Even though I originally wrote this chapter almost ten years ago, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw a scene like this in HBO's Silicon Valley. Time passes, but over-the-top "creativity" never goes out of style, at least in the high-tech sector.
Stephen, Ricky, and David arrived at CouldBU’s 81st floor office on Monday morning. Stephen was enjoying the view down Fifth Avenue when a diminutive figure entered his peripheral vision. His first thought was, The New York schools must have already started their Christmas vacation. He turned to offer the child his spot at the window when he realized that it was wearing a suit and had the shadow of a cleanly shaven beard on its cheeks. His second thought was, Wow, that’s not just short, that’s freaky short.
The newcomer stuck out his hand and spoke to a point directly in front of him, approximately level with Stephen’s groin. "Good morning. I’m Chuck Marquette, and you must be Stephen." He spoke slowly and distinctly, and while his voice was not squeaky, as Stephen feared it would be, neither was it deep. It reminded Stephen of a recording of a baritone that had been sped up slightly by a poor tape recorder. Chuck looked at the others. "David and Ricky, right? A pleasure." All three men bent down to shake his outstretched hand in turn, Ricky looking like an elephant trying to pet a puppy. "Richard arrived last night. He’s waiting in my office."
He led them through the office, a glass maze that was already bustling with activity. Though nearly everyone had a private office, there were no solid walls anywhere in sight. Instead, floor-to-ceiling soundproof glass enclosed each office space, giving Stephen the queasy impression that he had either gone deaf or acquired X-ray vision. He was almost relieved when Chuck continued talking. "We found that the glass walls encouraged collaboration while minimizing disturbances. Now we can feel like we’re all working together," he waved at a woman as they passed her office, and she waved back before returning to her soundless typing, "without having to actually share space. We think that all the top firms will start doing this soon.
"It’s the perfect system," here he turned abruptly to his right. Ricky, following closely behind him, smacked face-first into a nearly invisible wall, "once you figure out where all the walls are. I’ll give you a hint: there are little diamonds just at eye level, there." He pointed straight ahead at the wall. Stephen looked where he was pointing but saw nothing. Scanning up and down the wall, he finally saw a small diamond shape etched into the glass, about three feet above the spot indicated by Chuck’s finger.
"Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind," Ricky said nasally, rubbing his sore nose. David smirked silently behind him.
After several more abrupt turns -- Stephen began walking with a hand slightly in front of him, just in case -- they came to Chuck’s office. It was difficult to see anything at first through the light of the bright winter sun glaring through the windows, but as their eyes adjusted they saw Richard sitting and waiting for them in an oversized easy chair. He struggled for a moment to get out of it, but eventually succeeded and strode over to envelop each person’s hand in an enthusiastically crushing grip.
"Have a seat," said Chuck, walking over to his desk. "I just have a couple of things to do before we go to Gotterdammerung. Make yourselves comfortable." He indicated the area where Richard had been seated, where two large easy chairs flanked an enormous couch. Richard returned to his seat and Stephen settled cautiously into the other chair. David and Ricky perched on the front edge of the couch cushions, afraid that they would be swallowed whole if they leaned back. Looking around, Stephen realized that nearly every piece of furniture in the room was abnormally large. The sole exceptions were Chuck’s desk and chair, which were sized to his exact dimensions. The combined effect created a kind of forced perspective, as though Chuck were very far away.
"All right, I’m done. Let’s get moving," said Chuck. Everyone fought free of the embrace of their respective resting places and they left.
Walking out, they passed a tall, thin man cleaning the walls. This seemed a practical, if rather annoying, additional task for the office custodial crew, but two things caught Stephen’s attention. First, the man was wearing black suit pants, a white shirt, and a black and white striped tie. Second, he appeared to be cleaning a wall that hadn’t been there when they had passed through that corridor on the way to Chuck’s office. He was facing toward them, so Stephen stopped just before passing him and called a question to Chuck, who was already well ahead. Ricky and David stopped as well. "Are some of the walls mobile? That would be an interesting way to make the space more flexible, but isn’t it a little dangerous?"
