Volume 32, Number 1

Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History.

Eli Horowitz

I: Arachne

Born and raised in a safe, leafy neighborhood in a big city, Arachne grew up the happiest little white girl there ever was. When she was a baby, her father painted Tom Bombadil’s cabin on her bedroom walls. When she got a little older, her mother sang her to sleep with Joni Mitchell B-sides. After school, she played in her back yard, leaves in her hair and sun-shimmer in her eyes.

At school the kids called her “acne” even though she barely had any, because kids are jerks. But her loving parents bought her a set of watercolor paints, and she mixed her tears into them and turned her sadness into beauty.

Over the years, she was the first of her friends to cut her hair short, the first to smoke a joint, the first to graduate from henna to ink. Her well-paid parents sent her to a small liberal-arts college in a farming state. There, she found pale boys who were willing to sketch her nude but who hesitated to take her hand. She brought them back to her dorm room anyway. Their skin was so smooth and hot. Later, eating grilled-cheese sandwiches she’d cooked using a clothing iron, she tried to put their smoothness and their heat into the lines she made with her brushes.

Despite her unrecognized extracurriculars, Arachne graduated on time. At first, she planned to stay devoted to her art, especially because she knew that her fiscally sound parents would always support her. But after a few years of selling nothing, eating rice and beans and living with four roommates in a two-bedroom apartment in a decidedly unleafy neighborhood, she decided to get serious: she wanted to be an artist, not a failure. So, Arachne decided to get a job.

Her big break came when she won a contest to redesign the logo for Olympian, the company that ran the world’s largest online retail store, owned a high-end grocery chain, provided web services for basically everybody, monopolized video game streaming, ran an online pharmacy and was rumored to have a Mars colonization program in the works. The contest had been announced over social media. Most of the replies had been viciously negative, as the prize was just a summer internship, but Arachne didn’t care. She saw their dinky little two-toned rush job of a logo and knew she could do better.

And she did: her design was dynamic without being busy, classy without being uptight. It suggested divinity that was approachable and excellence that was natural. It won in a landslide.

With the help of her pushover parents, Arachne moved into a swanky apartment downtown, just a few blocks away from Olympian headquarters. The internship was unpaid, but it didn’t matter. She’d gotten her foot in the door, and now it was only a matter of time until everything else fell into place, just as she always knew it would. Even if Olympian didn’t hire her, with their name on her resume someone else was sure to. Until then, she’d just enjoy it.

All of her neighboring buildings were simple geometries in glass and steel, elegant and self-assured. When she moved in, Arachne felt as though she was entering a 1950s advertisement for a bright, new World of Tomorrow. Olympian seemed that way, too—at least, at first. The office bustled with human activity and gleamed with new money. Minerva, the company’s VP of Marketing, met her at the front desk and welcomed her to the company. Minerva had short brown hair and wore white slacks and a dove-gray shirt that shone like chainmail. She was slightly shorter than Arachne but carried herself as though she were ten stories tall. Accepting Minerva’s powerful handshake, Arachne felt shame for the first time for her peasant skirts and her body art.

“Good job with the logo,” Minerva said. “Everyone here was very impressed. You know that I designed the original one, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Arachne lied.

“Good. Well, let me show you to your desk.”

As the two walked past all manner of cubicle shapes and all sizes of meeting rooms, Minerva continued. “I say that everyone loved your design, but naturally we have some constructive feedback for you as well.” She glanced back at Arachne. “I trust that an artist of your caliber can accept constructive feedback.”

Though Arachne’s heart was in her throat, she smiled and nodded. “Definitely,” she said.

But Minerva’s feedback turned out to be less constructive than reconstructive. “The rest of the senior leadership and I have already settled on a direction for the new logo,” she explained when they reached Arachne’s desk. That new direction took Olympian’s existing design and streamlined it, stripping away colors, simplifying the font face and removing all extraneous curls and flourishes. In the end, all they wanted was a one-line sketch of a mountain silhouette and the name of the company in blocky letters.

Arachne listened. She nodded. She folded her hands neatly in her lap. And when Minerva finished and left, Arachne felt a wave of dizziness overtake her.

Something seemed wrong. Minerva had said that everybody loved Arachne’s work. Yet Arachne’s contribution was nothing like the design she was being asked to create. The two had no more in common than a tapestry and a cobweb. For a minute or so, she sat at her desk in a baffled stupor. Then she rallied herself. There must be some mistake, she thought. I’ll just revise my logo to give it some of their feel.

