Marcus and Ange are enjoying the annual festival Burning Man, deep in the Nevada desert. But in the midst of all the walking art, camps full of sunscreen and body paint, and a fantastic D&D game with some living legends, Marcus gets a visit from Masha and Zeb.
Masha has some information that she wants Marcus to get out. But by Burning Man’s end, it becomes clear that what he’s carrying may turn out to be far more than he bargained for….
Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.
I adjusted my burnoose, covering up my nose and mouth and tucking its edge into place under the lower rim of my big, scratched goggles. The sun was high, the temperature well over a hundred degrees, and breathing through the embroidered cotton scarf made it even more stifling. But the wind had just kicked up, and there was a lot of playa dust—fine gypsum sand, deceptively soft and powdery, but alkali enough to make your eyes burn and your skin crack—and after two days in the desert, I had learned that it was better to be hot than to choke.
Pretty much everyone was holding a camera of some kind—mostly phones, of course, but also big SLRs and even old-fashioned film cameras, including a genuine antique plate camera whose operator hid out from the dust under a huge black cloth that made me hot just to look at it. Everything was ruggedized for the fine, blowing dust, mostly through the simple expedient of sticking it in a ziplock bag, which is what I’d done with my phone. I turned around slowly to get a panorama and saw that the man walking past me was holding the string for a gigantic helium balloon a hundred yards overhead, from which dangled a digital video camera. Also, the man holding the balloon was naked.
Well, not entirely. He was wearing shoes. I understood that: playa dust is hard on your feet. They call it playa-foot, when the alkali dust dries out your skin so much that it starts to crack and peel. Everyone agrees that playa-foot sucks.
Burning Man is a festival held every Labor Day weekend in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Fifty thousand people show up in this incredibly harsh, hot, dusty environment and build a huge city—Black Rock City—and participate. “Spectator” is a vicious insult in Black Rock City. Everyone’s supposed to be doing stuff and, yeah, also admiring everyone else’s stuff (hence all the cameras). At Burning Man, everyone is the show.
I wasn’t naked, but the parts of me that were showing were decorated with elaborate mandalas laid on with colored zinc. A lady as old as my mother, wearing a tie-dyed wedding dress, had offered to paint me that morning, and she’d done a great job. That’s another thing about Burning Man: it runs on a gift economy, which means that you generally go around offering nice things to strangers a lot, which makes for a surprisingly pleasant environment. The designs the painter had laid down made me look amazing, and there were plenty of cameras aiming my way as I ambled across the open desert toward Nine O’Clock.
Black Rock City is a pretty modern city: it has public sanitation (portable chem-toilets decorated with raunchy poems reminding you not to put anything but toilet paper in them), electricity and Internet service (at Six O’Clock, the main plaza in the middle of the ring-shaped city), something like a government (the nonprofit that runs Burning Man), several local newspapers (all of them doing better than the newspapers in the real world!), a dozen radio stations, an all-volunteer police force (the Black Rock Rangers, who patrolled wearing tutus or parts of chicken suits or glitter paint), and many other amenities associated with the modern world.
But BRC has no official surveillance. There are no CCTVs, no checkpoints—at least not after the main gate, where tickets are collected—no ID checks at all, no bag searches, no RFID sniffers, no mobile phone companies logging your movements. There was also no mobile phone service. No one drives— except for the weird art cars registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles—so there were no license plate cameras and no sniffers for your E-ZPasses. The WiFi was open and unlogged. Attendees at Burning Man agreed not to use their photos commercially without permission, and it was generally considered polite to ask people before taking their portraits.
So there I was, having my picture taken through the blowing dust as I gulped down water from the water jug I kept clipped to my belt at all times, sucking at the stubby built-in straw under cover of the blue-and-silver burnoose, simultaneously observed and observer, simultaneously observed and unsurveilled, and it was glorious.
“Wahoo!” I shouted to the dust and the art cars and the naked people and the enormous wooden splay-armed effigy perched atop a pyramid straight ahead of me in the middle of the desert. This was The Man, and we’d burn him in three nights, and that’s why it was called Burning Man. I couldn’t wait.
“You’re in a good mood,” a jawa said from behind me. Even with the tone-shifter built into its dust mask, the cloaked sand-person had an awfully familiar voice.
“Ange?” I said. We’d been missing each other all that day, ever since I’d woken up an hour before her and snuck out of the tent to catch the sunrise (which was awesome), and we’d been leaving each other notes back at camp all day about where we were heading next. Ange had spent the summer spinning up the jawa robes, working with cooling towels that trapped sweat as it evaporated, channeling it back over her skin for extra evaporative cooling. She’d hand-dyed it a mottled brown, tailored it into the characteristic monkish robe shape, and added crossed bandoliers. These exaggerated her breasts, which made the whole thing entirely and totally warsome. She hadn’t worn it out in public yet, and now, in the dust and the glare, she was undoubtedly the greatest sand-person I’d ever met. I hugged her and she hugged me back so hard it knocked the wind out of me, one of her trademarked wrestling-hold cuddles.
“I smudged your paint,” she said through the voice-shifter after we unclinched.
“I got zinc on your robes,” I said.
She shrugged. “Like it matters! We both look fabulous. Now, what have you seen and what have you done and where have you been, young man?”
“Where to start?” I said. I’d been wandering up and down the radial avenues that cut through the city, lined with big camps sporting odd exhibits—one camp where a line of people were efficiently making snow cones for anyone who wanted them, working with huge blocks of ice and a vicious ice-shaver. Then a camp where someone had set up a tall, linoleum-covered slide that you could toboggan down on a plastic magic carpet, after first dumping a gallon of waste water over the lino to make it plenty slippery. It was a very clever way to get rid of gray water (that’s water that you’ve showered in, or used to wash your dishes or hands—black water being water that’s got poo or pee in it). One of the other Burning Man rules was “leave no trace”— when we left, we’d take every scrap of Black Rock City with us, and that included all the gray water. But the slide made for a great gray water evaporator, and every drop of liquid that the sliders helped turn into vapor was a drop of liquid the camp wouldn’t have to pack all the way back to Reno.
There’d been pervy camps where they were teaching couples to tie each other up; a “junk food glory hole” that you put your mouth over in order to receive a mysterious and unhealthy treat (I’d gotten a mouthful of some kind of super-sugary breakfast cereal studded with coconut “marshmallows” shaped like astrological symbols); a camp where they were offering free service for playa bikes (beater bikes caked with playa dust and decorated with glitter and fun fur and weird fetishes and bells); a tea-house camp where I’d been given a very precisely made cup of some kind of Japanese tea I’d never heard of that was delicious and sharp; camps full of whimsy; camps full of physics; camps full of optical illusions; camps full of men and women; a kids’ camp full of screaming kids running around playing some kind of semisupervised outdoor game—things I’d never suspected existed.
And I’d only seen a tiny slice of Black Rock City.
I told Ange about as much as I could remember and she nodded or said “ooh,” or “aah,” or demanded to know where I’d seen things. Then she told me about the stuff she’d seen—a camp where topless women were painting one another’s breasts; a camp where an entire brass band was performing; a camp where they’d built a medieval trebuchet that fired ancient, broken-down pianos down a firing range, the audience holding its breath in total silence while they waited for the glorious crash each piano made when it exploded into flinders on the hardpack desert.
“Can you believe this place?” Ange said, jumping up and down on the spot in excitement, making her bandoliers jingle.
“I know—can you believe we almost didn’t make it?”
I’d always sort of planned on going out to see The Man burn—after all, I grew up in San Francisco, the place with the largest concentration of burners in the world. But it took a lot of work to participate in Burning Man. First, there was the matter of packing for a camping trip in the middle of the desert where you had to pack in everything—including water—and then pack it all out again, everything you didn’t leave behind in the porta-potties. And there were very strict rules about what could go in those. Then there was the gift economy: figuring out what I could bring to the desert that someone else might want. Plus the matter of costumes, cool art, and inventions to show off . . . every time I started to think about it, I just about had a nervous breakdown.
But this year, of all years, I’d made it. This was the year both my parents lost their jobs. The year I’d dropped out of college rather than take on any more student debt. The year I’d spent knocking on every door I could find, looking for paid work—anything!—without getting even a nibble.
“Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is cash-poor and time-rich,” Ange said solemnly, pulling down her face mask with one hand and yanking me down to kiss me with the other.
“That’s catchy,” I said. “You should print T-shirts.”
“Oh,” she said. “That reminds me. I got a T-shirt!”
She threw open her robe to reveal a proud red tee that read MAKE BEAUTIFUL ART AND SET IT ON FIRE, laid out like those British KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON posters, with the Burning Man logo where the crown should be.
“Just in time, too,” I said, holding my nose. I was only partly kidding. At the last minute, we’d both decided to ditch half the clothes we’d planned on bringing so that we could fit more parts for Secret Project X-1 into our backpacks. Between that and taking “bits and pits” baths by rubbing the worst of the dried sweat, body paint, sunscreen, and miscellaneous fluids off with baby wipes once a day, neither of us smelled very nice.
She shrugged. “The playa provides.” It was one of the Burning Man mottoes we’d picked up on the first day, when we both realized that we thought the other one had brought the sunscreen, and just as we were about to get into an argument about it, we stumbled on Sunscreen Camp, where some nice people had slathered us all over with SPF 50 and given us some baggies to take with. “The playa provides!” they’d said, and wished us well.
I put my arm around her shoulders. She dramatically turned her nose up at my armpit, then made a big show of putting on her face-mask.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go out to the temple.”
The temple was a huge, two-story sprawling structure, dotted with high towers and flying buttresses. It was filled with robotic Tibetan gongs that played strange clanging tunes throughout the day. I’d seen it from a distance that morning while walking around the playa, watching the sun turn the dust rusty orange, but I hadn’t been up close.
The outer wings of the temple were open to the sky, made of the same lumber as the rest of the whole elaborate curlicue structure. The walls were lined with benches and were inset with niches and nooks. And everywhere, every surface, was covered in writing and signs and posters and pictures.
And almost all of it was about dead people.
