I always had the instinct that the Dude needs to be stopped, but now I know enough to be sure of it.
Berry Street | Jan 21 | 2:44am
The upscale row of apartment buildings had streetlights everywhere and flat high walls that didn’t leave any shadows for me to hide in. It all reminded me of the projects. I knew where the company cameras were from my daytime deliveries and stayed out of their field of vision, but I felt pretty nervous alone on the bright street in the middle of the night.
I left my phone in my apartment to keep it from tracking me, so I had no way to tell time, but Lanning was definitely late. I was out there so long I started sobering up. I’m late for everything, even when I floor it to make a deadline, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss me off when someone else leaves me out in the cold.
Then a rope of knotted bedsheets dropped down next to me, and I was just embarrassed.
Halfway up the sheet rope, my arms almost gave out, but I knew Casimir wouldn’t give up. It took everything I had in my own personal gas tank, but I made it to the top, where Lanning pulled me over the railing onto his balcony.
My arms went limp at my sides. “You’re late.”
“I only closed my eyes for a second.” He pointed to the living room inside the sliding glass doors. I never saw him before in any room but his office. “Have a…” He trailed off.
I walked away from him and sat on a couch in the spotless living room. I didn’t see any cameras, but they were there. We would be visible in the light through the glass doors, but I scheduled the meeting for late because the Dude couldn’t be watching if he was asleep.
Lanning came over in his dockers and messy blue button-down and sat down next to me. “I have a conditioned response. It’s not easy to shake that off, so I passed out when they let me go to sleep at 2 o’clock.” He didn’t look at my eyes, but he was less nervous than when he first asked me for help. “Now I’ll be off my cycle for days.”
“Good.” I nodded. “First step to fighting back is getting off their schedule.”
He frowned and laughed. “I am right now, but the system wakes me up at 7:38 every morning.”
My eyebrows went up. I couldn’t believe the Dude worked him even harder than me. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Maximum efficiency.” He held out his hand and clicked an imaginary mouse. “But I get all the raiding time I want. The left hand doesn’t have to know what the right is doing.” He pointed at the ridge made by the diaper under the waist of his pants. “And if I take a bathroom break without leaving my desk, I can use those three minutes however I want.”
The bathroom buckets back in my storage space were the only reason I was able to stay off the grid for so long. “No, it sounds like you already took the first step, taking charge of your own shits.”
He took that as encouragement. He seemed excited. “And if I fall asleep at my desk, the system gives me 15 minutes before it wakes me up.” He yawned and stretched. Then he smiled at me. “Sometimes I’m not really asleep.”
“Good idea.” I held back my own yawn. “I’ll put you in contact with the secret network, but you need to explain a few things to me. What exactly are you guys working on?”
He looked down at his hands. “I don’t know exactly. They just give me little pieces of the larger project.”
“Pieces like what?” I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“A heuristic… extrapolation of object presence.” He drew something in the air with his finger.
I still didn’t get it.
He sat up. “Babies figure this out in the first year. Um…” He covered his face. “Where did I go?” He pulled his hands away. “Object permanence.”
“You’re doing this to a computer?” I copied what he did with his hands.
His laugh was high and strained. “Kinda. It’s a little more– They learn to figure out the world around them.” He had a proud smile.
“Like baby robots? Picking things up and walking around?” I imagined a robot whose hands could crush my skull staggering into a wall because it was programmed by this guy.
Lanning kept getting excited. “No, like a machine watching TV. It-it-uh translates footage into information it can process. Look at this, look, look.” He ran out of the room and came back with the virtual reality headset I saw the first time I delivered there. “You see? This was going to change the way we interacted with information back in the ’90s.” He waved his hand around. “We’re doing, like, the same thing backwards, making…reality…virtual.” He smiled.
He lost his train of thought. “What?”
“I saw your Xboxes.” He had a stack of game consoles, but none were hooked to a TV. He also probably didn’t see all the ads when the strange futuristic motion sensor came out last year. To him, that kind of thing was still technology of the future. “Nevermind.”
He fought to regain focus. “N– Becau– W– When this program is watching, the whole network would understand what’s happening everywhere, through all the cameras at once.” He clapped his hands together.
“Watching? Could you use that for surveillance?” I looked around again for cameras. Even if the Dude was asleep, the computers could be watching us all the time.
“The stage four errors make them unreliable.” He pointed at me, his eyes lit up. “I think you’re right, though. We should put the cameras on robots, let them walk around and figure things out. I mean, then we could…” He put his arms out like holding a baby.
Fear made my stomach tight. The idea of the Dude’s evil robots made me dizzy. “No. I don’t want the Dude to have robots, and I don’t want him to know what everyone’s doing.”
Lanning’s nervousness came back. “Why not?”
Panic made the room spin. “Because he’s crazy.”
“So? We’re making something here. We’re changing the world.”
That sounded like what Casimir used to say about the band, but the goal was totally different. “You want everyone to live like we do?”
He shook his head. “They would have freedom.”
“The Dude must be paying you more than he’s paying me. You want freedom, why don’t you cash your fat paychecks and leave?”
“And go where? These hours, this constant deadline push, that’s the way things are in this industry. The Dude put me here, but you promised us fresh air and sunshine.”
“Us? Who else is there?”
I remembered the giant plant hanging in his office, and I forgot my fear for a second. “Your fern?”
“I tried to ask the Dude about it, but there’s no words.”
“The Dude.” Thinking about our evil boss gave me back the clarity of anger. I had to take this fight all the way to the top. “Can you tell me where to find him?”
He shook his head.
“Come on, anything I can use against him.”
Lanning thought about it. “Well, he only talks using lines from his favorite movies.”
“I know that. He’s obsessed. That’s why my code name’s a guy from Ghostbusters.”
“But that’s how he communicates. Those words are his side of the conversation.” He nodded, staring at the wall. “That’s why he gives everyone certain roles. His brain won’t process things any other way.”
“What an idiot.”
I smiled. For a second, we were just two normal guys complaining about our dickhead boss. I nodded my chin up. “What’s your real name?”
He looked me in the eyes for the first time. “John.” He looked away.
“I’m Oscar.” I gave him the prepaid cell phone I brought in. “Hide this. And get some sleep, John. We’ll get you some fresh air.” I left.
The cell phones are my idea, an untraceable way to keep the underground in touch. That one has the number of the prepaid phone in my glove box, and I’ll give another one to Acid Burn. I’m gonna be a part of the loop now.
If they finish building this surveillance thing, the Dude will be able to watch a lot more than just his own employees. Maybe this is why Casimir sent Harry to join the company in the first place, to stop the Dude from getting that kind of power. I don’t know where Harry is, but if he’s not taking care of this, I have to.