that?” grinned a surprised Gus, a rare moment of lightheartedness waving through his body. Gus always took himself far too seriously.
“Remy’s ‘How to Survive Without Me List,’” said Melinda who had already begun doodling again.
“Speaking of that, Ziggy. We forced Remy to go home around noon. I think she has the flu,” said Kenzie scrunching up her face.
“I knew it,” sighed Dean. “I tried to get her to go home earlier, but she wouldn’t have it.”
Remy was Dean’s Assistant Manager and the only other female on the thirteenth floor. She wasn’t a programmer, but still an invaluable member of the team. While Dean kept them motivated and productive, Remy kept them on schedule and organized. If you needed something, anything, and it didn’t involve an equation, Remy would wave her magic wand and make it happen.
“Thank you, ladies,” said Gus as he stood and stretched, accepting the large box.
“Titus, come on over. Take a break. You too, Porter. I know the doors are locked downstairs and the phones already switched to auto-answer, so… hang out with us for a few minutes before you head home,” demanded Kenzie.
“With pleasure!” he exclaimed as Mina hid her smile. She had observed the courtship dance between Kenzie and Porter since her very first day.
“Pull up a chair, ZigMan. You are making me nervous with your looming,” said Mina, as she nodded towards a chair close to Melinda.
Dean obliged, retorting, “Only if Melinda will stop. She makes me nervous working like that while I eat. Plus, I’m pretty sure we both have had the same diet of nothing today.”
“Pfft,” spat Melinda as she made a final scribble and dropped her pencil with a decisive clatter.
“So, tell me,” Dean said, as he looked at the crew now comfortably scattered around the triangle station of desks. “Besides the defense system, I thought we had an easy day today. I know I have been tied up in meetings, but Titus and Gus, why are you still here?”
“Picking up their slack,” said Titus, nodding at the ladies as he took a large bite of his pepperoni slice.
“You did not just say that!” laughed Mina.
“I did. Your ears not working fast enough either?” grinned Titus.
“Pfft,” said Melinda again, reaching for her pencil as everyone laughed.
“Ah-ah-ah… not yet, Melinda. Breathe. Eat. Breathe,” demanded Dean. “Don’t make me call Miss Maddox and report you for not taking the proper breaks.”
“Hey, look at this, Melinda. You’re famous. They put your hair on the pizza box!” laughed Kenzie.
Melinda looked up, perplexed. She didn’t get it… a common occurrence when group banter was involved. Sometimes explaining things to Melinda was funnier than the joke itself.
“She doesn’t get it,” chuckled Mina.
“Even I get that one,” chortled Gus as Melinda shrugged with good nature, uncaring of their poked fun.
“Hang on. I have the solution,” said Kenzie pulling out a hand mirror from her desk. “Close your eyes, Melinda.”
Kenzie held the mirror and Mina held up the box as they demanded she open them again.
Melinda tried to keep a straight face, but seconds later her husky laugh bubbled to the surface. Even she had to admit that was funny. Her unruly locks had been clipped on her head about ten times that day. As the pin slipped, she just twisted the long dark strands and clipped them again. The mirror proved the ‘do’ did indeed resemble the leaning tower stamped on the front of the pizza box.
“Well, look at that! You’re jealous of it, aren’t you?” Melinda quipped, patting at the hair sculpture like it was perfection.
“See? This is why we love this geek. Only she could make me rethink something like that. It’s true, I might be a little jealous,” giggled Mina, who sported a clean-cut short platinum bob.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Oh shit, what is that?” said a startled Melinda, who surprised everyone in the room with her curse word. Melinda never swore.
Deans eyes got wide as saucers as he saw the red text alert scrolling across Melinda’s monitor.
!!!Warning Firewall 50 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 49 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 48 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 47 Breached!!!
“Shut it down,” demanded Dean, instantly all business.
“We can’t from here. My system has been taken over.”
“Server room!” cried both Melinda and Dean, jumping out of their seats and running towards the stairs Dean had just ascended. Kenzie picked up the phone to see if anyone was still in the basement.
“Good thing you have been running these stairs, Dean. Don’t pass out on me,” demanded Melinda as they descended.
“We’re not going to make it,” exclaimed Dean as the building intercom began relaying the warning when five was reached.
Warning, Firewall 5 Breached.
Warning, Firewall 4 Breached.
Warning, Firewall 3 Breached.
“Melinda! Wait! Stop!”
They made it down the thirteen flights and the additional steps to the basement server room, seconds too late. Melinda stopped as requested, just inside the security door, leaving Dean with a choice to make. Out of instinct and protectiveness, he jumped inside just in time.
Warning, Firewall 2 Breached. Prepare for hard power shutdown.
