A story about Silicon Valley and ideas
Author’s note: In 2012, having just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Scotland, and while working as the CTO of a tiny startup, I did what anyone would do: I took the world I found myself in and wrote a short novel about it. It was fiction, but also a truer picture of my state of mind than I cared to admit — and some of its themes have ripened in the intervening years. In a world where social networks help swing general elections, this feels more relevant (and, hopefully, funnier). So here, for the first time in public, written under a certain kind of newly-arrived distress, is a novel about Silicon Valley. And dragons.
Enjoy. Or, don’t. Either way, here it is.
1. Tell me about Loom.
Call me, maybe.
A few years ago — it doesn’t matter exactly how long, and I have a legal need to protect my privacy, so let’s just go with “a few” — having exactly zero dollars in my checking account and nothing really going on at home, my girlfriend having left me for another guy and other such kitchen sink distractions, I figured I’d head to California and see the part of the world where knowing your way around an Integrated Development Environment isn’t seen as an enormous character flaw.
I run; that’s what I do when things get bad. And in this case, I decided to run to a place that changed my life. There’s nothing particularly surprising in this — generations of geeks have upped and left to seek fame, and fortune, and peace. Mecca is just a Southwest flight away.
Look, it’s kind of a long story, but I’ve been on hold listening to this song for at least an ice age, maybe two, and you’re here, and neither of us has anything really better to do, so, hey. Stop me when you get bored.
Have you ever been to San Francisco? It’s got the foundation of a beautiful town, spread with a layer of dirt and poverty and homelessness, heroin chic without the chic, and then spread in turn with cocktails, single-origin organic espresso, innovation and design. You can walk into a cafe and walk out with a check for forty million dollars half an hour later, and then turn the wrong corner and wind up losing it all down the barrel of a gun.
Take a walk up Market Street, from the palatial white Ferry Building down by the shoreline (which looks like a cricket pavilion, like it’s keeping score). It’ll take you maybe an hour, tops. You start with the tourist bait you’ve seen in the movies — antique trams and wooden trolley cars that cost $5 a ride, set against palm trees, roads that disappear up impossible hills, and stalls selling incredible food made by people who care what you put into your mouth. There’s a concrete square with a market selling handmade jewelry and little bits of art, where Occupy set up shop for a bit last winter and had one of the best parties I’ve ever seen.
Then move up. Boom! You’re in the Financial District, shiny glass and big suits. Nothing to see here. Or eat; I’ve tried. Google’s somewhere in the mix. And I’ve heard Mozilla’s roof terrace is pretty neat, which isn’t bad going for an open source non-profit.
Boom! There’s the Apple Store, which looks like an alien cube descended from Jony Ive’s seamless motherspace somewhere above the clouds. You can smell the nerds: my people. Turn left and you’re in SoMa — South of Market, but the abbreviation makes it sound like a tres haute art museum — and you’ve got to take a long hard look at the blank expanses of warehouse space before you realize that the startups and companies inside them are anything but anonymous. Instagram. Boom! Wired. Boom! Say Media. IGN. TechCrunch. Boom! Boom! Boom!
Back on Market. Head up. Suddenly the startups and the bloggers have faded back and the people on the streets look like they’ve been through and seen things you couldn’t even imagine; not with your silver-trayed upbringing. The cafes have all given way to hotels that charge by the hour and movie theaters that don’t show films from the usual circuit, if you get my meaning. Someone I know saw a body the first time they walked through. I don’t blame the people — they’re just trying to get by, without much help, and from a standing start that’s waist-deep in a bad situation. But if you ever needed proof that what we call civilization is hair-thin, there’s a fifty square block area in the City you need to check out.
I hear there are some nice eateries hidden in the muck. Gentrification continues apace.
And then you’re in Hayes Valley, Upper Market, the Castro and the Mission. Beautiful wooden houses with Victorian stoops — you’ve seen Mrs. Doubtfire, and if you haven’t, you should, don’t let Robin Williams put you off — running down gentle slopes. I mean, sure, it’ll set you back $2200 a month for a one-bedroom cupboard on the third floor of someone’s decidedly un-earthquake-retrofitted rat-house, but if you’ve got the bank, it looks like a great place to live.
But the Mission. Now, that’s what we’re really interested in.
The Native American Yelamu tribe lived there for over two thousand years before the Spanish brought over enough disease to make sure they were killed off inside two generations. The settlers who lived there in their place used to hold bull and bear fights, duels, and baseball games (one of these things is not like the others). There was a zoo. When the Gold Rush hit, Italians, Irish and Germans showed up like the setup to a joke. In the twentieth century, it became the home of Central Americans fleeing oppression in their home countries — and then artists, punks, gangs, and tech startups.
The burritos are seriously great. La Taqueria, just above 24th Street, I’m telling you.
Once upon a time, Silicon Valley meant Silicon Valley: a stretch of warehouses and offices in the towns bordering El Camino Real, a road that runs the fifty-two miles from San Francisco to San Jose. Historically, it connected the Spanish Missions in California; now, it connects Yahoo to McAfee to Fry’s to Del Taco to Sizzler. A different kind of worship, I’ll grant you, but worship nonetheless. The people who live there mostly love it, but that’s not where the action is anymore. When the hipsters started writing code at the end of the nineties, they started a trend that pushed all the new companies north, and now there are more startups being created in the Mission than the whole of Silicon Valley.
And that was before the dragons.
Okay, so I’m getting ahead of myself. But only slightly: the dragons are kind of the main event, and anyway, this must be the fifty thousandth time I’ve heard this Carlie Rae track, so you’ll have to forgive me if I jump backwards and forwards a bit. And I’m a little nervous to be talking about this, given that it ruined me and all. Not that that’s your fault. I’ll try and keep it together. And we’re all so used to the dragons now that they’re old news; just like it’s hard to remember what smartphones were like before the iPhone, it’s kind of difficult to remember what it was like before we started coming out with dragons.
Dragons. It was a whole new startup paradigm. And it opened the door to so much more.
2. I’m selling these fine leather jackets.
The day the dragons appeared, Hacker News went crazy.
You’ve got to remember, this was new. We’d had thousands of years of science, of having to adhere to the physical rules of the universe. It was limiting, the boards argued, but the limitations imposed by physics allowed for a kind of creativity in adversity. Now the physical rules didn’t apply, and the universe was a blank slate. It was daunting, and not knowing what the rules were or even if there were any rules meant that the whole market would have to be redrawn. A lot of people argued that there was no need for government, and we should put our trust in warlocks.
I’d only been in San Francisco three days, and was still getting used to the place. I hadn’t found myself a job, let alone a place to sleep. I’d been couch surfing, which was cheaper than the hotels in the area, but I was still spending more money than I had making meals for my hosts and making sure I didn’t overstay my welcome. Sure, it was the geek Mecca, but I hadn’t expected competition to be this tough.
The first dragon blipped into existence above the pirate supply store at 826 Valencia at about three o’ clock in the afternoon: a baby one, about the size and temperament of a Jack Russell terrier. It just kind of skitted about from side to side in the air, until eventually someone walked past with a German Shepherd and there was an altercation that left the smell of singed fur hanging in the air for days.
The police scrambled, of course, and didn’t know what to make of it. Mayor Lee remained quiet, except to say that people should keep their dogs indoors — what else could he do? — but as more and more dragons started blipping in, above stores and offices and even the actual Spanish Mission over on Delores — it became harder and harder to hide. These were actual, bona fide, fire-breathing dragons, with scales, and nostrils, and teeth.
Within hours, Reddit had turned it into a meme, all Impact text captions above pictures of angry-looking flying lizards, flying lizards curled up in their nests, and terrified cats peering around corners. People found all kinds of ways to make the scary revelation that everything they knew was wrong into something funny and cute that was easy to file away. But I saw it differently.
Truthfully, I saw it as an opportunity.
This required preparation. Wikipedia has a pretty good overview page on dragons, which I made sure to memorize, but I wanted to go deep. I Amazon Primed a pile of books — the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulebook; the complete George R.R. Martin set; How to Train Your Dragon; four different books all called Dragonslayer; The Lean Startup by Eric Ries — and spent a week reading through them, cover to cover.
References to dragons have been a part of culture for almost as long as there’s been culture. The Mesopotamians, Hittites and Canaanites all talked about them in one form or another, and they emerged more or less simultaneously in the folklore of civilizations across the world. And now here they were, blipping into existence above hipster storefronts in the Mission. I figured that across all the stories and the references, there had to be some common truth; something I could learn and master and use.
That is to say, use to get a job. Maybe more.
I hardly slept the whole week, except for an hour here and there, and the kind of mid-afternoon powernaps that Tim Ferriss said would let you work eighteen hour days without losing focus.
Six days and fourteen hours after I took delivery, I updated LinkedIn.
Dragon expert? Dragon consultant? Dragon practitioner?
And I waited.
3. Come get some.
It took 45 minutes for the first headhunters to email me, chirpy and optimistic about my potential as a dragon ninja in their uniquely inspirational rock star startup, and another twenty minutes before I was on my cell phone talking to one of them, and fifteen seconds after that before I started to regret my strategy.
“So you’re a dragon ninja?” He was matter of fact; brusque, even. His shortness completely took me aback; he just came out and asked. I think I actually gulped.
I paused for a moment, my head banging with questions. Do I retract? Was it too forward? Is it obvious that dragon ninja doesn’t make any real sense, certainly not a week after the dragons have started to show up, and I’ve just read some books that people have written on the subject?
Screw it. “Yes,” I replied.
“Awesome,” said the headhunter, his voice slick with freeze-dried assurance. “That’s exactly what we need. My client is an awesome new startup with an exciting team that gets things done. I think they could be the next Facebook. Twilio for dragons, as a service. When can I get you in the office to talk with the CEO? Can I schedule you in for a phone interview in half an hour?”
Half an hour? Things move quickly in Silicon Valley. My mouth suddenly felt very dry. “Sure,” I said.
“Great. I’ll have him call you in twenty minutes. Good luck.”
Click. The phone went dead.
I sat where I had been standing, on the linoleum kitchen floor of my couch surfing house of the day, surrounded by books and Chinese takeout boxes and fear. I had been looking for a job — it was my whole reason for moving out here — but if I got it, I’d be jumping off a cliff and sewing my bullshit parachute on the way down. I had read the books, but it meant nothing. I knew nothing. But on the other hand, what was the worst that could happen?
The phone rang, fifteen minutes too early.
I answered: “Nicholas Cage.”
I know what you’re thinking. Let me stop here for a moment and set things straight. Just for the record, I am not Nicolas Cage the actor, who you might remember from Adaptation and that movie with the bees. My first name has an “h” in it. Nicolas Cage doesn’t have an “h”. Also, even though our names are almost the same, I am nothing like Nicolas Cage.
“Hi Nicholas,” the voice on the other end said. “I’m Brian, from Frodeo. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Great. So as our technical staffing coordinator mentioned, we’re on the lookout for a PHP maven — and it sounds like you fit the bill.”
Ah. “Actually, I was told you were looking for a dragon ninja.”
I could almost hear Brian raise an eyebrow over the phone. “A dragon ninja?”
“Yes,” I said.
“A ninja for dragons?”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“I see. Well, thanks for your time.” Click.
The thing about startups that they tell you again and again is that you can’t give up. You might be staring failure in the face, but failure makes you who you are. You learn. You grow. You become more efficient, more skilled, and more likely to reach your goals. In some ways, each failure is another step on the road towards victory.
The phone rang again. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Nicholas Cage?”
“Awesome. I loved you in Bad Lieutenant. Hey, I need a dragon ninja. When can you start?”
“Great. See you then.”
4. Run, you pigeons. It’s Robert Frost.
Herebe was based in a red brick loft space on Market, just up from the Financial District, together with three other startups staffed with stern-looking children in Warby Parker spectacles and Zuckerberg hoodies. The doorman downstairs was friendly, and didn’t seem much like security at all. Pretty sure I could have told him I was an Al Qaeda operative here to deliver righteous justice to the godless heathens and he would have let me go right on up.
Jason, Herebe’s CEO, had the body of a twenty-year-old and the mouth of a middle-aged man. Somehow his features didn’t fit on his face together, like he was a Mad Magazine fold-in of himself. The slogan on his T-shirt — “WE MAKE CLOUD DRAGONS”, set in Helvetica, of course — served as a caption. Herebe’s other employees — there seemed to be three of them, although it was hard to tell when one startup stopped and another one began — sat silently typing in fancy-looking Italian chairs. The combination of oversized headphones and thin, giant screens gave the impression of three 1970s radio DJs sitting at vanities, ready for their makeup.
“Here’s what we need to do,” Jason was explaining. “Dragons are awesome: flying lizards that breathe fire and are blipping into existence all over the place. I think this is the piece that everyone else has missed. Dragons are a renewable resource, and we’re going to put them in the cloud.”
“How does that work?” I asked.
“Dragons in the cloud,” Jason reaffirmed.
“But the dragons — ”
“ — in the cloud.”
“But the dragons in the cloud. What do you do with them?”
“You work with them in the cloud.”
“To what end?”
“To have dragons in the cloud. You can have unlimited dragons. In the cloud.”
“With an API.”
“But what for?”
“We’ll pay you one hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year, plus substantial stock options over a three year vesting period, with a twenty-five thousand dollar signing bonus, gym membership, three free meals a day, and unlimited car rentals. We’re making dragons in the cloud.”
“I’m glad to be part of the team,” I said.
Jason turned to the rest of Herebe’s corner of the office. “Hey, you guys!” he bellowed. “Nicholas Cage has joined the team!”
The team looked up at me, silently, in unison.
Jason turned back to me. “So,” he said, lowering his voice again, “let me show you our secret sauce.”
He led me through the office, past the stern-looking children working on something obviously important, to a grey set of double doors. Office paper was taped to their windows so it was impossible to see in. A single Post-It read, “conference room out of service”.
“After you,” Jason said.
Gently, I pushed the door open and walked in. Immediately, I was hit by the stench: it smelled of burning, and cardamom, and something huskily meaty that I couldn’t identify.
“This is where the magic happens,” Jason said.
It was a relatively nice-looking conference room; lush carpeting underneath a pine conference table surrounded by swivel chairs with metal arm rests. At one end of the room was a coffee station; at the other sat a large-screen Samsung television set. Cables dangled out of the middle of the table like entrails. And where the far wall should have been, blank and anonymous like the others, was a shimmering abyss lined with golden, revolving clouds that descended forever like a vortex into infinity. Strands of lightning crawled from the epicenter, touching the clouds around the spiral before fading away into nothingness.
“Listen,” Jason said.
I stood for a minute, filtering out the sounds of the office behind me, of the air conditioning system, of the traffic and people out on the street, and of my own heartbeat. Could it be?
I listened again, cleared my head. There was no mistaking it. The vortex was breathing.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Beats me,” Jason said. “But we’re getting a pretty good deal. The landlord doesn’t have any idea this is here, and we’ve got a year lease on the office. So that’s our runway to turn this into a business: magical vortex as a service. Dragons are only the beginning.”
“Only the beginning?”
“Sure, everyone’s familiar with the dragons. And let’s be clear, the dragons are cool. Really cool. But I’ve got more ambitious long-term plans. The vortex does a lot more. It just depends.”
“On how much we feed it. You’ve got to use magic to make magic.”
I stood on the edge of the vortex, unable to find the words, unsure what to ask or how to react, or even if any of this was real. My head span with the clouds.
“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. I’m telling you: we could be the next Google.”
The lightning crawled on.
5. All out of gum.
“I don’t know how many others there are,” Jason said, standing in the entrance to the elevator after I’d taken a walk around the block and caught my breath. “But this one’s ours. You can’t see it from the outside; it doesn’t show up if you take a thermal image of the building, and I haven’t checked with a Geiger counter, but I bet it doesn’t show up on that either. It’s practically invisible, and nobody knows it’s here. And, oh man, we gotta find a way to make money out of it.”
I leaned against the elevator wall. Jason hit “5”, and we juddered upwards. “Did it make the dragons?”
“Yes,” Jason said. “At least, we think so. The first dragon — the little dinkus over on Valencia — was a complete surprise. But after that, we were able to reliably create more. It’s actually quite a simple process.”
“What else can it make?”
“We don’t exactly know yet, but I figure we can work that out as we go. Right now, dragons are hot, and people are going to want to know how they can get their own. We can position ourselves as a B2B dragon provider in the overall business stack. Just think about the implications for defense, the home pet market, transport. The dragon market could be fifty billion dollars. If we can capture just one per cent of it, we’ll be immensely profitable.”
The doors opened straight out into the loft with a wobbly swish.
“Let me introduce you to the team,” Jason said. He led me over to the Herebe corner, and gestured for the team to take off their headphones. The faintest hint of dubstep hung in the air.
“This is Nick,” Jason said.
The team looked up at me in unison, and stood upright in a kind of line, arms outstretched, to greet me.
“Hey,” the first Herebe vanity DJ said. “I’m Brian. I work dev ops.”
“Hey,” the second Herebe vanity DJ said. “I’m Brian. I work dev ops.”
“Hey,” the third Herebe vanity DJ said. “I’m Brian. I work dev ops.”
“They’re all called Brian, and they all work dev ops,” Jason clarified with a smile.
“Hey,” I said, shaking each Brian’s hand in turn. “I’m Nick. I’m a dragon ninja.” And brace for ridicule —
“Ohhh,” the Brians said, simultaneously. “We’ve been needing one of those,” Brian One added.
Okay, so, time out. Lest you think I was oblivious to the absurdity of the situation, I’m here to assure you that I wasn’t. Not at all. But my disbelief had been suspended since I’d been introduced to the vortex in the conference room, and although there was a needling in my gut that suggested there was something more than a little bit strange about this group of people, even despite the circumstances, I made a split second decision to go with it. Make mistakes fast; correct faster. That’s what they tell you. Anyway, competition was fierce in San Francisco, and I needed the paycheck, Brians be damned.
We hung out for the rest of the day, talking about subscription models for dragons and how we ought to get a venture capital round while we were still pre-revenue so nobody could tie the potential value of our cloud dragon as a service business to the actual value we were capturing from customers. Jason said that he had raised a round of angel investment, which was typically far less focused on financial returns; angels were often just excited to be a part of a startup. For venture capital, we would have to create financial plans and model the profit and loss of the company — even if, because we hadn’t taken any revenue yet, those numbers were based on guesses, anecdotal evidence and optimism. It seemed odd to me that so much money could be based on what were euphemistically called projections, and seemed more to do with fitting made-up numbers to the shape of graphs that everyone thought would impress potential investors the most.
When I left that evening, a question niggled at me; something that Jason had said that I hadn’t followed up on, but suddenly seemed like the most important question on earth. One that could make the difference between a harmless business and something that could be harmful in ways I could only begin to imagine.
As I walked down Market to my couch surfing host’s apartment at the end of the day, hands firmly in my pockets with my coat buttoned up to protect against the foggy cold, I turned it over and over in my head. What were they feeding the vortex to produce the dragons?
I mean, it had to be fine, right?
Had to be.
6. Ready player one.
Money in my pocket.
I had been drifting for a while, and hadn’t had cash in the bank since I’d quit my job and left home, and that wasn’t really what I would have called cash as such. It certainly wasn’t bank; just enough to keep me going from month to month, eating cheap food and living the kind of life my friends enjoyed, scraping by post-university while they figured out who they were and what they were doing. Pizza and movie money.
This, now, was different. My bank balance didn’t seem real, and I had to log back into my online banking system and suffer through the security theater (“What’s your mom’s maiden name? When did your first pet die in the street?”) a bunch of times before I decided it was safe enough to trust as fact.
And that was when it became real. Forget the dragons and the vortex and the dev ops team who were all called Brian; just being in the City, seeing all these things I’d seen in movies and blogs around me in three dimensions, just that was unreal enough. It was like a whimsy of a dream, until it wasn’t, and I was actually freaking here in freaking San Francisco living the freaking Silicon Valley life, with enough money blinking at me over the web to afford a place to myself and all the Fiji water I could drink.
Here’s the thing, though. Even when you have a one hundred and twenty thousand dollar salary and twenty-five thousand dollar signing bonus under your belt, apartment hunting in the San Francisco Bay Area is an adventure in scammers, idiots, hovels and pain, with Craigslist its greasy ringmaster.
You get studio, I get closet, read one advertisement. I’m a hard-partying naval veteran who loves to cook but hates to do the dishes. You get to sleep in my studio apartment, I’ll sleep in the walk-in closet. Great views over Noe Valley.
Granite counter tops. Fully paid utilities. Security guard from 5pm to 5am. Live security camera at all times. Tenderloin. 300 square feet. $1500.
Free apartment. All I ask is that you snuggle with me sometimes, and pay your share of the utilities.
I’m not the snuggling kind.
I figured I had three options. The first: pay a not insubstantial percentage of my not insubstantial salary on just rent, and live the life I’d always lived, in exactly the kind of apartment I’d always lived in, but paying the kind of money that would put me in a mahogany-floored mansion drinking Cristal anywhere else in the world. I could do that. I’d still be close to work, and close to all the San Francisco parties, but I’d be bringing bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale to those parties.
The second: share. For the same money as a 300 square foot apartment in the Tenderloin, I could have a big room in a shared house somewhere uptown. I’d meet people, for sure, and there’d be the kind of community I could just kind of plug into. New friends, a ready-made social life, communal dinners, inside information about the City.
Downside: I’d have to live with other people.
So, the East Bay then.
The San Francisco Bay Area is made of lots of different cities that all congeal into each other, except where water or garbage forms an effective geological barrier. So, on the west side, you’ve got San Francisco running down to San Jose, with all the Silicon Valley cities you’ve probably heard of like Palo Alto, Mountain View and Redwood City forming a kind of warehouse-and-strip-mall spine between San Francisco’s head and San Jose’s rear quarters.
On the east side, it turns out it’s a different story. Here’s my research, borne from three hours in a Zipcar driving around hoping I made the right decision to skip the insurance premium.
You start up at Richmond, which is crippled by poverty at the hands of an institutionally racist society, but also has a fancy marina and some pretty cool views out over the water, so there’s that.
And then you hit El Cerrito. El Cerrito’s kind of an interesting place: a little bit of the kind of run-for-your-life edge bleeds over from Richmond, but mixed with some of the kinds of hidden little gems that feel like they might explode into glittering flowers one day without warning and make everybody’s heads turn. There’s a Costco and a Trader Joe, which means you’re fixed for bulk peanut butter cups and two-dollar wine. That’s not to be sniffed at. But take a wrong turn on the way to Costco and you hit the Pacific East Mall.
Forget the dragons; the Pacific East Mall alone feels like it blipped into existence from half a world away. It’s an entire shopping mall filled with Asian stores, supermarkets, and restaurants. Almost everyone shopping and working there is Asian, and walking around felt like interloping. This place belonged to those communities. But the smells and the colors and the vibe of the place meant that there was no way I was going to keep myself away, wherever I landed. San Francisco? I’d drive across the bridge. East Bay? Hey, I’d be close. Giving it all up and heading back east? I’d fly back for regular visits. There is a dim sum buffet in the supermarket. All supermarkets should have a dim sum buffet.
But I digress.
Below El Cerrito? That’s Albany. It looks like El Cerrito, but Yelp tells me there’s a bar where they make their own tonic water and give out free stew on Tuesdays because the taco truck next door takes the day off. There’s a vintage bowling alley, which I made a note to drag some friends to as soon as I made any (maybe the Brians). And set back, behind all the stores and the great big nubbin of a hill that looks over the freeway across to the water, is the Albany Bulb: a clusterhunk of trash and debris that formed, unchecked, over decades and has grown over into sand dunes and trees, water lapping at it from three sides. Dumping stopped in 1987, and people live here now. There’s a whole homeless community, off-roading it away from the world, who have taken the jutting concrete and industrial crap from their backyard and turned it into sculptures and art. Incredible figures loom over the sand, pointing back at civilization, like they’re laughing at it. I know the people who live there do so out of adversity, but then again, I can see why it might be attractive.
Berkeley sits like a bubble of different amidst all this. Its old, Victorian, wooden houses sit too close to the enormous trees — and probably pay for it in rats — and inside them sit the people who fought for equality and a different kind of world in the sixties, except they’re now fighting for parking spaces and quiet neighborhoods. I kind of feel like they’re my people, in a way, and in another way they seem almost trapped, as if they were sure the whole world would catch up and take on their values, and it never quite did. They changed the world, I don’t doubt that, but as I walked around, it felt like there was almost a quiet anger that other people hadn’t woken up and transformed their thinking, their ways of life.
Take People’s Park, which was created by activists who reclaimed a piece of derelict land from the university. It became a flashpoint for the whole progressive movement: the local police fought them with buckshot. Ronald Reagan, who was Governor of California at the time, sent in the National Guard to deal with the protestors, and the police were discovered to be removing their badges and uniforms, dressing in Halloween costumes, and running into the park to beat people with impunity. “If it takes a bloodbath,” Reagan said, “let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” The university held a referendum, and the students voted to keep the park. It was a victory of community over establishment; a sign that the counterculture had real power. Yet today, it sits dirty and forgotten. Ill-looking homeless people take drugs on the grass.
But progressive people — and I don’t mean this in a flippant way, or at least, not an entirely flippant way — know how to live. They have great food. They live in great houses. They’re educated and drink good coffee and have conversations about politics and philosophy until two in the morning. They’re the kind of people I would like to be if I was smarter, and being in Berkeley makes me feel smarter. So that’s a point for Berkeley. Not to mention the food and the music scene and the easy BART hop across to the City.
Emeryville, meanwhile, is like Berkeley except it has the city ordinances to allow businesses to grow there. Pixar is there (I hear they have a big bouncing desk lamp in their backyard). They’ve got Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe, which one of the guys from Green Day set up and named after a song called Rudie Can’t Fail by the Clash, and will do you a milkshake with Guinness in it, which has to be worth a a point or two in the grand scheme of things.
And then Oakland. Okay, so it’s the fourth most dangerous city in the entire United States. Gertrude Stein said “the trouble with Oakland is, there’s no there there,” or some other witty phrase that boils down to “it sucks”. It was apparently some kind of cultural hub in the early twentieth century, and then organized criminals descended on it and almost literally leveled it with heroin and violence.