“Oh,” Ange said to me, as we trailed along the walls, reading the memorials that had been inked or painted or stapled there. I was reading a handwritten thirty-page-long letter from an adult woman to her parents, about all the ways they’d hurt her and made her miserable and destroyed her life, about how she’d felt when they’d died, about how her marriages had been destroyed by the craziness she’d had instilled in her. It veered from wild accusation to tender exasperation to anger to sorrow, like some kind of emotional roller coaster. I felt like I was spying on something I wasn’t supposed to see, except that everything in the temple was there to be seen.
Every surface in the temple was a memorial to something or someone. There were baby shoes and pictures of grannies, a pair of crutches and a beat-up cowboy hat with a hatband woven from dead dried flowers. Burners—dressed and undressed like a circus from the end of the world—walked solemnly around these, reading them, more often than not with tears running down their faces. Pretty soon, I had tears running down my face. It moved me in a way that nothing had ever moved me before. Especially since it was all going to burn on Sunday night, before we tore down Black Rock City and went home.
Ange sat in the dust and began looking through a sketchbook whose pages were filled with dense, dark illustrations. I wandered into the main atrium of the temple, a tall, airy space whose walls were lined with gongs. Here, the floor was carpeted with people—sitting and lying down, eyes closed, soaking in the solemnity of the moment, some with small smiles, some weeping, some with expressions of utmost serenity.
I’d tried meditating once, during a drama class in high school. It hadn’t worked very well. Some of the kids kept on giggling. There was some kind of shouting going on in the hallway outside the door. The clock on the wall ticked loudly, reminding me that at any moment, there’d be a loud buzzer and the roar and stamp of thousands of kids all trying to force their way through a throng to their next class. But I’d read a lot about meditation and how good it was supposed to be for you. In theory it was easy, too: just sit down and think of nothing.
So I did. I shifted my utility belt around so that I could sit down without it digging into my ass and waited until a patch of floor was vacated, then sat. There were streamers of sunlight piercing the high windows above, lancing down in gray-gold spikes that glittered with dancing dust. I looked into one of these, at the dancing motes, and then closed my eyes. I pictured a grid of four squares, featureless and white with thick black rims and sharp corners. In my mind’s eye, I erased one square. Then another. Then another. Now there was just one square. I erased it.
There was nothing now. I was thinking of nothing, literally. Then I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking about nothing, mentally congratulating myself, and I realized that I was thinking of something again. I pictured my four squares and started over.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but there were moments when the world seemed to both go away and be more present than it ever had been. I was living in that exact and very moment, not anticipating anything that might happen later, not thinking of anything that had just happened, just being right there. It only lasted for a fraction of a second each time, but each of those fragmentary moments were . . . well, they were something.
I opened my eyes. I was breathing in time with the gongs around me, a slow, steady cadence. There was something digging into my butt, a bit of my utility belt’s strap or something. The girl in front of me had a complex equation branded into the skin of her shoulder blades, the burned skin curdled into deep, sharp-relief mathematical symbols and numbers. Someone smelled like weed. Someone was sobbing softly. Someone outside the temple called out to someone else. Someone laughed. Time was like molasses, flowing slowly and stickily around me. Nothing seemed important and everything seemed wonderful. That was what I’d been looking for, all my life, without ever knowing it. I smiled.
“Hello, M1k3y,” a voice hissed in my ear, very soft and very close, lips brushing my lobe, breath tickling me. The voice tickled me, too, tickled my memory. I knew that voice, though I hadn’t heard it in a very long time.
Slowly, as though I were a giraffe with a neck as tall as a tree, I turned my head to look around.
“Hello, Masha,” I said, softly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Her hand was on my hand and I remembered the way she’d twisted my wrist around in some kind of martial arts hold the last time I’d seen her. I didn’t think she’d be able to get away with bending my arm up behind my back and walking me out of the temple on my tiptoes. If I shouted for help, thousands of burners would . . . well, they wouldn’t tear her limb from limb, but they’d do something. Kidnapping people on the playa was definitely against the rules. It was in the Ten Principles, I was nearly certain of it.
She tugged at my wrist. “Let’s go,” she said. “Come on.”
I got to my feet and followed her, freely and of my own will, and even though I trembled with fear as I got up, there was a nugget of excitement in there, too. Of course this was happening now, at Burning Man. A couple years ago, I’d been in the midst of more excitement than anyone would or could want. I’d led a techno-guerrilla army against the Department of Homeland Security, met a girl and fell in love with her, been arrested and tortured, found celebrity, and sued the government. Since then, it had all gone downhill, in a weird way. Being waterboarded was terrible, awful, unimaginable—I still had nightmares—but it happened and then it ended. My parents’ slow slide into bankruptcy, the hard, grinding reality of a city with no jobs for anyone, let alone a semi-qualified college dropout like me, and the student debt that I had to pay every month. It was a pile of misery that I lived under every day, and it showed no sign of going away. It wasn’t dramatic, dynamic trouble, the kind of thing you got war stories out of years after the fact. It was just, you know, reality.
And reality sucked.
So I went with Masha, because Masha had been living underground with Zeb for the better part of two years, and whatever else she was, she was someone whose life was generating a lot of exciting stories. Her reality might suck too, but it sucked in huge, showy, neon letters—not in the quiet, crabbed handwriting of a desperate and broke teenager scribbling in his diary.
I went with Masha, and she led me out of the temple. The wind was blowing worse than it had been before, real whiteout conditions, and I pulled down my goggles and pulled up my scarf again. Even with them on, I could barely see, and each breath of air filled my mouth with the taste of dried saliva and powdery gypsum from my burnoose. Masha’s hair wasn’t bright pink anymore; it was a mousy blonde-brown, turned gray with dust, cut into duckling fuzz all over, the kind of haircut you could maintain yourself with a clipper. I’d had that haircut, off and on, through much of my adolescence. Her skull bones were fine and fragile, her skin stretched like paper over her cheekbones. Her neck muscles corded and her jaw muscles jumped. She’d lost weight since I’d seen her last, and her skin had gone leathery brown, a color that was deeper than a mere summer tan.
We went all of ten steps out from the temple, but we might have been a mile from it—it was lost in the dust. There were people around, but I couldn’t make out their words over the spooky moan of the wind blowing through the temple’s windows. Bits of grit crept between my goggles and my sweaty cheeks and made my eyes and nose run.
“Far enough,” she said, and let go of my wrist, holding her hands before her. I saw that the fingertips on her left hand were weirdly deformed and squashed and bent, and I had a vivid recollection of slamming the rolling door of a moving van down on her hand as she chased me. She’d been planning to semikidnap me at the time, and I was trying to get away with evidence that my best friend Darryl had been kidnapped by Homeland Security, but I still heard the surprised and pained shout she’d let out when the door crunched on her hand. She saw where I was looking and took her hand away, tucking it into the sleeve of the loose cotton shirt she wore.
“How’s tricks, M1k3y?” she said.
“It’s Marcus these days,” I said. “Tricks have been better. How about you? Can’t say I expected to see you again. Ever. Especially not at Burning Man.”
Her eyes crinkled behind her goggles and her veil shifted and I knew she was smiling. “Why, M1k3y—Marcus—it was the easiest way for me to get to see you.”
It wasn’t exactly a secret that I was planning to come to Burning Man that year. I’d been posting desperate “Will trade work for a ride to the playa” and “Want to borrow your old camping gear” messages to Craigslist and the hackerspace mailing lists for months, trying to prove that the proverbial timerich kid could out-determination cash-poorness. Anyone who was trying to figure out where I was going to be over Labor Day weekend could have googled my semiprecise location in about three seconds.
“Um,” I said. “Um. Look, Masha, you know, you’re kind of freaking me out. Are you here to kill me or something? Where’s Zeb?”
She closed her eyes and the pale dust sifted down between us. “Zeb’s off enjoying the playa. Last time I saw him, he was volunteering in the café and waiting to go to a yoga class. He’s actually a pretty good barista—better than he is at being a yogi, anyway. And no, I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to give you something, and leave it up to you to decide what to do with it.”
“You’re going to give me something?”
“Yeah. It’s a gift economy around here. Haven’t you heard?”
“What, exactly, are you going to give me, Masha?”
She shook her head. “Better you don’t know until we make the handoff. Technically, it would be better—for you, at least—if you never knew. But that’s how it goes.” She seemed to be talking to herself now. Being underground had changed her. She was, I don’t know, hinky. Like something was wrong with her, like she was up to something, or like she could run at any second. She’d been so self-confident and decisive and unreadable. Now she seemed half crazy. Or maybe one-quarter crazy, and one-quarter terrified.
“Tonight,” she said. “They’re going to burn the Library of Alexandria at 8 p.m. After that burn, walk out to the trash fence, directly opposite Six O’Clock. Wait for me if I’m not there when you show up. I’ve got stuff to do first.”
“Okay,” I said. “I suppose I can do that. Will Zeb be there? I’d love to say hello to him again.”
She rolled her eyes. “Zeb’ll probably be there, but you might not see him. You come alone. And come out dark. No lights, got it?”
“No,” I said. “Actually, no. I’m with Ange, as you must know, and I’m not going out there without her, assuming she wants to come. And no lights? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For a city of fifty thousand people involved with recreational substances, flaming art, and enormous, mutant machines, Black Rock has a remarkably low mortality rate. But in a city where they laughed at danger, walking after dark without lights—lots of lights, preferably—was considered borderline insane. One of the most dangerous things you could do at Burning Man was walk the playa at night without illumination: that made you a “darktard,” and darktards were at risk of being run into by art bikes screaming over the dust in the inky night, they risked getting crushed by mammoth art cars, and they were certain to be tripped over and kicked and generally squashed. Burning Man’s unofficial motto might have been “safety third,” but no one liked a darktard.
She closed her eyes and stood statue-still. The wind was dying down a little, but I still felt like I’d just eaten a pound of talcum powder, and my eyes were stinging like I’d been peppersprayed.
“Bring your girly if you must. But no lights, not after you get out past the last art car. And if both of you end up in trouble because you wouldn’t come out alone, you’ll know whose fault it was.”