The backup safety protocol, designed to kick in at the last instant, shut down the entire building, leaving them in absolute darkness and locked inside the windowless room.
“Why didn’t the emergency lights come on?” whispered Melinda, her brain working on overtime to digest their situation.
“I don’t know, but it’s gonna be a long night,” he replied. “A lockdown like this requires three people to release it. You and me only make two. Everyone else with the proper credentials has gone home. Not to mention… doing so requires power.”
“I have the credentials? Had no idea. Never happened in all my years here, not like this. That was fast, too fast. Fifty firewalls in what, under four minutes? And I wrote some of those, they weren’t easy hacks. Think it is something to do with the defense system? Someone trying to get their hands on it?”
“Good guess, but I have no idea. Only a few people outside of the thirteenth floor should have even known it was here. This is bad, very bad. I’m guessing your phone is in your desk?”
“Yep. Yours is in your briefcase upstairs, isn’t it,” Melinda stated more than asked.
“Well, it could be worse,” sighed Melinda, channeling her inner Kenzie. “We could be stuck in the elevator. How would you have ever explained that to Miss Maddox?”
“How long has it been?” asked Melinda.
“Since the last time you asked me? My guess is five minutes,” Dean laughed.
“Sorry. I don’t do nothing very well.”
“So, I noticed. I’m kind of surprised the team isn’t pounding on the door by now, but that is a lot of steps to traverse in the dark. Hope they just stayed where they were.”
“The system did send a message to someone, right?” asked Melinda.
“It’s supposed to, but like you said, I don’t think this has ever actually happened. When they told me about these security protocols, I thought they were way over the top… now I know it. If someone is hacking in from God knows where, what good does locking this room up do? And why didn’t the backup lighting system kick on? This needs to be updated. Not that I’m not enjoying sitting here on the floor in the dark with you.”
“Like the mechanic’s car, right? We are so busy fixing everyone else’s system and software that we never get around to ours?”
“Something like that,” agreed Dean. “but, the heart of the network is solid. None of this is part of the HartBeat software. As you know, that went open source right before ExpoTronics was founded. The added programs, like this one, were written by Charles. A few of them make me raise my eyebrows.”
“Charles wrote them? Well then, that makes sense,” Melinda chuckled. “You ever meet him?”
“No. Just get the occasional electronic memo. I don’t think he has stepped foot in the office in the five years I have been here. Funny, I’ve worked for the man all this time and don’t even know what he looks like. Searched the company promo once… not a single picture anywhere,” chuckled Dean. “I take it from your comment that you have met him?”
“Yep. He hired me. There were only six of us then. He’s quite eccentric in a genius kind of way. He had an office here for the first two years, but once the Board was in place, he started working from home. My best guess is that he became a shut-in about the same time the company went public.”
“A shut-in? Like never leaving his house, you mean?”
“Yep. His mind works on a level way beyond the average human. It was hard for him once the office began to grow. Even though he planned to take over the whole building and prepped for it, I don’t think he realized what he set himself up for. He couldn’t handle being surrounded by that many people every day.”
“What do you mean he prepped for it?”
“He had all the electrical reworked, moved the pipes, floated the floors and walls on the basement here, added the water tight security doors, that kind of stuff. So, the building has its old charm, but the internal workings are mostly new. I thought it was a great idea but I will definitely give him a piece of my mind about this lockdown protocol. Never thought those watertight doors would hold me prisoner. I mean, I appreciate that we work on high-level code and security is an issue, but this is ridiculous. Hey, wait a minute. Are we going to run out of air down here?”
“Let’s not panic to those levels, just yet. So, you still communicate with him? With Charles?”
“Oh yes. We are friends. Well, as good a friend as he can probably have. He is a grumpy one, but he has always been good to me and I’m loyal. In truth, I really like him. He’s funny when he is not irritated. Actually, he is funny when he is irritated too, if you don’t take it personally. I missed him for a long time after he moved his office. We have an interesting connection. He is a genius, and I am not, but when we get in the zone, we work really well together.”
“Is he the reason you have stayed here so long? Kinda rare to find someone who does what you do, stay at the same company.”
“I suppose. Honestly, leaving has never crossed my mind. The work is challenging, the people are nice and the few times I have had issues, Charles has always handled them for me,” Melinda explained. “Plus, I really don’t like interviews.”
“C’mon. Interviews are easy. No different than talking to me right now.”
“Yeah, right,” she laughed, ending with the slightest adorable snort. “Interviews are all judgey. You know I don’t like talking about myself. Give me a problem and I will show you what I do, but don’t ask me to tell you how great I am. Will never go well.”
“Well, I think you are amazing. And technically, you do realize you are a genius, right? I mean if the numbers fit.”
