Working on a $5 Raspberry Pi

1/15/2018

I’ve held off from buying a Raspberry Pi Zero for a while, in favor of Teensy or Pro Micro controllers, because what can a $5 controller really do?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Zero so far. $5 got me a computer that’s half the size of a credit card, with HDMI video out, two USB ports, a GPIO header, and WIFI. Frickin’ WIFI!

Performance-wise, well, it’s pretty slow. But it’s fast enough for prototyping and running LEDs, which is great for my current project.


Jobs

1/7/2018

How can I answer my kid when he asks what he should be when he grows up, when the job I have wasn’t invented when I was a kid?

Furthermore, who wants to work at a job that has been around for more than twenty years?


Retro gaming

1/2/2018

Rachel found a 13″ Sony Trinitron CRT (KV-13FM13) at Goodwill today, and snagged it for me for $8.

The kids are playing Super Smash Bros Melee, as is their birthright.


New Year’s resolution

1/1/2018

My New Year’s resolution is to stop using Facebook as a blogging platform.


The Wegner

3/30/2017

There’s decent money to be made in storage auctions. At least, there used to be, before the reality TV shows made everyone think they could get rich quick. The unit was crammed with old boxes and some furniture. The furniture caught my eye — a refinished vintage desk from the fifties or sixties could sell for quite a bit. The crowd was sparse, and I won the auction for a steal. After the auction, I drove the box truck back to my warehouse, and began unloading it. My warehouse was a small prefab metal building with a roll-up garage door that my father had used, when he was alive, to store junk in, and to dream about building race cars. To my knowledge, no car had ever graced the concrete floor of that building.

I lived with my roommate Randall. When we met in eighth grade, I hated his guts. He was fat, shy, weird, and worst of all, he was really smart. I soon came to appreciate Randall’s intelligence when that mean old bitch Mrs. Catlett assigned me to be his lab partner. I got an A for the first time in years. My parents were killed by a drunk driver midway through my freshman year at the local community college. They left me their big old sprawling farmhouse, money to bury them, and not much else. Randall suggested I rent out some of the rooms, specifically to him. I understood that he meant it as a favor to me, and at the time, I needed both the money and the company.

At fifteen, Randall started making money building websites. He told me once, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — or that you’re fifteen.” I learned a lot from him by pure osmosis, particularly in research. Being able to track down both prior sales and potential buyers is a valuable skill in my line of work. Randall, however, moved on from building simple websites to programming full web-based applications. By the time he moved in, he was earning enough that he could pay all of his bills, and have plenty of money left over for his many hobbies.

When I first visited Randall’s house, in eighth grade, I was astonished by his baseball card collection. He had thousands, meticulously arranged and cataloged, and it seemed that he had every stat memorized. As the years passed, he moved from collection to collection. About a year after he moved in, Randall stumbled across what was soon to be his new obsession: mechanical keyboards. He bought us both Corsair gaming boards, then promptly threw them in the trash and replaced them with boards from a Taiwanese outfit named Ducky, complete with fancy LED lighting patterns. I was happy with my Ducky Shine board; the keys felt great, though the clicks were a little annoying. When Randall wasn’t coding, he was shopping for increasingly rare keyboards. He had taken over the dining room as his work area. He set up tall shelves that he filled with boards, each labeled and cleaned, and, in some cases, meticulously wrapped in protective plastic. Randall claimed that he had purchased his “endgame” board, a strangely shaped aluminum beast he purchased from someone in Korea, after a month of tedious and sometimes heated negotiation. When it arrived, I was astonished to see it wasn’t even finished.

“You spent how much on that?” I asked.

“Eight hundred,” he replied.

“Eight hundred, for some metal plates and a bunch of parts.”

“Yea, plus I had to buy the keycaps. So, maybe a grand total.”

“Two hundred for some plastic keycaps? I’m definitely not charging you enough for rent.”

When I loaded the box truck at the storage auction, I knew I had hit paydirt with the furniture. The unit had contained a beautiful oak desk, a padded oak and leather rolling office chair, and some desk lamps. There were also quite a few cardboard boxes of papers, books, and various other junk. In the back corner of the unit, covered in cloth, was a heavy wooden crate, its lid nailed shut. The crate was what interested me most; the file cabinets had papers and files, but I couldn’t open the crate without a crowbar. The furniture alone would double my investment in the unit, but sealed wooden crates typically meant something important. Something of value.

Lifting with my legs, and not with my back, with liberal use of my hand truck, I leveraged the boxes and the furniture out of the truck and into my warehouse. Randall had spray-painted that hand truck hot pink one weekend. “I thought your dolly needed a new dress,” he said, and laughed until his glasses fogged up. The jerk. Finally, I was alone with my prize. I carefully slotted the crowbar, and pried the lid off the wooden crate. Inside lay a large chunk of foam packing material, around a dark piece of equipment. I removed packing material, carefully pulled the device from its crate, and placed it on the desk. The device appeared to be quite possibly the world’s ugliest computer. Its case was a dark reddish brown, with thick angles of metal bent over and around a tiny glass tube screen. The screen shared the front of the case with a floppy bay, along with several other odd ports. Just below the monitor was a label, white letters stark against black Dymo embossing tape: WEGNER-1. The keyboard, packed in its own wrapping of foam, was also red-brown, in a tall case nearly three inches thick. It felt as if it might be made of steel, and had a heft like a murder weapon.

