Christopher told us how he ended up at the retreat, and why he left the industry. We did not have formal groups, but our circle gradually formed out of five men and two women. Many came here between jobs. Christopher said he didn’t have anything lined up, and he felt he needed to stay here for a while before he could convince himself that he was capable again to start figuring out what next.
His first job after graduate school was at a big data warehouse. He was recruited for his research in saving costs, but the job turned out to be about keeping track of who had accessed what. Later, he spent a few years on a system that restricted such access.
“I thought I would be dealing with math all day, but I ended up with moving bits around, which was the equivalent of plumbing in the virtual world,” he said.
Christopher insisted we use his full, Anglicized first name. No Chris, and never Krzysztof. That last one, he said, reminded him of his compatriots, and that made him uncomfortable. He came to the country during a time when many people back home left out of economic necessity. True, it was not that anyone could do his job, but he didn’t feel that plumbing bits was so different from plumbing water. He wondered how much of his having a well-paying job was attributed to luck, his family valuing education, his having picked up the right languages at the right time, all those little things that added up.
“The barriers and boundaries we set up around the bits are all arbitrary, if you think about it,” he said. Bits in the computer don’t care about where they live or how they are seen or used—it’s just a bunch of zeros and ones. “It’s how they are used in the physical world that’s problematic. If I have your date of birth and your social security number—or whatever id you have in your country—I can easily do a lot of things that make your life unpleasant. You don’t want this to happen to you, and so you start asking your country to do something about it. And that’s how all this regulation thing came about.
“It’s ironic that we’ve created a world where bits can flow anywhere, only later to ask nation states to wield a big stick to force everyone to set up arbitrary boundaries. ‘Tech sovereignty’, I think that’s what one French president called the big stick that’s now being wielded against the industry.
“In such a world we’ve created, a plumber’s job is to make sure that the barriers and boundaries are working as we are told to hold—and I was very good at it.”
Christopher worked for nearly a decade there, and then decided to go back home after having obtained residency in this country and saved what he thought was “enough money,” which he quickly ran out due to a bitter marriage and disputes with some local advocacy.
“I thought it would be easy to just come back, get a new job, and pick up where I left. But a few years away was a big negative. I was no longer a new graduate, and some of the enemies I made back at home now also worked here, and they had influences.”
He sought out his old connections and survived through some odd consultancy gigs here and there. One day, he got a message.
It was from a senior executive of a well-known company, which used to be his first employer’s customer. The senior executive heard about his work before, and said she wanted to make a long shot to see if he’d be interested in joining them.
“I remember I asked her, ‘What do you want me to build?’, still imagining I would go back to my old world,” he said.
“‘We don’t need you to build anything.’ She told me they already had everything. ‘We need someone to manage it.’
“I asked her how many engineers I was going to manage, and she said no, no, it was not about managing engineers. She told me there’d be a lot of travel, and if I agreed, they could get the paperwork done very quickly.
“I remember we were sitting in a café with a view of the bay. It was late afternoon and the sun was about to set. I told her I needed to think about it, and she said I was welcome to take a walk for as long as I would like, and she would wait there. So I walked out of the café. I thought I would need a long walk. In the end, I only circled around two blocks. I came back to the terrace of the café and watched the sun go down.
“Then I told her, ‘let’s get it done.’”
Christopher’s new employer wanted him to fly to a Southeast Asian country in two days. He was a little surprised at the urgency, but gladly accepted the offer that his apartment would be taken care of. A one-way ticket was emailed to him, and an office badge and a work phone delivered through a private carrier.
“And I was asked to attend a gala a few hours before the late night flight.”
“A gala?”, one of us asked.
“The senior executive texted to my work phone and told me to join her,” said Christopher. “I told her I didn’t own any formal attire—I was determined to never wear a suit again when I decided to come back to this country. She said they’d take care of that. When I arrived, they gave me a very nice suit and told me to keep it. I was surprised how fit it was. The senior executive had very sharp eyes. Anyway, she apologized that they could not give me a usual onboarding week, and she wanted to use the occasion to welcome me as well as tell me how much they valued what I would bring to the table.”
