The magazine’s release had attracted its share of attention beyond the Hearst Tower. Rumours began to circulate. It’s in legal limbo between two publishers. The editors got walked out by security. The surviving members of Wikileaks are operating it from the shadows. A contract flaw gives it a year of total editorial freedom. The new managing editor just got out of a psych ward.
Virtually anyone who might have an interest had called, e-mailed, or sent some emissary to the office. In under twenty-four hours the magazine had gone from a secret to a headline. If the cover of the first issue was an appeal to ego, its contents were a challenge to intellect and status quo. Beginning with a ruthless editorial from Fraction and Walker on the state of modern news media, the magazine shone a light on the digestion and perpetuation of narratives in the Western world. It was a strange thing to try and sell in the form of a magazine, but it had been constructed it in such a fashion that it actually felt accessible. One of their primary editorial edicts had been to ensure that as big and challenging as the ideas put forth were, they should have just the thinnest coating of sugar. That was all they needed to bring people in; the content did the rest.
Ash had given the office’s receptionist the day off so she could personally handle any outside inquiries. Her task for the day consisted of responding to any and all communiques from parties both hostile and inquisitive. Since the former would elect to convey their concerns with litigation, it was the latter whose calls and e-mails were subject to a Subvertiser-grade bullshit endurance test. The insincere promise of sympathetic articles convinced lobbyists to perform lengthy (and frankly unconvincing) phone sex. Politicians hoping to be profiled by the magazine (and have its credibility rub off on them) had their e-mails returned to them, the body text refashioned into the shape of a hand flipping the bird. One reporter for the New York Times spent half an hour on the phone as Ash pretended to be a labyrinthine automated menu without end. She was still stringing him along when Esra arrived.
“For a receptionist who speaks Swahili, press two, click your tongue, and then press the pound key. For a receptionist who speaks advanced Swahili, press pound, click your tongue, and then press two. For additional languages, please register your exasperation with this process. For a receptionist who speaks English, please say ‘English’.”
Believing he might finally get to speak to a human and still too stupid or eager to realize he was being jerked around, the man said “English” with relief. Esra looked on from in front of the desk, uneasy seeing the boys’ influence at work.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t understand your tongue click. Goodbye,” Ash said pleasantly as she hung up. She turned her full attention to Esra, greeting her happily.
“Esra Dawson, right? I may have blackmailed some information out of the boys.”
“And you believed them,” Esra noted, implying naivety.
“They’ve given me way too much power to think lying to me is a good idea. So-- you were their lawyer? What’s that do to your blood pressure?”
“It’s charming until you realize they’re basically sociopaths,” Esra said with a tart smile.
“…probably, but I have worked for less entertaining sociopaths.”
“Where are they?”
Ash checked the time.
“Right now? Television.”
Fraction and Walker sat in the studios of a cable news network, a camera set upon them for a live interview that hadn’t yet begun. Nearby, a screen reproduced them at 24 frames per second with news and stock tickers layered below. The Dow was up. A reality television star flaunted her “revenge body”. Key members of an alleged hacker group had been arrested. Boring. Boring. Boring.
The boys had little regard for the world of cable news. Where decades prior the format had been sprinkled with legitimate journalists, it now seemed the function of these networks was to read wire copy aloud and ask an uninformed audience to weigh in on the issues one hundred and forty characters at a time. This was to say nothing of the airtime occupied by vitriolic pundits greedily soaking up whatever credibility and prestige a news organization might leave lying about. Years prior, the boys had waged a minor guerilla war against several of these commentators, both shaming them for their failures as media figures and often encouraging the public to engage in elaborate pranks against them. These directives included (but were by no means limited to) a city-wide scavenger hunt in Palm Beach for Rush Limbaugh’s soul, a mass mailing of Walter Cronkite biographies to Chris Matthews’s home, and a well-publicized bounty on what was legitimately thought to be a wig atop Nancy Grace’s head.
“You see your doctor yet,” Fraction asked Walker seconds before they were on air.
“Mm. I explained the situation to him in some detail.”