I texted Randall that I had found an old computer, and he came to the warehouse at a run. His jaw dropped when he saw the ugly old thing, and he spent the next ten minutes caressing it and cooing at it like I’d brought him a kitten.

“Gonna turn it on?” I asked. Randall looked at me in horror.

“Are you nuts? The capacitors in this thing have to be over thirty years old! I’ll have to test every single one with a meter, and even then I don’t know if I’d dare trying it. The keyboard, though, has an RJ-11 connector. I have a USB adapter for that,” he said, and got the faraway look in his eye that nerds get when they’re solving nerd problems.

“I’ll leave you alone with your new girlfriend,” I said. “I’m starved, and I have dust all up my sinuses.”

While I showered, Randall carted the Wegner, as he started calling it, into the house, and set it up on the dining room table. Realizing we had no food in the house, and we were critically low on beer, I went to a market to pick up deli sandwiches and beverages. It was late when I got back. Randall was still at the table, looking at the Wegner keyboard through magnifying lenses strapped to his forehead. He looked up at me and sighed. “I can’t figure out how these switches work, man. I thought they might be Hall Effect at first, but they’ve got this weird chip next to each of them. They feel great, though. Like a Topre board with tight buckling springs.” He began reassembling the board. “I got it to work with that USB adapter too. Wanna try it?” Randall flipped the board back onto its base, and connected it to his PC. I leaned over the board, the angle awkward, and started touched the keys.

“Ow!” I said, as a short static shock jolted my fingers. I recoiled, and looked at Randall. “The damn thing has a short.”

“Yeah, it did that to me once too. No idea why. Should be grounded over USB. Come on, don’t be a sissy, try it out,” Randall said. I lay my fingers on the board again. The Wegner’s keys were weirdly slick, and the caps felt slightly oily to my touch.

“Is this thing buzzing when I hit a key?” I asked.

“That’s what I can’t figure out, dude! I looked all over the top of the board and there’s nothing that might make it buzz like that. The case is welded together at the bottom, so I can’t get to the underside of the board, without breaking it. I kinda like it, though,” Randall said. “It’s like a mini-massage for my fingers.”

I settled down at my own computer, cracked a beer and started hunting down the provenance for our ugly new friend. I sent a few emails to some friends in the business, and posted some questions on some “vintage computing” message boards. My first search results for Wegner returned Wikipedia articles about Dr. Meinrad Wegner. He was a German rocket scientist who came to America, perhaps unwillingly, at the end of WWII. A footnote led me to his son, a polymath who graduated from MIT with four degrees at twenty years old, then disappeared from the public eye for a decade. In 1982, at COMDEX in Atlantic City, Wegner unveiled the Wegner-1, a PC clone that he claimed would “change the world”. Wegner’s announcement was met with some skepticism, but mostly apathy. After COMDEX, the trail went cold, with no other articles about Wegner, or his computer.

The next day, I sorted through the furniture and boxes that came from Wegner’s office. The drawers in the oak desk were locked, but the lock didn’t stand up to a screwdriver and a hammer. The first drawer shrieked horribly when I pulled it open. Inside lay an assortment of decades-old office supplies. With the first drawer opened, I could then pull out the larger bottom drawer. “Bingo,” I said to myself. A dozen black paperback notebooks lay inside, each dated and labeled “E. Wegner, Laboratory Notes.” I pulled out the notebooks, and started flipping through them.

At first, it was hard to read Wegner’s spidery, cramped handwriting. In the first notebook, which appeared to be the earliest, dated “1968,” was filled with terse, almost grudging notes about Wegner’s daily work. He had been recruited straight out of college to work at a small, independent laboratory in the outskirts of Massachusetts. At first, he was given menial fact-checking assignments, long and tedious mathematical calculations performed by hand and slide-rule. Wegner’s frustration with these assignments were apparent in his notes. In the margins, though, he had drawn several sketches of electrical circuits. Wegner appeared to have a breakthrough midway through 1969. His cramped handwriting became more expansive, and his ideas more fluid as written on the page. He began to receive greater access to the projects upon which he had been working, and by the end of the notebook, so did I. The small, independent laboratory was in truth a government operation, requiring both Top Secret and an extremely prejudiced “need to know” clearance, operating at arm’s length to provide plausible deniability.

The height of Cold War paranoia had combined with the heady days of the Summer of Love to produce strange fruit, indeed. By 1970, Wegner was involved in dozens of projects, each more bizarre than the last. Remote sensing, life extension, astral projection. Wegner devoured every subject before him, and combined them in ways that were the true manifestation of his genius. Tantric meditation based upon quantum physics, mathematical formulae derived during deeply ritualized seances while megadosing on lysergic acid derivatives he developed during sensory deprivation. In one of these fugue states, he wrote, he became convinced of the possibility of “imprinting” — copying thoughts from one person to another. The military, of course, latched onto the idea as a perfect interrogation method: what better way to question an enemy combatant than to read that enemy’s thoughts?