“Whatever. I am who I am. A standardized test label doesn’t make me any different. Seriously, how long are we going to just sit here?”
“You have a better idea?” asked Dean, chuckling to himself. He had made her uncomfortable, but he didn’t care. This one-on-one conversation was a rare opportunity and at the very least, he could share accolades, even if he couldn’t share his true feelings.
I wonder what she would do if I told her I can’t stop thinking about her? That I wake up excited to come to work because I know I get to see her? Yeah, that would probably send her over the edge.
“No. No ideas. Not unless I can get the power to come on by waving my hands… riiiiiiiight now!” she exclaimed as if she was reciting a magic spell.
Just as the words came out of her mouth, the lights above them flickered on and the room began to power itself up, one lighting section at a time.
“Well now, THAT is what I call a super power,” laughed Dean as Melinda looked at him in wide-eyed surprise, her hands still in the air.
“Okay, so the power is on, but the doors are still locked,” sighed Melinda after tugging on them repeatedly. “What now?”
“Like I said, requires three people to override the hard lockdown protocol. Beyond the biometrics, only other way out of here is a special master key.”
“Special master key? Who has that?”
“I know of only one.”
“Let me guess, Charles, right?” sighed Melinda.
Dean nodded, a slight scowl twisting his features. “Hopefully, the system did what it was supposed to do and sent a message to the team with the proper security clearance.”
“Damn, wish I had my phone. I would be blowing up Charles’s line right this minute. I mean, that’s dangerous isn’t it? Locking the doors like that? We’ve been down here forever! And what if the biometrics fail? How many people have the clearance?”
“Actually, now that I think about it, we could be down here awhile,” said Dean, his scowl turning into a full-blown grimace.
“What do you mean? What’s a while?”
“Remember how I told you the people with security clearance were gone for the day?”
“They are gone for more than just a day. They left right after our meetings. Shit. Conference in Vegas starts tomorrow. What time is it?”
“I don’t know. I always use my phone or the computer for the time. I don’t think there is even a clock down here. Why?” asked Melinda with trepidation.
“They might already be in the air. They were late leaving as it was.”
“Wait, do you hear that? The door handle clicked. Like someone is trying to turn it from the outside,” Melinda asked as she ran back to the door. “In here, we are in here. Can you hear us? Someone call Charles Malone. Tell him to get his ass down h….”
The door swung open in the middle of her angry plea.
“My ass? Really, Fritzy,” he said, returning the keyring to his pocket.
“Charles? Charles! Thank goodness.,” said Melinda flinging her arms around him.
The invasion of personal space made him uncomfortable. A fact exposed as he patted her twice on the back. He then forcefully picked her up and set her down a foot away. Melinda shook her head and chuckled.
“I’ve been locked up in a room by your programming hand, haven’t seen you in person in how many years, and that is the greeting I get?”
“Never mind that. Did you see it?” Charles asked, a glimmer of excitement now sparking in his eyes.
“See what? Until a few minutes ago we were sitting in the dark, locked up in a room… something we really need to talk about. THAT was not your most genius programming idea. Seriously Charles, if you had not come, no telling how long we would have been stuck down here.”
“Never mind that. We?” he asked. His guard was down. He hadn’t noticed they weren’t alone. He quickly turned his back to hide his face and whispered. “Who’s that?”
“Dean Zigaz. Manager on the thirteenth floor. Recipient of the Team Leader Award for several years now.”
“Mr. Malone. Pleasure, Sir,” said Dean quietly. Recognizing the body language signals, he made no attempt to step forward or shake the man’s hand.
In response, Charles glanced over his shoulder and nodded in curt greeting, “Thirteen.”
“Fritzy, where’s your phone?” asked Charles, again shifting his mental focus, wondering if his device was the only one affected.
“Upstairs in my desk. We ran down when the hack began. Did you get a message? Is that why you are here? How you knew to come? We were speculating it had something to do with the defense contract.”
“Yes, yes. I got the message, but we weren’t hacked in the way you think. You need to see this.”
“Let’s go. TNT Tower is all windows, much better than showing you on a phone. You won’t believe it. Hurry!” urged Charles.
“Wait! Should we power up the systems first? Try to figure out what happened?” asked Melinda looking between Dean and Charles for confirmation.
“No, no. That won’t do any good. Hurry. You have to see this!” exclaimed Charles again, running towards the stairwell. “Don’t trust the elevators. Power might go out again. Must take the stairs.”
Melinda and Dean followed Charles as he bounded up the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
“Charles, before you get up there. You should know there are quite a few employees still in the building,” said Melinda, trying to keep up, her statement momentarily stopping Charles in his tracks.