“What kind of gala was that?”
“A private fundraiser for a prominent politician. No journalists were invited. I heard that it was meant to be very discreet. Before I left, the company founder’s partner came over. We shook hands, and he told me the same thing that he said during the reception, which was that the company contributed to and worked for the good of humanity. There were challenges, he conceded, and that’s why they needed someone like me. I didn’t stay long, and before I boarded the flight, the senior executive texted me that she was very satisfied with the professionalism I showed, because the founder’s partner thought I was an old-timer at the company.”
Although Christopher knew what he was getting into, he didn’t realize the immensity of the setup until he badged into the office a full day later from his departure city. Technically, it was not his employer’s office. It had been a call center with hundreds of cubicles. Two local managers gave him a tour. A day later, he came back in, and had a meeting with them.
“I told the managers that I reviewed their reports and the metrics, and everything looked good. It was well run, and I wondered what it was that required someone to fly there. And that’s when they told me that it was not the only office the local company owned in the country. ‘But we ran into some problems with consolidating the operations.’ That’s when I learned about the existence of a Mr. Weiss, who first managed but then took over the ownership of a very important office in the north.”
“Were those offshore customer service centers or something?”
“No. They always said the work there was to protect users. Safety. But the top priority was to shield the senior executives at the headquarters from the embarrassment of being summoned to see the politicians they had organized private galas for.”
Some of us murmured and shook heads. I had a lot of questions. It was one thing reading about all the contractors in a faraway country reading or tagging problematic images or texts. It was another, a very intriguing one, hearing from someone who had really been there.
“Must be unpleasant to you…,” one of us sighed and commented.
Christopher waved a hand to take it from the woman. “‘Unpleasant’ was an understatement, but I’ll get to, and get over, that part. I wasn’t hired to endure what those contractors were hired to endure. I also quickly realized the scale of the operation. It was an operation with thousands of workers whom you would never meet, even over video conference. Without physically being there, one wouldn’t really feel it. One could imagine what it’d be like from the news and the whistleblowers, but it’s very different from seeing the operation yourself.”
“You said they had some problem with consolidating the operations,” I said, “and let me guess, they hired you because someone went rogue?”
“I don’t think they thought it that way. There was this ambivalent feeling that Mr. Weiss was a very capable person and had helped the company establish such a large-scale operation. But they sensed they were losing a tight grip. First there were the leaks about contractors in the main office seeking therapy and counseling, then there was the rumor that one of the vendors in the north was acquired via a hostile takeover. The rumor turned out to be true, and the biggest stakeholder was no one other than Mr. Weiss….”
“That sounds fun, a company’s employee buying out a vendor that does business with the company,” commented another person.
“Except that those vendors were set up by the company in the first place,” said Christopher.
“You aren’t saying that…”
“It’s exactly what you think it is.”
“Does that mean that Mr. Weiss was double-dipping, getting paid salary as an employee and enjoying the profit from the vendor that he now owned?”
“But, again, that’s not unheard of, right? It’s not the first time in history where this kind of thing happened in a remote country. But of course, you were parachuted there for a reason,” the person who said it sounded fun commented again.
“I take issue with the term ‘a remote country,’ but let me finish my part. I was indeed hired for a reason. The operations were going well. All the metrics and numbers looked fine. It was not an insignificant cost center, but the company made a positive spin on the cost. They didn’t frame safety as ‘if you don’t do this, something bad will happen.’ Instead they framed it as, ‘because we are doing this, user satisfaction is high, people flock to us, and that’s why we have all the engagement and data’….”
“And this Mr. Weiss was behind the success,” I ventured.
“Too successful. The local managers I talked to spoke of him in awe, saying he was someone that ‘will go places’. But there was the concern back in the mothership that his method was ‘unsound’, but no one could put a finger on it.”
“So you were parachuted there to find out,” said the it-sounds-fun person again.
“I wouldn’t push metaphors this far. I was not literally parachuted there.”
"Did you find anything?" I asked.
