I approached the black-haired girl because I liked the cut of her silhouette. Beneath the low halogen lights of the office, her shadow danced on the felt, temporary walls like a shimmering reflection in milky pond water. She stood with her arms crossed, one hip bearing the load of her body as she allowed the other to languish with a leg outstretched. A man in a wrinkled shirt and greasy brown hair stood in front of her, gesticulating, and I stared at her from across the room.
“－and, you know, in a situation like that, what am I supposed to do? Kill the client? Informants can’t get away with that in El Paso. Maybe in Atlanta.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.”
“So you see what I mean. I had to dip out.”
She periodically took sips of water from a plastic cup as they talked. She was not interested.
I wasn’t sure who she was. I’d seen her once or twice before in my time working for the Union, and I knew that we were both assigned to the American West. I assumed she was an operator. With looks like hers, she could infiltrate a vampire’s coffin.
The cults and political organizations we were assigned to were small potatoes for pretty girls, though they did face a higher risk of being dispatched violently if discovered. I had always felt like that was more of a problem in the East and the South, where there existed cultures and languages that were more conducive to violently revanchist groups who could convincingly argue that they had a heritage or utopian ideal worth killing for (not that they actually did). Out West it’s all stick-framed houses and plastic siding, so any violent organizations have a more universal bent to their calls for murder, and, as everyone knows, native Americans don’t start revolutionary organizations.
Eventually the man gave her a meek wave and left. She returned a cordial smile, which vanished as soon as his back was turned. I moved forward and would have talked to her (I promised myself on pain of death), but I was called into the manager’s office for my appointment.
I shuffled to the door like a dog. I took a glimpse behind before entering; she had taken a seat on the opposite side of the room and crossed a leg. Her black skirt bulged at the hips, but she did not look at me.
My manager was a guy about 10 years older than myself, and more useless than the real thing. Real unions don’t have managers. My union allowed no collective bargaining and reported vertically to the Federal government. As such the word was a pathetic misnomer. Our union’s kapo looked the part: red face, plain button-down shirt holding in a belly which had maintained a steady slide over the threshold of his belt for years and presumably would for all eternity. Like fat, managers are never lost; they just get moved around.
This man had been manager for only a month. I forgot his name until I saw it on his L-shaped desk. Klaus Moreno. Regional Manager for the American Rental Informant’s Union in the Northwest. There were several file cabinets with half opened drawers behind him and his desk was covered with papers, and to his right, there sat a picture of what I presumed was a family photo. It was difficult to tell because the children and the parents had their eyes covered with black bars.
“How can I help you Sol?” he asked, flashing a diminutive smile.
“Soldier, if you don’t mind,” I said.
“No worries. Just trying to get off on a good foot with my new employees,” he said. A querulous expression breifly flashed across his face, before he continued: “Some people like their nicknames better than their real names. Especially in this work. I bet you’ve had lots of funny nicknames
I said nothing for at least ten seconds. Klaus sniffed and wrinkled his nose in the silence. I had vowed after my last pay reduction never to set foot again in one of these temporary offices, but this time my case was better than those on all three previous occasions when I had argued for better pay. And this time I didn’t even want to be paid. I just wanted out.
The first time I argued that I was not paid what I was offered in the initial advertisement. This was true, though I’d negotiated for lower in the interview and expected them to have lost the details (they didn’t). The second time, I’d argued that I was performing far outside the expectations of the agreement and deserved more. This was true in a sense, but I had been informing on a benign Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Dengist-Xiist cell in Northern California and such a bar is not difficult to vault.
In the end, I was merely relocated to a more difficult assignment in the Sonora desert with the Apache-Pueblo Remnant Alliance. I did not ask for a raise again for about three years, mostly because I had great difficulty leaving the desert.
APRA was a strange group; none of them were actually Apache or Pueblo, as far as I could tell, but they were dead-set on starting a native American mystic revival in the Southwest. Like I said, Native Americans aren’t interested in politics or cults, so we ended up with a lot of strange gringo-revivalist movements based around internet-forum pseudo-mysticism and psychedelics. I wasn’t unfamiliar with this type of operation, but the APRA was by far the most unique.