By this point, I was hooked. I had settled on a creaking wooden office chair, likely Wegner’s, with a beer, two ham sandwiches, and a stack of notebooks. I went to the kitchen for more beer, and a bag of chips. Randall was banging away at his weird old keyboard, headphones on, monitor glare whiting out his glasses. As I passed, I asked if he wanted a beer. He said nothing, lost in whatever code he was working on. I shrugged, and went back to the notebooks.

Somewhere between 1974 and 1978, Wegner had made a major breakthrough. He was still devouring wildly disparate fields of both science and mythology with equal gusto, incorporating Voudon ceremonies with computer science. He wrote that he felt all knowledge in the universe was already known to the universe, and so could be divined, or teased out of the Mind of God. He theorized that ritual and supplication to higher powers were equally valid to proper scientific experimentation, and by 1975 had formalized divination rituals designed to find specific answers to extremely difficult logical calculations. Wegner became convinced that he was contacting entities that existed outside the universe, and these hyperdimensional entities had access to all knowledge, both past and future. Whether Wegner was actually contacting the spirit world, or was simply insane, was irrelevant: his efforts paid off. Double-blind trials proved imprinting worked for moods in 1980, and by the following year, he had a functional device that could reliably transfer clear thoughts from one person to another — if both were concentrating very hard.

The notebook for 1982 was the last, and started with great success: Wegner’s lab assistant, Anne Bowdon, successfully received an “imprint” from a test subject. She was able to document details about the test subject’s life and personal history that the test subject had revealed to no one else, including recent memories that the test subject had attempted to suppress while being “recorded”. Anne, who Wegner had not mentioned in his journals before, soon became prominent in his journals. Wegner noted that after imprinting, Anne seemed more intelligent, often solving difficult problems that had previously been far beyond her skills very quickly. Wegner thought that, perhaps, imprinting added the “recorded” subject’s intellect to the “imprinted” subject. It was Anne who persuaded Wegner to leave the lab, and to take his invention to the public. Anne told him that imprinting technology would “remake the world.”

Wegner wrote that Anne developed the WEGNER-1 PC almost entirely on her own, hand-assembling the case and keyboard in a locked room by herself over a weekend. In an entry dated June of 1982, Wegner wrote that Anne had been trying to convince him that they should leave the laboratory, that the WEGNER-1 would “change the world”. He worried that the government would object — strongly — to their breach of security. Anne suggested they demonstrate the WEGNER-1 at COMDEX, an upcoming trade show in Atlantic City. The government wouldn’t be able to keep their project secret, then. On June 27, 1982, Wegner wrote that he planned to propose marriage to Anne. “This will be the happiest day of my life!”

The notebook was blank after that entry, or so I thought. I flipped through the remaining pages, and saw something written on the back of the notebook. “Anne is not Anne. Something else came through. I have to stop them.” I should have been worried then. I should have felt the cold tendrils of panic crawling up the base of my neck. Instead, I chuckled at Wegner’s madness, and went back to the house.

I am so sorry. For all of you.

When I returned to the house, Randall was still working. He didn’t acknowledge me as I walked past, the loud, clacking keystrokes echoing off the ceilings and floorboards of the old farm house. The original WEGNER-1 now sat on the table, amidst a tangle of network cables. “Decided to hook it anyway?” I said, walking past. No response. I stopped, and nudged Randall’s chair with my foot. “I’m running out for some dinner. Want anything?” Randall’s fingers scrabbled across the board, clicking and tapping, illuminated by the blue glow of the screens like pale spiders. I grabbed him by the shoulder, and gently shook. “Wake up, man. Dinner?” The clicking stopped, and his hand shot up to grasp mine at the wrist. For an instant, I felt overwhelming, disorienting revulsion. I recoiled slightly, pulling my hand away from his shoulder. He released his grip on my arm. His head slowly swiveled towards me, eyes hidden behind twin reflecting lenses.

“No,” he said, voice clicking in his throat. He turned back to the screens, hands again a flurry of motion.

“Jesus, dude, whatever,” I said, rubbing my wrist. He had really squeezed hard. Randall could be single-minded when he was deep in code, but I had never seen him like that. I shook my head, still rubbing my arm, and left. I checked emails while waiting for my food, and saw my message board posts had received quite a bit of attention. The busy geeks on the vintage computing forum had found more information about Ernst Wegner.

“Wegner didn’t just have a nervous breakdown,” the commenter wrote. “He went absolutely bonkers crazy. It was all over the local news. The neighbors heard shouting and called the cops. When the cops broke down the door, they found his girlfriend dead on the floor. He’d stabbed her a dozen times with a butcher knife, doused her in kerosene, then bashed her head in with the jug. In the police report, one of the cops stated Wegner was trying to do some ‘Satanic’ ritual with her body. He had her inside some circle he’d painted in blood, with markings all around it, and just before the cops tackled him, threw a match. Took firefighters hours to put out the blaze. Wegner was only in his cell for a few hours. A bunch of spooks showed up in black panel vans at the county jail. They shoved papers — and guns — in the cops’ faces and had Wegner bundled up and gone before anyone could say no.” Other commenters went on to claim this was proof of a government coverup, then the thread devolved into name-calling and political rants.

