by Dwayne Phillips
San Francisco, June 2nd, 2AM
"Beautiful," she said as she pushed closer to the young man sitting on the blanket next to her.
"You are," he replied.
"No, I mean, thanks, but no, look up, look at the sky," she said.
"Oh, that," he replied.
They were watching slight but detectable streaks in the sky.
"What are they?" she asked.
"Called micrometeoroids," he replied. "About the size of a pebble, at least that is what makes it through the atmosphere. By the time they hit the ground they are like a grain of rice or speck of sand."
"How'd you know so much?" she asked.
"I'm smart," he said. "After all, I was able to convince you to go to dinner with me, so I must be smart."
The two laughed, but miles to the south, pebbles from space sizzled on a rooftop in Sunnyvale.
* * * * *
Sunnyvale, June 3rd, 5AM
"The data center is down," said a voice on the phone.
Tom Cantino rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?" he asked.
"Five, Five AM," said the voice on the phone.
"What happened? Power outage? Lightning? Someone dig up a line? What?" asked Tom as he ran through a mental checklist in the fog of the early morning.
"No, none of that," replied the voice.
"Well, what?" asked Tom.
"Don't know," said the voice.
"Why do I pay these guys if they have no answers," thought Tom. "Okay," he said aloud. "Then bring up the machines, one at a time. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"Already tried that," said the voice in time to keep Tom from moving from his position seated on the edge of his bed.
"Nothing works," said the voice. "I even tried to reformat a few disk drives, but they won't, they won't do anything but spin."
"So they crashed?" asked Tom.
"No, they are spinning. I can feel them spin, hear them spin, but they won’t do anything like they're supposed to do. It's like," the voice paused.
"Well," said Tom, "like what?"
"It's like the disks are just bare pieces of metal spinning round and round," the voice replied.
"Do what you can," said Tom. "I'm coming."
* * * * *
Sunnyvale, June 3rd, 6AM
"Take one apart," said Tom.
"Say what?" asked Albert, the night system administrator now standing with a dozen experts that Tom brought with him.
"Take one apart," repeated Tom. "Pull a disk from a server, get a screwdriver, and take it apart. Let's look at a platter."
The group of experts looked at one another and back at Tom.
"Are you sure? I mean..." said Albert.
"Yes, do it," snapped Tom.
A half hour later the group of experts were peering over Tom's shoulder as he looked at a circular disk under a microscope.
"I was afraid of something like this," said Tom. "Here, you look," he said as he backed away from the microscope and motioned for a physicist in the group of experts to come forward.
"Tell me what you see Mary," said Tom.
A middle-aged woman peered into the microscope. She pulled back quickly, rubbed her eyes a moment, turned to another of the persons gathered, and said, "Give me your reading glasses."
She put the glasses on and returned to searching through the microscope. She stood and motioned for another physicist to look at the disk.
While the man looked, Mary turned to Tom, "I think it is as you suspected. It is gone, I mean the material, it is gone."
"Have you ever seen anything like that?" asked Tom.
"Well, yes, at a factory when we had a bad manufacturing yield, but not in a data center," Mary answered.
Mary looked at Albert, "You sure this disk came from a functioning server. I mean one that was working last night?"
He shrugged, twisted his face, and nodded yes.
"I see the same thing," said the second physicist as he stared into the microscope. Then he straightened up and looked at Tom. "I mean I don't see the same thing or see the same thing missing or something."
"I know what you mean," said Tom. "The ferromagnetic material is gone from the platter."
"Not entirely," said the second physicist. "I see some of it on the disk, but, yes, much of it is gone. Too much is missing for the disk to function."
Albert interrupted, "You mean someone opened the servers, opened the disks, removed material from the platters, and put it all back together again without anyone seeing them do it?"
"I doubt that is what happened," said Mary. "That would be extremely difficult to do, even in the best of circumstances. I mean in a clean lab with the right equipment. Just too hard to do."
"Well, then what happened? How did all the disk drives in the data center lose that, what did you call it?" asked Albert.
"Ferromagnetic material," answered the first physicist.
"Yeah, that magic dust," continued Albert. "How did all that go away?"
"Answers?" shouted Tom as turned to the people in the room. "Come on folks, I brought you here because you’re smart and all that. Answers."