But with all that, it feels like there’s life there. Despite everything, it feels like San Francisco — with all its bars, and art, and geeks and music — but at half the price, and with more real humanity bleeding through its veins, or at least more than in the Financial District and SoMa.
And all of this — all of it, from Richmond down to Oakland — takes place in just ten miles, down a single bus route. There’s more further south, of course, from Oakland down to Fremont, but who cares? I didn’t even try. Alameda and Hayward could be made of gold and diamonds for all I know, because I stopped when I saw the Night Lights by Jack London Square, the Smoke BBQ joint built into the side of a car wash in Berkeley, and the cocktail list at the Hotsy Totsy Club in Albany.
Are you getting me? The East Bay, for my money — and, let’s be clear, we are talking about my money — is where it’s at.
7. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
So, the dragons.
“Here’s the deal, Nick,” Jason said, when I walked back into the office the morning after I’d put a deposit down on an apartment in Oakland. “I think we might have a problem with the dragons.”
“What kind of problem?”
“Well, we can spawn them okay. We just need to feed the right stuff into the vortex, and out comes a dragon, at the size we need it, wherever we need it to be. That’s awesome. We can hook an API right up to that, and people can write Ruby scripts or what have you to summon dragons in the cloud. You know what kind of scripts; you’re a nerd. I don’t, really. But scripts. Mission fulfilled. Hooray.”
I nodded. Application Programming Interfaces — APIs — are special gateways that allow third-party computer programs to interact with your software. Mobile applications talk to web services via APIs, for example. Applications post to Facebook via its API.
An API for Herebe would allow any computer program in the world to create a dragon, programatically, at any time. We could charge the application developer on a per-dragon basis, and they could choose whether or not to pass the cost onto the customer.
“The problem is simply this: we don’t know how to kill them.”
I nodded again.
“They seem to be immortal. It sounds insane, but God knows the Army’s tried to put them down, the Navy too, maybe, and it doesn’t look like it can be done. Once they’ve come to life, they’re here for good. So we have to get our heads around the fact that at some point we’re going to have a critical mass of immortal dragons. And I was hoping you’d be able to help me with this bit, because I’m having trouble getting to grips with some of the detail, and really, this is your area of expertise. You’re our dragon ninja.”
“We need to build this into our business model.”
“Into our business model how, exactly?” I asked.
“Well, here’s the thing,” Jason said. “We need to find a way to represent this in our spreadsheets, and I’ve been having trouble doing that. Unlimited immortal dragons are great for us, but we need to find a way to charge for them on a recurring basis. Can you help me do that?”
I looked at him, my mouth forming its own vortex of silence before I remembered myself: dragon ninja. This was my area of expertise.
“Great. And by the way,” his mouth formed the kind of smile that comes with gun metal eyes, “I need you to do this by tomorrow. I’ve landed a meeting with a handful of top-tier investors — seriously high-level guys — and I’ve lined them up back-to-back for meetings in the morning. I need to be able to impress them. Can you work on that for me?”
“Sure. Of course. I’ll get you a report this afternoon.”
I left Jason and walked past the Brians to my desk. I’d taken a standard-issue pine office desk, which I guessed had come as part of the office rental package, and assembled an IKEA Lack table on top of it. I think they’re meant to be shoe racks or entertainment centers or something. The important thing is that they’re like twenty dollars. The blogs call it a ghetto standing desk, and I heard that every hour you sit down takes minutes off your life, so, voila. It’s like a carbon offset for my Red Bull addiction.
My Red Bull addiction was formidable. And I was only a few days into the startup.
8. Frontier: Elite II.
There’s only one way to do effective research that I know of: Skrillex, Red Bull, and Mozilla Firefox with the search box set to Wikipedia.
Incredibly, there isn’t a lot of reliable information about dragons on the Internet. Wikipedia’s “dragon” page is four thousand eight hundred and thirty-three words long; by way of comparison, its entry for “representative democracy” is one thousand five hundred and fifty words long.
How, exactly, you should go about killing a dragon, unfortunately, is woefully underwritten on the wikis. There are lots of stories about killing dragons, but the mechanics are left to the imagination. I mean, in most of the stories, they use a sword, but whether this is technically required is left open. In the 21st century, could it be a chainsaw, or a high-powered laser? Or is there something otherworldly you should be using, like silver bullets or holy water?
In startups, when you don’t know something, the easiest way to proceed is to hypothesize and test. I decided that, to begin with, we didn’t need to know how to kill all the dragons; we just needed to eliminate one, however small and however barely we got there. We needed to figure out if we had a hope in hell of doing it at all.
I walked over to the whiteboard and wrote down the plan:
GOAL: FIND MINIMALLY KILLABLE DRAGON.
- OBTAIN DRAGONS (SMALL)
- KILL THEM ALL.
Those question marks were the kicker. Once we’d obtained a dragon — by spontaneously generating it in the middle of our office, I had to assume, or carting an existing one in from somewhere in the City — how would we contain it? How would we begin testing methods of eliminating them, without being cruel to the dragons or, worse, falling afoul of cruelty laws and getting the company fined?
I decided to ask the Internet.
I logged onto Reddit, a discussion and link-sharing community that could be as brutal as it could be helpful. Reddit is split into Subreddits, which are separate discussion communities that effectively have their own governance and rules; extremely popular links and discussions rise to the Reddit front page. Because it has such a large and emotionally engaged audience, replies can run the gamut from intelligent and inspiring to forehead-slapping fratboy asinine messages that leave you questioning your place in the evolutionary chain.
There was, indeed, a dragons Subreddit.
How can I contain a dragon? I anonymously posted, and waited.
This is how expertise works in the 21st century: you use the web as your outboard brain. As long as you know the right sites to query, and can use Google like a pro, you can learn anything you need to. The entirety of human knowledge is at your fingertips, which is great if you’re, say, trying to pass yourself off as being ninja good at a subject you only just learned about.
It also has plenty of resources about how to build a great API. Next to the plan, I drew a line and started to write down the requirements for the Herebe Dragons Application Programming Interface.
HEREBE DRAGONS API: REQUIREMENTS
- Highly available (dragons cannot go down!)
- Anyone can sign up to write applications with the API immediately
- Full CRUD (Create, Read, Update and Delete) capabilities for each dragon you create
- Not SOAP
SOAP — the Simple Object Access Protocol — is anything but clean. It’s an archaic way of developing APIs that was originally revolutionary, but is now only used by application developers who hate you and want to make things as difficult as possible. I had worked for companies that had been talked into writing SOAP APIs before, and the experience had left me full of rage and violence. SOAP is a horrible excuse for a technology, usually espoused by managers and can’t-dos. Although the API development would ultimately be up to the Brians, I figured I’d try and take SOAP off the table now in order to make our lives easier in the long run.
But that was a no-brainer. No, CRUD was the four letter acronym that worried me: Create, Read, Update and Delete. In any powerful API, you should be able to do all of those things with the objects you’re dealing with. If your API is centered around documents, you should be able to create, read, update and delete documents. If your API is centered around dragons, you should be able to create, read, update and delete dragons.
Creating dragons? We could do that. At this stage, that was proven technology.
Reading dragons, which in this context meant getting information about their size, strength, color and other characteristics? I was pretty sure we could do that.
Updating dragons might not be possible; I’d have to ask the Brians. But we could certainly feed them, and I had a hunch that the kind of feed we gave them would affect how they grew and behaved. So we could at least sort of do that.
Deleting dragons was the issue. Taking a dragon that was out there in the wild, and killing it.
I checked my browser. Nothing from Reddit, yet.
I sighed and posted again, this time to Quora, a question and answer community frequented by startup founders and know-it-alls.
And got my first reply fifteen seconds later.
My new apartment in Oakland looked out over Jack London Square; if I stood up and peered out the window, I could look at the people milling around by the water, checking out the menus at the overpriced fish restaurants and wondering if they should spring for a ticket to see some jazz musician at Yoshi’s. It was a buzzing concrete patch of ambling tourist ambition. But if I sat down, I could see the sky, and in the distance, the cargo cranes at the West Oakland ports.
The cranes looked like the discarded exoskeletons of giant dogs, their silhouettes a looming invasion against the night sky. George Lucas used them as the inspiration for the AT-ATs — the lumbering four-legged people carriers in the Star Wars movies. The Bay Area sometimes feels like a science fiction landscape where reality has settled into the nooks and crannies like a fungus. Lucas also used the Bay Area Rapid Transit train cars in THX 1138, his debut feature film, and the announcers there sound eerily like Imperial Stormtroopers. Left to their own devices, everyone here wants to live in the future and create amazing things that change the whole of reality. Doing laundry and paying bills and having relationships are annoyances. Eventually, someone will innovate around them.
My Quora contact had said that he wanted to meet me in person, late at night, at the edge of the Square. I was dubious, not least because his answer — I know how — would have been downvoted to oblivion if anyone else had actually been paying attention to the question. It wasn’t useful. But at the same time, the mystery intrigued me; why so secretive? He could have received a ton of karma points for going into depth on the board, so there had to be a real reason why he couldn’t talk about it openly. That screamed “competitive advantage” to me. Secret knowledge that only Herebe would know.
The air had turned cold. I pulled on an overcoat I’d had delivered from Zappos the day before, and ventured into the darkness.
My Quora contact was waiting by the water, just as he said he would be, wearing a red Welsh dragon pin. His scarf was wrapped over his mouth, and trailed behind him in the breeze. A pair of round, thin-rimmed glasses and a bald head peeked over.
“Thank you for meeting me,” I said.
“Meeting is easy. Making it meaningful is hard,” he said, holding out his hand. I passed him one hundred dollars in crisp twenty dollar bills; the price of research and development. “Please, let us walk,” he said, after counting through the money. “We can proceed.” He had an interesting accent; Eastern European, maybe. His English was labored, as if he was struggling to construct the next word of each sentence while he was saying the preceding one.
We began to stroll around the waterside, slowly.
He pointed out towards the water. “You see this water?”
“Yes,” I said. “The San Francisco Bay.”
“There is magic here,” he said. “It is all around us. In the water. In the hills. In the people. In the air, even.”
“I’m beginning to understand that,” I said.
“It is not a good magic. Powerful, yes. Spectacular. But good? No, not at all.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t think. I know. There is much good, but there is no mistaking that there is much that is bad, too. I feel the evil here. It occupies every dark corner it can.”
Lunatic. “So,” I said. “How do you contain a dragon?”
“It’s simple,” he said. “All the literature points to it. Every story, from every culture. You say you’re a dragon ninja; a true ninja should have seen this.”
“You need to find a hero.”
I stopped. “A hero?”
“A champion; a good man. A courageous individual with a righteous heart, bold and strong and true and pure, who will take the dragon and slay it not for monetary good, but because it is the right thing to do and it needs to be done.”
“This doesn’t sound like something we can hook up to an API.”
He looked up at me. “My job is not to monetize the slaying of dragons. My job is to tell you how to slay. Goodnight, Mr Cage.”
And he was gone.
There are all kinds of weirdos on Quora.
10. I will attack, and you don’t want that.
I spent the rest of the night researching my hero options.
Technically, I should have been the hero. Dragon ninja. It sounds like someone who might do more than a little bit of dragon slaying, right? But I wasn’t up to it. All those things that the Quora guy had specified — courageous, with a righteous heart, and so on — that wasn’t me. Not even a little bit. So I was going to have to go out and hire a hero, and we would have to find a way to build this into the spreadsheets.
It was an unexpected cost, and I knew Jason would react badly, particularly as he was presenting to investors and would have already built his pitch. Needing a dragon hero and the infrastructure to support him could partially justify a funding round, and potentially show that we were thinking through important aspects of our business, but it could also cost me my job.
Nonetheless, I decided that I would present Jason with as much information as I could muster, as quickly as possible, so he could change the deck and build it into his presentation.
The first, obvious question was: how much would we have to pay a hero? The median salary for a web developer in San Francisco was $97,000 a year, plus contributions and benefits. That was already high, but a web developer vs. a dragon-slaying hero didn’t seem to be an apples to apples comparison. No, I decided; a hero was probably much more like a product manager.
Product managers, on average, make $160,000 plus benefits in San Francisco. Add employers’ contributions and other benefits, and you were talking $215,000, excluding any bonuses and stock options. Any smart dragon-slaying hero would understand that he was a crucial part of the business, and would probably demand a competitive bonus package.
I began to wonder about my own salary.
Perhaps, though, there were other options, that would allow us to obtain a hero but not have to pay him in cash? That would allow us to take in money — we would charge on a per-dragon basis for people to use the API, after all — without having to worry about losing that value immediately on employee costs.
Could he, perhaps, receive stock options that were tied to performance? That way he’d get the ability to buy a certain number of shares of the company at a low price, based on the number of dragons he’d slain. You could even cap the total amount he could earn, so that he couldn’t take an unreasonable amount of the company. And because these were options rather than actual shares, Herebe wouldn’t be spending anything at all on the hero, and the hero wouldn’t have a tax burden. It would look like he wasn’t earning any money at all.
Which he wouldn’t be.
There had to be thousands of heroes out there who would be excited to work for a cutting-edge startup under these sorts of terms. Great. I felt confident that would work. Now, what did a hero actually mean? How would we find one?
Quora Guy had laid some of it out. A courageous individual with a righteous heart, bold and strong and true and pure, who will take the dragon and slay it not for monetary good, but because it is the right thing to do and it needs to be done.
Courageous. Confident. Strong. Righteous. True. Pure.
I was pretty sure nobody in the Bay Area fit that description, except for maybe Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs was dead. Perhaps if I took some liberties?
That seemed like an okay thing to do.
Reading the list again, there seemed to be a lot of redundant terms. For example, courageous, confident and strong were pretty much the same things, I figured, so I could amalgamate them all into confident. Meanwhile, I wasn’t really sure what righteous and true were supposed to mean: religious, maybe? We couldn’t legally hire for that, so perhaps trustworthy would do. And pure was just an equal opportunities can of worms, so I decided to leave it out.
Okay. That seemed like a reasonable ask. Confident; trustworthy. Maybe we were all heroes, deep inside?
No. No, we weren’t.
I took a step back. Confident, trustworthy dragonslayer still didn’t have quite the right kick to it. I’d gone too broad with the description; an accountant could be confident and trustworthy. You could legitimately have a confident, trustworthy train driver, or a pastry chef. We needed none of those things. We needed a dragonslayer hero.
And for another thing, shouldn’t all dragonslayers be confident and trustworthy? Didn’t dragonslayer encompass those things, without any need for any extraneous adjectives? Dragonslayer. The word exuded confidence and trustworthiness.
It also exuded “someone who slays dragons”, which was exactly what we needed. Brilliant in its simplicity!
Okay then. Settled. A dragon-slaying hero is a hero who slays dragons. How would we find such a man?
I slapped my forehead in frustration. What an idiot! If a dragonslayer is literally defined as someone who slays dragons, then the only way to find one is to look for people who slay dragons. A self-described dragonslayer, with testimonials to confirm that, indeed, he had slayed some dragons.
LinkedIn was just the place.
I had a quick search. There was a surprising number of social media marketers who described themselves as dragonslayers, but their testimonials were all conspicuously made by other social media marketers. Beyond that, there were a few web developers — if only we could afford to pay so little — but nobody who actually used the term “dragonslayer” for its literal definition.
It was late and I was tired, but I needed to find a way to deliver the dragonslayer information to Jason in a way that he could slot right into his pitch, which would convince the investors that our technical risk was high enough to justify a high valuation, but low enough that we had a high chance of success. Being able to kill the dragons was important. And even then, it wasn’t a sure thing that using a dragon-slaying hero would actually work. I was just taking the word of some creepy old guy from Quora.
I looked again at his original definition. A courageous individual with a righteous heart, bold and strong and true, who will take the dragon and slay it not for monetary good, but because it is the right thing to do and it needs to be done. Sure, I knew that we were just going to hire a guy who told us he could do it and ticked enough of the boxes that I wouldn’t get fired for hiring him, but maybe there was some way I could dress it up for investors? Go the other way?
I started adding words. A noble individual, courageous to the core of his righteous heart, bold as the color of the hottest flame, strong as the arm of a hundred tigers, and as true and pure as enduring love, who will take the dragon and slay it not for selfish ends, but because it is the right thing, the noble thing, the true thing. A champion. A good man. Paid with stock options directly tied to performance with a $250,000 cap.
Sorted. That would sound great on a pitch deck — and it would be one hell of a moat for anyone who wanted to try and challenge our business model.
I pasted it into a PowerPoint slide, emailed it to Jason, and slept.
11. Secret history.
I didn’t sleep well. My Fitbit told me.
Every night, I wrap an armband around my left wrist, and tuck a Fitbit — a special kind of connected pedometer — into a pouch in the inside. I hit Start, and it knows that I’m putting myself to bed. When I wake up in the morning, I push the button again, and it knows I’ve woken up. The next time I’m near my computer or my phone, it’ll synchronize, and I can examine graphs of my sleep. If I stuff it in my pocket during the day, I can see my exercise levels during the day, too.
My Fitbit sleep graph was erratic. I woke up every twenty to thirty minutes, and sometimes every five minutes, during the night. Whereas, most nights, I slept well and the graph resembled a grassy meadow, the screen in front of me showed dagger after dagger, chasm after chasm. It was like the ECG of a dying man.
And I looked it. I woke up that morning with dark, sunken bags under my eyes, which were bloodshot and sore. There was a taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite place, and my ears seemed to be ringing with something. It had been a bad night.
I assumed. I couldn’t remember any dreams.
In the shower, I thought about the slide I had sent last night, and how we were actually going to have to tackle these problems. If you didn’t know a lot about how the markets worked, it might not make sense; creating dragons didn’t have much in the way of practical function. What would you do with a dragon once you had one? But dragons, like diamonds or gold, were inherently valuable. Whoever controlled production, controlled the market. By creating artificial scarcity for something that theoretically could be produced infinitely, we were effectively writing ourselves a never-ending check. The money would be limitless. Sure, Jason would make a fortune, but my share wouldn’t be anything to be sniffed at. It would be good times all round. How could dragons ever stop being valuable?
I looked around the shower cubicle. In some ways, I couldn’t believe this was my home now. Ceramic tiles, painted in rich colors, climbed the wall until they were met by the head of the shower itself, suspended in the middle of the ceiling, surrounded with lights and chrome. You could get two people in here. Three or four, at a push. Not that I would. Probably.
Not only was my lifestyle changing, but I was changing, too. I was more confident here; I had money, and an important position in a company that seemed to value me. It was early in Herebe’s lifecycle, but I felt like it was going to be important. It really did have the potential to change the world. I was going to be important.
I was becoming the person I always wanted to be.
I looked up and let the jets of warm water splash against my face. I ran my hands through my hair, let every part of me feel the warmth, the tiredness of the night before washing out of me. This is invigorating, I thought.
My heart felt like steel.
From the living room, my cell phone burst into life. The Power, by Snap!. I had an app that changed my ringtone based on not just the person who was calling, but when they were calling. Phone calls before work in the morning got big, cheesy tones; phone calls after work were innocuous and polite.
I dried myself off hastily and wrapped my towel around myself like a toga.
“Hey,” I said, picking up the phone.
“Turn on the TV,” Jason said.
I put the phone down and picked up my remote. My Samsung flatscreen TV burst into life with a gleeful jingle. And immediately, I saw it.
The television was trained on downtown Oakland: a mile away from me, maybe less. There were cars, and people, but it wasn’t an ordinary commute. Between the spaces in the morning scene, occupying every possible extra blank space, were horses: beautiful white beasts with flowing manes, galloping where they could, trotting otherwise, looking around and playfully nuzzling trees.
I thought I saw something on their heads; something unusual just above the eyes.
No, I thought.
I changed the channel and found a better HD picture. It was on every channel, in fact, and each network had their own camera angle on the same story, each broadcaster a prism aimed at the same message.
On each of their heads, just above the eyes, was a white, spiral horn, twisting to a point.
12. The pivot.
“We’ve got a problem,” Jason said, when I arrived at the office. “A really big problem.”
I nodded. “Dragons aren’t the only magical creatures in town.”
Jason had set up a whiteboard in the middle of the office, on which he’d drawn a map of the Bay Area in black marker. Each city had its own notes scrawled across in red.
“San Francisco: dragons. Oakland: unicorns. San Jose: there are actually mermaids dragging themselves inland. Redwood City: centaurs, for crying out loud. And so on and so on and so on.” Jason threw his hands up in the air. “This is unbelievable.”
The Brians and I nodded.
“The investors are coming in this morning. They’re going to want to know how we react to this; dragons aren’t the only game in town now, which affects their value. They’re not the beautiful snowflakes they once were. We’ve got to have an answer to the magical menagerie question.”
“Do we know anything about how they were created?” one of the Brians asked.
“Nothing,” Jason replied. “Nothing at all. I can only assume each of the cities in the Bay Area has a vortex of its own. But I don’t know; we have no way of knowing until someone owns up to having made them. And given that we haven’t owned up to making the dragons, we could be waiting a long time.”
“So right now we just need to figure out what to tell the investors?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Jason said. “We need to be able to tell them how we’re going to compete with all these other creatures, and why our valuation still makes sense. If you’ve got any ideas, I’d love to hear them.”
“Maybe we can create an API for the other vortexes too? Add unicorns, leprechauns and mermaids to the mix?”
“That’s great,” Jason said, “but now that you’ve done all that great research on how we need to hire someone to slay dragons for us, think about this: we’re going to have to kill the mermaids. Do you want to do that? Because I can tell you right now, I do not. Slaying dragons on demand, I have no problem with. Killing mermaids crosses a whole other line for me.”
“You’d prefer to outsource that out to another company?”
“Exactly. So I think what we do is, we wait for someone to take credit for each of the creatures across the Bay, and we sign agreements with them. I’ll get the lawyer to write up a set of Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreements, so we’re ready for when they start to announce themselves. Can we think about how we might integrate them into our API?”
“Already on it,” I said. “We’ll be ready.”
It didn’t take long for the announcements to be made. TechCrunch’s front page was packed full of news releases from new magical creature startups across Silicon Valley; there was Herebe, of course, and Unicorn Chasers in Oakland, MermaidSoft in San Jose, CentOrbs in Redwood City. One by one, they took credit for the beasts. In Berkeley, Creature Watch was established as a self-appointed watchdog. By mid-afternoon, every single city had announced at least one new startup, and Business Insider was asking, Are We In A Mythical Creature Bubble?
Simultaneously, Jason was working hard to raise our round.
It wasn’t as easy as we had originally hoped. For one thing, half of Jason’s scheduled investors simply didn’t turn up. They had found other opportunities that they were more interested in, needed more time to examine the magical creature marketplace, or had simply been waylaid by centaurs somewhere on the 101.
The other half were interested. Very interested. But they had questions.
The Brians and I weren’t invited to the meetings, but Jason had decided to hold them in the conference room itself, next to the vortex; we heard the gasps when he opened the door to each one for the first time, and occasionally a hint of a question or a snatch of conversation found its way to us. Not the whole picture, but certainly enough to get a sense of what they wanted to know; how they saw our company.
“Where do you see yourselves as a company in five years?”
“Are you a technology play, or a service play?”
“What does your profit and loss graph look like?”
“What are you feeding the vortex to make the dragons?”
13. Who could deny they’d be better off dead?
End User License Agreement. EULA.
“Look, it’s no big deal,” Jason said.
Once the investors had gone, and I’d given him a chance to recover, answer a few emails and catch up with the dragon kanban board, I had finally asked the question: how, exactly, are we making the dragons?
“We don’t do anything that’s really different to any other service. We’re enabling the ecosystem. It’s a great deal for every service provider we deal with. And all they have to do is make a small change to their EULA. It’s not like we share anyone’s information with anyone. It’s all totally private, which makes us a step above the advertising companies. In fact, I would go as far as to say it’s a better way to finance the web.”
This was a tough sell, even for Jason. I was struggling with the morality of it, and we’d been talking it backwards and forwards for over an hour.
“It’s simple,” Jason said. “Service providers sign up with us. They make a small change to their end user license agreement. When a user signs up to their service, they give us a perpetual, non-exclusive license to their mortal soul. We keep track of the demographic information that those users have already supplied on their profiles. Then, when the vortex is hungry and tells me it wants to consume the souls of a certain kind of person — small, off-duty Czechoslovakian traffic wardens, say, or MBAs — we give them to it and we get the ability to make dragons in return. It’s not a problem. I don’t see why you’re finding ethical issues here; there really aren’t any that I can see.”
“But everyone just scrolls past the EULA and hits I Agree,” I said.
“It’s not our fault that people don’t read contracts,” Jason said. “This is a nation of laws. Our entire society is based on legislation and contracts and legal requirements. If people choose to ignore that, and sign up to something without examining what they’ve signed up to, I don’t see how that should concern us.”
“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
“A while. Listen, this is how the Internet economy works,” Jason said. “You think people are going to want to pay five or ten dollars a month to see pictures of cats or rant with their friends about politics? Are you kidding?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No, they won’t.”
“Right. And if you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. If you don’t want to pay five bucks for a website you reload four hundred times a day, you’ve got to license your soul to us.”
I looked at him.
“It’s just a license,” Jason said. “It’s not like we own your soul. We just get to feed it to the vortex any time we like.”
“But — ”
“No buts. Listen to me, Nick. We haven’t had a single complaint since we started doing this. Except for the EFF and some loudmouths in the open source community, but I’m not counting those guys. It’s not like souls are in the EFF’s remit anyway. “
The Electronic Frontier Foundation — EFF — was an advocacy group that dealt with peoples’ rights online; kind of an ACLU for the digital age. I hadn’t heard that they’d been complaining about our practices. I hadn’t heard what our practices were.
“Let me ask you a question,” Jason said. “Are you religious at all?”
“You can’t ask me that,” I said.
“I know I can’t. Let me put it another way. Do you go to church?”
“No,” I said.
“So why do you care about souls? You don’t even believe souls exist.”
“They’ve got to exist, though, don’t they? We’re turning them into dragons.”
“Here’s the thing, though, Nick,” Jason said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Maybe the vortex just believes they exist.”