The rapid-fire clacking was audible from outside the house, old movie-monster skeletons rattling their bones as I walked into the front door. There was a smell in the house then, an acrid scent of ozone and burned hair. The WEGNER-1 buzzed angrily on the table, deep orange light flickering from inside its case. Randall was a darker shape in the dim dining room, face a smear with twin sparks for eyes. That was the first time I felt the fear that I have become so familiar with. My hand trembled slightly as I fumbled the light switch on. Randall had always been a little overweight, even though he was tall, topping out at two hundred and sixty pounds. The thing at the keyboard, still hammering away at the keys, could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds. Even from the doorway, I could feel an awful, burning heat radiating from him. Skin hung in folds from scrawny, emaciated arms sticking out of a shirt a half-dozen sizes too large. And his hands, his fingers were black and red, shot through with white that I realized might have been bone.

Without thinking, I ran forward to push him away from the keyboard. “Randall!” I shouted. As I grabbed his shoulder, I could feel the bones churning beneath my grip, and some dim part of my mind noted that long drifts of his hair had fallen all around him. The typing stopped. Randall’s head turned to me, mouth working as if it had forgotten how to shape words.

“Do… Not. Interfere,” he said. Those awful hands came up, so fast, I had never seen Randall move that fast, their heat burning my skin through my shirt. Randall was standing somehow, and I was lifted up, and for a moment I could only think how his hands smelled like the meat department at the grocery store. Then he shoved, and I flew across the room to slam into the display case. Pain exploded through my shoulder and arm, and the world blurred for a moment.

Randall was standing over me. I could smell the stink of him, and hear his fingers clicking together, even without a keyboard. “The path is now open,” he said. “We arrive. Rejoice.”

The box truck was gone when I woke. Randall was gone. The Wegner was gone, save for a charred spot on the table, and some melted ethernet cables. The rest of the computers in the house, all gone. Wegner’s notebooks and filing cabinets were missing. My phone was broken, crushed against the corner of the display case. When I returned from the hospital, arm in a sling, I borrowed a friend’s laptop, and checked my email. All of the message board emails were missing. I checked the boards, and my posts were also missing. I checked Wikipedia, only to find entries for both Wegners, junior and senior, missing. Two weeks later, I received a letter from my cable internet provider. My account had been suspended for sending large amounts of ‘suspicious’ data to millions of hosts on the Internet.


Reclamation

8/11/2016

Posted to Reddit as “I found something while cleaning out a hoarder’s house”

I’d been working reclamation for a little over a year. We called it reclamation, but that’s a euphemism for ‘throwing away crazy people’s shit’. I work for CLK, one of the largest property owners in the Southeast. Chuck L “Chuckles” Langtry bought hundreds of distressed properties for pennies on the dollar during the recession, and built an empire renting them back to the same poor people the banks had just evicted.

I started working there after my sister kicked me out. Before she died, our mother had made me promise to make good grades in school, and made my sister, Carla, promise to let me stay with her so long as I did. College didn’t agree with me; I could pick up the facts just fine, but put a sheet of paper in front of me and call it a test, and my mind would become a complete blank. I made it through two years of community college, but I just couldn’t handle my Junior year. Carla seemed relieved, sitting there at Mom’s old, scarred kitchen table, telling me that I had to go. I couch-surfed for a few weeks, and found the reclamation job sheerly through luck. Trenton, a friend who was a part-time bartender, told me a tale of his cousin, who got bit by a rat at work.

“You seen ‘Hoarders’?” Trenton asked. “Barry goes into those hoarder houses, where they’s got like forty dead cats and jars of piss and shit, and he cleans it all out. It pays pretty big money. Except they was rats in the last one, and a rat bit him. So he had to get a bunch of shots, tetniss, friggin’ rabies, like twenty shots in his ass or sump’n. Worker’s Comp paid for it all, but when he got back to work the place chitchatted him, for ‘not wearing appropriate safety gear.’” A few careful questions later and I had the name of the company. Barry’s manager, now my manager, hired me on the spot. I had dressed in nice slacks and an Oxford shirt — the only nice clothes I owned. I think he smelled my desperation; the pay was truly lousy. “You’re gonna mess up them britches, boy,” he said. “You start today.”

People are filthy. I’m no neat-freak, but the way some of these people live is worse than animals in pens. Years worth of dishes stacked in sinks, counters, the floor. Junkie needles, rusted tips stuck everywhere, waiting to snag an arm or a hand. Toilets clogged months or even years past, covered in newspapers, shat upon, and re-covered in layer after layer of shit and newspaper until it made a kind of fecal papier-mâché. I’m dead serious about my safety gear. Trenton’s cousin was an idiot; you don’t go into these places without a lot of something between you and everything else.

Most of the houses I worked in weren’t disaster zones; they were just houses that, for some reason, usually foreclosure, had sat empty for a long time. Houses aren’t made to sit empty. A tiny problem that would be instantly noticed and repaired by an occupant, like a dripping faucet, a bit of missing weather-stripping around a door, or an animal scratching around in the attic, would turn into a full-blown disaster after six months of neglect. I would back up a dump truck to a house, and my partner and I would haul out broken furniture, cracked toilets, sodden carpet, ruined drywall. The people who lived in those houses usually left when they didn’t want to leave, and some left mad. I had seen entire plumbing stacks filled with concrete, wiring pulled from walls, and fixtures smashed with hammers. My partner on one job, Hank, opened a kitchen cabinet, only to discover it was full of baby raccoons. Mama Raccoon tried to eat Hank’s face. Some days were luckier than others, though. In one place, I realized the strange odor I had been smelling was kerosene, only a moment before I triggered a tripwire that some meth-head had strung across the hallway. The cops said the whole place was rigged — the tripwire, and several others, had been tied to crude nail-filled claymores, and pipe bombs were wired into the light switches. Since then, I always cut power to a place first thing, and I always smelled the air.

