Free at last Franz made his way towards Building “C” – although not without looking over his shoulder a couple times to make sure Ted wasn’t following him. Paranoid, maybe.
Entering the lobby, he turned left into a short hallway with staff locker rooms and a break room for contractors. He pushed open the parking garage stairway door and went down the stairs. Once in the garage, Franz made a quick 180 into an easy to overlook nook, knocked on an unmarked door and waited.
The door buzzed open. “You’re late.” said Pete appearing suddenly behind the counter. “They check our inventory every day and I really don’t want them to find anything missing on my watch!”
Pete Snyder was one of Franz’s first company friends. He’d messaged right after seeing Franz’s new hire write-up in the company blog. Pete had great memories of the semester abroad he spent at Ars Electronica in Linz. So he was excited to meet the new guy from Austria.
Pete offered to show Franz some of the great places still left in the Mission – the neighborhood was gentrifying so fast that even Pete, resident for all of 23-months, talked wishfully about the old days. It was only after a couple evenings out together that Pete mentioned security. His department handled all the typical tasks like passwords, authorizations, firewalls, and back-ups, but wasn’t above going on the offense when necessary.
Pete mostly did white hat work hacking the company’s security systems looking for vulnerabilities before the bad guys found them. But they all took turns monitoring the company’s security tech tools – which is why he was behind the counter this morning.
“Sorry Pete,” Franz said handing over the voice mod device. “Pam and I had a late dinner, and I missed the early bus.”
“OK, but be careful, you really don’t want these guys on your case!” counseled Pete before adding, “Hey, by the way, none of my business of course, but are you getting serious with her?”
“Well, we’re talking about moving in together, so I guess that means, yes.”
“Hmm. You know I asked her what she did a couple weeks ago when we all had dinner at Seven Stills. Her answer sounded as phony as the one I use. Is she in security too? You do know her company does security, right?”
“Yeah, I knew that,” Franz replied, “But Pam never wants to talk much about work. I’ve always thought that was healthy.”
“Sure, but, as we say in security, you should always know who you’re dealing, or in your case, sleeping, with.”
He hadn’t imagined Pam working security – she didn’t seem the type. And, of course, it hadn’t really mattered. But now he wondered. There’d been an awful lot of coincidences lately. Thinking it might be good to talk things over with someone who knew the business, Franz asked suddenly, “Hey, have time for a lunchtime run?”
“Sure. 12:30 by the volleyball court.” replied Pete as he turned away quickly, slid his ID over the door lock and entered the secure storage area.
There was a double seat free on the right side, perfect for watching people on the sidewalks as the bus made its way down Columbus and also being on the shady side once they were on the freeway. Passing City Lights his phone dinged. Damn, he thought he was muted – bus protocol was everyone muted – otherwise it’d be like an Arnold Schoenberg concert.
It was a Signal message from Andrea. He should have expected it, but their second to last conversation hadn’t been warm and fuzzy. And after sleeping on it he wasn’t sure about last night’s either. Of course, he’d been surprised it was her answering the hotline, but more to the point he wondered whether his message wasn’t a bit over dramatic. Sure, it was weird people at work were asking about his “Vienna pals,” but did that merit a breathless warning without a friendly word to his Ex? And, of course, even with the voice mod she recognized him.
Thanks for the heads-up. Some weird stuff went down but we’re OK. Talk soon.
Talk soon? That was about the last thing he expected to hear from Andrea.
“Hey, can I sit with you?” Franz’s head jerked up to see Ted, the guy who’d been asking questions standing in the aisle looking at him as the bus pulled out and headed over the Caltrain tracks for I-280.
“Of course,” Franz replied moving his backpack and brushing away focaccia crumbs, “Please.” Bus etiquette was that you never said “no” when asked if the empty seat next to you was free, but pretty much nobody liked giving up the space.
“Thanks! I usually don’t take this bus, but I was staying with my boyfriend last night and thought I’d check it out,” explained Ted before Franz had a chance to wonder.
“Nice meeting you the other day.” Ted continued, as though his visit had been purely social, “And hey, my friend and I were talking last night about visiting Prague and Budapest next summer with a break in Vienna on the way, so it’s great seeing you now – do you have time to give me some tips?”
