Somewhere in the Multiverse someone is building the Man. Not just A Man but THE Man. Or are they?! This is Part 7 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.
“Don’t do it, Caveat!” The Dame cried as I started to walk out of Burning Man’s top secret art vault. “Don’t let them take me to D-lot!”
She was pinned under Herman, Burning Man’s Director of Marketing, who’s a dog, and a very good judge of character.
I stopped. “The one question I still have,” I said, “is: what did you do to Hot Damn?”
“What about her?”
“She’s one of the people who tipped me off about you. In the comments section of part 5. Said I couldn’t trust you and she knew you better than I did. You must have done something to her. I’m wondering what.”
“It was just camp drama!”
“So was the Donner Party.”
She sighed. “Sometimes parades go wrong. But it wasn’t my fault!”
I sighed too. “I guess it never is. Good luck. I’m gonna make sure Jennifer gets her costumes back, and I hope the book they throw at you isn’t mine.”
“You need me!” she shouted. “We had something! We were a hell of a team! And you’re terrible with tools!”
She had a point. And she’d never really lied to me, just kept me from knowing the truth. But…
“This is bigger than us,” I told her. “Whoever stole the plans for the Man gave them to Wikileaks, and now they’re available to everyone in the Multiverse. And you know what? That’s stealing, but I can respect that, because while they’re taking from the Project, they’re giving to our culture. I’ll take ‘em down, but I can forgive them.
I put the art gun I’d taken from her back in its display case. I admit, I was tempted to keep it — I’d contributed to the Kickstarter. But no, that’s not how to do this. If I need an art gun, I’ll make my own.
“But you?” I told her. “You I can’t forgive. And it’s not because you broke my heart. My heart’s already got so many compound fractures that 9 out of 10 doctors want to put it out of its misery. And it’s not because you tried to steal the art — if you’d stolen the art because you loved it so much that you wanted to keep it, I’d stop you, but then I’d buy you a drink. No, the problem is that you were gonna sell it: you were trying to commodify what we do. And that I can’t forgive. No, I’m letting them have you. And I’m not saying I won’t miss you, because I will: I’ll think of you every time someone makes fun of the Philosophical Center. But I won’t lose any sleep over it. And that’s just how it is.”
“It doesn’t even really do philosophy!” she shouted at me. “It’s become a toothless media clearinghouse! Where’s the intellectual rigor? WHERE’S THE INTELLECTUAL RIGOR?”
There was nothing to do but walk away.
Back out on the street I called Stuart back.
“I didn’t want to say anything in there,” I said. “Too many ears, and the longer I hung around the office the more likely I was to be asked to sit in on a meeting. But I looked the crime scene over, and dollars to decommodification, I know who did it.”
“You really like having big lead-ins, don’t you,” Stuart said.
“It was Dave X.”
Stuart exhaled. There was a long pause. “You’re sure?”
“Positive. There were two giveaways. The first was a fine powder residue around the vault, which is consistent with fireworks used by artisanal pyrotechnicians. Somebody literally used homemade fireworks to blast through the vault’s outer layer.”
“Makes sense,” Stuart said. “And the second thing?”
“The crime scene was funny.” I let that sink in. “Really funny.”
“How… how do you mean?”
“The way the lock was picked, the formation of the broken security system, the layout of the debris… it was hilarious. I don’t know if I can explain it to you, you kind of had to be there. But I’m telling you: the art vault was broken into by a Burning Man insider who’s a master pyrotechnician with a devastating yet wise sense of humor. You don’t need a week at Esalen to contemplate this mystery.”
There was a long pause while Stuart tried to escape the obvious.
“Sure,” he finally said. “It was probably Dave X. Makes sense. From the moment we had to cancel Black Rock City, he’s been pushing for us to help people make their own Man effigies to burn at home. So this is everything he wanted. He’s got a motive. And yeah, maybe he could do it. But…”
“But what? I can find him.”
“But there’s no way we can pin it on him. He’s too good. Anything you throw at him he’ll just turn back on you as a whimsical costume skit, or a puppet show. Or bake you a delicious bacon-maple birthday cake with it, even if it’s not your birthday.”
“It’s never my birthday,” I muttered.
“Besides, we could never catch him in that interdimensional monster truck of his, he’s like Buckaroo Banzai in that rig, he can drive through mountains.”
