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Read runner-up surveillance story The Pinnacle

Have a glimpse on the other end of the line, where the watchers are being watched and getting soaked by overloading data flows

TextRob BenvieIllustrationOrgan Armani

Everyone remembers the morning Kevin announced we’d met SIGIT Par Performance Yield, as it was also the day of the Halloween Costume Bonanza. With about half of fifth floor in costume, and another third or so submitting to facepaint by co-ops, assembled in the Beta Conference Room we looked more like the audience of Let’s Make a Deal than the specialized surveillance personnel we were.

At precisely 1100 hrs. Kevin materialized, as if steamed into presence, flanked by IT assistants in Babylon 5 uniforms. Without fanfare, a PowerPoint came to life. The first slide we all knew intimately: that animated line chart, backgrounded by a vector-image sky peppered with buoyant cumulus, tracing the agency’s growth over the past decade. The x-axis demarcated the last few years’ passage; the y-axis tallied population base. A thick green line rode this plot at a confident slope, ascending into a stratosphere denoting billions.

However, a surprising new line had been added to this slide, blinking cheerily to life in purple, rising interwoven with the green line until both paused above our current year. This line, Kevin explained, traced internal agency growth, reflecting the budgetary expansion three cycles prior. Meaning many, many new hires, in order to meet the output demand of the revised situational awareness mandate. Mostly here in Fort Meade, but with branch offices nationwide and, increasingly, beyond. 

And lots of exciting opportunities to come, Kevin beamed.

What the purple line’s peak represents, subsequent slides elucidate, is the agency’s successful achievement of 1:1. This was the apex, the supreme goal, the pinnacle of intelligence gathering: one agent for every case file. With the reshufflings and reassignments of recent weeks, we’d had vague inklings this was how things were headed. Nonetheless, it was an awesome thing to actually behold: the perfection of surveillance.       


“Received my file yesterday,” Bev said, careful not to get soy sauce on her oversized curly wig. 

“How does it look?” Johnny asked. “And what are you?”

“Merida, from Brave. File’s a young guy in Cleveland, fresh out of business college. Plays a lot of online poker.”

“Got mine too,” Geetika said, muffled through a rubber Frankenstein mask. “Korean housewife in Oxnard. Texts her daughter at UCLA thirty times a day. That kind of relationship can’t be conducive to a healthy ”

Most of us welcomed the new ordinances – sifting through metadata day in day out, while uplifting in its sense of compiled effort, lacked the dynamism of this juicier assignment. 

But as we swapped details of our file cases – withholding names, naturally, us being pros – we couldn’t help but notice how Wallace, a junior analyst with an already sort of melancholic disposition, refrained from sharing. At the food court, at the coffee kiosk, he skirted conversation, even more than usual. He appeared vexed. But when Bev asked, all Wallace would say was he needed to stay focused on signals ops. 

We did a query: his file was a twenty-year-old woman in Phoenix named Jenny Whatmoor, administrative assistant at a capital holdings firm, no elevated risk assessed. 

We were thus befuddled at the aggregate hours and intensity of collection Wallace was devoting to his file: late hours, extended log times, turning down after-work beers. His attention was unwavering; his activity logs were pristine. We were befuddled, yes, but also impressed. 

The new mandate inspired us all to new heights, and depths. It was one thing to sift through Boundless Information GM-PLACE archives; it was something else entirely to patch into this level of intimacy. We tuned in on baby monitors, Xbox flamings, sadomasochistic Skypes. 

It would be no exaggeration to say we began to feel a certain affection for our subjects, acquainted as we were with their routines, their quirks, their correspondences, their dilemmas. Perhaps we knew them better than they knew themselves.

It had been about a month since achieving Par Yield when Wallace stopped showing up to work. This was distressing but, unfortunately, not entirely a shock: the overwhelming volume and density of his reports had only increased, to the extent that Data Admin threatened to put him on pause. While others discussed the upcoming Holiday Fruitcake Fest and the unseasonal gales sweeping our mid-Atlantic region, Wallace had remained fixed to his terminal, tracing traffic cams and phone app activity. Even Quincy, our Managing Director, voiced concerns re: potential burnout.   

Then, one day: Wallace’s absence. No notice provided via internal memo, as was policy given a batch-relevant info gap. Prodded by our collective curiosity, Bev said she’d submit a case query. 

At lunch, we gathered as per usual in the food court, wielding wraps and bibimbaps and bulgur salads. A fidgety tension pervaded the team; we were all finding it increasingly difficult to tear ourselves away from our own monitoring activity. Even as they slept, or endured soul-deadening commutes, or clocked hours mired in workday tedium, our subjects continued to be – and thus necessitated our vigilance. 

Bev arrived, looking as if someone had just socked her in the chops. She sat, peeling apart a Tupperware container of leftover mung dal, and divulged the results of her query: over the weekend, Jenny Whatmoor of Phoenix had leapt from a six-story garage, ending her life. Details were still forthcoming. 

A horrifying thing. A rattling thing. What it meant for the operation, no one knew. We should have predicted such an inevitable data occurrence, but this was our first encounter with this variable under the new mandate. 

Post-lunch we returned to the fifth floor and logged back in to our posts. A lingering overnight systems slowdown had been resolved, resulting in a minor data spike we’d have to push through – we too, of course, were under surveillance. We settled in, headsets on and agency-branded Sigg drink holders at hand. It was going to be a long afternoon.  

Wallace’s cubicle sat empty, the data continuing to flow in.