After blinking rapidly and processing the information, he continued on, repeating his exclamations of urgency.
Melinda had no idea what Charles wanted to show her, but it must be important since he was continuing his climb. As they entered, Melinda’s curiosity increased. All of her colleagues were huddled at the windows on the north side wearing befuddled expressions on their faces. She followed Charles to an empty glass pane on the south side of the large room. He nodded and pointed to the billboards and electronic displays that littered the view as far as one could see.
“What the heck?” whispered Melinda, no one yet noticing she had returned.
“The whole district experienced a full power shut down. At least between my house and here. It may have spread further, I don’t know. When the power came back, every electronic device looked like those billboards,” Charles whispered back, standing beside her as if she was a barricade between himself and the others.
Dean, finally making it up the many flights, came barreling into the room. He caused such a ruckus that everyone turned their head in observation, but not a word was spoken. Kenzie just pointed out of the window, her jaw still hanging slightly open.
“What language is that?” asked Titus, breaking the silence.
“No language I’ve ever seen. Looks like hieroglyphics to me,” said Kenzie.
“Looks like a three-year-old scribbled a bunch of nothing to me,” offered Porter.
“What do you think it means?” asked Gus as the crew across the room fell silent again, having no suggestions or ideas.
“I think it is a message,” whispered Charles in Melinda’s ear.
“From who?” she whispered back, wide-eyed.
“From who, from where, how, why, and what does it say? All good questions. Figure it out, Fritzy,” he said raising his eyebrows. “There is a pattern there.”
Melinda cocked her head to the side and stared at the large electronic billboard hanging across the street. After many minutes, she closed her eyes to relieve them from the lighting stress. When she opened them again, Charles was gone.
“Where’s Melinda, Ziggy? Wasn’t she with you?” asked Mina, not taking her eyes off of the digital mystery displayed down the street.
“I’m here,” she said, moving to join the rest of the group.
“Seriously, what do you think is going on?” asked Gus again. Gus wasn’t good with unknowns and an unexpected event of this magnitude was shaking his organized foundation of daily routine.
“Could be a prank,” offered Titus. “Maybe some college kid with mad skills got bored?”
“Could be political,” countered Kenzie. “If they don’t regain control, gonna really mess up the rally tomorrow.”
“We need to get photos of this,” said Melinda, hopping to her desk to retrieve her device, forgetting Charles’s inference of every device.
“Won’t work unless you had both tower and wi-fi disabled. Whatever this is, it locked up all connections. All of ours are stuck on the same thing as those streaming billboards. Can’t even take a screenshot,” said Mina.
“My word, what could do such a thing? I can’t even comprehend what it would take to pull off such a feat. Any of you have any ideas, technologically speaking?” asked Dean.
“Maybe it’s aliens,” laughed Porter, eating another slice of pizza and watching the whole thing go down like a source of entertainment. Unlike Gus, Porter was spontaneous and thrived on the unexpected.
“What did Charles say, Melinda? And where is he anyway?” asked Dean, scanning the room as she returned to the windows with a pad of paper and several pencils.
Melinda shrugged and shook her head in response to both questions as she began to sketch the scene before her.
“Charles who?” asked Kenzie absentmindedly, without averting her focus.
“Charles Malone. You know, THE Charles Malone. The guy who founded the company, Charles Malone,” responded Dean.
“What? Really? He was here?” Kenzie gaffed, now looking at Dean with disbelief.
“Yep, he let us out of the basement. Lockdown protocol. Long story.”
“Wow, Charlie Malone,” said Porter who had been working the front desk and reception area long enough to remember when the eccentric man had an office in the building. “Hmmm, if you asked me the probability of seeing proof of aliens, or Charlie Malone tonight… I probably would have gone with the aliens.”
“Aliens, really?” said Mina, not letting the reference slide a second time. “If there were aliens, doubtful this is how they would make their presence known.”
“Well, you geniuses haven’t come up with anything and that’s all that comes to my mind,” laughed Porter good naturedly.
“I would have said the probability of both options was zero,” said Melinda, continuing to draw, “And yet, here we are. Charles did show up tonight and the other is a real possibility.”
“You mean, you agree it could be aliens?” asked Kenzie with an intrigued look on her face.
“Well, I can’t say that it isn’t. Can you?”
No one responded verbally, but shook their heads as they realized the truth of Melinda’s logic.
“Oh my, God! What is that?” exclaimed Kenzie, putting her hands over her ears as the others followed suit.
Melinda continued to scribble with focus, despite the intense squealing noise that made her ears feel like they were imploding. Her peripheral vision caught her friends dropping. One by one they fell to the floor where she joined them seconds later.