She worked through lunch and barely stopped to drink, and by the end of the day she was lightheaded. But she was happy: she’d done it. She’d taken her original design and reworked it in keeping with Minerva’s instructions. Although a small voice in the back of her mind continued to worry at her, Arachne felt proud of herself for the first time in what felt like a long time. She sent the results to Minerva and went home to her new apartment.

The next morning, Minerva was waiting at Arachne’s desk. “Good morning,” Minerva said before Arachne could sit down. “Do you have five minutes to talk?”

Arachne didn’t understand the question. She’d just arrived, and anyway she was Minerva’s intern. “Of course,” she said with an uncertain smile, “just let me—”

But Minerva didn’t let her. “Now would be better.”

The two of them walked to Minerva’s office, where Arachne sat down, nervously holding her backpack and looking around at her manager’s decor: floating bookshelves full of motivational bestsellers, framed pictures of her children, a cluster of degrees and awards and, oddly, a lute.

“This is your first real work experience, isn’t it?” Minerva asked once she sat down.

“Yes.” Arachne’s voice was so thin that it scared her to hear it.

But Minerva smiled. “I understand. I still remember what my first job was like. It’s a whole different animal, isn’t it?”

Arachne nodded. She couldn’t have said what she’d expected, but Minerva was certainly nothing like her honest parents, her supportive teachers, or anyone else she’d ever met.

“I know that you’re proud of your work as an artist. And you should be,” Minerva continued, her gaze unnervingly steady. “But in the corporate world, we all have to play our role. We can all be shining stars, but we need to shine the right way. Now, you and I both know that you have talent. But it’s important to know what’s right for the business and what isn’t. Right now, I need you to put your talent into executing the team’s vision, which means starting from my logo and not yours. You can do that, can’t you? I know you can. I would hate to have to find a new intern already.”

Arachne wanted to cry. Instead, she nodded.

Her manager stood up and smiled again. “Good! I knew you’d understand. Send me what you’ve got by four, okay? That way we’ll have a little extra time in case we need to make any tweaks.”

Arachne stood as well. “Four,” she said. “Okay.” She tried to smile, but Minerva was already beside her, taking her by the elbow and leading her back to her desk.

Once she was alone, the young woman who had once been the happiest little girl in the world gripped her office chair to stop her hands from shaking. Nothing made sense. Olympian had put hundreds of hours into a logo design contest and had sorted through thousands of submissions. Hers had been the best, and that’s why she’d won. There was even a chance that they’d offer her a job in the end. Why didn’t they want her to do her work? Why did they want her to cough up something so perfunctory that a committee of artless executives could have—in fact, had!—come up with it?

It doesn’t matter, she told herself. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. You can do it, so just do it.

She looked at the clock on her computer. It was eight twenty. By the time she got done with what Minerva asked her to do, it was eight fifty-five. She thought about holding out until four to send it off, but she recoiled at the thought of doing nothing all day.

Out of a fear that she told herself was respect, she waited until ten to send her draft to Minerva, filling the intervening hour by browsing the Internet in a state of dread distraction. Minerva replied at ten thirty: “Great! I’ll have feedback for you later today as discussed.”

The next six hours were the longest of Arachne’s life. With no more assigned work to do, everything felt illicit and wrong. Every idle moment felt like cheating, but with Minerva’s instructions ringing in her ears, every idea felt like a waste of time. When four o’clock finally arrived, all she wanted was an escape. Instead, she waited another miserable ten minutes until Minerva deigned to arrive at her desk, at which point she cheerfully chewed Arachne out for a series of half-imagined and entirely unnoticeable imperfections in the draft she’d sent. “It’s a good start,” she concluded, “but it’s not what I’d call professional quality yet. Maybe,” she added with a cruel and rueful smile, “if you’d given it more time? Try again tomorrow and we’ll touch base in the afternoon.”

By then, Arachne had heard the message loud and clear. You don’t matter. Your work and your ideas don’t matter. You do exactly what I say, no matter how insipid or pointless it may be.

At half past four, Arachne stood up from her desk and shuffled towards the door. She hadn’t known that a human could feel so small. That night, as she sat in her apartment and looked out over the city, she thought to herself, This has to be a fluke. There’s no way that every job is this bad, is there?

II: Prometheus

Just down the hall from where Arachne sits, Theus seethes. He’s seen her, the lily wunderkind. Coming into work dressed like a flower child, talking to the VPs, leaving early. There’s the swish of her dress now, exiting the building at—he checks his watch—four forty-two.