Their internal cosmology was somewhat gnostic in orientation: the material world, which produced plagues and wars and environmental degradation and universal human depravity, was bankrupt and evil, insofar as it did not lead to individual enlightenment. This is why, I presume, they turned to psychedelics. They were not interested in creating a Utopia or producing an actionable universal ideology to do so. Their only mission was to endow others with greater self-knowledge, under the strict the guidance of the group’s elders, of course, with as little contact with the “real world” as possible. All I had to do was get the name of the leader of whichever "tribe" I ended up embedded with and file a generic operations report when I was finished. This turned out to be an impossible task given their exorbitant costuming and proclivity for near-constant communal drug use.
The Fed put out a contract for this group after one of their frequently dispatched “War Parties” started looting truck stops along a Federal interstate. Your average “War Party” is composed of three to four psych-doused “jaguar warriors” who loot the alcohol, potato chips, and medicine, and one “shaman,” an adept who spends at least 80% of his waking life on psychedelics, whose job is to hypnotize the cashier and anyone else in the store. Miraculously, these endeavors never resulted in any shots being fired, but they did often result in property damage, and the abduction of a not insignificant number of gas station clerks, who were then adopted as ‘squaws’ against their will. Along with the cultivation and distribution of psychedelics throughout the Southwest, the APRA had become potent, if limited in their range, as an uncivilizing force. Their motto summed up their ideology: “Protracted Pueblo War, On Drugs!”
I complained about this assignment after I read the dossier but the Union didn’t care. From the outset, a condition of my employment was that I be assigned to non-violent groups only, and seeing as the APRA had never actually hurt anyone, it technically wasn’t a breach of contract.
“Soldier,” sighed the manager of the Union at the time, Rudy Butz, “I notice a pattern with you.”
“The only time you don’t complain about this job is when you actually have to work.”
“And I notice a pattern with you managers,” I said, standing up in front of his desk. “The only times I complain about this job, I’m getting screwed!” I pointed a finger at my ass.
Rudy shook his head and slid a bus ticket across the table. “Get out of my office.”
Compared with the shock of my current assignment, the APRA did seem small potatoes and I probably overreacted. But at that point, I’d never been dangled like a dog treat in front of enemies of the state before.
The plan was this: I would be dressed up as a KUM-N-GO employee at a truck stop that had been cased by suspected APRA jaguar warriors in the weeks prior. I ended up working nights there about a month before a War Party showed up, which produced in me the overwhelming conviction that a group of non-violent, acid soaked miscreants were the least of the Fed’s problems in the southwest. But sure enough, one night a group of chaotically dressed goofballs showed up on dirt bikes, and I knew my time was come. The shaman was dressed the strangest; he wore a SWAT plate carrier over a wedding dress, but instead of a bridal veil he had on a “REMEMBER THE USS LIBERTY” veterans ball-cap. In one hand he carried a staff of what looked to be three camshafts welded together.
His eyes were so dilated they looked to be almost completely black, and when he stepped to the cash register, he said to me:
“One pack of Black-N-Milds, if you please.” Then he banged the camshaft-staff three times against the tile floor.
Next thing I knew, I was sitting cross-legged in front of a campfire in the middle of the desert.
The APRA looked on me suspiciously from the outset, because, I assume, I was not the cashier they had planned on abducting. And after spending enough time with them, being force-fed psychedelics and other drugs, I developed a sort of sincere reverence for the lead shaman’s clairvoyance; I figured he knew I was an informant, and I half expected him to actually brainwash me into becoming a jaguar warrior. He might have succeeded if he did not assign sentinels to watch my every move for three entire years until I proved myself capable of a mescaline cliff-walk. Eventually the whole thing seemed rather juvenile and my hopes for genuine self-knowledge were dashed by several bad trips and the APRA’s rather dismal diet of Doritos and lizards. The cliff walk brought me back to my senses and I escaped one night after everybody else had passed out from a peyote binge.
I sojourned into wilderness that night bewildered and quite a different person. After a long time journeying the wastes of the American southwest, utilizing the handy survival skills I learned under the APRA, I happened upon an utterly odorless trailer in southern Nevada occupied by a kindly old Mormon couple.
When I knocked on the door, a white-haired woman answered, and though she was perhaps surprised to see a dirt-covered man with dreadlocks and dilated pupils standing in front of her, her overwhelming conviction in the righteousness of hospitality won over and she allowed me inside. I think she could tell from my demeanor I was simply not interested in anything more than getting my bearings. And this was sincere; I did not want overstay my welcome in a Mormon house after coming down from a three year trip.
She led me to the landline phone and I called the Union Safe-Number.
