Jul 19 2012 1:00pm
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