“Okay, I’ve told you to stop making Buckaroo Banzai references. It just makes it harder for…”
“The Mans are out there now in all the universes!” Stuart said. “Our job now is to make sure they all get burned, leaving no trace of all this. And that they’re burned responsibly — this wildfire season is bad enough already”
“Sure. That sounds like a job for the pyro and resto teams. They’re good people, except that one of them stole your Man…”
“No, you’re still on the case, only now you’re working clean-up,” Stuart said. “There’s a lot of universes to cover and I can’t expect you to be in them all, so I’m going operational. That’s why I’m in this silly outfit and wearing a VR headset. You’ll need a costume too, and some better gear. So I need you to go into the Philosophical Center’s vault…”
“Oh come on. The Philosophical Center doesn’t have a vault!”
“… fine… go to the AV Room, you know, the one by the elevator on the fourth floor…”
“If it’s locked, Brody’s got a key. It’s under the succulent on her desk. But, don’t tell her I told you.”
“Grab a couple of subjectivity field generators. And a fire extinguisher. And some snacks, we’re going to need a lot of snacks. Meet me at the Embassy in BRCvr at sunrise.”
“I don’t do mornings.”
“It’s a virtual world, we can make it sunrise anytime you want, okay? Just give me a 20 minute warning, and it’ll be sunrise when you get there.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll see you on the inside.”
We hung up.
The hell he would.
I started making phone calls. I’d need a crew for this. In one of his comments on these posts, The Hustler had mentioned that two of my old Media Mecca team captains, Munney and Polaris, had gone to ground. He meant that as a warning sign, but what I heard was: they have time on their hands, and I knew how to reach them. I told them to get their asses to San Francisco as fast as their RVs could carry them.
Then I called The Hustler. He was in Portland, he’d never get here in time, but I had another job he could do.
“Caveat” he said. “Wow, you have my number! I don’t think you’ve ever called me before.”
“Listen, I know you’re following my mission, and now I need you to participate.”
“Sure!” he said. “You know I will.”
“But, I’m kind of surprised. Because, when the pandemic started, I sent you a really heartfelt email saying I hoped you were okay. And… you never wrote back.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Now, I need…”
“I really went out on an emotional limb to reach out to you. Put my heart into it. It kinda sucked that you ignored it.”
“I was… yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry, now…”
“I’m not good at that. It was very uncomfortable for me. But I did it because I wanted to see if you were okay. I told you: you’re important to me. And you just left me hanging.”
I stared up at the cloudy sky. “Look, let’s not pretend any of us are the picture of psychological health, okay? I have my issues, too.”
“Sure. It just seems like you only reach out to me when you need something.”
I grimaced. “I see your point.”
“Like now. You’re only calling, and apologizing, because you need something.”
“Yeah… I do. Are you in?”
He sighed. “I hate myself, a little bit, but yeah. Your wars are too much fun. I’d hate to miss one.”
“You know you’re kind of like the Burning Man Project that way? You only reach out when you need something, and the rest of the time you usually don’t respond at all?”
I wanted to hit something. “Fuck you, Brian.”
“That’s ‘The Hustler’ to you! Don’t forget it! Now, what’s the game?”
“Get a VR headset, but attach to your shittiest microphone, so there’s always a ton of interference. Something should obviously be wrong with the sound. Go to BRCvr, and set up an account using my name. Then go meet Stuart Mangrum at The Embassy.”
“I’m pretending to be you? To Stuart?”
“Yeah. Keep it up for as long as you can.”
“This is awesome! I’m so glad I didn’t really hold you accountable! You ARE just like Burning Man!”
I winced. “Get going, before I say something I’ll regret.”
“Oh! I’m going to use that line on Stuart!”
“Thank you, Hustler.”
“You’re welcome, Warbringer. When this is all over, we’ll get another coffee up here.”
“Also, you know, you can still respond to my email.”
I hung up.
Stuart was trying to get me off Dave X’s trail, and I didn’t like it. Helping people burn the Man safely, and Leave No Trace, is crucially important, for sure. But The Dame had been right — I can’t use tools, and the Project has way more qualified people to help make that happen. I’m just a philosopher, and that means I have a fully worked out conceptual apparatus of justice. So tracking Dave X down is my job. And if Stuart doesn’t like it… well… I’m a goddamn volunteer, aren’t I. I’m making it my job.
No radios, no laminates, no gods, no masters. And no VR. I’m hunting my man down old school.
I know Stuart’s trying to keep me off Dave X’s trail. I just don’t know why. But I know where to find Dave X. Time to finally put all the pieces of this puzzle together.