Five years in, I’d moved up from Client Solutions Analyst to Senior Client Development Manager. I had my own team, now, all men, all my age or younger, doing the kind of client hand-holding I’d done in my first two years. The product kept evolving, and I did too, developing training programs and traveling to client sites and sales meetings. I spent more time in airports than at home.
That was just as well; when I was around too much, Robbie and I tended to get in fights. It wasn’t about anything in particular. We both were under stress, working all hours, never catching up, and having to placate difficult clients even when they were being jerks. When Robbie was anxious about something—a routine that wasn’t working, an update that didn’t ship on schedule, or when some offhand comment kindled his resentment toward the other engineers who had degrees from top schools and deep professional networks—his nerves would grow inflamed.
Whatever got him hot under the collar at work vented through a crack in our relationship, and the results were often scalding. He put a hole in a wall with his fist once, inches from my face. Another time, he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard, leaving behind black and blue tattoos where his fingers and thumbs had pressed hard. Once he lost it so thoroughly he slapped me hard enough to make my ears ring. He apologized after he calmed down, and even cried a little. He swore it wouldn’t happen again, and it didn’t. But I had to ask my cosmetics advisor to recommend a concealer—just a silly accident; she didn’t ask questions—and watch my step on those days when he came home in a mood to avoid setting him off.
Being on the road most days kept our fights to a minimum and absence seemed to make us a happier couple. Sometimes Robbie had flowers sent to my hotel room. I’d text him photos of places I went, and he’d ask about how the pitch had gone, or whether the restaurant I’d tried was nice. He’d remind me to be careful. That’s why we shared our locations on our phones, just in case I got in trouble, a single woman traveling alone. I didn’t need to check on him, I knew where he was: staring at screens in his office or meeting with his DevOps group.
He had moved up in the organization, too, during those five years. He was now the Senior Engineer for Innovation, working directly under Adam Barton and with a team of his own. Robbie had become intrigued by the potential for combining automated language processing with improvements in deepfakes technology to create a tool for web-scale personalized video messages. The idea was that a busy client could record a few minutes of speech that could become the basis for messages that would adapt to whatever a person wanted to hear. Beyond that, he was refining the program to automate engaging in one-on-one conversations using natural-sounding phrases chosen by the algorithm for maximum impact. It would be an engine for highly personalized parasocial intimacy—like ELIZA, but at a far more sophisticated level.
Whenever I told potential clients this new add-on was in the works, they were intrigued. Robbie had hit on the holy grail for our clients: an intelligent bot with a human face.
Exciting times at Eventive HQ. It felt like anything was possible.
On the day things began to change I was taking a walk along the harbor with Aurora. She was uncharacteristically quiet during this monthly get-together, lost in thought, and not good thoughts, by the look of it. It was a blustery day in autumn with gulls complaining as they were sideswiped by the wind, the tink-tink-tink of a flagpole sounding like an uneven metronome. She had asked, routinely, as we set out from the office how I was doing, and I chattered for a while about my work, but ran out of things to say. She wasn’t paying attention, anyway. One of her moods, I assumed. They’d all been dark, lately.
“How about you?” I asked. “How’s work treating you?”
She only shook her head and put up a palm, as if fending it off.
“Is it Adam?” I asked. She didn’t respond. “Or Connie Uys? He gives me the creeps.” She only sighed impatiently.
I scooted in front of her so I could look her in the eye. “Hey. We’re friends. You can talk to me.”
“No. I can’t.” She said it with a surprising amount of energy. It felt like a slap in the face.
She walked on, and I followed. Aurora hunched in her jacket as a gust slammed into us. “No, it’s not okay,” she said, and rubbed her raw cheeks. “But I really can’t.”
I knew she’d been working on something for a big client, one of the special projects that brought in a lot more money than my off-the-shelf applications. “If it’s about a job you’re working on, I signed the same NDA as you. I won’t tell anyone.”
“It isn’t you. It’s…” She watched a gull swoop over us and then down to skim low over the surface of the water. She glanced around. There were a few hardy tourists at the other end of the Harbor Walk, trying to look like they were enjoying themselves, but we were alone. She cocked an eyebrow at me—are you sure about this?—then put her fingers to her lips, reached into her bag, and pulled out a large black billfold. “Never mind,” she said, and then made a show of putting her phone inside it. “I’m just not good company today.” She held it out to me. I followed suit, putting both my work and personal phones into it. She closed the bag up and dropped it into her purse. “It blocks signals. Just a precaution.”
I remembered that weird conversation with Adam Barton. “Got it.”
She sat on a bench, and I sat beside her. “It’s not my project that’s bothering me. Although lord knows, I’m not too happy my work is being used by Bill Gibbons.”
“He’s running for Congress. Not here, in Michigan. He’s a billionaire with fascist tendencies. Adam wants to make nice because Gibbons has connections with all the rich assholes who are looking for a tool to whip up the base by making hate and fear go viral. Us against them, the Blacks. The Commies. You ever notice it’s all the pro-wealth, anti-regulation moneybags who want our services for political campaigns? The good guys keep trotting out hopeful messages and squabble among themselves about the details. They probably would feel morally conflicted about using psyops to rile up American citizens.”
