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Was that a snore? Sebastian’s attention was suddenly disrupted by the unmistakable pattern of heavy breathing. He slowly swiveled his head leftward to check on his teammate, Ned P, whose desk was across the aisle from his in the same cubicle cluster. Behind Ned was a half-empty box of Dunkin Donuts and a trail of rainbow colored sprinkles leading directly from the carton to the base of Ned’s chair.  


-Hey dude, maybe call it a day?


Sebastian tenderly tapped his colleague on the shoulder. Ned suddenly jumped upright and began apologizing profusely.


-It’s totally fine, it’s been a super long week.


They both laughed and Ned breathed a sigh of relief. Of course Sebastian couldn’t get too angry, he was the one responsible for calling Ned in to work extra shifts at crazy hours that weekend. Sebastian also was semi-responsible for the sugar coma. He had grabbed the donuts from the cafeteria downstairs at the start of their watch to ‘rally the troops’. Sebastian may not have had the authority to give out raises or bonuses, but he could boost morale with cream-filled delights.


Everyone loves a frosted donut. 


It was an early Sunday morning in the first week of November. By this point in Sebastian’s career he had worked his way up the ranks in the Agency to become a team lead overseeing seven other analysts, the rest of whom were currently sleeping in anticipation of covering the next shift. 


Sebastian had mixed feelings about being promoted. He enjoyed spending more time mentoring his teammates, taking the lessons that he had learned over a decade of being an analyst to teach others. The extra money that he was making now as a GS-14 was also nice. Finally he was able to make serious progress towards saving for buying his first house with Avery. 


What Sebastian didn’t enjoy was the pretense associated with moving upward. In general the higher up the chain of command people traveled, the bigger their egos grew. It was a complete turnoff. People’s focus fell further away from the mission, from trying to keep people safe, toward convincing others of how important they were and competing for more control of resources and people’s time. 


Sebastian viewed performance management at the Agency as a catch-22. It seemed more often than not that the people who wanted power the most were the people who deserved it the least, yet those were the people who got ahead. Analysts who stayed singularly focused on mission would fall behind their class of peers in making it to the next grade. There was a common saying on the vault floor: ‘shit floats to the top’. That was a smoothie that Sebastian didn’t particularly savor drinking.


Sebastian thought frequently about this issue of how to empower real talent to rise and he realized that it wasn’t just a problem at the Agency. It was societal. The leaders who get promoted in any organization, including those we elect in a democracy to govern us, are those who are skilled in the art of self-promotion, not necessarily those who would be best skilled to do the job. 


There had to be a different way. Maybe the philosopher John Rawls who Sebastian had learned about in college was onto something with his idea for using a ‘veil of ignorance’ for determining who's in charge.


The idea goes like this: in order to design a fairer society, individuals should imagine themselves behind a metaphorical ‘veil’ that hides their own characteristics, like their wealth, popularity, and personal preferences. From this position of ‘ignorance’ about their own place in society, people can make fairer decisions about who should lead and what the rules are that everyone should follow.


But who was Sebastian to even be thinking about such things? Despite his promotion, he was still a peon, a cog in a great bureaucratic machine, a mere lead analyst who only helped delegate the team’s workload and shepherded other analysts toward finding answers to the seemingly impossible questions that policymakers would throw at them. He didn’t have any significant authority or power. There were about a dozen layers of management between him and the Director. 


For the record, Sebastian wasn’t bitter about his own circumstance. He loved his boss and showed up to work every day humbled to even have the opportunity to walk in the building. It was the honor of his life. He just wished that he could fully focus on the job, on keeping people safe, not on engaging in sycophancy to make himself promotable. 


Sebastian had decided early on in his career that he wouldn’t try to compete in the rat race. He simply wanted to learn more about the world and share with others what he discovered. He wasn’t here for external validation. One of his favorite parts of the job was the fact that outside the Agency he couldn’t tell anyone what he did. He found value intrinsically in his work. He had achieved a sense of inner fame.


After shift Sebastian would go home and watch the news and see the fruits of his labor. Nobody knew that he was the author behind some of the headlines. He knew how he had helped warn of danger to keep people safe and that was all that mattered. That was his life’s purpose. With every analysis he synthesized, each report he published, all of the briefings to leadership he delivered he felt whole inside.


As Sebastian’s sagging eyes returned to the wall of monitors at his desk, Ned packed up his belongings to head home. What Sebastian couldn’t say to Ned was that he was exhausted too. He had only slept five hours during the whole weekend. Sleep was something that Sebastian had sacrificed regularly since joining the Agency. 


There was this thing happening in some place on the other side of the world. It was two days before the election. A body of reporting suggested that an attack would occur. SecDef was asking for regular updates. Sebastian figured he’d have plenty of time to catch up on sleep when he was dead; in this life, others were depending on his help now.


–The fate of the western world is in your hands man. Catch ya later.