Silence followed for a moment until a young women entered the room, went to Albert, and whispered something to him. He winced.
"What?" asked Tom looking at Albert.
"You tell him," said Albert looking at the young women who had whispered to him. "Go ahead, tell him."
Tom stood for a moment until his patience broke, "What?" he shouted.
"Well," started the young woman. Then she stopped and cleared her throat. "I, uh, we got some spare drives and tried to format them to put in the servers, and"
"And what?" interrupted Tom.
"Well," she continued slowly, "they didn't, I mean they won't, I mean we couldn't format them. They don't work, at all, you know."
"Get one of those disks, take it out of its housing and look at it under the scope," said Tom looking at the second physicist. "The rest of you," Tom paused. "Well, do what you're paid to do. Think people, think. Figure out what happened. Mary, please come with me."
* * * * *
Sunnyvale, June 3rd, 7AM
Tom and Mary walked down one flight of stairs to the area where he sat during the day (they don't call them offices at Yahoo). People on the floor were milling about shaking their heads and doing just about everything that they didn't normally do at that time of the morning.
"What's going on here?" Tom asked an older man that was standing next to a desk shaking his head.
"No one knows," said the man. "There isn't a working computer on the floor. They're all dead."
"Hey," Tom stopped as he grabbed a man by the shoulder.
The man turned while staring at his smartphone.
"Does that work?" asked Tom.
"What?" replied the man.
"Your smartphone," continued Tom. "Does that work?"
"Sure," said the man. "Why not?"
"Walter!" said Mary.
"Huh?" asked Tom.
"Where is Walter?" asked Mary.
Tom shrugged not knowing anyone named Walter.
"Ground floor," said Mary. "Come on, quick."
Tom struggled to stay with Mary as she ran out of the room and down the stairs to the ground floor. She hurried through a few hallways to a corner room where she pushed through the door without knocking.
"Hi," said a man startled by the unannounced visit. "What..."
"Walter, let me see your computer," said Mary.
"You're looking at it," said the man. "Right here, dead."
Walter turned the monitor on his desk towards Mary. "See," he said. "Nothing."
"Not that one," said Mary. "Your other one."
Walter hesitated. "Er, I don't have another computer."
"Come on, Walter," said Mary. "I know you have it, you always do."
"Mary," said Walter. "Please, I don't have anything."
"You keep it in your backpack, Walter," insisted Mary. "Let me see it. Open it, come on, turn it on."
Walter looked at Mary and then pointed at Tom with his eyes.
"Don't worry about him," said Mary. "He won't tell anyone. You're safe."
Tom ask a question with the tilt of his head, but remained silent. Walter pulled his backpack from under his desk and removed a laptop computer from it. He placed the laptop on his desk, opened the lid, and the screen came on.
"You sure you won't tell anyone?" asked Walter.
"I said you were safe," said Mary.
"I mean, you know," stuttered Walter. "This is a Chromebook, a, er, uh, a Google product, and you know how some people around here are about Google products."
Tom answered his own question with raised eyebrows and a smile.
"Look," said Mary. "This works."
"Yes," said Mary. "This doesn't have a spinning disk. It uses an SSD, solid state, no ferromagnetic material. Just like that smartphone we saw. Try yours."
Tom pulled his smartphone from his pocket and looked at it. "Yeah, so?"
"Something is destroying the ferromagnetic material in the building," said Mary.
"That's silly," said Walter.
Mary stared at Walter for a long, hard moment. "All the spinning drives are dead. We looked at one under a microscope. The material looks like it came from a bad run at the factory, but the disks had been working. Something removed enough material from the platter to render the disk unusable."
"How many people know this?" asked Walter.
"About a dozen," said Tom. "I mean, about a dozen know about the material on the drive being, well being whatever happened to it. It seems that everyone in the building knows that none of the computers in the building work."
The three were quiet for a moment.
"And now," interrupted Tom, "you are on the team, uh, Walter, right?"
* * * * *
Sunnyvale, June 3rd, 10AM
"Tom," said Walter, "this is Russ Canterez."
Tom looked away from the window. He had been staring out the window for ten minutes. He turned towards the voice and saw Walter, Mary, and a young man he had never seen before. Tom shrugged as a signal to Walter.