“Mr. Weiss had a cult following in the north.”
“Whoa, whoa,” jeered the man. “Our high school teacher said one minute before he wouldn’t use metaphors, now he’s just using it,”
“No, he literally ran a cult.”
When Christopher finally met Mr. Weiss in person it was already two months after Christopher first landed in the country. The vendor now Mr. Weiss owned was in an office building in a third-tier city. There were no flights linking the city to anywhere, but the roads were good: the region had attracted manufacturers in recent years and investments in infrastructure increased.
Christopher’s employer wanted him to be there as soon as possible, but having talked to a few people more in the main office, he decided to approach much more cautiously. He met Mr. Weiss over video conference under the pretext that some high-level manager in the main office was leaving and he volunteered to be transferred there, and he wanted to learn more about Mr. Weiss’s methods in the north. It helped that so many operations in the country were set up with plausible deniability that there wasn’t much in his employer’s HR system for anyone to look up his work history, which didn’t exist in the first place. Mr. Weiss wore business casual to the meeting and suggested they could keep meeting over the video conference. Christopher pointed out that he could have stayed back in the headquarters if they only talked over video conference. “We are now in the same time zone,” smiled Mr. Weiss, “and that already makes things easier. Besides, how many of you actually come to the office building, only to find you talking to your colleagues in separate buildings or working remotely all day? We should all have stayed at home.”
“His tone was dismissive,” said Christopher, “and I started to think about how we could take back control. I asked the local managers to introduce me to some lawyers and accountants the main office had connections with and asked them about their experience with takeovers. If that failed, my Plan B would be to drain the work that got routed to Mr. Weiss’s office. Neither plan looked easy. Mr. Weiss took over the northern vendor via a legal buy-out, and he had the help of the local officials. And don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that Mr. Weiss worked with some corrupt local people or something. The vendor was set up in a shady way in the first place, and I didn’t think any actions from the headquarters’ end against the technicality involved would garner any sympathy, both here and back home.”
The Plan B that Christopher had in mind would be to divert the work, either back to the main office that Christopher had been for weeks already, or to set up a new shop somewhere, perhaps even next door to Mr. Weiss by recruiting his employees. “Factories do that all the time,” said Christopher. The biggest challenge was the sheer amount of work Mr. Weiss’s office was getting. The dirtiest and the most dangerous images and texts were all sent there, and Christopher’s main office simply didn’t have the capacity. Ramping up a new office wouldn’t be easy given the nature of the work, and there were always budget constraints. Christopher’s employer insisted that there be no drop in core metrics, which further tied his hands as any transition plan risked an increase in safety incidents that the headquarters didn’t want to hear about.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I decided to go to see Mr. Weiss’s office myself unannounced.”
Mr. Weiss’s office in the north still used the same badging system. Since the vendor was set up by Christopher’s employer in the first place, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. Christopher flew to an airport that was closest to the northern city, and hired a driver to go there. He booked a hotel for both of them, and once the driver dropped him off, he instructed the driver to check into the hotel and wait for his instruction to pick him up.
Once badged in, Christopher started figuring out the place. There was no floor plan, but luckily the layout was similar to the main office. There must have been hundreds of cubicles, and everyone working in one was wearing a headset and looking at a flat panel with a screen protector attached.
Unusually for an office building, there was a mezzanine with glass-walled meeting rooms and a corner of an open office. That made it even more unusual for an office in an industrial city. It was probably meant for the management to be able to oversee the operation below. The open office looked simply like any other, with external displays, keyboards, mice, and mugs, but there wasn’t anyone there when Christopher came up. “That was one thing that looked exactly like what we have here,” he said.
Christopher found a seat that did not have any personal effects and pulled out his laptop. A tall and thin man showed up in the open office.
“He was surprised,” said Christopher, “and asked me if I came from the headquarters. I introduced myself but I didn’t say a word about how or why I got here. He was obviously not from this country. ‘Are you coming to finally take over and take me home?’ he asked. I thought there must be something about this, and said, ‘Yes. But I need to see Mr. Weiss first.’
