Work was ahead of schedule on construction of the new server building, and installation of the robotic arms on the prototype server was complete. The self-contained cooling system was nearing completion, and once installed, final testing would begin. We’d not only caught up but were ahead of schedule. In the meantime, I’d finished all of the coursework for my bachelor’s degree in computer science as well as that required for my master’s and my Ph.D. I’d even submitted my Ph.D. thesis proposal, which had been approved. I’d already started writing the background material for my dissertation, and once all of the testing was complete, I’d write the rest of it. Then, it would just be a matter of Corporate getting their heads out of their asses and having their cadre of lawyers submit all of the patent applications related to the new designs, which was mostly my work. With any luck, I’d have my Ph.D. by the spring.
Setting my laptop aside, thoughts of work disappeared as I noticed the smell of food that had permeated the house. Growing up, Dad never did anything special for Thanksgiving – or for any holiday, for that matter – so Thanksgiving only meant turkey for lunch at school and then four days of unrelenting abuse by my father. While most kids looked forward to the holiday as a time spent with family, for me, as with most of the school holidays, it was a time of dread. Last year with the Rodriguez family, Thanksgiving was a small affair with little more than roast turkey and dressing. It was their first Thanksgiving without their older son, and no one was in the mood to celebrate. This year was going to be markedly different, as I’d be spending the holiday with the Gonzalez family and enjoying my first-ever Thanksgiving feast. With seven children in the house, or as they liked to say, eight including me, there would be ten of us around the table. Although having ten around the table wasn’t unusual, Thanksgiving was a family time like no other.
Of course, the question of boyfriends and girlfriends had come up, and invitations were extended, but they had their own family dinners to attend. Shaun and his dad were spending the holiday with Lauren as well as Lauren’s daughter and grandchildren who’d flown in for the holiday weekend. I still hadn’t spoken with Shaun about whatever it was he wasn’t telling me. In a way, I almost didn’t want to know, yet the longer I waited to ask, the more it got in the way of our relationship and the more difficult it would be. Darren and his parents had flown to Memphis and would be spending the holiday with his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Sammy and Rob were between girlfriends, as they liked to put it, and Celia and Camilla were between boyfriends. Hillary had barely started dating, and Lindsey was too young.
With so many of us to help, the kitchen was crowded, and those of us not involved with cooking had been banished from using even the dining table in the great room. As it turned out, Jerry and the boys were all watching TV while the girls helped Fran prepare the mammoth turkey and dinner. Sexism was alive and well in the Gonzalez household. Me, well, I enjoyed cooking to an extent and loved helping my boyfriend in the kitchen, but I had no desire to get involved with five women and girls, particularly when they disagreed on recipes.
So, I remained in my room now that I had a room to myself and lay naked on my bed with my head propped up on a pillow, my knees bent and my feet flat on the bed, brooding about the future. The door suddenly flew open, and Henry started to run in but stopped in his tracks. Sheepishly, he said, “Sorry, I shoulda knocked. Can I come in? Did I interrupt something?”
“You may come in and, nah, I was just brooding is all,” I replied. “I saw no reason to get dressed after, you know —”
“Yeah, I definitely know,” he replied as he finally closed the door behind him. “Just because your boyfriend’s away doesn’t mean you’re not still horny all the time.” Then sitting down on the bed between my legs and placing his bare feet on either side of my chest, he started rubbing his big toes up inside my armpits. He too was shirtless and was staring off into space, and I didn’t think he was even aware of how arousing it was, but my dick noticed and inflated rapidly. Then, turning to look into my eyes and seemingly ignoring the fact that my dick was hard as a rock, he began, “My life is so much better now, but I still don’t feel like I belong. It’s not that I don’t fit in. I’m thirteen now, and some of the other freshmen are nearly as young as me, and I look like I’m older than a lot of them, anyway. I just don’t feel like I’m one of them, you know?”
“I was only eleven when I started high school,” I replied, “So, yeah, I know exactly what’s it’s like to feel like an outsider.”
“I can’t imagine bein’ in high school at that age,” Henry responded. “It’s hard enough at thirteen.”
“High school’s never easy,” I replied. “The only thing worse is middle school, from what I hear, and you were royally screwed when it came to that. I suppose the one consolation for me was that I skipped it.”
