Somewhere in the Multiverse someone is building the Man. Not just A Man but THE Man. Or are they?! This is Part 5 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.
Someone had stolen the plans for the Man. That meant they could build it, and the Burning Man Project couldn’t. That thought haunted me. It’s also what I didn’t say out loud.
The dame filled up a 10-hour trip from Dubai back to San Francisco with the kind of questions that someone only asks you when she either hangs on your every word or she’s going to use your words to hang you.
Story of my life. Historically, I’ve had trouble telling the difference until it’s too late.
We switched universes a few times to avoid too many questions at customs. She cut through reality like a hot knife through zip ties. The universe we finally landed in has a more fair and robust global trading system but has outlawed lifestyle brands. You can be sentenced to 30 years in prison for trying to connect your line of clothing to traditional eastern religions. Even using the word “mindfulness” in a business meeting is enough to get the SEC breathing down your neck. Also, in this universe Lin Manuel Miranda was a revolutionary war hero and Alexander Hamilton wrote a musical about him.
“What ARE we going to do in San Francisco?” she asked when we cleared the airport. “I hear all the museums and restaurants are closed. We can go back to your place,” she raised her eyebrow, “but, I’m not taking off my tool belt.”
The truth was I didn’t have a plan. The Burning Man Project knew what I was doing, and they’d be watching my apartment. Going back there would be the equivalent of pouring carrot juice on myself and showing up at Ra$pa’s breakfast nook. But in a pandemic, where else could I go? And why was she sticking with me? Who was the other-reality Caveat she’d mistaken me for, to her?
“Not my home,” I said. “But you can bring all the tools you want.”
“Are we sleeping in a hardware store?”
“You get the cab, I’ll get the address.” There was only one place I could turn. When you’ve got the home team advantage, you can throw more Hail Mary passes. We went to Russian Hill.
“Don’t tell me you actually live in a mansion on a hill,” the dame said when the cab pulled up. The trouble with her thinking I already knew her is that I still hadn’t found a way to learn her name.
“Nah, I hate hills,” I said. “But it’s an amazing home: used to belong to Nancy Pelosi.”
“The revolutionary war hero?” she asked me, shocked.
Oh, right. Different universe.
A stunning redhead answered the door. Jennifer Raiser, Burning Man board member.
She gave me the up and down. “You,” she said, “are supposed to be captured on sight. An email went out about it to the Regionals list. It turned into an argument about Radical Inclusion. It seems like everything on that list leads to an argument about Radical Inclusion.”
“Yeah, but you’ve got a spare room, and you owe me,” I said. “So I’m calling in my marker.”
She sighed. “I knew I’d regret going on your art tour.”
“You always regret the best things in life.”
She gave me a skeptical look. “If I let you hide out here, you’re just going to do something stupidly weird, right?”
“Come on in.”
Jennifer gave the dame a hard look as she walked in. “What have you brought into my house, Caveat?”
“Oh,” I said. “This is…”
The dame held out her hand. “They call me The Dame,” she said.
Wait… her playa name is actually “The Dame?” I’d had it right all this time?
“That’s… that’s an incredible playa name,” Jennifer said. “God I wish I’d thought of it. Well, let me give you a tour. I’ve got to show you the bathroom — it was decorated by Michael Garlington.”
That night, we sat outside on Jennifer’s deck, watching the bee hives, petting baby goats and talking strategy.
“Does the board have any idea who stole the plans for the Man?” I asked. “Or how?”
“We wish,” Jennifer said. “We’re in a state of shock. We thought about reaching out to you for help, but …”
“But you didn’t,” I said. “Because you don’t do that anymore.” Larry had always been the one to reach out to me. They must have cremated my phone number with him. “Has there been any ransom demand?”
“No, nothing. Not even for tickets.”
“And you didn’t call the cops?”
She rolled her eyes. “The Bureau of Land Management claims that our offices are a federal park, and so we’d have to build them a command center next to our headquarters before they can investigate. Technically we’re not even allowed to be robbed unless we buy the feds ice cream first. It’s not worth it.”
“Right. So you’re on your own.”
“We’ve got you,” Jennifer said, smirking. “What’s your next move?”
“Tomorrow, I meet with Stuart at a discreet location. And if he doesn’t have any clues, he’ll probably need me to find some.” I looked over at The Dame. “You wanna come?”
She gave me an incredulous look. “You want me to come play secret agent with your friend from the philosophy club?”
“The Philosophical Center. It’s… it’s a center.”
“Right, I get that. Not actually a complicated concept.”
