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, the open-air office space 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.
Despite Dean’s position of company power, he knew not to argue with the woman. It was pointless. Now, two weeks of stair climbing later, he plotted 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 daily, but that wasn’t the reason for his focused gaze.
For many years now, his eyes 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 neodymium magnet.
She was actually the first person he met here at ExpoTronics, and the only one on floor thirteen programming staff he hadn’t hired. In fact, it was Melinda that interviewed him to become her boss. When asked why she didn’t take the position, she deemed herself unfit.
“I understand code. We need someone who understands people.”
Dean, being both an accomplished programmer and a people person, landed the job. That combination was rare, contributing to the Team Leader Award being won three years in a row. 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 trashcans 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 mind. Others contained maps outlining complicated scripting calls. The latter scrawled in personal shorthand that made your head spin if you stared too long.
Damn, she is beautiful.
Dean noticed Melinda’s beauty the moment he laid eyes on her; a beauty overlooked by those with 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 her attire funny because it resembled her programming code; organized, with 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 a question unless he could handle an honest, 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, a thinker whose metabolism clocked at a speed matching her brain. She was currently juggling three paper trash balls, no doubt retrieved from one of the bursting bins. Everyone agreed her new antics were better than pencil tapping, providing entertainment during chosen mind breaks without uninvited tap-tap-taps invading concentration.
Dean not only respected Kenzie, he liked her. Simply put, she was a rainbow of light on the thirteenth floor. With a kind word for everyone and a smile that lit up a room, she altered the team vibe on her very first day. For her, it seemed, there really was a bright side to any situation, no matter how bleak it appeared.
Kenzie looked at everything as a game, a puzzle, a riddle to solve, making her the queen bee when it came to testing software vulnerabilities. Every bit of code produced on lower floors, or created under contract, had to make it across Kenzie’s desk. If she couldn’t hack or break it, it was ready.
Kenzie and Melinda became instant friends. Armed with comradery and respect, they became the most productive duo in the building. Once the code made it to the top of the tower, its final stop was their work station. 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, was icing on the cake. During her first week, Kenzie 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 personal flair spilled into her work product, raising Melinda and Kenzie’s results another notch. Her vision of interface design and user options were like a 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.
“Hey!” A piece of wadded paper hit Dean squarely in the forehead, ending his stair climbing recovery trance.
“Welcome back, Ziggy. You contemplating how to get that nice Miss Maddox fired again?” grinned Kenzie across the space, now juggling two pieces with one hand, fishing for a replacement using the other.
Dean laughed and nodded vigorously, entering the room, “I would never think such a thing.”
“Sure, you wouldn’t,” snickered Mina over her shoulder, tossing a candy wrapper and missing her target. Not budging her feet off the desk, she stared at the wrapper willing it to its proper place.
“What has you ladies here late tonight? I see one of you is working hard,” he quipped, nodding towards Melinda and picking up the drifting candy trash, now powered by the ceiling fan.
“Kenzie broke it with logic, and Mina… well Mina pulled a Mina. An illogical series of keystrokes nobody 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.
Kenzie giggled and shrugged. “And so begins another Friday night office party. We ordered delivery. We are waiting for pizza and round… what is it now… thirty-one?”
“Thirty-two,” corrected Mina.
“Is this still the defense contract piece?” asked Dean.
“Yep,” confirmed Kenzie. “Can’t believe they have used this so long. I could have hacked this at twelve. They should hire us to rewrite it, not patch the holes. My humble opinion.”
“I agree,” nodded Mina, “Everything about it says ‘ancient.’ Probably costs more to keep patching it than to start over. You should tell them, Ziggy.”
“And miss out on all this fun?” smirked Melinda, looking up from her console for the first time since Dean’s arrival.
“Someone up here order a pizza… or two… or ten?” Porter Reid stood in the doorway, peeking around the large stack.
“Holy heck, you guys must be starving!” laughed Dean.
“Don’t be silly,” grinned Kenzie. “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.”
“You did?” piped up Gus Ward, from the next set of desks over.
“We did,” confirmed 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 too seriously.
“Remy’s ‘How to Survive Without Me List.’” Melinda explained as she scribbled, having turned her attention back to the job at hand.
“Speaking of that, Ziggy,” said Kenzie scrunching up her face. “We forced Remy to go home around noon. I think she has the flu.”