The man introduced himself. His name was A-Bîng and he said his passport was in Mr. Weiss’s office. He was looking for an opportunity to work abroad, and Mr. Weiss arranged everything for him. He told me that Mr. Weiss ‘had ideas about the world’ and he would ‘open up your mind.’ He became Mr. Weiss’s lieutenant and the operation grew tenfold in the past two years.”
“A-Bîng is a common name where I’m from,” someone interjected, “was he one of those cases, where you got hired by those scam farms, and once landed they took away your passport and beat you up if you didn’t meet their quota….”
“That was among the things I wanted to find out. I let A-Bîng take me to the employee cafeteria. They didn’t do fancy gourmet stuff like what you guys are accustomed to. It’s pretty standard in manufacturing, and I had to pay. There was rice and stew, and a lot of veggies. There were many things to choose from, as they had a diverse workforce coming from different parts of the region, which meant various dietary restrictions from our perspective. A-Bîng was very proud of it, saying it was one reason people flocked to work here, despite what they would eventually find out.”
“Doesn’t sound like someone who got beaten up to meet quotas,” another person commented.
“It doesn’t. The twist is that A-Bîng was sold the idea of fighting scams and spams. Said his country suffered from disinformation and psyops. Like I said, Mr. Weiss arranged everything for him, and he got to stay in a relatively nice dorm room by himself. I guess that’s why he didn’t suspect much when Mr. Weiss asked him to surrender his passport. He thought it was just for the office to deal with some red tapes.”
“And you said he was the lieutenant to this Mr. Weiss. Didn’t sound like a guy in captivity. He could have run away to the capital and seek help from his embassy or something,” the person commented.
“Right. You already said it, he wasn’t someone who got beaten up to meet quotas,” said Christopher, “this guy was in awe of Mr. Weiss’s mission and he helped scale up the operation. A-Bîng executed Mr. Weiss’s plans with the fervor and precision of running a large electronics manufacturer, but he started to feel that something was amiss. He couldn’t let go of what he had achieved here, but it started to wear him thin. He said he had a cordial conversation with Mr. Weiss and he expressed his wish to be transferred to somewhere else. Mr. Weiss told him that someone from the headquarters would be replacing him, and he would be free to choose wherever he wanted to go next….”
“It was a lie, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“There was always someone from the HQ that intended to go there, but that someone never came. Until I made that unannounced visit. I told A-Bîng to pack his stuff, and instructed my driver to pick him up in the afternoon. I told him I would fetch his passport, although I had no idea how. I was thinking about the same idea you guys had, just taking him to the embassy in the capital. But at any rate I wanted to find out from Mr. Weiss himself. A-Bîng told me he usually worked into the late night and presided over the ‘rituals’ with some selected employees. He only heard about the ritual but made it clear from early on that it was not for him, and Mr. Weiss never forced him to join.”
“This, er, ritual. Is it what I think it is….”
“I think all of us here are well-read. Yes, it is what you think it is,” Christopher replied.
“That was what I was trying to figure out that day. If something is too good to be true, it probably is, isn’t it? In this case, though, there’s nothing too good to be true. Mr. Weiss’s office outperformed, but it wasn’t that the numbers were magical or something. They handled the most troublesome contents and they handled it efficiently. The throughput was amazing, and the churn was low. They expanded fast, and my employer was happy with their role in all this. However, everything came with a cost, and there must have been something that was behind such an outperformance, that held this place together. It was when the management caught wind of the ‘unsound’ methods Mr. Weiss was using, in addition to what we would usually call a hostile takeover.
“That afternoon I interviewed a few local managers there. I dropped the names and terms that A-Bîng told me, and I started to piece together the picture. The headquarters would like to think of the vendors here as a pure magical filter. A classifier, if you will. The input is a random piece from the internet, and the output is just a bit, let’s say 1 for acceptance and 0 for rejection. Over time it gradually evolved into a non-binary system where things were graded and not put in two simple bins. Random bits from the internet were now scored by how safe or unsafe they were, and a lot more attributes were attached to them. Violence, exploitation, disinformation, you name it.