She turned on her heel and walked off into the dust, and she was out of my sight in a minute. I hurried back to the temple to find Ange.
They burn a lot of stuff at Burning Man. Of course, there’s the burning of The Man himself on Saturday night. I’d seen that on video a hundred times from a hundred angles, with many different Men (he is different every year). It’s raucous and primal, and the explosives hidden in his base made huge mushroom clouds when they went off. The temple burn, on Sunday night, was as quiet and solemn as The Man’s burn was insane and frenetic. But before either of them get burned, there are lots of “little” burns.
The night before, there’d been the burning of the regional art. Burner affinity groups from across America, Canada, and the rest of the world had designed and built beautiful wooden structures ranging from something the size of a park bench up to three-story-tall fanciful towers. These ringed the circle of open playa in the middle of Black Rock City, and we’d gone and seen all of them the day we arrived, because we’d been told that they’d burn first. And they did, all at once, more than any one person could see, each one burning in its own way as burners crowded around them, held at a safe distance by Black Rock Rangers until the fires collapsed into stable configurations, masses of burning lumber on burn-platforms over the playa. Anything that burned got burned on a platform, because “leave no trace” meant that you couldn’t even leave behind scorch marks.
That had been pretty spectacular, but tonight they were going to burn the Library of Alexandria. Not the original, of course: Julius Caesar (or someone!) burned that one in 48 b.c., taking with it the largest collection of scrolls that had ever been assembled at that time. It wasn’t the first library anyone had burned, and it wasn’t the last, but it was the library that symbolized the wanton destruction of knowledge. The Burning Man Library of Alexandria was set on twenty-four great wheels on twelve great axles and it could be hauled across the playa by gangs of hundreds of volunteers who tugged at the ropes affixed to its front. Inside, the columned building was lined with nooks that were, in turn, stuffed with scrolls, each one handwritten, each a copy of some public domain book downloaded from Project Gutenberg and hand-transcribed onto long rolls of paper by volunteers who’d worked at the project all year. Fifty thousand books had been converted to scrolls in this fashion, and they would all burn. LIBRARIES BURN: it was the message stenciled at irregular intervals all over the Library of Alexandria and sported by the librarians who volunteered there, fetching you scrolls and helping you find the passages you were looking for. I’d gone in and read some Mark Twain, a funny story I remembered reading in school about when Twain had edited an agricultural newspaper. I’d been delighted to discover that someone had gone to the trouble of writing that one out, using rolledup lined school notepaper and taping it together in a continuous scroll that went on for hundreds of yards.
As I helped the librarian roll up the scroll—she agreed that the Twain piece was really funny—and put it away, I’d said, unthinkingly, “It’s such a shame that they’re going to burn all these.”
She’d smiled sadly and said, “Well, sure, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Ninety percent of the works in copyright are orphan works: no one knows who owns the rights to them, and no one can figure out how to put them back into print. Meanwhile, the copies of them that we do know about are disintegrating or getting lost. So there’s a library out there, the biggest library ever, ninety percent of the stuff anyone’s ever created, and it’s burning, in slow motion. Libraries burn.” She shrugged. “That’s what they do. But maybe someday we’ll figure out how to make so many copies of humanity’s creative works that we’ll save most of them from the fire.”
And I read my Mark Twain and felt the library rock gently under me as the hundreds of rope-pullers out front dragged the Library of Alexandria from one side of the open playa to the other, inviting more patrons to get on board and have a ride and read a book before it all burned down. On the way out, the librarian gave me a thumbdrive: “It’s a compressed copy of the Gutenberg archive. Fifty thousand books and counting. There’s also a list of public domain books that we don’t have, and a list of known libraries, by city, where they can be found. Feel free to get a copy and scan or retype it.”
The little thumbdrive only weighed an ounce or two, but it felt as heavy as a mountain of books as I slipped it gravely into my pocket.
And now it was time to burn the Library of Alexandria. Again.
The Library had been hauled onto a burn-platform, and the hauling ropes were coiled neatly on its porch. Black Rock Rangers in their ranger hats and weird clothes surrounded it in a wide circle, sternly warning anyone who wandered too close to stay back. Ange and I stood on the front line, watching as a small swarm of Bureau of Land Management feds finished their inspection of the structure. I could see inside, see the incendiary charges that had been placed at careful intervals along the Library’s length, see the rolled scrolls in their nooks. I felt weird tears in my eyes as I contemplated what was about to happen—tears of awe and sorrow and joy. Ange noticed and wiped the tears away, kissed my ear and whispered, “It’s okay. Libraries burn.”
Now three men stepped out of the crowd. One was dressed as Caesar in white Roman robes and crown, sneering magnificently. The next wore monkish robes and a pointed mitre with a large cross on it. He was meant to be Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, another suspect in the burning of the Library. He looked beatifically on the crowd, then turned to Caesar. Finally, there was a man in a turban with a pointed beard—Caliph Omar, the final person usually accused of history’s most notorious arson. The three shook hands, then each drew a torch out of his waistband and lit it from a firepot burning in the center of the Library’s porch. They paced off from one another and stationed themselves in the middle of the back and side walls and, as the audience shouted and roared, thrust their torches lovingly in little holes set at the bottom of the walls.
There must have been some kind of flash powder or something in those nooks, because as each man scurried away, great arcs of flame shot out of them, up and out, scorching the Library walls. The walls burned merrily, and there was woodsmoke and gunpowder in the air now, the wind whipping it toward and past us, fanning the flames. The crowd noise increased, and I realized I was part of the chorus, making a kind of drawn-out, happy yelp.
Now the incendiary charges went, in near-perfect synch, a blossom of fire that forced its way out between the Library’s columns, the fire’s tongues lashing at sizzling embers—fragments of paper, fragments of books—that chased high into the night’s sky. The heat of the blast made us all step back from one another, and embers rained out of the sky, winking out as they fell around us like ashen rain. The crowd moved like a slow-motion wave, edging its way out of the direction of the prevailing wind and the rain of fire. I smelled singed hair and fun fur, and a tall man in a loincloth behind me smacked me between the shoulders, shouting, “You were on fire, sorry!” I gave him a friendly wave—it was getting too loud to shout any kind of words—and continued to work my way to the edge.
Now there were fireworks, and not like the fireworks I’d seen on countless Fourth of July nights, fireworks that were artfully arranged to go off in orderly ranks, first one batch and then the next. These were fireworks with tempo, mortars screaming into the sky without pause, detonations so close together they were nearly one single explosion, a flaring, eye-watering series of booms that didn’t let up, driven by the thundering, clashing music from the gigantic art cars behind the crowd, dubstep and funk and punk and some kind of up-tempo swing and even a gospel song all barely distinguishable. The crowd howled. I howled. The flames licked high and paper floated high on the thermals, burning bright in the desert night. The smoke was choking and there were bodies all around me, pressing in, dancing. I felt like I was part of some kind of mass organism with thousands of legs and eyes and throats and voices, and the flames went higher.
Soon the Library was just a skeleton of structural supports in stark black, surrounded by fiery orange and red. The building teetered, its roof shuddered, the columns rocked and shifted. Each time it seemed the building was about to collapse, the crowd gasped and held its breath, and each time it recovered its balance, we made a disappointed “Aww.”
And then one of the columns gave way, snapping in two, taking the far corner of the roof with it, and the roof sheared downward and pulled free of the other columns, and they fell, too, and the whole thing collapsed in a crash and crackle, sending a fresh cloud of burning paper up in its wake. The Black Rock Rangers pulled back and we rushed forward, surrounding the wreckage, crowding right up to the burning, crackling pile of lumber and paper and ash. The music got a lot louder— the art cars were pulling in tight now—and there was the occasional boom as a stray firework left in the pile sent up a glowing mortar. It was glorious. It was insane.
It was over, and it was time to get moving.
“Let’s go,” I said to Ange. She’d taken the news about Masha calmly, but she’d said, “There’s no way I’m letting you go out there alone,” when I told her that Masha had insisted on meeting me.
“That’s what I told her,” I said, and Ange stood on tiptoes, reached up, and patted me on the head.
“That’s my boy,” she said.
We threaded our way through the dancing, laughing crowd, getting facesful of woodsmoke, pot smoke, sweat, patchouli (Ange loved the smell, I hated it), ash, and playa dust. Soon we found ourselves through the crowd of people and in a crowd of art cars. It was an actual, no-fooling art car traffic jam: hundreds of mutant vehicles in a state of pure higgeldy-piggeldy, so that a three-story ghostly pirate ship (on wheels) found itself having to navigate through the gap between a tank with the body of a ’59 El Camino on a crane arm that held it and its passengers ten feet off the ground and a rocking, rolling electric elephant with ten big-eyed weirdos riding on its howdah. Complicating things was the exodus of playa bikes, ridden with joyous recklessness by laughing, calling, goggled cyclists and streaming off into the night, becoming distant, erratic comets of bright LEDs, glowsticks, and electroluminescent wire.
EL wire was Burning Man’s must-have fashion accessory. It was cheap and came in many colors, and glowed brightly for as long as the batteries in its pack held out. You could braid it into your hair, pin or glue it to your clothes, or just dangle it from anything handy. Ange’s jawa bandoliers were woven through and through with different colors of pulsing EL wire, and she’d carefully worked a strand into the edge of her hood and another down the hem of her robe, so she glowed like a line drawing of herself from a distance. All my EL wire had been gotten for free, by harvesting other peoples’ dead EL wire and painstakingly fixing it, tracking down the shorts and faults and taping them up. I’d done my army surplus boots with EL laces, and wound it in coils around my utility belt. Both of us were visible from a good distance, but that didn’t stop a few cyclists from nearly running us down. They were very polite and apologetic about it, of course, but they were distracted. “Distracted” is a permanent state of being on the playa.
