Turn it Off and Turn it On Again
Harmony House: Episode 15
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
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In the last episode, a severe storm caused a power outage at Houze, leaving the contestants in darkness. The situation escalates when Deepu, terrified of the dark, is found hiding under a desk by Riley. The group faced the practical dilemma of needing to use the restroom without power, leading them to temporarily leave Houze. They managed to restore power by flipping the main breaker, but upon returning, they found themselves locked out. The episode concluded with the contestants huddled outside wet and cold.
“So, c’mon boys, what’s the inside scoop on the most boring reality show ever?”
Chris hated Scott’s latest girlfriend, Alyssa. She was, more or less, the same model his brother had serially fallen for since high school but with a few minor upgrades. This one had a doctorate and an almost believable ability to make pleasant conversation but true to his type, it evaporated quickly in favor of scathing criticism and general negativity.
“It’s not that bad,” Chris sighed. He drained the rest of his Scotch before continuing. “Schultz says that these things take time to gather momentum. It’s a slow burn.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what’s not a slow burn,” she quipped. “Have you seen the latest report on the fires? Your little house project’s going to require some modification to make it suitable for Mars at this rate.”
“Another four hundred acres today is what I heard,” Scott said. “Glad we went East Coast for a location. Can you imagine?”
“Well, it might have made for better T.V. drama at least,” Alyssa said picking through the bowl of edamame on the table to find the one she wanted.
“It wasn’t like this was their idea,” Jeanie argued. “Anyway, I don’t think the show’s that bad.”
Chris could always count on her to be in his corner. Jeanie was not a confrontational person unless someone questioned his integrity. Chris had made some questionable choices in the twelve years they had been married, but she always stuck by him.
“C’mon honey, we all know it sucks,” Chris said, pushing his shoulder into hers.
“I happen to love Cam. He’s so sweet and talented. Did you see him play that song the other day when he was sitting out in the middle of the field? I’m so glad they saved him.” she said. She raised her wine glass. “Here’s to team Cam!”
They all drank. Alyssa sank back into the sofa and squinted into her glass, swirling the dregs of wine that remained. Scott checked his phone. He was obsessive about monitoring the stats on Houze.
“So really, what is the plan if nothing interesting happens?” Alyssa asked without looking up. “I mean you’ve got these six people in a petri dish waiting for some reaction. What if nothing does?”
Chris was embarrassed to say that this was not an eventuality they had even discussed. He and Scott had been so busy with the actual business that they had completely delegated this side show to Eve and the people at BangOn!.
“Something will happen,” he said. “Doesn’t something always happen, one way or another? Besides, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right bro? Bro?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Scott said before switching off his phone and rejoining them. “I’m sure that wily Brit has some shit up his sleeve. At least I hope he does. I was just looking at the latest data. Viewership has steadily declined since the premier, and the mentions on social have fallen off a cliff.”
“Oh God, you know how much it turns me on when you talk like an ad man,” Alyssa purred. “But what about your baby? How’s she doing? You guys know he has a whole dashboard set up on his phone to monitor every breath she takes, every poop they make. Ha!”
“I’m proud to report our Harmony House is performing at optimal efficiency across all major systems. In the five days since the contest started, it’s recycled nearly three hundred gallons of water and produced over five thousand BTUs of…”
Chris tuned his brother out. He was comfortably buzzed. The kids were asleep in their beds. The little idea that he and his brother had toiled away on for so many years in the dark was now being broadcast into the living rooms of nearly a million people around the world. Despite the curve balls of this marketing circus, he believed their house was being taken seriously and seen for its true potential to change the world. At least that’s what he felt sitting in his living room. There had been a spike in pre-orders this week and it was undoubtedly due to the contest.
“Hey, spaceman,” Jeanie said, nudging him out of his reverie. “Turn on the TV so we can see what happened today.”
Chris sighed and reached for the remote on the side table. He switched on the television and launched the network’s streaming app. The show was bookmarked so it didn’t take long to pull up the latest episode. It was impressive how Schultz and his team were able to produce an episode every day, but he recalled a reference to some proprietary video editing A.I. in their sales pitch. It wasn’t the most riveting television, but it made good use of the handheld, confessional video format, and they did a tasteful job of making it feel like a raw, uncut look into six strangers’ lives. The only advertising break was a ninety-second spot midway through that was basically an infomercial of Houze showing clips of the manufacturing process, he and Scott talking about their environmental mission and a rotating, mini “featurette” module that showcased a different feature or benefit of the dwelling in each episode.
There was somewhat of a formula and Chris, who’d tried his hand a screenwriting for a time, could spot the obvious tropes they were trying to tease out each episode. This one seemed to be focusing on the friction between Fran and Riley. There was a heated exchange between the two at the dining table that was captured stealthily by Deepu who whispered his witless commentary as the argument unfolded.
“I hate that weasel,” Scott said as he got up to refresh his drink. “I never would have cast him.”
“I think he’s kinda hot,” Alyssa said. “At least he knows how to be entertaining and play the game. That’s more than I can say for the crusty old guy.”