Walker handed Fraction a sheet off a prescription pad reading “It is my medical opinion that Mr. Walker and his business partner need to become as famous as possible.”
“I like that science is on our side,” Fraction said.
Complex, functionless graphics and inexplicable swooshing sounds eventually carried the channel back from commercials. An anchor greeted the audience with a welcoming countenance that transitioned seamlessly into a look of interest and thoughtfulness.
“Yesterday, America’s newsstands got a surprise in the form of ‘The Subvertiser’, a new magazine that showed up without any promotion to speak of. The magazine was originally previewed as an FHM-style publication called 'Alpha', but what arrived on their shelves couldn’t have been more different. The cover shouts one phrase at people; ‘You are too stupid for this magazine’, and it’s flying off the shelves. We’re talking today with the two editors-in-chief of the magazine, Steven Walker and Ethan Fraction.
“Gentlemen, if the cover was a dare to the audience, it certainly looks like they’re taking you up on it. What made you decide to put that on the front of your first issue?”
“Jesus,” Fraction answered solemnly.
“Besides,” Walker added, “if we hadn’t appealed to the lowest common denominator like that, we never would have had the chance to come on national television and hijack this interview from you.”
Which, of course, they did.
“And when you say ‘hijack’--” the anchor began, trying not to betray the rug being pulled out from beneath their feet. Walker cut the anchor off.
“We figured it might be fun to talk about the disintegrating state of cable news on cable news rather than spend half an hour talking about a magazine everyone’s already read.”
“This network’s ratings have actually risen steadily over the last year,” the Anchor offered with a hint of defensiveness.
“That’s true, but when we talk about the state of cable news, we’re talking about its role in public discourse,” Fraction said.
“I think we play an essential role.”
“I would, too, if I were being paid a hundred grand a year to read tweets and toe the party line,” Walker said quickly.
“I’m proud to work here. We keep people well-informed about the issues that matter most to them, our correspondents are constantly in the thick of stories as they develop, and we maintain a level of objectivity that, frankly, I think our competition could learn a thing or two from.”
“That’s all one hundred percent true,” Walker conceded.
“No argument,” Fraction chimed in with the wave of a hand.
“I’m glad we agree,” the anchor half-asked, feeling out they boys’ reply.
“We agree that those are facts,” Walker said, “I don’t think we’d agree on everything you tiptoed around in arriving at those facts.
“Your competition could learn a thing or two from the level of objectivity you demonstrate, but that’s not really saying a lot considering they’re essentially the propaganda arm of a political party and your version of objectivity amounts to shrugging your shoulders and asking the audience what they think. For this network to go patting itself on the back for its objectivity is on par with a restaurant raving that its food has thirty percent less broken glass in it than the place across the street.”
“Your correspondents,” Fraction continued, “are in the thick of the stories you’re covering, but just the ones on your doorstep. You’ve been closing up your foreign investigative offices left and right—which I get, budgets are budgets—but let’s not pretend it’s 1992 and Amanpour’s over in Kiseljak dodging bullets. You report on wars from the White House press briefing room, not Kabul.
“As for keeping people informed on the issues that matter most to them, there’s no question you’ve done a fine job of that. You’ve got that hairpiece/human hybrid of a former prosecutor wailing about the missing white girl de jour every night, twenty-four hour coverage of celebrity expirations, and political analysis that’s about as substantial as the holograms you use to deliver it. So yeah, your audience are getting the unchallenging background noise they so crave.”
Hoping to dump out of the interview, the anchor looked the floor director but found no reprieve from the boys’ dressing down. Cutting away at that point would just make it seem as though the network had lost control, especially since they had. The anchor walked a tightrope, attempting dignity retention without hostility.
“I have to ask, why come on the network if you have such strong feelings about it?”
“Well, we were hoping—“ Walker started.
“—and, admittedly, this may have been a little naïve on our part—“ Fraction interjected.
“-- if we made a strong enough case, that for the good of the national conversation you might stop,” Walker said, suddenly minding the ground he stood on.
“I’m sorry,” the anchor stumbled, “Stop what?”