Melinda wasn’t a morning person. She normally rolled over at least twice to gather her bearings. That wasn’t the case today. The warmth on her face and invading light put Melinda’s subconscious on alert, for the sun didn’t hit that side of her apartment in the morning. Opening her eyes, full of adrenaline, her physical response increased when the first thing she saw was Mina’s face two inches from her own. Bolting upright, she realized she was still on the thirteenth floor of the ExpoTronics building, although had no memory of how she got to her current position.
“What in the world?” she whispered as she looked with concern at her peers on the surrounding floor. One by one she confirmed they were breathing. From all appearances they were sound asleep. She tried to remember what happened, but even seeing Dean there was a surprise.
When did he get here?
The last thing she remembered was sitting at her desk working on the defense contract patch. She had been repairing holes that Kenzie located and trying to duplicate Mina’s illogical keystrokes that led to a complete software explosion. From her seated position, she looked around and saw the pizza boxes scattered around their work station.
Pizza? Did we order pizza? Were we drugged?
Slowly standing and holding her head that pounded with remnants of a hangover, she wondered if she should wake the others or let them sleep it off.
Coffee. I’ll make coffee.
Stumbling, she reached towards the window pane to steady herself, immediately distracted by the street below. There were people laying on the sidewalks. Cars had collided with each other, now motionless and in great disarray. Despite the silence and lack of movement, the scene appeared more chaotic than the stress of the normal busy traffic routine.
What the hell?
The billboards on the street, many that normally streamed the morning news, offered only static. From her towering perspective, it looked like the entire city had just passed out.
Changing her mind, she reached down and gently nudged Kenzie and Mina. Their three brains made a triangle of logic that she depended on daily. Perhaps they could help her understand. Perhaps they remembered.
“Mina? Kenzie? Wake up.”
Kenzie responded first.
“I’m up. I’m up. Melinda? What are you doing here?” whispered Kenzie groggily, not yet opening her eyes but recognizing the voice.
“I think a better question is: What are we doing here?” said Melinda, waiting for Kenzie to squint into the morning light and recognize her surroundings.
“Wha-wha-what happened?” asked Kenzie holding her head. “Did we drink last night or something? I’m confused.”
“Me too. You don’t remember anything either?”
Kenzie shook her head, stretching her face to gain alertness as Melinda offered a hand.
“Look out the window. Something very strange is going on.”
One by one, the team on the thirteenth floor regained consciousness and resumed their position at the window. The people below also began to wake, all sharing the same puzzled expressions.
“Melinda, you’re hurt!” said Dean, whose last memory was sitting in a never-ending meeting on the second floor.
“No, I’m fine. I mean, my head hurts, but I’m fine.”
“You have blood on your face.”
“On this side too,” said Kenzie, now pushing back Melinda’s tumbled hair. “Looks like your ears were bleeding. What the hell happened last night? Can you hear us okay?” she asked as Melinda nodded in confirmation.
“I feel like I drank a whole bottle of vodka,” said Porter with one eye still halfway closed, standing over the coffee machine and following through with Melinda’s initial thought.
“Hey, what’s this?” said Mina, picking up the pad of paper off the floor as the billboards down the street all sprang to life with an official broadcast, diverting her attention.
“What are they saying? Anyone have their phones handy? Dammit,” asked Gus, stumbling around his desk in search of his own device.
“I don’t have a signal,” exclaimed Titus, then added, “Now I do. Turn off your phones and then turn them back on. Worked for me. Okay, from what I see here. They are declaring a state emergency. Military is on its way. Blah blah blah. The ‘incident,’” he said, using air quotes, “occurred in a ten-mile square radius. At this point the only thing confirmed is a short power outage, and mass unconsciousness with amnesia. Everyone is urged to stay in their homes, or to make their way home in an orderly manner to wait for more information. Those needing medical help, blah blah blah. Okay. So, nothing of real interest beyond the distance of occurrence and the fact that no one remembers anything after 5:00 pm last night. No reasoning or speculation even offered. You guys get anything else?”
“Aliens,” mumbled Porter. “That’s all I can think of… aliens.”
Mina was still standing at the window, mesmerized by the ant-like activity below.
“Why is everyone just standing around? You’d think they would start streaming away from the area, eager to get home, right? And here come the men in uniform… on foot.”
Titus came up beside her to observe and after a moment realized the circumstance. “Huh. They ran out of gas. The cars were all running when they passed out. Wow, wonder what that means for people that were driving and not stuck in a slow-moving traffic jam.”
“Or flying out of the airport!” exclaimed Dean as he frantically flipped through his now powered up smart phone. “Most of our management team was on their way to Vegas last night!”