Mary spoke, "Walter and I were outside, getting some air, thinking."
Tom signaled, "And?" with his eyebrows.
Mary continued, "We heard Russ here describing something he saw early this morning, just a couple of hours before our data center went down with the, uh, disk problem."
"Go ahead, Russ," said Walter.
The young man was clearly intimidated by the situation, so he spoke slowly, halting between every few words. "Well," he started, "I was out last night with a, on a..."
"Date," said Mary supplying the word that Russ couldn't find.
"Yeah," continued Russ, "a date when we, uh I, well she, saw streaks in the sky. Streaks around here. We, uh, I, well we were near San Francisco looking in this direction when we saw micrometeoroids coming down in the direction of Sunnyvale."
"What are?" started Tom.
"Little meteors," said Walter, "the size of pebbles."
"This is nice," said Tom. "And why are you telling me about, uh, what's his name? Why are you telling me about his date and shooting stars or whatever?"
"A theory Walter has," said Mary.
"It is rare that we have tiny pebbles fall from space and touch the ground," said Walter.
"And it is rare that we have all the disk drives in the building fail from bad materials," added Mary.
"Are they related?" asked Tom. "Please tell me you have something."
"We aren't sure," said Mary, "but we want to go look at the roof."
"Why the roof?" asked Tom.
"We looked for micrometeoroids outside in the grass," said Mary, "but we couldn't find anything in the long grass. We want to look on a smooth, white, roof."
"And if you haven't noticed," said Walter, "everyone else's disk drives have the same problem as ours. Look out the window. Everyone is milling around outside their buildings just like we are."
"It is spreading," said Mary.
"It?" asked Tom. "What is it? Why do you say it is spreading? You talk as if this is some sort of thing, some sort of living thing. Is that what you are saying?"
"A theory," said Mary. "Let's go to the roof. And I want Russ to come with us."
"Do we need more people on the inside of this?" asked Tom.
"He is young," said Mary, stating the obvious. "He has better eyesight than us."
In ten minutes, the four were on the smooth, white roof of the building moving slowly and carefully.
Russ was crawling on his hand and knees with his face six inches from the rooftop. "Here," he said.
"Don't touch it," shot Mary. "Whatever you see, don't touch it with your fingers."
"Okay," said Russ. "Right here"
Russ pulled a mechanical pencil from his shirt pocket and pointed to a black object the size of a grain of rice. Mary carefully moved to her hands and knees to where she could see the tiny, black object. She pushed it into a sandwich bag with a tongue depressor. The four stayed on the roof another half hour and collected five more little black objects like the first.
"That's enough samples," declared Mary. "Now, let's have a look at these."
"Back to the lab," said Tom.
"No," corrected Mary. "We don't have the right kind of microscope. I know someone a few blocks from here who does, though."
"Can we trust them?" asked Tom.
"Of course," said Mary. "It's my husband. But there's one more thing. Since we've found these, my theory is gaining weight and we have to warn some people."
"Warn people?" asked Tom. "Warn people about what?"
"Nothing," said Mary. "No, not nothing," she corrected herself. "Something. Something critical. Look, it won't be easy, you may have to find some old landlines that still work, but you have to call east, you have to call every Yahoo office east of here. They have to protect their disk drives. They have to put them in a vacuum. Seal them away, away from the air."
* * * * *
Sunnyvale, June 3rd, 10PM
"There, finally," said Mary's husband Harrison. "I can see. Thanks."
"You're welcome," sighed Albert, Yahoo's night system administrator as his back slid down a wall and he eventually sat on the floor in exhaustion.
"This is the first time we've had this kind of computer problem..." started Harrison.
"We know," said Mary. "It's the first time anyone and everyone has had this kind of computer problem. We're lucky you had some CDs and some SSDs—things that don't use ferrous materials for data storage. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't quick, but our guy was able to rebuild your system."
"Now," said Harrison, "let's see those samples you have."
Harrison carefully placed one of the black grains of rice in the viewing area of the microscope.
"This is a, what was that you called it?" asked Harrison.
"A micrometeoroid," answered Russ. He had lost track of the number of times he had to pronounce the word slowly and explain what it represented. He wasn't sure why he had been dragged over here and made to wait for hours while the digital video microscopy or whatever it was called had been restored to use.