“You didn’t miss much,” Henry agreed, “but you probably faced worse in high school. Anyone who’s different is ostracized, and few things are more different than bein’ eleven when everyone else is fourteen. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. It’s much more… complicated.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Don’t get me wrong. I love Darren very much,” Henry said. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without him, but sometimes I feel like we’re communicating across a vast chasm. He’s an average tenth-grader and I’m a thirteen-year-old freshman who’ll probably finish high school in three years and start college as a junior. Darren will finish high school at the same time I do, but he might not even go to college. He says he wants to, but I’ll probably get a full-ride scholarship to a top school. His parents could never afford a private college, even if he could get in. How will we ever make it work? Sometimes I get so depressed, and then I smoke a joint. It takes me away from the pain for a while, but Darren hates it. I hate it.”
Fear struck at my heart as I asked, “Henry, do you still think of killing yourself? Do you still have pills hidden away?”
After a long pause, he answered, “No, I sometimes wonder if I’m up to a future in which everyone treats me like a freak, but I’m not close to where I was before you intervened. It was way worse when I thought I’d be forever trapped in the life I had. I got rid of the pills a long time ago, and I’m nowhere near as depressed as I was back then. What you did was to let me have the best of both worlds, but I still have some of the worst of both worlds.”
“Historically, those of us who survive to become successful in life do so with a partner who’s ‘normal’, based on how society judges us, anyway,” I said. “Even a fuck-up like Edward Snowden found someone. If you haven’t read A Beautiful Mind, you should read it – or at least watch the movie. The book’s much more accurate, though. It’s a true story about a math genius who won a Nobel Prize for being the first to apply game theory to economics. His work profoundly changed the way we look at economics today, but he struggled with schizophrenia all his adult life. His wife and family literally were his link to sanity. Not that I think we’re psychos, but I think guys like us need someone in our lives to keep us grounded.”
“That shit’s really profound, J.J.,” Henry responded. “Thanks for helping me to sort things out. So, what were you brooding about?”
“Couldn’t slip that by you,” I replied with a smile. “I guess it’s only natural to second-guess our relationships. With Shaun spending his holiday with his dad and his dad’s girlfriend, it’s given me a chance to think about something that’s been nagging me.”
“Trouble in paradise?” Henry asked, and so I told him all about my thoughts about Shaun’s relationship with his sister. Henry responded right away with, “I’d bet my left nut that something sexual happened between them.”
In shock, I replied, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. No way. And your left nut?”
“Look,” he began to explain, “society is full of double standards. When you have two brothers who are two or three years apart, no one’s surprised when they fool around. It’s considered normal and almost expected. Think about it. If a twelve-year-old kid messes around with a nine-year-old stranger, even if it’s perfectly innocent, the older boy will likely spend some time in juvie. If the two of them are brothers, however, at the most they’ll go for some counseling. More often the dad’ll sit down and talk with them, and the brothers will go right back to messing around but be more careful. They’ll chance it ’cause it’s too much fun.
“If you talk about sisters, well it’s not as common as with boys ’cause it’s not out front the way it is with boys, pun intended. When it’s between a brother and a sister, though, especially if the brother’s older, all hell breaks loose. All three circumstances are incest, yet we not only treat them differently, but we feel differently about them. Sure, the risk of pregnancy plays into it, but it’s so taboo that even sensible guys like us are repulsed by it. Am I wrong?”
Thinking seriously about what my very wise, younger-brother-by-choice had said, I realized he was shockingly right, but I had to ask, “Whatever makes you think that’s what’s going on with Shaun?”
“He and his sister spent their summers together with their dad in foreign lands when they were younger, right?” Henry began. “You never said how old his sister is —”
“I never asked, and Shaun only mention she was younger,” I filled in.
“So, she’s probably a couple of years younger,” Henry continued, “maybe three at most. They started spending their summers with their father when Shaun was what, maybe eight or nine, or maybe not even that old. Their dad would’ve had only a small apartment with two or three bedrooms at the most, and they had a full-time nanny, too. Although I wouldn’t rule it out, unless he or she was sleeping with the dad, the nanny would’ve had their own room, which meant that Shaun and his sister had to have been sharing a bedroom and maybe even a bed. They had to be.
“When Shaun was younger, that wouldn’t have been a big deal. If they played doctor… well, kids do that when they’re young, but when one of them is ten or eleven or twelve, messing around becomes something more. When one of them is thirteen, the thought of them sharing a room is out of the question, and maybe a nanny isn’t even necessary anymore, especially if they’re in a relatively safe country and speak the language.”