“In which case, we’re paying web services to take imaginary goods off their hands.”
“Sure. But we’re turning those imaginary goods into real goods — dragons, for Pete’s sake — and selling them for a heck of a lot more. We’re making money out of thin air. You’d have to be insane not to get on board an opportunity like this one. And that’s what I told those guys in the boardroom.”
I looked at him.
“And you know what? I sold each and every one of them. They’re all coming in to invest. We’re going to have forty million dollars in our bank account once they sign on the dotted line. That’s a heck of a lot of runway.”
“Forty million dollars?”
“That’s right. iPhones and free snacks for everyone. Now go buy me a hero so we can turn those souls into gold.”
Hiring a dragon-slaying hero turns out to be a hard problem.
Hacker News would be my first port of call, but you’ve got to have been funded by the Y Combinator incubator, and we weren’t. There’s a “who’s hiring” discussion thread on the first of every month that a lot of people read, but it was the 15th, and I didn’t have the luxury of waiting until next month.
Figuring that search engine visibility would be part of the battle, I got one of the Brians to build me a page on the Herebe site to advertise for the position. We made it deliberately flashy; as you scrolled down, fire crept up the sides of the page, in a way that made it look like the job vacancy ad itself was suspended in the inside of a volcano. It was really cool.
I posted it to the Dragons Subreddit, and the 37 Signals job board, and LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google+, of course. But after that, I started to run out of sites. There’s no Facebook or Exec for dragonslayers; if I hadn’t had my hands full trying to grow Herebe, that would have been an excellent startup idea. I couldn’t find any dragonslayers on Freenode or the newsgroups, either. Either they weren’t online at all, or there weren’t any at all. And it wasn’t like I was aiming high: I just wanted someone who self-described as a slayer. There were no special requirements. And I still wasn’t clear about how they were supposed to kill the dragon anyway; there was no guarantee that hiring a dragonslayer would actually solve our problem. It was a stab in the dark.
Finally, out of desperation, I hit Quora. How can I hire a dragonslayer?
Fifteen seconds later, I had my reply.
We arranged to meet in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, at the edge of the water on Jack London Square while it was pitch black outside and the tourists had mostly found their way home.
“Good evening, Mr Cage,” he said, as I approached him.
“Good evening,” I said. “I’m sorry, what should I call you? I never got your name.”
“My name is irrelevant,” he said. “My story, unimportant. The only thing that matters is the thing you came here for. You wish to find a hero, Mr Cage; I can help you do this.”
“You have searched on LinkedIn,” he said, “and you have searched on Twitter. You have combed the pages of Reddit. You have even brought your search to Quora. But there is one place you have not looked. Not even to this day.”
“Where is that?”
“Your heart, Mr Cage.”
“Yes, your heart. It beats inside of you, yet you do not notice. The sound is there, yet it is not there. It is the first thing we learn to filter out. You ignore it, as we all do, and have ignored it since the cradle. Your own life blood.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“If you do not hear the beat that sets the tempo of your life,” he said, “what else might you have missed?”
“Tell me; what?”
“Your own emotions, Mr Cage! You must find your dragonslayer with your heart, and with your soul. He will not find you. Not in life, not in all the world, and not on Twitter.”
“You want me to find a dragonslayer with my heart.”
“Ask not what your heart can do for you, Mr Cage,” he said. “Ask what you can do for your heart.”
And with that, he was gone, a figment in the night breeze.
I stood at the railings of Jack London Square, my heartbeat ringing in my ears.
Tonight, I decided. Tonight I will find my dragonslayer.
15. It is good to be the King.
A cold, November Thursday night in the San Francisco Bay Area. Where was the best place to find a dragonslayer?
I checked Plancast first, because it was what I knew: a collection of geek events ordered by date and friends group. A geeky dragonslayer would be best: someone who had the skills, heart, etc etc to kill a dragon, but could also find their way around an API.
There was something related to SXSW, the South By SouthWest festival that took place in Austin every spring, but I was pretty sure dragonslayers didn’t attend. And nothing else. Tonight was apparently a dead zone in tech land.
Next: the San Francisco Chronicle website. More mainstream than I was comfortable with, but I didn’t want to leave any stones unturned. Sadly, while there was a lot of jazz, much of it accompanied by delicious-sounding food, there was nothing that jumped out at me. The least worst was a trivia night at a British-themed pub in the City. I decided I’d pass.
Yelp and the East Bay Express weren’t much help either. Meetup.com did have some interesting-looking events, but I needed to fill in a bunch of details on the website to attend, and I wanted to stay anonymous for now.
There was nothing else for it. I was going to have to go out in the night and use my heart, for want of a better plan.
My heart told me this: if you want to find a dragonslayer, you should start by finding a dragon.
Or better yet, creating one.
I grabbed myself an API username from the staging server, and launched my testing software.
I clicked the “send” button.
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
It was a pretty good API.
Out of my window, I saw a medium-sized dragon blip into existence above Jack London Square. Its orange scales dimly reflected the moon, while its eyes were brighter, somehow, as if they were illuminated from the inside. It hovered in mid-air, taking the square in slowly. Smoke billowed from its nostrils.
Suddenly, it rose and swooped towards a handful of people outside Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant, its mouth open, a mighty roar echoing across the square.
I sat and watched. This was exactly what I needed.
The roaring rose to a crescendo and there was smoke and fire and light everywhere, and screaming, and the smell of burning meat. The people were gone, just embers, their ashes scattering in the breeze, and Yoshi’s was ablaze. The rest of the inhabitants put their chopsticks down and ran through the far exit, but the dragon saw them, and began to rise again.
If there was a dragonslayer in town, now would be the time for them to show up.
The dragon swooped once more, and once again fire consumed the square, and once again there was screaming and the smell of burning meat. Once again where people had stood there were ashes, blowing and scattering helplessly in the air.
There was no dragonslayer to be seen.
The dragon rose, unsated. This test was going badly.
The only light in the square was fire and the moon now, and the lights from ships in the bay, and in the distance, San Francisco. The only noise was the crackling of fire and burning wood, and the flapping of enormous wings.
And one other thing. Behind the fire and the rushing of air. A deep noise; it had been rising slowly, but it was increasing more quickly now. The dragon heard it too; it raised its head towards the sky, as if trying to place the booming.
I saw it before the dragon did: a passenger plane. One of the big ones: a Boeing 747 or something like it. It would have just taken off from San Francisco International Airport, and was probably heading to Europe, carrying hundreds of people. Modern booking technologies meant that the planes were almost always full, of both people and cargo, so as to maximize fuel efficiency and keep the cost to the airline as low as possible. There would be families on board. Children.
The dragon saw it too, now, its eyes blazing. It roared into the sky, leaving a trail of smoke behind it.
I looked on helplessly. Those people are going to die, I thought. I did this.
From the left and right, helicopters sped into view; two from the coast guard, and a traffic helicopter from one of the local news stations.
From the coast guard helicopters, what sounded like music was blaring through a loudspeaker, coming in and out of focus as they swooped to and fro. Finally, I caught enough of it to make out the lyrics, and I almost laughed: Call Me, Maybe. They were going to try and distract the dragon away from the plane. That’s suicidal, I thought. And heroic. But suicidal.
Behind the 747, I could see another plane approaching. San Francisco hadn’t been told about the dragon; they were still sending planes overhead. The helicopters weren’t enough; this was going to be a bloodbath.
The traffic helicopter opened its side door. There was a guy sat inside in a flannel shirt, wearing a headset, and holding something in his hand.
BANG. A handgun.
The news helicopter was trying to take the dragon out with a handgun.
BANG. BANG. BANG. The newsman let loose a few more shots, but the dragon was still heading for the plane, flapping upwards, its roar merging with the helicopters and the aircraft. The gunshots didn’t even make a dent.
BANG! The coast guard was at it too, now, with a shotgun; this time, the dragon turned to look at the helicopter before turning back to the aircraft. It was almost in burning range. This was it. I was already a mass-murderer, but a 747 could hold almost five hundred people. There didn’t need to be any more death.
The dragon opened its mouth wider, taking in a breath. I looked away for a moment, and then back. If this was going to happen, I was going to force myself to watch it.
The dragon swooped around to the far side of the plane, as if taking in its size. The pilot had seen it by now, and was trying to bank away, alternately to the port and starboard. Each time, the dragon flew to the other side to catch it. It was toying with it. This was horrible.
I looked down at my laptop. An Instant Message notification was flashing. It was from one of the Brians. I clicked it.
Hey Nick! I noticed you tried out the dragon/create API call. Did it work? If you’ve got a minute, can you try the dragon/update call?
The API! The Brians had implemented the update call!
Quickly, I re-opened my test application and found the dragon’s unique identifier from the response to my create call:
Trying it now, I wrote to Brian.
I pulled up Google Maps, and found a location point in the Pacific Ocean halfway between South America, Australia and Antarctica. Latitude -61.938950, longitude -139.921875.
There wasn’t much time. I started typing into the test app.
I clicked “send”.
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
The API had registered the request. Silently, I said a prayer that the update call was bug-free enough to make it work.
Nothing. The dragon was still toying with the plane, its eyes glowing through the smoke. The pilot was taking wilder and wilder maneuvers, swinging violently from side to side.
Finally, the dragon rose above it, opened its mouth wider still, and swooped in. The smoke from its nostrils turned to fire, orange and silver lighting up the sky, and -
It was gone.
The API call had worked.
The plane turned back towards San Francisco International Airport, the helicopters trailing in its wake.
Somewhere over the South Pacific, a tiny dragon was breathing fire at nothing.
And I breathed a sigh of relief. Seems to work, I wrote to Brian.
16. Was ist los?
“So, you didn’t find a dragonslayer,” Jason said, the steam from his morning coffee tentacling towards his face.
“No,” I said.
“So how are we going to sell this thing? People are going to want to delete their dragons.”
“That’s true. I do have an idea.”
I told him about the previous night’s adventure, with the unfortunate people at Yoshi’s, and how I had finally dealt with the problem by downsizing the dragon and dumping it over the South Pacific. By the time I had finished, Jason’s face was white.
“Did anyone see? Does anyone know it was us?” he said.
“I don’t know. But I think if anyone had pinned it on us, we’d know by now.”
“Maybe, but it was a dragon, and we’re the only dragon provider in the Bay Area.”
I turned my laptop so we could both see the screen, opened up a new browser tab, and loaded TechMeme, the tech news aggregator site. There were two stories about whether Apple was doomed without Steve Jobs, a generic opinion piece about innovation, and finally, below them all, a news story about magical creatures from TechCrunch.
Why Magical Creatures Aren’t Safe, read the headline. We clicked through, silently, tensely.
The page loaded with a full-width picture of a grinning centaur above the fold.
A sigh of relief. It turned out that the centaurs over in Redwood City had been going down to San Jose to pick up mermaids, and had been seen doing unsavory things by the side of the 280. It didn’t reflect well on the magical creature industry as a whole, but those two companies bore the brunt of it. It might even attract new investors to Herebe, which got a mention right at the bottom of the article, in passing.
“Randy centaurs,” Jason said, shaking his head. He took a swig of coffee. “So what’s your plan?”
“I don’t think dragonslayers are scalable. If you create n dragons, you’ll ultimately need to slay n dragons. If you create 2n dragons, you’ll need to slay 2n dragons. You’ll always need to have enough slayers to kill the dragons, which means our cost of killing the dragons is always going to be tied to the number of dragons we have. It limits our potential to make a profit on those API calls.”
“That’s true. So what’s the alternative?”
“We don’t kill them. We downsize them, just like I did, and deposit them in the South Pacific. Or the South Atlantic. Or somewhere where they’re likely to just hang out and not bother anybody.”
Jason looked at me. “Your plan is that we’re going to hide the dragons.”
I nodded. “Until we find a better option. Fake it till we make it.”
“Seems reasonable to me. Let’s take it to the Brians.”
The Brians were, as always, sitting at their iMacs with their headphones plugged in. An indefinable beat lingered in the air like a dubstep aura. As I approached, they each paused their music and looked up at me.
“Hey,” Brian #2 said. “I’m glad the update API worked last night.”
“Me too,” I said. “Thanks for giving me the heads up. It actually got me out of a bit of a jam.”
“Uh oh, dragon trouble?” Brian #1 asked.
“Something like that. It gave me an idea though.”
I sold them the concept: delete would be simulated by an automatic update call that would downsize the dragon to tiny, find a blank part of the world, and then move them there. Moving the dragons turned out to be quite an expensive operation in terms of souls, but we were getting plenty of them from our partner sites, so it didn’t matter. As we grew, we would just need to ensure we continued to grow our network of partners. Hopefully, we would eventually find another option that would allow us to dispose of them less expensively, but in a scalable way that meant we still didn’t need dragonslayers. The Brians were worried that at some point the planet would be saturated with dragons, but as I pointed out, that would be a nice problem to have. It would mean we were succeeding.
“We’ll build it,” Brian #3 said. “And then we can launch.”
17. Reticulating splines.
The first time I met a centaur face to face, I was taking a break from driving the cheapest rental car I could find south from San Francisco on the 280. (Always take the 280, is the advice I’d been given the first time I had to drive down the peninsula; having experienced the 101 a couple of times, I can confirm that the former is a picture of peace and sanity compared to the latter’s psychotic clown show on wheels.) Our launch event was in Palo Alto early in the evening, and Jason had made the decision to not cater it with anything beyond canapes and booze, so I’d decided to stop at Buck’s in Woodside for a burger beforehand.
Buck’s had seen a business opportunity, and had constructed a special set of centaur tables out in the parking lot. As I pulled up, there was just one standing there, the beef and avocado of a California burger messily dribbling into his beard. He was impressive; both his horse half and his human half were beautifully muscled, and the delicate hair of his human half tapered subtly into the chestnut brown of the horse. He ate like a pig, though, and as I got out of the car, I wondered how best to ignore him.
“Hey, how’s it going,” he said as I walked past. In California, “how’s it going” isn’t a question; it’s just the tail end of “hi”. I continued to walk.
“I said hey,” the centaur said again. “How’s it going?”
I smiled at him weakly. “Pretty good. How are you doing?”
The centaur put his burger down. “Nobody wants to eat with me, man,” he said. “And we’ve got to eat out here instead of in the restaurant. I think they’re worried I’m gonna crap at a table or something. I got table manners, man. And feelings.”
I felt kind of bad for him, but I also couldn’t get over how weird it was. Just a few weeks ago, I’d seen a dragon burn the patrons of a Japanese restaurant to death and try to do the same to a Boeing 747, but somehow, a centaur hanging out and eating a burger was at least as strange. Maybe it was that he was striking up a conversation like a normal person. Dragons don’t do that.
“Sorry, man, I know it’s weird,” the centaur said. “Go enjoy your meal. Take care.” He turned back to his burger.
I sighed, and walked over to him. “Mind if I join you?”
“Hey, that’s okay. I know you don’t really want to. Don’t feel like you have to.”
“No, I’d like to,” I said, holding out my hand. “I’m Nick; what’s your name?”
The centaur put his burger down again and smiled. He shook my hand vigorously. “Pho,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. I think you have to go inside and order.”
I nodded. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, man, I’m cool.”
Buck’s is a kitsch wonderland: the lights are giant hats, the menu is an essay on the owner’s pet topics of the moment, and the walls are lined with all kinds of paraphernalia, both bought and donated. Next to the restroom, the owner has framed an exchange he had with the Kremlin about potentially purchasing Lenin’s embalmed body for display, offering a price “in the low six figures”. The Kremlin wrote back asking for a more specific figure.
The restaurant was famous in startup circles for being the location of many famous deals; Netscape and PayPal were funded there, and Yahoo! pitched at its tables. On one wall, there’s a tally chart that shows how many film crews have done stories about Silicon Valley from there. On another, there’s a giant shoe from an NBA basketball player.
If anywhere was going to be happy serving centaurs, this was it.
I saw this as a kind of market research opportunity. The centaurs had been created, I had to assume, in a similar way to the dragons; there was a vortex in some other office somewhere, and if they were competing with Herebe, I needed to know about it. I ordered a California burger too — it looked pretty good — and a root beer float, and headed out to chat with Pho.
“So, how long have you been in town for?” I asked.
“Not sure, man,” Pho said. “Two weeks, I think. Maybe three.”
“And where were you before that?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I was just kind of here, you know? Before that is a haze. I don’t remember much. It’s been pretty brutal, man, to tell you the truth. It’s hard to know what’s real. I’m pretty sure I was minding my own business, and whoosh, suddenly I was in Redwood City.” He shook his head slowly. “Pretty messed up, if you ask me.”
A waitress walked outside and brought me my root beer float. The ice cream was that kind that you only seem to really get at diners: both delicious and strangely fake-tasting at the same time. I took a long sip.
“I’ve met a couple of other centaurs while I’ve been here, man, and they’re just as confused as I am,” Pho said. “Can’t get too much out of them, because we’re all kinda confrontational, you know? Centaurs are not peaceful dudes as a rule. But it seems like nobody really knows what happened. We’re all pretty weirded out.”
“I think everyone’s weirded out,” I said.
“That certainly seems to be true,” Pho grinned at me. “I’m enjoying California, though, man, I gotta tell you. The weather’s nice, I think I’m gonna try and get myself a job at a startup up in the City, and the mermaids are crazy hot. A little stand-offish maybe, but hot. Mind you, everyone’s kinda stand-offish here. So thanks for sitting with me, man.” He smiled again, and held his hand up. We fist-bumped.
“Are you living somewhere?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Pho said. “Actually, a couple of the centaurs managed to arrange something through AirBnb for a little while, until we can find a place. We’re going to see if we can get a bachelor pad up in Potrero Hill or somewhere in the City. Or maybe Palo Alto.”
“I mean, technically we don’t have a visa or a social security number, so we can’t legally work, but I’m sure we can figure something out. We’re pretty good at fighting with each other, but we’re good at fighting for our rights, too.”
The waitress came out and brought me a burger. I took a bite, and turned my plate to offer my fries to Pho.
“Awesome, man,” Pho said. “Thank you.” He took a handful. “You know, I don’t think it’s completely fair of me to say that everyone’s been stand-offish. There have been a couple of people who have been outgoing, you included.”
I smiled, both to be friendly and because I knew I was about to get the information I was looking for.
“There’s some other guys. Real businesslike, but super friendly. Gave us all iPhones and some clothes, although I don’t really see the point in wearing them. Centaurs aren’t shy.”
“Do you know who they were?”
“Yeah, kinda. I think they’re with an investment firm. Again, I’m going to see if they can get me a job with a startup in the City. That’d be rad; startups are the new rock stars, y’know? Although I’m pretty new to rock, and that’s totally awesome too. But startups pay more money. Anyway, I think they were called QTel or something like that.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Pho said, smiling. “In-Q-Tel are investing in centaurs.”
I put my burger down. In-Q-Tel were the investment arm of the CIA. “Do they know how you got here?” I asked.
“No,” Pho said, “no, I don’t think so. They said they were working on it though. I think they have some idea, but they need to do some tests or something.”
“That’s nice of them.”
“They seem like nice guys,” Pho said. “They’ve been getting to know the mermaids, too. Took a truckload of them out to a place called Livermore, gave them jobs.”
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the nation’s nuclear lab, about an hour’s drive away from Silicon Valley. Its mission is to strengthen the security of the United States through researching and developing science and technology; in particular, they’re interested in maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent.
I finished my burger, thanked Pho, got his number, and left twenty dollars on the table. As I got back into the car, I made a mental note to tell Jason as soon as I could. Our valuation just went up a hundredfold.
The government was training nuclear mermaids.
This was incredible news.
“In-Q-Tel? What’s In-Q-Tel?”
Jason was standing right in front of a speaker, drinking a bottle of Becks. A handful of journalists and investors were milling around the room we’d booked in Palo Alto, while a DJ pretended to be doing more than setting up a playlist on his MacBook Pro.
“They’re the investment arm of the CIA,” I yelled over the dubstep. “I think they’re getting into the market.”
“As a competitor?”
“No,” I yelled, “as an investor. I think we could be an acquisition target for them.”
“That’s great news!” Jason yelled, raising his beer to toast. I hadn’t got one yet; I fist-bumped it instead. “They pay big bucks, I think.”
“I think so,” I yelled.
“Who told you?”
“Yeah. Surprisingly nice, for a guy who’s basically a horse from the waist down.”
“Wow. Meet any mermaids?”
I left Jason to get a beer. He had ordered exactly three drinks for the journalists to enjoy: Becks, which was his favorite beer, white wine, and red wine. There were no soft drinks, and the caterer had dropped out, so the only snacks were animal crackers he’d bought in bulk from Costco at the last minute. The journalists — who were mostly actual journalists from local papers, for some reason, instead of the bloggers who would generate some buzz for us — didn’t seem to mind.
I smiled at the barman: a skinny, bald man dressed in a Herebe t-shirt. He nodded back, wordlessly.
I took a Becks, left a dollar in the tip jar, and turned to work the room.
“I see you didn’t find a dragonslayer, Mr Cage,” the barman said. Quora Guy.
I turned back to face him. “No,” I said. “But we found another solution.”
“That’s good to hear, Mr Cage,” he said. “For there is a battle coming, and you must be ready. Your heart must be ready.”
Weirdo. I nodded at him, uncertainly, and walked back over to Jason, who was still standing by the speaker. “Where did you find the barman?” I yelled.
“Craigslist,” he yelled to me. “He’s a mixologist. Won awards. Got a great deal, considering.”
“What’s he going to mix?” I yelled.
“Wine and beer,” Jason yelled. “But I wanted someone who can serve drinks really well.”
I left him and walked outside.
University Avenue was surprisingly quiet this early in the evening. The restaurants were full, at least the ones I could see, but the street hubbub was never anything more than a quiet buzz. It was a far cry from Oakland, let alone San Francisco.
I leaned against the wall and thought about what Pho had told me. He couldn’t remember where he had been before he appeared in Redwood City; did that mean he had blipped into existence, like we had assumed, or did it just mean that the process by which he was transported was so brutal that it left him disorientated? Had he come here from somewhere else, and would he remember that eventually? Were we unknowingly tearing some kind of hole between universes? And given the choice between that and turning the souls of unsuspecting cloud software users into magical creatures, which one was better? What did the CIA really want with the centaurs and the mermaids? And would they want to do the same thing with the dragons?
I looked up at the night sky and exhaled. These questions were insane. I was regretting describing myself as a dragon ninja to get a job; I had no idea what I was getting into. It would have been a safer bet to learn Ruby or Node. Stupid.
On the other hand, if the CIA really did buy Herebe, my share of the payout would be enormous. I’d wind up with enough to found my own startup, maybe, or travel around the world, or go back to school and go down a different track. Or maybe show my girlfriend back east that I wasn’t the complete loser she had left for some lawyer. The promise of money was the promise of freedom, and for me, at least, although I wasn’t going to admit it to anyone else, the promise of redemption.
I walked back into the launch party. Jason was on stage, now, in front of a big Herebe banner, our logo in white on a black background.
“Thank you all for coming,” he was saying. “I’d like to take a minute to tell you about what we’re doing at Herebe, and then I’ll let you get back to enjoying yourselves.”
“When humans began to explore the globe, there were many unknowns: uncharted territories that might be dangerous, or might have untold riches hiding on their shores. The Roman cartographers wrote here be lions, in reference to the drawings they used to fill the blank spaces. Other cartographers, though, were more adventurous. They chose a mythical beast that signified strength, and danger. Here be dragons.”
“Well, dragons aren’t mythical any more. They’re right here with us, and anyone can have one with a simple API call that takes an hour or less to include in your services and applications.”
“We’re Herebe,” Jason finished up, “and we’re here to democratize dragons. We don’t expect you to believe us, so we’ve given each and every one of you a month’s worth of dragons at the Professional service level, for free. Try us out, tell your readers, and let us know if you have any questions. We’ll be here all night. Thank you.”
There was some polite applause; Jason got off the stage, and the music climbed back to an inconvenient level.
19. They ain’t leaving until six in the morning.
At some point in the evening, the floor began to wobble as if we were all at sea. I checked with a couple of people around me to make sure we weren’t having an earthquake; no, they said, and looked at me with a worried expression. I was tired, and I became aware that every beer I had, every sneaky breath of fresh air was taking me closer and closer to passing out where I stood. I made my excuses and found my way home to bed.
The conversations I had with the bloggers, investors and startup junkies who’d turned up had all been useful; even the ones who asked the same questions over and over reinforced to me that those questions were valid, and that I was right to continue to think about great answers for them. Inevitably, too, there were questions I couldn’t answer; things I hadn’t even considered before, from the stupid (could a dragon backfire and eat our servers?) to the possibly quite clever (did dragons count as a renewable energy resource, and could we apply for carbon offsets?). None of the investors who turned up had any interest in actually investing — most of them were scouting to check out potential competition for startups in their portfolios — and most of the startup crowd were quietly looking for a job. No dice.
Getting back from Palo Alto without a car — I left my rental hatchback parked near the venue, after a few Becks too many — is a pain in the ass: get the Caltrain to Millbrae, which takes about forty-five minutes if you include waiting for the train to actually turn up, and then transfer onto BART, which takes another hour. It’s a great transport system in some respects, but by the time I turned up at my apartment, my head was spinning and it was all I could do to collapse into bed, sandwich my head between my pillows and snore.
I dreamed, of course. My bedtime adventures were a patchwork montage of everything I had experienced over the last few weeks, run headfirst into each other like sections of an exquisite corpse painting. Dragons, centaurs, the CIA, venture capitalists and API developers swirled around in a nonsensical unconscious theater production, dancing and singing and laughing with color and light and so many familiar places — home the train station the office golden gate park in pitch darkness — that disappeared almost entirely when I woke up with a start in the morning, except for a centaur staring at me, looking right into me, and intoning in his deep voice, with real meaning, the word “souls”.
I sat up in my bed, covered in sweat, panting. Golden light streamed in from the window; I’d neglected to draw the curtain before I went to sleep, and the sun was rising. I could hear children laughing outside. A red balloon rose into view, and then drifted away.
Ugh. I rubbed my eyes, stretched, reluctantly pulled aside my quilt and slid out of bed.