“The majority of the classification these days were done by algorithms, but that still left a lot to be reviewed by humans, and it was really a lot. Everyone knew this, and companies like my employer always tried to keep this intricate balance—and distance. They knew it was a job that needed to be done. They knew what the job entailed would always be scandalous. The key is to find a setup that bites you the least. Sometimes you send an overzealous viceroy that has ambitions at the headquarters, and those types will always find a way to blackmail you with what they have done or discovered there. Chickens always come home to roost.
“Mr. Weiss, by contrast, was a perfect viceroy. Everything ran smoothly and there were no leaks or no media coverage. That is, until the vendor got bought out by Mr. Weiss, and the company only learned about this through some helping friends at the country’s economics affair ministry. At any rate, someone at my employer with a Machiavellian instinct determined that Mr. Weiss was at his position for too long. There needed to be some rotation anyway, and the buy-out prompted them to take action, and that’s when I got dragged into this.
“Mr. Weiss’s brilliance was that his office secretly hoarded hazardous contents, and they labeled them as ‘for training purposes.’ With the help of A-Bîng, they set up a tightly-run data segregation regime that made sure that everything was logged, access-controlled, and audited…. A-Bîng even cited an industrial paper that influenced their approach, and I don’t think he ever found it ironic that I was one of the co-authors of that paper…. Towards the end of the paper, we warned that the biggest risk of such a regime is quis costodiet ipsos custodes: who’s going to watch the watchers themselves? That regime satisfied the headquarters, and the local governments were also well-shielded. Only if you were there in person, you would realize that there was a certain data leakage, like how you would keep your share of electricity or water if you are a warlord in control of the areas through which the pipelines flow….
“The ‘training material’ was in the beginning used for something like initiation, or hazing if you will. It was also used to filter out workers with high flight risk. Later, it was used to punish low performers, people who raised concerns, or people who started reaching out to the outside world. Once, they got the words that a journalist was going to write a story about such shops. Even though Mr. Weiss’s office would just get mentioned by name, they figured they should send a friendly message to the journalist. They included certain pictures that the journalist took with his friends in his teenage years. If you go check the story, you will not find Mr. Weiss’s office anywhere there.”
“Reminds me of the things I was told when I was younger,” said one person, “my father worked at the censor office of a formerly repressive government, and he told me a conduit of information is never just a pure pipe. You can do a lot of dirty stuff with the things that you supposedly have scrubbed….”
“Very much so, and that’s also what my family told me growing up,” said Christopher, “what amazed me was how well Mr. Weiss ran the place. You don’t achieve such impressive numbers by just beating people up. As far as I could tell, the level of violence involved there was pretty low. Instead, they told their workers that they had an important mission. What Mr. Weiss told his lieutenants like A-Bîng had an extra layer: he recruited quite some college graduates and told them that they were on their way to get even with what the Western countries did to theirs. They were given the most destructive bits on the internet, and those bits were created by none other than the people in the West in the first place. Mr. Weiss even traded them with some private armies and troll farms to obtain extra fundings. That explained the salaries he paid to his people without anything of notice on the books that my employer saw.”
“What were you going to do?”
“I wanted to meet Mr. Weiss in person. I asked my driver to have a buddy to watch over A-Bîng and told him to park near the building in the late evening.”
After dinner at the cafeteria, Christopher stayed in the building. The office was still full from what he could see from the mezzanine. It was a round-the-clock operation.
“I pondered what I was seeing in front of me. It felt almost like a normal office to me, until I was reminded of what the people down below were dealing with. It used to be that companies were here to take away things to give people back home the luxury they enjoyed. Spices, ivories, sugar. Then the companies employed people here to assemble things they imported here and then exported the finished products. Yes, some companies also imported junk. But what was taking place there at such a scale was something different. Now I think about it, it was almost like the liver and kidney of our online world. The Sam’s and the Susan’s of the world could enjoy their selfies and short clips because of the organs there, and we would delude ourselves that such organs didn’t exist. Or if they did, we would want to believe what those companies tell us, that the people who work there are paid enough, treated well, and they wouldn’t ask anything else in return….