But as we ventured deeper into the desert, the population thinned out. Black Rock City’s perimeter is defined by the “trash fence” that rings the desert, not too far in from the mountain ranges that surround it. These fences catch any MOOP (“matter out of place”) that blows out of peoples’ camps, where it can be harvested and packed out—leave no trace—and all that. Between the trash fence and the center of the city is two miles of open playa, nearly featureless, dotted here and there with people, art, and assorted surprises. If Six O’Clock Plaza is the sun, and The Man and temple and the camps are the inner solar system, the trash fence is something like the asteroid belt, or Pluto (allow me to pause for a moment here and say, PLUTO IS TOO A PLANET!).
Now we were walking in what felt like the middle of nowhere. So long as we didn’t look over our shoulders at the carnival happening behind us, we could pretend that we were the only people on Earth.
Well, almost. We pretty much tripped over a couple who were naked and squirming on a blanket, way out in the big empty. It was a dangerous way to get your jollies, but nookie was a moderately good excuse for being a darktard. And they were pretty good-natured about it, all things considered. “Sorry,” I called over my shoulder as we moved past them. “Time to go dark ourselves,” I said.
“Guess so,” Ange said, and fiddled with the battery switch on her bandolier. A moment later, she winked out of existence. I did the same. The sudden dark was so profound that the night looked the same with my eyes open and shut.
“Look up,” Ange said. I did.
“My God, it’s full of stars,” I said, which is the joke I always tell when there’s a lot of stars in the sky (it’s a killer line from the book 2001, though the idiots left it out of the movie). But I’d never seen a sky full of stars like this. The Milky Way— usually a slightly whitish streak, even on clear, moonless nights— was a glowing silvery river that sliced across the sky. I’d looked at Mars through binox once or twice and seen that it was, indeed, a little more red than the other stuff in the sky. But that night, in the middle of the desert, with the playa dust settled for a moment, it glowed like a coal in the lone eye of a cyclopean demon.
I stood there with my head flung back, staring wordlessly at the night, until I heard a funny sound, like the patter of water on stone, or—
“Ange, are you peeing?”
She shushed me. “Just having a sneaky playa-pee—the porta-sans are all the way back there. It’ll evaporate by morning. Chill.”
One of the occupational hazards of drinking water all the time was that you had to pee all the time, too. Some lucky burners had RVs at their camps with nice private toilets, but the rest of us went to “pee camp” when we needed to go. Luckily, the bathroom poetry—“poo-etry”—taped up inside the stalls made for pretty good reading. Technically, you weren’t supposed to pee on the playa, but way out here the chances of getting caught were basically zero, and it really was a long way back to the toilets. Listening to Ange go made me want to go, too, so we enjoyed a playa-pee together in the inky, warm dark.
Walking in the dark, it was impossible to tell how close we were to the trash fence; there was just black ahead of us, with the slightly blacker black of the mountains rising to the lighter black of the starry sky. But gradually, we were able to pick out some tiny, flickering lights—candle lights, I thought—up ahead of us, in a long, quavering row.
As we got closer, I saw that they were candles, candle lanterns, actually, made of tin and glass, each with a drippy candle in it. They were placed at regular intervals along a gigantic, formal dinner table long enough to seat fifty people at least, with precise place settings and wine glasses and linen napkins folded into tents at each setting. “WTF?” I said softly.
Ange giggled. “Someone’s art project,” she said. “A dinner table at the trash fence. Woah.”
“Hi there,” a voice said from the dark, and a shadow detached itself from the table and then lit up with EL wire, revealing itself to be a young woman with bright purple hair and a leather jacket cut down into a vest. “Welcome.” Suddenly there were more shadows turning into people—three more young women, one with green hair, one with blue hair, and . . .
“Hello, Masha,” I said.
She gave me a little salute. “Meet my campmates,” she said. “You’ve met before, actually. The day the bridge went.”
Right, of course. These were the girls who’d been playing on Masha’s Harajuku Fun Madness team when we’d run into them in the Tenderloin, moments before the Bay Bridge had been blown up by parties unknown. What had I called them? The Popsicle Squad. Yeah. “Nice to see you again,” I said. “This is Ange.”
Masha inclined her chin in a minute acknowledgment. “They’ve been good enough to let us use their dinner table for a little conversation, but I don’t want to spend too much time out here. Plenty of people looking for me.”
“Is Zeb here?”
“He went for a pee,” she said. “He’ll be back soon. But let’s get started, okay?”
“Let’s do it,” Ange said. She’d stiffened up beside me the minute I’d said hi to Masha, and I had an idea that maybe she wasn’t as cool about this meeting as she’d been playing it. Why should she be?
Masha brought us down to the farthest end of the table, away from her friends. We seated ourselves, and I saw that what I’d thought were bread baskets were in fact laden with longlasting hippie junk food: whole-wheat pop-tarts from Trader Joe’s, organic beef jerky, baggies of what turned out to be homemade granola. High-energy food that wouldn’t melt in the sun. Masha noticed me inspecting the goods and she said, “Go ahead, that’s what it’s there for, help yourself.” I tore into a pack of jerky (stashing the wrapper in my utility belt to throw away later at camp—turning gift-economy snacks into MOOP was really bad manners) and Ange got herself a pop-tart, just as Masha leaned across the table, opened the little glass door in the candle lantern, and blew the candle out. Now we were just black blobs in the black night, far from the nearest human, invisible.
I felt a hand—Masha’s hand—grab my arm in the dark and feel its way down to my hand and then push something small and hard into my fingers, then let go.
“That’s a USB stick, a little one. It’s a crypto key that will unlock a four-gigabyte torrent file that you can get with a torrent magnet file on The Pirate Bay and about ten other torrent sites. It’s called insurancefile.masha.torrent, and the checksum’s on the USB stick, too. I’d appreciate it if you would download and seed the file, and ask anyone you trust to do the same.”
“So,” I said, speaking into the dark toward where Masha was sitting. “There’s this big torrent blob filled with encrypted something floating around on the net, and if something happens, you want me to release the key so that it can be decrypted, right?”
“Yes, that’s about the size of things,” Masha said. I tried to imagine what might be in the insurance file. Blackmail photos? Corporate secrets? Pictures of aliens at Area 51? Proof of Bigfoot’s existence?
“What’s on it?” Ange said. Her voice was a little tight and tense, and though she was trying to hide it, I could tell she was stressing.
“Are you sure you want to know that?” Masha said. Her voice was absolutely emotionless.
“If you want us to do something other than throw this memory stick into a fire, you’re goddamned right we do. I can’t think of any reason to trust you, not one.”
Masha didn’t say anything. She heaved a sigh, and I heard her unscrew a bottle and take a drink of something. I smelled whiskey.
“Look,” she said. “Back when I was, you know, inside at the DHS, I got to know a lot of things. Got to see a lot of things. Got to know a lot of people. Some of those people, they’ve stayed in touch with me. Not everyone at DHS wants to see America turned into a police state. Some people, they’re just doing their jobs, maybe trying to catch actual bad guys or fight actual crime or prevent actual disasters, but they get to see things as they do these jobs, things that they’re not happy about. Eventually, you come across something so terrible, you can’t look yourself in the mirror anymore unless you do something about it.
“So maybe you copy some files, pile up some evidence. You think to yourself, Someday, someone will have the chance to speak out against this, and I’ll quietly slip them these files, and my conscience will forgive me for being a part of an organization that’s doing such rotten stuff.
“So what happened is, someone you used to work with, someone who got a bad deal and has been underground and on the road, someone you trust, that person contacts you from deep underground and lets it be known that she’ll hold on to all those docs for you, put them together with other peoples’ docs, see if there are any interesting connections between them. That person will take them off your hands, launder them so no one will ever know where they came from, release them when the moment comes. This is quite a nice service to provide for tortured bureaucrats, you see, since it’s the kind of thing that lets them sleep at night and still deposit their paychecks.
“Word gets around. Lots of people find it useful to outsource their conscience to a disgraced runaway outlaw, and, well, stuff does start to trickle in. Then pour in. Soon, you’re sitting on gigabytes of that stuff.”
“Four gigabytes, by any chance?” I said. I was feeling a little lightheaded. Masha was giving me the keys to decode all the ugliest secrets of the American government, all the stuff that had so horrified loyal DHS employees that they’d felt the need to smuggle it out. Masha herself would be so hot that she was practically radioactive: I could hardly believe that space-lasers weren’t beaming out of the sky to kill her where she sat. And me? Well, once I had the key, no one could be sure I hadn’t downloaded the insurance file and had a look, so that meant I was, fundamentally, a dead man.
“About that,” she said.
“You have no right to do this,” Ange said. “Whatever you’re up to, you’re putting us in danger, without asking us, without us knowing anything about it. How dare you?”
Masha cut her off with a sharp “Shh” sound.
“Don’t shush me—” Ange began, and I heard/felt/saw Masha grab her and squeeze.
“Shut up,” she hissed.
Ange shut up. I held my breath. There was the distant wub wub wub of terrible dubstep playing from some faraway art car, the soughing of the wind blowing in the slats of the trash fence, and there—had I heard a footstep? Another footstep? Hesitant, stumbling, in the dark? A soft crunch, there it was again, crunch, crunch, closer now, and I felt Masha coil up, get ready to run, and I tasted the beef jerky again as it rose in my throat, buoyed up on a fountain of stomach acid. My ears hammered with my pulse and the sweat on the back of my neck dried to ice in an instant.
Crunch, crunch. The steps were practically upon us now, and there was a bang that made me jump as Masha leaped away from the table, knocked over her chair, and set off into the dark of the playa.
Then there was a blazing light, right in my face, blinding me, and a hand reaching out for me, and I scrambled away from it, grabbing for Ange, screaming something in wordless terror, Ange shouting, too, and then a voice said, “Hey, Marcus! Stop! It’s me!”
I knew that voice, though I’d only heard it for an instant, long ago, on the street in front of Chavez High.
“Zeb?” I said.
“Dude!” he shouted, and I was grabbed up in a tight, somewhat smelly hug, my face pressed against his whiskered cheek. His blazing headlamp blinded me, but from what I could feel, he’d grown a beard of the same size and composition as a large animal, a big cat or possibly a beaver. The terror drained out of me, but left behind all its nervous energy, and I found myself laughing uproariously.