"Okay," said Harrison. "So what are these things crawling around on this burnt grain of rice?"
Mary and Tom froze.
"You mean you see something alive on there?" asked Mary as she stared at Tom and he stared back.
"Sure, obvious," replied Harrison. "They're all over the place running about and, oh, look at that. Now and then some of the sort of fly off the thing like they are going airborne or something."
"Let me look, please," came a voice from a chair in the far corner of the room.
"Yes, please," said Mary. "That is why we brought you."
The man approached the microscope. He was the stereotypical scientist with a white lab coat, thick glasses, short hair, and an earnest expression.
"Harrison," said Mary, "this is Dr. Marriot, Randle Marriot. He works with us as a consultant on some things, but his background is microbiology. Can he use your microscope?"
Harrison stood and motioned to the device, "I guess so. It goes against company policy, but I guess we can make an exception without written approval in this case. Seeing how things are going haywire everywhere today and all that."
Harrison's description of North America at that hour was a understatement. Every computer had crashed, that is every computer that used ferrous material in its disk drive. Cell phones and tablets and some devices still worked, but they used solid-state memory. The Internet was down as servers used magnetic media. Communications were down as the telephone companies used computers as well. The same was true of cable TV and just about everything else. The world ran on computers, computers ran on magnetic media, and something was wrong with magnetic media everywhere.
Dr. Randle Marriot looked into the microscope for a long moment without saying anything.
"Is there any way we can record what I am seeing? Make a video or something?" asked Dr. Marriot.
"Maybe we can rig up something," answered Harrison. "Maybe we can find some old film camera around here, but everyone has gone home so it would be tomorrow or..."
"Please make some phone calls, or at least try to make some phone calls," interrupted Mary.
Harrison shrugged and left the room.
"Okay, Dr. Marriot," said Mary. "Look at this disk platter."
Dr. Marriot carefully removed the tiny black object and placed the disk platter in the viewing area.
"I suppose you know what I am seeing," said Dr. Marriot as he didn't look back at anyone, keeping his gaze into the microscope. "That is why you asked me to come here, right? To confirm your theory, right?"
"Yes," said Mary quietly. "But, please doctor, tell me what you see."
"Well," started Dr. Marriot, "I see the same creatures that were crawling on the tiny meteor crawling on this platter. They are, how shall I say it, they are eating the ferrous coating of the platter. They aren't eliminating it, but they are certainly consuming it. I suppose they are removing enough so that the disk no longer functions as desired, but that is not my field, but again, given all the failures today and all the excitement and such. And some of the creatures are leaving the platter, going into the air. I guess that is how this has spread, airborne."
"Dr. Marriot, you called them creatures, right?" asked Mary. "Why did you call them creatures?"
"Oh," replied Dr. Marriot, "excuse my speech. That just seemed to fit, it's a vague term, so I apologize."
"But Dr. Marriot," pressed Mary, "what are they? What are they really called?"
Dr. Marriot turned away from the microscope and laughed. "I don't know what they are really called. I've never seen anything like them. I've certainly never seen a microorganism that eats ferrous material then flies off to find more to eat."
"And these organisms came to earth on these tiny meteors," added Tom.
"Perhaps," said Dr. Marriot. "I haven't studied that. I haven't studied the possibility that microorganisms could survive the environment of space and the heat and shock of entering earth's atmosphere, and all the possible ..."
"But it sure looks like that is what happened," said Mary.
"Wait a minute, here," said Tom as he stared at Mary. "You want me to call Marissa Mayer and tell here that tiny, tiny green men have landed and have destroyed all the magnetic media in the world? Are you crazy? Do you think I am crazy? And besides, the cell phone system doesn't work so I can't call anyone!"
"We could knock on her door," said Mary quietly. "She is probably in her office trying to figure this out like everyone else is. She probably wouldn't mind if we walked in with a couple of PhDs and gave her a scientific explanation. Besides, what harm is there in trying?"
* * * * *
Edwards Air Force Base, California, June 4th, Noon
"I'm Dr. Berger of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology," said the man standing in a superior position at the end of the conference table.