The air told me something was wrong with the Kelling house. At first glance, from the street, the house seemed small, a modest bungalow, shrouded by trees and overgrown shrubs. When we backed the truck down the cramped, curving drive, I could see the house was very large, verging towards mansion. It appeared to have three distinct wings. Three floors rose over the porch, the topmost crowned with a row of small windows. I had just forced my way through the large, heavy front door with a pry-bar, past no less than three deadbolts. The air was warm, and wet, like the exhalation from the mouth of a carnivore. “Fuck, that stinks!” cried Jacob, my partner for the job. He was nineteen, stood about six foot three, weighed about three hundred pounds, and had a rosy child’s face framed by ringlets of curly blonde hair. He looked like a giant, oversized baby, belly straining against his rip-proof environment suit. This was his first real job. I doubted I would see him after Friday.

“Put your respirator on,” I said, pulling mine into place. “Stinks like mold in there. You don’t want any of that shit in your lungs.” I pushed the front door open, and stepped into the hallway. The heat inside the house was oppressive. It was early October, cool outside, so the heater must have been running. Daylight from beyond the low-slung front porch showed a hallway packed floor to ceiling with stacks of papers, with only a narrow path between them. Grey dust, or mold, coated everything, piled into small drifts in the corners, and floated in the sunlight. “Great, a hoarder house.”

“Like on TV?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah, like on TV.” I flicked on my flashlight. “Be really careful near these stacks. If you bump into one, the whole pile can fall on you.” Jacob had been watching long-legged centipedes scurry for cover from the beam of his light. He gave a nervous laugh, and shrank back from the stacks of papers. Jacob reached for the old two-button style light switch near the front door. I blocked his hand. “No, use your light. There’s no telling how bad the wiring is in this place.” I motioned at the papers. “I don’t want to be stuck in here with a fire.” We made our way farther down the hallway, between the teetering stacks of dust-covered and cobwebbed papers. The light faded as the Kelling house swallowed us.

Jacob and I entered what once would have been a grand foyer off the front hallway. Our lights picked out beautiful woodwork, and glinted off an elaborate chandelier hanging three stories overhead. Dust-covered shelves lined the walls, floor to the ceilings high overhead, each crammed to overflowing with junk and papers. Galaxies of dust swirled in the thick air, disturbed by our intrusion. In the gloom, the room was dizzying; the mind recoiled from so many details, from having to track and account for so many things. Jacob’s respirator whistled faster and faster. I lay a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, man. Breathe.”

“Sorry. It’s just … so much.” His eyes were shocked huge behind his face mask.

“We need to find the main breaker panel and cut the power. We only have until Friday to haul all this shit out. From the looks of it, we’ll be living here until then.” Stepping over scattered papers, I walked through an archway into a new hallway opposite the entry hallway. This one was more narrow, and only had crudely-assembled wooden shelves on one side. I checked each door along the way. “These old houses, the panel’s in the kitchen half the time.”

The kitchen was as bad as I had feared. The food hadn’t simply rotted; it had disintegrated and merged into a sheet of decaying matter that glued the layers of plates and dishes into a near-solid mat. A mottled Amana refrigerator, once yellow, or even white, slumped in a corner like a murder victim, its door open to display ancient, furred food crushed beneath broken wire shelves. Every level surface had been stacked with dishes, as if whoever had brought them into the kitchen had dropped them off, expecting them to be cleaned by a servant who was no longer there, or who had never been. Jacob and I picked our way across and around the heaps that may have been tables or chairs, our lights aimed at the walls where we hoped to find a breaker panel. We found none. “And the other half of the time?” Jacob asked, though the resignation in his voice meant he knew the answer.

“Yeah, it’s in the basement.” The other door leading out of the kitchen was stuck firm. Even Jacob, who had nearly a hundred pounds on me, couldn’t get it to shift in its frame. We backtracked to the foyer. “Look, we have to split up. You take this hallway, and I’ll take the other one. You walk the right-side edge the whole time.” I punched his arm. “Hear me? Right side the whole time. I’m following the left side. I need to make sure you’re checking every wall in every single room. This is a big house, there’s trash all over, and it’s dark. We’ve already burned two hours, and we only have until the end of the week. We don’t have time to waste checking the same room twice. If you find it, text me. Got your phone on you? Turned up loud?” He nodded. “Got signal?”

“Yeah, man. I’m not an idiot.”

“I know,” I said, even though I was pretty sure he was an idiot. “Langtry doesn’t give a shit how big this house is. He wants it cleaned out by the end of the week. If we do a good job, haul a bunch of loads, he’ll give us a bonus.” He’d give me a bonus. Jacob would get a pat on the back, and he wouldn’t show up to work on Monday morning. “Let’s go. Keep that mask on.” As Jacob stumbled down his hallway, clumsy in his environmental suit, motes of grey dust sparkled in his flashlight beam, until the darkness closed upon him.