Walker seemed confused at having to explain himself.
The boys were ejected from the studio at the first available commercial break and escorted to the front doors of 10 Columbus Circle by a particularly large security guard. Impressed by his demonstrable menace, they offered him twice his current rate to perform the same job from inside of a gorilla suit. The man returned to work, but not without Walker’s card.
“That went well,” Fraction said with brisk surprise and not a trace of irony. He lit a cigarette. “What do you wanna do now?”
“First I’d like a vitamin injection and some sort of a stimulant,” Walker replied, as unbothered to make eye contact as Fraction. “Then I think I’d like watch a hundred guys in Edward R. Murrow masks search the lobby of the New York Post for actual journalism.”
“Hey, do you think we should get a punch clock for Sprinkles? You know, like the old Looney Tunes bit with the coyote and the dog?”
“I think that would improve our quality of life significantly.”
“Mm,” Fraction said through his cigarette. “We do good things with our money.”
Laura saw the sun rise from Chelsea that day. Before the daylight found its feet she’d already run her first four miles. Newsstands began to open up, still lined with copies of the Subvertiser. She caught a glimpse of the red cover from across the street as a girl in her twenties bought a copy. Laura wondered if the girl was just starting the day or finishing it; she’d have preferred her work read more like the morning news than the menu at a Denny’s, just coming into focus as the readers blood alcohol level came down. Still, there it was; the story she’d fought for and quit her job over was in print. Moreover, it found itself under a brighter spotlight than her previous employer could have provided. All it took was a pact with Satan, she thought, wiping the sweat from her brow. Wait, what’s the plural of Satan?
The article was about Debski, a public relations firm employed by much of the financial sector. That no one had heard of the firm was by design. That no one knew quite what they did was essential to their operations. Debski was employed by the financial lobby to design and execute strategies intended to prevent the greatest possible threat to Wall Street: the public’s comprehension of the financial system. Innately complex, the global financial system was already impenetrable to most. After the 2008 financial crisis, however, it became a greater point of interest for the general public. News media had no choice but to give more time to the seismic effects of a disastrously regulated market as calls for accountability grew louder. With Wall Street not the least bit interested in changing their methods and finding they could only buy so much compliance from regulators in such a climate, it became obvious that it was public sentiment that had to change. They understood that winning over the proletariat was long since off the table, but easing them into a deeper state of cynical resignation was very much a possibility. A solution presented itself in Debski. The firm had strategies for dealing with the uproar; co-opting and trivializing a nascent protest movement by diluting its message of accountability with incoherent liberal agendas, pushing conflicting and erroneous explanations for the collapse in the media, and propagating the defeatist attitude that the system would never change. Five years out the strategy had proven successful; Occupy Wall Street was a joke, most people didn’t understand the real causes of the crash, and any hope of accountability and a stable market had evaporated.
Debski had all but re-written reality by planting stories in the media and throwing money in the right directions. Their product was quite literally doubt.
Watts had watched the discourse surrounding the crisis break down in a fashion that seemed almost too natural, too perfect. The lack of structure somehow felt too structured. Soon that itch became a pointed question, and that question a story. When her editors canned the story Fraction and Walker made her an offer, one she mildly regretted taking every day.
“Excuse me,” spoke a voice from behind Laura. A woman in her twenties was holding a copy of the magazine opened up to the Debski piece.
“Sorry, are you Laura Watts? I mean—“ she fumbled with the magazine as she found a photo of Watts to point to—“is this you?”
“With the right lighting and a couple pounds of makeup, yeah, I guess so,” Laura replied, her staff portrait looking back at her from the page. “Thanks for picking up—“
“You’ve been served,” the woman said as she produced legal documents from her back pocket. She stood in front of Laura for a moment too long before adding “I really did like your article, though.”
“Thanks,” Laura said tartly as she took the paperwork.
After a full morning of antagonizing media outlets, the boys returned to 3 Park Ave. Still in the midst of screwing with outsiders of all sorts, Ash informed them that their 12:08 appointment had arrived. Walker checked the time: 12:08.