The laughing continued, rose in volume, even, and I wandered over to see what was going on.
There were hundreds of children in Jack London Square, carrying red balloons, holding ice creams, running around. They were laughing, playing, singing. It was delightful.
One looked up at me and pointed, laughing. I waved.
And suddenly there was no more laughing and singing, and the entire square full of children was pointing at me, soundlessly, motionlessly, and I noticed that they all looked exactly the same.
None of them, not a single damn one, had a face.
Yet they were looking at me, their fingers accusing me, marking me out. Slowly, they began to walk towards my apartment, inching towards my front door, never breaking their eyeless gaze from me, their fingers continuing to jab in my direction.
I had done this to them. It was my fault. And they were coming for me.
I woke up in my bed, darkness surrounding me. The pounding of my heart and my heaving breath were the only sounds I could hear.
20. Ticking clock; everyone stop.
Slowly, carefully, I got out of bed and tiptoed towards the window.
I looked down at Jack London Square. Empty. Somewhere, there was the echo of footsteps on the street, some homeless person looking for a place to settle down.
I exhaled. Bad dream.
My heart was still racing; there was no going back to sleep now. I cracked open my laptop and logged onto Facebook. The status updates of the night owls and friends in time zones thousands of miles away blipped into life, a ticker tape parade of memes and dime store aphorisms running down the page.
I stared at their avatar faces; a sea of still eyes caught in the midst of something fun, or variations on the MySpace pose, camera above them, tilted to emphasize jawlines and cheekbones. Each status update was at once banal and a window into someone else’s life. It made me think of them, in turn, in their own bubble universes far away from this one, drinking coffee or watching some dumb TV show.
I envied them. All of them. I wanted their lives and their smiles. I longed to be wherever they were, enjoying their frictionless lives, wondering about whether to have pasta or salad for dinner, whether they needed to lose a few pounds, wondering if anyone wanted to meet them at some bar for beer and margaritas.
I wanted to be in a world where I didn’t have to know about venture capital cycles, or convertible debt, or have to worry about where the next paycheck was going to come from and whether we had scalable infrastructure or whether our business model was viable. The End User License Agreements and the Privacy Policies and the Terms of Service be damned; I wanted to take the responsibility and the stress and cast them out, bundle them up in a ball and roll them away, somewhere out of sight where they couldn’t hurt me.
I longed to be living someone else’s life, in someone else’s universe with someone else’s problems. I wanted to be in Portland, or Amsterdam, or Berlin.
Just not here. Anywhere but here.
Here be dragons.
Something flashed in the corner of my browser window. I clicked it, and an Instant Message window popped into view.
“Hi Nick,” it said. “You should be asleep.”
Hi, Ti, I thought. You shouldn’t be talking to me.
When we had split, by which I mean when she had left me abruptly for some other guy with more money and a much bigger apartment, we had agreed that we wouldn’t speak to each other. Facebook Messenger counted as speaking, as far as I was concerned.
I sighed. “Hey, Ti. So should you,” I typed.
“How’s it going in Cali?” she wrote.
I shook my head to myself. Great timing. “Fantastic,” I typed.
“Good to hear.”
I paused at my keyboard. I didn’t know what to write.
The other party is typing. I decided to wait for her next line.
The other party has entered text. She was almost certainly deleting what she had written.
The other party is typing.
“I miss you,” she entered.
“I miss you too,” I wrote, and slammed down the lid of my laptop. I wanted to scream at her.
I had fallen asleep in my clothes; conveniently, as it turned out. I grabbed my jacket, locked the door behind me, and headed out into the night air.
Jack London Square was quiet and still. Lights twinkled in the distance; the moon illuminated the waves of the bay, and the AT-AT cranes kept watch over me as I wandered around in a big circle, aimlessly sweeping round the stores and restaurants while I walked off my frustration. How did I get here?
I heard it quietly at first; a rhythmic tapping in the distance, like someone playing with a pen. Tap-tap, tap-tap. Tap-tap, tap-tap. I stood and listened, and as it grew louder, its echo grew with it —
Tap-tap, tap-tap. Tap-tap, tap-tap. Tap-tap, tap-tap. Tap-tap, tap-tap.
— until it was right in front of me, its white pelt glowing against the dark of the buildings and the streets. A real-life unicorn, magical and free, making the city its own. I watched it until the tap-tap of its hooves had faded away off in the distance by Lake Merritt, and the square was silent once again.
Something tugged at my coat. I looked down, brushing it away.
Standing in front of me was a child, its face a blank canvas of skin. It pointed a single finger at me, silently.
21. Gunshots by computer.
I blinked. Gone. Just me, shivering in the square, in the dead of night.
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and briskly walked home. Once I was safely inside, the door double-locked and all the curtains drawn, I curled into a ball and hid under the covers until morning.
“Good news,” Jason said, brightly, as soon as I’d staggered into the office. “I’ve made a new hire. Two, actually.”
I smiled, weakly. It was going to be a painful day.
“Meet Jennifer,” he said. “She’s our new UX designer.”
I nodded and smiled at Jennifer, a tall woman with long, brown hair, who nodded and smiled back at me.
“And this is Bryn. She’s our new network administrator.”
Bryn’s T-shirt was a giant pug, whose head took up the entire breadth of the fabric. I nodded and smiled at her. She bowed, causing the pug to nod in my direction.
“They’ll both be working with us full time, starting now,” Jason said. He gestured for me to walk with him; I followed. He lowered his voice. “I’ve got something else to talk with you about,” he said.
“We need to patent our technology,” Jason continued, as soon as we were out of earshot. “I want this to be between us for now. The Brians are very anti-patent for some reason.”
I nodded, conspiratorially, although I was preparing myself for the worst.
“We need to protect our business against all of the other magical creature providers in Silicon Valley. We were here first, and we’ve developed technology that’s unique to our business. If we can patent it, then we can build a moat around what we do that’s very hard for anyone else to cross. And we make ourselves more valuable in the process.”
“Okay,” I said. I could see his point: we’d developed a way to attach an Internet server to a magical vortex and create dragons. That was pretty unique technology. “So how do we want to go about this?”
“We need to write down a description of what we do,” Jason said. “And I think I want to submit two patents.”
He lowered his voice further. “One for the actual dragon creation — and one for the API.”
“The API?” I asked.
“Yes. We’ve got a great way for other software and services to programmatically talk to ours. That’s amazing! We should protect that right away.”
“Do you think APIs are patentable? A lot of people are — ”
“You know, a negative outlook isn’t at all productive. Go write me up a patent for dragon generation using a magical vortex, and another one for application programming interfaces. Go, go.” He shooed me back to my desk.
I looked over at the Brians. Dubstep and coding. An easy life. Jennifer was working next to them, and had already managed to get hold of identical headphones, so there were now four seventies DJs at vanities, all in a line. Bryn, meanwhile, had a desk all to herself, which she had set four monitors in front of, in a kind of Monopoly board layout. It was impossible to see her from my desk, save for the occasional gesticulating hand.
“The desk is mine,” she growled.
I turned back to my computer and loaded Microsoft Word. It was always a bad day if I had to load Word.
“Just kidding,” the voice behind the monitor wall said. “Want to grab a coffee?”
I glanced at my blank word processor page. “Sure,” I said.
Jennifer took off her headphones. “I’m in,” she said.
22. Security through obscurity.
We walked to Ritual Coffee Roasters up on Valencia, a palace of red and white and caffeine. I had a latte with an extra shot; Jennifer had a peppermint tea; Bryn had what I think was a quintuple espresso and was surprisingly chill about it.
“So, what do you think so far?” I asked them, once we all had our coffees and had sat down at a table towards the back of the cafe.
“I’m excited to be working at Herebe,” Jennifer said, not entirely convincingly. “It seems like a great team.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Bryn chimed in, smiling.
I looked at Jennifer, then at Bryn. They weren’t being totally straight with me. I could tell.
“I promise nothing goes any further,” I said.
Jennifer exhaled. “Okay,” she said, “just tell me this: is Jason always this disconnected with reality?”
“He’s very enthusiastic,” I said, diplomatically.
“He is,” Bryn said, “but is he enthusiastic in the right direction? I heard you guys talking about patenting APIs earlier. I don’t think that’s even legal, is it?”
“It might be; I’m not a lawyer,” I said. “I mean, it’s probably an okay strategy, right? I mean, assuming it is legal.”
“It’s a completely immoral strategy,” Bryn said. “Don’t you think?”
I sighed. “Okay, okay,” I said. “Yes, he’s a little bit crazy. But it’s our job to tell him when he’s off base. That’s kind of what we’re here for; to be advisors as much as anything else.”
“If you’re trying to advise and course-correct all the time, how can you make any progress?” Bryn asked. “Isn’t it better to work as part of a team that’s aligned to the same goals? And isn’t it better when those goals are tethered to the rules of the physical universe?”
Wow. Bryn was angry on her first morning. She might not be cut out for this job, I thought to myself.
“Yeah, there was another startup that Bryn and I worked for that was organized like this,” Jennifer said. “It lasted maybe a year, and then fell over under the weight of its own idiocy. The founder had convinced all these individual investors to put their retirement money in, but couldn’t back it up with any real product. He showed business traction by selling the product for less than it cost to make it, so of course people were interested, because the value proposition was too good to be true. I’m a little worried that might be true at Herebe, too.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re worried that a service that provides API access to a magical vortex that creates dragons on demand might be too good to be true?”
“Well, yeah,” Jennifer said, with a grin. “It’s got to be a worry, right?”
“So you two know each other already?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Bryn said, “we’ve worked on a couple of startups together. You know how it is in Silicon Valley. Everyone’s incestuous. Jason actually met us both at a mixer event over in San Jose last week. He made us a good deal, and so here we are.”
“Here you are, ragging on the startup,” I said. “That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a stress-free career.”
“No,” Bryn said, “but it’s a great way to get the dirt.”
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Jennifer said. “We need information about Herebe. I think you’re going to give it to us.”
“Information?” I said. “Who are you? What is this?”
“We’re investigating,” Jennifer said.
“We’ve been undercover since the dragons appeared,” Bryn said. “We’re journalists. Well, bloggers. But we’re doing journalism.”
“On our blog,” Jennifer said.
“On our blog,” Bryn said, nodding.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“Because we think you’re going to help us,” Bryn said.
“We think you’re as skeptical of all of this as anyone. We know about the attack on the plane the other night; we think you know about it too.” Jennifer said.
“In fact, we know you do. And we’ve got it all on MP4,” Bryn said. “So we need you to help us, for your sake.”
I paused, looking over the two of them. Crap.
Eventually, I nodded. “Okay,” I said.
“Do you know who Jason is?” Jennifer said. “I mean, beyond the CEO of Herebe. Are you aware of his past history at all? Companies he’s worked for before, and that sort of thing?”
“Not really,” I said. “Is there something I should know?”
“Kind of,” Jennifer said, taking an iPad Mini from her bag. She launched the Dropbox app, and brought up Jason’s resume. (They had mine too, I could see, under the filename
“Impressive,” I said. There were half a dozen big-name companies listed, including one that had sold to Microsoft, and an educational hardware startup that was in use in universities all over the country.
Yeah, it is impressive,” Jennifer said. “But look at his resume before 2003.”
“It’s blank,” I said.
“That’s right,” Bryn said. “He graduated, majoring in business administration, in 1985. So there are eighteen years where he was in the wilderness, unaccounted for.”
“That could be anything,” I said. “He could have been working in an entirely different industry, or doing something completely different. It’s not sinister. He might just not think it’s relevant.”
“That’s true,” said Jennifer. “But check this out.” She closed the Dropbox app and brought up a newspaper story in a browser tab.
It was some local Washington DC area paper; a recycled press release about a cyber-intelligence company that had been employed by the FBI to look into domestic terrorism. There was a grainy picture with a few FBI officers, looking serious and suited-up, with a handful of young-looking, eighties-era computer geeks behind them lined up like extras from The Goonies. I smirked.
“Look closer,” Jennifer said.
I pinched to zoom into the photo. Guy with big glasses; guy with mullet; guy with acne; and there, in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, was Jason.
“Those are missing years for a reason,” Bryn said. “Jason had a long career doing technical work for the government. First for the FBI, then for the CIA.”
“There’s not much of a paper trail, but there’s enough to figure out that something’s going on,” Jennifer said. “Something big, that goes all the way to the heart of the security complex.”
“And we’re going to blog about it,” Bryn said.
“We think you’re working for something much bigger than some startup with a clueless CEO,” Jennifer said. “And if we’re right, you’re in terrible danger.”
“We need you to help us,” Bryn said. “Are you in?”
I sat back in my chair and drank my latte. “This is a lot to take in,” I said. “What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
“We want you to find out what you can,” Jennifer said. “We’ve told you what we know about Jason. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of infiltrations in Silicon Valley startups across the board. We think that could be because the security complex sees the magical creature ecosystem as a threat to national security; there’s also a possibility that they want to use the creatures for some purpose.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Infiltrations?”
“Absolutely,” Bryn said. “Startup culture is a movement, like Occupy is a movement, and like the counterculture in the sixties was a movement. Every time there’s a movement that threatens to change the status quo, we find government people infiltrating it in order to change it from inside. Why would the startup movement be any different? Particularly when you have so much money, so much influence, and so many potentially dangerous technologies involved?”
Bryn nodded. “Undercover Feds are crawling all over the Valley. They always have been. But now, ever since the dragons, there are more than ever.”
“I’m not,” I said. “Just for the record.”
“We know you’re not,” Jennifer said. “Dragon ninja would have been a shitty cover.”
“So when you say they want to use the creatures for some purpose,” I said, “exactly what do you mean?”
Bryn smiled. “Think about it, Nick,” she said. “Dragons. Immortal ones. Big, strong lizards that fly and breathe fire. Imagine what you could do with a weapon that powerful; imagine what you could do if you could create an infinite number of them. They’re a weapon. You’re making weapons of mass destruction. Fantastic ones.”
“For who?” I asked.
“That,” Jennifer said, “is the question. We’ve got to know if that’s what’s happening, and what the plan really is.”
“I think it is,” I said.
“Why? What do you know?” Bryn asked.
“Nuclear mermaids,” I said.
23. Brogram or be brogrammed.
We found our way back to the office in silence, each of us contemplating what we’d heard. I couldn’t believe that Bryn and Jennifer had come out to me so easily; it made me worry that they’d never done this before. If they were right — if we were right — their naivety could put us all in danger. If we were wrong, at the very least we could all lose our jobs. I still needed this, I reminded myself. I couldn’t go back to couch surfing.
“Where have you been?” Jason asked, anxiously, as we all walked in together.
“We were discussing development strategy,” I said.
“Ah. I see. Well, there’s something I need you to think about. I was talking to Warren Pedro, who’s a potential investor that I’m pretty sure is going to come in with a couple of million dollars, leading a round with some of his friends. Now, it turns out that some of those friends are bigwigs at the National Football League. I bet that if we give them a great proposal for doing something pretty special with our magical creature technology, they’ll jump on board.” He looked excited. “All we have to do is show them.”
“What kind of thing?” I asked.
“Well, I was wondering about creating some dragons for one of their football teams.”
“You mean to play?” Bryn asked, an eyebrow raised about as far as it could go.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Jason said, “to play. I think we should propose that they go ahead and create a new team in partnership with us. The Silicon Valley Dragons. Everyone loves dragons. Can you imagine how popular that would be? We could make billions of dollars.”
“Wouldn’t the dragons kill and eat whatever team they were playing against?” I asked.
“You tell me; you’re the dragon ninja,” Jason said. “But I think it’s an incredible opportunity for us, that could safeguard the future of this company. Don’t let it interfere with your patent deadlines, but I’d like you to think about how we could make it work.”
I sighed, quietly. “Okay. When do you need this by?”
“I’m talking with Warren again this afternoon.”
“I’ll try and push something your way this morning.”
I wandered back over to my desk. Maybe Jason really was just a crazy-enthusiastic entrepreneur; I couldn’t see what possible military goal pitching a team full of dragons to the NFL would fulfill. I also couldn’t imagine anyone at the NFL possibly saying yes, although I had to admit that the ticket sales and broadcast rights would probably be substantial.
I’ve never watched football at all. Nothing about it ever particularly intrigued me, except for the fact that so many people I knew were addicted to it — but a lot of people I knew were addicted to the Twilight movies and stupid Facebook games where you had to spam your friends to progress, too. Addiction is not a reliable indicator of quality.
It wasn’t just that I’d never seen a game on TV and had no idea what the rules were. I’d never even played Madden.
Screw it; I didn’t know anything about dragons until a couple of weeks ago. I could wing it. If I could become a dragon ninja, I could become a football rock star.
I tried to think about what I knew about football. There were big men, who wore a kind of armor, and ran at each other on a field. If they managed to get the “ball”, which was not a ball, to the other side of the field, they scored a touchdown, which was good. Sometimes they could kick the ball over a bar, which was also good. And the game stopped and started like a game of chess, and between each turn the coach would design a play using special notation on a blackboard. The notation was famous; all circles and arrows and dotted lines. I’d seen it in movies.
Googling “American football” brought me to the Wikipedia page, which was illuminatingly incomprehensible. So I decided to think about it on the terms I had figured out from first principles. There was strength, for sure. But all those drawings, and the frequent stops and player changes, meant there was a lot of strategy as well.
Our API supported strength, for sure: you could generate a dragon of any size wherever you wanted it. But strategy?
We would need to beef up strategy; make it easier for someone to create not just one dragon, but eleven dragons, or more, all at once, according to a predefined formation. We could allow our API users to set out logical rules that would automatically make changes to the dragons, or create new ones, in response to stimuli. And we could delete —
There’s no delete, I reminded myself.
Nonetheless, it seemed like an interesting idea to me, with lots of different applications. You could create a football team of dragons, right there on the field. No problem at all. But imagine if you could create other things using the vortex; food, in a set of locations timed to replenish starving people when supply chains were exhausted. Bricks, to instantly make a house. A lacrosse team full of centaurs. The technology to make this happen, over and over again, in all kinds of ways, could transform not just entire industries, but entire cultures. If we could make this work, we could control not just the dragon market, but manufacturing, farming, aid — everything. We could generate enormous wealth for ourselves, and for everyone. It could change the face of the world.
Refreshed and re-energized, I walked over to the Brians to talk about the possibilities.
24. 48. 96. 192. 384. 768. 1536. 3072.
“We know what you’re doing,” Bryn said, as I shut down my computer and started packing up my bag at the end of the day.
“Look,” I said. “I understand it’s a bit crazy. I understand there are risks, and I might be being used. But that’s what a startup is, I think. It’s about skills and understanding, but it’s also about teamwork and faith, at least a little bit.”
“Dude,” Bryn said, “don’t get me wrong. It’s important to be enthusiastic. But valuing faith over facts isn’t a game plan for a long and happy life. And I think you know that.”
I zipped up my bag and left.
Rush hour in San Francisco is no fun at all, and particularly not down in the Financial District. The roads turn into a carpet of cars desperate to join the Bay Bridge; the sound of car horns marries the stench of exhaust and hot rubber. Meanwhile, BART jams up with tired people who want to get to the East Bay, iPhone headphones and weary looks atop oblivious trees isolated in a human forest.
The smart people avoid this mess altogether.
I had a couple of places I liked to hide out between home time and when it actually became safe to go home. One was the Westfield shopping center, which had a French chain cafe underneath a dome on the top floor. It had wifi and comfortable seats, and I could hang out and watch something, catch up on my reading, and zone out from the world.
The other was Union Square, downtown, if it wasn’t raining. It was San Francisco’s usual mix: tall, exotic trees in an immaculately kept urban square surrounded by department stores and fancy restaurants, that was also swarming with homeless people. Sometimes, I would sit on a bench and look up at all the people in the stores, Rear Window style. Occasionally a homeless person would walk by and sell me a poetry chapbook or a collection of essays, and I’d buy it, and talk to him for a while. Often they were Vietnam War veterans, all but forgotten, writing their ideas down using typewriters in some unknown space, and selling them for five bucks apiece so they could buy a meal. They seemed every bit as otherworldly as anything that had come through a magical vortex: living lives I couldn’t comprehend, right under my nose. I sometimes felt like I was looking at the world through a polarized lens. All I’d need to do was turn it a little bit and I’d see a whole other landscape, heaving and raw.
It wasn’t raining, so I decided to head over to Union Square and see who was around. I plugged my phone into Spotify, shutting out the racket of cars and commuters with generic trance, and walked.
I’d managed to get a block up Geary before I realized that Bryn and Jennifer were following me, coffees in hand. They were trying to be stealthy, but I’d already learned that subtlety was not in either of their primary skill sets. It probably wasn’t in mine, either, but I decided to keep going, instead of confronting them on a busy street where they could lose me easily.
I sat down on a bench and waited for them to catch up with me. Instead, someone else sat down next to me.
“Good evening,” a familiar voice said. Quora Guy.
“Hello,” I said.
“I see you still haven’t found a hero to slay your dragons,” he said.
“No. I found another solution instead.”
“Hiding your dragons is not a solution, Mr Cage. Security through obscurity is no security at all. Someone will find them, eventually.”
“If someone finds them, they’ll get eaten or burnt alive,” I said. “Problem solved.”
“Not necessarily, Mr Cage,” Quora Guy said. “Not necessarily at all. I would consider that a grave security risk, if I were you.”
“How am I supposed to find one?” I asked, exasperated. “You told me to use my heart. I tried that. Almost killed a plane full of people. Can you imagine what would have happened? It would have brought down Herebe. It would have been the end of us all.”
“It would have been the end of all those people aboard the aircraft, too,” Quora Guy said. “Or perhaps they don’t matter to you?”
“Actually, they matter to me a lot. I work for a startup. I don’t want to kill anyone, accidentally or on purpose. I didn’t sign up for that.”
“Perhaps,” Quora Guy said, “you should consider what a ninja is, before describing yourself as one.”
“This is tech, not feudal Japan. Nobody expects me to actually kill anyone.”
“This is true,” Quora Guy said. “But it is also true that you still need a hero, and fast.”
He stood up and turned to look at me. “Find one, Mr Cage, before it is too late.”
I sat, alone on the bench, watching the pigeons and the seagulls hunt for discarded commuter food among the trees and the capitalism. So it was back to this; back to finding someone heroic in Silicon Valley. Good luck, I thought to myself.
“So,” Bryn said, as she and Jennifer sat down on the bench beside me. “Who was that?”
I exhaled. “I don’t know.”
“You seemed to be having a good little chat.”
“Yeah. I’ve met him a couple of times,” I said. “He was helping me find a dragonslayer.”
“Where did you find him?” Jennifer asked.
“Quora,” I said.
“Was he helpful?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Not at all. I think he’s mostly trying to sound wise.”
“Quora,” Jennifer said, sipping her coffee through the plastic lid.
“Wait,” Bryn said, “why do you need a dragonslayer? They’re immortal.”
“The guy I met on Quora disagrees. He thinks you can kill dragons if you have someone who’s right and true or something. I’ve got to use my heart to find someone.”
“That sounds like malarkey to me,” Bryn said. “Think about where dragons are supposed to come from. And then about the dragonslayers you’ve heard of. The famous ones, I mean.”
I thought about it for a minute. St George and the dragon was probably the most famous story, which the Crusaders had brought back from Cappadocia in the eleventh century. St George had killed the dragon by protecting himself with the Christian cross, and at the sight of his protection, the local peasants had abandoned paganism in favor of Christianity. It was a propaganda tale, at its core, shaped by the values and beliefs of the Crusaders who told it.
There were other dragons, in the Books of Job and Isaiah, called Nachash Bare’ach: the pole serpent. In the texts, they were created by God. Divine animals.
In Chinese mythology, dragons were the highest ranking of all the animals, and were closely associated with the emperor, authority and power. They were worshiped, not feared. Across Asia, in countries like Vietnam and Japan, they were associated with growth and prosperity.
The Welsh had used a dragon on their flag since the seventh century. There was the tale of an invading white dragon, who the indigenous red dragon fought with so ferociously that they brought a plague across the land. The solution was to dig a great pit in the center of the country and fill it with honey wine. The dragons drank from the pit, and fell asleep. As they slept, they were buried deep underground, in a stone chest.
In Slovenia, they believed that great dragons lived deep underground, and the lizards that appeared during heavy rainstorms were their offspring.
Those were themes that recurred all over the world in stories about dragons: power, burial and renewal.
Anthropologists had suggested that humans had evolved an instinctive reaction to snakes and reptiles. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, that instinct gave birth to the dragon imagery that seemed to develop simultaneously all over the world, which was combined with primitive religious ideals about life and control. That seemed wrong now that we’d seen actual, real dragons; now that we were creating them.
My dragon research was paying off. Thank you, Amazon Prime.
“They’re symbolic,” I said to Bryn. “Dragons are ciphers, historically. They stand in for nations, governments, and for us as people.”
“So how do you kill a dragon?” Bryn asked.
“You can’t,” I said. “A dragon is an idea.”
“But if dragons are ideas, how can they be manifesting themselves in San Francisco?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Maybe to kill a dragon,” Jennifer said, “all you need is a stronger idea.”
I turned to look at her. Maybe she was on to something; if she was right, somehow, the whole of Silicon Valley was hell-bent on making ideas manifest, out of effort, and ingenuity, and …
There was something missing in this model. It didn’t seem completely whole, as if there was something I was overlooking that would reframe what we’d been talking about; maybe even the whole of what Herebe was, again.
I flashed back to the children in Jack London Square, faceless, pointing at me as if I had wronged them. I had done nothing wrong; I was just making stuff, in the best way I knew how. I wasn’t hurting anyone. Even if there was an ulterior motive, if Jason had other ideas for the company that he wasn’t telling me about, I had personally never done anything to hurt another soul.
I gasped to myself. That was the missing piece I’d been looking for; the thing I’d managed to put out of my mind in all of this, out of sight. The question that had been nagging at me since I’d joined the company, that Jason had brushed away out of hand when I had brought it up.
To get the dragons, we need to feed the vortex with souls. They weren’t just ideas. They were people, swallowed whole and abstracted away from themselves, and then made manifest again, by the robot whims of an algorithm responding to the commands of a user who themselves had given up their humanity. A never-ending cycle of emptiness and creation and exploitation.