An hour later, I had to admit that I was lost. I was furious. It was a big house, and yes, there was trash everywhere, and yes, it was dark, but it was still just a house. I had spotted a promising doorway at the end of a hallway, but the hallway was blocked by an impenetrable stack of furniture and, oddly, garden implements. I backtracked to a narrow, spiral staircase, and climbed up. My plan was to go up one floor, go down the length of an upper hallway, and find a way down on the other side. At the top of the staircase was another long hallway, but this one was empty of both trash and doorways. Grey mold, or dust, lay thick across carpet that might have once been red. I walked the length of the hallway without finding another staircase. Instead, the hallway turned sharply left. The first door on the right was slightly open. I pushed the door open, and walked into a dusty, but otherwise clean bedroom. Large bay windows looked down upon the driveway. I could see the front of the truck. Except I was too high up. Somehow, instead of climbing up one floor, I had climbed to the topmost level of the house.

When my phone rang, I nearly wet myself. “Yeah?” I said.

“I… zzz … own … here,” Jacob said. The connection was terrible.

“I can’t hear you. Move towards a window.”

“… all … go … me …”

I looked at my phone. “Call feature: Call Failed.” I’m not sure how that’s a feature. I sent him a text. “Meet at truck.”

I was hot, thirsty, and I really had to pee, so I was ready to kick down a door and climb out a window just to get to the truck. I left the bedroom, thinking to retrace my steps. After that, I’m not sure what happened. I’d always felt like I had a good sense of direction, especially inside a building, but the Kelling house was different. I know I went left out of the bedroom, then right down the long, empty hallway, and down the spiral staircase. But when I reached the bottom, the pile of rakes and garden shears shoved through decaying chests of drawers was missing. It seemed to be the same hallway, at first. I hurried down to the end of the hallway, towards what I had earlier thought must be the door to the basement. I hauled the door open, but instead, the room was stuffed nearly full of dolls. I backtracked again, opening doors. Another was piled high with books. A brief look revealed them all to be molded, water-swollen paperback romance novels. Not one had a breaker panel on the wall. Worse, the windows in each room had been boarded up, then painted. After the third room, I noticed the carpet pattern in the hallway, only sparsely visible beneath mouldering papers and dust, had changed from a red grid to green with yellow flowers. I checked my phone again: no signal, and no texts. I tried calling Jacob anyway, but of course the call didn’t go through.

I started walking back to find the spiral staircase. Preoccupied as I was, I nearly missed the door to the basement. It was made to look like the walls of the hallway in which I stood, with dark wood trim and covered in yellowing plaster lathe. As I walked past, I noticed something near the floor — a light? The door opened easily, to reveal a short set of wooden stairs, dimly lit by an ancient, naked incandescent bulb. The steps ended at another door. This door was not wood, but metal, and was much larger. A wheel was set in the center of the door. I turned the wheel, and pulled open the hatch. Hot air, hot enough to feel through the Tyvek of my suit, rushed past me. Brilliant white-blue light spilled around the edges of the doorway, blinding my gloom-accustomed eyes. I hissed involuntarily, shading my eyes from the harshness of the glare. After my eyes adjusted, I stepped through the doorway onto a white-painted metal landing. A long series of white metal steps descended from the platform. The walls, also white, were spotlessly clean, as were the floor and steps. My phone dinged, and vibrated. It claimed it had a bar’s worth of signal. Three missed calls, all from Jacob. Several texts.

“Where r u?” “Not funny” “I QUIT” “jk u at truck?”

I called Jacob. The call connected, but it went to voicemail. I texted him, “Found basement. Meet you at truck” and hit Send. In the dry stillness of the stairwell, I could have sworn I heard the text tone sound off in the distance. Floodlights glared overhead as I climbed down the steps to the sterile white basement floor. There was no dirt, no dust. Row upon row of steel shelves silently receded into the brightly lit, immaculate distance. The shelves gleamed under the lights, and on each shelf lay dozens of white cardboard boxes.

I picked a box near me. A small, elegantly hand-printed label was affixed to the front. “623,” I read aloud. The box was light, but something was inside. I removed the lid. Inside the box lay a woman’s dress, a pink fabric that was polyester, or maybe acrylic. Under it were a pair of buckled pink shoes, and a purse. “Maybe someone really likes to play dress-up,” I said to myself, as I replaced the box upon the shelf. Deep down, I didn’t believe it. Deep down, I needed to leave. Right then. But I didn’t.

I heard a ping, loud and echoing against the concrete and steel. Jacob’s phone, reminding him of my text. I looked around, but did not see him in the bright, cavernous room. I walked towards where I thought I had heard the sound, and picked up another box. “898”. Mens white dress slacks, pink shirt, white sport coat, loafers. Black Ray-Ban glasses. A wallet. I flipped open the wallet, but it was empty. In the corner of the box, I noticed a gold ring. A wedding band. Though the room was swelteringly hot, I was suddenly cold. I put the lid back on the box, and the box back on the shelf. The humming was louder here, more of a throb, so I continued my way down the corridor of shelves towards its source.

