LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO — In early 1999, I began my career as a Unix High Availability Clustering consultant. I love my work. Unix is an amazing computer operating system, created by hippies, owned by no one, maintained by those with poor social skills, and revered by big business.
After several months of training, I settled into a steady pattern of travel, expense accounts, and documenting the living hell out of anything I did. One day, I received a call from my manager. “Hey,” he said, “you want to work at NASA?” Of course, I replied. My knowledge of the solar system was up to par, I knew I could Cluster them to High Availability in no time. “Ok, you’re going to have to sign a non-disclosure form, go to New Mexico, and you might have to learn ocean survival.”
About that non-disclosure form, I am legally bound by this document. I cannot talk about the particulars of the assignment. I can, however, give you an idea of what was involved: satellites, oil, ocean-going vessels, men wearing TAG Heuer watches, and most importantly, Unix clusters.
I met my contact person in a Mexican café just outside the Los Alamos National Laboratory. His name was Mike, he had long hair, a love of album rock, and an inexhaustible supply of black T-shirts.
The road into Los Alamos was not monitored by the kind of law enforcement that pay attention to speed. They’re looking for spies, invaders, and foreigners. Mike pushed his small pick-up truck to its limits. The mathematically perfect pounding of Rush ebbed and flowed as we crested each hill, caught air, and landed on the other side. I questioned my huevos rancheros breakfast decision, and tried to make small talk.
Mike lived on a small farm in Las Cruces with his family and his pecan trees. The income from the trees allowed him to live rent-free. He came to Las Cruces when he was in his early twenties, planted the trees, and came back fifteen years later to build his home.
At the lip of the Lab, two security guards stopped our roller coaster ride. One was an old man, counting the days to retirement. The other was a young man, sporting a crew cut and aviator glasses. They have in common their enormous revolvers. They photocopy my license, have me fill out a few forms, and hand me a black badge. The black badge means I have to be escorted. “Yes, even in the bathroom,” they said.
Then they handed me the rule sheet. There are eleven rules on the rule sheet. Rule number six was my favorite. It said, in short, that if you ask your escort about something, and the escort says he/she can’t talk about it, don’t ask again, it’s probably top secret.
The lobby of the Lab was unimpressive, except for the diorama about the Native Americans that lived in the area, before nuclear bombs and whatnot.
“I have no idea who killed Kennedy,” said Mike.
“Is that a rule six?” I asked.
“What about Bob Crane?”
“Did Sam Giancana get JFK elected?”
“He was a gangster.”
“I don’t know.”
We had a project meeting. On the white board, there was an extensive diagram of a space shuttle engine drawn in erase-able marker. Someone had been trying to figure out what it meant to “light that candle!” Engineers do that kind of stuff.
“I’ve never seen Close Encounters,” said Mike.
“Oh, it’s about aliens. Does the lab maintain alien encounter flow charts or anything?”
“Like, if aliens showed up, is there some kind of contingency plan?”
“I doubt it.”
“Have you ever met them?”
“Deny all you want you crafty S.O.B., the truth is out there.”
The rules of the IT profession were thrown out the window on this project. One of our servers was kept in a tuff-shed in the desert. While working in the sun, I saw a man fall off the tuff-shed roof and break his elbow.
“I like Rush,” said Mike.
“What’s wrong with Rush?”
“I can’t put my finger on it, they’re just awful. Do you guys ever experiment on animals?”
We worked in a room that has space shuttle communications piped in over loudspeakers. It was fun to listen to the astronauts as they did their tests. They are a bland bunch. They enjoy science and fitness. One Saturday afternoon, the space shuttle astronauts were speaking in German.
“Those aren’t the astronauts,” said Mike.
“Who are they?”