“This seems unusually specific,” Walker said suspiciously.
Ash shrugged.“Fraction’s office.”
They walked into the office to find Esra working at her laptop behind Fraction’s desk and seated themselves in the two chairs opposite her.
“How do you keep getting in here,” Walker asked, affecting bafflement.
“I’d tell you that you hired a Judas in Ms. MacRae out there, but I feel like that’s giving you too much credit.
“Last night Bill McCutcheon called me—again—to talk about you two. He asked me to start digging into your—the magazine’s deal with L&F. So I did. I stayed up with a stack of papers and went line for line through the contracts. There wasn’t a trace of whatever you pulled to make this happen. It’s like the real version were some mass hallucination shared exclusively by the people who signed off on it. I made some phone calls, too, mostly to the people you would might have compromised in the process of getting this done. No surprise, they all had airtight alibis and a plausible, legal explanation for the large sums of cash that have appeared in their bank accounts recently. I guess rich uncles are just dropping like flies this year.
“I came here to give you shit, but obviously you were too busy being pricks on TV. While I was waiting around I got another call from Bill. He’s decided to give me a special assignment. Since I was able to effectively prove there was no legal recourse against your mutiny, my new job is to make sure the situation doesn’t get any worse. He put me on Fraction and Walker babysitting duty!
“So, I have two questions for you. First, exactly how long have you two been billionaires? Second—and I really want you to hear me with this one—you had the resources, the access, and the foresight to protect a bunch of L&F flunkies from getting caught helping you, and you didn’t take a goddamn second to consider I might get dragged under the bus for your antics? I did not spend four years at Harvard Law so I could swat lawsuits away from your bullshit anarchist rag!”
The room quieted, Esra’s rant seeming to sink in. Fraction gave a considered reply.
“So did you have your eye on a specific office, or—“ Esra stood and threw a book at his head from across the room. “OW?!”
“Here’s how this works: I do not work for you, I work for this magazine. I’m here to shelter your people from you and keep the mess off of Lawlor and Franck. You need bailing out of jail at 3:00am on Christmas morning, you can call that fixer across town at Kenner Bach.” Esra sat back down, too little of her anger exorcised. “You made promises, Ethan,” she said, as taken aback as she was disappointed.
To the boys’ great relief, Black Adam appeared moments later.
“Hey, Es,” he offered familiarly.
“Adam. Hey,” she said, quickly trading contempt for concern. “How’re you doing?”
“Day two running the asylum.”
“How’re you doing,” she repeated.
“We’ll talk,” he said, already thinking of a way to not have that conversation. “So are you technically on staff, then?”
“I suppose I am,” she said, steeling herself.
“Great! We’re being sued.”
“You know the Pope?”
“Everybody but him.”
“I figured if it worked for the magazine room, it’d work here,” Black Adam said, having led Esra to a room that’s walls were lined from floor to ceiling with legal documents.
“This is all from today,” Esra asked, somewhat incredulous.
“No, some of it’s from tomorrow.”
Esra shot him a sideways glance he didn’t see. From tomorrow. Fraction/Walker-speak, she thought.
“Just explain it,” she said, breathing in, preparing to process.
“The left wall is other publications suing our people for breach. Most of the claims are fairly solid, and we need them to go away. A lot of people came here to work while they were still technically under contract to other shops. The guys might have made some promises about immunity.
“The far wall is the content blowback that doesn’t take the form of car-bombs and mass brickings.”
“Oh, the guys got pinged last night. All Fraction’s windows are broken and Walker’s Tesla got blown up in front of him; real Terry Benedict stuff. We’ve got a bet going right now about who ordered the hit. I’ve got fifty bucks on Hallmark’s psychographics people.
“Anyway, some of those suits we don’t want to vanish right away, so we’ll have a strategy meeting to talk about how to proceed.”
“What? No. That wall’s getting cleared off. I am not here to facilitate their bullshit, I’m cleaning up the mess.”
Black Adam shut his eyes. She didn’t get it. “The whole point of this is to make a mess. We’re in the business of starting fires and managing them. They’re only going to get put out once they’ve burned down what they were supposed to.”