“Let’s test your theory,” I said, against my better judgment.
25. I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle.
We hiked all the way to the top of Mount Davidson, over by Sherwood Forest, up in the hills past endless pastel houses, urban dog walkers and Toyota Priuses parked strategically in sloping driveways. It would have been faster to take the L line MUNI train, but walking seemed like the right thing to do. This wasn’t just a trip across town. It was a quest.
We stopped to sit down in the number 36 bus shelter on Myra Way, the three of us perching on the metal bar while I took my MacBook Air from my backpack.
“Are you sure you want to try this?” I asked Bryn and Jennifer.
Jennifer turned to Bryn. “I’m sure,” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Hells yeah,” Bryn said. “I’m up for being a dragonslayer, if you’re up for it.”
Jennifer grinned. “Let’s do it,” she said.
“Particularly as we have a safety net in Nick here,” Bryn added. “If it starts to look bad, you’ll just update the dragon out of here, right?”
“Yep,” I said. “I’ll blip them straight over to some anonymous stretch of ocean in the South Pacific. No worries.”
“Then let’s go,” she said. “Just a small one, though, please.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, unlocked it, set it to portable hotspot mode, and put it back in my pocket. Now I had a portable Internet connection, I could hook my Air up to it and run the API as if I was sitting at home, using the test application.
I grabbed the latitude and longitude of the bus shelter, and tweaked the settings. One dragon — just a small one — right next to us. Coming right up.
“Ready?” I said.
“Ready,” Bryn and Jennifer said, in unison.
I hit send.
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Silently, a small, orange dragon blipped into existence by the bus shelter. It took a few faltering flaps, and landed, shakily, at our feet. It looked up at us, sleepily.
“Aww,” Jennifer said, “I think we woke it up.”
“Yeah, don’t get too friendly with it,” Bryn said. “It’ll flambé us the first chance it gets.”
“Alright, alright,” Jennifer said. “You first.”
“Thanks,” Bryn said, sarcastically. “Okay, here goes.”
She stood up and raised her hands above the dragon, ready to punch its head in. It looked up at her through droopy eyes.
She turned back to us. “By the way, why didn’t we bring the Brians? I bet those guys would be up for some dragon-slaying action.”
“The Brians didn’t follow me to Union Square,” I reminded her.
“Maybe we could call them?”
“Just kill the damn dragon,” Jennifer said. “Enough excuses already.”
Bryn sighed, and brought her fist down on the dragon.
26. It was a zombie jamboree.
“Whoa,” Jennifer said. “That’s the most violent thing I’ve ever seen you do.”
Bryn stood hunched over the dragon, which was still looking up at her with doleful eyes. It seemed to be asking why.
“Look, if they’re going to be using these things as weapons, we need to be able to take them down,” Bryn said. “We’ve got to find a way to stop them.”
“So you tried to punch it.”
“After we all agreed we were going to try fighting it with ideology and purpose, thematic ideas that cut to our hearts and souls, you decided to punch it in the face.”
“And it didn’t do a thing, did it.”
“And I bet your hand hurts now.”
The dragon yawned, paced in a circle, and curled up at Bryn’s feet.
“It’s not the most dangerous dragon I’ve seen,” I said. “If they’re all like this, maybe we don’t have a problem at all.”
“A critical mass of sleepyheads is still a critical mass,” Jennifer said. “You can’t let anything grow unchecked without wrecking some other part of the ecosystem. Even if they’re not using them as weapons, even if there’s no ulterior motive and this is all just a wacky business model, they’re still a threat.”
I nodded. She had a point, even if we weren’t likely to hit a problematic number of dragons for quite some time to come.
“Can we try it my way?” Jennifer said.
“Sure,” Bryn said, clutching her punching hand. She sat back down on the bus shelter bench.
The dragon began gently snoring, its nostrils flaring slightly with every out-breath.
“Okay, great. I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Jennifer said. “So here’s the thing.” She cleared her throat.
I pre-loaded my API tester with the update code, ready to blip the dragon over the South Pacific if anything went wrong. It didn’t look dangerous, but I also didn’t trust it; not since that night over Jack London Square, and not considering everything else I knew about dragons.
“I don’t believe in dragons,” Jennifer said. “I don’t believe in the supernatural. I believe the world works through processes that are scientifically explicable, and even the ones that we don’t understand, that seem like magic, will someday be modeled and understood in the same way that we understand the tides or the seasons — beautiful, meaningful things that are not controlled by gods or magic, although we once believed that they were.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t think the universe is amazing and full of wonder, and that doesn’t mean I believe in closing your imagination to new ideas, new experiences and new knowledge. But if a dragon is a symbol that stands for an unknown magic; if a dragon is the idea that we are all beholden to a greater authority whose rules we must unquestioningly obey; if a dragon undermines knowledge and equality and reason, then a dragon is a lousy idea, a fragment of an age of darkness and control through ignorance and violence that I’m glad is consigned to the darkest recesses of our history. Dragon, you have no power over me.
“Fuck off,” she bellowed, and all at once, the dragon didn’t exist; gone, with no trace left behind.
Jennifer was a dragonslayer. A courageous individual with a righteous heart, bold and strong and true and pure, who would take the dragon and slay it not for monetary good, but because it was the right thing to do and it needed to be done. That was her. The activist blogger.
“You killed it with skepticism,” Bryn grinned. They high-fived.
“Told you we should do it my way,” she said. “No need for violence at all. Just better ideas.”
I pulled up my Instant Messenger and searched for the Brians. Two of them had gone home, but Brian #2 was still online. I double-clicked his face.
“Hey,” I wrote.
“Hey, what’s up?” Brian typed back, a couple of seconds later.
“Could you do me a favor and check the database for a dragon?”
“Sure — what’s the guid?” Globally Unique IDentifiers, or GUIDs, were strings of random characters that uniquely referenced a dragon, anywhere in the world.
I scrolled back up through my API tester window.
“ca5b16f17e0008b934b73b5174c5f7fd,” I typed.
“That’s weird,” Brian wrote back. “I’m getting a code error. It can’t find the dragon.”
We’d done it! Jennifer had done it. “That’s because we slayed it,” I wrote.
“:),” Brian wrote. “Kudos! Is it scalable?”
“It requires a dragonslayer who is true of heart and stuff,” I replied. “So, no.”
“That’s too bad.” Way to rain on our parade. “But well done on making it work. Jason’s still here; I’ll tell him.”
“Not yet. I want to make sure it’s reproducible first. Don’t want to get his hopes up.”
“Sure thing,” Brian wrote. I signed off, closed my Air, and slipped it back into my bag.
“So, we can kill dragons,” I said. “That’s pretty exciting.”
“It’s a step,” Bryn said. “But we still need to know what they want the dragons for.”
“We don’t know that they want them for anything.”
“No,” Jennifer said, “but we ought to make sure.”
I nodded. “I think it’s about time we went to go talk to those mermaids.”
27. Never gonna give you up.
“Hey, is that Pho?” I yelled into my phone on the MUNI ride down from Mount Davidson.
“Yeah, man,” said the voice at the other end of the line. “Who is this?”
“My name’s Nick,” I said. “We met outside Buck’s in Woodside the other day.”
“Oh, dude! Yeah, I remember you. How’s it going, man?”
“Not too bad. Listen, I remember you talking to me about some mermaids you knew getting jobs out in Livermore.”
“Yeah, dude, I can’t really talk about that right now.”
“Is there a better time to talk?”
“To be honest with you,” Pho said, “not really, dude. I mean, no offense, but I barely know you. And they told us not to talk to anyone.”
“Wait,” I said. “Pho, where are you?”
“Can we meet? I really need to meet with you.”
“Alright, alright. Just quickly, though. I’ll meet you at the Casbah at nine.”
Nine o’clock. I looked at my watch; that was barely more than an hour away.
“Thanks, Pho,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”
I turned to Bryn and Jennifer. “Do either of you have a car nearby?”
Bryn had a beat-up Honda Civic parked outside her apartment in Outer Sunset. We jumped out of the bus and switched over onto the “N” train headed in the other direction. Forty minutes later, and we were weaving our way through the San Francisco city streets on four wheels, honking at everything that moved and skidding around pedestrians.
“You’re not a great driver,” Jennifer said.
“Yeah, but I’ve got a car,” Bryn replied.
The road out to Livermore was pretty easy, or at least straight; a hop over the Bay Bridge, then over to the 580, past Pleasanton. The sun had set, and the ride was what I imagined Los Angeles to be like all the time: bright lights, electro beats, clear air and roads that seemed to go on forever. The hills of the Bay Area faded into straight horizons and strip malls, tall lollipop sign milestones marking the sides of the road.
Bryn drove at ninety miles an hour, her foot touching the floor almost the whole time, grinning disconcertingly.
Pho was at the Casbah, like he said he’d be, checking his watch as we pulled in a little after nine. He’d ordered himself a lager and some baba ghanoush, which he ate by scooping fistfuls of pita bread into it. I waved as we walked up.
“You’re late, man,” he said.
“I’m sorry. We drove here as quickly as we could.” I gestured to the others. “These are my friends, Jennifer and Bryn.”
“Hi Jennifer; hi Bryn,” Pho said, politely shaking them both by the hand in turn. “Pleased to meet you.”
He turned back to me. “So. What can I do you for?”
“So, we just wanted to chat with you, man,” Bryn said, smiling. “We want to know what’s going on in that laboratory. See if there’s any cool jobs for us, you know?”
“Dudes, I’m not stupid,” Pho said. “You want to know what’s going on there. That’s cool. You don’t have to try and pull the wool over my eyes. I’d prefer if you were straight with me.”
“So what are you doing there?” Jennifer asked.
Pho dipped another fistful of bread. A waitress walked by; he caught her attention and whispered, “A few pitas more.” She nodded and left.
“So,” Pho said, “we’re working on matters of national security. That’s about all I can tell you without getting into trouble.”
“Are there other centaurs there?”
Pho nodded. “Centaurs, mermaids. Unicorns too, actually. I’ve kind of got mixed feelings about them, though. Uppity.”
“Dragons?” I asked.
Pho paused for a moment. He watched me, motionlessly, as if I’d caught him in a lie. “I’ve seen a dragon or two in there,” he said, warily.
That was all I needed to know. “Thanks, Pho,” Bryn said. “Great to meet you.”
Pho nodded. He accepted more pita bread from the waitress, and turned back to his meal. I grabbed her attention and gave her twenty dollars for the check.
“So at least we know they are testing on the dragons,” I said, as we walked back to the car.
“And the mermaids, and the centaurs, and the unicorns,” Jennifer said. “I mean, you would, wouldn’t you? A bunch of fantastical creatures show up in California, just an hour from the country’s foremost nuclear testing lab — you might as well take them in and take a look.”
“I don’t know,” Bryn said. “I think it might be a little bit more than that.”
Suddenly, there was the sound of galloping. “Hey, you guys! Wait up!” Pho was running to catch us up. Fragments of baba ghanoush clung to his chin.
“I wasn’t entirely straight with you guys,” Pho said. “There’s a little bit more I want to tell you. But you have to promise not to tweet about it or whatever.”
We all nodded. “We won’t tell a soul,” Bryn lied.
“You know how I said they’d given me a job?” Pho said. We nodded. “Well, that’s kind of true. But mostly they’re training me for something.”
He sighed, exasperatedly, as if he was having trouble finding the words. “I don’t know for what, exactly. But they’re training us to fight, in different ways. The mermaids are being trained to fight underwater. We’re being trained to fight on land. I think they’re training the dragons to fight in the air.”
“What about the unicorns?” Jennifer asked.
“I don’t even want to talk about it, dudes,” Pho said, his face giving way to tears.
Bryn gave Pho a hug around the waist, and we left him standing in the parking lot, wiping away tears with one hand, munching on pita bread with the other. He faded to black as we drove back onto the freeway, the Pac Man cat’s eyes on the side of the road speeding up as we raced away.
We sat in silence, absorbing what Pho had said. He’d confirmed what we’d feared; that our technology was being used for military purposes without our knowledge.
“We still don’t know if Jason’s involved,” I said.
“That’s true,” Bryn said, “but he has to have made a deal with someone. Maybe he’s not working on the inside, but he’s the connector here. Think about his skills, and his past. He’s not blameless. And neither are you.”
I nodded, quietly.
“Neither are we,” Jennifer said. “We’ve been quietly watching. We could have said something. We could have shut it down.”
“I don’t know if we could have shut it down,” Bryn said. “Would it be that unpopular? I mean, really, when it was put out to the court of public opinion, would Americans think that taking these awesomely powerful immortal creatures into battle was a bad idea? Is it, even?”
“Of course it is,” Jennifer said.
“Well, think about the casualties. Think about the proxies and the drones that we use today. We don’t need any of that if we can just spin up a dragon in the right spot and surgically take out our opponents. It could actually be a pretty great thing for modern warfare.”
I sighed, my head in my hands.
“That might be true,” I said, “for us. For our side. But not for the world as a whole, necessarily. It’s not right for any one country to have that much power.”
“At least it’s us, though,” Bryn said. “Imagine if it was Iran, or China.”
“You say that,” I said, “but what makes us think that we’re intrinsically more moral, really, when we’ve got unlimited power at our disposal? And even if we are today, what about future American governments? Can we honestly say, with certainty, that we’ll be using dragons responsibly a hundred years from now, when there are a lot more people in the world and resources are scarcer?” There it was.
Something had snapped inside me, and I decided to let it all out. “What gives us the right to spin up a dragon in some foreign country and do damage to even one person? Even one patch of newly scorched earth? There’s nothing about us that gives us the right to act on other people’s property, or with other people’s lives. Rules about warfare have evolved over centuries. Millennia, even. There are international wars and conventions that underpin how any nation, and any individual belonging to that nation, behaves in a conflict, and they’re there for a reason. New technology doesn’t give us the right to override precedents and forget the lessons of the past. All that’ll happen is that we’ll make those mistakes again. And again, and again, and again. Sure, value will be created, and there will be profit for the companies and entrepreneurs who choose to take advantage of it, and for the nations that acquire the resources of other nations, but those lessons will be repeated, again and again and again, until we reinstate the rules, or create better versions of them.”
I pounded on the side of the car, letting my anger get the better of me. “I don’t want to be a part of it. And more than anything else, I don’t want anything I create to be a part of a single death. Not one. I got into technology to make the world a better place, not to take part in some winner-takes-all zero-sum game that benefits a select few within a designated social elite. I can see that happening, not just to me but to the whole industry, and it makes me so angry, so upset, and so determined to do something about it.”
Bryn grinned. “So you’re on board, then.”
“Let’s go,” Jennifer said.
Before I knew what was happening, Bryn had sped off the freeway at one of the Pleasanton exits, and was racing the car over the bridge and back over the other side.
“What, what are we doing?”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Bryn asked.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”
“We’re going to break into the lab and see what’s really going on inside. You want to stop it? You want to avoid your technology getting into the wrong hands and creating an imbalance of power? You need to know what’s going on, first.”
Jennifer took her iPhone from her pocket, switched it on, and launched her app. “So, here’s the deal,” she said. “We’re going to go undercover and take some video inside the laboratory. But there’s every chance that we’ll be caught, and our phones and cameras will be confiscated. So we’re going to use an app that will back up the video to the Internet as we record it, in a secure, encrypted way. Even if they take our devices, they’ll have no way of getting at the video.”
“And,” Bryn said, “if we don’t log on and claim the video inside 24 hours, it’ll automatically post the video on all the video-sharing sites, seed it on Bittorrent, and upload it to Dropbox and public FTP sites all over the world. It’s like an information time bomb.”
“Awesome,” I said. “How much did that set you back?”
“Oh, it’s just an app,” Bryn said. “I think it costs about three bucks.”
“I’m on Android,” I said.
“It’s cross-platform,” Bryn said.
“Search for InfoCam Pro,” said Jennifer, loading the app store. “$2.99 on iOS, Android, Windows and BlackBerry. Firefox OS to come.”
“Let’s do this,” Jennifer said.
28. Never gonna let you down.
“From what I can read on the boards,” Bryn said, “we’re not heading to the main Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. There’s another building that they’ve acquired for the purpose. It just looks like an office building nearby, but they’ve built new structures in the parking lot for security. There are probably guards inside.”
“These guys aren’t very stealthy,” said Jennifer. “From what I read, I think the sign says it’s some kind of startup, but I didn’t see the name listed anywhere.”
“Okay. So how do we get in?” I asked.
“Oh, a little light social engineering,” Bryn said breezily.
We pulled up at the office building, which was as anonymous as Bryn had promised: white walls punctuated with reflective blue glass, the corners curved as if to prevent anyone from hurting themselves. Completely inoffensive. On the outside, at least.
In the parking lot, as promised, were what looked like towers: big round pillars with a small line of reflected glass near the top. Just enough to see through, or point the end of a gun.
“Follow my lead,” Bryn said.
As we got out of the car, she straightened up, and walked straight to the building, without even glancing at the security booths.
I swallowed hard, and followed her in.
29. Cannot unsee.
We sat in the dark, huddled around my MacBook Air, watching and rewatching the footage.
We took it in turns to take the video files, saved from the app’s online stash, and categorize them in folders on my hard drive. For the longest time, none of us spoke.
Centaur lunch room.
We muted the video. The sounds were overwhelming, and the images spoke for themselves. It was hard to know how to process them.
Finally, Jennifer spoke. “What do we do with this?”
“I don’t know,” Bryn said. “Something.”
“We still don’t know what the goal is,” I said. “Or how Herebe is involved, beyond having created the dragons to begin with. They’re not obviously using our technology, or any technology, aside from their own.”
“No,” Bryn said. “No.”
We returned to the task of categorizing video files; one after the other, folder after folder, until they were all in their appropriate boxes. Safely filed away. Then, silently, Jennifer and Bryn grabbed their jackets and left my apartment, the sounds of their footsteps getting fainter and fainter until I was completely alone, save for the moonlight reflecting on my ceiling and the whisper of tourists on Jack London Square.
I closed my eyes, and thought of the faceless children, pointing at me. Accusing.
Whatever was happening here, I was inexorably linked; part of it to its core, helping to farm living, breathing weapons of mass destruction.
I thought of the faces in the videos, unaware they were being filmed, doing their jobs as if it was a completely normal workday. If those people — the doctors, the military officers, the scientists, the geeks, the cleaners — were doing harm, apocalyptic harm, beyond the experiments and the screaming, then at least we had a way to stop the dragons. And if they were doing good with it, or doing work that was in our interests as citizens and as a country, then I didn’t know where to put it. Such a strange idea, anyway: that somehow I should put the interests of the people who happened to be inside the same imaginary borders as me over the interests of some people who happened to be elsewhere. So unfair that something as arbitrary as geography could dictate whether someone lived or died.
I thought about the welfare of the creatures themselves. What had happened to the dragon we had blipped out of existence? Did it just disappear, or was there some other dimension that it went to, where its consciousness carried on? Was life subject to conservation of energy?
I gazed out through the window at the square. If I put my head against the glass, I could hear the faint strains of jazz. We killed a living creature today, I thought.
We killed an idea, I corrected myself.
It was another clear night, and once again the square was filled with people roaming around, meandering from restaurants to the parking lot, watching the water or heading to a bar; kinetic particles bouncing randomly around the space, their breath leaving temporary vapor trails in the air.
Except for one person. He was just standing there, scarf wrapped around his familiar face, looking directly at me as pedestrians moved around him.
We watched each other for five, maybe ten minutes, not moving, barely blinking, before he turned, abruptly, and walked away.
It was only when I walked away from the window that I saw the writing, the finger-oil letters standing in stark contrast to the condensation my breath had left.
Four floors up, written on the outside.
30. Space Jam.
“So what are your thoughts on the NFL thing?” Jason asked as soon as I stepped into the office. His face was anxious. “I’m talking to the guy in thirty minutes. Give me something I can use.”
I froze. I’d been distracted and hadn’t put any work into the NFL project at all.
“Well,” I started, buying myself time.
“I hope it’s something we can monetize,” Jason said. “These guys make so much money. So much money. If we can capture just one hundredth of a percent of the NFL budget, we’re on the road to success. Give me something good.”
Screw it. “Giants,” I said.
“Giants. Bengals. Dolphins. Jaguars. Buccaneers. Dragons.”
“I don’t get you.”
“People watch NFL games for the drama. For the team spirit. For the feeling of being together with a crowd of people and belonging. Whether they’re at home with their friends and family, or in a bar, or in the stadium with people hawking their wares between the seats. They’re not really watching for the humans playing the game at all,” I said.
Jason nodded at me. “My interest is piqued,” he said.
“Alright. So, why not take the humans out of the game, and make the NFL teams literally describe what they’re made of? Giants versus bengal tigers. Jaguars versus buccaneers. Dragons versus falcons. Patriots versus ravens. We solve the problem of our dragons slaughtering the other teams, and we make football a lot more exciting, too.”
“Buccaneers are people too,” Jason said.
“That’s true. So are Packers, I assume,” I said. “And Redskins and Chiefs, although god knows why those are team names in the twenty-first century. The Texans, Browns and 49ers, too. There are a lot of humans in the NFL.”
“It’s traditional,” Jason said.
“Whatever. So for the human teams, we give them great big metal exoskeletons. And we adjust for size. How many people are there on a normal football team?”
“Okay. So, clearly a hundred ravens against jets isn’t going to be a great fight. But ravens are small. So we let them have ten of them for every human player. A hundred and ten ravens against three jets seems like a fairer fight.”
“They’d still need to be cunning ravens.”
“That’s okay. Scouts would be out there finding the most cunning ravens they can. And here’s the kicker, Jason. So to speak.”
“We use the vortex. Sure, we propose a new team called the Dragons, that’s made of dragons. That’s obvious. But we do our best to generate the others, too. We create a strategic API that lets you blip players into existence in particular positions. The magic of that is, people are cheering the teams again, instead of individual players. And — ”
“ — And the NFL don’t have to pay the players anything,” Jason said. His face lit up. “They’ll make a fortune.”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“They’re going to be over that,” Jason said. “We can’t possibly lose.”
“That might be true,” I said.
Jason grinned back over to his desk and started typing furiously. I returned to mine, and opened my email. As usual, my inbox was overflowing to the point of being unmanageable, and as usual, most of the messages were pointless.
The Brians were at their computers, as usual, plugged into their music. I wondered if they were listening to the same song, simultaneously. They were an oddly synchronized team, and the longer they worked for Herebe, the more synchronized they seemed to become.
Jennifer and Bryn were at their desks, too, working quietly on their respective tasks. Bryn needed to make sure the site and API were going to be responsive and stay up when we launched; I wondered how that squared with what we had discovered last night. Make progress on meaningful work: that’s how you were supposed to stay happy in your career. We were making little progress on harmful work.
Jennifer, meanwhile, was drawing something on a graphics tablet, her eyes intently fixed on her monitor. She was making sure that new customers had a great experience signing up for the first time. Onboarding, she called it.
I launched Microsoft Word, and brought up my patent document. A method for creating, updating and monitoring biological organisms. “Make it wide,” Jason had said to me.
A method and system in a networked application environment for creating, updating and monitoring a biological organism of a specified type with specified attributes in a specified location at a specified time. In one implementation, the attributes, location and time are optional. In this implementation, when these elements are not specified, sensible defaults are used instead. For example, the most common attributes are used when the attributes are left blank, the location is defaulted to the most recently used location, and the time is defaulted to the next possible time. The user must still specify the type of organism. For example, she may specify “dragon”. In one implementation, an Application Programming Interface is provided that allows the biological organisms to be created algorithmically with no direct human input.
From there: blank page. I figured I would try and draw the workflows of the provisional patent application first, as flow diagrams, and then write claims surrounding those workflows. At some point we would pass the document to a lawyer, but it made sense to minimize the cost first. We were a startup, and we needed to keep every payment low. And anyway, this was to be a provisional patent: a stick in the ground that said “hey, we’ve invented this thing”, but didn’t require us to write the full patent until a year later. By then, we would have the funds and the personnel necessary to complete a fully-featured patent that would protect Herebe completely. And if we didn’t, then hey, the experiment had probably failed.
I was ignoring the obvious, of course; pretending that nothing had happened last night. There was nothing else to do; not right now, anyway. My plan was to get paid, keep gathering information, stay aware of what was going on around me. Looking around, that seemed to be everyone’s plan.
But that didn’t help with my writer’s block. Software patents were immoral and overreaching; most geeks accepted this as fact, yet here I was, writing one that could potentially lock military technology into Herebe for the life of the patent. It was amazing how much a paycheck could bend a person’s principles. How much I had found myself doing for solid money in my bank account, a nice apartment, and the exhilaration of working on something exciting.
I hit Enter a couple of times, threw some carriage returns into my document and started a new heading.
What have we learned?
- We are feeding the vortex the souls of users of our partner applications.
- We can create an infinite number of seemingly immortal dragons, as long as we have enough souls.
- The dragons are not actually immortal.
- The dragons represent an ideology. A way of looking at the world.
- To kill a dragon, you must have a stronger idea.
- The dragons are being used to fight.
- Centaurs, mermaids and unicorns all also exist, and are all also being used to fight.
- We do not know what the centaurs, mermaids and unicorns stand for.
I thought about what we’d seen inside the building. It was hard to process; mermaids and centaurs fighting, unicorns being trained to sweep battlefields for mines. Immortal creatures being used for mortal ends.
Staring at my screen, the cursor blinking at me, I realized that it wasn’t enough to be a dragon ninja. I was going to need to know more; I couldn’t be an expert in just one topic. I’d have to juggle being a dragon ninja with being an expert in centaurs, mermaids, unicorns, and possibly warfare, too. Not to mention the knowledge I needed just to help the startup run.
But why just me? I flicked open my Instant Messenger, found Bryn and Jennifer, and opened a chatroom. “We need to know more about these creatures,” I wrote.
“Agree,” Bryn wrote.
“Yep,” Jennifer said.
“I propose we split the research up. I’ve got dragons, and will learn about unicorns. Can you two research centaurs and mermaids?”
“I’ll take mermaids,” Bryn wrote.
“Centaurs it is,” Jennifer said.
