fiction xyz

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.

#nsfw

Remedios would never want to live in Sausalito but it’s a pleasant place to roll. She leans on the railing of the houseboat Caleb rents a room in, looking out at the water, trying to ignore the lingering taste of 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine on her tongue. Beside her Caleb spits.

“Oh gods that tastes terrible,” he says. It is not his first complaint this evening. October in the bay area is sweater weather, but Caleb wears a shirt unbuttoned to the fifth button out of seven, and makes occasional comments about the wind chill.

“I warned you about the taste.”

“No warning could have prepared me for that. Do people always lick the crystal off a plate? Is there another way to take it?”

“There’s lots of ways to take it.”

“Next time we gotta, like,” he says, then spits, and continues, “look up one of those ways.”

Remedios ignores his assumption of a next time. So far he’s been right about next times, but Remedios reserves, inside, the right to vanish.

“I’m getting a slice of cheese to mask the taste. Do you want one?”

“I don’t eat cheese.”

“Shit, right. Well I’ve got… uh. I’ve got Oreos. Those are vegan right?”

“Depends on the kind.”

“The dipped kind.”

“They’ve got milk.”

“Geez. What can vegans even eat…” Caleb steps inside and stumbles into some furniture on his way to the kitchen.

It’s been twenty minutes or so since they dosed the molly. Remedios last ate early in the day before her chess club’s cookout, so her stomach was near empty at the time of dose. She feels some of the first effects: distortions in her proprioception, a desire to hug herself and caress her own neck, a bubbling urge to confess a long-held feeling, any long-held feeling she can think of. Her pupils eclipse her irises.

Caleb returns with a slice of cheddar.

Remedios stares forward over the rail trying not to see the cheese but also trying not to seem conspicuous about this. The odor aerosolizes. In the her vulnerable molly-addled state, she’ll start crying if she can’t get cows and their plight in the human world off her mind. Porch lights reflecting on the water’s rippling surface remind her of bright light posts looming over an industrial farm, not one she’s seen but a vague memory of the claymation movie Chicken Run. People say molly fills users up with love for everyone and everything in the universe, in a less trippy but more profound way than acid. Remedios disagrees, thinks that’s just hype. She grabs her water bottle and opens the deck gate to step off the boat. “Let’s walk,” she says.

They say nothing on the walk but Remedios knows their experiences are asymmetrical. Caleb sometimes looks at her with a teary smile, full of love, which she tries her best to return. When she tears up he must assume it is for the same reason, a matching intensity of affection, but her tears are for something else.

Her tears are introspective tears, brought on by the oh-so-tired thought that between her and other people, other people in general, there is some un-traversable emotional chasm. In sobriety she chastises herself for feeling this way, reminds herself that all people share this trite, narcissistic delusion. But the drugs open her up to it.

Caleb stops beside her and puts a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Rem?”

“It’s just the drugs.” The tricky thing about the delusion of uniqueness is that it is vague, protean, never maturing into the specificity that would make it obvious how incorrect it is.

“You’re feeling something?”

“It’s a hallucination.”

“Everything real happens in the brain. Talk to me, Rem.”

Remedios laughs and smiles at him. Caleb’s said something smart. “You’re right, Caleb,” she says, wiping her face with her jacket sleeve. “You’re totally right.”

“Let’s sit down over here and talk.”

They sit on the side of the road, in the grass. In the twilight the details of each other’s faces are hard to make out. Crickets sing together on a kind of saw wave, all around them.

“It’s a memory that came to my mind.”

“What happened in the memory?”

“We—we don’t have to—what are you feeling right now, Caleb?”

“I’m feeling grateful to be here beside you, and eager to listen to your memory.”

Remedios laughs again. She has nerves. “It’s such an old, silly memory. But that’s what’s affecting me so much about it. It was silly, light, carefree, like nothing ever is now.”

“Nothing’s ever carefree now?”

“No. I’m so caught up in trying to figure out the right way to be, or frustrated with people close to me for not trying to figure that out for themselves. Nothing’s ever carefree. I mean, this is the first Friday night this year—and it’s October—that I haven’t spent playing chess or drilling chess tactics or analyzing games.”

Now Caleb laughs. “You do take things seriously.”

“And why don’t you, Caleb?”

Caleb lies back on the ground, and Remedios notices but doesn’t cringe about the dirt he’s getting on his shirt. He clasps his hands behind his head. “Because I’m small, Remedios. My name isn’t known all over the world like yours. I don’t have a Wikipedia page.”

“People don’t know my name all over the world.”

“Chess players do. International Master Remedios Moncada. Anyway I guess it’s not about the reputation. It’s just… I don’t think I can affect anything that matters.”

Remedios suppresses the urge to criticize his apathy, tries to see his point the way he sees it.

“Hey, Rem.”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you play chess so seriously?”

“I love chess.”

After adjusting on the ground a few times and failing to find comfort, Caleb sits back up. “Tell me about the memory.”

“Hmm... I was four. My mom was driving me to my first day of kindergarten. When we pulled into the parking lot I looked up at this huge Catholic church, towering huge—six stories of brick with some spires rising higher—a big imposing building. I told my mom, ‘This can’t be a kindergarten!’

“And she said, ’Why’s that Remmi?’

“This conversation was in Spanish of course. I’m translating for you.”

“Thank you for translating.”

“Anyway I told her it couldn’t be the kindergarten because it was too big. I don’t remember what she said after that. What I do remember is that she didn’t warn me that they spoke English inside. We moved to the US a few years before, and I just knew English as a language other people spoke. Our church, our grocery store, our doctor, everyone I’d ever met here spoke Spanish—not the Columbian kind, but close enough—so I assumed kindergarten would too. I screamed at the poor boy running the front desk, some high schooler with a work hour I think, demanding he tell me in Spanish where my class was. I yelled ‘Habla Espanol! Habla Espanol!’ at anyone who made eye contact with me.”

“Oh. Habla, not hablas?”

“Are you—are you really asking me that?”

“I’m just wondering why habla. I took Spanish in high school and they—“

“It’s habla. Can I continue?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, whatever. The point is… the point is that’s when everything stopped being easy, maybe. Or it would have stopped being easy no matter what and I’m on introspective drugs. Either way the begged question is: can it become easy for me, now? Is it possible to let things feel natural again the way they did before I had to give up my language?”

Caleb has nothing to say about this, just stares back at her, beaming affection.

The mosquitoes start to bite. They walk back to the houseboat and eventually fall asleep on the couch watching unnarrated nature documentaries.

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