He clenches his jaw. Four forty-two. Inside his chest, a bird unfurls its wings. The bird is made of acid, and whenever it moves its feathers scrape caustic tracks across the inside of his ribcage. Theus is intimately familiar with this creature, this demon. It nests in his guts. It never truly rests. At its most benign, it troubles him just enough to constrict his breathing. At the height of its powers, it reaches up to peck searing holes in his heart and vomit hot bile into his throat.

Medically, he knows that it’s only stress. But he knows how it feels, and it doesn’t feel like stress. Stress is your parents sitting you down at eight years old to tell you that, because of your skin, you’ll have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard to get half of what other people have. Stress is sleeping three hours a night straight through undergrad to your masters’ degree, so you can have a piece of paper that proves how much better you are. The bird is something else.

Oh, it began with stress. He won’t deny that. Last year, Theus almost singlehandedly saved the Flame, Olympian’s most promising new product in years. It was more than just online “fingerprinting,” consumer profiling or facial mapping. It was the world’s first comprehensive identity recognition and tracking software, capable of identifying someone using anything from a credit card statement to the gait in a three-second snippet from a security camera. And he, Theus, was the one who’d brought it into the world, piling up a mountain of unpaid overtime while writing hundreds upon hundreds of lines of new code. He’d fixed his coworkers’ bugs, refactored their redundant functions, cleaned up their classes and then set the whole thing inside a custom machine-learning command structure of his own devising.

When it was finally done, he’d watched the press conference at which the CEO of Olympian, an unnerving, plastic-faced white man named Zoss, presented his achievement to the world. The bird hadn’t settled in Theus’s belly yet. He felt tired, but it was a good tired. He felt even better the next day, when Zoss called him into his office. Theus had worked twice as hard. He’d proven himself to be twice as smart. Now, he imagined, he’d get what Zoss and the rest of them finally had.

Instead, the CEO had only given him a handshake and a gold watch. “We love what you’ve done with our Flame,” he said, “but here at Olympian, we’re always seeking out new challenges. Keep up the good work, Theo. I see a lot of success in your future.”

That was when the bird had hatched.

Theus was in and out of Zoss’s office so fast that, later, he couldn’t even remember what it looked like. He had a vague recollection of oak furniture and he knew there must have been windows, but that was all.

Now, Theus takes the maximum allowable dosage of Venlafaxine, an anti-anxiety medicine. He also takes store-brand antacids whenever he remembers. If Olympian didn’t run random drug tests, he’d take cannabidiol, too. But most of all, he takes coffee. In fact, he thinks, that’s just the thing to get me back on track. He stands up from his desk, snags his thermos, and heads to the kitchen.

All around him, his coworkers are packing up to leave for the day. After he makes it to the kitchen and starts a fresh pot percolating, he looks at his watch: nine minutes after five. Twenty-seven minutes, wasted. Wasted, wasted, wasted. While the coffee burbles, the bird takes his intestine in its beak and pulls on it. Theus swallows hard, then steadies himself on the countertop. When the moment passes, he pours himself his coffee.

Back at his desk, he pops open a bottle of antacids and shakes out two or three of them. From either side of his monitor, his wife and children look at him lovingly as he chews. She’s told him to quit, to find another job. She thinks they can’t raise a family together if he’s at work all the time. He loves her, but he knows she’s wrong. That’s why, instead of going home, he refills his coffee again at six and then seven o’clock. It’s why he’s the last one out of the building, even including the custodial staff. It’s why he only sees the sun on weekends. His kids have to know that you can win even when the game is rigged. Because if you can’t win—if you can’t steal even a little piece of heaven for you and yours while you’re alive, if you just quit—then what’s it all for?

Theus looks at his watch. It’s almost eight. He tells himself he’ll write one more unit test and then leave. Fifty lines of code later, he checks his watch and sees that it’s past nine.

He signs out of his computer and stands up from his chair. This late at night, the office always feels small. He drains the last of his coffee and makes for the door.

For now, the bird is quiet. But, strangely, no matter how badly it hurts him while he’s working, the worst part of his day is always the drive home. In the car, cruising down an empty highway, the doubts creep in. He should never have allowed Olympian to chain him to his desk, far away from the people who are his life. He should kill the bird that’s eating away at his insides before the bird kills him. Hell, he knows what he’s worth. He should’ve told Zoss where to stick his watch.

But the questions only last as long as his commute. When he sees his home, he remembers how much he’s already won: a loving family, a house in the suburbs, a retirement account with more money than his parents ever saw in their whole lives. So what if Zoss is an asshole? Theus can beat him at his own game. He knows it.