“It’s quite a leap to think they were having sex,” I countered. “Fuck, Shaun’s gay!”
“If you had shared a bed with a boy or a girl when you were growing up in the summer and probably without air conditioning, would you have kept your clothes on?” Henry asked. “If you were naked, too, would you have kept your hands to yourself? It might have been perfectly innocent when you were eight, less so when you were nine, much less so when you were ten, and forget all pretense of innocence when you were twelve.”
“Okay, I guess I can see that,” I replied, “but eventually they would’ve sought out other kids for sex, especially when they returned home with their mother.”
“And then they’d be back with their dad the following summer, not speaking the language, maybe sharing a bedroom if not a bed, both of them used to jacking off at the least. You really think they wouldn’t fool around?”
“Yeah, but at some point, the sister would start her periods and that would be the end of it,” I pointed out.
“You might remember from Sex Ed that girls can be fertile before they start their periods,” Henry pointed out.
“They didn’t teach that in Southern Indiana,” I explained. “The emphasis was on not having sex at all, so I guess they assumed there was no need to scare us with that little factoid.” However, even as I said it, I saw exactly where Henry was going. If Shaun had gotten his sister pregnant, not even the staunchest abortion foe would’ve stopped them from terminating the pregnancy. Regardless, CPS would’ve been involved, and the siblings would’ve never been allowed near each other again.
Unfortunately, I never got the chance to ask Shaun about it.
<> <> <>
Such a simple thing as oxygen. It is essential to life. To those who know chemistry, however, oxygen is one of the most corrosive elements in the universe. In a universe teeming with elements with an abundance of spare electrons, oxygen is always desperately trying to steal electrons. Hydrogen is happy to give up its one electron. Stripped of its electron, the hydrogen nucleus, a single proton, is happy as a clam. Are clams really ever happy, though? As they say, hydrogen reduces. Oxygen, however, has two unfilled orbitals and is greedy to fill them. Let a molecule of hydrogen anywhere near an atom of oxygen and it will hungrily strip away its electrons and, BAM, you get a water molecule with a whole lot of energy left over. It’s all thermodynamics. A simple oxidation-reduction reaction – and an explosive one. Oxygen will combine with just about any reductive element. Take carbon, for example, the essence of organic molecules, the essence of life. Hydrocarbons aren’t nearly as volatile as hydrogen ’cause carbon isn’t as generous with giving up its electrons, but it burns quite nicely in an oxygen-rich environment, and it can explode in the presence of pure oxygen.
As every schoolchild knows, earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen, so in generating liquid nitrogen, that oxygen has to be removed. In our initial designs for supercooled nitrogen cooling, we anticipated a need for having a supply of oxygen for use by technicians who might need to service the internal components of the data mini-centers. We therefore designed the refrigeration system to store the liquid oxygen generated in the process of nitrogen purification. That oxygen was, if nothing else, commercially viable as a product that could be sold, so why not make use of it?
However, as the design process honed in on one in which nitrogen leakage would be extremely rare and in which all repairs could be done robotically, the need to actually use the oxygen diminished significantly. When the design turned to the production of a commercial product that could be sold as a turnkey operation, the oxygen became a liability, and the need to remove and sell the oxygen created a burden most customers didn’t want. The design would need to be modified to pass the oxygen through a heat exchanger to bring it to room temperature, and then add it to the flow of air through the heat exchangers of the refrigeration system, passing it harmlessly into the surrounding air. Care had to be taken with the components used for the oxygen-handling system to ensure they wouldn’t corrode or otherwise react with the oxygen, but that was the easy part. Any variety of stainless steel would suffice for that.
The plan to simply discard the unneeded oxygen was more of an afterthought and wasn’t part of the original design for the prototype data mini-center. In fact, the modifications were deemed to be so simple as to not require any modifications to the prototype at all. The prototype that we tested in our makeshift lab was nearly complete, and everything was working perfectly. There was just one little flaw that went unnoticed: a tiny leak in a joint between portions of the tubing that carried the liquid oxygen to the storage tank where it was collected. We hadn’t given much thought to the disposal of all that stored oxygen. It was merely a byproduct of the refrigeration system and was totally harmless if released slowly into the atmosphere, which was exactly what we should have been doing all along. On multiple occasions, I’d suggested we bleed off the excess oxygen and lower the pressure, but Frank still thought we could sell it. We were already set up for storing the leftover oxygen, so why not?
