The Ghost in the Machine by Colin Kelly

Don is a computer science major at U.C. Berkeley and is working as a summer intern at Olintex Corporation. He's asked to help solve a strange problem with one of the network computers. Will he discover what's wrong, or could it be that there is a ghost in the machine?


“Damn it!”

Don twisted around to see what happened. At the same time, Alan, the head of network administration, came out of his office.

“Is there a problem?”

“This damn tape system didn’t work last night.” That was Will, the chief network specialist and the only other IT employee working this Saturday morning. Alan reached the far corner of the server room where Will was working, and they were rather animated as they talked.

Don didn’t know what Will was doing; as a summer intern on a University of California work/study program he wasn’t privy to much of anything that went on in the network department. Regardless of whatever had happened, he had his own job to finish.

Don slid around so he was once again facing the network distribution rack. He was adding an Uninterruptible Power Supply at the bottom of the rack, and the only way to get access to bolt it in place was to sit cross-legged on the floor. He’d found two old rolling PC stands and jury-rigged them to support the heavy UPS, and because they were narrower than the UPS he was able to roll everything into the rack. The height was perfect so the bolt holes in the UPS mounting brackets matched bolt holds in the side rails of the rack. Everything just seemed to come together which made the project a breeze instead of the huge hassle it might have been.

He got all eight of the bolts inserted and finger-tightened on each side, then got up and walked to the back of the rack. There was a clip at the bottom back corners of the UPS to secure it to the rack. He knelt down and tightened the four bolts that attached each clip to the rack, then returned to the front of the rack and finished tightening the mounting bolts.

The UPS weighed 215 pounds without any batteries installed, and with all six batteries it weighed over 550 pounds. This sucker was huge! Next was the battery installation. Six batteries at 55 pounds each. That wasn’t tricky, but Don wanted to make damn sure he didn’t get a shock off the batteries. Following the instructions, he was able to have the unit plugged into the 220 volt outlet, powered up, tested, and charging in under a half hour.

The instructions had a warning section advising that installation was a two-man job, but he’d been given the assignment and he was sure he was being evaluated on how he’d accomplish the task alone. He couldn’t have managed without the PC stands he’d purloined from the department’s junk closet. He decided to leave them in place; that way if someone wanted to move the UPS in the future it would be easy. Besides, it would be a bitch of a job getting them out from under the UPS.

“Hey, Don!” It was Alan. “Come on over here. Maybe you can help us diagnose what the hell is going on with this tape backup.”

‘Well, something else I know squat about!’ he thought. That had been his experience since his first day at the Olintex IT department. He wasn’t made to feel like a part of the staff. They handed him jobs to do without telling him how to do them. It was up to him to find the documentation and figure things out by himself. Usually he couldn’t find the manuals he needed in the server room, so he had to search for them on the net. On the other hand, it was great because he was learning a lot about networks and network hardware on his own. But not so much about network software, which was what he’d hoped to learn most about when he signed up for this intern position.

Will was sitting on a stool and Alan was standing in back of him. They were staring at a display that sat on the top of a desktop PC. Will had a keyboard in his lap.

“What seems to be the problem?”

Will looked up. “This PC collects information from records in our sales system. Then it runs a program that creates a file that has the data the state sales tax people want, and writes it to a tape cartridge that’s mailed to the home office in Virginia. They’ve got some ancient hardware and software they use to pay the sales tax we collect for each state. Thing is, this tape cartridge system is ancient too, and all of a sudden it’s stopped working. The whole system is ancient history, but we’re stuck using it. Maybe you can come up with an idea about what went south. And maybe even how to fix it.”

Don looked at the PC; it was a not-so-current HP desktop that sat sideways in a back corner of the server room. He bent around to his left so he could see the front panel of the PC. Top down there was a CD drive, a diskette drive, and the tape cartridge drive. The cartridge looked like it was about four or five inches wide and maybe an inch thick. The cartridge stuck out about an inch.

“Will, what OS is this running?” Will was the network hardware and software guru in the IT department..

“BSD Unix, a customized version. We can’t touch it, only the Unix gods at home office can. Thing is, when something goes wrong us peons here in Emeryville have the delightful task of trying to figure out the problem and tell the gods so they can come up with a solution.”

“They’re not helping fix the problem?”

“The head Unix god is Tanya and she’s got the idea that she is an IT god. I hate getting on the phone with her. She tries to make me out to be an idiot, but I give it right back to her. Let’s just say we’re not kissy-kissy with each other. So she’s stringing us out on this one, making our division look bad by being late with our sales tax info. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The best thing about Tanya is that she’s a witch.”

“A witch? A real, honest-to-god, live witch?”