At a certain point, the shelves emptied of boxes, their steel racks gleaming in the floods. At the far corner of the room, taking up nearly the entire wall, crouched an enormous furnace. No, it was an oven. Its surface, vast and black iron, was studded with rivets. Across its dark face were five large doors, and in those doors were portholes, and in those portholes fire danced and played. Next to the oven was a cart. It was small, and steel, and very clean. On the cart was a single white box. Its label read “1248”. The box pinged, loudly. I opened its lid. Inside, it held a respirator, a Tyvek environment suit, and Jacob’s phone.


The Battery Room

10/30/2014

“Lowest man on the totem pole.” That’s how my boss described it. That’s how I got stuck on night shift. That made me “The New Guy”. Or “TFNG”, as my coworkers said during the two weeks of day shift training I got at the start of the job. I’m a junior network administrator, right out of college, riding on a friend of a friend’s recommendation. I was responsible for making sure everything stayed the same over night — all the little red lights stayed red, and the green lights stayed green. I had very little idea what I was doing, but in government work, the one thing you can count on is that the task is documented somewhere. Usually on paper, in a binder. I’d done PC tech support for a few years during college, but had never worked with network gear before. If my résumé isn’t outright false, it definitely stinks of cheese.

The office is thirty miles inside the gates of a military base. The speed limit is thirty miles per hour, and the MPs will write tickets for one mile over. It’s a straight road, no hills or curves, only scrub pine for thirty miles. The gates are only five minutes from my apartment, which makes the hour-and-five drive even more infuriating. The building itself is bland in a way only 1970s-era government buildings can be: a long, low building, brick walls pierced by narrow, energy-efficient windows.

My shift is Sunday through Wednesday, 1800 until 0800 Sundays and Mondays, 2000 until 0800 Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mandatory overtime. I only work four days a week, but when you work nights, or long shifts, you’re wrecked the next day. I have no social life to speak of, excluding League of Legends. My roommates all work day shift, and are usually gone to work when I get home, and out partying when I wake up.

Did I mention I worked completely alone? That’s not entirely true; my shift overlaps with a co-worker’s for an hour. In the short time Dan and I see each other, we spend the time going over activity logs and any issues he thought might crop up overnight. Other than work, Dan and I had nothing in common. He was in his fifties, with a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a penchant for plaid shirts and overalls. He’d worked in the Network Operations Center since he was eighteen, and would likely work there until he retired.

Sunday nights are the hardest. After the long drive in, I badge through four sets of security doors into the dark cave of the NOC. Drag up a chair next to Dan. Half pay attention while he mumbles over a few things, since he had been there for twelve hours and wants to leave as much as I do. Just like that, he’s gone.

I couldn’t blame Dan for not wanting to be there. The NOC is lit only by its screens — three large projector displays and dozens of monitors. The room is in the middle of the building, with no windows. Three rows of low, carpeted cubicles fill the room, with a bank of monitors just below the projector displays. The rest of the building is on low power overnight, which means only one out of every four banks of lights were on, the rest off, or sometimes flickering and buzzing. The MPs patrol the building once a night, around 0200. They can’t get into my area, or at least they don’t. I learned their schedule the hard way when they went into the restroom I was using one night. They laughed when I screamed, so I stayed in the stall until they left. The restrooms were, of course, at the other end of a very long hallway, past dozens of dark, open doors. I have considered peeing in a soda bottle instead of making that walk.

The day shift people have decorated the halls with all manner of pumpkins and scarecrows and zombie heads. Earlier this week I made my way to the restroom. Only every fourth light was on in the hallway, the dim fluorescents revealing a stale, institutional green. I walked past all those dark doorways, steps echoing off the hard tiles. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a life-sized glowing green skeleton. Its eyes lit up, and it shouted “TRICK OR TREAT” at me. I hate this place during Halloween.

The base is located in an area that is prone to get massive thunderstorms, including tornadoes, nearly every week during autumn. A big storm hit a few nights ago. I had the Weather Channel pulled up on one of the overhead projectors. With the sound off, I watched the weather alerts crawl by. In the NOC, the storm was a slight increase in the ambient noise — something new, apart from the whirring of the ventilation system and the hum of computers. Then, at 0245, an alarm went off.

“Well, shit,” I said. The alarm was old, an actual light on the wall, with a buzzer, not part of our automated systems. I grabbed my white Protocol Binder. Found nothing. Went to my manager’s desk, and looked through his stack of PBs. Nothing.

“The UPS has a fault,” my boss, Mike, said, when I called him. “Go down to the battery room and check the board. It probably caught a surge from this storm. There’s a reset button on the board. Mash it, and it’ll turn the alarm off.” Mike was another lifer, a short man with short cropped red hair who flew a Dixie flag on his leather jacket when he rode his Harley into work.

“Ok,” I said.

“And kid, don’t touch anything. I mean it. All that shit’s on DC power. If you get zapped, you’ll fry to jerky before anyone gets to you. Just reset it and call me when you’re done.”

The battery room is about the size of the first floor of suburban house, filled with row upon row of what are essentially car batteries. Each battery was open on top, and the cases were clear so as to show the level of the acid in them. The room stank of ozone, and aside from a few dim lights down the central corridor, pitch black. The huge copper bars connecting the rows of batteries hummed in the darkness. At intervals, long wooden poles were hung from hooks on support beams. Wood is a poor conductor: the poles are used to pry off anyone unlucky enough to touch one of those copper bars.