“Oh, dear,” said Kenzie closing her eyes, unable to come up with a rainbow side of that equation. “Please tell me they are all right.”
“Okay, okay. I have a text message from Rory. They landed safely.”
“Thank goodness!” exclaimed Kenzie, letting out the breath she had been holding.
“What is it, Dean? Your face is all funny,” interjected Melinda.
“Well, this is weird,” said Dean. “I don’t understand.”
“What is it?” asked Melinda again.
“Rory said after they landed in Vegas he saw the Security 823 Alert. He sent a message to Charles Malone to help us out, since they weren’t here to offer biometrics for reboot.”
“Charles? Here in person? That’ll be the day,” chuckled Melinda.
“Well, the system is powered down. With such a major power outage, is it really that strange?” asked Kenzie.
“823 is a hard system shutdown due to a complete firewall breach. What is that? Like fifty firewalls? That wouldn’t have occurred on a regular power outage. I mean, I don’t know what happened, but… well, I don’t know what happened, so not going to speculate. I am, however, gonna head to the server room. Melinda, you sure you are okay?”
“Good. If you don’t mind then, will you please come with me? You are the only other one here with biometric privileges.”
“I am? I do?”
“Yep. It takes three to override an 823, but maybe we can figure something out.”
“You want me to call Charles?” Melinda asked, picking up her phone and following him to the doorway.
“Call him? You have a phone number?! All I have is a text relay line, and I was given that under strict orders to use only in an emergency.”
Melinda shrugged, “I’m probably the closest thing he has to a best friend. He did call me the daughter he never got to have once, although the statement was laced with sarcasm and irritation so take that as you will.”
“Really?” asked Dean with raised eyebrows. “I had no idea.”
“Even still, he doesn’t normally answer. I can leave a voicemail, though. He’ll respond in one digital form or another,” grinned Melinda, chuckling over her eccentric friend and his strange ways.
“Bring your phone, but don’t call him yet. Let’s evaluate the situation first. Who knows, maybe the message sent was an error and all we have to do is fire everything up.”
“Good idea,” agreed Melinda, running into Dean full speed as he halted in the doorway, turning back to the others in the room.
“Hey, you guys gonna be okay? I know the city authorities said to go home, but it looks like it’s gonna be hard to get out of the city. I would stay put. Contact anyone you need to check on and wait for us here?”
Everyone nodded as Porter swept over to the doorway with two cups of welcomed coffee.
“Thanks, Porter,” Dean and Melinda said in unison, before heading to the stairwell.
“These damn stairs. Wanna take the elevator?” Dean asked in half-jest as Melinda shook her head and led the way. They walked down in silence, both lost in their own whirlwind of thoughts, Melinda finally speaking as they reached the ground floor.
“You know, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of strange things in my life, but right now I have to say this one takes the cake… AND, it is the only experience I can remember where I have absolutely no theory. Mass amnesia? What could cause such a thing?”
“I have no idea. That kind of science is a little outside my expertise,” said Dean thoughtfully, “but I have to admit, my brain is going all scifi with theories. It’s like something out of a movie, right? Hey what’s that on the landing? In front of you, to the left.”
“It’s a phone. Screen is cracked. No one mentioned missing a phone, right? Wonder whose it is. Hey, what’s that?” Melinda asked a few steps later as she stooped to pick up the item.
“What is it?”
“Dean, these are Charles’s keys.”
“What? How do you know?”
“Because I gave him the keyring. See?” she said, handing it to him. “Look at the engraving on the back of the keyboard charm.”
“You’ve been Fritzed?” he asked, grinning.
“Yeah, something silly he used to say when I first started. He had me doing work that overpowered motherboards, messing with their clock speeds and such. When I fried something, he would say that as he tossed the hardware into the trash pile. I’m a little worried, now. If these are his keys and his phone, where is he?”
“Things are just getting stranger and stranger. I find it even more odd that his keys are here and the server room is still locked. He is the only one that can open it with a key in these types of circumstances. So, was he on his way in or out when he dropped them?
“This whole experience is confusing. I’m logical, not speculative. My brain works by seeing a problem, seeing the needed result, and plotting the steps in between. All this? I got nothing,” admitted Melinda with chagrin.
“Maybe Porter was right.”
“Aliens. Maybe Charles has been snatched by aliens,” he grinned, toying with her.
“Give me back those keys. We need to get the system up and running. If we are going to figure this out, it will be with me at a computer, not playing some guessing game.”
“What?” Dean laughed holding out his hands. “No theory, remember? Not like we can rule it out!”
Melinda fumbled through the keys and finally flung the door open, allowing them to proceed into the master server bank.
“So, you are saying that just flipping the switch won’t reboot the system? We need a biometric scan to proceed?”