“This is McDonald’s, how may I help you?”
“I’d like a fish filet, hold the tartar sauce.”
“And what can I get you for a drink?”
“Whiskey coke, no ice.”
The line transferred and the dial tone croaked like a frog.
An automated female voice began: “You’ve reached the SOUTHWESTERN REGION Rental Informants Union hotline, for on-demand counseling, press 1. To file an audio report, press 2. For the current temp-office location, press 3-”
I dialed 3.
“The current temp office location is: TUSCON ARIZONA OFFICE SUPPLY.”
“Damn it.” I hung up the reciever. The woman’s husband had joined her and they stared at me demurely from the kitchen. “Pardon my French,” I said.
The couple’s portrait of silky-haired Mormon Jesus next to the door looked down at me concernedly as I left their trailer to hitchhike by the highway.
I resolved that I would receive my raise by any means necessary and was quite ready for violence as I made for the decrepit strip-mall retail store for stationery and old junkatronics. A few days prior, I had picked up a .45 at a pawn shop after a particularly harrowing stretch of hitchhiking with someone I was positive was a sicario. I imagined Rudy Butz’s stupid face contorted with fear if he started haggling me again.
Fortunately, I dealt with an older woman named Ms. Jemima Robinson (Butz had been reassigned to God knows where), who was kindly and sympathetic to my plea of seniority, and perhaps also frightened by my demeanor after being sober of psychedelics for the first time in three years.
“Mrs. Robinson,” I said, handing her my hastily scarwled and almost entirely fabricated 10 page report, “I just- I just don’t know what I might do if I don’t get this raise, I worked so hard. Those Injun wannabes… They might have finally pushed me over the edge.” I yawned and stretched so she could see the grip of my .45 poking out of my waistband.
“Oh- oh!” She said with endearing concern. “Sweetie, it’s no problem, I’ll file your raise right now. I can’t imagine what they put you through. You know, a business- uh, a union, I mean, with Federal contracts ought to treat it’s employees better! You’re on the front lines in the fight for freedom.”
“Oh, Jemima, do I know it! That’s the only thing that kept me going when they made me walk completely naked on the cliffs, prodding me with sticks.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “And would you believe it, they made me take drugs!”
Mrs. Robinson gasped and shook her head. “I’m so sorry honey.” She typed at her computer rapidly. Click click clack. She gasped again “Look at this! It says you’re still on the lowest salary schedule! And even after you’ve been serving for 5 years. It ain’t right Mr. Crane.”
“It ain’t right.”
She filed for the raise (which was later rescinded) and reassigned me to Wyoming, where I was confident the weather would be marginally better and the radicals less radical. I was wrong on both fronts.
- - - - -
“They call me Tancred on my current assignment. You wanna know why?” I asked Klaus.
He smiled blankly at me. “Sure,” he said.
“Because he was a crusader. ‘Prince of Galilee.’ Do you know what a Crusade is?”
“I’m familiar -”
“A crusade is a holy war. Now, as Tancred, I report to Baldwin, who is in the cell above mine. The first layer of the Triumvirate. Do you want to know the names of the others in the first Triumvirate cell?”
“I’m not sure the point, but I’m here to help you do your job, and if that means you need to just talk some things out, go for it.” I rolled my eyes and exhaled before continuing. “The other two are Constantine and Elijah. Constantine was an emperor and general who converted the Roman Empire to Christianity and ended the Tetrarchy, and Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who killed Baalist priests and rebelled against King Ahab. They don’t use their real names. They are thoroughly committed.”
“That sounds very interesting.”
“Yeah. But it doesn’t quite sound non-violent does it?”
Klaus squinted and shrugged his shoulders. “Well,” he began, “There are plenty of groups that use menacing figures for posturing, but never actually do anything. I’m sure you’ve heard of Andrew Jackson Jihad.”
“Are you really going to give me the insurance agency line on this one, Klaus? They’re not an indie band.” I rolled my eyes. “You just started this job.”
I might be new to this regional posting, but you are subordinate.” He pointed a fat finger at me. “Keep that in mind. You’re not a radical, you’re informing on radicals. We believe in reasonable, well-ordered hierarchy around these parts.” He gestured at the felt walls with wheels that surrounded the ‘office.’
“Klaus, they are called WEPT, for crying out loud. As in ‘Jesus WEPT.’ As in, ‘Wyoming Empty Planet Triumvirate.’”