The control board was at the other end of the battery room. I walked past racks of humming batteries, my skin prickling from ambient currents in the room. “Great,” I said. “Let’s walk through a billion volts of electricity in the middle of a crazy thunderstorm.” I had been talking to myself within weeks of starting night shift. They say that talking to oneself is an early indicator of insanity. If so, at least I’ll have myself for company.

Like most equipment in the building, I had never seen the UPS control board. As my coworker told me once during one of our overlaps, “We’re mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us shit.” Amongst multiple dials and gauges, I spotted a red RESET button and pushed it. A red light on the board went out. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

I turned to leave. There was a WHAM! CLANG! from next door. Then a slowly building roar, which meant we were on generator power. I picked up the phone near the control board and called my boss. “I reset the alarm but we just switched over to generator power.”

“Yeah, the wind outside’s a real bitch. We lost power about a minute ago here,” Mike said. “You should have plenty of fuel, enough for five days.” He laughed. “Don’t worry; we’re essential services, so they’ll get our power on sooner than that. Four hours, tops. We We still gotta follow procedures though, so I need you to go check the generator. None of that shit is automated, so go look at all the lights and check the fuel. Go in the door, turn right and go straight back. And wear some damn ear muffs!”

I hung up the phone, and sighed. Even with ear protection, when the generator was running, it was like standing next to a jet engine. I grabbed the ear muffs off the hook next to the door to the generator room. “This sucks. I need a new job,” I told myself, for the hundredth time that night.

The generator room was lit only with dim red lights. The generators were two tractor trailer-sized diesel engines crammed into the room, leaving only narrow maintenance aisles on either side. The room stank of grease and poorly-exhausted diesel smoke, and was very hot. Sweat beaded around my hairline as I walked down the aisle. The sound covered me like lead blanket, hammering against my chest and back, vibrating my eyeballs in their sockets. I made my way through the thickened air to the control panel at the of the room. “Fuel gauge looks good. All lights green,” I said, as I scribbled the readings in my notebook.

Something touched my neck.

I may have screamed, but it was impossible to tell in that room.

I’ll confess: I’m scared of spiders. Well, not so much scared of as utterly revolted by. When I felt the first touch, I instantly visualized a huge black spider crawling on my neck. I flipped. Did the Spider Dance — brushed the back of my neck a dozen times, shook my clothes, spun around in circles. Nearly knocked my ear muffs loose. Said a lot of bad words. After a few seconds of this, I realized there was no spider. “Shit!” I said, and bent to pick up my notebook. Something pushed me. I stumbled forward, away from the control panel. I spun around. There was nothing. “What the fuck?” I frantically looked around me. I was alone. Still trying to see both in front and behind me, I stooped and grabbed my notebook.

I decided there that no matter what, I wasn’t going to run. This was a prank, and my coworkers were watching it on video. It would probably get a million hits on Youtube. “It’s great to be the new guy, you assholes!” I shouted, even though I couldn’t hear myself over the din of the generator, and I knew nobody else could either. I walked down the tight corridor beside the generator, toward the door. The whole way, I felt little pluckings at my clothes, like something pinching and pulling but only for a second at a time. I yanked the door open, stepped through, and slammed it shut. I pulled the ear muffs off and threw them on the floor next to the control board. I was covered in sweat, and my ears were ringing, despite the ear protection.

I wiped my face with my sleeve, and started walking past racks of batteries. Then stopped. Something moved down one of the side aisle. I squinted into the murk. Batteries hummed around me. My scalp prickled and itched. At the end of the aisle, a slumped, dark shape rearranged itself, and slouched towards me. I staggered back, then recoiled as my arm brushed against one of the battery racks. I stood still in the center of the main corridor, and the shape edged closer to me. My nose filled with the sickly-sweet stench of burned pork. It reached the edge of the aisle, I could see its shape. It was a man, staggering towards me, flesh charred dark. Cables writhed across his body, and trailed back into the dark. I heard the coils scrub and squeak against each other. The man had no eyes. They had burst and cooked onto his cheeks. He shuffled closer. A cable wormed out of one socked, crossed the ruined bridge of his nose, and pushed itself into the other socket. For a moment, I realized I could read the print on the cable. His withered mouth gaped open, revealing teeth that had cracked and burst from heat. He stretched a sticklike, charred arm out to me, and the cables twisted upon it. I glanced down, and saw cables on the floor, snaking closer to me.

I ran.

I don’t recall badging out of the battery room, or badging through the multiple security doors to get into the NOC. I remember sitting in one position for long enough that my leg went to sleep. I remember watching the doors, and listening to the quiet noise of the NOC, listening for any change, or perhaps for a muffled, choked scream. I heard nothing, but I sat very still.

Mike came in early that morning. “Good job last night,” he said. “I double-checked everything this morning. Looks good.” He handed me my notebook. “You dropped this in the battery room.”

“Thanks.”

He looked at me, eyebrows furrowed. “You didn’t … see anything in there last night, did you?”

I looked at him, at his orange flat-top shot through with white, at the tobacco stain around the corner of his mouth, burst veins in his nose, at his eyes, pale blue and watery.

“Nope.”