Suddenly, small strong hands separated us and Zeb was rolling on the playa, tackled by Masha, who must have circled back and recognized his voice. She was calling him all sorts of names as she wrestled him to the ground, straddling his chest and pinning his arms under her elbows.
“Sorry, sorry!” he said, and he was laughing, too, and so was Masha, and so was Ange, for that matter. “Sorry, okay! I just didn’t want to disturb you. The girls told me you were down here. Thought a light would kill the atmosphere.”
Masha let him up and gave him a kiss in a spot on his cheek where his beard was a little thinner.
“You are such an idiot,” she said. He laughed again and tousled her hair. Masha was a totally different person with Zeb, playful and younger and not so totally lethal. I liked her better.
“Ange, this is Zeb. Zeb, this is Ange.” He shook her hand.
“I’ve heard of you,” she said.
“And I’ve heard of you, too,” he said.
“Okay, sit down, you idiots, and turn off that damned light, Zeb.” Masha was getting her down-to-business voice back, and we did what she said.
I still felt angry at her for what she’d done to us, but after being scared witless and then let down an instant later, it was hard to get back to that angry feeling. All my adrenaline had been dumped into my bloodstream already, and it would take a while to manufacture some more, I guess. Still, things were far from settled. “Masha,” I said, “you know that what you’ve done here is really unfair, right?”
I couldn’t see or hear her in the dark, and the silence stretched on so long I thought maybe she’d fallen asleep or tiptoed away. Then, suddenly, she said, “God, you’re still a kid, aren’t you?”
The way she said it made me feel like I was about eight years old, like I was some kind of hayseed with cow crap between my toes, and like she was some kind of world-traveling superspy underground fugitive ninja.
“Up yours,” I said, trying to make it sound cynical and mean, and not like I was a widdle kid with hurt feewings. I don’t think I was very successful.
She gave a mean laugh. “I mean it. ‘Fair’? What’s ‘fair’ got to do with anything? There is stuff going on in the world, bad stuff, the kind of stuff that ends up with dead people in shallow graves, and you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Is it fair to all the people who risked everything to get me these docs for you to walk away from them, because you don’t want to have your safe little life disrupted?
“Oh, M1k3y, you’re such a big hero. After all you bravely, what, bravely told other people’s stories to a reporter? Because you held a press conference? What a big, brave man.” She spat loudly.
Yeah, it got me. Because you know what? She was right. Basically. Give or take. There’d been plenty of nights when I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling and thought exactly these thoughts. There’d been kids in the Xnet who did stuff that was way crazier than anything I’d done, kids whose jamming had put them right up against Homeland Security and the cops, kids who’d ended up in jail for a long time, without any newspaper coverage advertising their bravery. Some of them were probably still in there. The fact that I didn’t know for sure— didn’t even know all their names, or how many there were—was yet another reason that I didn’t deserve anyone’s admiration.
Every bit of clever, flashy wit ran and hid in the furthest corners of my mind. I heard Zeb shuffle his feet uncomfortably. No one knew what to say.
Except Ange. “Well, I suppose not everyone can be a sellout,” she said. “Not everyone can be a snitch who gets to sit in the hidden bunkers and spy on the ones who’re getting beaten and jailed and tortured and disappeared. Not everyone can draw a fat salary for their trouble until the day comes that it’s all too much for their poor little conscience and they just have to go and run away to a beach in Mexico somewhere, lying in the bed they made for themselves.”
It made me smile, there in the dark. Go, Ange! Whatever my sins were, they were sins of omission: I could have done more. But Masha’d done the worst kind of evil: sins of commission. She’d done wrong. Really, really wrong. She’d tried to make up for it since. But she was in no position to shame me.
Another one of those long silences. I thought about dropping the USB stick in the dust and walking off in the dark. You know what stopped me?
Because Zeb was a hero. He’d broken out of Gitmo-by-the-Bay and instead of running, he’d come and found me at Chavez High so that he could pass on Darryl’s note. He could have just hit the road, but he hadn’t. And I’d told his secrets to the world, put him in harm’s way. This wasn’t just Masha’s mission, this was Zeb’s mission, too. They were a team. I owed him. We all did.
“Enough,” I said, swallowing hard on all the stupid emotions, trying to find some of that Zen calm I’d attained at the temple. “Enough. Fine, it’s not fair. Life’s not fair. I’ve got this thing now. What do I do with it?”
“Keep it safe,” Masha said, her voice back in that emotionless zone that I guessed she was good at finding when she needed it. “And if you ever hear that I’ve gone down, or Zeb’s gone down, release it. Shout it from the mountaintops. If I ever ask you to release it, release it. And if you haven’t heard from me by the Friday of the next Burning Man, one year from now, release it. Do you think you can do that?”
“Sounds like something I could manage,” I said.
“I figure even you can’t screw this up,” she said, but I could tell she was just putting up her tough-chick front, and I didn’t take it personally. “Okay, fine. I’m out of here. Don’t screw up, all right?”
I heard her feet crunch away.
“See you at camp, babe!” Zeb called at her retreating back, and his headlamp came back on, dazzling me again. He grabbed a pop-tart from the basket and opened it, chewed at it enthusiastically. “I love that girl, honestly I do. But she is so tightly wound!”
It was so manifestly true that there was nothing for it but to laugh, and so we did, and it turned out that Zeb had some beer that he gift-economied to us, and I had some cold-brew coffee concentrate in a flask that we dipped into afterwards, just to get us back up from the beer’s mellow down, and then we all needed pee camp, and we went back into the night and the playa and the dust.
All day long, people had been telling me that the weather man said we were in for a dust storm, but I just assumed that “dust storm” meant that I’d have to tuck my scarf under the lower rim of my goggles, the way I had been doing every time it got windy on the playa.
But the dust storm that blew up after we left Zeb behind and returned to the nonstop circus was insane. The night turned white with flying dust, and our lights just bounced back in our faces, creating gloomy gray zones in front of us that seemed to go on forever. It reminded me of really bad fog, the kind of thing you get sometimes in San Francisco, usually in the middle of summer, reducing all the tourists in their shorts and T-shirts to hypothermia candidates. But fog made it hard to see, and the dust storm made it hard—nearly impossible—to breathe. Our eyes and noses streamed, our mouths were caked with dust, every breath triggered a coughing fit. We stumbled and staggered and clutched each other’s hands because if we let go, we’d be swallowed by the storm.
Ange pulled my ear down to her mouth and shouted, “We have to get inside!”
“I know!” I said. “I’m just trying to figure out how to get back to camp; I think we’re around Nine O’Clock and B.” The ring roads that proceeded concentrically from center camp were lettered in alphabetical order. We were at Seven Fifteen and L, way out in the hinterlands. Without the dust, the walk would have taken fifteen minutes, and been altogether pleasant. With the dust . . . well, it felt like it might take hours.
“Screw that,” Ange said. “We have to get inside somewhere now.” She started dragging me. I tripped over a piece of rebar hammered into the playa and topped with a punctured tennis ball—someone’s tent stake. Ange’s iron grip kept me from falling, and she hauled me along.
Then we were at a structure—a hexayurt, made from triangular slabs of flat styrofoam, duct-taped on its seams. The outside was covered with an insulating layer of silver-painted bubble wrap. We felt our way around to the “door” (a styro slab with a duct-tape hinge on one edge and a pull-loop). Ange was about to yank this open when I stopped her and knocked instead. Storm or no storm, it was weird and wrong to just walk into some stranger’s home.
The wind howled. If someone was coming, I couldn’t hear them over its terrible moaning whistle. I raised my hand to knock again, and the door swung open. A bearded face peered out at us and shouted, “Get in!”
We didn’t need to be asked twice. We dove through the door and it shut behind us. I could still hardly see; my goggles were nearly opaque with caked-on dust, and the light in the hexayurt was dim, provided by LED lanterns draped with gauzy scarves.
“Look at what the storm blew in,” said a gravelly, jovial voice from the yurt’s shadows. “Better hose ’em off before you bring ’em over here, John, those two’ve got half the playa in their ears.”
“Come on,” said the bearded man. He was wearing tie-dyes and had beads braided into his long beard and what was left of his hair. He grinned at us from behind a pair of round John Lennon glasses. “Let’s get you cleaned up. Shoes first, thanks.”
Awkwardly, we bent down and unlaced our shoes. We did have half the playa in them. The other half was caught in the folds of our clothes and our hair and our ears.
“Can I get you two something to wear? We can beat the dust out of your clothes once the wind dies down.”
My first instinct was to say no, because we hadn’t even been introduced, plus it seemed like more hospitality than even the gift economy demanded. On the other hand, we weren’t doing these people any kindness by crapping up their hexayurt. On the other other hand—
“That’d be so awesome,” Ange said. “Thank you.”
That’s why she’s my girlfriend. Left to my own devices, I’d be on-the-other-handing it until Labor Day. “Thanks,” I said.
The man produced billowy bundles of bright silk. “They’re salwar kameez,” he said. “Indian clothes. Here, these are the pants, and you wrap the tops around like so.” He demonstrated. “I get them on eBay from women’s clothing collectives in India. Straight from the source. Very comfortable and practically one size fits all.”
We stripped down to our underwear and wound the silk around us as best we could. We helped each other with the tricky bits, and our host helped, too. “That’s better,” he said, and gave us a package of baby wipes, which are the playa’s answer to a shower. We went through a stack of them wiping the dust off each other’s faces and out of each other’s ears and cleaning our hands and bare feet—the dust had infiltrated our shoes and socks!
“And that’s it,” the man said, clasping his hands together and beaming. He had a soft, gentle way of talking, but you could tell by the twinkle of his eyes that he didn’t miss anything and that something very interesting was churning away in his mind. Either he was a Zen master or an axe murderer—no one else was that calm and mirthful. “I’m John, by the way.”
Ange shook his hand. “Ange,” she said.
“Marcus,” I said.