“I knew it. Tried to get her to go home this morning, 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,” demanded Kenzie. “I know the doors are locked and phones set to auto-answer, so… hang out with us for a few minutes before you head home.”
“With pleasure!” he exclaimed as Mina hid her smile. She noticed the courtship dance between Kenzie and Porter on her first day.
“Pull up a chair, Ziggy. Making me nervous with your looming,” winked Mina.
Dean obliged, retorting, “Only if Melinda will stop. She makes me nervous working like that while I eat. Plus, I’m sure we shared the same diet of nothing today.”
“Pfft,” spat Melinda as she made a final scribble, dropping her pencil with a decisive clatter.
“So, tell me,” Dean said, looking 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 proper breaks.”
“Hey, look at this, Melinda,” chuckled Kenzie. “You’re famous. They put your hair on the pizza box!”
Melinda looked up, perplexed, 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.” Kenzie retrieved a hand mirror from her desk drawer and turned back to her friend. “Close your eyes, Melinda.”
Kenzie held the mirror and Mina held 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 twisted the long dark strands and clipped them again. The mirror proved the ‘do’ did indeed resemble the leaning tower stamped on the pizza box.
“Well, look at that! You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Melinda quipped, patting 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 short platinum bob.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Oh shit, what is that?” said a startled Melinda.
Deans eyes got wide as saucers as the red text alert scrolled across Melinda’s monitor… and every monitor in the room.
!!!Warning Firewall 50 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 49 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 48 Breached!!!
!!!Warning Firewall 47 Breached!!!
“Shut it down, Melinda,” demanded Dean, instantly all business.
“We can’t from here. I’m locked out.”
Melinda and Dean both jumped out of their seats and ran towards the stairwell, simultaneously realizing the server room master console was their only option.
“Good thing you have been running these steps, Dean. Don’t pass out on me.”
“We’re not going to make it,” he exclaimed as the building intercom began relaying the warning at level five.
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 complied, halting just inside the security door, leaving Dean with a choice to make. He jumped inside just in time.
Warning, Firewall 2 Breached. Prepare for hard power shutdown.
Safety Protocol #823 kicked in at the last instant, shutting down the entire building, imprisoning them in the dark, windowless room.
“Why didn’t the emergency lights come on?” whispered Melinda, her brain working 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 there are many high security contracts in the building at the moment. Too many to speculate. 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 explained that to Miss Maddox?”
“How long has it been?” asked Melinda.
“Since the last time you asked me? My guess is five minutes,” laughed Dean.
“Sorry. I don’t do nothing very well.”
“I noticed. Little surprised the team isn’t pounding on the door, but dangerous to traverse so many flights in the dark. Hope they stayed where they were and aren’t stumbling in the stairwell.”
“The system did send a message to someone, right?”
“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. And why didn’t the backup lighting system kick on? This needs to be updated. Not that I’m not enjoying sitting here in the dark with you.”
“Like the mechanic’s car, right? We are so busy fixing everyone else’s code and software, we never get around to ours?”
“Something like that,” agreed Dean. “but the network and HartBeat core system is solid. The added programs, like this one, were written by Charles. A few of them make me raise my eyebrows.”
“Charles wrote them? Well then, makes perfect sense,” chuckled Melinda. “You ever meet him?”
“No. Just the occasional electronic memo. I don’t think he has stepped foot in the office since I started. Funny, I’ve worked for the man five years and don’t even know what he looks like. Searched the company promo once… not a single picture anywhere. I take it from your comment that you have met?”
“Yep. He hired me,” confirmed Melinda. “There were only six of us then. He’s eccentric in a brilliant kind of way. Had an office here the first two years, but once the Board was in place started working from home. He became a shut-in when the company went public.”
“A shut-in? Like never leaving his house, you mean?”
“Yep. He’s complicated. It was hard for him once the office began to grow. Even though he planned to take over the building and prepped for it, I don’t think he expected it to happen so fast. He couldn’t handle being surrounded by so many people every day.”
“What do you mean he prepped for it?”
“Reworked the electrical, 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 will definitely give him a piece of my mind about this lockdown protocol. Never thought those watertight doors would hold me prisoner. I appreciate 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. 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 never crossed my mind. The work is challenging, the people are nice, and the few times I have had issues Charles 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.”
“Personally, 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. I call Charles a genius based on our work experience, not a number. 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 didn’t care. This one-on-one conversation was a rare opportunity. If he couldn’t share his true feelings, he could at least share accolades.