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
“Not in this case. This isn’t a group of crusty academics discussing demographics in a basement bar somewhere.” I paused. “They’re asking me to coordinate the recruitment of ‘Crusaders’ to occupy the local university. That’s a planned maneuver in the next month. And that’s just Baldwin’s directive to me. I don’t know what Constantine and Elijah are planning.”
Klaus’s brow furrowed and he nodded.
“I want you to tell me to my face that they are a non-violent movement and not a contract breach.”
The lights in the ceiling buzzed.
“I’ll tell you what,” Klaus finally replied. “I used to be an informant like you. Hard to believe, I’m sure. But it’s true what they say: you pay your dues, you get moved up and on to better, higher paying gigs.” He exhaled, and moved his hands to the keyboard. “You could end up in my spot after this assignment.” He cast a patronizing, effete glance at me, before turning back to the computer screen.
“Bad news first: This would be a breach of contract, IF,” he paused and looked at me, “the organization had been violent-leaning from the beginning. There’s just no proof of that, given they’re pretty new on the scene. It sounds like they became violent-leaning AFTER you joined and achieved some seniority within their ranks. They follow a triangular, clandestine cell-structure, correct?”
I nodded.“Frankly it’s impressive you gained their trust so quickly-” “Klaus, Baldwin was the guy who was tipped off in the Union dossier. He wasn’t hard to find, and I had no idea he was in the top cell. I didn’t “move up in the ranks” or anything, that’s just who I found first.” “Humility is a good trait in a man,” Klaus replied. “You’re not a bad informant, you’re just a bit…” He paused, and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “…unmotivated. Still, I’m not quite sure why you want out. But if you ever read the Union by-laws, you’d know that these sorts of things are not breaches of contract.” He paused and put his hands up. “Don’t shoot the messenger. We let you have a lot of freedom, and while we would never say we encourage our informants to be provocateurs,” he shrugged again and furrowed his brow, “There’s no real way to know this operation wasn’t induced by you in some way. Informant-Insurgent confidentiality. This helps expedite contract fulfillment if anything.” I couldn’t even sarcastically scoff at this latest indignity. Klaus returned his eyes to the computer and began to type. “To help you along, we are going to raise your pay in tandem with the stakes. Again, you’d know all of this if you just read the by-laws. I’m bumping you up 5 notches on the salary schedule. That’s the good news. Of course, the bad news is that since the movement has turned violent, you can’t just opt out of the raise, otherwise you’ll be implicated and arrested as if you were an actual member of the group inciting violence against the body politic and the Fed.” I was speechless. When I wanted a raise, they gave me a different assignment, and when I wanted out, they gave me a raise. And to top it all off: pending my successful fulfillment of the Union contract, I was now an enemy of the state. “Do you understand how this works, Soldier? You just explained to me how you are part of an organization that recently decided to conduct violent action against a university. This organization had been previously labeled non-violent by the Federal government. You joined, moved up to the second layer of their clandestine cell hierarchy, and it became violent. You take this to the courts and it’ll be a gravy case for them.” I didn’t have anything to say. I left the office, and heard Klaus mutter something about transferring funds to my account. The bombshell with the black hair was no longer sitting in the corner when I passed through the office lobby to leave, and I was thankful. Most of the people that remained weren’t speaking to one another; they stared into space with looks that suggested a high-minded detachment, the sort that seems pretentious but in reality reflects a fear of getting to know someone you probably won’t see again, or, who you may see again, under a different name, affecting a different personality. “Bart!” Klaus called from his office. On my way out the door I passed the skinny kid who responded to the name. His face was gaunt, defeated, with hair short but shaggy and unkempt. Short of stature, and with the gait of a wounded rake. He made eye contact with me, before quickly returning his gaze to the floor, and I felt a tinge of pain watching him go by. What was he going in for? A raise? Counseling? He was young. Probably close to my age, but he must have been new to the work. He had the sort of eyes that indicated a mind prematurely fried. Probably took a violent gig right at the start. Had he killed? Had he been encouraging others to kill? Did he spend his time listening to others pressing their comrades to kill, endlessly debating the merits of violent action and free will, not knowing who was a Fed, who was in the Union, and who was just beat down a few too many times? It’s not like that sort of thing hadn’t happened before. A modular home somewhere in Nowhere-ville annihilated by prescription drugs or gang conflicts; five dead bodies, four Union, one Federal; none of the perpetrators aware that they