FireThe lights went out, and plunged the windowless confines of the IT offices into darkness. Monitors blinked off, fans spun down, hard-drive heads clacked into their safe positions. Not a single idiot light remained standing.

Robert peered into the darkness, looking for his co-workers. The room was abruptly lit by the dreaded, red, emergency light. The office turned into a photographic darkroom- the Darkroom of Death, as shouts and screams erupted from the corridors.

The PA crackled. “Code red. Code red. All personnel to emergency stations. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. Fire in Zone 3.”

Robert, and his fellow Defense Department IT drones jumped from their chairs and proceeded towards the nearest exit in a remarkably orderly fashion. Men with armored vests and rifles passed them going the opposite way. The civilian IT employees speculated. Bomb? Raid? Something worse? This was a Naval Ordnance facility, and there were many things that didn’t respond well to fire. Even the stupidest accident with a microwave burrito could mean big trouble.

The journey to safety was nothing like the tame drills they’d rolled their eyes through in the past. The one listless corridors were now choked with an urgency never found in government facilities. The MPs in the corridors screaming, “Move, move, move!” didn’t help.

Outside, rumors spread faster than fire ever could. There was no overt sign of danger. Perhaps this really was an accident with a burrito.

It was breath-frosting cold outside; with every minute that passed, Robert shivered more and fell further behind on his estimates. The only bright spot in the entire event was watching “The Admiral” elbowing his underlings out of the way in a frantic bid to escape the facility. “The Admiral” was the civilian IT director, but dearly wished to be a Naval officer. Too bad he would soil himself if ever caught under a PO’s steely glare.

Eventually, the all clear sounded, emergency power was restored, and everyone went back to their cubicles. The next day, Robert learned the cause of the evacuation: it wasn’t an enemy assault, a dangerous accident with high explosives, sabotage or even an angry burrito, but a fire in their new Uninterruptible Power Supply/Reduntant Power system. It had simply overheated until it caught fire.

“…and it’s all your fault!” the Admiral shrieked. “You were responsible for installing that POS!”

Robert had indeed been responsible. And since the UPS was responsible for a fire on a base where they kept explosives, Robert’s dull and static civilian life was transformed into a blur of debriefs as both the civilian and Naval management looked for good spots to squirrel away blame. By the end, Robert could have qualified to instruct Naval Intelligence officers on how to endure interrogations. And finally, the Admiral was grilling him, fully in command of his overhead projector-bathed conference room.

“What the hell lowest-common-denominator vendor did you ship that thing from?”

“We didn’t,” Robert said. “Remember the outage a few years ago? It took down the mainframe, and actually fried a few of the older computers. I was put in charge of making sure it didn’t happen again.”

“So, you ordered some cheap, garbage UPSes from the lowest bidder?”

“Not exactly. At the time, a bunch of Naval electricians were idling without any work to do. So the project sponsors decided an off-the-shelf UPS wouldn’t do the job. They insisted on a custom solution that could kill two birds with one stone, so we built it in-house.”

“And how much did that cost?”

“Several million dollars.”

“And when did they finish this?”

“The UPS went live three days before the fire.”

“Three days? And the project started years ago? You mean to tell me we spent millions of dollars building a custom system when we could have purchased an OTS solution for a fraction of the cost, and we couldn’t even build a system that worked without setting fire to the facility? What idiot approved this! I want him off my base ASAP.”

“Oh, well I did bring the sign-offs to this meeting,” Robert said. With no small measure of relief, he slid the documents across the battleship-grey desk. On each, was the Admiral’s signature.