“I was in the middle of all this pondering when I heard some faint groans from a conference room nearby. I put my stuff back in the backpack and stood up from the desk. I slowly walked toward the conference room. During the day, it was an auditorium for something like a large training or a company all-hands. The glass panes were all turned opaque. When I peeked through the half-closed door, there was a group of about thirty people. I saw mostly young men and young women. All the chairs were removed. It smelled steamy, even though the office was fully air-conditioned. The room was dark and there were projected images on the walls. I suspected they were streaming the feed the office received from all over the world. I could not tell if the person in the middle of the room was the subject of some punishment, enjoyment, or metaphorical sacrifice.
“I had peeked enough to understand what was going on, and decided to stay outside, as if I had booked the room and been waiting for the previous meeting that went way over to finish. Then, the groans inside started to fade. A dim light came out from the door, and the glass panes began to turn half-translucent. Now everyone inside was dressed. Slowly, the door opened, and a man slowly walked towards me, supported by a man and a woman. It was Mr. Weiss.
‘I knew you would be here in person someday,’ said Mr. Weiss.
‘I’m Christopher,’ I said and bowed to them. I didn’t think Mr. Weiss would be able to shake hands.
‘This is the person from the HQ that I’ve been telling you about,’ Mr. Weiss told the man and woman supporting him.
‘Impressive work you have here,’ I gestured toward the floor below, and I meant it with not a bit of irony, considering what I just saw and.
Mr. Weiss smiled. ‘I must have looked much younger to you on screen. I turned on some filters. Now you’ve seen me in person, let’s find a room and we’ll talk.’”
“Doesn’t sound like a fanatic leader to me, if this guy turned out to be a sick old man,” someone commented.
“A filter that made you look twenty years younger? I want that,” said another.
“Come on, let him finish,” I protested.
“No worries, I was actually wondering the same thing at that point,” said Christopher, “and when we sat down, that was the first question I asked Mr. Weiss. I thought someone as technical and skillful as he was must have been waiting for so long to divulge their trade, and that indeed broke the ice. It was not really a filter. Mr. Weiss trained a model using the selfies from a few years ago, and so he had been talking to me through a puppet. Another org at the company developed the whole toolchain and any full-time employee had access to it, and the researchers even published some papers…. I heard about that work, and I couldn’t say I hadn’t suspected. Mr. Weiss said I probably looked too hard at those common foibles. He said he tuned the encoder so that frame rates always dropped when he turned face or scratched ears, places where the image model often showed its cracks.”
“And your employer wouldn’t have found out if they hadn’t sent you there,” I said.
“It’s true, but of course my employer didn’t send me there just to find out that one of their employees had aged significantly,” said Christopher. “Like I said earlier, they had not been comfortable with what they were getting, impressive as it was, and long suspected that something else was taking place.”
“Had your employer sent other people before?”
“They had, but Mr. Weiss told me that I was the only person that ever visited their office. My predecessors all arrived in the main office and talked to him over video conference. They were persuaded everything was fine and went home. Mr. Weiss could also have changed their badging system but chose not to.”
“So in a sense, Mr. Weiss was waiting for someone to uncover his, er…” someone interjected.
“… right?” asked Christopher.
“I don’t know what I was going to say. This guy was not an arsonist who stayed at the scene,” the person hesitated.
“Exactly,” said Christopher.
“Then what was that he was waiting for?” I asked.
Christopher told us that Mr. Weiss bought out the local vendor so that he could run things his way. Sure, it unnerved the headquarters, but they had a long list of worries, and their employee taking over an entity that they set up in the first place was low on the list. Mr. Weiss said they wanted it both ways: don’t show the stuff that is outright problematic, but keep enough stuff that is “engaging.” At which cost was not a question they cared about, so long as the staffing expense was under control, and any possible reputation damage was minimal.
But Mr. Weiss found it was not sustainable. They couldn’t recruit enough reviewers in the big cities. The word started to spread, and paying a good salary only got you that far. There was also counseling cost, legal overhead, leakage control, and oversight over the people who oversaw the leakage control.
