By Friday I was really messed up. I had only about ten hours of sleep total for the previous three nights. I had developed some new obsession with watching late night television. At first I just thought I was having trouble adjusting to a new work routine of the 12 hour shifts. And, of course, I was also puzzled by the strange events at work, particularly Brian's behavior and the mysterious holes blasted in the floors of the building. But not as puzzled as I should have been.
At work, the rumor that seemed to be winning was some story about the holes being caused by a high velocity micrometeorite that had hit the building. When word leaked out about the damage to the building, a local news station came and did a story, playing up the meteorite theory and including an interview with Geisler and another interview with an astronomy professor at the State University.
None of our customers seemed to care about the short service interruption and by Friday I was regretting having to meet with Erin. It seemed like we had not dodged a bullet from outer space, but as long as the network and my job were both steady, I was satisfied.
It was about 3:30 Friday morning before I finally fell asleep. I had just spent five hours surfing television stations, not spending more than about a minute on a station before clicking on to the next one. Not my usual cup of tea, and it was so out of character that it should have sent me in search of a psychiatrist. But at that time I was not aware of how bizarre my behavior was.
As tired as I was, I woke up at 6:15 and took a shower. I woke from a strange dream- like an Indiana Jones movie full of bugs…..but in my dream they were bugs on my computer work station. I felt like I had bugs crawling on me and I leaped out of bed and ran to the shower.
The sensation of something on my skin never really went away. I shaved twice and then stood looking in the mirror for ten minutes trying to see what was crawling up my nose and into my ears.
I got to work early and sent Fred home. He did not complain about ending his shift early. For a while we talked about the idea of getting a temp to fill in the next time one of the three network administrators went on vacation. I promised Fred I would discuss the idea with Erin when I saw her later that day.
When Fred left, I sat at my desk scratching my persistent itches and waiting for the 10:00 meeting with Erin. I had installed a cheap webcam in the server room, and every day I reviewed the previous day’s video. I had the system set up to save a video frame to hard disk every second. I was using a software hack that would flag any frame that was significantly different from the preceding frame. So far, I had 17 roach sightings and I had submitted three requests to the custodial staff for a solution to the bug problem.
I was wondering if there was any link between my itches, the roaches, and the hole in the back of the server room, when Brian came to my office. It was only 9:30. Brian wanted to make plans for the meeting with Erin.
Brian kept looking over his shoulder as he leaned close to me and whispered, “We have to get our story straight for Erin.”
I was surprised that Brian wanted to play such games. I saw no reason to risk my job over anything that had happened that week. “Look, just tell her what happened on Tuesday. What you told me that night.”
He scratched his head and had a distant look. His respiration rate increased and I could see one of his eye lids start to twitch. After a long pause, he looked over his shoulder again and said, “I do not think that would be wise.” He took his palm computer out of his pocket and held it under my nose.
I cannot remember exactly what was in the document he showed me, but it was an email from Geisler to Brian that looked something like this:
I tried to grab Brian’s computer, but he yanked it away from me. I shouted, “What the hell is that?” I was shocked that he would have a copy of such an email while I had not even been told that I might be transferred to a new position. I asked, “So this is the project you mentioned in your note?”
Brian nodded. “Erin got a similar email and we need to get her to approve the staffing changes, so don’t make a fuss about it. Chloe will be here at 10:00 for the meeting.”
I complained, “Why didn’t anyone tell me anything about this?”
Brian shrugged. “Chloe asked me to give you a heads up, but Geisler did not approve the project until last night.”
Part of me wanted to be really angry with Brian for jerking me around on this, but another part of me seemed to already know everything Brian was now telling me. Rather than get mad at Brian, I asked for more information. “What is this project about? What is virilemail?”
Brian put his computer back in his pocket and went to one of the computers on my desk. He logged in and accessed his server space. In a moment he had an email client open. The language used in the software looked like some Eastern European language, Brian started explaining some of the cool features of this email client. It had integrated systems for translation and a bank of template emails for many common types of business communications. Brian looked at his watch. It was almost 10:00. “Basically, we will be a beta testing team, pounding the code from Daniela’s team into final form for release in the USA. We better get to Erin’s office.”