“A real, honest-to-god, live witch. A practicing, real, honest-to-god, live witch. She claims she can conjure up ghosts and make them haunt people. I think she’s conjured up a ghost to haunt this machine.”

Alan interrupted. “Okay, enough about Tanya and her spells and her ghosts. Don, what else can we tell you?”

“Uh… okay… what’s the application?”

“Home office IT calls it Tape Backup, even though that’s not what it is. It’s really just a disk-to-tape copy.”

“Is it a commercial app?”

Alan started to laugh. “A commercial app? No way. It’s a custom application that home office wrote years ago. Probably before you were born, Don.”

Will was sort of grinning and smirking at Don at the same time. “That’s why we thought maybe you could figure it out, you going to Cal and being an IT computer science major and using BSD Unix and being a C programmer and all that.” He was always riding Don about being a computer science major.

“Uh, I don’t know about all that. Tell me exactly what’s happening. Let’s see if we can figure this out from the beginning.”

Alan leaned against the brick wall and moved his back and shoulders around against the rough bricks. “Oh, that feels so good… Alright. We run the Tape Data Collection program, every day. Our sales program feeds it sales and tax info. It’s pretty simple. At midnight on the last day of each month there’s an automated job that runs the Tape Backup program for that month. The Tape Backup program takes all the data that was collected and formats it and writes it to a tape cartridge. We overnight the tape cartridge to home office.”

Will added, “What happened last night is that the Tape Backup program ran but we got an error message. That error message tells us that the data could not be written to tape.”

Don shook his head. “Why aren’t you sending the data electronically?”

Alan sighed. “I’ve asked that question a hundred times. They claim that it’s a very complex application that would cost too much to replace in these economic times. But that’s what they’ve said for the seven years I’ve worked here. I’ve just given up. When it works, it works perfectly. When it doesn’t work, like today, it can only be excised by the witch.” He looked up. “The FedEx guy is here. I’ll be back.”

Don considered what he’d been told. It sure sounded like a hardware problem.

“Will, does the tape drive work okay?”

“Yes, there’s the Tape Test program. We just ran it. It writes a file to tape then reads it back and if it’s the same it displays a message that it’s okay.”

“How do you know that data is actually being written to the tape, or that the Tape Test program is working?”

“We don’t. But Tanya’s assured us that if the Tape Test program runs the tape drive test is successful and the drive is good. She says the message we’re getting when we run the Tape Backup program means the tape cartridge is bad. I tell her that we’ve run the Tape Test program on every cartridge in stock including brand new ones, and it says everything is fine and the tape backup program still gives us the error message with any of them. I tell you, she’s conjured a ghost into this PC.”

Don ignored the ghost comment. “Are you able to put a run-time trace on the Tape Backup program?”

“No,” Will replied, sounding frustrated. “Only the Unix gods have access to root and root tools. We’re locked out except for running the apps.” Will was obviously not a happy camper.

“You don’t have the root password?”

“No. Again, only the Unix gods have that, along with their bad attitudes.”

“Well, lemme sit down and see what I can find out.”

Will got up and stood at the right of the stool, and Don sat down and was handed the keyboard. It looked like the home office programmers might have hacked BSD Unix to lock everything other than the apps. The only thing on the command line was run> so Don pressed the Enter key, and run> was displayed again.

Don typed boot -s to try to get into single-user mode, even though he assumed it wouldn’t work. He was right.

He tried a reboot pressing Control-Alt-Delete to get a boot> prompt. But Control-Alt-Delete was locked out.

“Can we do a hard reset without damaging anything?”

“Sure.”

Don leaned to his left so he could see the front of the PC, found the reset button, and pressed it. Well, finally something worked. He waited a few seconds then pressed Control-B over and over trying to interrupt the loader process and get a boot prompt, but that didn’t work. The result was that the run> prompt was displayed, this time twice, mocking him, like King Arthur in Monte Python’s Holy Grail telling him to ‘Run away! Run away!’

Don knew they had to have a backdoor, maybe a keystroke command, to get a boot prompt. Trying every possible combination of keystrokes would take a long time and probably wouldn’t be successful. Maybe the IT gods had Linux on a USB flash drive that let them get in.

“Hey, Will, does Tanya use a USB flash drive when she works on this PC?”

“I have no idea. They shoo us out of this part of the server room when they’re here. For all I know she does her voodoo magic and when she’s done she conjures up a ghost to haunt the tape drive.”

“Why so secretive? That’s too bizarre.”

“It’s very simple, Don, it’s so she can do her witch incantations and conger up ghosts from the netherworld.”

“Yeah, sure.” Don grinned and stared at the screen, watching run> go blink-blink-blink.

“Will, can the Tape Backup program be run manually?”

“Yeah. But I’ve already done that about five or six times since I came in this morning.”

“Can I run it?”