Lots of people used “playa names,” cute pseudonyms that let them assume new identities while they were at Burning Man. I’d had enough of living with my notorious alter ego, M1k3y, and didn’t feel the need to give myself another handle. I hadn’t talked it over with Ange, but she, too, didn’t seem to want or need a temporary name.
“Come on and meet the rest.”
“The rest” turned out to be three more guys, sitting on low cushions around a coffee table that was littered with paper, dice, and meticulously painted lead figurines. We’d interrupted an old-school gaming session, the kind you play with a dungeon master and lots of role-playing. I’m hardly in any position to turn up my nose at someone else’s amusements—after all, I spent years doing live-action role-play—but this was seriously nerdy. The fact that they were playing in the middle of a dust storm on the playa just made it more surreal.
“Hi!” Ange said. “That looks like fun!”
“It certainly is,” said a gravelly voice, and I got a look at its owner. He had a lined and seamed face, kind eyes, and a slightly wild beard, and he was wearing a scarf around his neck with a turquoise pin holding it in place. “Are you initiated in the mysteries of this particular pursuit?”
I slipped my hand into Ange’s and did my best not to be shy or awkward. “I’ve never played, but I’m willing to learn.”
“An admirable sentiment,” said another man. He was also in his fifties or sixties, with a neat gray Van Dyke beard and dark rimmed glasses. “I’m Mitch, this is Barlow, and this is Wil, our dungeon master.”
The last man was a lot younger than the other three—maybe a youthful forty—and clean-shaven, with apple cheeks and short hair. “Hey, folks,” he said. “You’re just in time. Are you going to sit in? I’ve got some pre-rolled characters you can play. We’re just doing a minidungeon while we wait out the storm.”
John brought us some cushions from the hexayurt’s recesses and sat down with crossed legs and perfect, straight yoga posture. We settled down beside him. Wil gave us our character sheets—I was a half-elf mage, Ange was a human fighter with an enchanted sword—and dug around in a case until he found hand-painted figurines that matched the descriptions. “My son paints them,” he said. “I used to help, but the kid’s a machine— I can’t keep up with him.” I looked closely at the figs. They were, well, they were beautiful. They’d been painted in incredible detail, more than I could actually make out in the dim light of the yurt. My character’s robes had been painted with mystical silver sigils, and Ange’s character’s chain mail had each ring picked out in tarnished silver, with tiny daubs of black paint in the center of each minute ring.
“These are amazing,” I said. I’d always thought of tabletop RPGs as finicky and old fashioned, but these figs had been painted by someone very talented who really loved the game, and if someone that talented thought this was worth his time, I’d give it a chance, too.
Wil was a great game master, spinning the story of our quest in a dramatic voice that sucked me right in. The other guys listened intently, though they interjected from time to time with funny quips that cracked one another up. I got the feeling they’d known one another for a long time, and when we took a break for fresh mint tea—these guys knew how to live!—I asked how they knew one another.
They all smiled kind of awkwardly at one another. “It’s kind of a reunion,” Mitch said. “We all worked together a long time ago.”
“Did you do a start-up together?”
They laughed again. I could tell that I was missing something. Wil said, “You ever hear of the Electronic Frontier Foundation?” I sure had. I figured it out a second before he said it: “These guys founded it.”
“Wait, wait,” I said. “You’re John Perry Barlow?” The guy in the kerchief nodded and grinned like a pirate. “And you’re John Gilmore?” John shrugged and raised his eyebrows. “And you’re Mitch Kapor?” The guy with the Van Dyke gave a little wave. Ange was looking slightly left out. “Ange, these guys founded EFF. That one started the first ISP in the San Francisco; that one commercialized spreadsheets; and that one wrote the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.”
Barlow laughed like a cement mixer. “And turned teraliters of sewage into gigaliters of diesel fuel with tailored algae. Also, I also wrote a song or two. Since we’re on the subject.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Barlow also wrote songs for the Grateful Dead.”
Ange shook her head. “You make them sound like the elder gods of the Internet.”
“Enough with the ‘elder’ stuff,” Mitch said, and sipped his tea. “You certainly seem to know your Internet trivia, young man.”
I blushed. A couple of times on the playa, people had recognized me as M1k3y and come over to tell me how much they admired me and so on, and it had embarrassed me, but now I wanted these guys to know about that part of my life and I couldn’t figure out how to get it out without sounding like I was boasting to three of the all-time heroes of the Internet. Again, Ange saved me. “Marcus and I worked with some EFF people a couple years ago. He started Xnet.”
Wil laughed aloud at that. “That was you?” he said. He put on a hard-boiled detective voice: “Of all the yurts in all the playa, they had to walk into mine.”
Mitch held out his hand. “It’s an honor, sir,” he said. I shook his hand, tongue-tied. The others followed suit. I was in a daze, and when John told me that he “really admired the work” I’d done, I thought I’d die from delight.
“Enough!” Ange said. “I won’t be able to get his head out of the door if it gets any more swollen. Now, are we here to talk or to roll some goddamned dice?”
“I like your attitude,” Wil said, and thumbed through his notebook and set down some terrain tiles on the graph paper in front of us. Ange turned out to be a master strategist—which didn’t surprise me, but clearly impressed everyone else—and she arrayed our forces such that we sliced through the trash hordes, beat the minibosses, and made it to the final boss without suffering any major losses. She was a born tank, and loved bulling through our adversaries while directing our forces. Wil gave her tons of extra XP for doing it all in character—barbarian swordmistress came easily to her—and her example led us all, so by the time we got to the dragon empress in her cavern at the middle of the dungeon, we were all talking like a fantasy novel. Barlow was a master at this, improvising heroic poetry and delivering it in that whiskey voice of his. Meanwhile, Mitch and John kept catching little hints that Wil dropped in his narration, discovering traps and hidden treasures based on the most obscure clues. I can’t remember when we’d had a better time.
Mitch and Barlow kept shifting on their cushions, and just as we broke through into the main cavern, they called for a stretch break, and got to their feet and rubbed vigorously at their lower backs, groaning. Wil stretched, too, and checked the yurt’s door. “Storm’s letting up,” he called. It was coming on to midnight, and when Wil opened the door, a cool, refreshing breeze blew in, along with the sound of distant music.
Part of me wanted to rush back out into the night and find some music to dance to, and part of me wanted to stay in the yurt with my heroes, playing D&D. That was the thing about Burning Man—there was so much I wanted to do!
Wil came over and handed me another cup of mint tea, the leaves floating in the hot water. “Pretty awesome. Can’t believe these guys let me DM their game. And I can’t believe I ran into you.” He shook his head. “This place is like nerdstock.”
“Have you known them for long?”
“Not really. I met Barlow and Gilmore awhile back, when I did a fund-raiser for EFF. I ran into Gilmore at random today and I told him I’d brought my D&D stuff along and the next thing I knew, I was running a game for them.”
“What kind of fund-raiser were you doing?” Wil looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him.
“Oh,” he said, and stuck his hands in his pockets. “They brought me in to pretend-fight a lawyer in a Barney the Purple Dinosaur costume. It was because the Barney people had been sending a lot of legal threats out to websites and EFF had been defending them, and, well, it was a lot of fun.”
I knew him from somewhere. It was driving me crazy. “Look, do I know you? You look really familiar—”
“Ha!” he said. “I thought you knew. I made some movies when I was a kid, and I was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and—”
My jaw dropped so low I felt like it was in danger of scraping my chest. “You’re Wil Wheaton?”
He looked embarrassed. I’ve never been much of a Trek fan, but I’d seen a ton of the videos Wheaton had done with his comedy troupe, and of course, I knew about Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.
“That’s me,” he said.
“You were the first person I ever followed on Twitter!” I said. It was a weird thing to say, sure, but it was the first thing that came to mind. He was a really funny tweeter.
“Well, thank you!” he said. No wonder he was such a good narrator—he’d been acting since he was like seven years old. Being around all these people made me wish I had access to Wikipedia so I could look them all up.
We sat back down to play against the megaboss, the dragon empress. She had all kinds of fortifications, and a bunch of lethal attacks. I figured out how to use an illusion spell to trick her into moving into a side corridor that gave her less room to maneuver, and this made it possible for the fighters to attack her in waves while I used a digging spell to send chunks of the cave roof onto her head. This seemed like a good idea to me (and everyone else, I swear it!), right up to the time that I triggered a cave-in that killed us all.
But no one was too angry with me. We’d all cheered every time I rolled a fifteen or better and one of my spells brought some roof down on the dragon’s head, and no one had bothered too much about all those dice rolls Wil was making behind his screen. Besides, it was nearly 1 a.m., and there was a party out there! We changed out of John’s beautiful silk clothes and back into our stiff, dust-caked playa-wear and switched on all our EL wire and fit our goggles over our eyes and said a million thanks and shook everyone’s hands and so on. Just as I was about to go, Mitch wrote an email address on my arm with a Sharpie (there was plenty of stuff there already—playa coordinates of parties and email addresses of people I planned on looking up).
“Ange tells me you’re looking for a job. That’s the campaign manager for Joseph Noss. I hear she’s looking for a webmaster. Tell her I sent you.”
I was speechless. After months of knocking on doors, sending in resumes, emailing and calling, an honest-to-goodness job—with a recommendation from an honest-to-goodness legend! I stammered out my thanks and as soon as we were outside, I kissed Ange and bounced up and down and dragged her off to the playa, nearly crashing into a guy on a dusty Segway tricked out with zebra-striped fun fur. He gave us a grin and a wave.
We didn’t see Masha or Zeb again until the temple burn on Sunday night, the last night.
We’d burned The Man the night before, and it had been in-freaking-sane. Hundreds of fire-dancers executing precision maneuvers, tens of thousands of burners sitting in ranks on the playa, screaming our heads off as fireballs and mushroom clouds of flame rose out of The Man’s pyramid, then the open-throated roar as it collapsed and the Rangers dropped their line and we all rushed forward to the fire, everyone helping everyone else along, like the world’s most courteous stampede. I flashed on the crush of bodies in the BART station after the Bay Bridge blew, the horrible feeling of being forced by the mass of people to step on those who’d fallen, the sweat and the stink and the noise. Someone had stabbed Darryl in that crowd, given him the wound that started us on our awful adventure.