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 will 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 reciting a magic spell. Just as the words escaped her lips, the lights above flickered and the room powered itself up, one lighting section at a time.
“Well now, THAT is what I call a super power,” winked Dean as Melinda looked at him in wide-eyed surprise, hands still in the air.
“Doors are still locked,” sighed Melinda after tugging repeatedly. “What now?”
“Like I said, requires three people to override this type of lockdown. Beyond biometrics, only other way out is a master key.”
“Master key? Who has that?”
“I know of only one.”
“Let me guess, Charles, right?” sighed Melinda again.
“Damn. Wish I had my phone. Charles’s line would be exploding. I mean, it’s dangerous, isn’t it? Locking the doors? We’ve been down here forever! How many people have clearance?”
“Actually, we could be down here a long time,” said Dean, his scowl turning into a full-blown grimace as he realized.
“What do you mean? Define long time.”
“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?”
“No watch,” said Melinda holding up her bare wrists, “and I don’t see a clock anywhere. Why?”
“They might already be in the air. Rushed out to catch their flight.”
“Wait, did you hear that? The door handle clicked,” Melinda said skirting back to the door. “In here, we are in here! Can you hear us? 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! Thank goodness,” said Melinda flinging her arms around him.
Charles responded by patting her twice on the back, forcefully picking her up, and setting her down a foot away. Melinda shook her head and chuckled.
“I’ve been locked in a room by your programming hand, haven’t seen your face in how many years, and that is the greeting I get?”
“Never mind that. Did you see it?” Charles asked, a glimmer of excitement sparking in his eyes.
“See what? Until a few minutes ago we were prisoners, sitting in the dark… something we really need to discuss. Not your most genius programming idea and think it might be a fire code violation. Seriously Charles, if you had not come, no telling how long we would have been stuck down here.”
“Never mind that. We?” Amidst Melinda’s exuberant welcome and his excitement over what he witnessed, Charles didn’t notice Dean standing quietly, many feet away. He quickly turned to hide his face and whispered, “Who’s down here with you?”
“Dean Zigaz. Manager on the thirteenth floor. Recipient of the Team Leader Award for several years now.”
Recognizing the body language signals, Dean made no attempt to step forward or shake the man’s hand. “Mr. Malone. Pleasure, Sir.”
“Thirteen,” Charles nodded in curt greeting. “Fritzy, where’s your phone?”
“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.”
“You won’t believe it. TNT Tower. Let’s go,” urged Charles.
“Wait! Shouldn’t we power up the systems first?” suggested Melinda. “Try to figure out what happened?”
“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 quite a few employees are 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.
Upon entering TNT Tower, Melinda’s curiosity increased. Her colleagues were huddled at the eastern windows wearing befuddled expressions. She quietly followed Charles to an empty glass pane on the west side of the large room, where he pointed to the billboards and electronic displays littering the view as far as one could see.
“What the heck?” whispered Melinda.
“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.”
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 a greeting wasn’t offered. Kenzie just pointed out the window.
“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, causing the crew across the room to fall silent again with internal speculation.
“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 the digital mystery displayed along 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 mess up the rally tomorrow.”
“We need to get photos of this,” said Melinda, hopping to her desk, forgetting Charles’s inference of every device.
“Won’t work unless you had both tower and wi-fi disabled. All of ours are stuck on the same thing as those streaming billboards. Can’t even take a screenshot,” said Mina.
“My word! I can’t even comprehend what it would take to pull off such a technological feat,” whispered Dean.
“Maybe it’s aliens,” laughed Porter, eating another slice of pizza, completely entertained. 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.
“Charles Malone. You know, THE Charles Malone. The guy who founded the company, Charles Malone,” responded Dean.
“What? Really? He was here?” Kenzie gaffed, 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 reception area long enough to remember when the eccentric man had an office in the building. “If you asked me the probability of seeing proof of aliens, or Charlie Malone tonight… I 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 it’s the only explanation 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, intrigued.
“I can’t say it isn’t. Can you?”
No one responded, but shook their heads as they realized the truth of Melinda’s logic.
“Oh my, God! What is that?” exclaimed Kenzie, as everyone but Melinda put hands over their ears.
Melinda continued to scribble with focus, despite the intense agonizing noise. Her peripheral vision witnessed her friends dropping to the floor one by one, where she joined them seconds later.