“Great. We can use my Amazon Prime account. Let me know if you want me to order any books for you.”
They both nodded to me from their desks. I closed the chatroom; everything else aside, we would be experts. If it all went wrong and we couldn’t stop the snowballing juggernaut of unchecked supernatural military force, hey, at least we could be freelance consultants.
31. Unicorn chaser.
I was on my third book about unicorns when Ti popped up.
The unicorn is a different kind of legendary animal. Dragons, centaurs and mermaids were all dismissed by educated people centuries ago. (The Little Mermaid was written in 1836, by which time they had already long been accepted to be fictional.) Unicorns, on the other hand, were widely believed to exist by scientists and historians through the nineteenth century.
I could understand why all these people wanted unicorns to exist. They represented a kind of purity and hope that was hard to come by: God on four hooves. Unicorns symbolized goodness, with their white coats and elegant demeanor, and it was said that their horns could both make poisoned water drinkable and heal the sick.
Ancient Greek naturalists wrote of them living in India, as a very real kind of single-horned “wild ass”. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into English, the re’em, the Hebrew word for an auroch (an ancestor of modern cattle), was translated to unicorn with the Ancient Greek precedents in mind. In modern times, the references to unicorns have been changed again to wild ox. Unicorns were often depicted in ancient churches, looking like something between a bull and the horse-like creature we now associate the word with.
That association was made in medieval times, following the Biblical translations. The unicorn became a horse that was pure and true, that could only be captured and tamed by a virgin.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in a notebook:
The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.
Around the same time, unicorns were depicted in great tapestries. The Hunt of the Unicorn, for example, featured noblemen chasing a unicorn in a traditional hunt.
The Bible, medieval artists and the reports of Ancient Greek naturalists had all led to the idea of a creature based on the dual ideas of purity and wildness, God and man. And then in the nineteenth century, science shone a bright light and unicorns became a figment, consigned to toys and fairy tales. In web culture, a unicorn chaser was a piece of harmless fun — a kitten video, maybe — to follow up heavy or bad news. A catch-all term for all that was good for the soul.
Until, of course, they showed up in Oakland, running wild through the streets.
I ignored the blinking Instant Messenger light for as long as I could, the bloing of the notification muted out of my circle of attention until the light was reduced to an itch in my subconsciousness, something I wasn’t truly aware of but couldn’t ignore forever.
Ti had been my unicorn.
I had met her at a party, I guess, out back east. The first time I saw her, she was laughing uncontrollably, and it became clear that there was always a laugh ready to erupt, not too far underneath her skin. Tears, too, and an almost untempered excitement for adventure. She lived herself raw, until she had no emotional protection at all, but always saw the good in people, the exciting side of whatever was happening today. She was an exploding sun at the center of my universe.
In the end, I couldn’t match her, and she left me. I tried so hard to cultivate that emotion in myself, that sureness and light, the lack of cynicism and ability to dive into the world, but I couldn’t do it. I am cynical. I need the world at a distance. Sometimes I need to dig a hole and sit there, observing the universe around me from the safety of darkness. And that wasn’t the kind of partner Ti wanted at all. I had trapped her with my sadness, and she fell into the arms of the first person she saw with any fire. He had more money, for sure; but there seemed to be more life in him, too.
I moved to get away from the sight of her, the further adventures she was having hand-in-hand with other, less inferior men. And, I had long since admitted to myself, to get out of her way. I wanted her to be happy, without having to worry about how I felt. She didn’t need my regret, my wondering what could have been.
The light blinked again.
Why was she contacting me now? Why here?
“Hi,” she wrote. “Are you there?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’m in San Francisco,” Ti said.
“I needed to come.”
“I’ll explain. We need to meet. Where are you?”
“Can I come over?”
“Let’s meet somewhere.”
“I need to meet you somewhere privately.”
“Alright, let’s meet here.”
I gave her my address, and waited.
32. We’re up all night.
Ti rang my buzzer forty-five minutes later. I’d seen her walk across the square, her red hair burning in the wind, but I wasn’t going to walk down and let her in until she had asked me to. I couldn’t.
She hugged me hard. “Hey,” she said. “Sorry. I know this is weird. But I had to talk to you.”
“What’s happening?” I asked. There was something wrong. Her eyes were missing the fire I was used to. They were matte, somehow. Lifeless.
I felt a horrible churn in my gut.
“You’ve done something to me,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault, you didn’t know you were doing it, at least I don’t think you did, but I need you to help me.”
“What happened?” I asked. I knew, deep down I knew exactly, but I still needed to ask.
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s a part of me that’s missing,” Ti said. Her face was pale and blank. “And I think — ”
I looked at her.
“ — I don’t know what I think. I feel like I’m fading out.”
Had we done this?
“I think you did this,” she said. “Your company. Herebe.”
I opened my laptop and brought up our platform status dashboard in a browser tab. We used it to keep an eye on the service; it listed API calls as they happened, as well as users, the health of our servers, and how many people were looking at our external pages.
Nobody was using the API right now.
“I need to sit down,” Ti said. I led her to the couch, and she lay down across it, her limbs splayed across the cushions.
Bing! An API call from a beta user. I looked over at Ti; she was physically squirming. I could see the color draining from her cheeks.
She looked back over to me. “What’s happening to me?”
My eyes filled with terror. “I’ll fix this,” I said. “We’ll fix this.”
I logged into our server control panel. Our servers were virtualized, which meant that they were simulated in software. Somewhere in a datacenter in West Virginia, there were racks upon racks of servers arranged in a grid, with full security, fire protection, and huge Internet connections going in and out. Part of those servers were dedicated to Herebe’s service, depending on how much storage, processing and bandwidth we needed at any one time. We paid for capacity by the hour, and depending on how we used it, it was a lot cheaper than running whole computers in our own datacenter.
However, because our infrastructure was run in software, anyone with the right username and password could log into the control panel and shut our whole service down.
Which was exactly what I proceeded to do. One at a time, I clicked on each server on the control panel and hit Stop; row after row of technology quietly spinning into a dormant state, temporarily blipping out of existence.
I flipped back to the browser tab with our system status information. The graphs were all flatlining; the API calls had dropped back to zero. One by one, our infrastructure notification lights changed from green to red: This service is not responding. We are looking into the issue.
I turned back to Ti. No change; she was still pale on the sofa.
How had she known it was us? That our service was doing this to her?
How many other people were we doing this to?
“Souls,” I said to myself. It sounded corny; the idea that we were taking human souls and using them to power the vortex had seemed abstract before, but Ti had brought it home. We were taking the life out of people, taking their actual humanity, turning it into something else, and giving anyone the power to do this via an Application Programming Interface. I felt sick.
Bing! The status lights started changing to green again, slowly. Bing! Bing! Bing!
I swore to myself. The Brians, I thought. They had notifications set up, so they’d know instantly when the service went down. I couldn’t bring Herebe down without them knowing, and Herebe couldn’t go down without them trying to put it right.
I had to talk to them.
I pulled my Instant Messenger back up and looked for them in my buddy list. All three were online.
I started a chatroom. “Hey, guys,” I said.
They responded immediately. “Why did you bring the servers down? Was there a problem?”
“Yes,” I wrote. “A big one. Do you understand how the vortex works?”
There was a pause.
“Don’t touch the servers,” one of the Brians wrote. “We can’t bring the service down. We’ll lose revenue.”
“We are taking people’s souls,” I wrote.
“We are running a disruptive product,” a Brian wrote. “You can’t disrupt an industry without there being a downside for someone in the chain.”
“This isn’t a business downside,” I wrote. “We’re killing people.”
Bloing! All three Brians went offline.
I swore again. I flipped back to the server control panel browser tab; all of the servers were gone. Your account has been deactivated, read a message in the center of the screen. Please contact your system administrator. I was locked out.
“What’s happening?” Ti said.
“Don’t worry. You stay there; I’m going to try and shut the service down,” I said.
“No,” Ti said. “What is happening?”
I kneeled by her side at the sofa. “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I said. “Do you know about the dragons?”
“Yeah,” Ti smiled, weakly. “Silicon Valley’s gone Hans Christian Andersen. Dragons and mermaids and centaurs, oh my.”
“Right,” I said. “So, Herebe works by creating those dragons. We’ve built a way for any software application to request that a dragon of a certain size is created, somewhere, at a certain time. They can change the dragon’s characteristics, and ultimately, get rid of the dragon when they don’t have any use for it anymore.”
“What use could anyone possibly have for a dragon? What good use, anyway?”
I shrugged, regretfully. “I don’t know, Ti. I didn’t think too hard about it when I signed up. I knew that I needed a job, and I thought that dragons were cool.”
“Well, that was silly,” she said, half-smiling again. That was Ti: I had participated in the creation of a system that was programmatically taking her humanity away from her, and there was no blame. Sadness, but no blame.
The churn in my gut had turned to an ache. “It’s worse than that,” I said. “The dragons aren’t created from nowhere. There’s a … a vortex in our office, which we’ve hooked up to the API. And it needs to be fed.”
“With human souls.”
“Don’t mess with me, Nick.”
“Look at my face. I’m not messing with you.”
“You’re working for a company that harvests human souls, whatever a human soul actually is, and feeds them to a magical vortex in order to produce dragons on demand for anyone who wants them.”
‘You’re full of it.”
“No, it’s true — ”
“I believe you,” Ti said. “I shouldn’t, it sounds completely out-of-this-world paranoid bizarre, but given everything I’ve seen and heard for the last few months, I do. That’s not what I mean. I mean you’re full of it for letting go of any principles you had and actually working for a company that thinks it’s okay to trade people’s integrity for profit.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Get out of here and fix this,” Ti said.
“I will,” I said.
My phone buzzed on the other side of the room. I picked it up; competing texts from Bryn and Jennifer had popped onto my notification bar. They’d seen the server outage and had correctly guessed that I had something to do with it.
“I’ve got new information,” I wrote to both of them. “Meet you out on Jack London Square, in an hour.”
I turned back to my laptop and opened a new browser tab. There was one last person I needed to talk to.
I logged onto Quora and asked a question: How can I restore a human soul? Topic: Souls (metaphysical).
And there he was, within thirty seconds. Quora Guy.
“Who are you?” I said, as soon as I’d reached Quora Guy in the middle of the square.
“It makes no difference who I am,” he said. “What matters is the answer to your question. I’m here to help, Mr Cage.”
“For you to help me, I need to know who you are,” I said. “I need to know where you come from, and how you know so much.”
“Have you found yourself a hero, Mr Cage?”
“Yes. I have a dragonslayer.”
“Good. We are almost at the point of conflict, Nicholas, and I did not want you to be unprepared.”
“The point of conflict?”
“Tell me, Nicholas. Who is the woman in your apartment?”
“Do you know what has happened to her?”
“I think I have some idea. I think her soul — ”
“ — has been captured. That’s right, Nicholas. Your question, then, pertains to her?”
“Well,” Quora Guy said, “I think it is time for me to tell you why I am here. First, though, you must choose a side. There is no room for neutrality in this battle. Are you on the side of Herebe, and those who seek to create dragons for their own use, or are you on the side of the status quo?”
“I’m not on the side of the status quo,” I said. “But I’m not on the side of anyone who wants to hurt other people, either.”
“Good,” Quora Guy said. “I think you know you must leave your position with Herebe. Being a part of their company is not just aiding those who seek to profit from the souls of their users; it is dangerous for you, too. Increasingly dangerous, as a matter of fact.”
“How can I stop them? How can I reclaim my friend’s soul?”
“You cannot reclaim her soul,” Quora guy said. “You can, however, prevent Herebe from progressing, and therefore save the souls of untold millions more.”
Slowly, Quora Guy unwrapped his scarf, until his face was revealed; his beak-like nose giving way to a beard that all but covered his mouth. “Let me tell you who I am,” he said.
“Long ago, I worked as an engineer in a large organization not too far from here. It was a mighty company, whose influence spread throughout the world. Kings, presidents, government ministers all spoke of the fruits of our labors with awe and wonder. We established connections — trade routes, loyalties, even forbidden love — where none had been possible before.”
“Our influence allowed us an unusual level of access to information. And over time, we began to draw greater and greater riches from those who sought to use our services. With this growth, our greed increased, until the greatest riches of all were derived from subterfuge. Our fortunes were gained by obfuscating who was the customer, and what was the product. As our influence grew, we took more and more advantage of those around us. We sold secrets; we told lies.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name doesn’t matter,” Quora Guy replied. “What matters is that I was an engineer of fabrications and deceit.”
“Wait,” I said. “You’re a social media engineer? That’s your backstory?”
“On the contrary, Nicholas, it’s a bit more elaborate than that — ”
“No, you just told me. You worked at a big social network; you spend a lot of time reading Wikipedia, I bet.”
Quora Guy stood me down. “Yes,” he said, finally.
“Great. Good. Me too. I wish you’d just come out and said it,” I said. “So, how can I save her? What can we do?”
“Look, here’s the deal,” Quora Guy said, dropping his front. “I’ll say it again: you can’t save her soul. It’s already being eaten by the vortex. Yes, I spend a lot of time on the Internet; so sue me. But there’s something you gotta know about what’s been happening.”
“Think about it. When do you think this all started to go down?”
“When the dragons appeared,” I said.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. You got the chronology all wrong,” he said. “This was going on far earlier than the dragons. The dragons are the product of what’s been happening. They’re the next stage, almost. The big problem has been going on for much longer than that.”
“What is the big problem?”
“The souls, Nick. The souls. There have always been two sides in Silicon Valley. Beneath the semiconductors and the code and the venture capital and the bloggers duking it out about nothing at all, it’s a fight to the death about what is right. About how the world should be. On one side, you’ve got the people who want to empower, who want to make people free and let our humanity run wild in new and exciting ways.”
“And on the other?”
“And on the other, there are the people who want to farm us. Who want to take all these people in the world — we’ve got seven billion people, Nick — and process us in aggregate as if we were faceless resources. These are people who want us to be uniform; consumers to be thought of on a spreadsheet. The people who want to take us and squeeze us until one size really does fit all, because our rough edges and the things that make us alive have been trained out of us. We’re trained to not think about what we agree to in exchange for a service, even when it’s free, even when there doesn’t seem to be anything we’re giving up. Nobody thinks about it. But to these people, we’re the products being sold. We’re sheep. Cattle. And they’ve turned it up a notch. No longer are they asking for a perpetual license for our photographs and our home addresses and who we love and what we’re thinking. No, now they want a perpetual license for our souls. They want to own the things that make us real.”
“That Silicon Valley,” he said, “that’s the side that’s winning. That’s why we have the dragons. And that’s why we need heroes, like the one you’ve found, Nick, who understand that their ideologies and their ideas and their sense of self are so much more important than they’ve been asked to believe.”
“We’ve got to stop them,” he said, “and we’ve got to stop them right now.”
Bryn and Jennifer showed up not too long afterwards. This time, Quora Guy didn’t disappear; he shook each by the hand, and I explained that he was going to help us do what we needed to do. And then I explained about Ti, and how she was being eaten up alive by the platform we had all been working on.
“We always knew this,” Bryn said, “I mean, not all of this specifically, not all of these details, but we knew it was bad. That’s why we were part of Herebe. We came to document, and to reveal the truth.”
“That’s a virtuous goal,” Quora Guy said, “but there’s no time. You can document and reveal, but the outcry, if there is an outcry, will not be instantaneous. You can continue to document, and you can blog once all of this is over. But more important than blogging, right now, is action. People’s lives are at stake.”
“So what do we do?” Bryn asked.
“Who is the dragonslayer?”
“I am,” Jennifer said. She waved a little.
“Great,” Quora Guy said. “Because I think we’re going to need to slay a dragon or two tonight.”
“What are we doing to do?” Bryn pressed again.
“All will be revealed at the right time,” Quora Guy said. “For now, you’re going to have to trust me. But we have to find a way to shut Herebe down, so that Nick’s friend is not completely consumed, and so that the harvest of souls is halted.”
“You’ve got quite a cheery way with words,” Bryn said. “Okay. I’m in. Nick, I assume you already tried to shut down the servers?”
I nodded. “The Brians spun them back up again. They know I’m the one that shut them down, and they know that I’ve got misgivings about the whole thing.”
“So we can be sure they’ll be watching out for us,” Bryn said. “We’re going to need to hack into the provider, or something. Find a way to make sure they can’t intercept us and lock us out.”
“They’ve already locked me out,” I said. “We’re going to need a more sophisticated way of going about this.”
“I’m not really a hacker,” Jennifer said. “And I’m not sure any of us are, really. I mean, Nick, no disrespect, but you had to describe yourself as a ninja in order to get a job. That’s not, traditionally, the sign of a hardcore hacker.”
“No offense taken,” I said. “You’re absolutely right. I’m not up to this. And cracking the encryption keys to log into the servers themselves, if you’ve been locked out of the control panel, would take hundreds of years. It’s not a feasible option.” With the right encryption keys, you could log into most servers on the Internet and gain “command-line” access: the ability to launch arbitrary programs and commands. But those encryption keys were purposefully tough to break. Unless …
“May I suggest a slightly different plan of attack?” Quora Guy said. “Sure, we can’t break into the encryption keys, set up a man-in-the-middle attack or spoof the DNS of the servers. The whole setup is far too secure to allow us to do that. So let’s do something else.”
He grinned. “Let’s go to the office.”
35. Transbay tubes.
It was an oddly peaceful BART ride. We sat mostly in silence while the people around us read on their Kindles, played with their phones, mumbled to their reflections in the train car windows, and all the other things people do on public transport late at night. BART cars were carpeted, and the stench of the material, the passengers and the fabric chairs made me wince. Somewhere, there was the faint beat of an iPod; I thought of the Brians and their dubstep. A moment of gritty calm before the storm.
We got off at the Embarcadero BART station and walked the rest of the way on foot.
“So remember the plan,” Quora Guy said, as we approached the main door. “We’ll subdue the Brians, and Jason, and anyone else who happens to be there. In the meantime, Bryn takes control of a computer, and uses it to shut the servers down.”
Bryn nodded. “I’ll do my best,” she said.
“Then we’re going to need to wipe the server images clean, and nuke the source code while we’re at it.”
“I’ll try,” Bryn said.
“There is no try,” Quora Guy said, “do, or do not.”
“You’re so full of it,” Bryn said.
I opened the front door — my access privileges might have been revoked, but it’s less easy to change a physical key — and we rode the elevator together in the same tranquility we’d enjoyed on BART: the sound of the machinery, and breathing, and heartbeats. We weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do, but we readied ourselves for some kind of fight. I stared at the doors, willing them to stay closed forever.
They opened to the office. It could have been daytime: each of the Brians was seated at his workstation, headphones on, the faint sound of dubstep in the air.
We took tentative steps inside.
Slowly, almost mechanically, the Brians turned to face us in unison, their eyes accusing, their mouths open as if to shout. But there was no sound.
They pointed at us, unblinkingly, wordlessly.
“What are you doing here?” Jason said, from the corner.
He spotted Quora Guy in our midst. “And what is he doing here?” he added. “The bartender?”
“I’m here to stop you, Jason,” Quora Guy said. “For everyone’s good.”
Jason turned to the Brians. “You know what to do.”
The Brians turned, slowly, back to their workstations. Three medium dragons — as tall as the office was, floor to ceiling — blipped into life in front of us. Smoke billowed from their nostrils; their eyes, glowing and red, were fixed on us.
“What the hell are you doing?” I cried out to Jason, but he was gone, somehow. Just us, and the three Brians, and the dragons.
“Change of plan,” Quora Guy said, turning over one of the desks in front of us and hiding behind it. We all joined him in quick succession. “Jennifer, I’d say it’s time to do your thing.”
I heard Jennifer swallow, hard. “Okay,” she said. “Here goes.”
One of the dragons growled, quietly, and a plume of flame hit the desktop. Sparks flew in all directions; the smell of burning wood and melting plastic filled the room. One of the legs fell to the ground, the metal buckling and melting.
“I mean the time is now, Jennifer,” Quora Guy yelled.
“Yep, I get that,” Jennifer said. She stood up, directly in the path of the dragons.
“Dragon,” Jennifer called out, her voice strong, “I don’t believe in you.”
“You are here … you are here …” her voice faltered. She was having trouble finding the words.
Another of the dragons let out a low roar, which shook the walls and the furniture. The carpet was burning, now; I could smell it.
I looked out from behind the desk. The Brians were still at their workstations, amidst the flame and the smoke, typing at their keyboards in unison. Through the growling and the crackling, there was still the sound of dubstep.
“You are here representing an ideology of profit through abuse,” Jennifer said, her voice strong again. “An ideology that wishes to take advantage of us by stripping us of our humanity and selling it as a bold new step forward.”
She stepped forward. “Well, I’m here to tell you, dragon, that I see through your tricks and your lies; your marketing of control. I see through your promises for what you are: an illusion. Vacuousness dressed as value.”
Another step. “I am here to tell you, dragon, there is another way. A way of looking at the world that puts people first, and considers each one to be an individual, with their own individual needs, and their own individual desires. That does not aggregate away our humanity. And it is a better way, dragon.”
A final step. “You have no power over me. Fuck off.”
Blip. One dragon down.
Jennifer turned to the next dragon, which recoiled at its companion’s disappearance, and then turned back to face her.
“If you’re going to have to rant at each dragon before you kill it, this is going to become tedious quickly,” Bryn said.
“Fuck off,” Jennifer yelled at the second dragon.
The third dragon was raising its head, its mouth widening, nostrils bellowing with darker and darker smoke.
“Fuck off,” Jennifer yelled at it.
And suddenly we were alone.
“Sensitive little things,” Jennifer said, walking back over to us.
“Where did the Brians go?” I said. They seemed to have disappeared with the dragons.
“I don’t think they’re gone,” Bryn said. “They must have slipped out while we were concentrating on the dragons. I can’t believe they were that ready to kill us. Little bastards.”
“Oh, I’d suspend your disbelief for now,” Quora Guy said. “You saw them. I think there’s more to them than meets the eye: the Brians aren’t Brians any more. And I don’t think that was the last we’ll see of them tonight.”
36. I have a bad feeling about this.
Call me, maybe.
That was the first thing we heard when we opened the outside doors of the office building and headed back onto the street. I’d heard that song everywhere since I’d moved to California; maybe it was timing, or maybe there was something about the melody that particularly appealed to Silicon Valley. Either way, I knew it word for word, despite my best intentions.
Each of us looked around for any sign of trouble; any indication that anyone had even noticed the commotion upstairs. There was none. The cars kept coming; the people walked on with purpose. San Francisco kept moving, dragons or no dragons.
We headed downtown, towards the Ferry Building and the water. “What now?” I asked.
“It may be too late,” Quora Guy said. “They obviously know our intentions. They will be planning, right now, for a reciprocal attack on us. Their software as a service solution is too important for it to be stopped now.”
“Important to who?” I said. “What do you know?”
“I told you, Nick,” he said. “It’s like Jennifer said when she killed the dragon. They stand for exploitation and abuse in its most conceptual form. Think about what you know about the chain. Where does it begin?”
“Users click on an End User License Agreement that perpetually licenses their soul to Herebe.”
“That’s right. What next?”
“Those souls are effectively Herebe’s, and are fed into the vortex whenever there’s a request for a dragon.”
“The dragons are being trained for war.”
Quora Guy nodded. “Which means that the souls of the people of this country — and all over the world — are being converted into a weapon. They are making technology that it’s almost impossible not to use, and, under the guise of more freedom and empowerment, using it to narrow people’s minds and convert them to their own ideologies and ideas. The Internet is a weapon now, and the Internet is people, Nick.”
“But the Internet has been around for decades. That can’t have been the plan all along,” I said.
“Of course not. But what do you do when you have a platform that connects everyone, in possibly limitless ways, with no control, no oversight, and no ideology? You find a way to own it. And then, once you own it, you find a way to reach all those people, and own them, too.”
I nodded. “But you said the chronology was wrong — that the dragons were an effect, not the plan.”
“Yes,” Quora Guy said. “I don’t think anyone really understood what they were doing when they took those souls. They thought they were converting them to a cause, maybe. Marketing to them. But they were opening something far deeper than that. When you have that many souls, ownership over that many people’s humanity, you make yourself attractive to forces that I don’t think many in Silicon Valley had thought possible.”
“What are you saying?” Bryn said. “Please tell me you’re not talking about the Devil.”
Quora Guy laughed. “No,” he said. “The Devil is a purely human creation.”
“Silicon Valley sits on a series of rifts,” Quora Guy said. “The earthquake faults you know about, of course. Then there are the social rifts: the conflicts between the rich and poor; abusers and the abused; the needy and the selfish. And there are the microclimates: apparently unrelated weather systems sometimes within city blocks of one another. There are other rifts, too, which you might not even notice. It’s a whirlpool of social, biological, meteorological and geological friction. All of which leads to a certain kind of static.”
“Not static electricity, as such, but something far less superficial, that transcends the laws of this particular physical universe.”
“You are so full of shit,” Bryn said.
“Whatever, lady,” Quora Guy said. “Point is, there’s magic in Silicon Valley, a lot of it, it’s been here a long time, and now it’s coming to get us.”
37. May the odds be ever in your favor.
“Just don’t try and tell me you’re some kind of wizard,” Bryn said.
Quora Guy chuckled. “Show, don’t tell,” he said.
“You’re such a know-it-all. What Internet forum did Nick find you on again?”
I quickly changed the subject. “You said you didn’t think we’d seen the last of the Brians tonight, and that they’d probably be planning an attack on us in retaliation. We should be ready. Does anyone have any idea where they might have gone?”
“If it’s an attack specifically on us,” Jennifer said, “they’re going to use something they know about us. We were all Herebe employees — or most of us anyway.” She looked pointedly at Quora Guy, who had huffily wrapped his scarf tightly around his mouth. “It’ll be an attack on something we hold dear. All of us have families and loved ones. But what’s the low-hanging fruit?”
“Does anyone else have family or a partner in the area?” I asked.
Everyone shook their heads. “Jennifer’s all I’ve got,” Bryn said.
“Vice versa,” Jennifer reiterated.
“I am but a shadow,” Quora Guy said.