“Then Mr. Weiss had a breakthrough moment. All this overhead and layers had one root cause: it was senseless work. How could you ask people to deal with human waste all day? And that is not the sewer type. You read enough of that junk and it starts to affect you, as if they were some viruses, and in many ways they actually are. No one could read or watch those bits all day and think to themselves that they are just bits.
The answer, Mr. Weiss figured, was to imbue the work with a mission, a mission his recruits could identify with. I’d say it really came down to a form of revenge. He told them that their work would avenge whatever their parents and forebears had suffered, be they partitions, conversions, exploitations, mines, chemicals. The world that subjected them to such injustices is now creating its own dirty bits in its bubbles of comfort, and they won’t be just sitting in their cubicles scrubbing those bits. Mr. Weiss wanted them to use the bits for their welfare.”
“Jeez. So Mr. Weiss allowed his worker to use the bits?” one of us asked.
“Yes. It was intended to be done in a controlled manner. Mr. Weiss was very careful about this, and in the beginning he only allowed his close circle to take a small subset with them, and all on managed devices. He even used it as a way to test the people, and leakage was severely and physically punished. I already told you Mr. Weiss traded them with some private armies, but he definitely had clients beyond those.”
“Amazing. An organization that was meant to maintain safety was turned into a big blackmail mill…,” the person commented.
“And I had to wonder why there is so much such stuff we humans can create in the first place,” said another.
“I think we all know some answers to this, and I’m sure you’re all aware that it’s no longer just humans that are creating all that,” said Christopher, “but let me ask you this: what are you going to do with the Pandora’s box that’s now opened?”
“Well just stop right there?” I asked.
“By the time Mr. Weiss had created such a well-oiled machine, he had already opened enough boxes that he had to keep on opening more,” said Christopher. “The whole ritual thing was one of those. It was a natural evolution. A brilliant one, I’d even say. It probably served as a collective mechanism of catharsis, by doing what they did in front of the endless stream of human waste.
“But I suspect it required superhuman abilities and energies for such machinery to go on. Mr. Weiss once hinted to two of his lieutenants that he would retire one day. They were the man and the woman that supported him that night. The reaction wasn’t an outright no, but let’s say that from their reactions he realized his options were limited. That’s the price you pay for being a cult leader. For life.”
Mr. Weiss was eaten up from the inside. He was sympathetic to the people who worked for him and for the “mission” he set for them, but ultimately it was a very lonely mission. He was dismayed when A-Bîng expressed no interest in the rituals. He thought he would be a good successor.
“Mr. Weiss told me that he felt guilty and vengeful. Guilty, because he wished he could have done more for them. He recruited from the border towns, taught them English, and gave many displaced people a place to live and work. Vengeful, because it was the world he came from that caused him to be guilty in the first place. He couldn’t help but feel that he carried a lot of weight on his shoulder, a responsibility he could not share with anyone from his world. But somehow I suspected he also didn’t trust his people enough to let them have their way.
“I quietly listened to him describe the place and the work he and A-Bîng did together. Finally, he asked me: now that I had seen everything in person, what would my plan be?
“I told him I appreciate his work and his respect for his people, but I’m after all employed by our employer, and the mission he set for the place is not aligned with our employer’s.
‘Ah, alignment, you like that word,’ said Mr. Weiss.
I did not say a word, but crossed my fingers in front of him. He must have not expected that, and he laughed.
‘Après nous, le déluge,’ he said.
I asked him if he was able to walk with me. He was very weak, and needed my help to stand up. He told the man and woman that he needed to talk to me for a bit longer and told them he would go back to his apartment after this. I nodded, and helped Mr. Weiss do one last walkaround of the mezzanine.
Before we left for the parking lot, I asked Mr. Weiss where A-Bîng’s passport was. He pulled it out from a pouch he carried around, and said A-Bîng could have left anytime if he had asked. I told him A-Bîng was waiting for us at the hotel, and instructed the driver to start the car. By then the sun had already set, and I realized that the roads here were still very new, and not many light posts were erected along them. A-Bîng joined us. I let Mr. Weiss lie down in the back seat, and Mr. Weiss rested his head on A-Bîng’s lap.