Melinda wasn’t a morning person. She normally rolled over at least twice to gather her bearings, but that wasn’t the case today. The warmth and invading light put Melinda’s subconscious on alert, for her bedroom windows didn’t face the rising sun. Opening her eyes, full of adrenaline, she found Mina’s face two inches from her own. Bolting upright, she recognized the thirteenth floor of the ExpoTronics building, but no memory of how she got to her current position.
“What in the world?” she whispered, observing her peers on the surrounding floor, confirming one by one they were breathing, sleeping soundly. She tried to remember what happened, but even seeing Dean there was a surprise.
When did he get here?
Her last memory was working the defense contract patch; repairing holes Kenzie located and identifying Mina’s illogical keystrokes that led to a code explosion. From her seated position, she noticed pizza boxes scattered around their work station.
Pizza? Did we order pizza? Were we drugged?
Slowly standing, her head pounding with remnants of a hangover, she wondered if she should wake the others.
Coffee. I’ll make coffee.
Stumbling, she used the window pane to steady herself, immediately distracted by the street below. People lay on the sidewalks. Collided cars sat motionless and in great disarray. Despite the silence and lack of movement, the scene appeared more chaotic than the normal busy traffic routine.
What the hell?
The billboards on the street, many that 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 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, sharing their puzzled expressions.
“Melinda, you’re hurt!” said Dean, whose last memory was 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, 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 confirmation.
“I feel like I drank a whole bottle of vodka,” said Porter with one eye halfway closed, standing over the coffee machine, following through with Melinda’s initial thought.
“Hey, what’s this?” asked Mina, picking up Melinda’s sketchpad as electronic billboards sprang to life, diverting her attention.
“What are they saying? Anyone have their phones handy? Dammit,” swore Gus, searching his desk.
“I didn’t have a signal, but reboot fixed it,” shared Titus, “Okay, here we go. They are declaring a state emergency. Military delayed until they confirmed it wasn’t a contagion, now on their way. Blah blah blah. Fires. One industrial plant exploded. Dang. Lots of damage, but at this point the only thing confirmed is a short power outage, mass unconsciousness with amnesia, speculated over a ten-mile radius. Everyone is urged to stay in their homes, or make their way home in an orderly manner. Those needing medical help, blah blah blah. Okay. Nothing of interest beyond distance of occurrence and memory loss 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 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 joined her to observe, deducing the circumstance below. “Huh. I think they ran out of gas. The cars were 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, frantically flipping 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 reboot the building, since they weren’t here to offer biometrics.”
“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, please come with me? You are the only other 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 strict orders to use that only in absolute emergency.”
Melinda shrugged, “We’re friends. He called 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 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,” said Dean and Melinda in unison, before heading to the stairwell.
“Damn these stairs. Wanna take the elevator?” Dean asked in half-jest as Melinda shook her head and led the way. They descended in silence, Melinda finally speaking as they reached the ground floor.
“You know, I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my life, but this is the only experience where I have absolutely no theory. Mass amnesia? What could cause such a thing?”
“Outside my expertise,” said Dean thoughtfully, “but admit, my brain is going all sci-fi. 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. Dead. Screen is cracked. Gus found his phone, right? Wonder who it belongs to.” A few steps later, Melinda stooped to pick up another 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 started. He had me doing experiments that overpowered motherboards, messing with their clock speeds and such, testing their limits. When I crossed the fine line and 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 guessing his phone, where is he?”
“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 irritation.
“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, flipping the switch won’t reboot? We need a biometric scan to proceed?”
“Yes, three IDs and passwords, with a biometric hand scan. Security protocol 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, needs three confirmations to override. Let me think. Charles always has a back door. How were those protocols added, do you know? Subroutines placed on top of the network, or written into the core?”
“Layered subroutines. That way if HartBeat itself ever needed to be upgraded, wouldn’t require a complete rewrite,” answered Dean.
“Okay, let’s look for network manuals. 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 technical manual, more for management.”
“Do you still have a copy in your office?”
Dean shook his head. “After being tested on the memorization it was taken away. Every three 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. 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. “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 downward staircase.
“Just to clarify, 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 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. 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, you saw 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. 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.”
“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. I got a message from someone named Rory on the emergency text relay line. Said 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’s anti-social nature, he remained quiet. In the end, he had to put his hand over his grin to make 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. 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 not meant for our ears. The server room isn’t soundproof, almost, but not entirely. So, I came down here. Nothing gets through these walls. Once it was over, I went back upstairs, but because the 823 hadn’t been 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.”