"No, that’s just Marcel, our VP of Mime Relations," called Chuck, his voice fading as he rounded an invisible corner. "He loves that joke."
Stephen turned to Marcel. "Funny," he said, not completely sincerely. "Do you do that to all the newcomers?"
Marcel put a hand to his ear as though having trouble hearing Stephen. Silently, he mouthed an exaggerated, "What? I can’t hear you!"
Stephen rolled his eyes. Reaching up, he pretended to knock on the invisible wall. "Solid, huh? Yeah, that’s cute. You know, I took a mime class back in grade school. I could never get past the fake tug-of-war."
Marcel placed his hands flat in front of him, groping around as though seeking an opening in the air. Eventually, he seemed to fasten on something, which he grabbed with both hands and pulled, sliding open an invisible door. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out an invisible business card and handed it to Stephen.
"Oh, thanks, that’s great. Here’s mine." Stephen reached into his own pocket and proffered a real card, which Marcel took with great ceremony before offering a hand to shake. Stephen took it, asking, "Say, don’t you guys usually wear makeup, too, and that funny unitard? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mime out of uniform before."
Marcel shook his head vigorously, pointing at his face and clothes. Then he leapt into a series of vigorously balletic dance moves, followed by a sort of robotic marching.
"I’m—sorry, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say," said Stephen.
"He’s not a classic mime. He’s from the modern, or progressive, mime school," offered Ricky. Marcel mimed wiping his face and using scissors to cut invisible suspenders. "They believe that mime should not be bound by the restrictions of the past."
"Oh, OK," Stephen said. "So what’s with the black and white color scheme?"
Marcel climbed an imaginary mountain, pushing a series of gigantic stones ahead of him. When he had finished that exercise, he used an imaginary chisel on one of the stones, working at it for several minutes before polishing it with a white handkerchief. Then he turned and bowed down before the image he had created.
"It’s an homage," said Ricky.
"OK, then," said Stephen, clapping his hands together loudly. "Well, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Marcel." He shook Marcel’s hand again. Marcel smiled and tipped an invisible hat. Stephen resisted the urge to respond in kind. "We have to catch up with Chuck now, though, so perhaps we’ll see you later."
Marcel winked, then made a surprised face and jumped behind an invisible desk.
Ricky said, "Not if he sees you first."
Stephen laughed humorlessly. "Right. Well, let’s go." Marcel offered a little wave before pulling out his handkerchief to polish a spot on his invisible wall. After they had walked far enough that Marcel was no longer visible through the walls, Stephen turned to Ricky and exclaimed, "Meetings with that guy must be exhausting! How did you know what he was saying, anyway? Don’t tell me you’re part mime, too."
"Mime is an art form, not an ethnicity," Ricky responded archly. "You can’t be ‘part mime.’ I speak mime, though."
"How can you ‘speak mime?’ They don’t speak!"
"Exactly. I worked for a while after college as a translator for a mime troupe in New York that performed for blind children."
Outside on the sidewalk, Stephen raised a hand to hail some cabs, but Chuck stopped him. "We can take the subway. It’s only a short walk to the station and it will get us there just as quickly. I’d rather not waste the money on cab fare: we need to start keeping a better eye on our expenses." Turning, he walked down the street, leaving Stephen and the others watching him curiously.
As they walked toward the subway entrance, Stephen mused, "I get the feeling that Chuck has a special talent for sensing changes in the wind before they happen."
"Well, he’d have to, wouldn’t he?" asked Ricky. "Otherwise, it might pick him up and blow him right back to Oz."
Stephen chuckled. "I meant that more in the political sense, but good point."
Twenty minutes later, they were walking through a trendy Tribeca neighborhood toward what appeared to be a large multi-storied warehouse. A sign over the entrance read:
The front door opened into a dark, unfurnished room with a rusty iron staircase spiraling upward in the center. They climbed it and came to a large reception area, where a thin young man with carefully tousled hair sat at a small desk before imposing double doors. He wore black jeans, a black long-sleeved shirt, and black horn-rimmed glasses. As soon as the visitors entered his domain, he rose to stand before the double doors.
"You are expected," he said. "Welcome to Gotterdammerung!" He flung the doors open and stepped aside so that they could enter.