Seated on one side of the table were Mary and her husband Harrison, Tom, and Dr. Randle Marriot. On the other side of the table were the most intimidating looking group of men in dark blue suits Mary had ever seen. They were right out of Central Casting in the 1960s under the heading of "G-Men."
"Ms. Mayer is down the hall speaking with the President," continued Dr. Berger. "They have met on several occasions before, so that is how you have been granted this audience and possibly an audience with the President."
Mary and the others sat quietly, waiting for an opening to speak, but hesitant because there seemed to be some protocol for such meetings at desert Air Force bases.
"We have read your reports, your hand-written reports, and seen your photos," said Dr. Berger. "Do you expect us to believe this? Do you expect us to advise the President of your findings given the odd nature of your reporting?"
"Well," said Mary. "We wrote the reports by hand because we didn't have any usable computers to write them on. We believe you are in the same situation since every computer we have seen since walking into this facility is turned off. We didn't have any typewriters handy, but we have seen people trying to bang on old manual typewriters here. I guess the Air Force keeps lots of old typewriters around for some reason."
"Okay," said Dr. Berger, "Forget the report format. Get to its contents."
Mary spoke for the group, although she didn't know why that chore fell to her. "This is Dr. Randle Marriot. You have his credentials. You have the description of the instruments we used in our investigation. They are state-of-the-art. You also have some of our samples of the micrometeoroids we found. I believe no one else has found any such samples, so ours are quite valuable."
Dr. Marriot found the courage to speak, "Have you examined these tiny meteor samples? Have you any independent confirmation or refutation?"
"Uh, well," stammered Dr. Berger. "No. We don't have any functioning equipment of that type here."
"I guess then, you'll have to trust that we didn't make up the photos in our report and didn't make up this crazy story," said Mary.
"Why should we believe you?" asked Dr. Berger. "Why should the President of the United States believe you?"
"Why not?" asked Harrison. "What do we have to gain? Do we have the movie rights or something from all this? Nothing exists anymore. Nothing more high-tech than an electric typewriter works. We are all out of jobs. Gone. Done. Nothing. We have no future. And neither do you."
Dr. Berger sat and exhaled. He loosened his tie and swung he legs until his feet rested on the corner of the table.
"Okay," he said. "Show's over. No more posturing or attempting to intimidate you out of your story."
Mary looked at the faces of the Yahoo people and squeezed her husband's hand under the table.
"Then you believe us?" she asked.
"Why not?" replied Dr. Berger. "You are the only people who have some physical evidence and science to back up your theory."
"You mean you've heard other theories?" asked Harrison.
Dr. Berger laughed. "Dozens of theories. PCAST, these boys here, all the best minds on the East Coast, we've created dozens of plausible explanations. None, however, had any real backing, any real evidence. Your story, on the other hand, has something behind it."
The room was silent for a moment.
"Maybe, just maybe," said Dr. Berger, "we can get a microscope working at Livermore or Los Alamos and look at your itty bitty meteors and some disk drives. Travel is pretty difficult. You've no idea how hard it was to get the President out here, how hard it was to fly in these conditions."
"Why did you come out here?" asked Mary. "I mean its none of my business or something, but why?"
"Why not?" answered Dr. Berger. "The East Coast is too heavily populated. Given point oh one percent of nuts running around, your best not in a dense area. So we came out here to the desert where people are scarce and all that. Now we don't know how or when we will be able to go anywhere. How did you get here anyway?"
"Ms. Mayer knew some people," said Tom. "People with a DC-3. Those things can fly without a working information system or disk drive or anything like that."
"Good idea," said Dr. Berger.
"Dr. Berger?" started Mary. "What happens now?"
"We wait here until someone knocks on that door," answered Dr. Berger. "Then, most likely, we will walk down the hall and explain to the President of the United States how a few tiny pebbles from space have destroyed the world's technology."
* * * * *
Edwards Air Force Base, California, June 4th, 1:15PM
"And that," said Dr. Berger facing the President, "is Yahoo's theory. And yes, I agree with their theory and recommend that we begin governing from a position that acknowledges all the consequences of that theory."
The temporary Presidential office was silent.
The President broke the silence, "You mean to tell me that our economy, our military, everything is stopped because we have been invaded by aliens from outer space?"