The Flight from and Pursuit of Oneself
They elect Shiyue to peek over the cubicle wall this morning. It’s fair—Dustin did it on Monday and Merlin on Tuesday and Wednesday. The three of them share a cubicle, and today they also share a fate, a fate that depends on the mood of the one man working on this floor who has his own office.
Shiyue climbs onto her desk to see above the cubicle walls and establishes line of sight with the lobby doors. Eur, who they report to, and who himself reports to who knows who, walks in through those doors at 9 AM every morning—every morning; there are no weekends or holidays at this place. It is right now 8:59:22 AM.
Behind Shiyue Merlin leans his chair back and folds his arms waiting for Shiyue’s report. Dustin alternates on his screen between trying to finish the program Eur expects them to deliver by 5 PM and another window where he distracts himself with a Twitch stream of Starcraft 2. Each morning for the past week this one minute of anticipation has for all of them dilated into three to five subjective minutes, or more.
At the expected time Eur swings the doors open. He is spewing words at his secretary. “I want every pigeon in San Francisco rounded up and their assholes sewn shut. I want to see them bloat and fall out of the sky when their intestines weigh too much for their wings.”
The secretary, who is a veteran in Eur’s moods, responds in a casual tone that he’ll order Eur a new suit and burn this one, which has been ruined by the bird droppings. People only ever refer to the secretary as “the secretary.” Maybe once, long ago, a human lived inside the secretary, but since working for Eur that part of him evacuated and what remains is an administrative automaton.
Shiyue climbs down from her desk and faces the others, who roll their chairs in close for a huddle. “Level five. Whole-body gesticulation.”
Today they each wear their most formal attire, which for Dustin is a short-sleeve collared shirt with expanding pit stains, for Merlin is a button-down shirt and a tie he now pulls lose from his neck, and for Shiyue is a skirt suit she’s pulling gym shorts on underneath, just in case she needs to book it later today and ditch the skirt for mobility. This is not a corporate deadline, the one they’re sure to miss today. The stakes are higher than that.
“We have to reply to Enneth,” Merlin says.
Dustin takes paper from the printer tray and inserts it into his mouth whole.
“What ethnicity even is the name Enneth? We don’t know if his offer is legit—and Dustin would you please stop eating fucking copy paper? I can hear you masticating.”
“I'm not masturb—”
“Look,” Merlin says, holding out his phone. “He’s real, some VC living in South Bay. What are we going—”
“Dustin, buy a fucking dictionary.”
“—to do, plead with Eur for mercy? Let’s reply to this guy. We need someone rich behind us or we’re spent.”
The paper disappears down Dustin’s throat with an audible gulp.
“You’re disgusting, Dustin.”
Merlin rolls between Shiyue and Dustin. “Friends, focus. I want to wake up tomorrow morning. Do you?”
Shiyue peeks over the cubicle wall again. Eur’s office walls are all glass. He paces inside it, feeling his jaw. “Guys, he’s pacing.”
When Dustin reaches for another piece of paper, Merlin seizes his arm by the wrist.
The program they’ve been asked to deliver is incomplete. What Eur promised the powers that be, whoever resides at the top of the pyramid of abuse, was a panopticon: an answer to where anyone is—anyone, like “Where is Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany?” kind of anyone—at any time, with the answer delivered in milliseconds. What it is in reality is, Dustin says, “A pile of garbage. And the pile is on fire. A pile of flaming, burning garbage is what we’ve got. A garbage infern—”
“Cut that out. You’re not helping. Shiyue, what do you say? Let’s reply.”
There is no time to discuss. The secretary approaches, summons. He leads the three of them through the maze of gray cubicle dividers to the conference room, where Eur sits at the head of the thirty-seat oblong table staring straight ahead. He does not acknowledge them as they file in.
Once they’re seated Eur begins, “I don’t think I need to remind you how this deadline relates to your wellbeing. You understand the stick. Let me tell you about the carrot.” Eur waves in the secretary who distributes brochures for an erotic Thai resort around the table. “I’ve spoken with my superiors and pulled some strings and gotten you something of an incentive. Get the voice fingerprinting online by this afternoon, and I’ll send you all here for three months. All expenses paid, as many nights of action as you want.”
Silence follows. The team trades faces over the discomfiting implication of Eur’s phrase “nights of action,” which lingers in the air like an odor. His perverse gesture of good will suggests his ass is on the line as much as theirs.
“I’d like to address another point while I have you all here. I once worked with a man named Enneth, years ago. He’s a cuck. In this industry he’s a joke, a tail-between-his-legs, pussy-footed punchline in a good-clean-Christian-fun stand-up comedy set from the late 90s. Pathetic. Just thought you should know that. You’re all dismissed.”
Back at the cubicle Shiyue puts a finger over her lips, signals to Merlin and Dustin not to say anything. She checks under the desks, in the drawers, inside all of their mice, pries off their keyboard keycaps and checks their undersides, but does not find the planted bug—if there is only one. Eur knew about Enneth somehow, but she doubts he accessed Merlin’s onion-routed, PGP-encrypted e-mail, not even the metadata of which identifies Enneth. They cannot speak here.
They fall back into their chairs and face each other. The deliberation must be silent.
Both Shiyue and Merlin give a thumbs up. Dustin shakes his head “no” at first, but when after a series of gestures and nodding it becomes clear that Shiyue and Merlin are jumping ship whether he jumps with them or not, he accedes. They will turn coats to Enneth.
In shifts they spy on Eur’s office and wait for him to go to the bathroom. After thirty minutes, he does, and they hurry out through the cubicle maze before he returns. Any time they can buy is worth it.