This crowd was nothing like that mob, but my internal organs didn’t seem to know that, and they did slow flip-flops in my abdomen, and my legs turned to jelly, and I found myself slowly sliding to the playa. There were tears pouring down my face, and I felt like I was floating above my body as Ange grabbed me under my armpits, struggling to get me to my feet as she spoke urgent, soothing words into my ears. People stopped and helped, one tall woman steering traffic around us, a small older man grabbing me beneath my armpits with strong hands, pulling me upright.
I snapped back into my body, felt the jellylegged feeling recede, and blinked away the tears. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry.” I was so embarrassed I felt like digging a hole and pulling the playa in over my head. But neither of the people who’d stopped to help seemed surprised. The woman told me where to find the nearest medical camp and the man gave me a hug and told me to take it easy.
Ange didn’t say anything, just held me for a moment. She knew that I sometimes got a little wobbly in crowds, and she knew I didn’t like to talk about it. We made our way to the fire and watched it for a moment, then went back out into the playa for the parties and the dancing and forgetting. I reminded myself that I was in love, at Burning Man, and that there might be a job waiting for me when I got back to San Francisco, and kicked myself in the ass every time I felt the bad feeling creeping up on me.
Temple burn was very different. We got there really early and sat down nearly at the front and watched the sun set and turn the temple’s white walls orange, then red, then purple. Then the spotlights went up, and it turned blazing white again. The wind blew and I heard the rustle of all the paper remembrances fluttering in its nooks and on its walls.
We were sitting amid thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, but there was hardly a sound. When I closed my eyes, I could easily pretend that I was alone in the desert with the temple and all its memories and good-byes and sorrows. I felt the ghost of that feeling I’d had when I’d sat in the temple and tried to clear my mind, to be in the present and throw away all my distractions. The temple had an instantly calming effect on me, silenced all the chattering voices in the back of my head. I don’t believe in spooks and ghosts and gods, and I don’t think the temple had any supernatural effect, but it had an absolutely natural effect, made me sorrowful and hopeful and calm and, well, soft-edged all at once.
I wasn’t the only one. We all sat and watched the temple, and people spoke in hushed tones, museum voices, church whispers. Time stretched. Sometimes I felt like I was dozing off. Other times I felt like I could feel every pore and every hair on my body. Ange stroked my back, and I squeezed her leg softly. I looked at the faces around me. Some were calm, some softly cried, some smiled in profound contentment. The wind ruffled my scarf.
And then I spotted them. Three rows back from us, holding hands: Masha and Zeb. I nearly didn’t recognize them at first, because Masha had her head on Zeb’s shoulder and wore an expression of utter vulnerability and sadness, absolutely unlike her normal display of half-angry, half-cocky impatience. I looked away before I caught her eye, feeling like I’d intruded on her privacy.
I turned back to the temple just in time to see the first flames lick at its insides, the paper crackling and my breath catching in my chest. Then a tremendous column of fire sprouted out of the central atrium, whooshing in a pillar a hundred yards tall, the heat and light so intense I had to turn my face away. The crowd sighed, a huge, soft sound, and I sighed with it.
There was someone walking through the crowd now, a compact woman in goggles and gray clothes in a cut that somehow felt military, though they didn’t have any markings or insignia. She was moving with odd intensity, holding a small video camera up to one eye and peering through it. People muttered objections as she stepped on them or blocked their view, then spoke louder, saying “Sit down!” and “Down in front,” and “Spectator!” This last with a vicious spin on it that was particularly apt, given her preoccupation with that camera.
I looked away from her and tried to put her out of my mind. The temple was burning along its length now, and someone near me drew a breath and let out a deep, bassy “Ommmmmm” that made my ears buzz. Another voice joined in, and then another, and then I joined in, the sound like a living thing that traveled up and down my chest and through my skull, suffusing me with calm. It was exactly what I needed, that sound, and as my voice twined with all those others, with Ange’s, I felt like a part of something so much larger than myself.
A sharp pain in my thigh made me open my eyes. It was the lady with the camera, facing away from me, scanning the fire and the crowd with it, and she’d caught some of the meat of my thigh as she stepped past me. I looked up in annoyance, ready to say something really nasty, and found myself literally frozen in terror.
You see, I knew that face. I could never have forgotten it.
Her name was Carrie Johnstone. I’d called her “Severe Haircut Woman” before I learned it. The last time I’d seen her in person, she’d had me strapped to a board and ordered a soldier hardly older than me to waterboard me—to simulate my execution. To torture me.
For years, that face had haunted my nightmares, swimming out of the dark of my dreams to taunt me; to savage me with sharp, animal teeth; to choke me out with a tight bag over my face; to ask me relentless questions I couldn’t answer and hit me when I said so.
A closed-door military tribunal had found her not guilty of any crime, and she’d been “transferred” to help wind down the Forward Operating Base in Tikrit, Iraq. I had a news alert for her, but no news of her ever appeared. As far as I could tell, she’d vanished.
It was like being back in my nightmares, one of those paralysis dreams where your legs and arms won’t work. I wanted to shout and scream and run, but all I could do was sit as my heart thundered so loud that my pulse blotted out all the other sounds, even that all-consuming Ommmm.
Johnstone didn’t even notice. She radiated an arrogant disregard for people, her face smooth and emotionless as the people around her asked her (or shouted at her) to move. She took another step past me and I stared at her back—tense beneath her jacket, coiled for action—as she strode back through the crowd, disappearing over the horizon, hair beneath a stocking cap that was the same desert no-color as her clothes.
Ange squeezed my hand. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
I shook my head and squeezed back. I wasn’t going to tell her I’d just seen the bogeywoman on the playa. Even if that was Johnstone, so what? Everyone came to Burning Man, it seemed—software pioneers, fugitives, poets, and me. I hadn’t seen any rules against war criminals attending.
“It’s nothing,” I choked out. I looked over the crowd. Johnstone had disappeared. I turned back to the burning temple, tried to find the peace I’d felt a moment before.
By the time the temple burned down, I’d nearly convinced myself that I’d imagined Johnstone. After all, it had been dark, the only light the erratic flicker of the temple. The woman had held a camera to her face, obscuring it. And I’d seen her from below. I’d been visiting all my ghosts that night, seeing the faces of friends lost and betrayed and saved in the temple’s fire. I’d only seen the face for a moment. What were the odds that Carrie Johnstone would be at Burning Man? It was like finding Attila the Hun at a yoga class. Like finding Darth Vader playing ultimate frisbee in the park. Like finding Megatron volunteering at a children’s hospital. Like finding Nightmare Moon having a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
Thinking up these analogies—and even dumber ones that I won’t inflict upon you—helped me calm down as Ange and I walked slowly away from temple burn with the rest of the crowd, a solemn and quiet procession.
“Going home tomorrow,” I said.
“Exodus,” Ange said. That’s what it was called at Burning Man, and it was supposed to be epic—thousands of cars and RVs stretching for miles, being released in “pulses” every hour so that the traffic didn’t bunch up. We’d scored a ride back with Lemmy from Noisebridge, the hackerspace I hung around at in San Francisco. I didn’t know him well, but we knew where he was camped and had arranged to meet him with our stuff at 7 a.m. to help him pack his car. Getting up that early would be tricky, but I had a secret weapon: my contribution to the Burning Man gift economy, AKA cold-brew coffee.
You’ve had hot coffee before, and in the hands of a skilled maker, coffee can be amazing. But the fact is that coffee is one of the hardest things to get right in the world. Even with great beans and a great roast and great equipment, a little too much heat, the wrong grind, or letting things go on too long will produce a cup of bitterness. Coffee’s full of different acids, and depending on the grind, temperature, roast, and method, you can “overextract” the acids from the beans, or overheat them and oxidize them, producing that awful taste you get at donut shops and Starbucks.
But there is Another Way. If you make coffee in cold water, you only extract the sweetest acids, the highly volatile flavors that hint at chocolate and caramel, the ones that boil away or turn to sourness under imperfect circumstances. Brewing coffee in cold water sounds weird, but in fact, it’s just about the easiest way to make a cup (or a jar) of coffee.
Just grind coffee—keep it coarse, with grains about the size of sea salt—and combine it with twice as much water in an airtight jar. Give it a hard shake and stick it somewhere cool overnight (I used a cooler bag loaded with ice from ice camp and wrapped the whole thing in bubble wrap for insulation). In the morning, strain it through a colander and a paper coffee filter. What you’ve got now is coffee concentrate, which you can dilute with cold water to taste—I go about half and half. If you’re feeling fancy, serve it over ice.
Here’s the thing: cold-brew coffee tastes amazing, and it’s practically impossible to screw it up. Unlike espresso, where all the grounds have to be about the same size so that the high-pressure water doesn’t cause fracture lines in the “puck” of coffee that leave some of the coffee unextracted and the rest overextracted, cold-brew grounds can be just about any size. Seriously, you could grind it with a stone axe. Unlike drip coffee, which goes sour and bitter if you leave the grounds in contact with the water for too long, cold brew just gets yummier and yummier (and more and more caffeinated!) the longer the grounds sit in the water. Cold brewing in a jar is pretty much the easiest way to make coffee in the known universe—if you don’t mind waiting overnight for the brew—and it produces the best-tasting, most potent coffee you’ve ever drunk. The only downside is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to clean up, but if you want to spend some more money, you can invest in various gadgets to make it easier to filter the grounds, from cheap little Toddy machines all the way up to hand-blown glass Kyoto drippers that look like something from a mad scientist’s lab. But all you need to make a perfectly astounding cup of coldbrewed jet fuel is a mason jar, coffee, water, and something to strain it through. They’ve been making iced coffee this way in New Orleans for centuries, but for some unknown reason, it never seems to have caught on big-time.