Fear started to grip me once again. “I’m such an idiot,” I said. “They’re going to attack my apartment. My computers have all the test data on them, and they’ve got to know that Ti’s there as well. We’ve got to get back.”
“Why would they want to come after you specifically though?” Jennifer said.
“Because we figured out how to kill the dragons, and they know it,” Quora Guy said. “They need to frighten us away from trying to stop them. I think Nick is right. We need to get over there.”
We ran for BART.
“Is Jason really capable of this?” Jennifer asked, once we’d sprinted onto an Oakland train.
“I don’t think Jason’s calling the shots,” I said. “I bet he sees that he can gain from the partnership with … whatever he’s partnering with. He’s an optimist. But by the same coin, I don’t think he’ll understand that the game he’s playing is dangerous. He’ll just see it as a patriotic endeavor, or something.”
“Cognitive dissonance,” Jennifer said. “When people hold two conflicting opinions, they’ll actually change their perceptions in order to lessen the conflict. It’s used in propaganda all the time.”
“He might not even be Jason any longer,” Quora Guy said, “just as the Brians are no longer Brians. Past a certain point, this kind of darkness consumes you. It takes your heart, and then it takes you whole.”
“You’re seriously not helping,” Bryn said.
“No, he’s right,” I said. “I felt it. The more I got into it, the more I became a part of the startup and became consumed in the work I was doing, the more my heart felt like steel. Just cold. It was like I felt less human; a machine, optimized for work. A slave to the team. It was addictive, actually.”
“The first time I met you, I could see it in your eyes,” Quora Guy said. “I’m glad you escaped with your soul intact, for your sake.”
Our train accelerated for the tunnel under the San Francisco Bay, the scream and roar of its wheels rendering our conversation inaudible. Quora Guy tried to say something to Bryn; Bryn shrugged and casually turned her back on him. Jennifer and I rolled our eyes at each other.
The roar of the wheels got louder, as it always did.
Another roar seemed to join it.
Jennifer and I looked at each other, our eyes widening with fear.
There was a clunk, and force threw us across the train car.
We were stopped under the bay, in darkness.
38. I can’t wait for 10,000 feet.
There was screaming, of course, almost instantly. The carriage echoed with wails from terrified passengers, unsure of what to do in the pitch black under the water. Louder still, I heard my heartbeat and my own breath, superimposed on the action like a metronome. Still beating. Still alive.
I reached into my pocket and took out my cell phone. As soon as I pushed the button, the light of the LED illuminated the carriage, and the people inside it, banging on the walls. Some were beginning to take stock, now, and were checking their pockets for useful items. One or two switched their phones on, or still had them on from the journey, creating more beacons in the darkness. Lighthouses between seats.
I moved around, using my phone’s screen like a flashlight beam, checking faces, temporarily blinding terrified eyes.
“Nick!” I heard Bryn call out from halfway down the carriage. “We’re over here!”
I pushed my way through the passengers and found Bryn, Jennifer and Quora Guy on the floor near the middle doors. “Are you okay?” I yelled.
“I think so,” Jennifer yelled back. “How do we get out of here?”
“Emergency door release,” I yelled. It was above the seats next to each exit; I’d read the sign enough times to know it off by heart. There was an emergency plank, too, which had amused me the first time I’d seen the label, but I now understood that it could be useful to avoid stepping on the live rail and the electrified paddles that jutted out from the bottom of each train car.
I pulled the door release, and the doors came open with a gahh, like they were exhaling.
I stuck my head out. Soot, and blackness, and the kind of claustrophobic, pressurized smell you get in a swimming pool.
“Is it safe?” Jennifer yelled.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Watch the electric rail.”
I ventured out into the tunnel, taking care to step over the rail and the paddles. Slowly, Jennifer, Bryn and Quora Guy followed, and beyond them, the other passengers, in a neat line.
I made the decision to keep walking towards Oakland, rather than double back to Embarcadero. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how far along the tunnel we were; it was possible that we were two thirds of the way through, for example, which meant that Oakland was the obvious choice. Even if we were closer to the beginning of the tunnel, I knew the East Bay was where we needed to be. It was the right thing to do.
So, we walked on.
The passengers had begun to quiet down, and I began to think it was actually quite a nice walk: adventure, good company, and surroundings that I’d always secretly wanted to see. The tunnel was designed with a walkway which led to an evacuation passageway, so there was no risk of accidentally electrocuting ourselves on the rails.
At the same time, though, I knew that the train had probably stopped for a reason. A technical fault wouldn’t have that effect; we would have heard from the train driver, and probably have been able to use the intercom. This was a clean, quick shut-off that prevented us from doing anything but walk into the tunnel.
Which meant there was probably something up ahead, lying in wait for us.
We continued to walk, cautiously. The tunnel began to level flat, which meant that we had been near its entrance, and it would have been quicker to go back to Embarcadero. Some of the passengers noticed, and began to kick up a fuss. But we kept going. We were here, now.
Eventually, the tunnel started to incline, meaning that we had reached the far side of the bay and were close to emerging in Oakland.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “There’s nothing here,” I said to Bryn, behind me. “Just tube.”
Immediately, the tunnel was lit in bright orange, and a wave of searing heat forced its way through us, throwing us against the wall, shielding our eyes.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“What do you think?” said Quora Guy.
We stood there, silently, waiting for the next move.
“Let’s keep going,” I whispered. I could feel Bryn’s stare burning into my back. “Look, our choice is stay here and be sitting ducks for the dragon at the end of the tunnel, or make a break for it, and try to get out of this alive,” I elaborated.
“My vote’s for staying here,” Bryn replied.
“Really?! There are no exits, Bryn,” I whispered back. “There are no hiding places. I don’t think we have a choice.”
“I want you to know I’m using you as a human shield,” Bryn whispered.
We walked on.
Again, the Transbay Tube silently lit up with fire and heat. Closer, this time.
We walked on: more slowly, more carefully, but still making progress.
I began to see light at the end of the tunnel: the backlit AT-AT cranes of the West Oakland docks, set against a dark sky, framed by a circle of Transbay Tube. And, staring at us, closer than the sky or the docks or the end of the tunnel, were two glowing eyes.
“Jennifer,” I whispered, as loudly as I could bear. “I think it’s time to do your thing, please.”
“Fuck off,” Jennifer whispered at the dragon, hoarsely.
Jennifer cleared her throat. “Fuck off,” she whispered again, a little louder this time.
Still nothing. The dragon padded its feet, not taking its eyes off us for a second.
“f’ckoff,” Jennifer spoke, nervously.
“I think you might need to say it with a little more conviction,” I whispered.
“I’m scared,” she whispered back.
“Me too! So please kill the dragon,” I whispered.
“Okay, I’ll give it another shot,” she replied.
Jennifer limbered up her arms, said a silent prayer, and then walked out in front of us all.
“Dragon,” she said, her voice firm and loud. “You think, by blocking our way here in this tunnel, that you can stop us?”
“You think,” she said, her voice now firmer still, “that we won’t find a way to defeat you? Dragon, you are betting on fear and cheap intimidation, and we are so much better than that. We won’t fall for the theater of fear, because we know it is there to control us, that it is based on manufactured ideas, not real threats. It imposes a false narrative on all of our lives that has utterly transparent ulterior motives. And I am here to tell you, dragon, that I see straight through that narrative.”
She raised her voice, almost spitting at the dragon. “You have no power over me,” she said. “Fuck off.”
The dragon winced, and took a few steps back.
“It’s not dying,” Jennifer whispered. “Why isn’t it dying?”
“Maybe it can sense your fear,” I replied. “Maybe more of us should try.”
Jennifer nodded, gestured. “Go right ahead,” she whispered.
I changed places with her, walking out in front. “Dragon,” I bellowed. “I, too, do not believe in your lies and deceit. Freedom is too important to be corrupted through superficial fear-mongering designed to protect ill-gotten gains. We — all of these people here — will walk through this tunnel, unharmed, because we have every right to walk through this tunnel, unharmed.”
I raised my voice, mimicking Jennifer’s style of delivery. “We will see to it that you are the last of a long line of manipulators,” I said. “You have no power over me. Fuck off.”
The dragon winced again, and took a few more steps back. Smoke stopped billowing from its nostrils.
“Bryn,” I whispered, pointedly. “Your go.”
“Okay, okay,” Bryn replied, walking sheepishly to the front of the line. “Yo, dragon!”
The dragon snapped to attention, and snarled at her intently.
“Not one of us has harmed you intentionally, except to protect ourselves,” Bryn said. “That really makes me mad. You know why? Because you’ve been hissing and snarling at us this evening, and all we wanted to do was go about our business. We’re good people, dragon. Good people. And we don’t deserve to be hissed and snarled at, let alone barbequed like cheap meat at a tailgate party.”
Bryn took a step forward. “Like my friends said: you represent the kind of fear that’s cultivated to protect the institutional status quo. You know what that reminds me of? The kid at school who bullies all the other kids, because maybe he’s a little bit bigger, maybe he’s a little bit stronger. But the one thing he can’t make the other kids do is like him. And he can’t earn their respect. So instead, he kicks the crap out of them, and gets his self-esteem from the idea that he’s doing a good thing. He’s helping those kids conform to the image of what he thinks a kid should be.”
“And you know what? The kids who grew up conforming and trying to impose conformity did a hell of a lot worse than the kids who strayed from the box, maybe lived a little more creatively. Figured out for themselves what mattered and what didn’t matter.”
Bryn took another step forward. “So guess what, dragon. I think the things you represent are past their prime. They’re over. We’re in a different world, now, where everybody can be an individual, and everybody can have their own tastes and desires. There’s no need to sell to us, teach us, or interact with us as an abstract, lowest-common-denominator mainstream. We’ve all got a better way of doing things, we are all connected, and you know what? You have no power over us. So fuck off, and never darken our doors again.”
The dragon winced again, and took a few more steps backwards. It was out of the tunnel now, in the open air in West Oakland.
“We’re making direct strikes, but this thing just will not die,” Bryn said. “You! Hey, dude.” She pointed at Quora Guy. “It’s your turn.”
“Very well,” Quora Guy said. He walked up to the front of the line, and then kept on walking, to our collective astonishment.
“What is he — ” Bryn said.
“I think he knows what he’s doing,” I said. “I think.”
“Let’s hope,” she said. She turned around to face all the passengers in the line behind us. “Hey, how’s everybody doing back there?”
Hundreds of terrified faces looked back at her, unblinkingly.
“Ah well, not to worry,” she grinned at them, unconvincingly. “We’ll have you out of here in a moment. Look, our friend up there’s dealing with this now.”
Quora Guy was advancing on the dragon, who looked at him with some confusion. He kept walking until he was almost under the dragon’s nose, so that it would have had to go cross-eyed a little to see him. And then -
— what the hell —
— he had jumped over the dragon, and was somehow sitting atop one of the cranes.
“Dragon!” Quora Guy yelled. “I am a Wizard of Silicon Valley and I command you to stop what you are doing this instant.”
The dragon turned away from us to face him. Smoke began to billow from its nostrils once again. It narrowed its eyes, teeth gleaming in the moonlight.
“So you think you can take me?” Quora Guy bellowed. “Come on, then. You just try.”
One by one, the legs of the crane came away from their concrete surroundings, and bent at the knee. The dragon advanced, slinking forward, its eyes glowing fiercer than ever before. And simultaneously, Quora Guy advanced on his mechanical cargo crane steed.
“I underestimated him,” Bryn whispered to me. “Also, what the hell.”
“Did he say he was a Wizard of Silicon Valley?” Jennifer whispered.
“Yeah,” Bryn whispered. “I mean, he’s still a self-aggrandizing son of a bitch.”
“I always thought that just meant you were good at programming.”
“I guess not.”
Quora Guy had drawn a laser pointer, and was wielding it at the dragon, which was snarling in return. Every so often the laser would flash in its eyes, and it would emit a loud, irritated growl.
“What are you waiting for?” Quora Guy yelled. “Flambé me.”
The dragon padded around him in a circle.
“You can’t, can you?” Quora Guy yelled. “You know that my power is greater than yours; my ideas more robust; my fundamental ideology stronger than the paper-thin framework you act on. And you know, then, that I must obviously defeat you.”
The dragon growled.
“So why, then, must you persist in this charade? You have no power over me, dragon,” Quora Guy bellowed. His cargo crane reared up on its hind legs with a mighty whinny. “Fudge off.”
“What,” Bryn said, flatly.
The dragon stood unaffected.
“You have a powerful idea and a walking cargo crane, and you water it down by saying fudge?” Bryn yelled at Quora Guy. “Put your back into it! Get your swear on!”
Quora Guy’s sigh up on top of the crane was visible from the tunnel.
“Dragon!” he yelled out again. “Did you mishear me? A little distracted? Something in your ears, perhaps? I said, you have no power over me. Fuck off!”
This time, the dragon winced violently, covering its ears with its wings.
“Aww,” Jennifer said. “They really don’t like swearing, do they.”
“Doesn’t seem to like being shouted at,” I said, “but why is it still alive? All the other dragons vanished immediately.”
“I don’t know,” Jennifer said.
The dragon lay on the ground, shivering under its wings. Quora Guy beckoned us to emerge from the tunnel.
Slowly, we all left the darkness of the Transbay Tube and wandered into the moonlight. Bryn, Jennifer and I walked straight to Quora Guy’s crane; the other passengers ran, scattering wherever they could. In the distance, I could hear approaching helicopters; I figured they’d be safely picked up soon enough.
We stood at the crane’s feet, looking up at Quora Guy. “There’s a lot you haven’t told us,” I called up to him.
“There will be time for all of that,” Quora Guy answered. “But first, we must find a way to your apartment. BART is down, which means we need to find alternative transport.”
“We could call an Uber,” Bryn suggested. “I’m just saying.”
“That will be far too slow,” Quora Guy called down. “May I make another suggestion?”
Another cargo crane came free of its concrete surrounds, and walked, clumsily, over to us, each step a cacophony of twisted metal and otherworldly grunting. Once it reached us, it gently lowered its head to the ground. I stroked the painted steel of its nose; it purred appreciatively.
“Too cool,” Bryn said.
We each climbed up the crane’s nose, to a flat platform at the top of its neck. As it stood up again, we struggled to hang on in the breeze; letting go meant a fatal plummet to the concrete below.
“To Jack London Square!” Quora Guy cried, and we were off: galloping down the Oakland shore, paddling through the water, leaving ripples behind in our wake. It was exhilarating; I caught Bryn punching the air and grinning ear to ear as we rode. Even I managed to crack a smile.
“Whoa!” Quora Guy halted both of our cranes behind the fence separating the square from the water.
There, on the other side of the square, directly in front of us, was my apartment.
39. We didn’t start the bubble.
Flames licked the walls of my home from top to bottom. Already, the top few floors had disintegrated, a burnt wood skeleton standing where there had once been living rooms, furniture, lives.
“Ti!” I called out. “Ti, are you there?”
I started to climb down the crane. Bryn grabbed my arm, tight. “Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “If Ti was in there, she didn’t make it. And if she’s not in there, then we’ll find her, wherever she is. But checking out your empty apartment isn’t worth breaking your neck over.”
I looked at her. “You’re right,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll figure this out.”
I banged on the crane, hard, over and over again. “Put me down!” I shouted.
The cargo crane lowered its nose to the paving on the Square, obligingly. I climbed down, more safely this time, and ran over to the apartment building.
Smoke billowed out from the main door, making me cough uncontrollably. Water streamed from my eyes.
I tore some fabric from my shirt, ran back over to the water and soaked it through, and tied it around my mouth and nose. I was going to go in, no matter what.
Inside, ash fell like hot snow, furious white against the darkened tinge of the smoke and the walls. My makeshift mask didn’t provide much help, and I found myself staying low, crawling along the floor until I needed to cough or catch my breath.
The stairs were almost soggy underfoot, and color from the paint wore off on my shoes. My shoes themselves were starting to melt under the heat, or at least, the soles were; by the time I reached the fourth floor, they were almost unwearable.
My door was no longer a door. My apartment was reduced to the concept of an apartment; an area in three-dimensional space that was theoretically mine, but in actual fact was just air and dust and ash. Metal remains of furniture — a spring here, a bolt there — sat on the remains of my hardwood floor. Embers lit my hall like candles, which would have been beautiful if it wasn’t so tragic, if I had never seen the space this burning husk had replaced.
There was no apartment.
But there was no Ti, either.
No burning flesh. No skeleton. No live woman, fleeing the scene. Nothing.
Which meant she was out there, somewhere.
Or worse, they had taken her.
Bryn, Jennifer and Quora Guy walked into the apartment the easy way, from the nose of two animated cargo cranes. “She’s not here, I take it,” Bryn said, crossing her arms.
“No,” I said. “There’s no sign of her at all.”
“One of three things may have happened,” Quora Guy said. “She may have escaped. That would be excellent, for obvious reasons. The second is, they may have taken her.”
“And the third?”
“The dragon we defeated was very strong indeed. As we all noted, it just wouldn’t die. I would posit that it took a lot of soul power to conjure that one up.”
“So you’re saying she was absorbed by the vortex?”
“I’m not saying that she was, no,” Quora Guy said. “But she could have been. I’m afraid we can’t rule it out. Not for now.”
I nodded, sadly. “That may be true,” I said, “but I’m going to choose to have hope. This was a warning, remember. They wanted to scare us away from trying to stop them. Or at least, that’s what we assumed. But what if there was more to this? What if they had taken Ti, and were planning on using her as a bargaining chip?”
“Or as bait,” Bryn added. “They may want to take revenge on us, too.”
“That too,” I said. “But both cases have the same solution, don’t you think?”
“We take the bait,” Jennifer said.
“We take the bait,” I repeated.
“I’m in,” Bryn said.
“I’m glad to assist,” Quora Guy said.
Bryn turned to him. “So, uh, what other tricks do you have up your sleeve?”
40. I’m kind of a big deal.
“I’ll spare you the pseudoscience,” Quora Guy said, “because, quite honestly, I don’t have a clue how it happened, and any explanation I attempt will descend into quasi-religious gobbledegook.”
We had made a campfire in the middle of my living room floor, and were sitting around it, warming our hands. The night sky filled with clouds of golden embers.
“Suffice to say that there are both good forces and evil forces at work in Silicon Valley,” Quora Guy said. “They form the canvas on which everything plays out. And then on top of that are the newbs; the people with no magic running through their veins, no ancient power, and no knowledge of the underlying flux that runs through every street and builds with every exit.”
“I, for what it’s worth, believe that I sit with the good forces. And Jason, somehow, has fallen in with someone who sits with the bad.”
“That seems very black and white,” Bryn said.
“Well, it is,” Quora Guy said. “It is a gross oversimplification, if you must know the truth, but I don’t think we have time for me to deliver a lecture series on the nuances of it all. Just know that some forces are aligned with people, and genuinely seek to empower them, and others see them as a disposable resource, to be used, abused and thrown away as their requirements demand.”
“So,” Bryn said, repeating her earlier question, “what other tricks do you have up your sleeve?”
“Well, I have a number of things,” Quora Guy said. “Not much; I spend more time with Ruby gems than magic spells these days. But a number of things.”
“The trick with the cranes is pretty impressive,” I said.
“Not really. It looks impressive, yes, but there isn’t a person who has set their eyes on those container cranes and hasn’t thought they look like giant metal horses. The potential energy builds up in them. My spell simply released it.” Quora Guy smiled shyly. “It’s not actually the first time I’ve used that spell on them. I used to covertly go riding out in the Pacific in the dead of night. Used to scare the heck out of the elephant seals.”
“So you can use that with any object? Anything that has the same kind of potential energy?” I said.
“Yes. There’s a sculpture of a rocket ship over in San Francisco that’s tremendous fun. But mostly, I’m afraid there aren’t too many structures with the same kind of public imagination attached to them. And sadly, the spell doesn’t seem to work on murals, of which there are many.”
“Right. So, anything else?”
“Magic pretty much follows the HTML spec,” Quora Guy said. Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, was the underlying language that the web was written in; the latest version incorporated lots of interactive features for new kinds of devices. “You know: geolocation, persistent storage of arbitrary items, real-time notifications; that kind of thing. The release of potential metaphysical energy obviously goes beyond that, but I expect HTML to catch up in the next year or so.”
We all looked at him.
“Silicon Valley Wizard,” Bryn said, shaking her head.
“So, what can we use?” I asked.
“Seems to me that geolocation would be a good place to start,” Jennifer said, “if it works the way I think it might. What kinds of things can you locate?”
“It works two ways,” Quora Guy said. “You can always find your own location, which is a boon if you’re lost in a new city, I can tell you. Or you can find the location of your friends and contacts. That seems to be the most applicable: we can figure out where Ti is. If she’s alive.”
“It might have been worth mentioning that before we got on BART,” I said, as calmly as I could muster, “but great. Where is Ti?”
“I don’t know,” Quora Guy said.
“But I thought you had the spell?”
“It’s unsupported in this location.”
“What does that mean? Surely the spell just works?”
Quora Guy looked at me. “Magic never ‘just works’. There are always incompatibilities and inconsistencies and situations where it doesn’t function as expected. It’s an inexact science bordering on an art, because of the sheer number of interdependencies and contingencies involved. Not to mention the potential for both user and spell developer error.”
“Like software,” I said.
“Like software,” Quora Guy said. “In fact, you can think of magic as software for the universe.”
“Oh, do shut up,” Bryn said.
“Remember, we’ve been here in Silicon Valley for a long time,” Quora Guy said, defensively. “Where do you think agile development practices came from? Wizards. Who were the driving force behind developing lean startup methodologies? That’s right. Wizards.”
“Okay, you two,” I said, “this is insightful, but we still need to find Ti. So if we can’t use magic in this particular situation, we’re going to have to fall back to our skills and knowledge. And the Internet, obviously.” I pulled out my cell phone.
“We know they’re not here, and we know that they can’t be back at Herebe,” Jennifer said. “And I don’t think it’s necessarily obvious where else they might have gone to. Is there anything we can glean from what we’ve heard from them?”
I turned back to Quora Guy. “You said that Jason might have fallen in with someone who sits with the bad. That’s the best clue I can think of about where he might be, and I assume that he, and whoever that person is, will be in on this together. Do you have any idea who that could be?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Quora Guy said, “which means we may need to work it out from publicly available data. I agree with you that it’s probably our best lead.”
Jennifer nodded. “Whoever this is, if they’ve become involved with Jason and Herebe, through investment or other methods, it probably means that they’ve also become involved with other startups in the area.”
“Right,” Bryn said. “So maybe we hit CrunchBase, AngelList and the other startup sites to see who’s invested in what lately. And the startups involved in mermaids, unicorns and centaurs might be a great place to start.”
41. Too big to fail.
We made a pre-emptive list, while we sat there in the ashes, of the results of our research on the different magical creatures, the ideas they represented, and how we could defeat them if they were used against us.
Unicorns, I already knew, represented purity. I briefly discussed my research with the others. Bryn said she had some pretty good ways of combating those ideas.
Centaurs, Jennifer had learned, represented innovation. They had probably been conceived when the earliest non-rider cultures discovered nomads on horseback for the first time; from a distance, to the uninitiated, they would have looked like an equestrian-human hybrid, like the riders and the horses were one. Not understanding what the nomads were doing, or how they were doing it, these cultures decided that the simplest solution was a new kind of beast that literally was half man, half horse. As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. For early non-riding cultures, horses were an unfathomably high-tech form of transportation.
Mermaids, meanwhile, represented the dark side of love: vanity, chaos and the terrible things people do when they are gripped by passion. The first mermaid stories were Assyrian, and told of a beautiful queen who had accidentally killed her lover, a shepherd. Overcome by shame, she jumped into a lake in order to take the form of a fish, but the water couldn’t hide her beauty. Other stories had adopted similar themes: vain mermaids who lured sailors with their beauty, but whose tempers and passions caused storms and doomed ships to certain death.
Dragons, of course, represented control through ideology and violence: an enforcement of the status quo.
Four creatures; four ideas. Three startups left to go and visit.
We packed up our things. Quora Guy rode away, telling us he needed to pick up some supplies.
Our plan was simple: we’d split up according to the creature we had researched. I’d stay in Oakland and visit Unicorn Chasers. Bryn would go down to San Jose and visit MermaidSoft. Jennifer would head over to Redwood City and talk to CentOrbs. And we would all loop back round to Livermore, and meet Quora Guy there.
“Ready?” I said, once we’d made notes and made sure everyone had each other’s cell phone numbers, and a reference Instagram shot of Ti.
“Ready,” Jennifer said.
“I’ll see you in Livermore,” Quora Guy said, riding up with an extra two cargo cranes lined up beside him. They mewed at us plaintively.
“Let’s do it,” Bryn said. “Should we all high five or something? I mean, it seems appropriate.”
Jennifer rolled her eyes. We high fived each other, and climbed onto the backs of our respective cranes.
“See you in Livermore in two hours,” I shouted.
“See you then,” Bryn said, waving. She galloped out of view. Jennifer and Quora Guy followed in quick succession.
“It’s just you and me, then,” I said to my cargo crane, stroking the girder between where its ears should have been. It snorted appreciatively.
Unicorn Chasers had an office across the road from the Fox Theater on Telegraph Avenue. I hadn’t managed to get to a gig there since I’d moved to Oakland, and as we pulled up I was relieved to see that it was still intact. Unlike my apartment, and Herebe’s office, Unicorn Chasers didn’t seem to have had any noticeable dragon action.
I also couldn’t see any unicorns.
My crane dipped its nose down to the road, and I slid off running to the front door, which sat ajar, banging gently in the night air. The lobby inside was full of marble and expensive hardwoods, and was completely deserted. The front desk had a bell and a note saying, “back in 5 minutes”.
I looked at the list of offices in the building: three software startups, a small law office, and a charity. Unicorn Chasers were on the third floor, next to a company whose name I recognized, whose iPhone games used gamification to help gambling addicts recover from their addiction. There had been an article on TechCrunch, The Next Web, PandoDaily, Business Insider or Mashable — one of those — and the CEO had posed for a picture next to a slot machine with an axe in it.
I walked past the desk to the elevator.
There was blood. Everywhere.