The liquid oxygen flowed through a series of insulated tubes into a storage tank, but the pressure built over time, and that tiny leak became a huge leak, and the oxygen tank suddenly found a way to release all its pressure – and quickly. The whole lab was filled with electronic equipment with components soldered to plastic circuit boards and insulated with plastics, all of them hot and teeming with the electricity that could provide a spark. There was plenty of flammable matter all around the lab, in addition to the plastics used on the circuit boards, including several squeeze bottles of the highly volatile solvents, acetone and ethanol, that no one had even thought to put away, and the overflowing stacks of lab notebooks, journal articles, computer printouts, textbooks and equipment manuals, all in their usual state of disarray. Of course there were graduate students, technicians and engineers – my colleagues – who were all busily going about doing the final tests of the equipment.
All that could be said was that it could’ve been far worse. The explosion happened after hours, when only a handful of dedicated souls were in the lab, among them our chief engineer, Frank Cole, my boyfriend’s father. The explosion wasn’t anything as epic as the massive one I’d predicted with a supercooled CDA system, but it was devastating, nevertheless. Everything in the lab was destroyed including the people in it. The warehouse we were renting caught fire, and it took a response to a five-alarm fire to put it out. I might well have been one of those killed had I not been at home working on writing my dissertation.
From that perspective, the explosion added one more critical datapoint to add to the results section, and a whole bunch had to be added to the discussion section of the dissertation. I discussed the cause of the explosion and mitigating factors that would ensure such an event couldn’t happen again. What did not go into the dissertation was the intense investigation that went into finding the cause of the blaze, both by Applazon and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, nor was there any mention of the massive payments Applazon had to shell out to the families of those killed in the explosion and to the owner of the warehouse – nor the total upheaval that became of my life.
The good news, such as it was, was that the cause of the explosion was found rather quickly, and I was exonerated of all wrongdoing. Ironically, the person identified in the final report as being the most responsible, if not culpable, was Frank for ignoring my recommendation to vent the accumulated oxygen. Dom and Dan had even pointed out that if we planned to store the oxygen, the oxygen-handling components needed to be brought up to code. None of that made Frank any less dead.
In the wake of the accident, Applazon had little choice but to delay installation of the new server design, but then reports emerged of a new coronavirus in China and events there quickly overtook our plans to mass-produce data mini-centers. The most critical component, the cylindrical Dewar vessel that insulated and enclosed the entire system, was stuck in Wuhan under a lockdown that didn’t end until April. There were alternatives, but we’d already paid for the fabrication of dozens of vessels in Wuhan, where they remained awaiting the lifting of the lockdown so they could be delivered.
Regardless, more work was needed before our customers would trust us to deliver safe units, and as the one person familiar with all of the systems in the data mini-center, I played an integral role in the redesign. The most important thing we learned from the experiments on the prototype was that the cooling system reduced the server failure rate to near zero, making the need for repairs miniscule. The robotic arms would’ve been superfluous and were therefore dropped from the design completely. That made it possible to relocate the cooling system entirely within the sealed datacenter structure. Doing that prevented any possibility of an accident like the one that claimed Frank’s life, as any explosion would be contained within the Dewar vessel. Ultimately, the data mini-centers would be built, but the decision was made to manufacture the units overseas, free of the whims of our government. A modern factory was built in Vietnam, with production expected in mid-2021.
Had it not been for the accident, I would’ve stood to become a very rich man while still in my teens. As per Applazon’s patent policy, once the development costs were paid off, I stood to make a princely sum from my percentage of the profits. Now, the cost of the insurance and wrongful death payouts had to be factored in before any profits would be realized. That, however, was the least of it. In the explosion I lost several people I’d come to call my friends and colleagues – and I lost my boyfriend.
Shaun was still sixteen with a semester of high school to go before graduation. With no other options, he returned to Seattle to live with his mother and his mother’s wife, and I never did learn if something had happened between Shaun and his sister. Shaun wouldn’t even talk to me at the funeral, and when I tried approaching him to share my condolences, he made it clear that he considered it my fault that his father died. On top of that, he let me know in no uncertain terms that if I even attempted to contact him again, he’d make sure the world became aware of what I did to my own father. He called me a father-killer and spat in my face.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.