“Yes, three Login IDs and Passwords with a biometric hand scan. It’s a security protocol that Charles installed on top of the HartBeat Network software. Little much if you ask me. I raised concerns when they gave me the orientation manual, but they fell on deaf ears. I suppose he had his reasons, but I couldn’t begin to postulate what they were.”
“Well, Charles is both brilliant and eccentric. So, he either had his reasons… or had paranoia,” Melinda stated with a knowing look. “But at least now I know why he scanned my hand so many years ago. Okay, we are powered up. As you expected, it is asking for three confirmations to override. Let me think. Charles always has a back door. How were those protocols added, do you know? Were they subroutines placed on top of the network, or did they get written into the core of the program?”
“Layered subroutines. That way if HartBeat itself ever needed to be upgraded, it wouldn’t require a complete rewrite,” answered Dean.
“Okay, let’s look for network manuals or any written material. I’ve done work on the core, but honestly never paid that much attention. I just did the job requested and moved along. Surely, they have something here for reference, right? Is that what they showed you, to explain all of this?”
“No, it wasn’t the actual technical manual, was more relevant for management.”
“Do you still have a copy in your office?”
Dean shook his head. “I was only allowed to have it for three days. After being tested on the memorization, it was taken away. Every four months we have to take another quiz. We only get the manual again if we fail.”
“Seriously?” asked Melinda in surprise.
“Seriously. Ingenious too. Because of that, I know the protocols by number. For example, what an 823 means and what needs to be done. Now, overriding it without the proper procedure, that wasn’t included. We will have to rely on your expertise for that. If we don’t find what we need, I’ll put in a call to Rory. His domain, after all. Although, maybe you should try to reach Charles at home? See if he is okay? I assume he has a landline?”
“I was just thinking that myself,” Melinda agreed, retrieving her phone from her back pocket. “Why is that rack in the middle of the room? Isn’t it usually up against the wall?”
“It is,” Dean nodded, moving around the rack to investigate while Melinda scrolled through her contacts. “Well, add another oddity to the list. Maybe this is your back door?”
“What?” she asked, distracted from her mission.
“There is a palm scanner on the floor,” he said, pointing to where the rack usually lived.
Dean obliged, causing the scanner display to blink red. “You try it. You actually have more power than me around here.”
“I do? How did I not know that?” she laughed as she put her hand against the scanner.
The result of her actions startled them both. The adjacent wall shifted and moved to expose a set of stairs leading downward.
“When I said he had a back door, not what I meant. Did you know this was here?”
“No,” said Dean, slowly shaking his head, just as shocked.
Curious, they descended.
“Oh, my word. It’s a studio apartment. All those days when Charles disappeared, I bet he was hiding here. That little sneak. Not sure it will help us get the system online, but an interesting field trip.”
“I don’t know, it might help us get online,” said Dean, nodding towards the back and an area that resembled military style bunks. The top left bunk had a hand hanging just low enough to see under the closed curtain. “I think you can hold off on the phone call. I’m guessing that is Charles?”
Melinda drew back the fabric shield to find Charles in a restless sleep. Remembering how he disliked human contact, she tapped his hand a couple of times. “Charles?”
Before she even ended her named query, Charles was out of the bunk, both feet on the floor, knees bent, hands in front of his body like he was about to begin a martial arts match.
“Woah,” she said, before adding a sarcastic greeting. “Good morning, sunshine.”
“Fritzy! You found me,” he said relaxing his stance. “Did you figure it out?”
“Yes, I figured it out! All those days I wandered over this entire building looking for you, you were down here the whole time. You little brat.”
“Never mind that. I’m talking about the message. Did you figure it out?”
“What message?! The one I showed you last night!” Charles exclaimed.
“Mr. Malone, Dean Zigaz, here. Manager on the thirteenth floor. Pleasure to meet you in person, Sir.”
“Again, you mean.”
“Pleasure to meet me in person… again. I met you last night, Thirteen,” said Charles flippantly.
“Charles, did you see us last night? Do you remember what happened?”
“Of course, I remember, Fritzy! How could I forget that?! The technological feat accomplished last night was extraordinary, at the very least!” exclaimed Charles as he put on his shoes. “No idea how it was accomplished, and that alone makes it extraordinary, now doesn’t it?”
“Charles, we don’t remember. No one remembers anything since about 5:00 p.m. last night. And when I say no one remembers, I mean NO ONE in the city. We woke up on the floor this morning by the windows. And it wasn’t just us… everyone passed out right where they were. On the sidewalk, driving their cars, everyone. They are saying it was an incident of mass unconsciousness resulting in amnesia.”