A-Bîng suggested we drive to a hospital in a city about four hours away. By the time we arrived, it was already past midnight. The vitals didn’t look good, a doctor said. The patient exhibited all the symptoms of an overworked person that suddenly collapsed, and that the doctor insinuated that it probably also had to do with years of using uppers and downers. ‘The patient must have been in a lot of distress,’ but he was very quick to understand that it was better not to ask too much.
I was resting in a separate room when I was woken up by a tall, blonde man. He introduced himself as an executive from the headquarters. I vaguely recognized the name, and he said he happened to be in the city. I had informed my management about our departure for the hospital, though I was surprised how quickly they were able to send for someone. He told me to hand in Mr. Weiss’s pouch. I saw no point in arguing. There wasn’t much there. I already gave A-Bîng his passport back, and I sensed it would be best not to mention it. It wasn’t like Mr. Weiss kept a thumb drive or something.
The blonde man must have been in the middle of a long text conversation with the headquarters when A-Bîng came in our room and announced, ‘Mr. Weiss died.’”
“The blonde man from the headquarters instructed us to head back to the main office. He told me to handle A-Bîng’s departure and make sure he signed off a strict non-disclosure agreement. That afternoon, I heard from the two local managers that I met before that the blonde man had the local police round up Mr. Weiss’s lieutenants in the building, but they weren’t told what was going to happen to the office. I stayed in the city for another week, and I still badged into the main office during the day. The senior executive told me they would schedule a meeting with me, but it never happened. On my last day there, they took away my laptops and phones, gave me a new phone and a printed ticket, and hired a driver to escort me to the airport.”
“Did you at least get a severance package?” I asked.
“I did. It was a good one. I guess from their perspective they wouldn’t want to have a troublemaker in the future, given what I saw and knew. So I came back, my rental apartment still there. My now ex-employer had been paying the rent, but now I was back to where I began.
A few days later, the senior executive who hired me texted me and asked if I could come over to her place. I was reluctant, but then she mentioned a domain name, which was among the last things Mr. Weiss told me about while in the backseat of the car.
So I went. The senior executive said she and Mr. Weiss had known each other since college, and Mr. Weiss had been writing under a pseudonym on that website. His alter ego was an activist for the displaced people. ‘He always cared so much about them,’ she said.
I told her that I didn’t know they had been friends, and I was deeply sorry that her friend passed away.
She asked me how I felt about being back. I told her I felt ok, and in many ways glad I was relieved of my responsibilities. What I didn’t tell her was that I felt weird. When I went outside to get coffee, I couldn’t help but wonder whether anyone who was happily scrolling down their phone was aware of what it entailed to maintain the bubble.
‘We were idealists when we were younger,’ she said. ‘Tell me… did he get a chance to talk to you about his mission?’
‘If I understood it correctly, yes, he did tell me so.’
‘Do you think he was still the same person that I told you he was?’
I really didn’t know where the question was from.
‘I adored him. I think deep inside, we have been good people. What we do here is an important service to humanity, and I don’t think he changed a bit, despite all the difficulties.’
‘Yes… from what you told me, I don’t think he changed a bit.’
‘Thanks. That’s what I wanted to know.’
“Before I left, she asked if I was interested in working for a non-profit that she ran. My skills, she said, would be immensely impactful in many corners of the world that her non-profit operates in. I thanked her, telling her that I planned to take a break, and I appreciated the generosity of the package. She smiled and said she was glad I was satisfied with the package, and that was also what she wanted to hear from me.
“I declined her offer to give me a ride home from her gated community, and said I could hire a rideshare myself. I left her mansion and decided to take a long walk to the front gate. It was such a huge place that I must have walked for about 45 minutes before I arrived at the gate. Before I got in the car, I looked back. The manicured lawns were green, and I heard sprinklers squirting water amidst a dry season.
“That’s how I ended up here at the retreat.”