“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 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.”
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.