I still had many questions, particularly what my role would be in the project. I followed Brian to Erin’s office. Dave said, “Dr. Meade is already in there. Go ahead on in.”
Brian and I entered and I saw that Kaede and Bhavya were also present. We all sat down around Erin’s conference table. Erin got right to business and said, “As I’ve already told Chloe, I’m not pleased with the way this project is getting started. I was only informed of the project’s existence a few hours ago and Geisler basically ordered me to make sure that this project is a success.”
Erin tuned to Chloe who was seated to Erin’s right and said, “I’ll expect you to provide me with weekly written reports on project progress, starting with a report that was due yesterday on the origins of this project and your plans for how to complete it.”
Chloe nodded. “I have no problem with that. This whole thing came out of the blue. It seems to be some pet project of Geisler. In any case, we seem to have an unlimited budget.”
Erin bit off angry words, “That’s pure crap, Chloe. I’ve worked for Geisler for seven years and before today I would have said that he wouldn’t give an open budget to anyone. Chloe, if I didn’t know you to be an honest as a church mouse, I’d have guessed that you must….” Erin through her hands in the air. “Shit, there’s nothing you could have done to make this happen. Geisler must have finally realized that money is for spending. Still, this project is not going to waste money. I’ll be monitoring every expense.”
Erin let out her breath and seemed to calm down a bit. “Okay, now who can tell me what this project is about?”
Brian seemed to be the only person in the room who could explain what the project was about. Brian fired up the computer in Erin’s office that was used for presentations. A view of the Czech email application appeared on the flat panel monitor on the wall. Brian launched into the same introductory tour of the email application he had been giving me earlier.
I became bored hearing the same story again and my itches started driving me crazy. I could have sworn that bugs were crawling out of my nose. I took out my palm computer and checked on the network’s status. I started exploring the intranet and without really thinking found myself in the email records. My intuition told me that there was something strange in the mail routing tables, but I could not figure it out with Brian droning on and my itches driving me to distraction..
Finally Brian was done talking and Erin summed things up, “Well, this new software is a new direction for this company. As far as I know, we have never done client software development.”
Chloe agreed. “But all of our experience with developing in-house software gives us the resources to bring this product to market. Geisler hinted to me that this might be the start of a new division, if we pull this off with style.”
Erin sat back in her chair, “Now that you mentioned it, I seem to recall Geisler mentioning plans for a new division. Maybe this is what he was brewing.”
The meeting broke up and Erin pulled me aside.
Most of the new project team members were still in the outer office where Dave's desk was. Erin leaned against her desk and I noticed that she kept rubbing her nose and licking her lips. “I’m sorry that our original meeting got taken over for this emergency meeting for the new project. Anything new on that network interruption?”
I shook my head. “No. It must have been some fluke event.”
I could see that Brian was hovering around the door way, with some of the members of the new project team asking him for more details about the project. Brian was watching me closely. Erin noticed Brian outside her office and asked me, “Why did you originally invite Brian to our meeting?”
I shrugged. “There were three odd events on Tuesday. The network disconnection, that hole that was blasted through the building, and Brian saw something odd in the building.” I could see Brian glaring at me. I was just about ready to tell Erin what Brian had told me Tuesday night, but then I heard myself saying, “I think he might have been in the second floor corridor when that micrometeorite hit the building.”
Erin gestured to Brian that he should come back into her office. She asked Brian, “What did you see in the Building Tuesday night?”
Brian replied, “I’d rather not say.”
Erin turned to me, “Will you tell me what he said?”
I looked at Brian. I could tell that he did not want me to tell the truth. “I think you should hear it from Brian, first hand.”
Brian said, “Look, I’m not sure what I saw. I’ve been working 20 hour days and I may have been asleep on my feet. Do I really have to report what was probably a silly dream?”