"Wow," Stephen whispered, "so this is what a creativity factory looks like."
The dimly lit space before them took up the entire width and breadth of the building. It was populated by row upon row of computer desks and drafting tables, with rollaway whiteboards scattered about at random. The rows of ergonomic workstations radiated precisely from some sort of amphitheatre in the center of the room, with enough space between them for the whiteboards to be wheeled through without hindrance. This also left enough room for people to ride scooters from station to station rather than walking, an activity which appeared to engage fully a third of all of the denizens of the space at any one time. Everywhere they looked, they saw people leaning over their drafting desks, staring intently at graphics on their huge computer screens, arguing intensely around whiteboards and easels, or zipping around on scooters.
At regular intervals, the configuration was broken up by seating areas, where painfully hip beanbags and couches clustered around a circular glass and chrome table. Each area had a specific purpose, designated by a sign hanging by wires from the high ceiling. Ricky squinted through the twilight and read a few aloud:
"‘Toy station: build a clever creation or stay out. Minimum time commitment: 15 minutes.’ ‘Scooter repair: all squeaks must be eliminated.’ ‘Idea generation pod. Thinking caps are required headwear.’ ‘Mandatory relaxation zone. Clove cigarettes may be lipped but not lit.’ Um, this place scares me a little."
"Gut. The act of creation should be terrifying," said a voice from the darkness. They peered in that direction as a head slowly resolved, floating disembodied in the darkness. As it drew closer, the black-clad body attached to it separated from the shadows. A tall, incredibly thin man with lank black hair and rimless glasses marched forward, stopping directly in front of Chuck. "I am Dieter. You are here. We are here. Let us engage in the act of creation together."
"Did he just ask us to…" began Ricky hesitantly.
"No, that’s procreation, and that requires a woman last time I checked."
"Right. I knew that." Ricky sounded relieved nonetheless.
"Come. We go now to the Ring. We will eat pastries and make ourselves merry before the event," said Dieter.
"Event?" asked Stephen. "I thought you were planning to present your visual design for the web site."
"We do not, as you say, ‘present’ our creations," said Dieter scornfully, managing somehow to make the quotation marks audible. "That is so crude, so like a female baboon in the jungle making herself available to all of the males. No, we create and allow you to participate in the creation with us. We live, and through us you live as well. We—"
"I get the picture," interrupted Stephen, massaging the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger. "Will the… event be starting soon?"
"I had several more metaphors, but come," huffed Dieter, "we begin soon."
They followed him to the glass-walled amphitheatre in the center of the converted warehouse. Here, five rows of theater seats surrounded a sunken stage, providing enough seating for at least 50 people. After they entered, the doors closed behind them with a quiet hiss, completely muting the noise of the office beyond. The stage was bare except for a small table with coffee and assorted pastries. There was one bagel, which Dieter quickly claimed after glaring balefully at Stephen.
After everyone had taken food and drink, they scattered to various sides of the stage and sat, looking out the windows to the office beyond and returning the mostly incurious gazes of the dreadlocked, pierced, and goateed employees outside. Stephen fought a perverse urge to make monkey noises and fling imaginary poo at the impassive faces beyond the glass before deciding that he was more comfortable looking at the stage. A few minutes later, he was joined by Ricky and David, who had finally tired of making faces at their observers.
"I want to hate them," said David around a mouthful of scone, "but for some reason I find myself drawn to that Dieter. Perhaps I sense in him a kindred spirit."
"Or perhaps you have a scorn fetish," grumbled Stephen.
David considered that. "It is possible," he conceded, "but if so, it is merely a platonic one. Please recall that I prefer the companionship of women."
"A platonic scorn fetish?" asked Ricky. "Oh, I doubt there’s a treatment program for that." He thought about it for a moment. "Unless you lived in France."
The conversation was mercifully cut short by the appearance of two women in kimonos, who ran into the room with mincing steps, grabbed the refreshment table from the stage, and ran out with it. As soon as they cleared the doorway, two men in lederhosen entered and held the doors wide for four black-clad figures -- two men and two women -- who rode in on matching chrome scooters. They glided down a ramp in single file and swung to a stop at stage center. In perfect unison, they kicked up the scooters, folded them, and passed them down the line to their shortest member. Staggering slightly under the weight, she carried the scooters to the corner of the stage and stored them under a seat before rejoining the line.