In that moment, Esra had perfectly conceived of how she would murder Fraction. Ms. Dawson. In the study. With the wrench the editors threw into her plans. She made her way to the last wall, scanning the pages.
“And this,” she asked. “Background on everything and everyone we cover next month; how to manage the next batch of fires.”
“I’m not a janitor, Adam,” she said with some distaste.
She stepped back to the center of the room, walled in by lawsuits and threat assessments. Damage in waiting. What was planned long run remained opaque, but the boys’ goals for the immediate future were laid out plainly. Visibility, notoriety, polarization, credibility, Esra thought. Broad daylight for a bulletproof vest.
Nate was working through lunch, layering a journal article with ribbons of yellow highlighter and black inked notation. Amidst a dozen or so staffers chatting and downing their lunches he sat staring into his work, largely ignoring a sandwich he’d made for himself. When he was a student he’d had to dig deep for articles like the one he was marking up. Having been given a budget for researchers at the Subvertiser, much of that legwork had been delegated to more skilled hands, freeing him up to do fun stuff like parsing lengthy documents about obscure academic fields. This would have been a more achievable goal had he decided to stay at his desk, as Fraction was marginally less likely to arrive there with a megaphone.
“Terrible subordinates! I am Fraction! Heed my words, lest I repeat them through a larger megaphone! You will notice the large vending machine bearing the name ‘Uncle Fraction’s Horrible Death Cola’. Rest assured, this is not some wonderful fever dream brought on by infection. We have crammed this electricity box with the deceptively named product it promises, and it offers you a journey of astonishment and discovery. Every can contains something different, each one an undiscovered country in a twelve ounce aluminum cylinder. I demand that you pump quarter after quarter into the machine, allowing it to fill your menial lives with heretofore unimagined wonder and magic. THAT IS ALL.”
Fraction was two steps out of the room before returning to his position, megaphone in hand, to add one detail.
“I should mention; there is one can in the machine with a hundred thousand dollars in it in it.”
The staffers searched Fraction, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He motioned to the vending machine, implying there was no further explanation to offer. A few of the staffers tentatively searched their pockets for change. Satisfied his presentation had the desired effect, Fraction tactlessly dropped the megaphone to the floor with a yelp of feedback as he began to walk out. He froze upon reaching the doorframe and slowly turned back in, casting a finger at Nate.
“You,” Fraction said. “My office.”
Nate gathered his notes but was held at the door by Fraction.
“One second,” Fraction said.
A staffer approached the Death Cola machine with quarters. The boys had it custom-made; a black monolith with a glass face and a keypad, stocked ten by five and eight deep with identical cans. The staffer selected one of the fifty possible options at random (5C) and waited as the can fell to a receptacle. Tentatively, he prepared to pull its tab, believing just a little that this act might yield a hundred grand. He imagined repaid student loans. Long-delayed dental work. A working fridge. Instead, the can produced a cloud of gas that rendered him unconscious with some immediacy.
“Was that knockout gas,” Nate asked, incredulously.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Fraction said. “There’s no such thing as knockout gas. That was a fentanyl derivative.”
Another staffer checked on the man on the ground and announced his continued respiration.
“Huh. He lived,” Fraction noted. “Good for him.”
“Hey, is there actually a hundred grand in there,” Nate asked as he was led to the office, unlit save for the dim glow of dusk and the lamp on Fraction’s desk.
“Oh, there’s a hundred grand in there,” Fraction said through a Cheshire grin. “Way at the back. And we stock it from the front.”He lit a cigarette on reaching his door. “So, congrats on not fucking your first month up terribly. Really, really passable stuff.”
“Thanks, I think? I’ve got a finished draft of the piece Walker ask—“
“Don’t care,” Fraction interrupted. “It’s working out, so we need you on something."
“Great. Instead of shadowing Watts, how do you feel about interviewing a terrorist?”
“What,” Nate said, eyes shot open.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fraction said, “I didn’t mean to phrase that as a question.”