Erin closed the door to her office and sat down in a chair, almost falling into it. She bent her head over the conference table. After about fifteen seconds she looked up. Strands of her hair were now plastered to her face by the sweat that covered her body. I said to Brian, “She’s sick.”
Brian picked up the phone from Erin’s desk, but Erin held up her hand. “Stop. I’ll be fine. You guys don’t need to pass this on, but suddenly feel like I’m pregnant again.”
I was surprised. Erin must have been pushing forty. I stammered, “That’s great. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. I knew I should have had my husband fixed.” She struggled to her feet, swaying a bit. “Look, I want to say something to you two. This project is important. The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place for me. For a long time Geisler and some of the Board members have been dropping hints about a new direction for the company. There has been talk about the foreign offices taking on more prominent roles. That must be what this new project is about.”
Erin went to the small refrigerator in the corner of her office. She took out a water bottle and asked Brian and I if we wanted one. She took a long drink. “This sure feels like morning sickness. Blaa.” Brian and I could tell that she was not done with us. We waited while she took a brush out of a drawer of her desk and brushed her hair. She brushed for a good long time, not seeming to remember that we were there. Finally she said, “I know how you computer nerds can be. I don’t want you jeopardizing this project by working yourselves to the point of hallucinating. You both have black rings under your eyes and you look like shit. Get some sleep.” She put the hair brush back in the drawer and then took a lipstick out of the drawer. She painted a ring of shocking pink on her lips then closed the drawer. “If you need more help with this project, let me know. Geisler has pre-approved more funds for additional staff if we need it. He recommends shifting current staff to this project, but if there is some outside expertise that would facilitate this project, we have the option to hire an outside expert, too.”
Erin sat down behind her desk and started looking through the stacks of file folders on her desk. “Chloe is a good project manager, but she’s an electrical engineer by training. I’m trusting you software experts to tell her what is needed in the way of software expertise to complete this project.” She turned her attention to a report on her desk and seemed to forget about us.
Brian finally looked at me and shrugged. He turned and left the office. I was puzzled by Erin’s behavior. I mumbled, “Goodbye.”
Erin looked up and seemed startled to see me still standing there. She stared at me blankly for about ten seconds then said, “Brian, what is it?”
I stammered, “Ah, I just wanted to confirm something Fred and I were concerned about. We previously requested that a fourth network administrator be hired. I know Geisler approved a new hire, but with me shifting to the new project, there really should be two new network administrators hired.”
Erin picked up her phone. “Dave, please come in.”
Dave came into the office. He did a double take at Erin. I guessed that like me, he had never seen Erin wearing lipstick. “Yes?”
Erin gestured to me, “Work with Joe to set up a job search. In addition to the temp that we already talked about, we need to find another network administrator. Find someone with experience who can be hired as a permanent employee.” Erin looked back to me, “Is that all?”
I nodded. “Thanks.” Without another word, Erin went back to the papers on her desk. Dave and I left Erin’s office.
Dave said, “What a day. We’ve been in a hiring freeze for over a year and now the money is flowing. What is this new project anyhow?”
I gave Dave a quick recap of the meeting. “I’ll write a job description for the new job search. How soon do you think you can get a temp?”
Dave went to his desk and picked up a note pad. “I just got off the phone with a temp agency. A Brad Emphrone will be here at 8:00 on Monday. Show him the ropes. The agency claims this guy knows the equipment we use. As soon as you think he can handle your current duties you can shift to the new project.” The phone rang and Dave got back to work.
I went back to my room, still puzzled about what exactly I would be doing on this new project. This would be my second job change since leaving college. I was ready for something new and challenging. Chloe was sitting at my desk using one of my computers. She glanced up and said, “Hey, there you are.”
I sat down in the chair on the “guest” side of my own desk. I said, “You know, nobody has explained to me what my role will be in this new project.”
Chloe stopped whatever she had been doing at the computer and squinted at me through her glasses. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. I could see that she had bags under her eyes and I had noticed at the meeting in Erin’s office that she stank- like she had not had a shower in a day or two. She stuffed her glasses in her shirt pocket.