were informing on themselves; Bubba Fud police departments left scratching their heads as to why a bunch of out-of-towners had showed up just to kill each other. I shook my head and left through the temp door to the temp office, indignant that I could not ignore the strip of vinyl signage posted above the threshold: the Rental Informant’s Union acronym in large blue and orange letters with the message “Thank you for your service!” Below, and in the corner of the sign, was bestled a tiny American flag. This temp office was in a mall, nestled in what used to be a jewelry store for young children (boys? girls? I don’t remember a time when it mattered). As with most malls, the bright halogen lights and passageway junk-hawkers were a testament to a dark power not of this world that worked endlessly to defy both the logic of capital and the aesthetic sense of the human heart. And as with most malls out west, only a few people walked about beneath the low ceilings, and between shops that were shuttered indefinitely. I left the building and walked into the open air. The day was clear and cold, customary for early spring in the Northwest. In normal circumstances I’d call for a taxi or walk to the bus station, but the location of the temp office this rotation, a little town in southern Montana, happened to be where one of my friends from college had settled down, so I called him for a ride. I plopped down on the curb. The Northwest was an exception to the rule that man could conquer nature and destroy its beauty by development. When I was embedded with the APRA I felt that the desert imposed similar restrictions on its entrepreneurs and developers, but the natural beauty of the desert wasn’t nearly so defiant against mammon as the mountains. On psychedelics I had mused that the Gods of the desert had all conspired to make the rest of the world like unto their home, but they hadn’t enough sand so they turned it all into subdivisions and malls and post offices. I remember the shaman finding my theory “entertaining.” But here: The white tops of mountains were visible some distance away. A pity I could not inform on the birds and the firs! I made a mental note to arrange a hiking expedition with my ‘Crusaders’ when I returned to Wyoming; the geography there was similar and conducive to radicalism. Eventually my friend Rod pulled up to the curb in his station-wagon, and we drove off together. “Thanks again for getting me back and forth,” I said. “No problem,” he replied. He looked over at me behind round spectacles that blew up his eyes. “I’m guessing it didn’t go well.” “I don’t think it could have gone worse, frankly.” There were non disclosure rules as an RIU informant, since the organization didn’t technically exist, but I didn’t really pay them any mind with the few people I knew well. Some people never disclosed anything to anyone, and let their private lives become as clandestine as their work as informants; that just wasn’t my style, and I would have ended up like Bart years ago if it had been. I probably could have gone to jail for my loose tongue; privatized state intelligence was still state intelligence, but Rod and I had been friends for years. From college, through unemployment after college, and through our travels looking for and eventually finding work. We confided in each other on things that would have ruined our lives five times over if they had gotten out to anyone else. I trusted his confidentiality with my business, and he trusted mine with his business (usually relating to his wife). In a practical sense, each had too much dirt on the other for us to betray one another, but I liked to think we approached an ideal of friendship that the rest of the world had either forgotten or ceased to believe in. “They’re not gonna let me quit,” I said, fumbling with the window switch in his car. “Well, they’ll “let” me quit, but apparently I’ll be arrested if I do.” “That’s not cool.” “Yeah. I told the regional manager more than I should have.” Rod seemed bewildered for a moment, but at this point, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion to him that I was going to get screwed wherever I ended up. I didn’t like to be thought of as a mark, especially since on paper I was the exact opposite, but even in my own accounting it seemed the evidence was stacking up against me. I lit a cigarette. “Who pulls the wool over the wool-pullers eyes?” “What did you just say?” Rod laughed as he looked over at me, then grimaced and snatched the cigarette out of my mouth. He rolled down the window and flicked it out. “I have a kid, dude. Do you want Jane to hate you more?” “She doesn’t hate me.” “She doesn’t like you very much.” “If you put a better word in for me, she might like me better.” “I am your most tireless advocate.” “Alright, alright.” My bus back to Wyoming didn’t leave until the morning so I stayed the night in Rod’s house. He lived in a large subdivision, replete with big homes that had vaulted and asymmetrical roofs and large yards, with just enough space between each house that anything more than a casual wave in the morning would give the neighbors a strange impression. But again, the mountains, capped white and dressed green by the firs that carpeted their sides proved such an effective salve that one felt rather grinchy complaining. Inside, past a spacious and