All week, I’d been patrolling the playa armed with a big thermos bottle filled with cold-brew concentrate, pouring out cups to anyone who seemed nice or in need of a lift. Every single person I shared it with had been astounded at the flavor. It’s funny watching someone take a sip of cold brew for the first time, because it looks and smells strong, and it is, and coffee drinkers have been trained to think that “strong” equals “bitter.” The first mouthful washes over your tongue and the coffee flavor wafts up the back of your throat and fills up your sinus cavity and your nose is all, “THIS IS INCREDIBLY STRONG!” And the flavor is strong, but there isn’t a hint of bitterness. It’s like someone took a cup of coffee and subtracted everything that wasn’t totally delicious, and what’s left behind is a pure, powerful coffee liquor made up of all these subtle flavors: citrus and cocoa and a bit of maple syrup, all overlaid on the basic and powerful coffee taste you know and love.
I know I converted at least a dozen people to the cult of cold brew over the week, and the only challenge had been keeping Ange from drinking it all before I could give it away. But we’d have jet fuel inplenty for the morning’s pack-up and Exodus. I’d put up all the leftover coffee to brew before we went to the temple burn, and if we drank even half of it, our ride would have to let us out of the car during the Exodus pulses to run laps around the playa and work off the excess energy.
Thinking about this, I took my thermos off my belt and gave it a shake. “Want some magic bean juice?” I asked.
“Yum,” Ange said, and took the flask from me and swigged at it.
“Leave some for me,” I said, and pried it out of her fingers and drank the last few swallows. The deep, trancelike experience of temple burn had left me feeling like I wanted to find someone’s pillow camp and curl up on a mountain of cushions, but it was my last night on the playa, and I was going to dance, so I needed some rocket fuel.
Just as I lowered the flask, I spotted Masha and Zeb again, walking stiffly beside each other, faces set like stone, expressionless. They were at least fifty yards away from me, in the dark of night, and at first I thought they were just in some kind of deeply relaxed state from the extraordinary events of the night. But I soon saw that there was something definitely wrong. Walking very close behind them were a pair of large men in stocking caps just like the ones Carrie Johnstone—or her twin—had been wearing, and they had tight gray-black scarves pulled over their faces, though it wasn’t blowing dust just then. The crowd parted a little and I saw that they were dressed as Carrie Johnstone had been, the same semimilitary jackets and baggy pants and big black boots. There was something wrong with them, and I couldn’t place it for a moment, but then it hit me: they were darktards—no EL wire, no lights. And for that matter, Zeb and Masha had gone dark.
I saw all this in a second and mostly reconstructed it after the fact, because I was already moving. “This way,” I said to Ange, and grabbed her hand and started to push through the crowd. There was something really wrong with that little scene, and Masha might not be my favorite person in the world, but whatever was going down with her and Zeb and those two guys, I wanted to find out about it.
Even as we pushed through the crowd, part of my brain was already telling me a little story about how it would all be okay: It’s probably not even them. Those two guys probably have EL wire all over their clothes, but they’re saving battery. Boy, is Ange going to think I’m a paranoia case when I tell her what I thought I saw—
The four were heading out into the dark of the open playa now, and there was someone bringing up the rear, emerging from the crowd behind them. It was Carrie Johnstone, and I saw her profile clearly now, silhouetted by the orange light of a flamethrower flaring a fireball into the night as a mutant vehicle zoomed past. There was no doubt at all in my mind now, this was her. She was sweeping her head from side to side in a smooth, alert rhythm, like the Secret Service bodyguards that shadowed the president when you saw him on TV.
Ange was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her, and she was pulling on my hand, so I let go of her, because I knew it was Carrie Johnstone, and I knew that Zeb and Masha were under her power. I had been under her power. So had Ange. I knew what that meant, and I wasn’t going to let her snatch anyone else.
All five of them were vanishing into the night and I began to push and shove my way through the crowd, not caring anymore if I stepped on someone’s toes or bumped into them. People swore at me, but I barely heard them. My vision had shrunk to a narrow tunnel with Carrie Johnstone at the end of it. I patted at my utility belt and found my thermos, which was made of hard metal alloy. It didn’t weigh much, but if you hit someone from behind with it, as hard as you could, they’d know they’d been hit. That’s what I was going to do to Carrie Johnstone.
I was making a wordless noise. It started off quietly, under my breath, but it was quickly turning into a roar. No, not a roar, a battle cry. For years, this woman had haunted and hunted me in my dreams. She’d humiliated me, broken me—and now she was doing it again to someone else. And I had her in my sights and in my power.
Someone on a playa bike nearly ran me down but swerved at the last moment and fell over right in front of me, clipping my shin. I didn’t even slow down. In fact, I sped up, leapt over the bike, and took off at a run.
I’d never run like that in my life, a flat-out sprint with my feet barely touching the ground. I was just taking another step when the whole night turned hellish orange around me, and then there was a terrible whoomph sound, and a blast of heat and noise and wind lifted me off my feet and threw me face-first into the dust.
I was dazed for a moment—we all were—and then I rolled over and picked myself up. My nose was bleeding, and when I put my hand up to it, it brushed against my lip and it felt weird, numb and wet, and I thought, in a distant, abstract way, I’ve really done a number on my face, I guess. That same part of me quietly chided myself for violating first-aid protocol by moving around after an injury. Even if I didn’t have a spinal injury or a concussion, I might have broken some small bone that hadn’t had a chance to start sending pain signals to my brain yet, might be mashing that broken bone under all my weight as I climbed to my feet.
I told the voice to shut up. I remember that very clearly, actually thinking, Shut up, you, I’m busy, like you’d do to a yappy dog. Because whatever had turned the sky orange, whatever had sent that gust of heat and wind and sound through the night, Carrie Johnstone had been responsible for it, and it had been part of her plan to take Zeb and Masha out. I knew it. Not in the way I knew what my address was, but in the way that I knew that a ball thrown straight into the air would come straight back again. A logical certainty.
I set off back in the direction that Masha and Zeb and Johnstone and her goons had been heading, out into the darkness, limping a little now as my right knee started to complain, loudly. I told it to shut up, too.
They were gone. Of course they were. Unlit, moving fast, out there on the playa, they could have disappeared just by moving off a hundred yards in nearly any direction. They probably had night-scopes and all sorts of clever little asshole-ninja superspy gadgets that they could use to avoid me if they wanted to.
If she wanted to. Carrie Johnstone probably could have killed me without breaking a sweat, and I’m sure her goons could have done the same. They were some sort of soldiers, while I was a scrawny nineteen-year-old from San Francisco whose last fight had been settled in Mrs. Bapuji’s day care with a firm admonishment to share the Elmo doll with little Manny Hernandez.
But I didn’t care. I was on a mission. I wasn’t a coward. I wasn’t going to sit back and wait for other people to do all the work. So I lurched into the dark.
There was no sign of them. I called out their names, screaming myself hoarse, running this way and that, and I was still running when Ange caught up with me, grabbed my arm, and pulled me bodily back to the infirmary tent. There were a lot of us there, waiting to be seen by the paramedics, nurses, EMTs, and doctors who streamed from across the playa to help with the aftermath of the worst disaster in the history of Burning Man.
Octotank, the art car that exploded, had started out life as a ditch digger, and it retained the huge, powerful tank treads and chassis. A maker collective working out of a warehouse in San Bernardino had removed everything else and meticulously mounted an ancient Octopus carnival ride atop it. You’ve seen Octopus rides, though your local version might have been called “the Spider,” “the Schwarzkopf Monster,” or “the Polyp.” They’ve got six or more articulated arms, each one ending in a ride seat, sometimes just a chair with a lap bar and sometimes a full cage.
Now, that would have been cool enough, but then the mutant vehicle designers had mounted a flamethrower to the roof of each of Octotank’s cars and hooked them up to an Arduino controller that caused them to fire in breathtaking sequences. They all drew their fuel from the same massive reservoir mounted to one side of Octotank’s body, but each one had a mechanism that injected the fuel with different metal salts, and these impurities all burned with different bright colors. When Octotank was in motion, all eight cars swinging around in the night as it trundled across the playa, shooting tall pillars of multicolored flame into the sky from the swirling mandalas of its cars, well, it was magnificent.
Right up to the moment it exploded, of course.
The fuel reservoir was already half empty, thankfully, otherwise it would have done more than knock me (and about a hundred other people) on my face—it would have incinerated us.
Miraculously, no one was incinerated, though a couple dozen were burned badly enough that they were airlifted to Reno. Octotank had been built by careful, thoughtful makers, and they’d put in triple fail-safes, the final measure being that the reservoir had been built with its thinnest wall on the outer, lower edge, so if it ever did blow, it would direct its force into the ground and not the driver or the riders. The force of the blast had knocked Octotank over, snapping off two of its arms, but the riders had been strapped down by their lap belts and had rolled with the vast, broken mechanisms, getting scrapes and a few broken bones.
As for me, my nose was broken, I had a pretty ugly cut to my forehead, and I’d bitten partway through my lip and needed three stitches. I had a sprained knee and a headache that could have been used to jackhammer concrete. But compared to a lot of the people who crowded in—and around—the infirmary camp that night, I’d gotten off light.
Ange and I sat with our backs against an RV in the infirmary camp. A woman in a pink furry cowboy hat and a glittering corset who’d identified herself as a nurse asked me to stick close so that they could watch for signs of concussion. I didn’t want to sit still, but Ange made me and called me an idiot when I argued.
We didn’t find out what had happened right away, couldn’t have. We weren’t looking at Octotank when it blew. Ange, being short, had been lost in a forest of taller bodies, trying to catch up to me (one of the reasons she didn’t get hurt is that she was in among everyone else, and found herself in the middle of a pile of people—once she was sure that the people on the bottom were being seen to, she’d taken off again after me). I’d been running around in the dark, looking everywhere for Masha, Zeb, and the goon squad.
So we got the story secondhand and thirdhand from people in the infirmary. There were lots of wild theories, and everyone was buzzing about the Department of Mutant Vehicles, which certified all the art cars on the playa, and which was staffed with legendary mechanics and pyrotechnicians. Could they have missed some critical flaw in Octotank’s build?
I didn’t think so.
Homeland © Cory Doctorow 2012