I have to admit that I was infatuated with Chloe. She always wore white dress shirts (men’s shirts) with a pocket protector in her shirt pocket. She was tall and thin and many obese men have bigger breasts than Chloe, although I found her almost boyish figure to be quite attractive. She seemed to be having trouble taking her eyes off of the computer monitor, but she noticed me watching her. She pulled her long blond hair back from the sides of her face and tucked it into the neck of her shirt behind her back. As if she could read my mind, she said, “I have not been home for two days. Since Geisler sprang this new project on me I have been working around the clock to hand off my old project and get this one started.”
Seven months earlier, I had asked Chloe out to dinner. She had laughed and blown me off, saying she had to go home and walk her dog. Brian had later told me to log in to the human resources webpage and read the company policy against manager-worker fraternization. I had argued my case, “But she is not my manager.”
Brian had said, “It’s a matter of appearances. Nobody wants to deal with suspicions of favoritism arising from romantic relationships. It is forbidden. Of course, that makes it all the more desirable.”
Now she would be my manager and I was for the first time glad that there was a rule that had kept us from becoming more than professional colleagues. Still, I had a crush on her, and it would be odd to be working closely with her. “Well, it looks like Brian must have explained the project to you. You two are close friends, right?”
I explained, “We went to college together. He graduated a year ahead of me. He did not tell me any details about the project until today.”
She looked at me skeptically. “Really?” She put her glasses back on and examined the computer screen again. “But you already installed the code from Dr. Gajduskova on our server. You and Brian and Kaede have been using it since yesterday.”
I got up and went around the desk. Looking over her shoulder at the monitor, I saw that she had been looking at the log of my activity on the computer. I was a bit embarrassed, because I did not want her to see all the computer games I played when I was bored from baby sitting the network. I quickly scanned the log for games and saw none. Rather than the games I recalled having played, there was a record of me loading the new Czech email suite onto a server and then a huge amount of modifications to these new files. All I could do was say, “Shit.”
She looked at me with her head turned over her shoulder. This close, I could again smell the gymnasium-like richness of her not-too-clean body. I felt my nostrils distend and my pulse quicken in a pheromone-driven reaction to her scent. I suddenly felt my knees start to wobble and memories of working on the new email software came bubbling up to the surface of my mind like an underground water main had broken. Numbly, I went back around my desk and slumped into the other chair.
Chloe was watching me closely. Finally she said, “You too, eh?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “It was quite a shock for me to be told to set up this new project and then find that the team members I selected were already working on the project. Amazing efficiency! I’ve checked all the logs now. It started with Brian on Tuesday night, then Wednesday you took the software from Brian’s hard drive and loaded it on one of the servers. By yesterday the new software was running from the server and Kaede and Bhavya started using it, too.” Chloe pulled up Brian’s FTP log. “Yesterday, the three of you sent Brian a total of 154 bug reports and suggested software design modifications.”
As she spoke the words it was as if they created a whole new reality of the past week in my mind. I now remembered spending many hours the past two days getting the new email software running. At first, the code had been full of bugs. By Thursday night, they (mainly Brian) had it running fairly smoothly. The problem was, I could not remember anyone telling me to do the work I had done. It seemed like a dream memory, but the log files were right in front of me, confirming that it had happened.
Lamely, I suggested, “Dr. Gajduskova must have sent the code to Brian. I took the “secret code note” out of my wallet and showed it to Chloe.
She read the note out loud, “Chloe says that we should rethink our strategy. Don't get started on it yet. I've got to tell Geisler and get his approval. If you know anyone who can help, let them join. I hear Brian is good at this kind of thing.”
She asked, “When did you get this note?”
I replied, “Wednesday.” I pointed to the log file on the screen. “Just before I started loading the new software on the server.”
Chloe took the note from me. “I wonder who wrote this.”
I explained, “It’s Brian’s hand writing.”
She shook her head. “Then it makes no sense. Why would Brian write, “I hear Brian is good at this kind of thing”?