By the time he gets inside, the house is mostly dark, the kids are asleep, his wife is upstairs. She left his dinner on the table next to a magazine article about the Flame. As he waits for the microwave, he picks up the magazine and reads, “Olympian’s new product offering is nothing short of pathbreaking. But are there lands where humans ought not tread? If the Flame winds up in the hands of dictators or other amoral actors, it could usher in an era of authoritarian control more extreme and more durable than any heretofore witnessed in human history. Though Olympian’s achievement can’t be denied, one is reminded of Einstein’s remark that, if he had known what would come of his research into the atom, he would have become a watchmaker instead.”

The microwave dings. Theus puts the magazine down, but it’s already too late: the bird is awake again. As he sits down to eat his dinner, he looks at his wrist and has a fleeting moment of clarity. Einstein wasn’t wrong about the atomic bomb, not at all. But a watch can be a weapon, too.

III: Sisyphus

You can learn a lot about a person from what they throw away. Sephus heard that on a TV show once, or maybe it was in a movie. But it’s true. Take that new girl, for instance. She only shops at the fancy grocery stores. Sephus knows because of all the bougie snack wrappers in her trash can. And as for Zoss, well, Sephus won’t even talk about what he finds in that man’s garbage.

Getting to snoop into people’s lives is just about the only good thing about being a janitor—or, as Olympian calls it, a “Custodial Associate.” The other is that Sephus gets to listen to his music while he works. Everything else is as boring as a rock.

Every night, he buzzes himself into the building and goes to his supply closet. He puts on his gloves; they’re bright blue. He checks his spray bottles; the disinfectant is also blue, and the cleaning solution is yellow. He puts a new bag in his trash barrel, forest green and dull gray. Then he sets all of it onto his black plastic cart and gets to work.

He starts down in the lobby, which is easy because he doesn’t do floors, only desks and bathrooms. The ground floor only has a couple of boring receptionists and some fake-fancy public bathrooms that hardly ever get used. It goes by pretty quick.

The further up he goes, the worse it gets. Tech support, on the second floor, is okay. Their cubicles are packed so tight that they can’t get away with much. He doesn’t mind the third floor, either, HR and accounting. Still, you try cleaning up after a hundred people. Even with the best of them, Sephus finds half-full soda cans, wads of sopping tissues, mud on the toilet plungers from the people who flush with their feet.

But it’s the high-salaried floors where things get really bad. Everybody in IT eats at their fancy standing desks, leaving all types of crumbs and smudges for Sephus to scrub at. Once a month, he empties their refrigerators and finds at least half a dozen leftover containers housing mold the color of vomit. One time, some idiot even put a sandwich in his desk drawer and left it there until the flies got to it. Guess who had to clean that up.

Then there’s the supply chain people the next floor up. They’re so bad he had to have HR leave them a note: “As a Courtesy to Everyone, including Visiting Customers, Please Flush the Toilet after you are done!”

Yeah. You learn a lot from cleaning up after people.

By the time he gets all the way up to the executive suites, he’s just about tapped out. Eight straight hours on your feet isn’t easy, plus all the bending and lifting. He doesn’t like to eat or drink too much when he’s working, either, because of the way his gloves get to smelling. So by the end of the night, his body has had enough. But even more than that, it takes a lot to give a shit about people who don’t even seem to give a shit about themselves, let alone you. Sephus has held a cold turd in his hand and had maggots fall onto his shoes, but the most he ever gets is a glazed-over “Thanks,” mostly from that one sad motherfucker who never leaves on time.

The worst of all is the elevator back down to the lobby. It only lasts twenty seconds or so, but that’s all the time it takes for the emptiness and the bitter feelings to press down on him. His job is hopeless. No matter how much work he does in a day, he’ll never really get the place clean, never really do it right. Even if he did, he’d just have to start all over again from nothing the next day. It’s bad enough that he works a job that no one else respects. After everything is over with, when he’s done throwing the trash in the Dumpster, and his gloves are off, and he’s on his way back home, he at least wants to be able to look back and respect himself.

But when he looks forward and sees another day just like the last one, another long, hopeless trudge up through the building pushing his cart ahead of him, he can’t even do that.

IV: Erysichthon

At all of seventeen, Eri doesn’t know the first thing about what it’s like to work for Olympian. She doesn’t know about Arachne, Theus, Sephus, or anyone else who works there. Really, she doesn’t think of the company as having particular human employees at all. To her, it’s just a website where she can buy cheap stuff. Like everyone else in her city, she knows that Olympian has something to do with one of the pillars in the skyline. But she couldn’t tell you which one.

She lives on the outskirts, out where the houses have vinyl siding, the yards are square and green, the streetlights only operate at half-strength, and people think of themselves as normal. Eri’s parents brought her over from Bhutan when she was three months old. By now she tells everyone that they’re from China. Her parents don’t like it, but it’s easier that way, and isn’t that why they emigrated? To find an easier life?

