Circa August 2010 in Virginia, I sleep in a half-collapsed pair of twins tied together by straps, my face strapped into a foam blindfold. Black plastic ear protection loops over my ears, thick, dense, and powerfully engineered to retard both the sound of gunshots and the sound of children outside the front door of the apartment. Which is why my hand is clenched around a battered iPhone, and I come awake, peeking every so often under the blindfold at the phone. No text messages mean no pages. I fall back asleep for another. Wake up another hour later. Rinse, repeat.
The alarm goes off at 7:30, and I roll over, but do not reach for the lights. It's automatic now that the laptop (not quite as damaged as the phone) is flipped open, the power cord checked. Within sixty seconds of coming out of disgruntled sleep, I am logged into VPN, and plugged into a torrent of emails. Most are some four thousand health checks for servers that have died across the Northern Virginia landscape, scattered between buildings half an hour to an hour spaced.
As the emails roll in, I pop open the first tin of Penguin Mints, highly caffeinated little energy bombs, and toss six into my mouth. Chew, chew, swallow. The equivalent of two Mountain Dews is potent, and will have me mostly cognizant of where I need to go and what I need to do.
There's a filter, a page I've set up, that lists the highest severity alarms. This is reserved for transit network problems, downed racks, widespread issues, the failure of the massive fiber systems that allow those thousands of servers to talk to each other. Power issues. Cooling issues. It all shows up there. And unfortunately, that particular webpage, loaded through the filter, hasn't been empty for about a year now.
I am one of twelve, fifteen technicians spread across a twenty-four hour local shift. We are the only repairing hands in an infrastructure too big for us to handle. But, we are efficient. The huge, interlocking system is not too big to keep mostly online. Business continuity flows through our veins like blood and whiskey. And while we are given technicians from other global locations, they're slow. Unused to this scale of emergency, they have no idea how to function.
Today three of them are pigeonholed until ten PM in one data center. They will fix perhaps five servers. I will be going to all the other buildings. I will fix forty servers in a night, either onsite or remotely.
Two local coworkers, perhaps the most competent of the day shift, notice me come onto instant messenger. I learn that if I want to catch up with my manager, I'm late: he left at four in the afternoon to go to the bar.
I roll out of bed ten minutes later, scrape on black jeans, black t-shirt, and a black hoodie. I am comfortable in this, and I do not regard the circles under my eyes in the bathroom mirror as I scrape my hair back, unbrushed, into a rough ponytail.
By eight in the evening, the sun is dying a slow, bloody, glorious death in the Virginia sky, and the mugginess that chokes out the day has faded. As I start my aging pickup truck, I devour another three mints, and feel the caffeine start to take me. I have a fine tremor that almost feels something like being still, something like being calm. It is an intoxication, but it's also the razor edge of stress, the vague uncertainty that comes with having a problem too large to tackle.
Traffic is light. I make it to the first site in ten minutes, meet a technician outside of the double doors of the nicest of the facilities, the one I consider home base. He hands me a half-million dollar part and tells me I need to backtrack five minutes. There's an engineer on the West Coast eager to fix the interlinking fiber systems, and he's eager to go home.
I do not know if my coworker has children, and I don't care. Across Virginia, the remaining buildings go empty of technicians. They go home to eat dinner with their families and to sleep, done with their own twelve hour shifts. The visitors are inconsequential.
The next twelve, and the line card in my hands, are mine. Security guards remain at their posts. Fourteen empty buildings roaring with servers are mine at the swipe of a card. I creep through dusty rooms filled with switch gear and routers, with white tiles and immaculate steel baskets loaded to the brim with wire.
I get back in my truck, and drive there. An hour later, I drive forty minutes south, clean a pair of fiber links, hit the road again, and drive thirty minutes east. I don't stop until eight in the morning. Stranded in the middle of traffic, I take backroads back to where I live. I get home by ten AM if I'm lucky. By morning, the first tin of caffeinated mints, and two others are gone.
I have an hour with which to dose myself and get something like enough sleep for the next three nights on shift. Back home, in my wreckage of a bedroom, I strip, drink a glass of port, use it to wash down the large dose of melatonin I need to get anywhere close to sleep.
I strap the blindfold to my face, the ear protection to my head. I clutch the phone to my chest. I shake with the remnants of the caffeine until alcohol and sedative drag me under. Under my blanket, I begin to analyze and reanalyze what else is broken, what else I could have done. And finally, the fuzziness overwhelms me, and I sleep.
I have five months left to go.