Nate had been tasked with interviewing a man named Aeron Kerr somewhere on his path between Manhattan and St. John’s. A Welsh citizen, Kerr stood accused of membership in a resurgent terrorist group. When Nate had asked Fraction why he was being sent to a terrorist for his first interview, he found himself on the receiving end of a compressed verbal bitch slap.
“Jesus, kid, I thought you were half smart. Thermonuclear detonation means something real. Serial dognapper means something real. Terrorist means inconvenient for people in a position to label other people terrorists. This guy’s been purposefully marginalized. I could give a shit about him personally, but his ideas shouldn’t get obscured by his smoking wreckage.”
Walker came in the room, jacket in hand. “Kid on the Kerr piece yet,” he asked.
“Just now, yeah. He has reservations about meeting a bloodthirsty insurgent, but I think I can talk him into it. Where are you going,” Fraction asked, gesturing with his cigarette to Walker’s coat.
“It’s Thursday. I have a class? Remember classes, those things you never went to back in school?”
“You’re a teacher,” Nate asked.
“Teacher, lecturer, verbal abuser of youths. I talk and they give me a paycheck I can blow on gorilla suits. Turns out it’s cheaper to buy new ones than paying to have the bullet holes sewn up.”
Nate returned to his desk to find an external hard drive, half a dozen books, and a stack of file folders waiting for him. While the contents of the hard drive and folders weren’t immediately apparent, the books were less ambiguous; they were texts on the subjects of metasystem transition theory and global brain. The books, all six of them, had been put out by a reputable UK publisher, and were written by Aeron Kerr.
Walker was quick to dismiss the applause he received on arriving to a crowded lecture hall at Columbia. He dropped his coat and bag, quickly conferring with a teaching assistant to make sure his presentation materials were pre-loaded for him.
“Let’s get started. I hear a lot of voices that aren’t mine, which is pretty depressing for me under any circumstances. I assume all you really care about right now is that this morning my partner in crime and I dropkicked a twenty-four hour news network live on-air. Remarkably, my lecture this evening will not be about the lecture I gave a newscaster this morning.”
“Today I’m going to start with a question, and whether or not there’s a correct answer, I want you to tell me what you believe to be true. What was the purpose of the American space program? Take a second and think about it.”
Walker studied the crowd, giving them ample time to mull it over. There were more students than seats, the overflow a mixture of students who were late or auditing the class after his appearance on TV.
"You,” Walker pointed, “with the Drop Electric shirt.”
“Humans have always been explorers,” offered a girl with dark eyes, her hair tied back. “We travelled across continents, then oceans, then the skies. Why wouldn’t we travel across space?”
“That’s really great,” Walker said. “I’m going to come back to you later, and I want you to tell me how much the human spirit is trading for on the NASDAQ. You, white shirt.”
“We knew one day we’d need to leave the planet, and as soon as the technology was there we started finding a way to do it.”
“Five points for having an interesting idea, and negative ten for somehow being that fucking naïve. And because fiction works best in three acts, you, with the tattoos.”
“Beating the Russians in the space race,” the third kid said.
“Nope,” Walker said flatly. “The space program yielded a lot of scientific data and practical spin-off technologies. That’s true. It wasn’t knowledge, discovery, or the need for a planetary escape hatch that drove it, though. The space program was a PR initiative. It took on a life of its own after a while, becoming a metric for our worth against Russia, but it began as a way to justify the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Okay, so way back when your vote at least appeared to matter and people were more concerned about atomic fire raining down from the sky, building delivery devices for nuclear weapons on the taxpayer’s dime wasn’t such an easy sell. Fear was only going to do so much to get people to consent to weapons development, and thematically it has a shelf with the public, anyway. So, to sell us on building machines that would carry world-ending devices halfway around the world, the government packaged it as the apex of human achievement—humanity using this technology to explore outer space. Now, which story is true; that the space program was about human achievement or ICBMs?”
The girl with the Drop Electric shirt raised her hand again. Some part of him respecting her resilience, Walker pointed to her wordlessly.
“Both,” she said.