On the ride to the wharf Merlin replies to Enneth’s email, tells him where to find them and to find them ASAP.
They wait there for him there, at the wharf, on a couple of stone benches. It’s gray and sad outside and the fog is rolling in. Shiyue and Merlin sit in silence and Dustin streams gameplay videos on his phone.
“You need to turn that off,” Shiyue tells him.
He turns to her with an indignant, childlike expression. “Why should I? Merlin has his phone on.”
“Merlin’s phone is a custom build. I literally see a location-services icon on your top bar right now. Are you stupid?”
“Could the two of you relax for just a few—”
“Oh, I’m stupid?” Dustin stands up so he’s free to wave his arms around and emphasize his points. “I built almost the entire panopticon. We’re here because you didn’t pull your weight.”
“Excuse me, you weeby dipfuck? I wrote the entire model by myself because you couldn’t calculate a linear regression if your virility depended on it. You wrote scripts to parse datasets. Get over yourself.”
“Yeah, I wrote the scripts, which I’ll remind you they amount to 80% of the code.”
“Jesus Christ do I need to dose you two with sedatives? Enneth replied to us. He’s coming in an hour so let’s just sit here in silence with our phones off and wait.”
Dustin sits down and turns off his phone. While he doesn’t say anything in protest the act has an aspect of pout.
Shiyue does not worry whether Enneth belongs to the same payroll chain they’re trying to escape, because it doesn’t matter in the end. There is nothing she can do for herself. If Enneth cannot help them, she will die, and the others too. She exercises the hypertrophied skill she has trained over the past year: choosing what not to think about. Judging by his rigid, almost cataleptic posture on the opposite bench, Dustin does not have this skill.
In spite of the weather tourists flood the wharf, and the street performers are undeterred by heavy mist. While waiting for Enneth they hear a magician’s comedy set three times. There is a joke about how he hopes the wives passing by will allow the husbands passing by to stop and observe the magic, to which there is no punchline: this statement is itself the joke. There are jokes about how the money he makes disappear is sort of like getting married and giving a woman access to a joint bank account, and one about Mars and Venus that’s probably referential which Shiyue doesn’t understand. She abstains from comment because if she speaks, Dustin will start speaking, and that would be worse.
A man in a hooded raincoat emerges from the crowd walking in their direction, and it seems at first like he is the awaited Enneth. He isn’t. A few more people come toward them, but they all turn left into the museum. Shiyue lies back on the spare bench space. “How long’s it been, Merlin?”
“An hour and fifteen.”
“Should we email him again?”
“No. Just wait.”
Merlin is an investigator, not an engineer. He is a sitter and waiter by trade. He drives somewhere and then parks and watches for hours or days on end. Shiyue has wondered but never asked him about the risk of blood clots.
At last one of the men coming in their direction doesn’t take the left turn. He wears a light windbreaker over a suit and tie, and does not pull back his hood when he stops in front of them. “Take these,” he says without introducing himself. He hands Merlin hotel key cards. “Walk to the hotel. No rides, no transit. It’s that red-orange building, there by the one with all-glass walls. Do not go home tonight.”
Merlin pockets the cards.
“What’s the long-term plan?” Dustin asks.
“Fuck if I know. Let’s focus on today. I’ll stop by your room tonight and we can talk in detail.”
So they walk, Shiyue and Merlin side by side and Dustin falling in behind because there is no more room on the sidewalk.
Half a mile in Dustin stops, says, “I’ll catch up with you, in a bit.”
Merlin tilts his head to the side. “What does that mean?”
“I’m going to go get some stuff to bring to the hotel. Quick trip home.”
Shiyue sighs, massages her temples with her thumb and index finger.
“You live in Hayes Valley. How are you going to get there and back in, as you say, a ‘quick trip’?”
“How about you just mind your own self and I’ll meet you there, okay?”
Before Merlin can retort Dustin is jogging off toward the subway station. Their room number is written on the key cards, all of which are in Merlin’s pocket, and neither Merlin or Shiyue intends to turn their phone on. He is leaving for good whether he realizes that or not.
The hotel room has two twin beds. They sit on the floor sharing swigs of a fifth of whiskey from the mini fridge, an expensive long-aged kind that connoisseurs whiff and sip. In the first few hours Dustin does not perform the miracle of guessing the room number and knocking at the door.
In a moment of sympathy, Shiyue says, “Why don’t we send him a message with the room number?”
“The panopticon would see the message.”
Shiyue explains that no, it wouldn’t. Their patchwork of zero-days and data-extraction jobs target operating systems, not web services. They can boot up Tails and send the message from a new account unseen as long as Dustin’s machine is uncompromised.
Merlin reluctantly consents, not pretending to understand.
When they visit Dustin’s profile they find more than a direct message button. He’s online, streaming himself playing Halo with a picture-in-picture webcam feed. Neither Shiyue nor Merlin can look away from this. He had no plans to come back to the hotel. They watch in disbelief as he plays his game and tells jokes about it with a total disregard for the reality of his situation.
A knock comes at his door, and the inevitable unfolds in seconds. Dustin has not finished getting up from his chair to investigate the knocking before he is shot in the head. His body collapses out of the webcam’s frame like a dropped puppet. It then yanks the laptop and embedded webcam by the cord of the headset he didn’t manage to take off, hurling it toward the ground right beside him. The camera auto-focuses on his limp, opened face.
Shiyue holds the laptop power button until it shuts off, and doesn’t move, just sits and stares at the now-black screen.
“He was too stupid for this kind of work,” Merlin says, and grabs another fifth of whiskey from the mini fridge.