high-ceilinged family room, Jane stood in front of their marble-topped kitchen island chopping up vegetables. A pot boiled on a stainless steel stove behind her. Their baby son cooed from a high chair and giggled when Rod approached, after we both had taken off our shoes by the door, and stacked them neatly on a rack so as not to track in any dust. “Hi buddy,” he said. The baby squeaked in response. He walked to Jane and put an arm around her. She briefly placed her head on his shoulder, and then continued chopping. I stared at the baby, and it stared back at me. Nothing in there. Maybe a spark, a tiny one. I didn’t understand what it was doing here. A child seemed too dirty for these environs; I felt it should be somewhere even farther north, in one of those Norwegian towns where the sun is always acting up and they keep reindeer as pets. You’re growing up in a place that barely exists, bud. I thought. Leave as soon as you’re able. The baby smiled at me and wiggled its arms around excitedly. I turned to the kitchen. “Smells great, Jane.” I said. “What is it?” “Creamy potato soup with oysters,” she replied, casting an expressionless glance at me. “Excellent. I don’t get many tasty home cooked meals. When you’re informing on college students you gotta act like one.” I chuffed to myself, and then cringed. I divulged secret information for the sake of small talk with a woman who did not even like me very much, and did not want me staying in her house a second longer than I needed -- and only because she loved her husband, who cared about me, even though she did not. She grabbed the cutting board and slid all the chopped vegetables into the pot. “I learned how to cook in college,” she said, turning to look at me with eyes all welled up with tears. “Onions.” I nodded and then looked at Rod. He looked away and shrugged his shoulders. Jane hadn’t liked me very much since my first semester of college, when we’d lived on the same coed floor of the same residence hall. I don’t think she trusted me. To her credit, that year I had a habit of arguing on any side of any debate I happened upon, demanding no quarter from usually unwitting ‘opponents’. Given enough time living with the same people, this reveals contradictory sentiments in your person. One exchange with 18 year old Jane stood out in my mind as particularly humiliating, and probably contributed to her opinion of me now: In the fall: “Even if Shakespeare’s supposed ‘sister’ was an incredible writer, which is HIGHLY UNLIKELY,” my 18 year old self might have exclaimed, nursing a $35 bottle of gin, “You could make the same argument for any run of the mill MAN living in Elizabethan England who didn’t have access to Shakespeare’s social privileges, WHO, I remind you, may actually have been the Pope.” This was an irrefutable line of argument, of which I was well aware and proud; Jane, a stalwart and proud Sappho specialist-in-training could do nothing but roll her eyes and harumph at me, which, in truth, had made me a little hot and bothered all those years ago, though nothing came of that, thankfully. But she caught me in my antics in the Spring, and this instance started a real fight. “Macbeth is not a story about how power corrupts. Notice who does the corrupting, and who also holds no real de facto power over Macbeth or his demesne. It’s Lady Macbeth,” I said to her in one of the dorm’s study rooms. “How can a woman write that? How can a woman possibly understand what it means to be tempted, and to be scorned by the gaze of someone in whom the whole succession of your legacy rests! How? Tell me, Jane, I want to know!” I paused. “There’s just no possible way a woman, in Elizabethan England, could EVER ascend to the heights of Shakespeare, to comprehend the subtleties of royal politics, and then write them, in flawless iambic pentameter. These assertions are wishful thinking and a product of a liberal time where women’s mass literacy is actually acceptable.” “Oh my god,” Jane replied. “Listen to yourself. It’s ELIZABETHAN England, Soldier. Shakespeare’s patron was literally a despotic Queen. You’re just a chauvinist.” She shrugged and walked off, and we never talked much after that. Jane and Rod met the semester before Rod graduated, which was five years ago, the semester before my graduation. He was a reserved computer engineering student, and she was a classical literature major. They went together like bacon and eggs. Rod blond, Jane black, he knew Python, she knew Latin. Their interactions seemed terse but meaningful, and they sought the romantic in their work, which is why Rod started a cyber security business and Jane became a housewife. Our dinner proceeded in silence for the most part. Jane ate little and quickly before retiring with her child to their bedroom upstairs. “She’s not gonna say anything, will she?” I asked Rod after I heard the door close. “I was just trying to make small talk. Sometimes I forget who I am and what I do, you know, especially when I’m around friends.” I winced internally at these last words. He shook his head. “Nah. She knows you do weird shit. She thinks you’re a private detective or a cop or something.” “That’s great. I know she just loves cops.” “You’d be surprised what having a child does to your teen radicalism. She’ll be fine.” A lump developed in my chest. Maybe Rod sensed I was