It bothered Franz that Vienna was always the place his Bay Area friends passed through on their way someplace cool like Berlin, Prague, or Budapest. On the other hand, they had a point, Vienna was a wonderful city, but it was far behind cities like Copenhagen in cycling or Paris in creating 15-minute neighborhoods – in short, building a city attractive to the young people who’ll be pivotal in the future economy.
“Sure, no problem!” Franz replied, happy Ted wouldn’t continue his earlier line of questioning. “Vienna’s great and you’ll have a fantastic time. It’s only four hours from Prague and three from Budapest – with excellent train service so it’s a perfect stopover.”
“Nice. Do you have any secret tips? Maybe cool places where tech folks hang-out?”
That sounded odd. Most tech folks tried to get as far away from work when they vacationed, or at least that’s what they said. What was Ted up to? But Franz had no problem filling the 45-minute drive down the peninsula with tourist recommendations and trendy places to eat and drink, after all, how many summers had he spent dressed as Mozart selling concert tickets on Stephansplatz?
As they were getting off the bus Ted asked, “Thanks man, wanna get a coffee? I’ll buy.” It was funny, the company did charge for coffee, but it was so cheap it was essentially free. They did it as a way of encouraging their employees to build relationships by buying each other coffees. Brave new world.
“Sorry, can’t. I’ve got an appointment I should have kept 10-minutes ago.”
Franz rolled over and said sleepily, “Hey, you’re up early.”
“Yeah. Work thing. Couldn’t sleep,” replied Pam.
There was an edge to her voice, but then she asked sweetly, “Would you like a coffee hun?”
Hard to say. Pam had to be the only person in San Francisco who drank instant. Honestly, he wondered where she could even find it. But you take the good with the bad in any relationship. “Sure!” he replied with an enthusiasm that surprised even him.
Pam worked for one of those companies handling stuff big Silicon Valley firms didn’t deal with like cleaning and catering. In Pam’s case it was less clear exactly what services her company provided, and Franz didn’t press it. They’d met at a club and her work hadn’t seemed important at the time.
Handing him a mug Pam said, “Gotta get into the office pronto. Just let yourself out.” They’d talked about his moving in but it hadn’t happened yet. To Franz Pam’s place on Russian Hill – with a view of the Bay, no less – was almost as attractive as Pam. He’d certainly learned the San Francisco apartment – relationship dance quickly.
After showering and dressing – he did have some closet space, that was a start – Franz headed out into the cool gray morning. Down the hill to Washington Square. First stop, Mario’s for a real coffee. Then, across the street to catch the company bus.
The bus part had shocked his parents. Of course, public transport for them was good – it was good everywhere in Vienna, but they couldn’t imagine their successful son now working for a famous computer company in California not driving a big American car! It didn’t matter how often he told them the company buses were much more luxurious than the 26A – and the traffic was even worse than the Tangent!
“You again!” laughed Angela from behind the bar as he pushed open the door.
“Yeah, I need a double cappuccino bad!” he replied, “And could you toast some focaccia for me?” pushing his luck.
“Sure, lover boy” she teased. Last night Franz had stormed in, asked for quarters and hurried into the back looking nervously over his shoulder. Angela thought he was calling some girl on the pay phone because he didn’t want Pam to find out. Sandy had a bad feeling about Pam. Maybe Franz had mentioned the Nescafe?
But later she’d seen them walk by holding hands and laughing, so what did she know? She was just a bartender.
“Man, this coffee is good,” Franz said.
“Graffeo, nothing but the best here,” replied Angela, who, although she came from Trieste, had to admit it really was pretty good coffee.
She remembered when Franz first stopped-in, a year or so ago. He’d just found a room to share on Green Street and ordered coffee. Angela wasn’t happy with how the neighborhood had changed since tech took over San Francisco. But Franz was different from most of them. He really appreciated good food, spoke a little Italian from school and family vacations in San Marino, and knew Trieste, which he always referred to as “part of the empire.” OK, he was mostly fine.
“Mama mia! I need to run if I’m going to make the 8:30 bus,” said Franz as he plunked 13 quarters and a fiver on the bar. “Ciao Angela!”
Suddenly five very big guys were in the room and a short guy was asking who’s in charge.