I felt Chloe’s clear blue eyes pulling at my soul. I knew I could never lie to Chloe. I explained the code that was used in Brian’s note, “It’s a code we devised in college. Every ninth word is the real message.”
She did the decoding, “Don't….tell…..anyone…..Brian? That still makes no sense.”
I knew that Brian did not want to have to tell others about his encounter with the eggplant. I was saved by Spock’s philosophy: keeping the truth to one’s self is no lie. I felt that an answer was on the tip of my tongue but at the same time, I did not consciously know what to say. This is what I heard myself say, “Brian needed a favor. He needed me to get this new software on the server. But the project had not yet officially been approved by Erin, so he needed me to keep quiet about the fact that he was already starting to work on the new project.”
Chloe logged off of my computer and stood up. I expected her to continue asking questions, trying to make sense of this senseless situation, but she smiled and said cheerfully, “Okay. I just wish I had been in the loop from day one. I’m setting up the new project space in the east end of the fifth floor.”
I was surprised that Chloe so easily accepted the strange circumstances of the start of the new project. “Fine. I’ll probably be up after noon on Monday, assuming the temp who will be replacing me down here knows his stuff.”
“Sounds good. I’m going to draft that report Erin requested. I’ll send my first draft to the group for your comments. We need to have a complete project description on Erin’s desk first thing Monday.” Chloe left and I sat there for a long time trying to sort out which of my memories were real.
Forty minutes later Dave came in with papers for me to sign so I could be transferred into Chloe’s new project group. I would be getting a 25% increase in pay. The rest of the day seemed to go by very fast.
Before I left work that evening, I decided to go upstairs and try to find the area where the new project would be located. I found Brian moving his stuff into his new office. He was pulling items out of a box and setting them on his new desk. He looked up and gave me a big grin. “I finally escaped from the cubical farm.”
He came out of his office and showed me that my new office was the next room down the hall. On the door was a new sign that said, “Joe Daonet” with “VirileMail” under my name. I said to Brian, “Who came up with this project name, anyhow?”
Brian smirked, “Its some kind of translation glitch. The original name selected by Daniela means “virtual mail” or something similar. When Kaede saw her door with “VirileMail” under her name, she went into hysterics. It took an hour for Chloe and Bhavya to get her calmed down.”
I shook my head, puzzled by the whole issue of how the software from the Czech Republic was being gradually translated into English. I asked, “Who is doing the translation anyhow?”
Brian pulled his palm computer out of his pocket and pulled up a list of the people in Dr. Gajduskova’s team. He pointed to a name on the list, “This guy, Janek, he went to M.I.T. If I need anything translated I send him my request and the translation comes back fast. Its often screwy English, but good enough to get by with.”
I had never heard of any of the names on the list. “Who is this Dr. Gajduskova, anyhow?”
We went back to Brian’s office and he pulled up some information on his computer. “I’m not sure. I pulled up her CV off the internet. She did postdoc research in Minsky’s lab. Then she had a faculty position at Charles University in Prague. Five years ago she left academia and started a company designing expert systems. Geisler bought her company three months ago.”
I noticed a strange printout on his desk. “What’s that?”
He picked up the glossy print. “Chloe said we can decorate our offices any way we like. I was going to put this on the wall.” He gazed at the image in silence for a long time.
Finally I had an idea. “Is that the “eggplant”?
He nodded. Finally he said, “This is what I saw Tuesday. What I think I saw.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “What I think I saw. Maybe it was a dream. I’m going to go home and sleep all weekend. Maybe my memory will straiten out if I get some sleep.”
I was fascinated by Brian’s eggplant. “What are these tentacle-like things?”
He seemed to give a slight shiver. “I remember the thing grabbing hold of me. My skin started crawling. It felt like bugs were all over my body.”
I suddenly felt very tired and hungry. “Well, I’ve got two more 12 hour shifts this weekend. Judy will be back on Monday and a new network administrator from the temp agency will be starting work. I’ll probably be back up here by afternoon on Monday.” I split and headed for a nearby Chinese restaurant.
Continue to Chapter 3
Return to Chapter 1
List of Characters in this story.