"Behold your Creators!" declaimed Dieter, striding onto the stage. He walked down the line and pointed to each in turn. "Sven, Puck, LaShanda, and Bob!" He finished near the short woman, whose jaw-length pink hair bobbed as she nodded her head.
"Bob? Her name is Bob?" asked Richard.
"When she came to us, she was called Monica," replied Dieter, "but we already had a Monica. We christened her ‘Bob.’ If that is too unconventional for you, you may comfort yourself by pretending it is short for Roberta."
"Is it?" asked Richard.
"No! It is short for Bob! We continue!" Dieter clapped his hands and the lights dimmed. Since there was no way to stop light from pouring in from the surrounding office, the lights in the office dimmed as well. Glancing out, Stephen saw a sea of disembodied heads, lit a sickly bluish green by the light of their monitors and bobbing in time to the music on their iPhones. Light slashed down from the ceiling high above, illuminating the stage as Dieter quietly withdrew. The four figures stood for a moment, their clothing seeming to suck in all of the light without giving any back. Then they began to move.
Sven, a tall thin man with wire-rimmed glasses and white-blond hair, and Puck, a brawny collection of piercings whose shaven head crawled with tattoos, covered their faces and ran from the stage. From the darkness, they began to wail. Bob lay on her back on the floor with her arms and legs in the air while LaShanda covered her ears and stood over her.
"Alone! I am alone!" cried LaShanda. "Forsaken! This desolation is never-ending!" In the darkness, Sven and Puck’s wailing rose in pitch, then lowered, then rose again. LaShanda began to sob.
"Beep," said Bob, "you’ve got mail!" She wiggled her feet at LaShanda.
"Mail? Mail? How can mail end this torment?" sobbed LaShanda. "But wait! Perhaps I can soothe the pain that suffuses my soul by chatting with my invisible friends on ‘the Internet!’" She reached down and began rhythmically slapping the soles of Bob’s feet, which danced in the air before her.
The wailing offstage stopped, replaced by the sound of two men saying, "Blah blah blah. LOL! LOL! LOL! Duh…. UR cool. UR GR8. Blah blah blah…" This continued for some time, until Sven and Puck ran back onto the stage. Sven was now carrying a giant round smiley face that covered his entire upper body, while Puck carried a frowning face of the same size. They approached LaShanda slowly from opposite sides, Sven shouting, "LOL! LOL! LOL!" while Puck shouted, "Blah blah blah!" When they reached LaShanda, they both stopped.
"Could be you," said Sven, pointing at LaShanda from the right.
"Could be you," said Puck, mirroring Sven from the left.
LaShanda smiled dreamily while Bob thrashed on the floor making gagging noises. "Could be me."
Stephen leaned over to David and began to whisper a comment, but David shushed him while furiously scribbling in a small notebook. "Wait! I almost have it!"
So Stephen leaned the other way to whisper to Ricky, "What did that mean? Are they going to use a computer virus to advertise the site?"
Ricky shrugged. "I don’t know. Maybe they want to add chat rooms as a feature. Or maybe they thought they were supposed to develop a commercial for the site." David shushed them again, and now Dieter stood up in the front row to glare back at them. The performance continued.
Now Bob had risen from the floor and run into the darkness, pink hair flaring out behind her. Sven and Puck had dropped their faces and were now running in circles, barking, while LaShanda tried to lasso both of them with a lariat made of silk ties. She finally caught Puck, who fell to the floor gasping for breath and muttering about deadlines and ROI spreadsheets. Sven paused to catch his breath and laugh at Puck, but was lured toward LaShanda by a large foam wedge of cheese. As soon as he was within reach, she grabbed him and bound his hands with the cord from a computer mouse. Bound thus, he slumped to the floor beside Puck moaning and chanting web site addresses.