“Psyops? Is that what it is? Maybe it’s just … you, know. Really effective advertising.”
She was shaking her head. “Nope. This isn’t like persuading someone to buy something they don’t need. It’s propaganda at a scale and level of sophistication that’s new. It’s dangerous. I don’t think I can keep doing this.”
That landed like a knife in the chest. I lived for these monthly meetings where I could get advice and laugh and for just an hour let go of all that pressure. But it wasn’t entirely unexpected. She had grown increasingly critical of Adam and his vision for the company. “I’d hate to see you go, but you could totally get a better job tomorrow.”
She laughed. It had a bitter edge to it. “You think?”
“You’re so smart. You know so much.”
“That’s kind of the problem,” she muttered before giving herself a shake. “Anyway, it’s not that. It’s something my dad told me last night.”
“Are they okay, your parents?”
“They’re fine. Just worried. He told me about a situation back home in Nigeria. There’s a general election coming up and one party has hired Global Comm Strategies, LLC to advise them on campaigns for the legislature and presidency. They’re filling local communications channels and social media with toxic garbage and they hired local thugs to attack opponents. Physically. One of my cousins is in the hospital. He was out with friends and got caught up in some political violence. They got him good. He lost an eye.”
“Thing is, Adam founded Global Comm, and Connie Uys is over there right now. He’s the one supervising the thugs.”
“Uh, that’s … I mean, are you sure?”
“Certain. I know my code has been adapted for use in Global Comm products, and I overheard Adam say Connie was heading to Lagos a couple weeks back. Eventive may be Adam’s main gig in public, but he has a handful of companies that are off the radar, including one that works exclusively for the NSA. That’s where the real money is, federal contracts and international dirty work. My dad doesn’t know about this. He would be so ashamed of me. I’m ashamed of me.”
“But you’re not working for this Global Whatsit. You’re just working for a guy who started the company.”
“It’s still his company, and they’re using our software. My code. I’m not sure what to do.”
“Have you talked to Adam?”
“Not yet. I want to have all the facts before I meet with him. He’s a very persuasive man. Every time I raise an issue he finds a way to make it seem totally okay and that I’m just a paranoid Black woman, hyper-sensitive, seeing problems that aren’t there.” She glanced at me with a little smile that had something anxious in it. “Maybe you think that too, given that I walk around with a Faraday pouch in my purse.”
“No. I suspect Adam uses our phones to keep track of us. He doesn’t seem to mind that I know, which is weird.” I told her about the day he called me into his office after I had lunch with a reporter.
“And ever since you’ve been behaving yourself, right? That’s why he told you. It’s a way of exerting control, letting you know you’re under surveillance You’ll watch your step, now. Listen, we need to get our phones out or they might notice. Just don’t go looking up anything about Global Comm or Nigerian elections. Don’t talk about it with anyone. Even Robbie. I need to deal with this myself.”
She shook her head to end the private conversation as she pulled out the pouch. “Mind yourself.” She opened it and handed me my phones. “Sorry I’m in such a crummy mood today, giving you the silent treatment. Not much of a mentor, am I?”
“I should have made an effort. Next month, we’ll focus on your career goals, okay? Damn, it’s cold out here. Let’s get back to work.”
On the way back to the office she began to tell me about some problem she was interested in related to overfitting data in a recurrent neural network. I didn’t understand a word of it, but that’s not what it was for.
“Your girlfriend is in trouble,” Robbie told me one night a few weeks later as we left the office for home. It was a brutally cold night, near midnight, a salty breeze racing down the street, snatching at my scarf.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. She’s making herself unpopular with the boss. You might want to stop having those cozy dates of yours.”
“They’re not dates,” I said automatically. He’d complained about our monthly meetings before. “It’s mentoring.”
“She’ll mentor you right out of the industry if you’re not careful. Seriously, she’s bad news. You should distance yourself.”
“What makes her bad news?”
“She refuses to work on projects she’s assigned to. She badmouths the customers. She takes a high and mighty tone with Adam, and it’s not like she’s god’s gift to programming. I could do what she does for the company and I’d do it faster. She halted a whole project because she decided she didn’t like the training data.”
I knew what that was about. She had told me about getting bad results when running a routine built on a set of data that skewed too white and male, full of raunch and racism. It might not have mattered to the client, but it mattered to her.
“If she wasn’t a minority and female, she’d have been canned long ago,” Robbie went on. “She’s not a team player. You shouldn’t hang out with her, it’ll look bad.”
“It’s just one hour a month.”
“It’ll make me look bad.”
I had to take a deep breath. “I don’t see how,” I said calmly. I knew from experience it would piss Robbie off if I made light of his anxieties, or if I got angry, too.
“She’s toxic. If you’re her friend, Adam will think I’m part of it.”