“Yeah, he’s not adding much is he?” Jeanie added. “I mean, you never see him talk into the camera. All he ever records is the outside. Sometimes he’ll prattle on with some grumpy monologue.”
“But, he’s a fan favorite!” Scott shot back from the wet bar across the room. “Say what you will, but his pithy one-liners go viral on social media.”
“What the hell do you know about social media, old man?” Chris teased.
“Point taken, but I read the reports from BangOn! Some company started making bumper stickers out of one of his grumbles. What was it…”
“Sit down, Frances!” Jeanie and Alyssa shouted in unison and nearly spilled their drinks in a fit of laughter.
“Fuck, that’s where that came from,” Chris said. “The guys on the floor were all shouting that at each other today in the shop. Look at that, we’re influencing the collective culture!”
“I’m not sure we want to be associated with this particular phrase,” Scott said, returning to the couch. “I’m afraid it’ll become a dog whistle for right-wing nutjobs who want women to stay barefoot and pregnant.”
“Ironic. Isn’t Jessie like a super liberal dude? Wasn’t he the one who almost pulled out of the contest because he was refusing to take the flight and increase his carbon footprint?” Chris asked.
“Yeah. That’s him,” Scott said. “I kinda like what he brings.”
“You would,” Chris said. “He appeals to your obstinate fuckness.”
“He does. Somebody’s gotta be a fly in the ointment of this gross mockery of our cause,” Scott said.
It fell quiet for a few minutes while they all watched the drama unfold on the television. Cam was conducting an interview with Jayden. This was apparently his thing. He put on a persona like a dishy talk show host, camping up his effeminate voice.
“So, sister spill the deets. You want that big hunk of mountain man, don’t you? You wanna crawl all up in his grizzly man beard and stay forever and have twelve babies.”
Jayden wouldn’t look at the camera but her broad smile could be seen even in profile as she pretended to be absorbed by the book in her lap. The camera zoomed in shakily over her shoulder.
“What are we reading, ‘How to Satisfy Your Crunchy Commando?’”
Jayden snorted and produced a high-pitched giggle that was contagious. She pushed Cam and the camera rocked drunkenly back and forth then blurred past the rainy window and up to the ceiling where it rested for a second before Cam’s large forehead appeared in the frame.
“There’s your answer dear viewers. Jay wants the big [beep]. She gotta have the big [beep].”
This had become part of Cam’s schtick too, extended bouts of profanity. He knew BangOn! had discouraged this in their onboarding so he seemed to relish in knowing they would have to heavily edit his segments. It was a funny kind of social experiment, watching each of these people develop some kind of persona partly out of boredom and partly because they had no choice.
“Will you just leave me alone, please?” Jayden said.
The camera swiveled back to put her in the frame.
“Not until you confess to me and all of your adoring fans out there,” he persisted. “You kinda like him, don’t you? It’s nothing to be ashamed of girl. I’ve had a few bears in my day!”
“I don’t like him!” she said, looking directly into the camera. “Not like that…”
There’s a pause and her eyes focus on something out of the frame, behind Cam.
“He’s behind me, isn’t he?” Cam whispers, opening his eyes wide and smirking.
Jayden nods and smiles. She shakes her head.
It’s a genuinely funny scene and all four of them laugh, forgetting that this is a glorified commercial Chris and Scott are paying handsomely to have produced.
“God, he is so funny!” Jeanie says. “He’s going to have a career coming out of this. He doesn’t need to win the house.”
The show cuts to the commercial break and Chris shuts it off. It’s late and he’s got a lot to do in the morning. No one seems upset about him switching off the show and there’s a lightness to the mood in their foursome that wasn’t there at the beginning of the night and it’s not just the drinks. This is good, he thinks. We are on our way. Despite all the shit he and Scott had gone through, they were on their way. His efforts had not been in vain, and their dream was on its way to becoming a reality.
“What is it, babe?” Alyssa said.
Chris looked up from his drink. His brother was sitting up straight, peering into his phone with the furrowed brow Chris had come to dread. In their years of collaboration, that look never meant something good.
“Uh, it’s probably nothing. Maybe just a temporary glitch, but I can’t access Houze. The network’s not responding.”
“Maybe it’s the network here,” Chris offered, getting up to look for his phone.
“Nope. I can get out to the web. Let me try to call them,” Scott said.
“Wait, it’s almost two in the morning there. Don’t be an asshole,” Chris said. “It’s probably nothing and you’re gonna wake Kyle up.”
“What if it’s not nothing? And besides, Kyle’s making good money for a babysitting job.”
Scott put the phone to his ear and waited for Kyle to pick up. After a minute he canceled the call and stared at his phone. “He didn’t pick up. I’m gonna try again.”
“Is everything okay?” Jeanie asked Chris. “I mean, what’s the big deal if you can’t reach the systems in the house after midnight on a Tuesday?”
“We’ve got a lot riding on this and we can’t afford the embarrassment of something failing while everyone’s watching,” Chris said. “Still no answer?”