Ned departed and now Sebastian was the only person left in the vault. Someone had to stand guard. He didn’t mind finishing the shift by himself. It gave him the chance to think more clearly, to focus.


Sebastian put on his headphones, unlocked his workstation, and resumed the task at hand.


Across oceans and deserts, over rivers and mountains, through borders and storms Sebastian flew going forwards and backwards in time. There was no place on Earth beyond his reach. Alone at his desk in the dark peeking down from the heavens he was God watching all of humankind.


Except Sebastian didn’t feel like God. He felt scared. Maybe God got scared sometimes too, but Sebastian suspected that probably wasn’t the case. It wasn’t just snoozing colleagues and concerns about promotion cycles breaking his attention. The uncertainty of the potential attack and of what would happen after the election was triggering an avalanche of unsettling memories.  


Images of the civil unrest that he and Avery had endured over the past decade played on an endless loop in Sebastian’s mind, while imagery of current world events played on the glowing screens before his eyes.


Sebastian had been on shift during the evening of the 2016 election when it all began.


Across the vault, screens were tuned into various news channels from all ends of the political spectrum. As the votes were tallied, Sebastian’s distress grew. There was a clear divide in the room that reflected the same divide across America. The moment that the projected winner was called, some analysts stood up from their chairs to clap and cheer. Others wept. 


Until this night, Sebastian and his coworkers never had talked about politics in the office. There were strict rules in place to ensure that the Agency remained an unbiased institution of the public’s trust. Political neutrality was essential to the success of their mission to inform America’s leaders of danger abroad, delivering intelligence that was factual and not oriented to advance an agenda or manipulate public opinion. History had repeatedly shown that politicizing intelligence was a really bad idea. Think of the Stasi, or the KGB, or the Gestapo.


After the election was over, life in the vault went back to normal and it was business as usual. Whatever feelings Sebastian and his colleagues had about the domestic political situation were kept out of the office; they were professionals.


It was a different story back at home where there was no hiding from the deteriorating political climate. From the living room window of their third-story walk-up apartment in DC, Sebastian and Avery watched social order in the capital city start to collapse.


First came the protests. Then the riots. Cars were burned in the streets. Helicopters patrolled from overhead by day and by night. There were curfews. Finally the insurrection occurred. Sebastian had friends working in the Capitol the day that it happened who had to barricade themselves in their offices using their desks as blockades to prevent the intruders from breaking down their locked doors.  


These were scenes that Sebastian had previously only observed at work, where he had watched coups and civil wars break out in developing countries. It was as if he had been pulled into the imagery he was analyzing, transported to the very far-flung foreign lands that he was responsible for monitoring.


How could this be happening in the United States of America, the world’s most powerful nation?


To make matters worse, attacks against the community that Sebastian and Avery were a part of were growing, accusations of a ‘deep state’, a belief that there was a conspiracy deeply rooted within the government and public institutions like the one where Sebastian worked to ruin the country that Sebastian loved, that he was trying to protect.  


Sebastian thought of nappy Ned and his sprinkle trail and how ridiculous the idea of a deep state was. Prior to joining the Agency, Ned had completed 20 years of active duty service in the Marines. He had served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and watched several of his friends die in combat. His three kids were currently in college and he took the job at the Agency to help support them financially. This was the supposed monster trying to drive America into the ground, the real deep state. 


A few days earlier Avery had approached Sebastian to confide in him that it might be time for them to consider an exit strategy. Together they sat on the couch drinking wine while role playing alternatives and searching LinkedIn for new jobs. Having both lived on the east coast their entire lives, they fantasized about moving west, somewhere close to the beach and mountains where they could go hiking, and skiing, and maybe even take up surfing lessons, where they would be safe away from DC, which was devolving. 


As beautiful of a dream as it was, they slowly became aware that it was a paradise lost for them both. No one would hire them when they couldn’t talk about their experience as spooks– everything they had ever worked on was highly classified– and the niche skills in espionage that they had learned were completely untransferable in the private sector.


They were trapped.  


Upon jointly coming to this realization, Sebastian served Avery and himself a second glass of Bordeaux to calm their nerves. Then they twisted themselves into a pretzel, holding each other as tightly as they each could cocooned under a fleece blanket and fell asleep. When Sebastian and Avery embraced, it was truly the only time that either of them ever felt at complete peace. If the apocalypse were around the corner, at least they could ride it out together and be there for each other at the end.


Sebastian swigged a giant mouthful of coffee. Feeds of data from all different sources chirped and flashed. He was on a quest to find something very specific, searching for a needle in a global haystack that would reveal that preparations for the attack were underway.


-Oh my God.


Sebastian did a triple-take of what had just appeared on his monitor to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating. His jaw dropped. His heart rate accelerated. His breathing momentarily ceased.




It was the money shot of what he feared he might see and Sebastian was the only person in the entire US government who knew how screwed they all were.


Sebastian tore off his headphones, jumped up from his workstation, and ran over to the secure video teleconferencing room. He had a call to make.




-I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.


So help me God.

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