“He’s a smart man, he wouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
“I’m saying this for your own good. You should avoid her. Cancel those meetings.”
It wasn’t smart, but I couldn’t help myself. “You don’t realize how important they are to me. There’s nobody else I can talk to—well, apart from you, but that’s different. It’s not like there are a lot of women working at Eventive.”
“Girl talk is so important you’ll risk your career? And mine? This is why there aren’t many women working in the field. Everything’s about their feelings. They don’t even try to be part of the company culture.”
I bit my tongue and considered my words. “I get along with my team. The clients like me, mostly. Some of them are jackasses, but whatever. Aurora is fun to talk to, and she does some cool research.”
“Instead of actual work, stuff that benefits the company. Adam has given her way too much leeway to play around doing ‘research’ instead of making a contribution. That’s the thing: if she got canned, nobody would notice. The product wouldn’t suffer. But she acts like she’s in charge.”
“I see what you’re saying. Thanks for clueing me in.”
“Good. We don’t need to run risks. I’m glad you’re going to drop her.”
I wasn’t going to, but I didn’t say so.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Two days before our next meeting was scheduled I was on the phone with a client when I caught sight of her striding toward the elevators, a cardboard box in her arms, closely followed by two burly men in suits and the Englishman with the tablet. I tried to catch her eye, but she was staring straight ahead, a weird little grimace on her face. It was probably supposed to be a smile, but it looked robotic. I made an excuse and got off the phone, but before I could catch up with them, the elevator doors had closed. I went to the front windows and watched as she headed down the sidewalk to her car. She stowed the box in the backseat, adjusted one of the potted plants that was spilling over the side, said a few words to the goons, and drove away.
A rustle of uneasy chatter flowed across the open-plan office as I pressed my palm against the glass. Goodbye, my friend.
There was a lull as everyone paused to stare at their screens, followed by another wave of muttered conversation. I returned to my desk and read the email Adam had just sent. By mutual agreement. Different visions for the company. Grateful for her many contributions. A reminder that any inquiries were to be directed to Bea, our PR liaison. That we had all signed NDAs.
Robbie came out of his office to loom over me as I finished reading the email. He was flushed and triumphant, not bothering to mute his words. “See? I told you.”
“What happened?” I asked in the low-pitched whisper everyone else was using.
“What should have happened a long time ago.” He looked around the room, realizing his voice was pitched at a different volume than the ambient murmur; even though the subtle acoustics dampened his words, he was attracting stares. He jerked his head and I followed him back to the cluster of offices where he worked.
I had rarely been in his workspace at Eventive. It had a weird familiar-but-off vibe. It reminded me of our old house in Maine where we worked together across an old scratched-up dining table picked up from a thrift store. Here, the furniture was nicer but every surface was cluttered with food wrappers and scrunched LaCroix and Red Bull cans. The walls with their whiteboard surfaces were scribbled with equations and spidery flow-charts. The cleaners might have kept the floor swept and the trash can emptied but, just as I had learned in our early days, they must have learned not to touch his stuff.
It was a strange feeling, as if time had folded up, all of our years at Eventive suddenly collapsed and nestled against who we were in Lewiston. Him, a geeky, socially inept college kid with an outsized ego, and me, a high school dropout in love with code, happy among coders. But I hardly recognized my reflection framed in the arched floor-to-ceiling window, a woman who thought nothing of dropping hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes, who spent her time trekking through airports, polishing pitch decks, and training new Client Solutions Analysts.
“She was all upset about some project in Africa,” Robbie said. “It wasn’t even an Eventive operation, but she was yelling at Adam about it. I mean, actually screaming, like a crazy person. Then she got all high and mighty about one of our clients. Like, we’re supposed to dump a client because she personally doesn’t like the guy’s politics? That’s not our job. We write code. We design systems.”
“We change minds,” I said. He frowned at me, confused. “It’s something I say in pitches.”
“Right. I mean, sure, we connect clients with new customers, we help them fine-tune messaging and meet their goals. We’re good at it, but what we do isn’t political, it can’t be. It’s just math, probabilities. Aurora never understood that. She was always going off on these social justice rants. This time, she went too far.”
“What did she do?”
“Gave a whacko speech at a conference, all about how biased tech is, how it discriminates against women and Blacks and shit like that. She didn’t trash Eventive by name, but she didn’t have to. People know where she works. It was all over Twitter. That was the last straw. Though if I were Adam, she’d have been out years ago.”
“Well, whatever happened, I’ll miss her.”
“No you won’t,” Robbie said. “You have me.”
He nudged the office door shut with his foot, put his palms against the whiteboard on either side of me and leaned in for a kiss. A long, deep kiss, as sensual as he’d been in months.
After he pushed away he looked at his hands and laughed. He held them out to show me: a reverse image of the scribbles on the whiteboard wall. Then he grabbed a marker from his desk and studied the places where his hands had blurred his notes. When I told him I had to get back to my work he just nodded absently, already deep into his thoughts.
Instead of going to my desk, I headed for the bathroom where I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth before locking myself in a stall to cry.