trying to be genial, or maybe he sensed what I suspected of myself; that I had tried to make a person who didn’t know me very well comfortable around me so I could use them, like I had and continued to use so many people, who, admittedly, were often insane or so inculturated by their ideologies that they had ceased to act like real humans. It felt worse to use the same tactics on truly real humans, who weren’t the objects of a contact. It felt worse still that so common a manner of speaking could be twisted by context into a mercenary and manipulative behavior. “Thanks for the hospitality, man. I don’t deserve any of this. I can’t give you anything in return.” He waved his hand at me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s good to see you. You can stay here anytime you like or need. It’s not like you’re a strain on us.” Rod provided for his family and his mortgage with the money he made from his software company, which developed adversarial botnets. Mind-bending and extremely lucrative work. He explained it to me later that night over beers thus: “Nearly every website generates revenue via ads. Clicks and views on these ads lead to payouts from the advertiser to the host website. Now, this system is wide open for exploitation; the same websites will, clandestinely of course, contract other web companies to deploy bots to click and view the ads on their website. Now, the companies running the ads don’t want to pay out for fake traffic; they’d all go broke. So the service my company offers is basically the special-ops of the bot world. Tireless mercenary bots that terminate fake traffic with extreme prejudice, for a small monthly fee. “Each instance of engagement is cross-referenced with data from authentic users, provided by various social networks, to determine whether a certain user is real or a bot. If it passes, the click is registered as genuine, if not, it’s quickly eliminated. My business is basically guaranteed longevity because most hostile botnets these days are also running adversarial algorithms to ensure their traffic fools MY botnet. It’s a behavioral complexity feedback loop. An artificial arms race. Did you know almost 75% of all traffic on the internet is completely fake?” This sort of thing made me glad that the RIU conducted all its business with stationery. It was a lot slower (my new salary schedule wouldn’t be updated for another three days or so), but at least we didn’t have to worry about fake internet traffic in addition to all the fake radicals walking around. A fake union can only handle so much. We both shivered in the still, chilly evening on his backporch. An empty bench-swing creaked in his fenced yard. I pulled the collar of my sweatshirt to my lip while a cigarette dangled from my fingers. Rod sat next to me sipping a comically-long cigar (a birthday gift commemorating some innuendo from his first years of school), to keep my cigarette and I company. “The people of the future will look on us so strangely,” he said. “All of this is only normal now. In this small window of time. To those who came before us, sure, this would all be incoceivable. But even in the future, everything will be looked at as ridiculous. C’mon.” He smiled at me. “We live in a strange fantasy. People like me train tiny spirits in an immaterial metaphysical plane to fight one another, for money. People like you create and instigate crazy religions that go contrary to the ‘official’ one in order strengthen it.” “I’d like to think it’s a little more complicated than that,” I replied. “Will Homo Futurus even conceive of my ability to make money and provide for my family, let alone this house,” he gestured, “this yard? It’s like if the functionaries of Babylon had magic powers and voting rights.” “Some would say they did.” He was quiet, and I turned to look at him. “By the way, never say we,” I continued. “Can’t speak for everyone. But I know what you mean.” I burped and winced. “You and I share a reality, on a fundamental level,” he replied. “Sure,” I said. “So you and I, two, plural, makes a We, which I have authority to speak on.” “I know I live in a strange fantasy world, man. But you don’t. That’s the sad part, both are sad. On the one hand, you’re asserting your experience over others by saying We. The Union likes to call it the Pope effect. If you’re infiltrating a group you don’t wanna be acting like a Pope and speaking for everyone. You want to be agreeable, which is the other problem. In making yourself agreeable you can ingratiate yourself to an organization, inhabiting their fantasy world, so to speak, and when you agree to someone’s assertion of we, you are relinquishing your notion of self to that person or group. This is why I do truly live in a strange fantasy world, stranger than any others. Because I am a part of so many We’s that I fail to see the most important one, maybe our common humanity, maybe our union in nature, maybe our God-bearing images. You can never reconcile your experience to mine by saying we live in a strange fantasy world, but I appreciate your concern on my behalf. Your world is comfortable and calm and life-creating, and fantasy can’t inhabit that. It’s good, Rod.” I sniffed loudly and cast him a glance. His straight face broke into a grin and he began to laugh and I did too. “No wonder they won’t let you quit,” Rod said.