“Well, THAT certainly adds to the intrigue, now doesn’t it,” whispered Charles to himself.
“More intriguing than what? And why were your keys and phone out in the hallway?”
“Because that is where I dropped them.”
“Why did you drop them?” asked Melinda, rolling her eyes at the need for specificity.
“I got startled,” Charles responded, his mind distracted by his announced intrigue.
“Okay, let’s try this again. Charles, pretend I’m stupid. Tell me everything that happened, step-by-step, starting with why you are here,” demanded Melinda.
“Fritzy, I have to say I’ve missed you and your bossy self. Okay, okay. I got a message from someone named Rory on the emergency text relay line. Said that there had been an 823, and I was needed on the scene. That all biometrics but two, assuming you two, were at the conference in Vegas. That’s going to be a good one, you know? You should go next year, Fritzy.”
“Okay, sure. I’ll go. What happened next?” she prompted with exasperation.
“Right after I got the message, my power flickered. I thought it was just my Tesla machine acting up, but my generator kicked on so I didn’t pay any attention. As I started to drive over here, I noticed the power was out everywhere. I took the back roads, of course. Even had to park and walk the last couple of blocks. The traffic lights not working caused a standstill and quite a few collisions. Power came on just before I reached the building. As everything sprang back to life, what I saw on the street was amazing. Even my phone.”
“What was amazing about it?”
“Fritzy, do you want the story step-by-step, or don’t you? Really, make up your mind.”
Melinda scrunched up her face in irritation. “Yes, please. I love you, Charles, but you still drive me insane.”
“And you are the reason my hair is white, but never mind that now. I came in and found you two locked in the server room.”
“We were?” said Melinda dumbfounded.
“Yes, you were,” said Charles, this time with mimicked sarcasm in his voice on the repeat and confirm.
Dean was doing his best to keep a straight face as he watched their bantering. Respecting Charles’ anti-social nature, he had remained quiet. In the end, he had to put his hand over his grin to make it look like he was pondering the information. He found Melinda’s interruptions and expressions adorable.
“Actually, as I was unlocking the door, you were screaming something about my ass. You were quite upset with me and my security upgrades. Very funny. Very funny, indeed.”
“Sounds reasonable to me! You know we are dead in the water, right? You need to help us power up before you go.”
“Never mind that! We are just getting to the good part. So, we went upstairs to the windowed tower. Fritzy and I got there first. You look in great shape, Thirteen, but it took you much longer on those stairs.”
“Never mind that. Get to the good part,” Dean grinned.
“Ha! I like him, Fritzy. He pays attention. The good part is the reason I took you upstairs. It was to show you the phenomenon. The streaming billboards, the electronic devices connected to towers and wifi, everything… they were all taken over and displaying the same thing. It wasn’t a language familiar to me, but there has to be a pattern. There is always a pattern.”
“I don’t understand. You mean like a universal hack across all systems and devices? How is that even possible?”
“Exactly what I mean, and I don’t know,” admitted Charles.
“YOU don’t know? And no idea about what was displayed either?” asked Melinda with genuine surprise.
“I know. I know. I was as surprised as you, but I don’t have a clue. I told you to figure it out, then I left. When I got to the ground floor stairwell landing and about to exit, the hair on my arms began to tingle. I knew something was about to happen.”
“Spidey sense?” asked Melinda wryly as Dean worked hard to hold in his chuckle outburst.
“Well, more like scientific understanding of an electromagnetic event, but have it your way, Spidey sense. My Spidey sense didn’t know what it was, but wasted no time. I jumped down the rest of the steps and slammed the server room door behind me just as I began to hear it.”
“Hear what?” asked Dean.
“A frequency squeal that is not meant for our ears. The server room isn’t soundproof, almost, but not entirely. So, I came here. Nothing gets through these walls. Once it was over, I went back upstairs, but because the 823 hadn’t been completely cleared, I was locked in.”
“Because you dropped your keys,” said Melinda, pondering the magnitude of the experience wiped from her memory banks.
“Exactly. Because I dropped my keys.”
“Hard to believe all that happened, and even harder to believe I would forget something like that,” shared Dean in awe.
“Last I remember, I was sitting at my desk patching holes on the defense contract,” shrugged Melinda.
“That’s not good. How are you going to figure out the message if you don’t remember seeing it? And you say everyone is experiencing this amnesia?”
“Yes. According to the news, the incident occurred over a ten-mile radius. From what we saw before we came down here, no one has come forward remembering anything during that time period. You may be the only one.”
“A fact we will NOT publicize,” he stated with no room for argument as he grabbed Melinda’s coffee and finished it off, winking. “Guess it is a good thing I have a Spidey sense, now isn’t it, Fritzy.”