“Explain,” he said with little pause.
“I—just because one was a cover doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid. It obviously had a real financial impact since the space program cost a fortune, it ended up taking on real meaning in terms of public opinion and,” she stopped herself, focusing.
“One doesn’t have to be a lie for the other to be true. One story created the other, but then it gained equal mass. It’s not as simple as true and false or any other kind of binary thinking. If we think in that limited a—if we think that small, we miss out on so much. It’s a false choice.”
Walker considered her for a moment. He had use of minds like that.
“What’s your name?”
“Miss Yates is not wrong. When I ask ‘what was the purpose of the space program’ I’ve already started to limit—and control—the conversation. I’ve framed it in a way that seizes on established patterns and structures that endorse the notion of a singular, uncomplicated historical truth. When I ask ‘which story is true’, I reduce the conversation to binary thinking and reinforce it by rewarding a ‘correct answer’. In doing so, in thinking with so little dimension, we deny a constellations of possibilities for something prescribed.
“We are the New York tourists of cognition; five whole boroughs to explore, and somehow we’re convinced that Times Square is the only thing worth seeing. When we come across a notion that could be explored with some intricacy, our default isn’t curiosity, but rather to regurgitate prescribed data on the subject. That is a failure to the human mind, a machine capable of infinitely greater things. And that’s what we’re talking about today; not letting ourselves get boxed in.”
Another student raised their hand, a tall kid who looked like he spent some time in the gym.
“Yeah,” Walker said pointing back.
“You talked about the question being wrong, but what was your take on the space program personally,” the kid asked.
“Personally? In terms of what it yielded, it’s a gray area. In terms of public discourse? That’s another story. We spent billions of dollars fashioning one sentence out of experimental engines and stolen Nazi scientists. We shunned gravity just so we could turn around and tell our enemy “we have the power to destroy you any time we want.”
“Is that why the co-ordinates for Apollo 11’s launch point are written on the spine of your magazine?”
The room fell silent. A grin crept onto Walker’s face. He typed something into the keyboard at the podium, then stepped over to the student at a measured pace. His hands set on the lecture hall desk that stretched out before a dozen other students, he leaned down to meet the kid at eye level.
“What’s your name?”
“Austin, I’m going to tell you the answer to that question, but you have to promise me you’ll keep it a secret.”
Austin nodded. Walker pulled out the remote control for the hall’s projector and pressed a button. Behind him the screen carried just one word in giant type: YES.
Proctor hadn’t slept that night. Article A. It had kept him awake, pacing. He felt fissures in himself, years of earned security fracturing. Article A. It didn’t add up. When the three men were interrogated all those years ago they hadn’t the slightest inkling of its existence, and the efficacy of the process was beyond reproach. Their ignorance was real. Then, somewhere along the way his gaze had been averted or obstructed. He’d blinked and unwittingly spent a decade living in the one place it was his job not to be: the dark.
He’d released them back into the world, a vaccination against what knowledge they possessed. All they had was a ghost story from the desert; some tale of men in white coats and outlandish, amoral experimentation. Its recitation would only serve to strengthen memetic antibodies. They’d be three more lunatics desperate to believe anything that might pierce the banality of their lives, their story rendered inert. It was the way things were done. It was the way things were supposed to work. And yet. They had Article A. A nuclear failsafe. A rug to pull out from under the world’s feet. A card to play.
The thinking had always been that Miyamoto had taken it as an insurance policy. Many wanted to hunt her down, but the fear she had a dead man’s switch won out. They’d cut their losses. There wasn’t a choice; they faced the near certainty of Article A’s use then if they pursued her, or the mere likelihood of its eventual use if they didn’t. And what then? At whose feet would it fall should their institutional failure return to them as thunder and lightning? Staring out his office window into the city skyline, Proctor’s focus shifted to his own reflection. Now I know, he thought.
Through the night, a fear moved through him. The men he’d set free now held a gun to the world’s head for their ideology. He let that panic fill his nerves and veins, allowing it its time and place. As the sun rose, it would abate and evaporate altogether. Then there was just the plan.