There’s just one hitch: lately, Eri’s life doesn’t feel all that easy. Yes, she’s healthy, well-groomed and popular. Yes, her hair is soft, her teeth are white and she goes to bed with a full belly every night. But the past few years she’s been hungry anyway, and nothing seems to help.

It’s not a bodily thing, this hunger. It’s more like an undertow in her mind, a sourceless pull that takes her back and away from the easy things. And that’s what’s odd, is that Eri only ever tries to make things easier. But somehow she only manages to make them worse.

It started when she asked her parents to buy her a subscription to Olympian Protos for her fifteenth birthday. At first they told her no. How could she be sure of what she was getting if she couldn’t touch it, weigh it, hold it up to the light? But she was smart. She added up all the benefits of Protos—the free shipping, the streaming music, the discounts on eBooks and streaming video—and convinced her parents that it was the economical thing to do.

At first, it was fine. She paid less for shipping, listened to more music, and, every now and then, curled up with the eReader she bought for herself so that she could take advantage of the free eBooks. But she didn’t stop there. When Olympian announced that Protos members were eligible for a discount on a new try-before-you-buy clothing subscription service, Eri signed up. Soon she had a steady stream of new blouses, dresses, pants and jumpsuits arriving at her parents’ house, every one of which made her realize how bland her current wardrobe was. In short order, the next scheduled shipment became the most important thing in her life.

Her parents told her to stop. They pointed out that her old clothes were in perfectly good condition and that she’d never complained before. But it didn’t work. Olympian had awoken her appetite.

Eri got an after-school job to pay for all her new clothes, and with the money that was left over, she bought even more. After all, isn’t that what money is for? Plus, shopping was the only thing that dulled the hunger.

When the next generation of video game systems came out, Eri got one just because of the great deal she got through Protos. She’d never been a gamer before, but she was excited to try it out. So she bought a handful of blockbuster titles, acquired the requisite peripherals, and promptly discovered that she didn’t care for it at all.

With her console collecting dust and her hunger growing again, she turned to the next thing. Through Protos, Olympian was offering a discount on cutting-edge smartphones. All Eri had to do was allow them to display ads on her lock screen. So she traded in her old phone for the latest model, and within days the ads were all she could think about. She wanted to try both the meal kits and the kitchen gadgets; she wanted a new camera and a bigger TV; she even thought about buying a car.

But every time one of those smiling boxes arrived in the mail, she had the urge to spend just a little more, to grab just a little bit tighter, to consume and consume until there was nothing left. By this point, her parents looked at her like she was some alien creature. They talked openly about whether it had been a mistake to emigrate, whether they’d be better off back in Bhutan. “Eri,” they told her in their pained Dzongkha, standing in her room amid piles of unused fitness equipment and discarded beauty products, “these things aren’t making you happy. Your studies are suffering. Your friendships are lapsing. And for what? Just so you can do what that little screen tells you to do?”

Eri didn’t listen, because it was obvious that they didn’t understand. It wasn’t just a screen. It was Olympian. She may not have been able to pick out the company’s headquarters from the skyline, but she wasn’t totally ignorant. Everyone bowed before Olympian. Half the kids in her school dreamt of landing a job there, and all of them had Protos. Mayors across the country fell over themselves to convince the company to build just one office in their cities. Its executives appeared on the news with heads of state, athletes, and movie stars.

Eri knew that money hadn’t bought her happiness. After a couple years of living through Protos, she knew she was hungrier than she’d ever been and that there was no end in sight. Sometimes when she sent her money to Olympian, it felt more like an obeisance than a purchase, like it was all just one burnt offering after another, the charred scent inflaming her appetite while Olympian fed and fed. Still, she had to believe. If freedom wasn’t free, as her neighbors told her, then maybe it wasn’t easy to reach the easy life. But what was the big deal? Wasn’t it a good thing when corporations were described as “hungry”?

As far as Eri knew, Olympian was everything that was right with the world: an innovator; a job creator; a market leader; a beacon of wealth, power, and efficiency. If her devotion gave her nothing else, it allowed her to be a participant, however minor, in the commercial system that made her country great. Her parents wanted something else for her, but they were the ones who chose America in the first place, and America had worked hard so that companies like Olympian could thrive.

So maybe she didn’t know how the pieces fit together or when she would be rewarded for her faithful devotion to the Olympian brand and the American way of life. But there had to be a good reason for everyone to play along. It all had to be for something. Didn’t it?