“Well, we deal with complicated concepts…”
“Sure you do,” The Dame said. “Those big, complicated, Burning Man concepts. It must be so hard keeping track of all 10 Principles!”
“Well, they’re in creative tension with one another…”
“Yeah, yeah, I read your book. Turns out I’m more of a ‘break into a building’ kind of girl. I’ll skip the philosophy club meeting and sleep off the jet lag. But call me after that.”
Well, that was interesting. She’d stuck to me like glitter after a rave all this time, and then didn’t want to attend my secret rendezvous?
I’d worry she was setting me up, if I’d told her where Stuart and I were meeting. But I didn’t.
Who is she to that other me, in that other universe?
True to her word, she kept her tool belt on all night.
The San Francisco Botanical Gardens is my happy place. Small rolling hills full of plants from every corner of the world, because everything grows in our weird little micro-climate. There was a time, maybe 8 years ago, when the city was trying to turn the botanical garden into a “world class tourist attraction,” and the residents raised such a ruckus that the city abandoned the plans. That, to tell you the truth, is what I like about these gardens most: they’re not a tourist attraction. Just a really nice piece of park with some unusual plants. It is what it is.
And Stuart and I were just two guys off in a shady corner, six feet apart, looking at a koi pond.
“Nice disguise,” Stuart said. “Nobody will recognize you in that fedora.”
“I think you gave this to me, actually,” I said. “For the night we wandered around the playa being philosophical detectives, trying to rope people in to helping us solve bullshit intellectual mysteries…” I blinked. “Is it just me, or is this whole thing getting really meta?”
He nodded. “Yeah, life in the pandemic is getting extremely self-referential, and even the bullshit seems real. Especially the bullshit.” He paused to take it all in. “But the bullshit can kill you, too. Ra$pa’s on the warpath. He’s called in all the Regional Contacts to report on your whereabouts, and as Mein Hare he’s given the bunnies orders to snuggle you on site. No mercy.”
“They’re not the only ones coming after me,” I growled. “Are you telling me you had nothing to do with Santas coming after me in Dubai? Santas, Stuart?”
He looked pained. “You know I quit Santacon. You know that.”
“I know you quit Burning Man, too. It lasted a long time, but it didn’t take.”
“I always stayed true to the ideals…”
“Is that what you tell Marian?”
He grimaced. “All right, dammit. I knew there were Santas in Dubai. But I didn’t think they had anything to do with you. I don’t know why you were targeted. Nobody’s telling me anything. I’ve tried to find out, and they just say ‘ho ho ho’ and ask if I want to sit on their lap. They’re monsters.”
“You started it…”
“Somewhere in the Multiverse, there’s a Stuart who isn’t one of the founders of SantaCon. I wish I were him.”
“Do you think they had anything to do with the break in at Burning Man headquarters?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. That’s what I need you to find out.”’
“What did the forensics say?”
“There hasn’t been any investigation.”
I blinked. “What? Why not?”
“Because of the coronavirus! Because we’re on lockdown, and everyone is working remotely now, and you need special permission to go into the building.”
“So you’re going to get me permission to go into the building?
“No, I need you to break into the building.”
My jaw dropped. “WHAT? Why?”
“Because I don’t know who to trust! Because I can’t take the chance that my getting you access will tip them off about your being there!”
“I don’t even know!”
“Why do they want to steal the Man from us?”
“I don’t know!”
I turned and pointed at him. “This… this looks like a set-up, Stuart. I break into BMHQ. There’s an army of DPW and Bunnies and Santas all waiting for me. They catch me red handed, and suddenly I’m nobody’s problem anymore!”
“It’s not a set-up!”
“Then why are you sending me?”
He rolled his eyes and looked up at the sky. “Because it HAS to be you! Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand? You’re the only rule breaker we have left! You’re the one who gets away with everything! You asshole, you’re always whining about how you’re some isolated loner kept out in the Burnerverse cold, when all you ever do is walk in every door and redecorate every room and turn everything upside down without ever asking permission, and somehow you GET AWAY WITH IT! There are never consequences! Not for you! If somebody catches you breaking into the office you’re the one who will somehow walk out leaving the security guards laughing about this one time they forgot to arrest Caveat! You can’t constantly do that AND complain that the system doesn’t have a place for you! I love you, man, but will you get over yourself and your sense of grievance and just break into our office, already?”
He was right. That didn’t mean this wasn’t a set-up, but he was right.
I called the Dame on my way out of the Botanical Garden, and told her to meet me around the corner from BMHQ. And bring her tool belt.