As their muttering and chanting reached a crescendo, Bob ran back onto the stage wearing a plastic Viking helmet, complete with long curved horns, and carrying a plastic broadsword. She stomped over to LaShanda and mimed killing her, which took an uncomfortably long time and involved many wet gagging noises from the supposed victim. Her foe vanquished, Bob strode over to Sven and Puck, who paused in their liturgy to look up at her expectantly.
"I really hope she’s not about to break out into an aria," Stephen whispered to Ricky, who waved him off without taking his eyes from the stage, the performance apparently resonating with his Nordic blood. Stephen sighed and settled back into his seat, folding his arms with disgust.
Bob leaned down gently to Sven and touched the sword to his throat. "Could be you."
Joyously, Sven leapt to his feet and threw off his silken noose. "Could be me!" he yelled, and began to dance.
"For a German, he’s not a bad Irish step-dancer," commented Ricky.
Bob stood over Puck and touched the sword to his bound wrists. "Could be you," she crooned gently, but Puck shook his head without looking up at her. "Could be you," she repeated more firmly, rapping the flat of the sword across his forearms.
Puck drew his arms in and hunched his shoulders, chanting, "www.irs.gov. www.microsoft.com. www.hotbabes.com!"
Bob shrugged and looked up at the audience. "Could be you." She gripped the sword with both hands and swung it high over her shoulder before bringing it down in a sweeping motion, striking Puck’s head from his shoulders.
For a brief moment, the audience sat aghast, waiting for the spreading pool of blood to form on the stage, for Puck had pulled his head into his shirt just as Bob had swung and then toppled over, apparently headless. When no blood geyser was forthcoming -- I guess they decided that would be going overboard, Stephen thought wryly -- everyone realized the trick and let out shaky sighs of relief. Puck lay motionless, holding the moment as long as he could.
"I guess that’s why they call it a turtleneck!" laughed Richard from the other side of the stage. Dieter glared at him and looked around for something to throw, settling eventually for chucking the remainder of his bagel at Richard’s head. Fortunately for both of them, Dieter threw like a girl, so the bagel bounced harmlessly across the stage before sliding under the first row of seats.
Loud techno music thumped from hidden speakers and a dance break ensued. Sven and Bob whirled and jumped together, while the corpses of LaShanda and Puck did a slow grind to the heavy beat as they worked their way off the stage. After approximately five minutes of frenzied leaping and writhing, Bob and Sven threw themselves to the floor in a pile at center stage again. In unison, they cried:
"COULD… BE… YOU!!!"
Blackout, followed by hesitant applause from the seats. The black-clad inhabitants of the office beyond had left their seats and now surrounded the auditorium, music players in hand and headphones in ears, pressing against the glass on all sides and bobbing their heads to their individual beats. Seeing this, the audience applauded harder, whether from fear or appreciation, it was hard to tell.
The lights came up to reveal Sven, Puck (complete with head), LaShanda and Bob, lined up as at the beginning and holding their scooters. Placing a hand over their hearts, they bowed slightly to Dieter, snapped their scooters open, and rolled back up the aisle and out the double doors, which were opened again by the lederhosen-clad attendants.
Dieter stood and clapped his hands once. "Go. Do not speak. You must give the concept time to germinate. We will speak again tomorrow."
Everyone stood and hurried out of the amphitheatre, out of the office, and down into the street. Rather than risk another bagel-throwing, they all chose to keep their thoughts to themselves until they were outside. As soon as his foot touched the sidewalk, though, Stephen could contain himself no more. "What the hell was that?"
Ricky shook his head. "I don’t know if I’m comfortable with executing people if they don’t subscribe to our service."
David cut in irritably. "That was only a metaphor. They aren’t actually suggesting we kill people." He paused. "They are German, though…. No, it was definitely a metaphor," he concluded firmly.
Chuck hustled up behind them and reached up to put a hand on David and Stephen’s lower backs. "So, what did you think? Can you build it?"
Wordlessly, Stephen deferred to David, who clearly had more experience with this sort of performance. David thought for a few steps and looked at his notes before replying, "I think I have captured its zeitgeist, but I am not yet sure how to translate it to HTML."
Continue to Chapter 19