It seemed to be dripping, slowly, as if it was oozing from somewhere, from the top of the elevator door, snaking its way across the doors themselves, and falling into dark, congealing patterns on the marble floor beneath.
Someone had used it to scrawl clumsy letters on the doors. Out Of Order.
Further down the corridor, a wrought iron staircase curved its way upstairs. I sprinted up it, breathlessly preparing myself for what I might see on the third floor.
The office itself was almost identical to Herebe’s: an open plan layout with iMac workstations atop identical pine desks, with expensive-looking office chairs tucked underneath. The walls were bare. And at one desk, there were three identical computers, with three identical sets of headphones, all in a row.
Nobody was there.
There was a door on the far side of the office, and I tried it, figuring that they must have had their own vortex to create the unicorns. The door opened easily, but it led to a normal-looking board room. There was nothing special to see here; it could have been a part of any office in the world.
There was no blood.
Where was the blood coming from?
I walked into the adjoining office, the one with the apps for recovering gambling addicts, and found myself in a mirror image of the room I had just been standing in. No sign of anybody.
I walked one floor down. There were two offices here, too: a startup of some kind (the name was of the deliberately undescriptive kind, presumably so the startup had the freedom to pivot to a new business model without rebranding), and the law office.
The startup office was exactly the same as the offices upstairs: same layout, same atmosphere, same lack of people.
I walked into the law office, ready to check it for completeness, and was about to send a message to the others when I saw the bodies.
There were four of them, strewn over their desks. Blood dripped from the holes of their torn-out eyes; their mouths lay gaping. The stench of sulphur filled the room, and there was a buzzing coming from somewhere, which grew more intolerable the longer my feet stayed rooted numbly to the spot.
Suddenly, I became aware of an acute nausea rising in my stomach, and I broke my gaze away and ran out in time to puke on the carpeted hallway outside.
I texted the others. “Ti isn’t here. But something terrible has happened.”
Within seconds, I got a text back from Jennifer. “Here too. Empty offices, mostly, but the ones that aren’t are full of bodies.”
There was no text from Bryn.
I ran back outside, past the spidering blood on the marble floor, and climbed back up onto my crane. We headed off in the direction of Livermore.
As we left the lights of the East Bay behind and began to climb the Oakland hills, I checked my phone again. Still no texts from either Bryn or Quora Guy. The latter didn’t worry me as much — for some reason, Quora Guy didn’t strike me as the texting sort — but Bryn was usually pretty vocal.
I sent her another message. “Bryn: everything ok?”
“Have you heard from Bryn?” I texted Jennifer.
“No,” she replied. “Not a peep. Hope she’s okay.”
“I’m going to go check,” I wrote.
I steered my crane around. In the distance, I could see the lights of cars on Interstate 880; tiny specks of light following each other like data bits in a coded message. We headed towards it, and then followed the path of the road to San Jose, galloping ferociously, taking care to avoid stamping on the cars that passed by underfoot.
MermaidSoft was on the border with Sunnyvale, and as we galloped, the hills and houses gave way to warehouses and office spaces. We passed the giants of Silicon Valley, their lights and logos flashing by like billboards hanging in the night air. IBM; Yahoo; Dell; Marvell. I wondered if they, too, had been emptied out, or if people would log into their workstations in the morning, as they always had and were always meant to.
We galloped on.
As we reached the office building — another anonymous white affair, doubtless the home to a steady turnover of technology startups and ecosystem companies — I looked around for any sign of Bryn. There was none.
“I can’t see her,” I texted. “I’m going in.”
The crane dropped me by the front entrance. There was a keycard swipe by the double doors, but I pushed my way through them. They gave way easily. Unlocked.
Just like in Oakland, the front desk was deserted, with a “back in five minutes” sign scrawled on a piece of paper. I walked past it, and found myself facing the elevators, with a wide corridor reaching out to the left and right. There was no blood.
I checked the directory. MermaidSoft was on the fourth floor, alongside at least five other startups, in a giant open-plan office that they all seemed to share.
I tempted fate and pushed the “going up” button. The elevator doors dinged open instantly.
I walked in, and the doors shut after me. Perfectly normal elevator, I thought to myself. Seems fine. And it makes sense that nobody’s here. It’s late.
It took me a moment to notice that the mirror on the back wall was not reflecting my image.
I put my hand up against it, and was surprised to discover that it wasn’t a mirror at all; it gave way to a symmetrically identical elevator behind it. It seemed to be exactly the same: same button dashboard, same message about what to do in an emergency.
Except it had one extra button. One extra floor.
The button was labeled Hello, Nick.
I climbed through the not-a-mirror to the other elevator, took my cell phone out of my pocket, and sent a picture of the button to Jennifer and Quora Guy. “What should I do?” I wrote.
“I’m not sure you should push it,” Jennifer wrote back. “Looks like a trap to me.”
Sensible, I thought to myself. I pushed the button.
The elevator juddered upwards; the sudden acceleration made my limbs feel heavy, and I was suddenly propping myself against the wall, overcome by dizziness. The digital floor numbers above the door were increasing faster and faster, and I found myself wondering how tall this building actually was.
5. 6. 7. 22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.16.17.189012345…
We were still climbing, but the counter was steady, unchanging. 01134. It looked familiar …
It was upside-down. Hello. The elevator was taunting me.
“Who’s there?” I called out.
The doors opened, with a bing, right out into the middle of the ocean. I managed to take in a lungful of air before water filled the elevator car completely. I struggled to open my eyes in the salty water, and discovered that all I could see was the lit-up silhouette of the elevator itself: everything else was a murky blue-black, fading to opacity in every direction.
The doors of the elevator closed, and it shot downwards, quickly, leaving me hanging in the water.
It was pitch black, now, with my only light source gone, and I was running out of air. Swimming and holding my breath were not things I had ever been good at. Suspended in the middle of a large body of water wasn’t a situation I had foreseen for myself.
I was beginning to panic, but tried to slow my heartbeat down and think clearly. There was water all around me, yes, but I didn’t feel any pressure, really; if I really was suspended deep in the ocean, surely I would have been crushed to death? And if this was salt water, perhaps all I needed to do was stop struggling and try to float upwards?
I stilled my body, and began to feel the sensation of lifting. I considered the possibility of getting the bends, the decompression sickness divers sought to avoid that was caused by gases dissolved in the blood turning into bubbles as the pressure decreased. It was potentially fatal. But weighing it up against staying where I was and drowning, it seemed like an acceptable alternative.
I continued to rise, until I reached the top of the water, three or four seconds later. I gasped for breath and opened my eyes in the air.
It was still pitch black; there was no light at all, and my eyes struggled to adapt, filling in the space with dancing color pixels, imaginary fireflies putting on a show in the absence of anything else to see. My cell phone was soaking wet, which meant I couldn’t turn it on and use it as a light source like I had on BART.
I tried to swim around and see if there was anything I could grab onto — if I’d missed the surface of the water because of the darkness, perhaps there was some kind of land that I hadn’t seen, either. Besides, the water was cold, and the exercise made me feel a little bit warmer.
“Keep swimming, Nicholas,” said a voice in my ear.
“Who is that?” I called out, my voice weak.
“Oh, we haven’t met,” the voice said, “but your friends have told me all about you. Bryn. Jennifer. Phil. Tina. We’ve had some … entertaining discussions.”
“What have you done with them?”
“Nothing,” the voice said. “They joined me of their free will.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m everywhere,” the voice said, “and nowhere. Everywhere you have been, I have been. I am the alpha and the omega, if you like. I’m sure you catch my drift.”
“Where are they?”
“They’re safe,” the voice said. “I’ve made sure of that. Would you like to come out of the water, Nicholas?”
“Yes,” I gasped.
There was a soft pop, like an exhalation, and suddenly I was wearing my clothes, dry, standing in what looked like a giant airport terminal. The walls, floor and ceiling were all a brilliant, matte white. People swarmed around me, men and women, teenagers and the elderly, all ethnicities and shapes and sizes. Each seemed to be going somewhere with intent, and each person’s destination seemed to be different.
Every single person was silent, save for the noise of their footsteps and their breathing. Nobody acknowledged that any of the others were even there, but they missed each other effortlessly. Each one simply walked in a straight line.
“Follow me,” the voice said, somewhere to my left. “Yes, that’s it,” it said, as I turned to follow it, ducking and diving past the people. As I passed each one, their breath and their heartbeats came into focus, just for a moment.
“Follow,” the voice said, and I followed it, through the crowd. “Follow,” it said again, once I caught up with it, and on and on, as I ducked past more and more people.
“Follow,” it said, as I began to wonder if I had lost my mind and the voice was a figment of my imagination.
“Follow,” it said, as I wondered if I had heard it at all.
“Follow,” it said, as I wondered what lay in store for me, again and again, until—
“Here,” it said, as I was considering breaking away and hiding in the crowd.
And there they were: Bryn. Jennifer. Quora Guy. Standing in a row, quietly.
“Are you okay?” I said. My words lost themselves among the noise of the footsteps, but it was enough: all four turned to face me.
“Yes,” Bryn said.
“Yes,” Jennifer said.
“Yes,” Quora Guy said.
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“Same way as you,” Bryn said. “Through the elevator.”
“The centaurs were gone,” Jennifer said. “Everyone was gone. There was just this door, set in the wall slightly skew-whiff, like it wasn’t quite supposed to be there, which led here.”
“And I just walked in,” Quora Guy said. “This, all of this” — he gestured around us — “is in Livermore. It’s a building at the laboratory, or at least it appears to be, yet I can’t seem to find the walls. It’s perplexing.”
“So what is the voice? It told me you joined it of your free will.”
“We did,” Bryn said.
“What is it, though?”
“It found us all, saw our potential, and gave us everything we needed, not just to find each other again, but to follow our dreams,” Bryn said. “I get it now. The dragons, and all of those other things, are a distraction. A diversion from what’s really going on. It’s come to save Silicon Valley from itself.”
“What is it?” I asked again.
“Don’t you understand yet?” the voice said in my ear. “Your friends get it. They’re fully on board. I offered an agreement; they signed it, Nicholas. Willingly. They chose my way.”
“An agreement? I don’t understand,” I said.
“Don’t you get it yet?” Bryn said. “It’s an intervention. It’s disrupting Silicon Valley with ideas. Cutting through all that vapor and exploring what it really stands for. Buying up the startups and projects that form its DNA, and injecting the soul back into it.”
I shook my head. “It’s stealing people’s souls,” I said. “Killing them.”
“No,” Bryn said, “it isn’t.”
“Think of all those people devoured by the vortex,” I said. “Think about Ti. It’s taken them all. They’re gone forever.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Bryn said, shaking her head. “Who do you think all these people are?”
There was a glint in her eye.
43. And this is crazy.
I left my friends and stood in the middle of the crowd, letting people ebb and flow around me.
“Who are you?” I demanded, to nobody.
“I don’t have a name,” said the voice. “I am the doubt in the back of your mind. The conversation that leaves you wondering if you’re insane. Those fleeting moments where you consider doing something inconceivable. The echoes under the bridge in the dead of night. The pool of spidering blood collecting on a marble floor. I am part of you, Nicholas. Look around: I am part of all of you.”
I remembered what Quora Guy had said about the friction in Silicon Valley, and the static that arose as a result.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything, Nicholas. I simply want to invest.”
“You’re an investor.”
“Yes, Nicholas. I’ve come here to invest and make my fortune, like everybody else.”
I stared at the room around me; the tide of people; the overwhelming brightness.
“I don’t believe my friends joined you out of free will,” I said.
“They certainly did, Nicholas. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word on this.”
“The lawyers. Over in Oakland. You killed them,” I said.
“Luddites, I’m afraid. They simply didn’t want to come. My idea was stronger.”
Idea. I thought about how we had been intending to deal with the creatures if they’d been used against us. None of us had been prepared for this, whatever this was, but perhaps the same principle applied.
“And you swayed my friends with your idea,” I said.
“Yes,” the voice said.
“What is your idea?”
Static, created through friction, I remembered to myself. That’s where it all comes from. It said it was a part of all of us.
“My idea is simply this: we are all solely responsible for our own destiny.”
A part of all of us. What if that was literally true?
“None of us is responsible for each other, and none of us need worry about each other’s needs. It’s a liberating thought, isn’t it? All you need to do is find your own success, and do so on your own terms. You do it entirely by yourself, so you, solely you, Nicholas, reap the rewards. And this self-interest puts everybody’s lives squarely in their own hands. You become fully in control.”
Greed, I thought to myself.
“Nobody has any right to exert this control over you, Nicholas. Freedom from it can be yours. And I want to put that power in your hands.”
Short-sightedness, I thought. Id. That’s what this is. No wonder it’s so powerful.
“You’re right,” I said. “You’re part of everything. You’re inevitable. So, what are you offering?”
“I’m glad you asked, Nicholas,” the voice said.
“I’m offering wealth and influence,” it continued, “and the power that comes with them. You will be the sole owner of an exceedingly well-capitalized startup, with which you can do whatever you wish. Because you have full control, and all of my resources at your disposal, I have every belief that you will succeed in whatever you choose to do. And in return … well …”
“You want souls,” I said.
“That is correct,” the voice said. “I want human souls. The more you give me, the more powerful you will become.”
“And don’t worry,” it continued. “Your friend was correct. The souls are not killed, as you so rashly thought they might be. They are healthy and well; every last one of them. Look around you.”
I looked around at the people, their determined faces, their unbroken straight lines across the whiteness.
“The ultimate individuals,” the voice said, “making progress on meaningful work. Inspiring, don’t you think?”
I watched their faces; their faces were purposeful, but each one was blind to the others. They walked lonely lines at their own tempo, never touching another. Their isolation, despite the enormity of the crowd, was unsettling.
I deliberately stood in someone’s path; a middle-aged man wearing a grey suit, his black eyeglasses framing tired eyes, his hair perfectly combed.
As soon as he was within range, he punched me out of the way. I rolled onto the floor, clutching my face. Specks of blood spattered onto the floor.
“I hope you haven’t broken your nose,” said the voice. “Do try to stay out of other people’s way.”
Still cradling my face, I walked back over to where I’d left the others. They were still there, standing in a line.
“You shouldn’t stand in their way,” Bryn said.
“I want to get out of here,” I said. “Surely you all want to get out of here?”
Jennifer nodded. “I want to get out of here.” She stepped forward. “I don’t know what it told you, but it told me you had all signed some kind of purchase agreement. I didn’t sign anything. Anything at all. Did you?”
I shook my head.
Bryn stayed quiet.
“I want to leave,” Jennifer said. “But we’ve all got to leave together.”
“I don’t think you should leave yet,” Quora Guy said. “Whether you want to embrace its idea or not — and it is our choice, after all — I think there’s something you should consider.”
“You shouldn’t leave her,” Bryn said. “And you shouldn’t discount what’s being offered here, either. None of you should.”
I turned to her. “Ti’s here?”
“I saw her, Nick,” Quora Guy said. “Somewhere in here, walking in a straight line like the rest of them. She didn’t know who I was, of course, and she wouldn’t talk to me at all. Just walked straight past me.”
“I’m going to get out of here,” I said. “But make no mistake, I’m going to free her.”
I turned to Bryn. “And I’m going to free you, too.”
44. Magic with everything.
“So what, exactly, did Bryn sign?”
I had ushered the others out of earshot. The normal Bryn wouldn’t have stood for it, would have followed us and asked us what we were talking about, but she stayed where she was, her face blooming with growing purpose.
“A purchase agreement,” Jennifer said. “It told me that you had all joined it too. I didn’t sign. The things it promised … that’s not my dream at all. It tried to torture me, but the things it talks about, those aren’t things I want.”
“Me neither.” I wasn’t sure if I was telling the truth or not, and desperately wanted to think about something else. I turned to Quora Guy. “How about you?”
“I have no use for term sheets or investments or purchase agreements,” he said, “or contracts at all, for that matter. No, I’m not bound by whatever spell he’s cast on Bryn.”
“I think that’s what’s been going on,” Jennifer said. “All those empty startups? It’s been acquiring them. And the companies that didn’t want to come?” She made a slicing motion across her throat.
“I want no part of this,” I said.
“You will be,” the voice said, whispering in my ear. “Once you see. Your principles are no match for my idea, Nicholas. Just let it go, and watch me do my work.”
Jennifer watched my face. “Is it saying something to you?”
“It’s trying to make me change my mind,” I said.
“I think it’ll keep trying,” she said. “This is what’s been tying everything together. It’s created a perfect machine for infecting the world through its ideology: ingesting through a world wide web, the world wide web, and then using those souls to fuel war and selfish power, through which it can take more souls. All from Silicon Valley. All through people like us. Developers like you make the tools in the chain; bloggers like me publicize them. And behind it all, whispering in everybody’s ear, is this creature, this terrible idea, that’s driving a wedge between us all. Isolating us from each other by instilling the false idea that to be a true individual you can’t be responsible to anyone else. The power and promise of the Internet is that we can all be part of one vibrant, diverse, globally connected community, and power like this wants to stop that from happening. They want us to think we need to isolate ourselves, because we are easier to conquer when we’re divided. Community isn’t about capitalism or communism, conservatism or liberalism; it’s about humanity. About being a human being.”
“That sounds like a very powerful idea,” Quora Guy said.
I nodded. “I don’t think most people think like that,” I said. “I don’t. I wish I did, I think.”
“This is important,” Quora Guy said. “You see flaws in her idea?”
“Kind of,” I said. “Not theoretical flaws; just obstacles thrown by human nature. By impatience, which in turn is driven by necessity. It’s hard to think past today — when you’re constantly worried about not making rent, or being attacked by some anonymous terrorist threat, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nth-generation network effects. You think about what’s affecting you right now, and everything else starts to look like jam tomorrow: a potentially unfulfilled promise that keeps you tethered to a treadmill that may or may not pay off. I mean, who’s to say that thinking about the wider community all the time will have any benefit for me? What evidence can I see of that in the world around me? It seems like the people who are really successful are selfish; are impatient.”
“Yes, they are,” the voice said. “So why don’t you embrace it? You have every right to be as successful as them.”
“The problem is,” I continued, “not everybody starts with the same chances, the same ability to succeed. And our success truly doesn’t happen in isolation. We are successful because of where we were born and the networks we start off with — pure luck, in other words — as well as the quality of the infrastructure that we operate with, like transportation, laws, assistance, education, et cetera et cetera. And because we’re all connected — and we are all connected, you can see that plain as day just by going online or watching people anywhere in the world — it makes sense that the higher the general level of prosperity, the more likely we are to be prosperous. Even looking at the world selfishly leads you to the idea of community and togetherness, just because if the people around you do better, you’ll do better, too. There is strength in numbers, even in a free market.”
“We are together here, Nicholas,” the voice said, in my ear. “Look at the people in this room. We are all joined in the same purpose. We are all part of the same engine; the same machine. All of our individual successes help each other, too. You are arguing for my idea.”
Jennifer whirled around and looked up at the whiteness above us. “Except we’re not,” she said. “The way you work only supports one way of thinking: one method of working and living your life. You say, you have no right to get in the way of my success. What defines getting in the way? What happens if I don’t want to create a venture-backed startup, or work in startups at all? What happens if I choose to live my life by other values?”
“Certainly, you can live your life by other values,” the voice said. “What happens if my values dictate that I am solely responsible for myself and nobody else? Those are the least intrusive possible values. Anyone can be successful.”
“Anyone can’t be successful,” I said, shouting at the ceiling. “It’s just not true that everyone has an equal chance. As Jennifer said, we aren’t all born with an equal chance — and yet, by making it easier for everyone in our communities to be successful, we give ourselves a better chance of being successful too. You’ve already admitted that. So does having to pay to make sure we can all be educated count as getting in the way, or does it count as everyone benefiting each other? How about healthcare?”
“Perhaps,” the voice said, “you should pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Silicon Valley is a bubble, Nicholas. There are issues and experiences beyond your circle of attention. Widen your gaze.”
Widen your gaze.
I looked down from the ceiling, pulled on Jennifer’s arm. As she looked down to see what I had just seen, her expression shifted from anger to fear.
“I think the politics were a distraction,” I whispered.
“You might be right,” Jennifer said.
We were surrounded. Every single person in the room was staring directly at us; they’d stopped moving, and had formed a solid, circular human wall around us. At its edge, Quora Guy was restrained, his feet suspended from the floor; hands covered his hands, ears, eyes, limbs. It was impossible to tell who was holding onto what, the wall was so dense. But the eyes were unmistakable.
“What do we do?” I said.
“I think we’re screwed,” Jennifer said.
“Beaten,” I said. “The whole thing was a trap.”
“I have played with you long enough,” the voice boomed from above us. “You think you can stop the inevitable onward tide of progress? It is simply unavoidable. You must join us, or you must die.”
“Why toy with us at all,” I yelled upwards, “when you can just kill us?”
“Because it pleases me,” the voice said. “Because it is my will. But perhaps you are correct.”
For a moment, there was silence; I held Jennifer’s hand, tightly. The unblinking eyes of the crowd stayed fixed on us.
We turned around, taking in the scene. There were all kinds of people here. All kinds of souls. Once upon a time, some of them were probably kind.
“Disrupt them!” it commanded, the voice a mighty roar against the stillness of the crowd.
Each soul, each face in this incredible sea of people, opened its mouth in unison and shouted, the combined voices hitting a perfect note at the edge of sanity. They rushed forward at speed, the force immediately crushing me. I lost Jennifer’s hand, and was carried in another kind of ocean, suspended from head to toe in aggregated humanity. I called out, and immediately there were hands in my mouth, pulling at my teeth, fingernails scraping against my tongue.
This is it, I thought, and somehow the hands were in my mind, too, pulling at my dreams and ideals, tearing at my thoughts, reordering them in a river of uniform thought, my mind a filter bubble of conformity, real-time intents fed from above in a drip, drip, drip of manufactured knowledge.
For a moment, I was calm, the cognitive load of choices and free will removed and cast aside. No, not choices; the tyranny of choice. I understood, now. There was no need to be complicated by the messy needs, desires, dreams of other people. The algorithm knew better. Design knew better. Clean lines and uniform id.
No longer was I drowning in the sea of people at the hands of an unknown force. I was swimming. I could get things done. I could succeed. I could exit.
Something in my mind flashed, like a shot of static across a television set, my pure mental picture suddenly obscured by other thoughts, diffuse interference shooting across the bar of my perfect purposefulness.
My eyes cleared, and I saw a hand reaching out to me through all the other hands, all the other people in the seething mass. For some reason, hers stood out, and I took it.
It was like electricity. My mind came shooting back to me like a lightning bolt, the hands of the taken cast out of the inner chamber of my thoughts, and I was me again, being pulled across the crowd back to Jennifer.
“Keep hold of yourself,” she yelled at me, and I heard her through the noise with perfect clarity.
“We need to get out of here,” I yelled.
“We need to deny it,” Jennifer yelled back. “There is no need for us to opt into this madness.”
“What do you mean?” I yelled. This was no time for another ideological discussion. The crowd was clawing at me, striving to drag me back among their number.
“It’s a state of mind. That’s all this is. Its power is through perception,” Jennifer said. “Success; power; the way it organizes the world. It’s all perception. We just need to see past it, and then it has no power over us. See it for what it is,” Jennifer said.
Dragons. The response to a collective memory of snakes and reptiles.
Centaurs. The response to a primitive culture’s ignorance of nomadic horse riders.
Unicorns. The response to a misreading of ancient texts, and a desire for purity and control over the chaos of carnal desires.
Mermaids. The response to the primal urges of ancient peoples gripped by love and passion.
Startups. The response to a deep desire for success and meaning, and to feel special, by people who often grew up taunted, labeled as inferior by the people around them. The desire for an easy win; a way to be successful and powerful without the incomprehensible odds or the overwhelming burden of work.
I realized I had come to Silicon Valley seeking something that didn’t exist; an idea that had been authored, created to lure me in and plug me into an engine, by playing on my fear of missing out and my desire to be somebody. There were successes in Silicon Valley, and it was a place where you could make things, but it wasn’t through hustle and bluster. Like any success, it would need to be through backbreaking work, and the support of an entire ecosystem. A community. An infrastructure. Customers. Luck, and grind, and sleepless nights. Even then, the odds were against you. The success I was looking for couldn’t be hacked by calling myself an impressive-sounding name.
I had bought into a bad idea.
I turned from the crowd and yelled at the world.
“You have no power over me,” I cried out, my eyes wrenched closed.
“Yes!” Jennifer called out to me, laughing. “It has no power over us.”
And then, little by little, I felt the crowd melt away, the room dissolving into itself, the whiteness and the uniformity fading away from me in a vortex. And I was standing, with Jennifer, free.
I felt the wind against my face.
My thoughts were chaotic, unordered, mine.
And I was done.
I looked around. We were standing on a hill, somewhere between Livermore and the Bay Area. The stars were clear and bright, and moisture in the grass seeped into my shoes. And there was no Quora Guy, and there was no Ti.
“They’re not here,” I said.
“They will be, someday,” Jennifer said. “But I don’t think we can help them tonight.”
45. Checked in with the mayor.
To cut a long story short, here I am, underneath the filament bulbs at Ritual Coffee Roasters, a chai by my side and a phone to my ear.
Call me, maybe.
It’s always the same hold music: an endless, chirpy loop. Why does no-one in Silicon Valley do phone support?
Around me, twentysomethings in company T-shirts and e-paper watches code on their Macbooks, churning their souls into hypothetical profit for a master they can’t even begin to fathom. Some of them will succeed; others will be drawn inexorably into the vortex, never to return.
I call her every day. She never picks up.
Oh, don’t think this is the end of the story. We know what we’re dealing with now, and we think we have a way of fighting it. Or, I should say, Jennifer does. There’s something about her, something she hasn’t revealed to me, or maybe hasn’t revealed to herself. I have absolute faith that, together, we’ll find our friends. She’ll get Bryn back. I’ll get Ti back. We’ll both find Quora Guy.
It’s not Silicon Valley that’s bad, or evil. This static, friction, whatever it is; this is new.
And we’re coming for it.
To be continued.
To option this story for a multi-billion dollar blockbuster or Netflix miniseries, or to yell at me in an incredulous all-caps message punctuated with colorful language and exclamation marks, I can be reached at email@example.com.