“No,” Scott said. “And I also tried the LAN line at the control center.”
“Maybe it’s a storm?” Alyssa offered.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a storm,” Chris said. “Look at the radar.”
He held up his phone for the others to see the massive yellow-orange blob swirling over the mountains of eastern Tennessee. From what Chris could tell from the report, it was a huge system with high winds and lightning.
“Shit,” Scott said. “This means there’s a massive power outage in the entire area. There’s no cell service up there so…”
“Kyle will be on it, man. I’m sure he’s probably out there checking on things as we speak,” Chris said, hoping this was the case but secretly thinking Kyle might be tripping his balls off on mushrooms somewhere.
“I don’t understand. Houze is supposed to be off the grid, right?” Jeanie asked.
“Yeah, it is,” Scott answered. “That’s why this is a big deal if the house goes dark. If there’s no power none of the systems in the house are functional. No toilet, no heat, no water, no network…”
“No network, no show,” Chris finished.
“I’m gonna go down to the shop,” Scott said, standing up.
Chris sighed. He leaned over and kissed Jeanie on the cheek. He whispered he loved her, and he’d be back home in the morning once they’d sorted out what was going on.
“I’ll drive,” he said.
It took less than fifteen minutes and Chris was mostly sober by the time they pulled up to the backdoor of their offices. Scott had spent the entire ride trying to reach various members of the BangOn! team with no luck. Kyle was still not picking up.
“This is looking really bad, bro,” Scott said, flopping down into the chair behind the monolithic slab of his steel desk and waking his computer workstation. “If things blow up in the house now with the whole world watching we will have paid a huge sum of other people’s money to be kicked in the balls. Whoever said there’s no such thing as bad publicity was not an engineer.”
“I agree. We’re fucked if anything happens to make Houze look less than perfect. But hey, this thing’s not live live, there’s still post-production and editing before an episode gets aired.”
“You’re forgetting the spontaneous live cam thing, dude,” Scott said. “Don’t you remember that little nugget Schultz threw in at the end? Once every twenty-four hours one of the contestants has to pick up and stream from their device. It gets broadcast out to the public website and all social channels.”
“God damn it. I forgot about that. We’ve got to get a hold of Schultz. I’ll keep working on that. You see what you can do about getting Houze back online.”
“Yep, way ahead of you,” Scott said.
He watched as his brother strode across the wide hallway to his own office, his movement triggering the bank of overhead lights to flicker on. Scott was still getting used to them having proper offices. He didn’t miss the cramped garage and the fumy smell of their failed iterations, but he did feel there was some deeper level of collaboration that had disappeared since they started sitting in different glass boxes.
He pulled up his monitoring software and began to scan through the logs from the last few hours. All the primary systems appeared to be operating as expected until 7:36 P.M. Eastern time when everything went offline, presumably from a power failure. The only thing that could have caused that would be some major physical disruption with the battery and generator. There was a storm so it could have been a lot of things. Nothing like a downed tree though, Houze was in the middle of a field. It would take a tornado to flip the structure over. The only thing that made sense was a lightning strike. But they had prepared for this eventuality. There was a rod, and it was properly grounded. If there was a direct hit, it would trip the main breaker to prevent a surge that could fry everything. There was no reason to believe something as primitive as a circuit breaker could fail.
Just as he was starting to play out worst-case scenarios in his head, the log pane refreshed with a new line of text:
***** System reboot initiated... Stand by.
Thank God. Scott blew out a long sigh as he watched the scroll of text print rapidly into the logging terminal. From what he could tell, it was a normal power recycle. No error messages were showing up. At least, not yet. He would have to get one of the guys to do a thorough investigation. Every status line he read fell into one of two possible categories: routine and redundant or completely inscrutable. He had no patience for computers and the people who programmed them using their cryptic shorthand. Unless the main network came back up, it wouldn’t matter anyway. The text logs were transmitted via a cellular transmitter that was an emergency backup. While they could read the logs, there was little else they could do until the dish came back online and uplinked to the satellite.
Scott was not one to idly wait for a solution to present itself. He continued to scroll through the log file hoping that something useful would jump out at him. It did.
Sys reboot type: manual
Restore factory defaults: true
A manual reboot meant that someone had to pop open the system closet and throw the switch. There was no remote or automated way to accomplish this. That was troubling because it meant there had been a hard crash. This also explained the next line. In this early version of the house operating system, they didn’t have the ability to store and persist personalized configurations after a hard reboot.
Scott leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. None of this was good. What was going on out there? Did lightning strike? Did Kyle ride out there and throw the switch or was it someone from in the house? He tried to think through the various scenarios, wishing that he didn’t have to work through the fog of that third whiskey. If it was someone in the house, that meant they had felt compelled to take matters into their own hands. Given the stakes of the stupid game, this probably cost someone their spot. And it was probably one of his hopefuls, Jessie or Riley.
Oh well. It was a contest. So, one of them got kicked out. This wasn’t life or death for anyone. His brother would get ahold of the BangOners and they would do some creative editing.
The show would go on.
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Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: