Read the first three chapters of Kathy Wang's new spy thriller Impostor Syndrome
In Kathy Wang's upcoming novel Impostor Syndrome, a Russian spy rises through the ranks of the tech industry, eventually landing the COO gig at Tangerine (a riff on Google), while one of her underlings discovers a security blip that hints at the nefarious connections at play. The book hits shelves May 25, but EW will be sharing the first seven chapters exclusively on our website over three installments. Below, read the first excerpt.
Whenever Leo Guskov met a person of interest, he liked to ask about his or her parents. If the response was cagey, he made note, and if he thought he'd go further, then he was careful to en- sure the subject's family-history paperwork was complete. Though it wasn't that Leo believed you needed good parents to be productive. In fact, in his line of work, bad parents were often an advance indicator of success. An early acquaintanceship with adversity, of conquering that high mountain of disappointment and dread; the desire to serve, to be loyal and exceed expectations, if only to garner the approval earlier denied.
Where he sat now, inside a university auditorium by the Moskva River, Leo was surrounded by mothers and fathers (likely most good, some bad). He slouched and let wash over him the flotsam of idle complaint that comprised the background of Moscow life: a two-hour delay on the MKAD; expensive cucumbers at the grocer; a callous dermatologist at the state clinic, who'd refused to stay late and do a body check—there was alcohol on his breath and he said he had to bring home dinner. Just because his wife cannot keep house, so I have to die . . . ?
Years earlier Leo had stood onstage in a similar auditorium, his mother in a back row, clutching tulips. A week later he'd arrived for his first day of work, at a twenty-story concrete skyscraper in the Moscow city line. Inside the lobby, a brass plaque with initials: spb. State Protection Bureau. The best of Russia's three intelligence agencies.
Now the weather outside was warm, which meant the audito- rium was near stifling. Peter Stepanov, Leo's colleague from Direc- torate Eight, fidgeted to his right. Peter was tall and thin, and in the slim seat he was reminiscent of a pocket tool knife, his scissory arms and corkscrew legs all neatly confined in the space. "How about that one?" Peter asked, subtly pointing, though Leo already knew to whom he gestured. The blonde in front, with hair down to her waist.
"I need more than just a pretty face."
"You think I'm only scanning for the faces?" Peter looked in- sulted. "Look at her colors." Meaning the blue-and-yellow sash over her shoulder. Leo's own was in a box, on a high shelf in his closet.
"I don't need a top graduate."
"Oh, so a simpleminded one." Peter leaned forward. "Then the possibilities widen. Over there, the redhead on the right. Better looking than the blonde, and even under that loose gown, you can still tell she has a substantial rack." Leo had seen the redhead when they first entered, noting her for the same reasons as Peter, though he didn't say this. Last Friday, as he'd prepared to leave work, he'd been cajoled by Peter into a "quick stop" at a fashionable hotel bar; there Leo had nursed the cheapest drink, a bottle of Georgian mineral water, while Peter trawled awk- wardly for haughty women. Leo had returned home after midnight, somehow still having gotten drunk, only to find his girlfriend, Vera Rustamova, waiting in the kitchen. Vera was a correspondent for Russia Central Media, or RCM, the state-owned news group. She had a newscaster's voice, low and rounded, which she could adjust to the precise desired pitch of disapproval. "No, not her."
"What, not beautiful enough? If you want something more, I don't know if the computer science department is where we hunt."
"I don't need beautiful. Don't want it, in fact."
Peter thought about this. "So you want dumb and bad-looking, is that it? I don't know what you're working at, but the next time you take me on one of your scouting trips "
Leo didn't hear the rest. He'd asked Peter along only to be so- ciable, to share an excuse to leave the office—Leo had little pressure to recruit, as he'd had a good run this year, had already advanced multiple assets. One, a Bashkir, was still in training, while the other two, a pair of siblings, were active: the brother, a trained chef, now worked in London at a hotel frequented by Saudi royals, while the sister was engaged to a corporate lawyer in St. Louis. Leo had awoken this morning with a bad headache and had nearly elected not to come.
But now he was glad he'd made the effort. Back of the stage: fourth row, on the left. Limp auburn hair, pale skin, which, com- bined with small, sharp dark eyes, gave her a look of feral alertness. How long had it been? Nine years? Ten? And yet he knew her.
Julia. From the institute.
They called them institutes but what they really were was orphanages, landing zones for unwanted children. Large low-slung buildings with rusted fixtures and faded carpets; visible on the floors were the paths worn by heavy boots and wheelchairs, their adolescent owners wielding the machines like skaters on ice. The in- stitutes were mostly located in larger towns, occasionally on the outskirts of big cities. It was on a trip to one of these that Leo first saw Julia.
He'd been in search of a boy. An older one, which was difficult, because if robust, boys were usually adopted young. The task was both delicate and important, involving the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They were religious people, the wife in particular, who'd made known her wishes to adopt before they permanently returned to Ottawa: to answer God's call and grant some unwanted soul another chance.
But also, you know, they really wanted a boy.
So Leo was sent to seek an acceptable candidate. A child old enough, clever enough to be groomed.
The children were gathered by this institute's director, a brittle matron of unverifiable age named Maria, into lines in the commu- nity room. Leo asked Maria to instruct each to introduce them- selves, and to repeat a sentence from a favorite book.
One by one they spoke. Hello, sir, my name is . . .
My favorite book is the Bible, and here is the part that has meant so much to me, blah blah blah.
By the ninth introduction, Leo's focus began to drift. He kept his face attentive, maintained eye contact, and when the one he'd earlier identified as most promising moved forward, the boy with straw-colored hair who came up to Leo's chest, he returned to full attention.
"My name is Pavel," the boy began. "My favorite book is the one with the man in blue who has muscles and can fly." Pavel closed his eyes, as if summoning the image. "I don't remember any of the words."
Leo knew the man to whom Pavel referred. A Western fabrication, with Western values.
Bye-bye, Pavel. Have a nice life.
As Leo prepared to depart, he felt a tap and turned to find a girl. She was short, with long thin eyelashes that drooped toward sloped cheeks and an even flatter nose; her eyebrows, which were fat and unruly, lent a somewhat deranged note to her appearance. "You could take me."
"I was looking for something else today," Leo said, inwardly grimacing as he realized he sounded as if he were at the butcher, declining a cut of meat. "I'm sorry. Perhaps next time."
"I can be very good," she said, not moving. "I am very, very in- terested in doing a good job. I would not say what Pavel did. You were right to leave him behind."
"How did you know I was interested in Pavel?" A little curious now.
"They talked about it before you came. That you wanted a boy.
The adults here speak as if none of us have ears."
He was amused by her phrasing. "Pavel is not the only boy." "You make a fist when you are paying attention. You did it in the beginning, when Sophia bent for the tea. She only wears that sweater when we have visitors, you know."
Instantly, Leo thrust his hand behind his back. He slowly loos- ened his grip, feeling absurd. He knelt and said in a low voice: "You say you would do a good job. But you don't even know what sort of job it is I would ask."
Her face scrunched as she thought. "Well whatever it is, I am interested."
"What's your name?" He could see Sophia of the famous V-neck hovering near, looking both wary and hopeful; she knew he sought a male, but the institute was compensated for every child taken by Directorate Eight, regardless of gender.
"Julia." He nodded, as if committing the name to a mental ledger. "And how long have you been here?"
"Since I was little."
"Oh? So you do not remember your time before?"
A shadow flicked across her face. "I have been here my whole life." She cleared her throat. "You know, I can also sing."
He rocked on his heels. "Go ahead, then. Sing me a song." She closed her eyes. "I'm so happy..."
"An American song?"
Her eyes opened. "I'm sorry—"
"Don't be. It's never wrong to practice other languages. A very good idea, actually." He rose, and then after a hesitation patted her on the head. "Perhaps I'll see you later."
She took a small step, deftly rejecting his touch. "When?" "I don't know. Perhaps next year. Or the next."
Julia settled on him a hard look. "You won't come. We will never see each other again."
They sat across from each other now, in a room in the back of a mechanical parts warehouse owned by the SPB. The space was unofficially Leo's—no one else from the department liked to use it, because it was far away, in Mitino. Over the years he'd rearranged the decor: he'd kept a campaign photo of the current president, in case he ever were to visit, which he wouldn't; the Gorbachev junk he'd removed, though he'd left up a single poster, of a cartoon alco- holic mistakenly chugging silver polish. Evil for your body and soul was printed on the bottom, which Leo would occasionally chant as he poured for himself and Vera. Glug glug glug.
"Do you remember meeting me?" He shifted, and his chair made an ugly noise against the floor. "It was a long time ago."
"Yes," Julia said, and Leo took the moment to study her up close. Unfortunately, Julia was not one of those plain children who grew into their features (though from Leo's experience it was never the perfect tens who worked hardest, anyway). She wore a red wool dress with a dirndl collar, as a younger girl might, and had brought along with her a paper sack of food, from which Leo could discern the smell of hot bread and cheese. Sloykas, he guessed. His stomach rumbled.
"When we first met, you said you did not know your parents." "Yes."
"Is that still the case?" Though he knew the answer, as by now—a week after the graduation—he had assembled her complete file.
"Yes. I do not know them. Or think of them."
"And you understand what the SPB does." Watching her care- fully, as here was where some of his potentials flamed out. Though they were initially drawn by the excitement, something about hear- ing the actual name, the initials, seemed to move them to recon- sider. As if by not working for the SPB they might exist farther from its eye, their sins unrecorded.
Julia shrugged. "As much as anyone else."
"You understand our country is under attack. From our ene- mies, and even our supposed friends."
"And that any harm done to the West is a benefit to us."
"Right. So what do you want?" Her voice brusque, as if she were busy, had many other people to meet, interviews to complete, though Leo knew better. If Julia had graduated with top marks she might have been able to land a job at a telecom, perhaps even a mul- tinational, but her university transcript confirmed such avenues were closed.
"Nothing right now. You'll have to finish the security paper- work, complete introductory training. Then I believe the first order of business will be a voice coach."
"A voice coach?" She sneered. "What do I need that for?"
Over Leo's career he'd managed dozens of men and women who mistakenly equated unpleasant behavior with an expression of power; by now he knew it was best to extinguish such beliefs right away. "The way you speak, it's intolerable."
Julia flinched. There was silence, and she glared at the floor. "If you think my speaking is so bad, then why did you request me?" she asked at last, her face reddening. "Because it wasn't for my looks."
Ah, he thought. So you want to take that away before it can be used.
"I believe you are a woman with tenacity," Leo said, deliber- ately using the word woman. "That, plus creativity, is what I search for."
She snorted and flushed deeper. "And what does a voice coach have to do with creativity?"
"What I do for my job is construct a package. A human pack- age, for a specific purpose. I need you to be convincing beyond doubt; it's not your voice that's so much the issue as the way you speak. No elegance. Perhaps the problem came after so much time in the institute. Because when we first met, it was not so bad."
"I sang that song," she said, and Leo knew she must recall nearly every detail of their first interaction. That perhaps she'd nursed hopes of his reappearance for years after. "In English."
"Yes, and your command of language was already decent. With a coach to refine the pronunciation you could become nearly fluent. You'll never get rid of your accent entirely, but you'd be surprised what focused training can accomplish."
He waited for Julia to ask why English was important, but she refrained. "And say I do the voice coach and learn the good English. Then what?"
"Perhaps we do acting training. There are no guarantees. During each step your performance would be evaluated."
"And after?" Her fingers drummed. "A piano teacher, and then gymnastics, and I go join the circus?"
He shook his head. "If you were ready, you'd begin the next phase. To serve our country, in secret, abroad . . ."
Julia perked at this. She began to tick off fingers. "New York, Shanghai, Paris . . ."
"Not any of those."
"Cairo, Munich, Sydney.... "
"None of those, either."
"All right, where?" Eager in her curiosity. She's just a child, Leo thought. A rude one, but a child nonetheless.
"Silicon Valley," Julia repeated, not entirely disappointed. "You mean San Francisco?"
"We can determine the right city later. We have people at both Berkeley and Stanford. You'll need to be enrolled in a graduate pro- gram, for the visa."
"And what would you have me do?"
He laced his fingers. "You have heard of the start-up culture there?"
"Yes." Her voice held an edge of derision.
"What, you don't think the internet is interesting?" "I'm not the sort to stare at a computer all day."
"Well, perhaps you could add a hobby. Another boom is com- ing. I want you to start a technology company. A true Silicon Valley one, based locally."
"A company," Julia repeated uncertainly.
"Yes. One viable enough to attract good investors. The investors will be key, especially in the beginning. From them you will receive introductions to other entrepreneurs, partners—become part of the local ecosystem, as it were. What we refer to as a bridge." From outside came the beeps and clangs of construction. Maybe the Metro, Leo thought, which they were forever promising would be built. He waited for Julia's response, which he assumed would be positive. He recalled the first time he'd breathed the air outside San Francisco, its sweetness in his lungs—which he'd quickly become used to, and then taken for granted, until he was back on the plane. But instead of a quick smile or other signs of enthusiasm, Julia only tugged at her collar. Both hands fiddled with the cotton; her eyes were wide and she kept her gaze on the table. "You have seen my grades," she said.
So that was the problem. "Yes."
"Well," she huffed. "Then you already know I don't have much talent. For a while I thought that even if I didn't like my classes, I could still work hard. But it wasn't enough."
Leo was surprised: he had not thought she'd acknowledge her own deficiencies. But this meant only that he was all the more correct about her suitability as an asset. Yes, it'd be good to have a computer genius, but such a person wouldn't necessarily want the job—and above average at home was close to brilliant in America, anyway.
"I don't need an expert. Just some technical proficiency. A hard worker, which you've just told me you are."
"So am I going to have help? A technical coach?" "No."
"A team of programmers?"
"No. You're going to do it all. Create the company, and lead it." "But I already told you, I can't manage the technical portion." "Don't worry about that." He checked his watch. The metal
chair was numbing his back. He wanted to start home, stop at the butcher's before returning to Vera.
"But isn't the whole point of a start-up to have a product?" She rocked back and forth in her chair. "It has to have an offering. A reason for its existence."
"Yes, you're right."
"Then I don't understand! Where is it going to come from?"
And finally they had arrived at the heart of the matter. A queer feeling overtook Leo and he felt himself hoping she'd prove worth- while. I could change your life, he thought.
He let the quiet settle. Watched her face. "We'll steal it."
Julia Kall was getting married.
Though Kall wouldn't be her last name, not for long; after the events of the afternoon she'd be known as Julia Lerner, wife of Charlie Lerner. Julia knew that in Silicon Valley, and especially at the levels on which she operated, changing one's last name was considered passé, an incline of the head to the patriarchy: why not ask for an allowance while she was at it, let her husband manage the money; carry out munchies for the boys on poker night, squealing at the ass slap on her way back to the kitchen. It was the expected thing, to keep one's last name, especially given her career. But that was why Julia was changing her own. To hint at an inner traditionalist. She already courted that market, subtly; when giving speeches, she usually mentioned that while her job as the second-highest executive at one of the world's most valuable technology companies was tremendously difficult, it was nothing compared to that of a mother, so bravo, bravo, let's hear it for the mothers. The audience dutiful in its applause, like junior congressmen saluting veterans, and then she would press forward: balance, childcare, empower. Her (subtly) enhanced red hair, cut to the shoulders, rounding out the image—her heels high, sweaters tight, though with conservative necklines.
Once married, Julia planned to add some bits about her and Charlie to the mix, reflections on her good taste in landing the perfect partner. And then, once they had kids—because naturally kids would follow—she would post about the whole family. I used to think what I did at work, you know, managing billions of dollars at one of the world's most valuable companies—I used to think that was the important thing! But it wasn't until I became a mother that I understood it's what I do at home that truly matters. Raising our next generation. Our future.
You know, all that stupid shit.
Plus, Kall wasn't even her real last name, anyway.
The temperature outside was in the high seventies, the sun's flame reduced by a thin gauze of clouds: a perfect Saturday afternoon in Napa Valley. Though Eisner Gardens had not been her first choice of venue. Originally Julia had thought Napa too basic: yes there were the nice parts, the private estates and wine caves, but there were also the factory wineries stuffed with tour groups, the traffic on Route 29; all the slurring Marina bros and escaped housewives, cheeks fat from bad fillers. Julia's first choice had been Indonesia—not Kuta or Seminyak, but rather a private resort in Borobudur. Her boss, Pierre Roy, the CEO and founder of the social media and internet giant Tangerine, had done something similar, flying all his guests, Julia included, on his 767 to the Caribbean. She'd already asked to borrow the plane, knowing Pierre would agree, but had then been informed that the wedding was not to take place overseas.
The wedding should be in California, Leo said. In California, more people would come.
At least Eisner was undeniably magnificent, with acres of meticulously attended gardens. A popular historical drama had been filmed on-site, the protagonist galloping up on his polo pony to be met by an umbrella-wielding servant (this always fascinated Julia about Americans, how prideful they were about their democracy while worshipping those who lived like kings). She stood now on the second floor of the same mansion as a seamstress buttoned her into the gown (Ralph & Russo, she'd spent a boatload, and now felt as if she might keel over from the weight of the beading). "You're doing a wonderful job," she said to the girl, who appeared thrilled to have received such praise from Julia herself.
Holding her train, taking tiny steps, Julia looked out the win- dow at the view below. The food was circulating, which was good; she'd requested the hors d'oeuvres begin as soon as the first guests arrived. Julia hated parties where the food was served late, the hostess (it was always a hostess) entering triumphantly to the pent-up demand, like a captor doling out warm showers to a pack of hostages with Stockholm syndrome. She scanned the crowd. It appeared most of the two hundred were already here. There was Alan Mark, a Microsoft executive who frequently announced he had no interest in being Tangerine's next CEO, which meant only that he did. Then there was Pierre himself, with his new girlfriend (despite the Caribbean wedding, the bride herself had not stuck); clearly Pierre was going through one of his Japan-worshipping phases again. His date, in one of those tacky jersey dresses cut to the navel, tossed her black hair and laughingly cajoled Pierre to take a selfie. At the last second, with expert agility, Pierre pulled away, said hi to some- one just out of the camera's reach. Finally, Julia sighted him. Leo, in a charcoal suit, in the shade by Rebecca Mosley, the wife of a Tangerine board member. Rebecca was one of those older intellectual housewives with some- thing to prove—who, whenever she encountered Julia, liked to pose all sorts of middling questions on Russia, as if it were not a global power with twice America's landmass but rather one of those minor landlocked countries with a hilarious McDonald's menu. Chances were she was subjecting Leo to the same abuse, since he was here as Julia's "uncle"—poor Julia, with no other living family to speak of, and represented solely by this humble, well-formed former water bureau manager. How was he finding the first world, Rebecca was likely pressing, did he love California? Wasn't it nice here, because as everyone knew, Russia was so cold, all the time?
Though Julia did, in fact, love California. Imagine if they'd sent her to one of those other states—and she knew the SPB occasionally did do this, seeding assets to small politicians, hoping they might one day become big ones. What would she be doing then? Attending the openings of car dealerships, frying chicken nuggets, falling asleep in church. Shopping on the weekends for wooden plaques to hang on her wall: The Conner Family, Est. 2011!
The wedding planner was back in the room. "Are you excited?" Libby Rosenberg was one of those competent former sorority girls Julia liked to hire into marketing. Though Libby had been clipping between the gardens in a full suit, her makeup was still perfectly matte. "I'm getting excited."
"You eat? You should have something in your stomach before you go out. Michael, why doesn't Julia have a plate? It's her food, you know."
She's right, Julia thought. It is my food. I'm the one paying for it. And then she returned to the window, to enjoy the view a while longer. Of course, Julia wasn't foolish enough to believe she'd achieved everything on her own merit. There was help, especially in the beginning. Arriving at her depressive studio in San Carlos, initially stunned by the strip malls and sheer ugliness of the place, only to visit Stanford University days later and fall in love, because here—amid the Romanesque architecture and towering palms and lopsided wealth—was the California of her dreams. A PhD candidate in electrical engineering, she'd been set up with Kurt Marshall, described by Leo as a "friendly" professor, who proceeded to match her with another "accommodating" company, at which the ancient Marshall was paid a quarter million a year as an advisor. The company sponsored her visa, no one in Immigration Services curious why a small business repackaging USB keys was navigating the hurdles of an H1-B for an analyst; she'd worked there a year before Leo returned to California and presented her with a laptop. "Now you go fundraise."
She stroked the machine, chunky and metallic. "What is it?" "Facial recognition software. I assume you still recall enough of your studies to give a convincing demo. I made up the working name, VisionMatch, but change it if you like. It's your company."
She disliked the name but sensed he was proud of his creative output. "Face recognition?"
"Properly deployed, it can match each face in a crowd of thou- sands in seconds. Such technology has also been on the SPB's wish list. So why not multitask?" He laughed.
"Where did you get it?"
He named an American technology giant, the sort that spon- sored stadiums.
"And they won't realize we took it?" Julia was surprised that such a thing could be lifted without consequence. At the institute, if someone stole even an apple, blood was drawn, the accumulation and tracking of possessions being of chief interest among the residents.
"These companies have so much, they probably won't ever use it. It's not their chief business, only one of hundreds of side projects. Something to remember about America: waste is part of their culture."
Just a year after she launched VisionMatch, Tangerine—the social network already frequented by half of all Americans—came to call. Pierre Roy, who'd started as a freshman at Waterloo at fifteen, had at one point, due to his semi-dreamy looks and a habit of grandiose announcements, been referred to in the press as the "Frat Genius." A nickname Pierre hated, because he thought it undercut the fact that he really was, you know, a genius. By twenty-eight, he'd built Tangerine to deca-unicorn status and no longer cared what the media said. He held 88 percent of the outstanding voting shares and was thus not subject to the hedging and consensus building of lesser entrepreneurs; he made brash declarations and dated a string of minor actresses and very good-looking academics. Pierre wanted VisionMatch's facial identification software—Tangerine could do it in-house, he informed Julia, but this was just easier.
"There's another company that's got something similar, you know," Pierre murmured during their closing dinner at Alexander's. Bankers on both sides, ordering the A5 Wagyu because they could. "But the company's one of those big bad corporations, so they'd never give it to me. Hopefully yours is as good."
Oh oh oh, Julia thought. You have no idea.
And now she was chief operating officer of Tangerine, second only to Pierre. Total comp last fiscal year: $39 million.
Julia knew she had a reputation—what was her latest nickname? It used to be the Sweetheart of Silicon Valley, but that was when she was doing the stuff that embarrassed her to think of now: baking cookies for reporters, giving interviews on her twelve-step skin-care routine. While publicly railing against gender inequality, she'd quietly torched the path of any rising female at Tangerine, the same as any man would have done to his own competition. As Tangerine's user count continued to explode, journalists sought a female executive to quote—please, any woman! And then they found Julia, her finger in the dam just in time, before male hubris overflowed and drowned them all . . .
She looked back out at the crowd. She could sense Libby hover- ing behind, waiting to speak. Leo had separated himself from Rebecca and was now by the bar, his face tilted at the windows Julia waved and blew him a kiss, and he tapped a finger against his watch. Don't waste time.
She turned to the room, to the assistants, the planner. Weeks later each would receive a handwritten note thanking them for their contribution. In the room were no bridesmaids, no sisters clutching at modest bouquets.
"I'm ready," she said.
The next afternoon, Julia sat with Leo.
The wedding had been lovely, of course. Lovely, charming, inspiring—Julia's frequently deployed descriptors, used for everything from baby showers to politicians. Her nuptials conducted beneath two willows, the pool's mid-afternoon reflection casting a gleam. The party afterward, the dinner, the dancing (Julia hated dancing), the fireworks, which she'd watched with utter joy, tracking the arc of each light as it shattered in the sky.
It'd been a month since she and Leo last met. A year earlier, when Leo announced he was moving, Julia was alarmed. She'd not wanted a local handler, one available to observe at close range the vast perks of being free and rich in California. But since his ar- rival, Leo had mostly left her alone. Their meetings were brief, quiet lunches at her house or empty restaurants, as she passed interesting gossip.
She'd rented the entirety of the Golden Rock Ranch for the weekend, set on its own hill in Stags Leap. She and Leo sat on the deck outside her suite, a table between them. Leo was drooped with his head against the chair's back, eyes ringed with red. His left hand slowly stroked his stomach, as if easing some inner queasiness.
"Drink too much last night?" Julia asked, amused.
He shifted uncomfortably. "I'm getting older, yes? I know that's your implication."
"You should probably wait until the evening to indulge again. If you do." She rose and retrieved a pitcher of water.
"Thank you," Leo said as she poured. "Charlie seems nice," he added. Julia's new husband was at the airport, seeing off his mother and father, the former who had worn an insane red sequined ball gown last night, designed to steal attention.
"He is nice," she agreed.
Leo set down the glass. "Very American."
Julia suppressed a smile. Two years earlier she'd been informed she ought to get a husband—time to establish family ties was what Leo said, and instantly Julia had understood. She pretended to be insulted, resistant, but secretly began her endeavor immediately. She knew the SPB had likely already begun to strategize; she was not going to be controlled, told to spread her legs for some septua- genarian with a high security clearance or a closeted CEO with a secret phone line.
She met Charlie through a friend, because she now had friends, because guess what? Once your company was acquired and your net worth climbed into nine digits, you became more interesting not only to yourself but also to others. Like magic! Athena, an Israeli biologist who ran a gene-mapping company, had come up to her at a party. Murmuring: "Have I got a man for you."
At the time, Julia already had a semi-boyfriend. Zack Stein, venture capitalist on the rise, excessive hair product, obnoxious car, but he was decent-looking and not too short and seemed willing to learn and improve. By now Julia had undergone her own modifications: gone were the bad clothes, lurid makeup, clumsy hair color and cut. When she recalled how she'd first appeared in California, wearing her neon tracksuit (tracksuit!) as she hiked Rancho San Antonio, mascara clumped around her eyes—she wanted to die. Why hadn't Leo helped? Why get a voice coach and an acting teacher but not a stylist? But men didn't think of such things.
Zack was fine, and Julia could picture herself married to him—maybe. The only problem was that lately his communications had assumed a certain tenor, as if she were not an executive who out-earned him twelve to one but rather one of his firm's many analysts, some young nubile recent grad:
- I find it sexy when a woman is always THRILLED to see me
- Happy to mentor you ;)
- Really busy this month, you know how intense I am about work . . .
So okay, Julia told Athena, let's meet him—not expecting much. And then Athena brought over Charlie. Charlie: dark blond hair, perfect American teeth, like a white picket fence in his mouth. Julia was five nine and he was half a head taller, even when she was in heels.
"You have a bit of a sunburn," Julia had said, spotting a patch of red behind his temple.
"Really?" He touched the area. "Right. From surfing." "Is that what you do?"
"Do I surf professionally, you mean?" He laughed. "No. I'm a doctor. Cardiologist."
Cardiologist. Julia liked doctors as a rule: they earned less than her, as nearly all men did, but didn't have a complex about it.
"I would ask what you do, if only to be polite," Charlie said, still smiling, still friendly. "But I already know."
That had been the start. The draw was that he did not care. Did not pretend otherwise, went and said out loud what so many men would not, that she was who she was. It was as if the champagne she held spilled into the air between them—that heady mixture of interest and lust that was so delicious and yet totally unexpected. Because how often in life did you get exactly what you want? How rare was it not only to find love, but for the person to love you back?
Charlie. Charlie Charlie Charlie. She had chosen him. He was perfect.
But instead of rolling around in bed, eating breakfast with her flawless new husband, Julia was stuck outside with this old, hung- over, and frequently tedious man.
Leo was fussing about with a fork, hovering over the food. Earlier that morning the manager had delivered a charcuterie platter and sliced fruit; Julia had taken some bites of pineapple, but the rest was untouched. Leo speared into the dragon fruit, nibbling suspiciously at its edges.
"It's good," Julia said. "Even better in Thailand."
He wagged a finger. "Don't forget we come from the same place." Julia kicked the table. "How's business?" she asked, before re- gretting the question. She didn't want Leo to think she was nosing about his work—she knew very little of his cover in California. From what she understood, he worked out of an office, one of those sad single-man consulting shops, as befitting a minor relative riding on her coattails.
"It's fine." He crumpled a piece of bresaola into his mouth. "Busy."
"Good." She considered asking some polite follow-ups, but was afraid there was no way of doing so without sounding disingenuous, like when she was forced to compliment toddlers during the annual Take Your Kids to Tangerine event. "Perhaps you can share some thoughts about marriage," she said instead. "Any guidance, tips for success." Julia was actually curious to hear his answer. They rarely spoke about personal matters, Leo dodging her probes while simul- taneously pressing for details on Tangerine's organizational chart.
"Guidance," Leo repeated. He made another pass at the meats, his fork darting for the duck confit. "What's to say? Marriage is just power constantly being renegotiated."
This? This was all he had to offer? Sometimes Julia thought Leo might be losing it. His random confidences on various failings of the SPB, like an attempt to implant Scottish fold kittens with listen- ing devices, intended for the daughter of a Japanese executive, only for the cats to disappear into the streets of Osaka ("Even our animals," he mused, "want to defect"); the way he would occasionally lapse into gloom without provocation or warning, sulking his way through the last course of dinner. Late forties wasn't too young for a midlife crisis, right?
"Well, you're not married, anyway," she teased. "Yet."
He ignored this. "What we do is important. Sometimes I wonder if you forget. Who you truly work for."
Julia bristled. "I've done everything you've asked. The wedding was exactly as you wanted."
"Right." Leo cut a banana into neat slivers. "And now that the wedding's finished, we'll be asking more of you."
She fought her temper. "More? Please be fair. I've contributed. Have been contributing." How much dirt had she passed along over the years? A tech CEO's drug problem. The Lockheed executive sleeping with his brother's wife. An attorney general with real es- tate dreams and credit card debt. Wallet fantasies, Leo called them. Zipper problems.
"As you should. As you will continue to do."
I just got married yesterday, dickhead. She wondered why he was being such a hard-ass. What did Leo want? Fine, she would get out and eavesdrop more; even though it was technically her wed- ding week she would attend Sarah Kleiner's boutique opening next Tuesday, since her husband was CEO of CyberSoft, and purchase one of Sarah's hideous handbags.
"We want you to run a deep search on some people."
"We need information," Leo said. Depositing a slice of banana into his mouth. "On a group of individuals. All their Tangerine data: messages, browsing, search activity." Julia dug her nails into her thigh. What Leo was asking was an enormous breach of the trust and privacy Tangerine's entire business model was based upon. Users would never browse, message, search, or upload if they believed someone was watching—machines, fine; algorithms, maybe; but never humans. No one person sitting in judgment over their Valtrex, their porn, their gambling, their shop- ping; the stalking of their ex from high school, and his wife, and whether she was fat now after the twins, going to the album and then clicking again, click click click click click.
Though it wasn't the privacy that was her main concern. "I can't get caught. If I'm caught, my career's over."
"So don't get caught."
"It's harder than that, you understand? What you want, it isn't easy. Otherwise everyone would do it."
"If I believed my requests easy, I could send anyone. Train any nobody from off the street." But instead I picked you, being unsaid. I picked you, and now it's time for payment.
"I—I'll see what's possible."
Leo nodded. They both knew this meant she would do it. With a short grunt he stood and reached for the coffee. "We also want you to start transferring data from Tangerine's servers."
The hot pit of temper inside her gut instantly re-flared. "This was never part of the arrangement. It places me at risk."
"We don't want all the server data," Leo argued as he poured. As if this were even possible. "Our requests would be specific. All queries coming from Tel Aviv over a certain weekend, for example." Julia shook her head, more violently this time. She realized that despite her earlier training she had not truly thought this day would come—when she would have to risk something important, an ac- complishment she alone had achieved, for a bunch of old generals she'd never met and who likely knew nothing about technology. And what would they do if she were caught? What responsibility would they take, other than to say that yet again a woman had messed up? "Is there anything else you're planning to request?" she fumed.
"If so, tell it to me now. All of it."
Leo blinked at her. "We also want access to FreeTalk. Messages and location."
For a moment Julia was unable to speak. Though the air outside was warm her hands were cold and when she looked down they were leached of color. "No," she said. "No. No. Absolutely impossible."
FreeTalk, a five-year-old app through which users could send messages and photos, was Pierre's latest acquisition and darling; the service was enormously popular, ostensibly for its encryption features. The two founders, Sean Dara and Johan Frandsen, who'd frequently stated that privacy was their highest priority, that they could never sell the company, had nevertheless in the end sold, to Tangerine, for $9 billion—upon which they'd moved into Tangerine's headquarters, faces flush with embarrassment and money. Julia didn't like Sean or Johan, but better two dudes than one woman. She had yet to see any large company support more than one high- profile female executive at a time—it was as if too many might suck up all the oxygen, causing the entity to collapse in on itself like a dying star.
"What's impossible about it?" Leo actually looked curious. "Pierre promised Sean and Johan total autonomy. FreeTalk's technical infrastructure is separate from Tangerine's. As is its management. It was one of the key deal points of the acquisition."
"You'll change their mind. You're good at that."
"This isn't something you can propel me to deliver through flattery. I can't."
"Yes you can." And then quietly: "You will."
A bubble of hate, for his humiliating her with a direct order. "What's it all for? Some kind of grand plan?"
"You've been watching too many movies. This isn't a one-time request. There will be an ongoing expectation."
"It must be for something."
"You have development cycles at work, do you not? Periods where you invest, spend to create products. Eventually though, your goal is for such products to earn money."
Not in the Valley, Julia thought, recalling an autonomous start-up she'd met with last week, which projected it would need to lose at least $4 billion before turning profitable. She'd thanked them for coming and then directed Tangerine's venture arm not to invest; later the CEO had emailed Pierre, complaining of her "catty" demeanor.
Taking her silence for assent, Leo continued: "All our rivals are investing in technology. The political situation in the West is, at best, unstable. You understand you've already been extended a long period of dormancy? For years, I pushed the SPB to leave you alone, let you rise. And now you have. They're impatient, Julia. It's only fair they see some return."
She shoved her legs against the chair. "I like my life. I've earned it." "No one's taking away your life. In fact, it would only please me if you flew even higher. What a lot of fun that'd be, yes? All we're asking is that you share some back. With the country that brought you here."
"You think that's all it is, that you drop me in California and this is what automatically happens? That you take—how did you put it?—any nobody off the street, and they end up as COO? Twelve-hour days, seven days a week, for years. Hundreds of others, working just as hard to try and take my position."
"What do you want me to say, thank you? I thank you. Your country thanks you in advance."
Julia pushed away from the table and stood. "Are we done?"
Leo gaped at her, surprised. In all their years together, Julia had never ended a conversation. It had always been Leo who called, Leo who asked, Leo who left and came. She thought he might ob- ject, order her to sit, but instead he exclaimed: "Look!"
She looked. In her haste, she had jolted the table, and the carafe was on its side, coffee pouring from its beak. If this were her home, she would already be running for a napkin; scrubbing at the linen with soap, her fingernails digging out the stain.
"You clean up," Julia said, and then went inside and shut the door.
Alice Lu was on her hands and knees, crouched under a table.
The table—custom built and the size of a queen mattress— was in the office of Sean Dara and Johan Frandsen, the founders of FreeTalk. The two men shared a single office (one of Tangerine's largest) as a testament to their first headquarters, a guesthouse in Cupertino. Alice, who was there to fix their phones, had just started to work when she was suddenly paralyzed by a cold fear. On the ground, a nest of cables in her hands, she was level with the men's legs and feet. Alice concentrated on breathing, her field of vision contracting and sharpening, as she focused on what appeared to be the hardened spiral end of a burrito. Having suffered earlier panic attacks, she theoretically understood that the headache, sweating hands, violent drumming in her chest, these would all pass—and though she was currently convinced of an impending and unavoidable doom, that such doom would not occur, unless there was, like, an earthquake or something. There'd been that time in AP Calculus when she thought she'd bombed her final and would thus fall short of the 4.5 GPA necessary for East Asians to qualify for the Ivy League's holy trifecta, H-Y-P (Harvard, Yale, Princeton); the one-week period when she'd been rejected by all three anyway, and the agonizing wait for the remaining choice not devastating to her parents, MIT. These, Alice knew now, had been stupid reasons to panic, whereas her present justifications were more reasonable.
These were, in chronological order:
- that just six months prior, she’d actually been employed on the FreeTalk team, in a more senior position than the one she held now, where she had worked alongside her boyfriend of ten years, Jimmy Chiang, and;
- following a series of sexual harassment suits, Tangerine announced a policy by which employees in a relationship could no longer work on the same team, triggering Alice to apply for a transfer, and;
- due to a cultural propensity for rule following, which had also prompted her haste to transfer, Alice had accepted a role within technical support, generally acknowledged to be the lowest caste of engineering, but this was no problem, because inspired by the entrepreneurial zest of Sean and Johan, Jimmy planned to start his own company, at which Alice would serve as employee number 2, upon which:
- Jimmy had left to start his own company, but had also dumped Alice at the same time, stranding her with a two-bedroom apartment in one of the most inflated rental markets in the country, meaning:
- that despite worrying for so many years about the grades and the recruiting and the résumé-ing Alice had still managed to mess up her career, for the dumbest reason of all, and:
- when she’d walked into their office just now, neither Sean nor Johan had recognized her, even though she’d personally presented to them twice.
In Alice's estimation, the last point was the least objectionable—the founders were considered princes of a sort within Tangerine, with the fleeting attention span accorded to celebrities, and she'd been a late transfer onto their team, following Jimmy's lead. Her ex-boyfriend had been enamored with Sean and Johan, who seemed to inspire a near-religious devotion among the male engineer set: the former in his mid-thirties, a vaper who collected Harley-Davidsons and referred to watches as timepieces; the latter forty-something, ex-eBay, a Scandinavian with five children and chickens in his backyard.
Sometime that morning Johan had entered the office and, attempting to make a call, found no dial tone. Johan had then texted Bryce Childs, the CTO, who directed the problem to the only woman on his team, Tara Lopez, upon which Tara had done the same.
“It’s quite possibly an excellent opportunity for networking” was how Tara presented things. “It’s really in the chance encounters that personal connections are made.”
Alice knew Tara likely didn't recall that Alice had already enjoyed months of proximity to Sean and Johan, which had clearly not served her career to any great benefit; additionally, were there any opportunities to be had Alice knew it would be Tara swooping in, instead of dispatching a reliable minion. Though Alice hadn't argued. First, because she rarely pushed against authority, but also because weeks earlier she'd had her biannual review, seated across from Tara in the same office from which she'd been ordered to Sean and Johan's.
"I don't like to give a bad rating to anyone," Tara saying, even though Tangerine's stack ranking meant she had to do exactly this, twice a year. Her bracelets clacking as she spoke, a framed certificate from Stanford Business School's Executive Education Program equidistant between them on her desk. "Especially not the only woman on my team."
"Can I ask why I'm not meeting expectations?" Alice had asked meekly.
Tara nodded. "You might be surprised. As obviously you're technically proficient." Which Alice understood to be neutral to negative in Tara's universe, as Tara did not respect technical proficiency, given that she had none herself. She had come from human resources, was rotating through the company via its Female Leadership Program (internally referred to as FLIP, as in FLIP! the gender ratios). "Engineering acumen is valuable. But to thrive on my team, you must also demonstrate what's referred to as soft skills." "Is this because I didn't attend the last team builder?" Which had been the Monday after Jimmy left; Alice had spent it at home, watching Grave of the Fireflies.
"This isn't about one thing," Tara said crossly. "It's more a question of cultural fit." It's cultural: that explanation all liberal Americans were obligated to accept without question, which Alice had deployed for years to get out of eating turkey on Thanksgiving and wearing swimsuits in public.
Alice knew the next question expected from her. "How do I improve?"
"Be more present. Empower yourself!" Tara liked positivity, and words like empowerment and aware; when she spoke them it was as if she imagined herself onstage, in front of a participatory audience.
Now Alice was inches from Johan's Birkenstocks; from the way he was freely scratching at his upper thighs and even higher, he had definitely forgotten she was here. She desperately wished for some guidance on how to empower herself in this situation.
"Did you see this latest from Julia?" Sean called. He had a seam- less voice, the kind used for voice-over work in commercials. "She's making the case that we should report to her, that FreeTalk should be in her organization. She claims it'll be more efficient. From an engineering perspective. I think half the time the bitch doesn't understand what she's talking about."
"Sean. You cannot say words like 'bitch' anymore."
"You know Pierre's going to cave. We can get out. Do a new thing. I hate this corporate shit."
"We don't fully vest for another year." Johan's voice was crisp and robotic. "It is not much to wait, in the scheme of life."
"Oh, Jesus." Sean's boots batted each other in agitation. "What do you need the stock for? I thought you were all about modest liv- ing. Driving around in your minivan."
"That doesn't mean I don't respect money," Johan said primly. "As I recall, you made the final decision to sell."
"I know, I know. I was greedy. But now I've got regrets, okay?
So how do I fucking repent?"
From underneath the desk, Alice briefly pondered whether she was doing something in her own life equivalent to bitching about a nine-figure stock grant—if working at Tangerine automatically notched her on a sliding scale of privilege and offense. Each month, as penitence for her corporate-paid lunch and on-campus juice bar, she made an automatic donation to Médecins Sans Frontières; in exchange she was deluged by phone calls and mailers containing preprinted address labels that guilted her into donating even more.
There was a pause in the chatter, and she forced herself out from under the table. "Okay," she said in her most confident tone, the one she used to negotiate her Comcast bill. "Does one of you have a dog?"
It was obvious she'd been forgotten: Sean was studying her with a mix of calculation and concern, while twin daubs of rose had bloomed on Johan's cheeks. "A dog," Alice repeated loudly, which she thought might make her seem innocuous, a slow sort cheered by large animals.
"A dog?" Johan finally echoed, still struggling to make eye contact. "Yes, I have a dog. A mountain dog." Then, as if this were an embarrassing revelation: "I bought him for my children."
"Do you bring it to work?" "Sometimes."
"Well, it's been chewing on the cords. It ate the phone cord down to the wire, so that's why it doesn't work."
"Oh," Johan said. "Okaaaay."
"So I suggest that if you want to bring your dog in the future, you keep it away from electronics." Alice gestured with both hands toward the frayed wire, as if she were a game-show host. "I can order a tube, if you want. It'll go around the wires so that a dog can't chew through them."
"But then won't the dog just chew through the tube?" Johan asked.
"How big is it?"
"He is a good size," Johan said, holding a hand level with his waist. "In America, dogs are too small."
"Housing is expensive," Alice said. "Not everyone has the space."
The two men exchanged a look, as if silently conferring over the source of a foul odor.
"Okay," Alice said. She was already regretting her comment about housing; she knew from her limited interactions with the rich and powerful that it was nearly impossible to say anything without having it come out worse than in your head. "You can tell your admin if you change your mind about the tube. I'll have a new cord sent." She gathered her laptop, her pen, the notepad she had uselessly taken out and not opened.
"Jesus," she heard Sean exhale as she left. "Wow."
"Sean," Johan warned, and then the door shut, and the rest of their conversation was lost.
Alice returned to her desk. With the exception of executives, all Tangerine employees worked from "open seating": long tables split by acrylic dividers set five feet apart. To Alice's left sat Sam Diaz, who ran a side business designing skateboards and scheduled fake "working groups" at four p.m. to beat the traffic home to Scotts Valley. To her right was Larry Chan, whom she suspected of an ex- tended campaign of shifting the divider between them millimeters at a time, until he'd acquired enough space for a third LCD. It was late afternoon, which meant the sun had mostly fled, along with the parents who announced they had school pickup or swim meets to attend. Work-life balance and all that, which coincidentally was one of Tara's favorite topics, except that Alice didn't have children or, if she was being honest, much of a life. Instead, in the evenings she would work until seven and then drive home. Greet her roommate, Cheri, if she was around, and then hasten to her room and eat dinner while watching TV on her computer. Alice liked this routine. It was what she'd done when she was in a relationship, except the TV watching had been in the living room, her and Jimmy on the couch with their laptops.
Her computer chimed. Before Alice had left for Sean and Johan's she'd begun a scan of a random block of servers. This was housekeeping each of Tara's employees was supposed to perform, but rarely actually did, just one cohort of an entire legion of neglected activities. When she'd first started in support Alice had been surprised by the laxity of Tangerine's protocols, how much of the back end was just a bunch of crappy code strung together. After her review with Tara, however, Alice had begun performing the scans with furious regularity.
She checked the report. There was high activity in one of the servers, the graph spiking in a jagged Matterhorn. Server 251, located in the Dublin data center. Alice closed her eyes for a few seconds, hoping that the issue, whatever it was, might resolve itself. Sometimes that happened—the systems were like humans, in that occasionally they behaved out of character and then stopped on their own.
Alice opened her eyes. Server 251's grid reflected back the same high activity.
"Hey," she said to Larry. Larry also reported to Tara, and he and Alice were supposedly on friendlier terms due to sheer prox- imity, though in reality Larry wasn't close to Alice or anyone else on the team. The infrequent times Alice saw him with others it was always the same Chinese and Pakistani engineers, huddled in gloomy circles in the break rooms; occasionally they power walked around campus, arms swinging in tandem. Once, when Larry was feeling chatty, he'd leaned over and informed Alice in Mandarin that he believed she and he to be a similar type of person, given that they were both Chinese and held degrees from presti- gious universities that in the hands of an assertive white man would have already landed them in upper management. "What sort of person?" Alice had replied weakly, and Larry said: "Difficulty in social interactions." Looking proud, like a doctor nailing an esoteric diagnosis.
"Hey," Alice said again. She tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey.
Larry, who she knew had been deliberately ignoring her, flinched at this unwelcome contact. "What?"
"Look." She nodded at her screen, which displayed the current loads of 251. The activity levels were even higher now, with steep spikes, as if the server were experiencing a heart attack.
"So?" Larry reached back and snatched a bag of dried plums off his desk. He chewed and then spat a seed into his hand, flinging it into her garbage.
Alice suppressed the urge to verify that the seed had actually made it into the bin. "There's a lot of data being transferred. Doesn't look automatic, either. Does that seem off to you?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Well, should I do something about it?" "No."
"Because who cares?" Larry turned back to his desk.
Alice scowled. Another infuriating Larry Chan response, though he was probably right that it wasn't a big deal—likely she was simply witnessing the birth or death of some project. The usual Tangerine life cycle, where executives were hired and products developed. Products were then canceled and executives fired, and everything saved, for potential lawsuits.
Yet something about 251 nagged at her. It was the amount of data, as well as its timing. It was close to six; there usually wasn't much activity at this hour.
Alice turned to Larry again. She could tell he knew she was looking at him; he kept his eyes locked on his screen as his fingers crawled for more plums. "Can we check who's doing the transfer?"
"Use the report," he said, not looking at her.
"Can you do it for me? I'm not supposed to." To run specific reports required a higher level of access than Alice had been approved for.
Larry rotated in his chair. "You cannot?" "No. I'm not senior enough."
He paused, as if considering all the various scenarios that could have led Alice to such a fate that at the advanced age of thirty-five, she was still a junior analyst with no social plans to preclude her presence in the office on a Friday night, and lacking the seniority to run high-level reports. "I'm busy. This not emergency. You wait, I do on Monday."
"Uh-huh." Though Alice was now performing her own calculations. She knew that if she allowed an entire weekend to lapse, the question of the server would only hang over her, poking its way into her subconscious like a cracked sidewalk taunting an obsessive- compulsive. Plus Larry would then pretend he'd forgotten the conversation altogether, and refuse to run the reports anyway. "How about after you're done? I'll wait."
"Why you not going home?" he demanded. "Home to your husband."
"I'm not married." "You live nearby?"
"Yes, in Cupertino." Where she'd spent the last two years. Her building was notable in that it resembled a low-budget Italian palace, with red-carpeted halls and rows of oversize columns. Rent at the Palermo was just beyond affordable given her salary—the apartment was two bedrooms, which was the biggest problem. At the time of lease she'd thought the space was fine, the money fine, everything fine—it was Jimmy's idea, Jimmy who would have the start-up, and what better place to work out of than one's own home? She'd thought he was going to propose, that's how stupid she was: that despite many hints to the contrary she'd allowed the allure of forever being done with dating to override her greater instincts, and if she was being honest she had loved him, had truly loved him, with all the knowing intent of someone entering a relationship in which they felt like crap a third of the time and still very much wanted the other two-thirds anyway.
Instead, during that dinner—the "serious conversation" dinner, which took place at Kenzo's, the Japanese curry restaurant that had become "their" place—he announced that he was moving to Seattle, where the business conditions were better suited for his start-up.
"I don't know if I could do a long-distance relationship," Alice said.
"That's not," Jimmy said, swooping in with his fork to claim the last potato croquette, "what I was going to suggest."
Among the many indignities of Bay Area life was that after the surprise departure of a live-in boyfriend, one immediate consideration—near simultaneous with the packing and negotiation of furniture—was how to sustain a newly doubled rent; Alice now lived with her cousin Cheri Lu, who possessed the dual irritations of being both younger than her and extremely beautiful. Cheri was half-white, which meant their relatives would spend hours at family gatherings debating the pros and cons of Caucasian blood: you often got a very pretty result this was true, but then you also had to deal with the unpredictable downsides, like a propensity to purchase houseboats and sink money into unreasonable projects like in-ground swimming pools.
Cheri mostly spent her weekends preparing for and then attending lavish parties in the Bay Area and beyond. She was invited on yacht holidays to Croatia, ski breaks in Deer Valley. She'd once been referenced by name in a Vanity Fair piece on start-up girlfriends, and was part of a loose pack of friends whose numbers swelled and shrank as its members were dropped or impregnated.
"I live with a roommate," Alice said to Larry, to preempt his next question. But Larry didn't say anything, just cocked his head with a look that edged close to sympathy, and then swung back to his desk.
"I help you in five minutes," he muttered.
"Thanks!" Alice manually flagged both the server and the data center, to mark them so she could easily return. She knew that when Larry said five minutes he meant closer to ten, and she went to the nearest break room. It was late, so there were only a few pieces of coconut cake left on a tray; she placed the largest piece in a compostable box, along with a banana and two clementines. Technically, taking food home was discouraged at Tangerine—it was not considered "Tangy" behavior, slotted in the same column as praising the New York Times or actually sleeping in the nap pods—but Alice often did so anyway, one of the many tactics she utilized to manage her budget post-Jimmy.
When she returned to her chair, Larry was gone.
The edge of the box bit against her palm. "Crap," she said in a low voice.
Alice looked at his desk. It was messy, as usual, with stacks of printouts and half-eaten bags of nuts. Paranoid that Tangerine might end its free food program at any moment, Larry hoarded dozens of snacks in the metal rolling cabinet by his chair. All day long Alice would hear the drawer's screech as Larry deposited another bag of sugared almonds or dried apricots and then reopened the drawer to nibble away at his treasure. He was stereotypically Chinese in that he was compelled to deposit more than he depleted; the stash had grown until he'd been forced to reorganize, repatriating a box of orange highlighters next to his headset.
Alice sat back at her desk. After a brief deliberation she opened the network tool, the one she was not senior enough to use; it was typical of Tangerine's messy back end that she was not actually blocked from running it. She checked other servers at random: on each was a flat wriggle, the usual hum of files being written and rewritten. She returned to 251 and found it lit up, an outline of neon skyscrapers against black sky.
It was almost artistic, reminiscent of the test pattern Alice would run on the TV for background when there was nothing better available when she was a kid. Her family had moved from Beijing when she was five, squatting in Monterey Park with a cousin until her parents could afford to move north. Because June and Lincoln had always worked long hours—first at the battery plant in Milpitas, and then later at the cleaners—Alice spent most of her childhood with a series of inattentive Chinese nannies, who traded low wages for room and board. Alice mostly played by herself, drop-kicking a set of cloth sacks of rice into a basket, and rotating the same three videos her mother had purchased on clearance at Blockbuster (The Sword and the Stone, Lady and the Tramp, and Congo).
If Alice found a bug in the server, that would certainly be a case of empowerment; it might even elevate her to another one of Tara's favorites: achievement.
In the network tool, Alice clicked on 251, which brought up a set of diagnostics. She chose one that displayed all eighty-six devices currently connected to the server. Only one device was drawing an abnormal amount of data—nearly two hundred times more than the others. Alice selected it. She expected the report to return the device's information, in this format:
John Doe—Apple MacBook Air—User ID# 12345678
But instead, the screen read: Unknown—Device Unknown—User 555 Alice frowned and sat back.
In all her time in support, Alice had never encountered an unknown device in the network. An unknown device was an employee phone or laptop procured from some outside source, and thus not outfitted with Tangerine's monitoring software. A big no-no.
She went to the employee database and entered User 555 in the ID field.
No results found.
What the hell? Alice considered the situation. She could go home, she knew. Change into sweats, eat coconut cake. It was already past seven; leaving after eight on a Friday would be an especially pitiful start to the weekend.
But if she did discover something—if, say, she managed to find a bug, or an outside attempt at infiltration . . .
Alice packed her box of food into her backpack. She reexamined Larry's desk and, on impulse, swiped an unopened bag of dark chocolate almonds. Craning her neck, swiveling revolutions in her chair, she stared at the ceiling until it blurred. She sighed. The feeling was loneliness, she knew. Even though it was late, she wasn't ready to go home. Sometimes Alice thought the worst part about Jimmy being gone was that when he had been there, she hadn't been alone—by leaving, he had made her lonesome.
She returned to her screen. It was an open secret within support that out of both carelessness and convenience Tangerine automat- ically saved most employee passwords into a plain text file. Like at any hot Valley company, there was high turnover and occasionally the need to retrieve files from a poached engineer.
Alice found the file and ran a query for User 555. Password: Kombinator637.
Next, Alice navigated to the main Tangerine site. Here was where two billion people went each day for their news and entertainment; in this place—this community, per Tangerine—its visitors read, watched, searched, and clicked. For each of Tangerine's thirty thousand employees, it was also where they logged in to access their work calendars and email, and post the entries tacitly obligatory in their job, to share how much they were loving this new feature! If User 555 was missing from the employee database, then likely their Tangerine account was also empty. There might be something though—a friend, a photo—to hint at their identity.
Alice logged in as User 555. Password: Kombinator637. She blinked and looked at the screen.
In 2011, Cameron Ekstrom, then a senior vice president of business development at Tangerine, was going through a divorce. His wife, Elaine, said she'd had enough, that he neglected her, that he was obsessed with work, and also there were other things going on, things hinted to be far worse than what was stated in filings, but which Elaine would not say because of The Children, because after all Cameron was still The Father. And given this thoughtful treatment, and also because Elaine had quit a reasonably compensated, semi-fulfilling job at Stanford to raise The Children—thus enabling Cameron to jet around the world to close deals for Pierre Roy, who was then very happy with Cameron, so pleased in fact that after one particularly fruitful trip to South Korea, Pierre had shown his approval with an additional $6 million in stock—Elaine deserved half. "But you signed a postnup," Cameron said. Seated across from his soon-to-be ex at Gary Danko, where they'd had their first date. Though he was currently enduring a life event often described in online articles as more stressful than death, Cameron appeared un- aged. He ran a palm over his still full hair. "Please. Let's be reasonable."
"Fuck the postnup," said Elaine, who unfortunately did look older. She speared into her branzino and then pointed the fork at him, white flesh dangling from its tongs. "F--k reason."
The Ekstrom split escalated. There was a screaming match out- side their home in Old Palo Alto: three-year-old Luke rocking on the front lawn with hands over his ears, while seven-year-old Kara, in the den with chocolate ice cream, played clips from Cameron's stash of vintage Japanese slasher films; private investigators on both sides, the possible murder of Cameron's Siamese fighting fish. And then the blow: Cameron's claim of Elaine's cocaine abuse, and the assertion that she'd actually been high during multiple drop- offs at the Zany School, including the morning she'd chaperoned a Porsche SUV filled with preschoolers to the Bay Area Discovery Museum. He had proof, Cameron added. But really, was fighting over such unpleasantries what was best for The Children?
After Elaine lost in arbitration, she showed up drunk to her ex's thirty-ninth birthday dinner at the Village Pub in Woodside. And it was here, exhausted after a protracted negotiation with Unilever, that Cameron lost it.
"I've seen your messages!" he shouted, spittle landing on the head of Leena Das, a Tangerine director seated to his right. Meaning Elaine's messages in her Tangerine email, which was how she communicated with her dealer, who was also apparently her Pilates instructor, so, like, what the f--k? "I also know you meet your dealer at Mitchell Park," he added, his voice growing louder, a tenor Elaine's attorneys would later characterize as menacing. "And all those posts in your sad women's divorce support forum, so just watch who you're calling pathetic..."
It was a lucky guess, Cameron said at first. And then, no, a well-meaning friend, a secret sympathizer. Until finally he was forced to admit that he'd accessed Elaine's records through Tangerine: that he was one of thirty or so executives who possessed "God Mode," which allowed them to see everything—messages, browsing, posting—on the network. And that because of the company's proprietary "heart" button, which by now was ubiquitous across the web, God Mode could track nearly all online activity.
For which users, a reporter asked. As it was still those early days when employees could speak with journalists, when their phones weren't monitored for calls and messages to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal.
"Uh. Well. For every user," Cameron said.
At first, Pierre was pissed by the uproar. He'd already fired Cameron, after all—had lopped off and delivered to the masses their obligatory rich white male head—so why were they still screaming? This is a free service, he kept repeating: one without which many of you would not have your friends, partners, professions, lives. And now you want to complain? Oh, but you don't want terrorists on the site, right, not to mention the pedophiles, the perverts messaging the children you so callously allow online unsupervised. Their privacy isn't a big deal, right? He stewed and raged and then allowed PR to draft him notes for a statement:
We are sorry. We are a good company. We are a learning company. There will be no more God Mode again. Ever. For anyone.
Except that seven years later, Alice was looking at God Mode. Its screen flickered as if it were alive; she stared at it, unbelieving.
Alice looked around. The office was empty apart from a cleaner on the other side of the floor. She returned to the screen. The inter- face was clunky and old, with a single search bar.
She typed: Alice Lu.
Name: Alice Lu Age: 35
Marital status: Single
Member of Tangerine: 1298 days
Frequently visited websites: Reddit, Readingsex, The New York Times
Frequently visited profiles: Jimmy Chiang, Cheri Lu
Last video seen: Homeland Quinn and Carrie Kiss Last search query: Why do farts smell on period
Select here for earlier searches
Select here for activity path
Select here for communications (Tangerine Messenger, Tangerine Mail)
Alice sucked in her breath.
At first, she thought Readingsex was the worst part: she'd been lazily using private browsing to access her erotica, believing it would shield her somehow, even though she knew better. She tried to extinguish her memories of all the stories she'd read on the site, many of which were about terrible things. But as she stared and the text unwound, Alice realized it was actually the rest that was most painful—until presented in aggregate, she hadn't realized how meager the components were that made up her daily life.
After Jimmy, Alice had managed to function during the week- days, but once Saturday morning arrived the same leaden dread would descend that another forty-eight hours now existed before she had a purpose. She hadn't known you could mess up your life like that—that you could make one bad decision, like changing your job for a guy, and have everything go wrong. She didn't know you could make a choice that at the time seemed okay—dating Jimmy— and only at the end learn it was rotten, and waste ten years of your life.
But there was a ringing now, cutting through the low depres- sion that had been her steadfast companion these last months. A sensation not new but nearly lost, an object she'd set down and only now recalled the location of.
Her mouse hovered over the search bar. She hesitated, and then typed: User 555. She chose the first available link, the one that showed the last ten searches.
The screen flashed, populated.
Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.
From IMPOSTOR SYNDROME by Kathy Wang, published by Custom House. Copyright © 2021 by Kathy Wang. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers
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