“Sure. Why not. Can’t hurt anything. At the run prompt type TBP and press enter. Make sure it’s all caps. That’s all it takes.”

Don did that and a message was displayed: Tape backup being created and Don slid to his left and watched the tape cartridge. There was a humming noise that got louder until it was very noticeable.

“Hey, what’s that noise?”

“When Tape Backup starts it does a complete erase of the tape cartridge. It makes the noise because the tape is run at high speed, sort of like it’s being rewound. Then, at the end of the erase it rewinds the tape which is even faster. Then it starts the data transfer.”

The noise stopped, and a new, higher pitched sound started.

“It’s rewinding now.”

After a few minutes the noise stopped, there was a ‘chunk’ noise that lasted less than a second and was followed by an error message: Data Write Failure.

“Will, how about you run the Tape Test program.”

“On this tape cartridge?”

“Yup.”

“I already ran it and it said the tape was good.”

“Humor me, okay? Please run the Tape Test program again.”

“Sure, I’ll humor you. I need a little humor just about now,” Will responded. He didn’t know where Don was heading, but what the hell; he didn’t have anything better to do at that moment.

Don got up and moved to the front of the PC. Then he squatted and moved his head so his right ear was almost touching the tape drive.

“Okay, go ahead.”

“Careful the ghost doesn’t suck you inside.” Will laughed. He entered TTP and pressed Enter.

Don listened carefully to the tape cartridge as the test program ran.

“Okay,” Will reported, “the tape test completed successfully. Next?”

“Do you have a defective cartridge, one that’s actually physically damaged so the tape won’t spin?”

“Let’s see, we should have one or two that are defective.”

Will rummaged around in the cabinet where tape cartridges were stored. “Okay, I’ve got one that looks like the tape is jammed. I can see some loops on top of the reel of tape. That what you want?”

“Yeah, that’s perfect. How do you eject a cartridge?”

Will snickered. “The only button on the front of the drive is the eject button. Be careful it doesn’t eject the ghost along with the cartridge.”

Don reached around and pressed the eject button, then replaced the cartridge with the defective one.

Will ran the test program. It displayed the message Tape test successful.

Will looked at the display, then at Don, then back at the display. “Goddamn! I never thought of that. Damn tape drive’s defective.”

“Will, now run the tape backup program, please,” Don asked.

Will grinned and did as Don requested. He already knew the answer as he keyed in TBP and pressed the Enter key.

Tape backup being created was displayed, followed by a humming noise that got louder until it was very noticeable; the erase of the tape cartridge. This was followed by a higher pitched sound the tape rewind. But this was a supposed tape rewind, preceded by a supposed tape erase, neither of which actually ran. Then the usual Data Write Failure message was displayed.

Will looked at Don, without his usual smirk. “Damn, how did you figure that out?”

“The software hadn’t been changed, and software doesn’t usually fail if it’s been doing the same things as before. So it was likely hardware. The sounds we heard were from the tape transport motor which is still working. It’s the tape transport mechanism that isn’t working, it isn’t moving the tape. Can a new drive be sent overnight?”

Alan had returned, and he smiled at Don. “Very impressive, Don. You zeroed in on the problem because you ignored how we spent all our time blaming the software and our displeasure with how it’s supported. Instead you worked out what was actually wrong. By the way, I checked your UPS install, also very impressive. I don’t know how the hell you did it alone, it usually takes three of us, but you did. I like your work ethic, Mr. Donald Harris. Now I’d better go call and get that new drive shipped.”

Alan and then Will shook hands with Don. Will clapped him on the shoulder. “Damn good sleuthing, Don. I’m also very impressed.”

Don smiled, even though he knew he was blushing. “Thanks. I appreciate the compliments from both of you.”

As Alan headed to his office to order the new tape cartridge drive, Will cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s open up this puppy and pull out that bad drive.”

The side panel of the PC was held in place by two thumbscrews, and Will removed them and jiggled the side panel loose. As he pulled it off he jumped back.

“What the hell was that? It scared the hell out of me!”

Don was laughing, much to Will’s confusion.

“What’s so funny? And what was that when I pulled off the panel?”

Don finally stopped laughing, but he was still grinning. “It was a mouse, Will. Living inside the PC. A nice, warm place to live. A little noise once a month. But hey, the rent is cheap and utilities are included. Even some nice, tasty wires to chew on. The wires from the controller card in the bottom slot of the PC to the tape cartridge drive. The wires that controlled the tape transport. That’s probably the only thing that’s wrong. That little furry grey creature, a mouse, is your ghost. The ghost in the machine.”

Thanks to Cole Parker for editing The Ghost in the Machine.


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This story and the included images are Copyright 2010 by Colin Kelly (colinian). They cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey's World web site has written permission to publish this story. No other rights are granted.

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