Andrea started to explain they were a team, no one was in charge, they made decisions collectively.
“Don’t give me that commie BS little lady!” said the short guy.
“Hey squid brain” said Maria, “Lay off the tough talk. What do you want?” Heads turned; this was a side of Maria they hadn’t seen before.
“OK, since you asked so politely” replied the short guy, who did kind of look like a squid, “We’re here for your physical networking app. You can sell it to us – Sand Hill Road will pay big bucks – or we’ll just take your laptops and blow town before the coppers know what hit’em.”
They looked at each other – did people really talk like that in San Francisco? But there wasn’t time for an anthropological discussion.
“Yeah, and just how do you plan to steal our idea? It’s in our heads, you can take our laptops, but we’ll just develop it anyway,” said Andrea, before realizing exactly what she’d implied.
“So, little Miss Marxist has some big plans,” – they would have laughed if Arnold Schwarzenegger had said it in a movie – “but naturally doesn’t know how venture capital firms work in the real world.”
“No, please elucidate us – if you know what that means, Mister mini von Hayek” answered Maria.
“We got lawyers. Once they get their hands on code it’s as good as ours. We patent it and sue your behinds if you try to use it. But, like I said, if you want to sell …”
Suddenly, a flash filled the room. A guy with a camera and a woman filming with her handy rushed in.
“We’re from the Falter, and we’re doing a story on the app these folks are building. Who are you guys?” asked the reporter.
“It’s not important Miss Newspaper-lady,” answered, naturally, the short guy, “Our clients will be happy to buy your poor excuse for a newspaper. People don’t usually turn ‘em down.”
“Not likely Mister moneybags, our paper’s committed to making the world better, one story a time. I’m sure your clients will love seeing your pictures on the front page of next week’s edition. Who did you say they were again?”
“It’s not important. We were just leaving,” replied the muscular one, pushing the short guy out the door as the others dashed out.
“Smile for the camera boys” added Maria. Maria!
Francesco walked in. “It sounded like you might need some back-up, so I called the Falter restaurant critic, who was here last week for a review, and asked if they’d be interested in the story. He said the Falter-Morgen people were just wrapping-up and he’d pitch it.”
“Yeah, it sounded like something we’d like, especially when Florian mentioned the coffee,” said the reporter.
They had a lot of work to do, now they’d be competing directly with Sand Hill Road VC mercenary coders – the best of the bunch – but they had a head start, and maybe a Falter story would help them get a grant for the new work.
“We better get out of here,” continued Pat, stating the obvious.
Andrea said coolly, “OK, let’s go to Mercato and set-up in the back room. Francesco’s there early and we’ve got a couple hours before he opens for lunch.”
And I can finally get some good coffee, she thought before continuing, “Philipp and I were talking about our time problem last night. We have an idea, and if we can code it before they find us, we’ll be safe.”
There was never hesitation when Mercato came up, but this time – laptops were slammed shut, power cables stuffed into backpacks, and out the door – before Andrea even finished describing the plan! They surprised Francesco, but he liked those bambini pazzi and quickly agreed.
Philipp explained, “You know how Sibel says the biggest problem in the Speckgürtel is that people need to drive everywhere. So, cities build more roads, and then people need to drive even more. They wind up spending all their time in cars.”
“Yeah, but now planners are talking about 15-minute cities – just like central Vienna – where you don’t have to drive everywhere,” interrupted Sibel.
“Of course, and our app will help people create the communities needed to make 15-minute cities work – the social infrastructure so to speak,” Philipp said as Francesco walked in carrying a tray of espressi.
“But there’s always going to be longer trips, how does that work?” interrupted Maria.
Meanwhile, back at the bunker … “They must have just left, I still smell coffee,” said a guy whose muscles were too big even for his XXL suit.
“Yeah, I found some over here, but it’s really bad,” came a voice from the corner. Apparently even the hired muscle in San Francisco were coffee critics, “I wonder where they went?”
“Hey, wait!” interrupted muscle man, “Remember that bike we were chasing? I saw it chained-up in front of a café we passed on our way here.”
“Let’s roll!” said the small one.
