Somewhere in the Multiverse someone is building the Man. Not just A Man but THE Man. Or are they?! This is Part 3 in a series of updates posted by Caveat as he follows the tangled trail as an agent of the Philosophical Center. Read all the posts here.
Finding Burners in Dubai is a lot like finding scientists in Congress. Since I couldn’t reach out to the Regional Network — that would be the fastest way of getting Ra$pa’s beard around my neck — I didn’t know where to start to make those connections.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Because if Dubai wanted to have the Man Burn there as a publicity stunt, well, that means they want to talk about it. I could go the journalism route and just reach out to the government’s PR machine. Even if they were trying to keep it quiet right now, somebody would spill the beans on background, and that was all I needed.
Because here’s the honest truth: marketing makes people stupid. Being “on brand” is the equivalent of putting on blinders.
A day and a dozen phone calls later, I was sitting in my hotel’s bar trying to make sense of it all. An official in Dubai’s parks department had been refreshingly up front about what they wanted. A global pandemic had decimated the tourism industry, and the splintering of the universe into the Multiverse had made it even worse: now Dubai wasn’t just competing against the rest of the world for tourist dollars, it was competing against an infinite set of other Dubais. They figured having the Man Burn here would be big enough that it could turn some of that around for them.
And yeah, at least one Crimson Rose was here. But apparently she’d told them to go stick it up their art car. Which made sense. But why would she come all the way out here to do it? Why cross an ocean and a universe to offer a Man sized “no” to something we’d normally refuse over the phone?
Something wasn’t adding up.
“Oh, there you are!”
And just like that, a Burner walked into my life in a bar in Dubai.
Her patches said “Gate” but her eyes said “Greeter.” Her fuzzy boots went all the way down. The tool belt hanging off her hips could have made a temple build itself, and any man alive would have joined that crew just to ask if she needed water. She had a welding mask hanging off her shoulder with red lips painted on the front, and she sat down next to me with all the casual confidence of a woman who knows how to coordinate volunteers.
“Where’d you go?” she asked me as she ordered the kind of whiskey that’s given me many hangovers and no regrets.
The trouble was, I’d never seen her before.
“You can always find me at the bar.” I said it casually, but my mind was racing.
“You’re completely wrong about Virtual Reality,” she said, as though picking up a conversation I’d forgotten was in my pocket. “You’re exactly right about what it needs to do to create meaningful communities, but blind to the fact that it can do all those things. It’s all right in front of you!”
“That’s what they’ve said about every new technology,” I growled. “Oh, if we just hop on this bandwagon it will fix everything! I’ve heard that story a thousand times, and it always ends with everybody sadder and nobody wiser.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s like you’re not even listening. It’s back to what I said in the tapas place, we’re experiencing a qualitative technological shift…”
That’s when I got it: there was another me in Dubai. Another Caveat, from another universe. She’d been talking to him, we’d gotten separated, and now she’d mistaken me for, well, me.
This was bad. Here’s a piece of trivia for you: there aren’t many Caveats in the Multiverse. We’re kind of an endangered species, and the few of us that remain have an informal agreement to stay out of each other’s way. So what was another one doing here?
She put her hand on mine. “Hey,” she said. “Is it Christmas?”
I looked up.
Shit. There were Santas walking into the bar.
Somebody had found me.
I got up, bolted for the kitchen. She was right on my heels.
“Where are you…”
“I don’t have time to explain!” The service elevator was open, I hopped in. She followed. We headed down to the parking garage level. There were probably Santas in my room, and probably in the lobby, but hopefully they wouldn’t expect me to hot-wire a car from the garage.
My phone rang on the way down. Stuart.
If it was anybody else…
“This is a bad time, buddy,” I said. “I’ve got Santas crawling up my chimney!”
“Santas? After you? Where did they… that doesn’t make… can you get out?”
“Working on it.”
“Watch out for their merriment. And their bags full of ‘gifts.’”
“Way ahead of you.”
“Okay… if you can reach the airport, I’ve got a flight waiting for you,” he said. “We need you back stateside.”
“They’ve been stolen.”
The door opened and I ran through the garage, trying to find an inconspicuous ride in a blind spot for the security cameras.
“The Man plans,” he said. “Last tonight somebody broke into our state of the art secure vault and stole the plans for this year’s Man. The super secret one.”
“They…” I don’t know shit about cars. I walked towards a blue one that didn’t look too fancy, and should just be out of the eyes of the cameras. “That vault is supposed to be impenetrable!”
“According to the specs it’s capable of withstanding pressure equal to the FOMO of a thousand influencers,” Stuart agreed. “With triple-secure locks that can only be opened by two artists, one of whom is having a transformative experience, the other of whom is laughing at him and calling him a hippie. But it happened. Now somebody out there has the Man… and we don’t. This is now the only thing that matters.”
“This has to be an inside job, Stuart.”
“Officially, I don’t know that yet. Also,” he sighed, “it’s really hard to tell who’s on the inside these days.”
Tell me about it. “I’ll call you from the airport.”
I jimmied the lock on the car. This was getting crazy. What the Hell was happening with Burning Man in the Multiverse?
The dame — whose name I didn’t even know yet — opened the passenger door. “Oh no,” I said. “This is a solo trip.”
“Whatever happened to Communal Effort?” she said.
I don’t actually KNOW you, lady, I thought. Even if she knew me. “You think you can help?” I asked. “You’ve got 10 seconds to prove it. Otherwise… merry Christmas.”
“You know what’s interesting?” she said, smirking. “We’re being chased by Santas… and Stuart was a founder of SantaCon… does that make you wonder? It makes me wonder…”
I scowled. Got the ignition running. “All right,” I said. “Get in. I hope you’ve got your passport on you.”
She slid into the passenger seat. “It’s under a fake name. Is that a problem?”
I told her the truth. “Travel through enough different universes, every name turns fake eventually.”
“I can’t tell if that’s cynical or liberating,” she said as I pulled out of the garage and onto the streets.
“Me neither. Which…”
She finished my sentence. “… is kind of your favorite line to walk.”
I glared at her. “Uh huh.”
Somebody’s been one step ahead of me this whole time. It’s time to figure out who.