Gulping down his espresso Philipp continued, “We’ll make long trips easier by making public transport trips faster, not simply speeding up buses and trams, but by giving people more control over their time. Planning today isn’t just a spatial problem, it’s a time problem. Speckgürtel living combined with social networking is a vicious circle, people just don’t have time for physical community anymore – and the Metaverse dials that up to 11.”
Andrea piped in, “So our idea is to develop a feature people can use to coordinate their activities with public transport. In other words, the bus gets you to the dentist’s office at 10:30 so you get an appointment at 10:30. It doesn’t matter to the dentist who’s first, so appointments can be moved-around in real time to make it easiest for everyone to complete all their far-away activities using public transport.”
“It’s an interesting idea, but it’s going to need a lot of coding and data,” said Adrian.
“Ja, natürlich. And it will also only work if people have flexible schedules, but I think things like working from home and online yoga during Covid have finally proved we don’t need to be locked-into a fixed place-time world anymore. The future belongs to the 15-minute city – with our app making it easy to use public transport for longer trips.”
“Ushering in a new age of Gemeindebau – places where people have time to know their neighbours and solve problems together – making city-life more attractive than the Speckgürtel,” added Sibel.
Suddenly they heard Francesco saying the café wasn’t open until 11:30, but the voices sounded like they weren’t there for the pasta.
“OMG, someone thinks we’re a threat to the Metaverse,” Adrian exclaimed.
“And they don’t like it,” added Pat, probably unnecessarily given they were hiding in an underground bunker.
“What do you mean Adrian?” asked Sibel.
“Well, probably you’ve heard about the Metaverse, it’s been in the news lately. The Metaverse is an immersive computer world like ‘The Matrix’ where people no longer interact physically, but only through an artificial interface like VR. In other words, social networks attacking more of our senses. And Facebook’s just decided to spend 10 billion dollars building it. Wow Andrea, did Facebook try to buy us?”
“NaJa, he didn’t mention names. But he did ask a lot about our app’s physical world connections. And, like I said, he didn’t sound serious. I planned to mention it next time we went for beers. Sorry.”
“I don’t get how our app is any threat to the Metaverse,” said Maria.
It was Sibel’s turn to surprise them, “Don’t you see, our app is designed to encourage physical interaction, the Metaverse is designed to replace physical interaction. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but that’s what it does.”
“Look how the Lobau activists have been using the demo app to spark real conversations about Donaustadt’s future – instead of just stoking social media flame wars.”
“And when people put down their phones, sit around and talk, they might find they have more in common than they think” added Adrian, “They might even decide they like the physical world better than the online world, which wouldn’t be so good for the Metaverse.”
“What a funny coincidence” Philipp interjected, “automobiles made it possible for people to abandon cities, places where they had to live and solve problems together – like in the Gemeindebau – and now digital technologies are turbocharging that separation. It’s ironic the activists are using our app to fight freeways – the original separator.”
“Yeah, but Lobau’s not really about roads and freeways, it’s about how we want to live in the 21st Century. Vienna’s doing a great job with its planning and climate programs, but just building a better suburbia in the Donaustadt isn’t going to solve the climate crisis or help make Vienna resilient to coming challenges,” Sibel really talked like a professor sometimes, “Our app, by helping people work together to create high density urban places – like central Vienna, not the Speckgürtel – would not only provide design input, but help build the social ties needed to make these new districts work.”
“Sounds like a digital Gemeindebau” Andrea mumbled.
“OK, I get it, but we’re no threat to big mainstream social networks. And our app isn’t even finished.” said Maria.
Pat’s phone buzzed. “Sarah from Senderkeller says she saw a bunch of big guys nosing around my Red Herring Keller, but they’re leaving now. I asked her to keep an eye out.” Pat had a nose for wine as well as security, Sarah and Peter made some of Vienna’s best Gruner Veltliner and their Heurigen was famous for its fantastic organic food.
“Where will they go next?” Andrea wondered out loud.
“Well, they could have found me from my Radlobby work with the Lobau activists.” Philipp said, “So that explains why they were in front of my apartment. And our name’s on the door at cowork.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Pat, “My office is upstairs, and the address is on our contact list. The Red Herring Keller threw them off, but they’re probably heading here now. And, since they’re pros they’ll surely find the bunker. Given the traffic they’ll probably be here in 30 minutes or so.”